There’s a long history of television shows playing dress up for Halloween. But it doesn’t always have to be an October episode or a straight up horror show to make for properly scary TV. Sometimes that helps, to be sure, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.
With that in mind, we rounded up a stack of stories from throughout TV history to assemble a list of the spookiest, weirdest, and yes, downright terrifying hours (and half-hours) to ever hit the airwaves, from The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits to Supernatural and American Horror Story.
Check ’em out…
The Twilight Zone Season 1 Episode 34: After Hours
Original Airdate: 6/10/1960
Do you think mannequins are scary? No? Watch this Rod Serling masterpiece and you will. There is a bit of a farcical tone to this classic episode, but the way it takes the mundane and makes it unsettling is truly a remarkable thing to watch.
As the main character Marsha slowly is convinced the mannequins in a department store have come to life, her sense of desperation is powerful as she slowly unhinges from reality. When she is locked in the store with the mannequins, things get terrifying quickly. Watch this episode and then hit Macy’s. – Marc
Thriller Season 1 Episode 36: Pigeons from Hell
Original Airdate: 6/6/1961
How many Robert E. Howard stories were adapted to another media in the early ’60s? Not as many as there should have been. Stephen King once called “Pigeons From Hell” one the of 20th Century’s greatest horror stories, and in 1961, Thriller and Boris Karloff (yes, Boris Karloff) adapted the creator of Conan’s greatest horror story for television. The lack of music, the perfect usage of shadows and silence make this gem a must see for horrorphiles.
The episode’s greatest scare happens early in the episode when one of the brothers takes an ax to the skull but shockingly, still walks. “Pigeons from Hell” is not a swarm story like Frogs or Night of the Lepus, it’s a series of psychological horrors wrapped in a cinematic suspenseful masterpiece When they show the dead brother walking around, they only show his face, the rest of his ruined head hidden in shadows. The viewer’s imagination conjures worse images than any makeup artist could. Who knew that television horror came this potent in 1961? – Marc
The Twilight Zone Season 3 Episode 24: To Serve Man
Original Airdate: 3/2/1962
Rarely is a pun scary. But the hilarity of this Twilight Zone classic’s play on words is the horror of them. When aliens come to Earth to offer an end to the Cold War and all famine with miraculous M.A.P. (mutually assured protection) force fields and cure-all vaccines, we think our ship has come in. And it has since huge swaths of humanity go to the aliens’ home world for vacation after they pass a polygraph saying that their indecipherable book of aide is intended “to serve man.”
Thus when the protagonist of the half hour gets on a spaceship to see what the fuss is all about, he was just a minute too late when his assistant cries from the rope line that they have finally translated the aliens’ book: “’To Serve Man:’It’s a cook book!” Alas, it’s too late for our hero as he is stuck on a spaceship with aliens telling him to eat his rations—all the better to fatten him up for his dinner date on another world. – David
The Twilight Zone Season 3 Episode 33: The Dummy
Original Airdate: 5/4/1962
The Twilight Zone, while pretty sci-fi heavy, did have its huge share of monsters. The third season’s thirty-third (!) episode featured one of the best monsters on the show: a dummy named Willie, who is actually alive and tormenting its human owner, Jerry. Of course no one believes Jerry when he claims the dummy is alive since he has a drinking problem.
Jerry tried to replace Willie with another dummy named Goofy Goggles, but the evil dummy slowly manipulates Jerry into destroying Goofy and becoming HIS dummy. By the end of the episode, Willie has become the man and Jerry is the dummy. It’s one of those terrifying episodes that you don’t forget. The Twilight Zone definitely dished out many of them. – John
The Twilight Zone Season 5 Episode 3: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
Original Airdate: 10/11/1963
Yes, It’s been done to death, it’s become part of the culture, it’s a gimme, it’s been parodied on The Simpsons, but it’s earned its reputation. For all the scripts Richard Matheson wrote for The Twilight Zone, few can top his story of a man (William Shatner at his sweatiest) who’s fear of flying can sometimes go a little haywire.
Sure we’ve all seen it a dozen times, but if you go in cold, that first vague glimpse of the gremlin hopping around on the plane’s wing in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, illuminated by flashes of lightning is still so beautifully done and so shocking it’s easy to understand why it’s become the classic it has. – Jim
The Outer Limits Season 1 Episode 7: O.B.I.T.
Season 1, Episode 7 (Original Airdate: 11/4/1963)
What if there was a surveillance device that could, with just a few simple keystrokes, bring up live sound images of anyone, anywhere, at any time? What would happen to people if they knew at any particular random moment they might well be under close scrutiny by unseen forces? Well, this is put to the test here as just such a machine is installed in a remote research lab to keep tabs on those smart-alecky scientists. Let’s just say things don’t go real well.
God bless The Outer Limits for always opting to take the dark way out. Now, when this first aired in 1963, audiences found it a little unnerving and disturbing, maybe. But there were no aliens in this one, and the very idea of a machine like that is so ridiculous and outlandish that, well, let’s see what Andy and Goober and Barney are up to. But given what’s happened to the world over the past 50 years, taking a look at our present circumstances, the episode suddenly seems prescient, and much more deeply frightening. – Jim