Home / News / 25 best horror TV shows ever

25 best horror TV shows ever

Dim the lights, ignore the children demanding sweets on your doorstep and tune your telly to BBC boo for these spooktacular series

If you’re tired of horror movies but love a fright, how about 25 spooky, chilling and downright scary television shows for halloween instead?

American Horror Story (2011)

American Horror Story (2011)

A recent entry, this, but it’s a cracker. Ryan Murphy – creator of Glee, but never mind that – has remembered everything we used to love in genre TV and put it all into one haunted house of horrors. A prestige cast includes Jessica Lange and Zachary Quinto and Dylan McDermott. Add a few nods to The Shining (creepy twins, predatory old ladies) and mix the whole into a nicely horrible stew. What more could you want? Happy Hallowe’en!

The Walking Dead (2010)

The Walking Dead (2010)

Officer Rick Grimes is shot on duty – when he wakes from a coma, he discovers that the world is overrun by zombies. Is he the last man on Earth? Are his wife and son out there somewhere? Will he find them? This TV zombie spectacular is based on a best-selling comic book by Robert Kirkman, adapted by Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption), The Walking Dead showcases Greg Nicotero’s feature film-quality zombie makeup, and every episode guarantees at least one full-on undead rampage.

True Blood (2008)

True Blood (2008)

Alan Ball (creator of the blacker-than-black undertaking saga Six Feet Under) tapped a sultry Cajun vibe to produce the most sexually-charged TV horror series ever, based on Charlaine Harris’ novels. The development of a blood substitute means that vampires can live alongside humans – albeit uneasily. When waitress Sookie Stackhouse, who can read minds, falls in love with vampire Bill Compton, she learns the truth about the vampires and their code. Ian Somerhalder auditioned for the role of Jason Stackhouse – he didn’t get it, Ryan Kwantan did – but Somerhalder was cast in Vampire Diaries instead.

Dexter (2006)

Dexter (2006)

Baby-faced Michael C Hall (another veteran of Six Feet Under) stars as Dexter, a forensic scientist who specialises in blood-spatter patterns. He is also a serial killer, but a jolly decent one – he only kills people he knows are guilty and who have escaped justice. C’mon, who wouldn’t like to do that? Mixing black comedy and stomach-churning Silence of the Lambs type horror, the show is now in its seventh season. 3rd Rock From The Sun’s John Lithgow was a standout guest star as the Trinity Killer.

The X-Files (1993)

The X-Files (1993)

This became the great watch-it-with-the-lights-off treat of the 1990s – a genuine crossover success, not just for geeks, everyone was watching it. FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) fought mutants, monsters and assorted weirdos while investigating a vast conspiracy involving extra-terrestrials and shadowy government types. Series creator Chris Carter grew up on The Twilight Zone and Kolchak, and paid loving tribute with some iconic scares including humanoid leeches, cannibal rednecks, living shadows and creepy dolls.

Twin Peaks (1990)

Twin Peaks (1990)

Created by David Lynch (Blue Velvet) this surreal supernatural murder-mystery was often bewildering and frequently terrifying, never less so when Lynch was hands-on as director. Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan played Agent Dale Cooper, who arrives in the town of Twin Peaks to investigate the murder of Prom Queen Laura Palmer. Disorientating touches included Cooper’s recurring dreams about a dwarf talking backwards, but the show-stopping bogeyman was the demonic Killer Bob, who could transfer his essence from body to body – and even into Agent Cooper.

Doctor Who (1963)

Doctor Who (1963)

When the venerable series blasted back in 2005, it unleashed a new horde of horrors – zombie grannies, human Daleks, Clockwork men and, creepiest of all, the Weeping Angels. So iconic are these stone harpies that they’ve come back again and again. But the old series didn’t shirk on the teatime horrors, even in black and white, with Yetis and Robomen and seaweed monsters. Viewers of a certain age have never forgotten Jon Pertwee’s Doctor facing the giant maggots – made from inflated condoms, which actually makes them creepier.

