Science fiction and fantasy take us into the unknown, which is inherently somewhat scary — but sometimes, they go way further. Last week, we shared part one of our list of the top 50 scariest science fiction and fantasy TV episodes. But now, here are the 25 scariest television episodes of all time!
To compile this list, we spent a lot of time searching, and also asked on our Facebook page. We ended up with a massive list of candidates, which we debated at great length — read the whole extensive list here. Let us know if we left out your absolute favorite, and what order you'd have ranked these in!
What it’s about: The Fringe team investigates an organ thief and discovers that he is reclaiming the donated organs of a ballerina he was obsessed with in order to bring her back to life.
Why it’s scary: Body snatching is an old fear, and one that Fringe plays off well in this episode. In one eerie scene Roland rigs up the dead woman like a marionette and makes her dance. Later in the episode he brings her back to life, and when he looks into her terrified/terrifying eyes he knows that what he’s brought back isn’t the woman he knew.
What it’s about: Based on the Damon Knight short story of the same name, this twisted episode deals with aliens who invite the human race over for dinner... except that we're on the menu.
Why it's scary: The fact that whole thing rests on a pun, which everybody knows about by now, doesn't change how creepy it actually is when you watch it. The aliens' deceptive generosity is as unnerving and terrible when you see it coming, as when you don't.
What it's about: Mr. Scott is accused of murdering a woman on the peaceful planet of Argelius II — but when he's put on trial, Kirk and Spock soon realize they're dealing with something older and deadlier: the incorporeal entity that was once known on Earth as Jack the Ripper.
Why it's scary: This episode gets justly criticized for its plot holes and misogyny, but the good old-fashioned scares still work just fine, including the unnerving end sequence where the Enterprise itself is possessed by the terrible spirit of Redjac.
What it's about: The sixth episode of the series has the Torchwood crew investigating the disappearances of seventeen people in the rural Brecon Beacons.
Why it's scary: Torchwood struggled a lot with tone in the first few episodes, but things really seemed to click in "Countrycide." The rural setting creates an isolated tone, and contrasts the natural beauty with the horror of the events. The characters actually seem developed and three-dimensional. And the reveal is both grisly and shocking — perfectly subverting expectations.
What it’s about: The Doctor tries to take a trip to a waterfall made of sapphires, but his tour-shuttle stalls, and something nasty gets inside. It takes over the body of a woman passenger, mimicking everyone on board before settling on the Doctor himself.
Why it’s scary: This is psychological horror at its best. We never actually see the episode's monster, and the really frightening part of the episode is how the people on the shuttle behave. Panic and hysteria take over and everyone argues over what to do, with the majority wanting to throw the Doctor out onto the airless, deadly planet's surface.
What it’s about: Directed by Martin Scorsese, this 1986 episode follows a cynical horror writer (Sam Waterston) who appears on television and claims to be immune to being scared by any supernatural creatures. But after the writer snubs an over-eager young fan, he starts seeing a terrifying phantom (Tim Robbins) in every mirror — and it seems to be coming closer and closer each time.
Why it’s scary: As Dinosaur Dracula writes, the scares in this episode do not stop — it's a relentless roller coaster of terror from beginning to end, and it plays with both visceral and psychological fears. The final twist is both bleak and unnerving.
What it’s about: This is the one where we find out who killed Laura Palmer. And we finally glimpse the true horror of BOB, the nightmarish figure at the heart of this series.
Why it’s scary: As Seriable notes, Ray Wise's performance as the Bob-possessed Leland is in some ways more disturbing than seeing Bob himself. This episode is brutal and unnerving — quintessential Twin Peaks.
What it’s about: Sam leaps into a horror novelist in 1964, and finds himself in the middle of a gothic nightmare as people around him begin to die in mysterious circumstances.
Why it’s scary: Unlike your usual Quantum Leap episode, this is one where Sam doesn't save everybody — and there are some disturbing twists, including the revelation that something is not quite right with Sam's buddy Al. It all leads up to a confrontation with capital-E Evil.
