Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. I don’t know if it’s the changing weather, the chance to play dress-up, or all the candy for sale (okay, a lot of it’s probably the candy), but there’s just something inherently wonderful about the magic of the Halloween season.
There’s also something inherently spooky, and that’s what truly calls to me. My fascination with all things haunted and ghoulish started long before my stint at a medical examiner’s office, but being around death made the macabre even more intriguing…and I swear I’m not as creepy as that statement makes me sound. It’s just that the end of life is both a reverent time and a mysterious one; we all may have our own beliefs as to what happens to a person when they die, but until we experience it for ourselves, a part of us will always wonder. And it’s that wonder, that open-ended question, that provides fodder for the countless tales that rise around Halloween.
Ghosts, zombies, vampires, demons—they all have an irrefutable connection to death and the beyond, and we as humans have an instinctive fear of the end that causes us to love and hate these types of stories in sometimes equal measure.
But stories don’t have to feature supernatural creatures to be terrifying. Humans can be just as frightening, just as monstrous as any mystical creature of the night all on their own. Only the human race could produce violent stalkers, kidnapping clowns, and serial killers, and it’s stories featuring these characters that may, in fact, be even more frightening in their realism, in that slim chance that one of these very human monsters may actually find you.
Personally, I’m a fan of the sorts of stories that get in your head, either in a good or a bad way. Gore doesn’t bother me, jump scares don’t faze me, and I can usually solve any B-level mystery in the first five minutes. But the stories that change the way you see things, the ones that are clever and subversive, the ones that have a good plot with characters I can empathize with—those are my type of Halloween stories. If it makes me laugh or if it makes me triple check the locks and peek behind the shower curtain, I know the story has done its job.
Those are the stories I come back to year after year, hoping that I can relate to some new facet and be scared or amused all over again. I’ve realized that as people grow older and change, so does their perspective on things; stories that you found scary as a child may seem silly now that you know there are no monsters living under your bed, but others…
Now that you better understand the reality and the terrors of the real world, things like serial killers, which may have seemed campy or overdone before, seem a lot more frightening, don’t they?
And with that in mind, here are some of my favorite Halloween-y stories. These are just the stories featured on television. (My list of movies is forthcoming in my own version of ABC Family’s 13 Nights of Halloween, so stay tuned for that beginning on the 19th.) While some of these shows may be familiar to you and others brand new, they’re all worth watching, either for the first or the fortieth time. View the old shows with new eyes, and you may be surprised what you notice now.
Everyone needs to be scared once in a while—it helps keep the heart working properly—and these are some of the best scary stories on television, ready for Halloween viewing:
1) And Then There Were None (2015, BBC One)
- If you’ve never read or watched this Agatha Christie tale, this year’s the time to do so. The newest adaptation of this 1939 classic is last year’s mini-series featuring Aidan Turner (AKA Kili), Charles Dance (AKA Tywin Lannister) and Burn Gorman (Torchwood’s Owen Harper), and although it deviates slightly from the book, it stays true to the mystery and growing terror that fills the original story. There are lots of characters and crimes to keep track of, but that doesn’t last long as bodies being to pile up, and the finale is expertly acted, even if you know how it ends. This story is certainly a classic for a reason.
2) American Horror Story (2011-Present, FX)
- This show has something for everyone: ghost love stories, aliens, the head witch in charge, one of the creepiest clowns ever, and Lady Gaga. Each season is considered its own mini-series, although there’s actually a connection between each of them, and the stories range the gambit from sweet to funny to terrifying to just plain wrong. But there’s always solid storytelling, compelling characters, and fantastical twists. Add to that the big name cast—including the spectacular Jessica Lange for the first four seasons—and American Horror Story is a perfect Halloween show. A warning, though—maybe watch this one after the kiddies have gone to bed.
3) Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-1996, 1999-2000, Nickelodeon)
- This show is Goosebumps for the older kids. Another anthology series based around a group of teenagers telling scary stories around a campfire. Don’t let the narrators’ ages deter you, though; most of the episodes are adapted from urban legends and fairy tales, and if you’ve read through the original Brothers Grimm tales, you know that some of them are deeply disturbing. Other episodes are more focused on events in the characters’ lives, and they’re usually more of a morality lesson than a genuine scary story. The mix of tales keeps things interesting, though, and while they usually have a happy ending, there are still enough terrifying visuals—made all the more frightening by the outdated makeup and special effects—and plots to potentially scar you for life. (To be frank, I’ve read far more about this show than I’ve seen of it. The intro terrified me as a child, and even now I’ve only managed to make it through a few episodes at the risk of having nightmares. Maybe I’m just being silly, or maybe I’m right to be scared. You decide.)