Ghostwatch (1992)

Ghostwatch (1992)

This jolting parody of a ‘live’ TV special, investigating ‘the most haunted house in Britain’ was shown on Hallowe’en night 20 years ago. Although it was billed as a play, the BBC did its job too well and many viewers were quickly taken in. The descent into supernatural terror and the manifestations of the dreadful spectre ‘Pipes’, witnessed by such reassuring faces as Craig Charles, Michael Parkinson and Sarah Greene, seemed horribly real. Writer Stephen Volk later created the powerful series Afterlife, starring Lesley Sharpe as a reluctant medium.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997)

After Buffy’s shoddy cinematic debut, nobody expected much from the TV adventures of a vampire-snuffing cheerleader, but boy, were we wrong. Joss Whedon – since raised to geek godhood by Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers – changed the face of television with his story arcs and series finales, also raising the bar for the genre as Buffy suffered all the agonies of High School, with vampires thrown in. Standout Buffy episodes featured a swim team of Fishmen, a vengeful goddess, the ghastly Gentlemen and a corrupt mayor who turned into a giant serpent.

Angel (1999)

Angel (1999)

Buffy’s boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz), a vampire with a soul, turned out to be one of the most interesting characters in the show – so was set up with a series and a posse of his own in Los Angeles. Joss Whedon gave Angel a more grown-up spin, with Vincent Kartheiser (later in Mad Men) as Angel’s troubled teenage son, and Amy Acker as Fred, a kooky free spirit from another dimension. There was no shortage of chills either, especially when Angel’s long-suppressed dark side held sway.

Salem’s Lot (1979)

Salem’s Lot (1979)

Possibly the best ever adaptation of a Stephen King horror novel, by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, this was strong stuff for TV. It’s a slow build, as David Soul investigates an outbreak of vampirism seemingly connected with sinister antiques dealer James Mason. The vampire children scratching at second-storey windows are creepy enough – but then the real villain of the piece is revealed, the ghastly, blue-faced ancient vampire Mr Barlow (Reggie Nalder, Nosferatu incarnate) in a truly jaw-dropping shock sequence.

Quatermass (1953)

Quatermass (1953)

The great grand-daddy of TV sci-fi and horror, writer Nigel Kneale terrified a nation who’d bought television sets to watch the Coronation. The first Quatermass story described the test-flight of a British astronaut and his agonizing transformation into a malignant growth; later stories involved formless aliens and ancient Martian insects. Kneale went on to predict modern trends with chilling accuracy in The Stone Tape and The Year of the Sex Olympics – his influence is still being felt, nearly 60 years on.

Kolchak The Night Stalker (1974)

Kolchak The Night Stalker (1974)

Down-at-heel reporter Carl Kolchak, played by Darren McGavin, first appeared in a highly-rated TV movie-of-the-week chasing a vampire in Las Vegas. Kolchak was later given a series of his own, and this in turn inspired Chris Carter to write The X-Files. Memorable Kolchak monsters included a youth-draining succubus, a Hindu demon, an energy being and an Aztec mummy. Avoid the sexed-up remake Night Stalker with Stuart Townsend, which came and went in 2005.

The Twilight Zone (1959)

The Twilight Zone (1959)

The definitive TV anthology series still has a bewitching power, and the legendary stories can evoke a scream or two, whether it’s the gremlin on the aircraft wing terrifying William Shatner in Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, the mutant doctors in Eye of the Beholder, or a patriarch’s revenge on his money-grubbing family in The Masks. Zone creator Rod Serling returned to TV terror more overtly in his later series Night Gallery with directors including Steven Spielberg.

Being Human (2008)

Being Human (2008)

It sounds like the start of a joke – a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost are sharing a flat – but this series became the best thing BBC3 has done. It was originally conceived without the fantasy elements, then creator Toby Whithouse shuffled his cards, kept the characters believable and likeable, but added plenty of bloody vampire mayhem and the bone-snapping werewolf transformations – Russell Tovey as sad-sack werewolf George suffered for his art. A change of cast introduced fresh blood – sorry – meanwhile a slick American remake is heading off in a different direction.

Millennium (1996)

Millennium (1996)

Chris Carter devised this series as an older brother to The X-Files and made much of star Lance Henriksen’s haunted expressions as Frank Black, an ex-FBI man who joins the shadowy Millennium group. They are investigating a series of supernatural happenings connected – would you believe it – with the coming of the year 2000. Intelligent horror, but its relentlessly dark, downbeat tone saw it curtailed before the actual millennium. Would a Robbie Williams theme song have helped? Probably not.

