Looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween, but short on time? Have no fear – here, we present a collection of our favorite TV episodes that tell ghost stories. You can sit down to any of these and enjoy a few spooky chills in between work and dinner of an evening – we’ve even provided a rough guide to the running time to help you choose.
In order to make the list, each episode has to be an actual ghost story about an actual ghost – no Doctor Who aliens, Scooby-Doo-style human villains or figments of the imagination. Since these are recommendations, we’ve avoided spoilers as far as possible, but some episodes may spoil elements of story arcs in the series overall, and we’ve provided an indication of just how spoiled or otherwise you might be with each entry.
Angel, “Rm w/a Vu” (45 minutes)
It will be no surprise to anyone that a series in which the lead character is a vampire featured a few ghosts over the years. Ghosts on Angel are more likely to be deceased members of the team who are there to help than to be scary, but this early episode tells a proper ghost story with some decent creepy moments.
Former rich snob Cordelia Chase is the perfect heroine for this tale, finding strength in her lost prom queen personality on discovering that the only decent apartment she can afford is haunted, and the conclusion offers both horrifying and somewhat sweet elements. Since this is only the fifth episode of the series, spoilers for new fans are minimal – but be aware, if you haven’t seen parent show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it will substantially spoil that show.
The X-Files, “Beyond The Sea” (45 minutes)
The X-Files also did several ghost stories over its lengthy run – for comedy horror, check out “How The Ghosts Stole Christmas,” and for spooky imagery and chills down your spine, go for “Elegy” (the first of these is entirely self-contained, the second relates to some elements of the arc plot but is mostly self-contained). However, we wanted to highlight one of our all-time favorite episodes here.
“Beyond The Sea” is an early episode from season one, so there are no spoilers to worry about – it won’t ruin anything about the show’s arc plot at all. The story is personal to one of our heroes (Scully) which was always an effective technique for this show, and it’s one of the more complicated bits of paranormal activity the series ever showed us, with the viewer never really sure whether Brad Dourif’s death row inmate is telling the truth or not. Acting, direction and writing are all on top form here – this is one that will stay with you.
The Haunting of Hill House, “The Bent-Neck Lady”/”Two Storms” (1 or 2 hours)
The Haunting of Hill House and American Horror Story both follow the same format – each tells a contained story across a ten-episode season, then begins a fresh story with each new season. If you have time, you’ll definitely want to watch all ten episodes of season one of The Haunting of Hill House, which is a masterclass in slow build tension and hidden horrors.
However, if you’re not worried about spoilers and want to dip in at a more advanced point of this long form ghost story, “The Bent-Neck Lady” is reasonably self-contained, and culminates in the most horrifying reveal of the series. If you have time, the following episode, “Two Storms,” is a classic bottle episode in which the tensions between the characters are almost as unbearable as the hordes of ghosts that appear throughout.
American Horror Story: Murder House, “Halloween Part 2” (1 hour)
Retroactively titled ‘Murder House’, the first season of American Horror Story is still often considered the best. As the title implies, the series as a whole draws on some of the best known horrors in American culture – both the imagined urban horrors of ghosts, witches and demons, as well as more real horrors including serial killers, mistreatment of the mentally ill, and the terrible history of slavery.
Naturally, if you have time, you’ll want to start from the beginning, but to get a sense of how the show uses ghosts and ghouls to talk about real horrors as well, this episode from about halfway through the first season, leading up to one of its big reveals, will stand alone as a meditation on some of America’s real life horrors as well as being a chilling and effective ghost story.
Supernatural, “No Exit” (42 minutes)
Supernatural has never quite forgotten that it’s a horror show or lost the ability to scare us, but after fifteen years, it’s easy to forget just how scary some episodes during its first two seasons were. The early years also focused on ghosts more than any other supernatural creature (except perhaps demons), so when we decided to pick out the scariest of the show’s early ghost stories to recommend for Halloween, we were spoiled for choice.
“Provenance’s” haunted painting and “Playthings’” creepy little girl both came close, but for claustrophobic horror it has to be “No Exit,” which pre-dates American Horror Story in blending the terror of a serial killer with the terror of a ghost. Watching it will spoil some elements of season one, but with fifteen years’ worth of Supernatural to watch there will be plenty more scares ahead, and the main ghost story itself is self-contained.
