Pulling off a truly terrifying pilot episode is tough. Make it too scary, and you risk alienating a lot of people. But if you don’t make it scary enough, fans aren’t going to tune in again. As is true of any genre, compelling storytelling is crucial to horror on TV.
Despite these challenges, there is a treasure trove of well-executed, scary shows. Some of them take time to develop the scares, plotting slowly, week after week, to build tension. Then, there are the rare few that are scary right away and can maintain that unsettling tone throughout multiple seasons of viewership.
‘Chucky’ (2021 -) — “Death by Misadventure”
While viewers may already be familiar with the foul-mouthed murdering doll Chucky, the showrunners still had their work cut out with this pilot. Not only did the creators need to stay true to what fans love about the iconic slasher, but they also needed to establish what makes Chucky vital to a modern audience.
Don Mancini (Chucky‘s creator and consistent artistic voice) did just that with “Death by Misadventure.” Despite (or more likely, in gleeful rebellion at) network restrictions, Mancini was able to create a truly shocking piece of TV. The writers pushed the boundaries of violence on cable television and, in doing so, proved that not even network censors can stop Chucky from scaring our pants off.
‘Marianne’ (2019) — “Tu les rêves”
Netflix‘s Marianne is a French horror series that follows (fictional) best-selling author Emma Larsimon (Victoire Du Bois) as her life crumbles around her. When she announces that she’s through writing horror fiction, Emma immediately becomes aware that some of what she has written may have manifested in the real world.
Don’t let the subtitles deter you from engaging in this incredibly spooky streamer. What makes Marianne so instantly scary is the atmosphere that’s immediately established. The tension in the pilot is ratcheted up so high before viewers are introduced to any frightening imagery. The stakes are so high that the scares land perfectly when the show’s creators are ready to frighten.
‘Tales from the Dark Side’ (1983 – 1988) — “Trick or Treat”
Perhaps more than any other genre, horror lends itself to anthological storytelling. Nowhere is this clearer than in the 1980’s television series Tales From the Dark Side. Following a legendary string of movies, George Romero co-created and executive-produced this series. His patented blend of horror and prescient commentary is felt throughout the show’s five-season run.
In the series premiere, Barnard Hughes plays an elderly miser named Gideon Hackles, who keeps all his neighbors in debt. Every Halloween, he invites the children to search through his haunted house to leave with their parents’ IOUs. But this year, the real-life terror that befalls Gideon Hackles is scarier than any decoration hung to scare the kids.
‘Creepshow’ (2019 -) — “Gray Matter”/”The House of the Head”
Creepshow is the continuation of a beloved 1982 film of the same name, which told five short stories across its runtime. Series producer Greg Nicotero keeps the horror anthology tradition of the first movie created by genre forebears George Romero and Stephen King. Streaming exclusively on Shudder, episodes of “Creepshow” each feature two stories to thrill and chill.
Its tone is what makes “Creepshow” such a creepy show. The pilot deftly balances laughs and shrieks, building up and ripping away a false sense of security. “Gray Matter,” the first story, is a King adaptation with all its requisite small-town goings-on interrupted by a deadly beer germ gestation. “The House of Head,” the episode’s second segment, is a particularly unsettling tale. A child’s dollhouse and its inhabitance begin acting of their own accord, and the kid’s whole family is in jeopardy.
‘Channel Zero’ (2016 – 2018) — “You Have to Go Inside”
After writing for genre TV favorites like Teen Wolf and Hannibal, Nick Antosca created “Channel Zero,” which was greenlit by SyFy for two six-episode seasons. Each season focuses on a different “creepypasta,” internet horror stories with often obscure origins. Unlike other anthology horror shows, Channel Zero tells its stories across an entire season rather than a new one with each episode.
What makes “You Have to Go Inside” scary is how grounded it is in reality. When Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) returns to the town where five schoolmates were murdered, it feels like a true story. This creepypasta is rooted in fears from a nearly-forgotten past. “Candle Cove,” a children’s show that’s part of the mystery, feels absolutely real and terrifying.
‘The X-Files’ (1993 – 2018) — “Pilot”
It’s difficult to overstate how big of a cultural phenomenon The X-Files was in the ’90s. This pilot episode points towards why. While series creator Chris Carter deserves credit for establishing such compelling mysteries, the series’ leads, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, made viewers keep returning for me.
So what makes X-Files scary? One of the most effective ways writers can scare an audience is by making their characters feel real. Fans were quickly invested in Agents Mulder (Duchovny) and Scully (Anderson), so when those characters were imperiled, that fear also felt real for the audience.
‘The Haunting of Hill House’ (2018) — “Steven Sees a Ghost”
Mike Flanagan has one of the most impressive track records of any horror creator, and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House might be his crown jewel. Don’t expect it to have much to do with the Shirley Jackson classic, though. This Haunting boasts a cast as impressive as its writing, with an engaging story that compels viewers to binge the whole series.
Flanagan uses every tool a filmmaker can to scare his audience. He is unique in his ability to draw audiences in with likable characters and interesting stories. He then manipulates that attention in incredibly unnerving ways, hiding horrors throughout the frame and planting perfectly-timed jump scares.
‘The Twilight Zone’ (1959 – 1964) — “Where Is Everybody?”
With an opening narration as iconic as its imagery, Rod Serling‘s The Twilight Zone is completely intact from the start. “Where is Everybody?” establishes everything about the series that audiences would return to for decades to come.
A sense of dreadful isolation pervades this premiere episode. A man, unsure of his name or past, wanders helplessly through a deserted town, searching for clues and people. When he finds neither, viewers can’t help but feel his panic. Of course, like many great episodes of The Twilight Zone, the pilot’s ending recontextualizes the proceedings in a super scary way.
‘Slasher’ (2016 – ) — “An Eye for An Eye”
Here’s another under-seen streaming gem. Slasher is an anthology series that tells a new story about a masked killer each season. The first season, The Executioner, was made for Chiller before Netflix purchased the rights, and finally, Shudder, where the series currently resides.
This pilot again centers around a character returning to a childhood home years after a murder. Of course, viewers know the violence has only started; it’s right there in the title. What makes this one scary, though, is how the creators upend a lot of expectations of the slasher subgenre.
‘Hannibal’ (2013 – 2015) — “Apéritif”
“Apéritif” has the thankless task of reintroducing audiences to one of the most well-known boogeymen in movies and literature. Series-creator Bryan Fuller establishes this Hannibal Lecter as completely distinct from any we’d seen before, with Mads Mikkelsen‘s cannibalistic doctor both more refined and more menacing than prior depictions.
There’s a chilling conflict beneath the surface of the show’s pilot episode. Dr. Lecter is so charming, and his mannerisms are so disarming that viewers risk falling for a deadly trap. Anyone familiar with Hannibal Lecter knows that beneath the allure is a taste for human flesh. Despite the danger, audiences slowly connect with the doctor, only to have that trust manipulated in increasingly disturbing ways.
KEEP READING: ‘Chucky’ and Six Other Slasher TV Series to Watch