Dead Set (2008)

Dead Set (2008)

Acerbic TV critic Charlie Brooker put his money where his mouth was with this BAFTA-nominated zombie drama – and boy, did he deliver. Its central conceit – the inhabitants of the Big Brother house, in their splendid isolation, don’t realise that the zombie apocalypse has happened – harks back to the social satire of George Romero’s zombie films. And Brooker doesn’t skimp on the gore – by the end of the first episode, Jamie Winstone has bludgeoned a ghoul with a fire extinguisher. Her old man would be proud.

American Gothic (1995)

American Gothic (1995)

Twin Peaks–style horror was briefly resurrected in this show which crammed a lot into its single season, with Gary Cole as warped lawman Sheriff Buck who wreaks telepathic havoc in the South Carolina town of Trinity. Young hero Caleb (Lucas Black) fights his sinister birthright – he’s the Sheriff’s son – but he is protected by the ghost of his murdered sister. Created by Shaun Cassidy (one of the Hardy Boys on ’70s TV) and Evil Dead guru Sam Raimi.

Ghost Story for Christmas (1971)

Ghost Story for Christmas (1971)

In the glorious 1970s, the BBC delivered a bone-freezing Christmas present to its viewers every year. Adapted from classic stories by MR James and Charles Dickens, the Ghost Stories for Christmas were gorgeously photographed to suggest things made of slime and shadows, with deft use of sound effects to jangle the nerves. Rightly acclaimed as masterpieces of clammy suspense, the films have been newly re-released on DVD.

Supernatural (2005)

Supernatural (2005)

Brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padelecki and Jensen Ackles) are sent on a monster-hunting road trip by their father – a Van Helsing-type, who soon falls prey to the very horrors he’s supposed to be dealing with. The boys carry on the family business, but their steps are dogged by the demon Azazel and his lovely daughter. Currently, at 8 seasons, one of the longest-running genre series.

Masters of Horror (2005)

Masters of Horror (2005)

A line-up of directors including some of the greatest horror names in history – John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Clive Barker, Tobe Hooper, John Landis – gathered for this no-holds-barred anthology series, which mixed new stories with classics from HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. The results were sometimes hit-and-miss, but the experienced ‘Masters’ delivered some sublime shocks, such as a deformed hitch-hiker, a ghostly ice cream man (in clown make-up, naturally) and a girl who falls in love with a giant insect.

The Woman in Black (1989)

The Woman in Black (1989)

Before Hammer revived their horror film fortunes with the recent offering starring Daniel Radcliffe, Nigel (Quatermass) Kneale wrote this blisteringly good adaptation of Susan Hill’s clammy ghost story – which seems to have been cruelly ignored in the fuss over Harry Potter’s first adult role. Pauline Moran played the Woman of the title, at first glimpsed among the tombstones, then finally manifesting herself in her full shrieking horror at the foot of our hero’s bed.

Lost (2004)

Lost (2004)

A puzzle-box of a series which made a fashionable splash with its debut and then wove its claustrophobic spell for several seasons – the work of JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Super 8). The survivors of the downed Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 are stranded on a remote island, encountering smoke monsters, polar bears, time-warps and the mysterious ‘Others’. Where are they? You might get a clue from the title of the classic 1932 horror, Island of Lost Souls.

Torchwood (2006)

Torchwood (2006)

The clunky Doctor Who spin-off took forever to find its feet, but on the way managed a couple of clever ideas like a captive Cyberwoman and a colony of cannibal farmers in the Welsh hills. Full marks, though, for the Children of Earth mini-series, in which obscene, mist-shrouded insectoid aliens demanded ten per cent of the world’s children. With The Thick of It’s Peter Capaldi as a conscience-stricken civil servant, the story packed a lasting emotional punch.

The Vampire Diaries (2009)

The Vampire Diaries (2009)

In modern-day Mystic Falls, Virginia, handsome brothers Stefan and Damon Salvatore (Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder) are fighting over the lovely Elena (Nina Dobrev). The twist? They’re all vampires. (Let’s be fair, the title rather gives the game away). Things get really twisted when Elena’s doppelganger turns up, and the Original Vampires emerge from their expensively-tooled coffins. Sharp-toothed soap from Kevin Williamson, who wrote the Scream films and Dawson’s Creek – which tells you all you need to know, really.