Revisiting TV’s Most Unforgettable Scares

From Breaking Bad to The X-Files, the living room has long been a source of terror

Punky Brewster (Screenshot)

    Welcome to the inaugural installment of The Scene Who Knocks, in which Consequence of Sound’s TV Partiers pick their personal favorite scene in a given category. First up: terrifying TV moments.

    The scariest thing on television is the news. So acknowledged. Even beyond the gruesome, horrifying realities covered therein, the news itself is pretty goddamn terrifying at the moment. But we’re not here for the actual terrors of life. We’re here for fictional terrors, and as this list should prove, there are scares aplenty to be found on the small screen.

    So, in honor of the return of FX’s chill-inducing Legion—whose grim, hugely ambitious “Bolero” sequence was one of last year’s scariest highlights—we asked some of Consequence of Sound ‘s biggest televisual nerds to peek beneath the bed and drag out their own unforgettable horrors. We think you’ll agree that the results are deeply, delightfully fucked up.


    Know that this isn’t a definitive list of television’s scariest moments. Fear is personal, and no greatest hits collection could capture the distinct nightmares we stumble across that seem to creep into our very souls, clutching at some specific piece of who we are and refusing to let go.

    Punky Brewster isn’t The Shining, but it scared the shit out of Randall Colburn when he was a kid, so you’ll find it below. You’ll also find scares more recent and domestic, shows better known for adventurous romps than spine-chilling stories, and that episode of The X-Files that got yanked from syndication.

    Once you’ve finished reading, join us over at the podcast TV Party, where you can hear a quartet of the writers featured below waxing rhapsodic about these scenes, and a few gruesome runners-up. It might not cheer you up, but it’s got to be better than watching the news at the moment.

    — Allison Shoemaker
    TV Editor


    The Twilight Zone, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963)


    Nightmare at 20,000 Feet

    William Shatner (Screenshot)

    I’ve always maintained that when it comes to horror, there are two kinds of people: Those who are scared by real-life threats (serial killers, kidnappers, axe murderers, etc.) and those who are scared by supernatural ones (demons, possessed children, monsters). I definitely fall into the latter camp, which might explain why—despite its hokey effects—I’m absolutely terrified of the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet.” The episode centers on Bob Wilson (William Shatner), an airplane passenger who spots a giant “gremlin” on the wing of his plane but can’t get anyone else to see it too. There’s one big jump scare where Bob pulls back his curtain to see the gremlin’s face pressed up against his window, but for my money the episode’s scariest sequence is the one where Bob first spots the monster on the wing.

    Rod Serling’s opening narration establishes that Bob has just been discharged from a six-month stay in a sanitarium following a nervous breakdown that occurred—of course—on an airplane. And that first sequence captures the nightmarish idea of spotting something terrifying in the distance and not quite being able to process whether what you’re seeing is real. Some great lighting design allows the monster to slowly emerge from the darkness at the edge of the plane wing, and the ape-like way the creature moves is deeply unsettling, especially from far away. So while, yes, the monster is clearly just a man in a fuzzy Big Foot costume, I’m still terrified each time I catch that first glimpse of it. — Caroline Siede


    Doctor Who, “Midnight” (2008)


    David Tennant, Lesley Sharp (Screenshot)

    For the uninitiated, Doctor Who might not seem like the place to go for bone-deep terror. This is the show with the Christmas ornaments that bark “EX-TER-MI-NATE,” after all, so perhaps not a go-to source for nightmare fuel. Ah, my sweet summer child, how wrong you are. Both the classic and current runs of the BBC’s grand sci-fi adventure series have stories and monsters that just may keep you up at night, from Martian water zombies and the Weeping Angels to the Autons, which are basically just animated mannequins and are thus totally terrifying. But as is so often the case, the scariest episode of Doctor Who is one in which the monster is never seen or understood. We see only what it can do, and how its actions can make monsters of those in the room.

    It also means that, in “Midnight,” it’s up to a fine ensemble of actors to tell the story. Russell T. Davies’s bottle episode centers on a sightseeing tour vessel that’s inexplicably halted on an uninhabited planet; a series of menacing booms from outside sends the passengers into a panic, particularly Sky (Lesley Sharp), who believes this entity is after her specifically. Then it all goes dark and quiet, and when Sky finally turns around, she’s more animal than human somehow. And then she begins to repeat everyone around her.


