It’s time now for the second week of Sacred Walloween! As per the tradition started last year, this is the week where I’ll take a look at television, bringing us to this week’s Listicle, the Top Ten Scariest TV Moments! We’ll be looking at an unranked list of ten moments where television defied its normal callings of sitcoms and family/police dramas to scare the ever-living sh*t out of us.
Now, because television isn’t normally a scary medium, there weren’t a lot of strong options to choose from, but those that were eligible are truly, truly terrifying. My only rule is it has to give the viewer nightmares. Honorable Mentions include terror anthology shows like Tales From the Crypt, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, American Horror Story, and Trilogy of Terror. On a personal level, I’ve been haunted since childhood by the Rugrats episode “Under Chuckie’s Bed,” as well as the Smart Guy episode “Diary of a Mad Schoolgirl,” both of which I think are too dark and disturbing for the children they’re meant to entertain (even though I was thoroughly entertained by them as a child). And while I haven’ seen either episode, I hear that Black Mirror’s “Playtest” and “White Bear” are both truly frightening. Now that that’s settled, let’s take a look at the Ten Scariest TV Moments, in alphabetical order.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Early Murders, “Hush”
Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer lived in its own perfect little bubble of weird. It captured that perfect little niche of horror sci-fi comedy that TV rarely ever embraced. This meant that while every episode was built around ridiculous jokes and concepts, it also had its fair share of moments to make you jump out of your skin. One of moments that always got me was the episode where a sick Buffy finds herself in the hospital and witnesses a ghost only visible to the highly sick following a young boy he plans to murder, but I feel there is only one episode of the show that is worth putting on a Top Ten list, and that’s the early scenes of the assault of the Gentlemen. The Gentlemen are, hands down, some of the creepiest looking creatures to appear on Buffy, but that’s not why we remember them. We remember them because of what they do. There’s something inherently frightening about not being able to scream out in panic, and it’s even more eerie to hear nothing on a show like Buffy, which is driven by Whedon’s dialogue. In an effort to prove that the show was effective even without its classic witticism, Whedon wrote an episode about villains who steal our voices while we sleep, so that they can’t hear our screams as they cut out our hearts. And you know what? It’s godd*mn frightening. I mean, just watch this dialogue-free murder scene from early in the show. This is the stuff of nightmares. It’s proof that while the show was still a comedy, it was, at its heart, a horror show.
The Daisy Ad
I’m sure many of you didn’t expect a commercial to make this list. Quite frankly, I didn’t expect one to either. But I’m not sure anyone can deny the impact and the horror that was Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 political ad, which only ran twice. Known only as “The Daisy Ad,” this one makes the list because not only did it traumatize an audience of millions, it significantly changed the course of the twentieth century. It influenced an election, swinging things in favor of Johnson over Goldwater, and perhaps even led us into the Vietnam War. How’s that for a scary TV commercial? As for the ad itself, its terror is fairly underplayed, focusing on a young girl picking flowers and casually counting. She gets a couple of the numbers mixed up – aww, how cute! So innocent! And then…freeze frame. And her counting is replaced with a nuclear countdown, and a dramatic push on the young girl’s face, building slowly up until: kaboom. The message is hauntingly clear. If you vote for Barry Goldwater, he will get your daughter killed in a fiery holocaust. That isn’t just a terrifying idea in 1964, that’s a terrifying idea now. Both influentially and historically, this is one of the most terrifying moments in television history.
Doctor Who – “Blink”
Look, Doctor Who is essentially just a silly kids’ show at heart. The only reason it’s so popular in America is because we mistake British accents for intelligence (for God’s sake, we think Downton Abbey, their version of a soap opera, is considered art). However, the show does have its flashes of brilliance, including the horror masterpiece “Blink.” What’s most fascinating is that the titular hero doesn’t even star in the episode – he’s already been defeated by the villains and relegated to the past, giving advice to the heroes via a video tape where he gives the now-famous monologue about “Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff” and the most frightening line in television history, “Don’t blink.” Perhaps relegating David Tennant to the background is a better choice, as it allows for a greater mystery and places greater stakes on the ordinary heroine Sally Sparrow, played by the wonderful actress Carey Mulligan. But beyond the smart decisions in storytelling and heroes, the reason this episode terrifies us are the villains. The Weeping Angels are perhaps the scariest monsters ever created for television, even more so than the Gentlemen from Buffy. Statues when you stare at them and killer assassins when you don’t, these terrifying creatures must be watched at all times. If you don’t, they will kill you (or at least feed off your energy and send you back in time…best not to think about it for maximum scares). And while most of the episode is creepy, nothing is as frightening as that ending, where Sally and associate Larry trudge through the house, trying not to blink, as the creatures attack. It’s truly heart-stopping filmmaking, and kudos to Steven Moffat for pulling it off. Now, what comes next is actually where the scares start, but the reveal at the end of this video is the episode’s biggest shock. So enjoy, and be ready for the scares.