What it’s about: Yes, really. Punky Brewster. That 1980s TV show about a supercute precocious little girl. Just like with the Garfield Halloween episode we mentioned last week, this is a piece of supernatural horror that scarred the psyches of a whole generation. Punky's friend Alan is killed and turned into a wall-zombie, and everybody else is slaughtered by some kind of evil spirit... including Punky's dog.
Why it's scary: This post over at Strange Famous Records more or less covers it: this episode is scary because it's so surreal and unexpected. "There was a David Lynch quality about it which turned our safe, morally-supreme Punky Brewster universe on its head."
What it’s about: Better known as "the one where William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of his airplane."
Why it's scary: There are so many harrowing Twilight Zone episodes — people we asked mentioned "Time Enough At Last," and "The Masks" gave some of us nightmares as kids. But this one is justly famous, because of Shatner's utter conviction, and because it plays on two basic fears: fear of flying, and the awfulness of being the only one who sees something, and not being believed.
What it’s about: A computer virus causes the power to go out, as Cylon Centurions board the Galactica.
Why it’s scary: Seeing the large, armored Centurions stomp and shoot their way through the dark Galactica is enough to freak anyone out. This is one of the closest calls in the entire series, as the Centurions nearly blow all the air out of Galactica, and the always-atmospheric ship looks like it really could become a death trap.
What it's about: You don't think of the disco-fied Buck Rogers TV show as being scary or even thrilling — but this episode terrified legions of kids and a lot of adults. Basically, it's about a space vampire stalking people on a deserted space station.
Why it's scary: It's a surprisingly solid Dracula homage, including the epistolary elements of Bram Stoker's novel as well as a lot of Dracula's powers of mind control and transformation... and when the space vampire turns the station crew into his undead minions, that's kind of insane. There is some really intense horror camerawork, including the slow pan when we first see the "Vorvon." The ending, where Wilma Deering is left sobbing by her ordeal, is kind of insane.
What it's about: A comic-book fan is obsessed with a supervillian, the Ghastly Grinner (basically, the Joker), and accidentally brings him to life by microwaving his comic-book. Soon the Ghastly Grinner is running rampant in the real world, turning people into his minions with blue teeth.
Why it's scary: This episode regularly appears on lists of the show's scariest episodes, largely on the strength of the horrifying evil clown and his ability to turn people into drooling idiots with his gaze. When Ethan gets trapped inside a comic book by the Grinner, that's just the sick icing on the cake.
What it's about: A crewmember aboard the Moonbase struggles with madness and PTSD over an encounter with an alien creature five years earlier — and he's convinced the invisible tentacle monster is back.
Why it's scary: The fantasy magazine Black Gate proclaimed it to be the scariest hour of television ever broadcast. The portrayal of space madness, the fact that Helena won't believe Tony's story, and the sudden appearance of the tentacled creature all add up to intense scares.
What it's about: Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist looking for a mentor in Don Rickles' veteran, but then learns his secret.
Why it's scary: First of all, it's got a stellar cast in Goldthwait and Rickles, who essentially do their regular acts, but as ventriloquists. Second: ventriloquist dummies are always freaky. Third is the reveal, which takes what had been an episode showcasing some great comedians right into the scary. Because Rickles' Mr Ingles isn't a ventriloquist, he's got a vicious conjoined twin. Possibly a magical one, since it doesn't just ruin Rickles, it merges with and takes over the arm of Goldthwait, too.
What it's about: The very first episode of the series, it created a level of terror that the rest of the series is rarely able to match, as sheriff Rick Grimes wakes from a coma into the middle of the zombie apocalypse.
Why it's scary: What the show does is let the mystery and terror of the zombie apocalypse slowly build up as Rick wakes in an empty hospital, slowly discover the pools of blood, the mysterious “DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE” sign on a door, then reaching outside to discover there’s absolutely no one there. All of this done is without a word of dialogue, and Andrew Lincoln conveys Rick’s ever-growing sense of confusion and horror perfectly. For pure suspense, TWD has never been better than its pilot!