4) Community S2E6- “Epidemiology” (2010, NBC)
- This show overall isn’t scary, but the Halloween specials are really well done, especially this one. In true Community fashion, everything is absurdly ridiculous, but quite realistic in a way that only people with experience with a community college can understand. The ongoing gag about guessing Shirley’s costume, Troy being the first black person to survive a horror movie, Jeff still being cool as a zombie: it’s one wonderful punchline after another, and having the Dean’s Abba/to- do playlist as background music makes the whole thing ten times funnier. A great holiday episode that you could easily watch without having too much knowledge of the show in general, plus George Takei narrates, so there’s that awesomeness.
5) Goosebumps (1995-1998, Fox Kids)
- Sometimes funny, sometimes weird, sometimes truly scary—this anthology series, based off the bestselling books, is the perfect bit of nostalgia for Halloween. R.L. Stine’s stories have an interesting way of showing humanity from all the angles, whether good or bad, and this helps make up for the often outdated visuals and the cheesy acting. On the plus side, this show, while possible too frightening for the youngest of viewers, is a great way to introduce kids to ‘scary’ shows without the gore, violence, or inappropriate content commonly found in this genre. It’s also fun to see how many of the endings you remember; you’d be surprised at what you forget after a few decades.
6) Penny Dreadful (2014-2016, Showtime)
- What would you get if you matched some of the most famous Victorian-era literary characters up against the forces of evil? You’d get this show, a beautiful mashup of fiction and the reality of life in post-Jack the Ripper-era London. It’s fascinating to see these classic characters interact with one another and with threats ranging from vampires to prejudices to crises of faith. It’s much darker and foreboding than you’d expect, and with wonderful actors, gorgeous costumes, and beautiful imagery, it’s definitely intriguing. This one’s not really family-friendly either, so be warned.
7) Psych S3E15- “Tuesday the 17th: (2009, USA Network)
- Having never seen any of the Friday the 13th movies, I’m sure I’m missing tons of references in this spoof episode. Even still, this is one of Psych’s best Halloween specials. The nostalgia of returning to a much creepier version of your childhood summer camp is fun, as is the almost-constant acknowledgement that the characters are making stereotypically stupid horror movie decisions. However, what you think is the premise of this episode isn’t the real story, and the real terror begins as people begin dying for real. There’s still plenty of the humor Psych is known for, as well as plenty of the best-friend bickering between Shawn and Gus, but this episode travels down a darker path than the usual fare.
8) Stranger Things (2016, Netflix)
- If you haven’t already watched this Netflix hit, you’re really missing out. Stranger Things is a perfect mashup of all your favorite 80s movies, with the adventurous kids in a crazy situation, creepy government experiments, a terrifying creature from an alternate dimension, and tons of pop culture references. Finn Wolfhard (Mike), Millie Bobbie Brown (El), and the rest of the kids should win all the awards for their portrayals of tenacity and friendship and for being beyond adorable in general. The rest of the cast does a fabulous job, too, showing off levels of resourcefulness and forgiveness with an amazing sense of desperation and hope. (Seriously, you’ll never look at Christmas lights the same way again.) The settings, the lifestyles, and the soundtrack all really contribute to that 80s feel, but even kids too young to remember the 80s or the movies from that decade will appreciate this frightening but heartwarming adventure.
9) Toy Story of Terror (2013, ABC)
- This continuation of the beloved Toy Story films finds Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of the toys facing an inhuman terror as they try to survive the night at the Sleep Well Motel. It’s fun to see fear from a toy’s perspective, as the things they’re afraid of are vastly different from the horrors typically portrayed in Halloween specials. This special deals with Jessie’s fears in particular, and it’s good to see her having to face her claustrophobia in order to save her friends. The combination of Andy’s and Bonnie’s toys provides a lot of new faces and relationships to explore, and it takes all the toys working together to save the day. Kids and adults alike will enjoy seeing these familiar characters facing danger and coming out on top in time to make it back into Bonnie’s backpack.
10) The Twilight Zone (1959-1964, CBS)
- An oldie but a goodie, as long as you ignore the failed revivals. Rod Serling gives a level of class to this science-fiction/horror anthology, which includes heartwarming and thoughtful stories as well as ones that are creepy and others that are absolutely nightmarish: grotesque masks that permanently adhere to peoples’ faces, adorable dolls that push people down the stairs, monstrous little boys that control whole towns with their minds. The Twilight Zone wasn’t afraid to show the dark side of humanity, and it’s a refreshing change from the happy, upbeat premise of so many shows of that era. There’s a little something for everyone in this show, and Halloween is the perfect time to rewatch your favorite episodes and introduce them to a new generation.
Now, I know there are a lot of other Halloween-y shows that people love, but many of these shows are ones that may be less mainstream or may have been forgotten over time, and sometimes you need a new scare to keep you on your toes. What scary shows are you watching this Halloween season? What shows do you like to watch again and again, and what ones have you avoided because they looked too frightening? Let me know what you think; I’m always in search of new shows to keep me up too late, and Halloween is the perfect time to simply pulls the covers up a little higher and keep watching, lest the monsters chase me into my dreams.