It – The Sewer
It’s common knowledge at this point that It is the breakout hit of 2017, raking in $630 million dollars as of this article’s posting. However, while it is a fun throwback horror film (oddly for children despite its R-rating), and it is mostly scarier than the 1990 miniseries of the same name, I would argue the lack of shock factor keeps it from matching the original sewer scene in terms of sheer awe. Sure, Bill Skarsgård is much creepier than Tim Curry’s campy take on Pennywise the Dancing Clown, but in his big first scene, he is unmatched. Following up a frightening scene where Pennywise murders a young girl, the film flashes back to show young Georgie Denbrough chasing after his paper boat as it washes down the sewers of Derry, Maine. As he looks in for it, he meets Pennywise. And unlike the newest film, where the clown is so scary from the get-go no real child would ever interact with him, here Pennywise is portrayed as a fun, likable clown, just off enough we can tell something is weird, but appealing enough that a kid would fall for his shtick. He’s got a real John Wayne Gacy vibe in his demeanor, and when Georgie reaches in and Pennywise bares his fangs, it’s truly frightening. There’s a reason that the 1990 It is so many people’s first nightmare, and that’s because Curry’s appearance in the sewer is the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit – The First Half of “Possessed”
Look, I’m the first one to point out that Law and Order: SVU is the pinnacle of Trash TV. The acting is cheesy, the plots convoluted, and the “ripped from the headlines” nature can border on offensive when the writers aren’t careful. However, I do commend them for trying to shine a light on a serious issue. And I won’t deny that when they get down into the nitty-gritty of it all, the show can be pretty terrifying. Most of the scarier episodes revolve around serial rapists and pedophiles, including the famous episode where Mariska Hargitay’s Benson is required to remain on the phone with a young kidnapped and serially abused girl in order to locate her and save her life. However, the episode that haunts me the most is season 12’s “Possessed,” particularly the first half. The episode opens with a young Taryn Manning and her boyfriend returning home from a trip, only for the boyfriend to be knocked out and Manning to be tied up and shaved, dubbed “Brandy” by the assailant. It is soon revealed that she was the “star” of a series of dark web child pornography videos when she was young, and that her popularity launched the assault of a series of young girls before they found and shaved her. The second half of the episode expectedly goes off the rails, but nothing is as frightening as when Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Finn (the incomparable Ice-T) raid the assailant’s house and discover printing photographs being taken in real time from Manning’s comatose bedside. And the worst part is the sheer joy on the face of the assailant (played by Devin Ratray, the older brother from Home Alone) when he is discovered with the body. It’s one of the most disturbing, traumatizing scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and one of the most haunting in television history.
Little House on the Prairie – “Sylvia”
Continuing on with the terrors of real life and sexual abuse, Little House on the Prairie. Now, I know what you’re thinking: Little House on the Prairie? That wholesome family show about the Ingalls family and their wacky shenanigans in Kansas? The show where the most exciting thing to happen was when Laura Ingles Wilder pushed that b*tch into the mud? How is that frightening? Well, let’s talk about “Sylvia,” Little House’s “very special episode.” “Sylvia” was a two-parter in the show’s seventh season, and focused on Laura’s younger brother, Albert. You see, Albert meets the new girl in school, Sylvia, who received unwanted attention from the older boys and is hated by her father due to her mother’s death in childbirth. Soon they fall in love, and awww everything’s wonderful because this is Little House on the F*cking Prairie. And then the creepy clown bursts out of the woods and rapes Sylvia, leaving her pregnant and traumatized, with everyone blaming Albert. What the f*ck. What the f*ck. WHAT. THE. F*CK. What kind of backwards ass children’s television show would put that on the air. Yadda yadda they kill the rapist but Sylvia dies, but I don’t care. There’s no recovering from the image of the hero’s love interest in a family period piece being raped by a clown. I have no words. Mercifully, no image of this exists on YouTube to be shared, so you’ll have to take my word for it based on that picture. Be grateful you aren’t traumatized like I am.
Salem’s Lot – Ralphie Glick At The Window
Truth be told, I’m not that familiar with Salem’s Lot. I haven’t seen the entirety of this miniseries, or even most of it. However, when I first started getting into film and television, the infamous “window” scene was at the top of everyone’s must see list, so I watched it. And I was terrifying. From what I can gather, Ralphie Glick was captured and “killed” by vampires early on in the film. His brother goes to bed mournful over the loss, when he sees something emerge from the fog: the image of his dead brother. Stupidly, he opens the window and allows his brother to float on in. I’m sure you can assume what happens next. Truly, this is the type of work that can only come from the combination of Stephen King’s warped, twisted mind and Tobe Hooper’s killer direction. Hooper is a man who knows how to make true terror, be it in the former of a crazed, child-like cannibal in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or in the form of a killer clown doll in Poltergeist. It is clearly his genius elevating King’s material, as this is a scene built on tension, terror, and the fear of the unknown. This is a master class in filmmaking, and it helps us understand not only why miniseries ended becoming so popular, but also why most vampire stories, from Buffy to The Simpsons to The Lost Boys would turn to this scene as inspiration. Watch, if you dare.