What it's about: This miniseries focuses on a monster that lives in the sewers of a small town, surfacing to feed on the children of the neighborhood — and then the creature decides to take the shape of Pennywise the clown.
Why it's scary: Stephen King, a monster that feeds on fear (and children), bullies, Tim Curry in clown makeup... IT is the perfect storm of horror. And we all know there's nothing scarier than a clown, with razor-sharp teeth.
What it's about: Dean visits an old flame, and discovers that all of the children in a small town have been replaced by evil changelings, with the real children hidden in a scary basement.
Why it's scary: The episode hooks your emotions by teasing you with the possibility that Dean might be a father — while also forcing you to confront the primal fear of your child being kidnapped and replaced with a monster.
What it's about: The crew of the Serenity encounters a ghost ship, which has been attacked by Reavers — and it turns out one of the survivors is becoming a Reaver himself.
Why it's scary: The handheld camerawork turns in some stylish horror moments, but the real fear at the heart of this episode is the dread of being swallowed up by a savagery that is beyond the comprehension of civilized people. The episode underscores this with a running dialogue about the nature of civilization, and the madness that is its opposite — with the Serenity crew smack dab in the middle.
What it's about: A stepfather disapproves of his wife buying a "Talky Tina" doll for his stepdaughter... and then the doll starts talking to him, with its taunts escalating to threats of murder.
Why it's scary: Dolls, man. There's just something incredibly creepy about dolls, and this episode capitalizes on that raw fear brilliantly.
What it's about: Special Agent Dale Cooper heads into the Black Lodge in search of kidnapped Annie, but inside he finds BOB, the evil spirit with a penchant for disguise, and a scene straight out of his own nightmares, complete with evil doppelgängers of Annie, his murdered wife, and himself.
Why it's scary: Doppelgängers, prophetic dreams, eerie birds, and the Black Lodge. But what it's really all about is Dale Cooper's (or is it his doppelgänger's?) maniacal grin as he bangs his face against the mirror in the closing scene.
What it's about: Aliens from the planet Zanti — basically ants with human heads — arrive on Earth and demand to turn a small town into a penal colony for their criminals and undesirables. But when two humans randomly stumble into the town, the Zanti turn out to have a different agenda.
Why it's scary: The stop-motion alien creatures are just horrifying, and the idea of Earth becoming a penal colony for alien criminals is nightmare-inducing.
What it's about: This episode, which barely features the titular Doctor and his companion Martha, introduces the Weeping Angels, statues which can only move when you're not looking. Writer Steven Moffat uses the quirks of time-travel to heighten the sense of weirdness and suspense.
Why it's scary: It's the combination of the statues with their covered faces slowly uncovering, and the Doctor's cryptic warnings from a DVD player which slowly become clearer and scarier. And the fear of what you can't see. Moffat's saga about children in gas-masks from season one, "The Empty Child," is also super-scary — but he's never topped this.
What it's about: Everybody in Sunnydale loses his or her voice, in a nearly silent episode, as the creepy gliding Gentlemen begin to stalk the town.
Why it's scary: Like a lot of the other episodes at the top of this list, it's the combination of super-creepy imagery (the Gentlemen's sepulchral faces and gliding motion) with a primal fear: not being able to speak, let alone scream.
What it's about: When a the body of a deformed baby is found in Home, PA, Mulder and Scully investigate how the four Peacock brothers were able to produce an inbred child without anyone seeing a woman living with them.
Why it's scary: This was the first ever X-Files episode to get a viewer discretion warning AND was the only episode Fox refused to air in repeats. The initial mystery heads straight for horror with a baby being buried alive, and then Mulder and Scully initially believe the inbred Peacock brothers must have kidnapped and raped a woman AND THEN murdered their child. But no, in fact, it's their quadruple amputee mother kept under the bed who is also the mother of their children. Once seen, this episode will never leave you.