    There are other terrors at work here, too: as the tension mounts and fear spikes, the passengers bring out the worst in each other, and particularly in the Doctor (David Tennant), who in his impatience to take control begins to alienate those around him, putting all their lives at risk. But it’s Sky’s repeating, and eventually her simultaneous speech, that really chills the blood. Great effects can be achieved with a boatload of cash and some impressive prosthetics, but sometimes all you need is two great actors, a terrific story, and the sense that something is very, very wrong. Tennant and Sharp scared the shit out of me when I first saw “Midnight,” and they’ve scared the shit out of me each of the many times I’ve watched it since. — Allison Shoemaker


    Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” (2013)

    Anna Gunn (Ursula Coyote/AMC)

    Breaking Bad had no shortage of tense moments: showdowns with gangsters, intimidation by local kingpins, and skirmishes with other frightening folk. But the show’s scariest scene is a domestic one, in the physical confrontation between Walt (Bryan Cranston), Skyler (Anna Gunn), and their son (RJ Mitte), that ends with Walt absconding with his daughter as his blood-spattered wife runs futilely after him. It’s a frightening sequence of events because it’s the emotional made physical. The sense of Walt as a threat to his family had, up to that point, mainly been abstract, or centered on him attracting harsher elements to the Whites’ doorstep. But now the growing unease between Walt and his family comes to a head, or rather, the point of a knife.


    That’s what’s so terrifying in the moment. Director Rian Johnson keeps focused on that pointed object in the midst of the chaos. The moment-to-moment trajectory of Walt and Skyler’s struggle is jumbled at times, but the introduction of that piercing implement, and the slice through Walt’s hand to reinforce the risk, just makes it feel like a terrible game of roulette where each spin could wound anyone in the fray, including the children who are bystanders to the maelstrom. Every sight and sound is unnerving: Walt Jr.’s screams to stop, Walt’s hand pressed on his wife’s chest, and the gleam of the knife as it’s wrestled back and forth. The coda is Walt stealing his own child, with the terror of knowing that the man who claimed to be doing all of this for his family, has now realized he lost them, making him even more unpredictable.

    The scene builds a sense of tension that must be devastatingly released. It lends “Ozymandias” the sense that it’s only a matter of time before one member of this broken family harms another, and it makes the moment scarier than any goblin or ghoul ever could. — Andrew Bloom 


    Punky Brewster, “The Perils of Punky” (1985)

    Punky Brewster (screenshot)

    Soleil Moon Frye (Screenshot)


    Punky Brewster wasn’t afraid to get controversial. Everyone knows about #FridgeGate, but the children’s show about a plucky foster child also used the real-life Challenger explosion to dig into the impact of mass tragedy on youth. Still, though, the two-part season two episode “The Perils of Punky” is pushing it.

    It all starts innocently enough, with Punky (Soleil Moon Frye, her dog, and three friends stumbling upon an old cave while camping. Inside, however, they find Native American spirits, a disembodied man (played by the late, great Vincent Schiavelli), and a giant spider. They’re not scary, though—well, the white dude playing a Native American in red face is, but I digress—but once Punky’s friends disappear and come back with severed heads, dead eyes, and crooked fangs? Jesus fucking Christ. One friend even turns into a dancing skeleton that should be dumb, but is far too evocative of Evil Dead 2 to not give this writer the willies. Once Punky comes face-to-face with a flickering, Lynchian spirit with Freddy Krueger fangs, “The Perils of Punky” cements itself as the most delightfully, inappropriately scary episode of children’s television of all time. That fridge ain’t got nothing on this. — Randall Colburn


    Salem’s Lot (1979)

    Salem's Lot (screenshot)

    Ronnie Scribner (screenshot)


    TV adaptations of Stephen King’s particular brand of horror don’t always work, but in Salem’s Lot, Tobe Hooper created not one, but two chilling sequences that have traumatized viewers for decades. In the first, the sleeping Danny Glick (Brad Savage) is awoken by his younger brother Ralphie (Ronnie Scribner), who has been turned into a vampire and is floating outside his window and gently scratching at it, asking to be let in. Later, the scene is mirrored when the now undead Danny appears outside his friend Mark Petrie’s (Lance Kerwin) window and calls out to him.

    (Read: Ranking: Every Stephen King Movie, Miniseries, and TV Show from Worst to Best)

    The first scene’s eerie, impossibly slow pacing builds dread as Danny tenses, then relaxes his hand before moving anything else, waking and so quickly falling under Ralphie’s thrall. Ralphie’s small frame, clean white pajamas, and the glow of his reflective buttons add extra layers of perversion to the already upsetting scene. Later, when Danny follows Ralphie’s example, the previously purely horrific scene becomes profoundly sad, thanks to the glee in Danny’s face and the tears welling in Mark’s eyes as he considers whether to open the window. In both iterations, the specificity of the foley work — anyone who’s slept in a room with a tree outside the window will be all-too-familiar with the sound of wood (or nails) scraping against glass — the unsettling wire work, and the gliding, driving score from composer Harry Sukman lend intensity and drama to the disturbing concept of children’s love for their family and friends being weaponized against them. Other films and TV shows have been inspired by the creepy floating vampire children of Salem’s Lot, but none have come close to capturing the pure terror of the original. — Kate Kulzick


    The X-Files, “Home” (1996)

    The X-Files (Photo: Fox)

    Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny (Fox)


    “Ma’am, it’s all right, we’re going to get you home.”