Twin Peaks – Killer BOB, “Coma”
For all the talk about Peak TV, and how great directors have made the move to television, it is worth noting that this phase actually began in 1990, when David Lynch took to television to forever change the art of storytelling. All at once a comedy, a mystery, a small town drama, a soap opera, and a horror, Lynch drew on the works of Buñuel, Argento, and more to craft one of the most unique television experiences of all time. Obviously, the show was scary enough when it was about a serial killer who murdered the small town of Twin Peaks’ prom queen, Laura Palmer, but when it was revealed in Episodes 2 and 3 that the murderer was at least tangentially related to a demonic entity known as Killer BOB (and played by the creepy looking Frank Silva), the show takes a dark, twisted turn. The appearance of BOB behind the couch is frightening, the trip to the Black Lodge surreally haunting, and the images of BOB killing Laura truly haunting. However, if there’s one moment that named Lynch as an all-star director, and established this as the most frightening show in history, it’s the Couch scene. Coming at the tail end of “Coma,” the second episode of the show’s second (and final) season, the group of Donna Hayward, James Hurley, and Maddy Ferguson (the cousin of Laura) are suffering infighting due to James’ attraction to both of them. As James and Donna fight, Maddy looks around the living room and sees BOB round the corner and slowly walk right towards her. What’s most frightening is BOB crawling straight towards the camera, staring directly into our souls as he lurches towards us like our inevitable death. If this list had a number one, it would be this scene. It is a masterpiece of terror, filmmaking, and what television can accomplish in one hour.
The Twilight Zone – “My Name’s Talky Tina,” “Living Doll”
Is there an older horror TV classic than The Twilight Zone? Forever challenging what science fiction, fantasy, and horror could and should be, each episode played as a sort of modern day Grimm’s Fairy Tale, teaching the audience a moral through brilliant twists and storytelling, be it on a micro scale, like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or “be a good parent,” or on a macro scale, like the effects of racism and a nuclear cold war on society. There are several episodes that can cause nightmares, from “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” or “To Serve Man,” which explored the reckless and destructive nature inside humanity. There’s also “Long Distance Call,” which featured a dead grandma trying to lure her beloved grandson to the afterlife. One particularly shocking episode involved an “ugly” woman revealed to be conventionally beautiful, and yet living on a planet of Pig People. And in terms of the reboots, there was one particularly frightening episode involved a young girl who could turn people into dolls. However, if we’re going to stick with a scary doll, let’s go with Talky Tina. A gift for a young girl by her mother to make up for her cold stepfather, the stepfather is angered by the doll’s declarations that “I don’t think I like you very much,” and is angrier when the doll won’t act different in front of anyone else. Then the doll starts saying “My name is Talky Tina, and I think I could hate you.” What follows is a battle of wills between Telly Savales, the stepfather, and a piece of plastic. Eventually, Telly tries to melt Tina, only to discover that she is indestructible. And then Tina says the immortal, haunting line that scares me sh*tless to this day: “My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.” I won’t spoil the ending, and quite frankly, I don’t need to. The minute that doll, in its peaceful, loving voice, declares it’s going to murder the episode’s protagonist, there’s no coming back. That is a frightening, disquieting scene, and I think you can trace back our fear of Chucky, Annabelle, and Slappy back to this original master.
The X-Files – The Murder, “Home”
When it comes to modern television horror, I think the closest we’ve come is The X-Files. Following FBI Special Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), we witness their investigations into the paranormal and the mysterious. The show could range from silly to scary, and at its best, could be amongst the best of television. However, it’s widely considered that their finest hour was “Home,” the second episode of their fourth season. Playing like a David Lynch film, and preying on our fear of the inbred redneck community, the episode served as a critique of globalization and the American Dream, satirizing the “Mayberry” ideal to the point of naming the sheriff of Home, Pennsylvania “Andy Taylor.” When a baby’s body is found buried in the woods, filled with genetic defects out the wazoo, Mulder and Scully investigate a family of inbred rednecks who have lived in the backwoods since the Civil War. After finding proof that the Peacock brothers had buried the child, and perhaps had an unwilling participant in their breeding, they file warrants to arrest the brothers – which doesn’t sit well with the family. The reveal of the baby’s body is a frightening image, but what truly terrifies me is the murder of Andy Taylor, in the most American way possible. We watch as the brothers climb into their Cadillac, blasting Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful! Wonderful!” as they drive over to the sheriff’s house, who didn’t lock his doors because “it’s a safe neighborhood.” They then steal his baseball bat and, with the symbol of America’s favorite pastime, proceed to beat both the Sheriff and his wife to death, all while Mathis croons over the violence. “Nice” music played over violent scenes is always terrifying, and “Home” is no exception. It is a prime example of television pushing its boundaries to create art, and it helps The X-Files stand as a piece of TV history, as opposed to an exploitative piece of entertainment.
That concludes this week’s Sacred Walloween Listicle. Look later this week for the next list, where we’ll return to the world of television, and until then, enjoy this week’s spooky scary video. And let me know if there are any TV moments that frighten you to your core!