The Twilight Zone, “The Hitch-Hiker” (25 minutes)
The Twilight Zone is an anthology show, and therefore completely safe for spoiler-phobes in search of some quick Halloween chills – you can watch the episodes in this series in any order. Fans of ghost stories won’t be terribly surprised by the reveal in this episode – it combines a couple of classic ghost story tropes that have been used in many ghost stories before and after this 1960 instalment. But the episode is well worth watching anyway, because it is extremely well done.
Gender-flipping the typical American ghostly hitch-hiker story to make the driver a woman and the hitch-hiker a man, this plays on a series of very real fears to create its spooky atmosphere. The experience of driving across America alone, through mile after mile of nothing, provides a solid basis for discomfort, and for a woman alone (with no mobile phone, of course!) the threat of an unknown man with possibly sinister intentions is scary enough without the element of the supernatural. Add in some clever camerawork as the man looms up before the viewer, and you’ll get a few chills down your spine even if you’ve seen all this sort of thing before.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?, “The Tale of the Prom Queen” (30 minutes)
Are You Afraid of the Dark? was an anthology series (and therefore also completely safe for spoiler-phobes) aimed at children and younger teens that had two runs during the 1990s and has just been revived for a miniseries. This is another one where seasoned ghost story fans will see the reveal coming a mile off, and there are plenty of clues thrown in for good measure. Once again, though, that doesn’t matter when the story is well done – plus, this show is aimed at children and younger teenagers, who won’t necessarily see it coming, if they aren’t so well used to the traditional tropes of ghost stories.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? did several good ghost stories (“The Tale of the Frozen Ghost” is nicely done and features Melissa Joan Hart during her Clarissa Explains It All years), but this one stands out for the member of the Midnight Club telling it dressing up for the occasion and giving the club a proper scare, and for some lovely spooky imagery.
True Blood, “Spellbound’/’Let’s Get Out Of Here” (2 hours)
First of all, if you’ve never watched True Blood, be warned that these two episodes take place in the middle of the fourth season, and True Blood is an arc-plotted show, so much of the runtime is taken up with developments in long running stories, and if you’re a spoiler-phobe, this will be best avoided. But if you’re not too bothered by jumping in late in the series, these two episodes tell a classic and relatively self-contained ghost story (the ghost had made herself known earlier in the season, but most of the story is told within these two episodes).
The ghost story includes such classic elements as possession, serious danger to main characters and their children, and an explanation rooted in the history of the area and tragedies of the past, as many of the best ghost stories are. And if you like all the other stuff going on in these episodes, you might find yourself wanting to catch up on the rest of the show as well!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (45 minutes)
Another warning for spoiler-phobes – this episode takes place towards the end of the second season, so if you don’t know anything about the show it may spoil things. The ghost story itself, however, is self-contained.
Part love story, part school shooting, it’s a complicated story about guilt and violence and forgiveness, and viewers may agree with Buffy that the conclusion is rather uncomfortable. However, it’s also atmospheric and creepy, and the resolution makes excellent use of the series’ set-up to provide a unique twist on the story.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, “Witch Academy” (50 minutes)
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is another arc-plotted show, so there are other plotlines ongoing in this episode – but as this is only the fourth episode, it’s early enough to pick up on most of what’s going on. Sabrina is forced to attend a school for witches, and while that might sound cool, this is no Hogwarts, and the ghosts are considerably creepier and more tragic than Nearly Headless Nick.
For a lighter, shorter (25 minutes) and less arc-plot-heavy alternative, check out a fifth season episode of the show’s sitcom forerunner, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, “Sabrina’s Got Spirit.”
Round The Twist, “Skeleton on the Dunny” (25 minutes)
Round The Twist was a kooky Australian kids’ TV show from the 1990s and early 2000s that followed the Twist family through various weird and magical adventures, but throughout the first two seasons the biggest recurring theme was that of haunting and ghosts. This very first episode (which is, therefore, completely spoiler-safe) uses the perfect location to introduce the ghosts around the Twist family’s new lighthouse home – their horribly outdated outdoor toilet, known as the ‘dunny’ in Australian slang.
Outdoor toilets are uncomfortable places as it is thanks to the number of spiders that live in them, and considering how dangerous spiders can be in Australia, the dunny would be a freaky enough place by itself, without throwing in the ghost of poor old Dead Ned on top of everything else. Having said that, if all of these scary ghost stories have freaked you out, Ned might turn out to be just what you need to be able to sleep at night after all.