    “Mulder, she already is home.”

    The X-Files was one of the most effective delivery systems for atmospheric scares in the ‘90s, but none of them were quite as unsettling and stomach-turning as the climactic scene from season four’s “Home.” The only episode of the show to ever be given a TV-MA rating and pulled from syndication, “Home” sees Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating the body of a deformed infant found in a sleepy Pennsylvania town, and the disfigured family of inbred farmers to whom it belonged. The entire episode is spooky as hell, but the moment that pushed “Home” over the edge into pants-wetting terror occurs when Mulder and Scully finally figure out who carried the child — the family’s mother, a deformed quadruple amputee strapped to a creeper under the bed.

    Regular X-Files director Kim Manners mines every texture and detail of Mrs. Peacock’s reveal, Scully’s flashlight illuminating her face and form in disquieting close-up. Looking over her deeply scarred face and feral screams, both the agents and the audience realize the warped version of the American Dream into which they’ve stumbled: a closed-circuit family unit willingly isolating themselves from the rest of civilization through incest, infanticide and murder. It’s scary not just because of Mrs. Peacock’s impeccably gruesome prosthetics — what really chills the blood is the Peacocks’ violent rejection of modernized society, representing the dark side of the old-fashioned ‘50s America idolized by people who might want to, say, make it great again. (Not to mention the existential horror of a woman who willingly succumbs to the idea that that her only purpose on Earth is to bear children.)

    This episode came out not long after Se7en elevated the grotesque crime scene to an art form, and this scene from “Home” reaches for that level of stomach-turning disquiet. By every measure, it succeeds: Mrs. Peacock’s reveal is one of defining moments of The X-Files, cementing its status as one of the scariest shows of the 1990s. — Clint Worthington


    Six Feet Under, “That’s My Dog” (2004)


    Michael C. Hall (Screenshot)

    Six Feet Under‘s “That’s My Dog” exists as one of television’s most harrowing portraits of pure, unadulterated evil. In its depiction of David (Michael C. Hall) being subjected to a nightmarish gauntlet of emotional and physical tortures by a deranged carjacker named Jake (Michael Weston), Alan Ball delivers one of the series’ most trenchant examinations of the ways in which life prepares us for the eventual realities of death, long before we get there, and how death can suddenly interrupt our lives to stare us in the face in all its blank horror.

    Jake is a terrifying villain in that there’s no true motive for any of the increasing horrors he forces on David. In the vein of such figures as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Jake’s menace emerges from the passive logic he applies to everything from his initial assault and abduction, to eventually forcing David to share crack. But perhaps the eeriest moment of all (and the most Joker-esque, in its terrifying duplicity) is the reveal that Jake’s initial admission of motive, via the loss of his father, was a false story. There’s no dead dad, and no particular reason for Jake to be doing this. There’s nothing driving Jake beyond savage impulse, making him the most plausible and revolting kind of monster imaginable. — Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    Twin Peaks: The Return, “Part 8” (2017)


    Robert Broski (Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME)

    “Got a light?” Odds are you’ve heard someone quote that line over the last seven to eight months, and odds are you’ve chuckled and answered them with either a yes, a no, or a fuck you. But, if you know where those three simple words come from, it’s more than likely a chill rolled right down your spine as they stared you down. Reason being, that line is part of what’s easily one of the most frightening and chilling episodes of television to ever haunt a living room: “Part 8” of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 18-hour limited event series revival of Twin Peaks.

    It’s less than a year old, but when that episode dropped, it kind of felt like we had gone back to the ’90s, a time when Water Cooler Television was still very much a thing, and the world seemed to stop spinning. Or even as ancient as the ’60s, when everyone in American rallied around to find out about Kennedy assassination or witness the moon landing. Okay, that’s a little hyperbolic, but let’s just say, countless living rooms were frozen in shock and awe when that eighth episode premiered on Showtime. It was special, it was unseemly, it was downright terrifying.


    Save for the original pilot and maybe 1992’s Fire Walk with Me, it’s also the only chunk of Twin Peaks that truly works as a separate piece of art. It’s essentially a disturbing short film from David Lynch, one that also ostensibly serves as a prequel to the Twin Peaks mythology, which is where Frost factors into the picture. But really, it’s Lynch’s way to harken back to his roots, delivering a creation myth that could only come from the darkest recesses of the mind. Those Woodsmen, their fascination with cigs, and that radio broadcast … it’s like a nightmare you never shake.

    Christ, you’ll need a smoke yourself. — Michael Roffman


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