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The Scariest Scenes in TV History — IndieWire Critics Survey

From BOB coming for you on "Twin Peaks" to a clown in the sewer, these scenes made critics keep the light on longer at night.

CBS, Lorimar TV/WB TV/REX/Shutterstock, Lynch/Frost/Spelling/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is the scariest moment or scene on TV?

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Though there are moments within “Penny Dreadful” (the seance) and “The X-Files” (“Home”) that left me spooked, the title for scariest TV scene has to go to the only show to give me nightmares — actual, legitimate nightmares. After watching the first two episodes of “Hannibal,” I woke up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and haunted by a bright red room with blood running down the walls — twice! Two weeks in a row, “Hannibal” ruined my peaceful slumber, and I had to stop watching the show live (and during the night entirely). Each week, it was that red room — inspired by another terrifying narrative, “The Shining” — that popped up in my dream, and I credit Bryan Fuller and director David Slade for crafting a psychological trigger so powerful, amid an episode so horrifying, that the very image of it wreaked internal havoc I could only cope with while unconscious.

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Uproxx

At the risk of making my argument almost entirely with YouTube clips two weeks in a row, I give you Bob from “Twin Peaks” appearing out of nowhere and doing… this:

The simple staging of this, and the way that David Lynch has actor Frank Silva go Right. Up. To. The. Camera. and look at it as if he is attacking us? Nightmare fuel, every single time. I’m filling out this survey before the “Twin Peaks” revival has debuted, and am hoping Lynch and company have a few scares like this one up their sleeves.

Geena Davis, "The Exorcist"

Geena Davis, “The Exorcist”


Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

What is the scariest TV moment/scene? Does Abigail Breslin’s horrifyingly annoying character on “Scream Queens” count? Because my god, every time she was on screen, my blood ran cold. If not, then let’s go with Angela’s reveal that she was in fact, Regan McNeill in Fox’s mercifully renewed sequel to “The Exorcist.” As a lifelong horror fan, it was so satisfying to see this “reboot” prove to be an actual continuation of the classic film, full of eerie moments, a dread-soaked atmosphere and a few jump-scares for good measure. But as for scariest of the bunch, I say Geena Davis’s heartbreaking confession (in a church, natch) to Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera) that she was the child possessed by Pazuzu back in the ‘70s was it’s most emotionally terrifying. The hell she went through, the efforts to escape her past, her mother’s manipulation-for-cash of a childhood wrecked by a demon…intercut with images of a cloaked figure in a hat so reminiscent of the original arrival of Max Von Sydow’s exorcist (this time, it was her mom, played awesomely until the neck-breaking end by Sharon Gless). Damn, it is all still under my skin and that episode aired back in October! That’s my pick for the last year.

Now, if you mean scariest scene ever, well, clearly, that is the shot of “Twin Peaks’” BOB the killer climbing over the couch to attack Laura Palmer’s lookalike cousin Maddy (Sheryl Lee)in Episode 10. What the ever living f**k did we do to deserve that nightmare?

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Well, now! Sunday night’s unsettling journey of “Twin Peaks” has seared my brain with the New York City scene. The monotone palette of the set — so visually creepy — as the locked-down young male attendant sits under the gaze of silent watching cameras. Why is he observing a mysterious glass box at the behest of some faceless billionaire? Then he is seduced by what else: a coffee-bearing siren! (After all, this IS “Twin Peaks.”)

Her second attempt to finagle a look inside allows her to be alone with him, as naked sexual advances ensue and then an alien-ish humanoid appears and gruesomely slashes them up.

Then, whipping over to South Dakota, and despite the ludicrous “Who has a key to Miss Davenport’s room?” interviews, that moment the two policemen come into the tidy, still apartment to find a horrific double corpse bloated under the sheets. Head severed. I had to watch “Silicon Valley” twice before I could go to sleep.

But truth be told, I have to give one of the most chilling “Sopranos” scenes a shout out. The calculated murder of Adriana. She did the right thing, told the truth. Christopher is informed. His loyalty to Tony supercedes his love for her. He beats and almost kills her, then an informed Tony orchestrates her death. Adriana is lied to and told Christopher is in the hospital as Silvio Dante will drive her there, but that realization moment when she knows she is a “dunner.” Chilling. Silvio drags her from the car and shoots her. This showed how disposable women were, in general, to all of these guys, no matter their status. It was like she never existed after that.

Jennifer Love Hewitt, "Law & Order: SVU"

Jennifer Love Hewitt, “Law & Order: SVU”


Sonia Saraiya (@soniasaraiya), Variety

Will there even be responses that aren’t from “Twin Peaks”? I am not going to argue with how terrifying David Lynch makes the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, or how deeply disturbing the Season 2 finale is, both in the Black Lodge scenes and when Cooper laughs almost soundlessly and asks “How’s Annie?” over and over again. But I’ll let others talk about those, and better. I’m here to say that “Law & Order: SVU” is sometimes, if not often, absolutely nightmare-fueling stuff. The trick to “SVU” is how the repetitive nature of its episodes soothes you — there’s this sense of resolution structurally, even if it’s not always earned. As a result the show manages to get away with episodes like “Confrontation,” where Michael Kelly plays a serial rapist who is systematically trying to impregnate his victims, or “Fault,” where a sadistic killer nearly pushes Benson and Stabler to the breaking point, or “911,” where a trapped and abused child stays on the phone with Benson long enough for them to be able to find her. (Mariska Hargitay won an Emmy for that last one.)

But by far, none are as frightening to me as “Behave,” starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a shellshocked, serial rape victim who has been terrorized by the same man for 15 years and can’t get the criminal justice system to believe her story or punish him. Love Hewitt is at her histrionic best in the role, and both she and Hargitay use the episode as a platform to talk about the backlog of evidentiary rape kits around the country. But what really sticks out is how imprisoned Love Hewitt’s character is by this constant abuse. Even though she does everything she can, her efforts don’t work for 15 years — and meanwhile her sadistic rapist keeps tracking her down and victimizing her, like she’s prey. It’s a nightmarish scenario and an absolutely terrifying episode.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

There is really only one answer: BOB climbing over the couch towards the camera / us on “Twin Peaks” will haunt me for the rest of my life. Pretty much any BOB moment is going to rank pretty high, and most of the “Twin Peaks” Season 2 finale could qualify. But to have BOB — the very manifestation of “the evil that men do” — appear to see me and come towards me to enact the horror I had watched him perpetuate onscreen is enough to make me stop typing right now and go and curl up with a pillow and begin rebuking that scene in the name of Jesus.

"American Horror Story: Murder House"

“American Horror Story: Murder House”


Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

For a long time, the scenes which have scared and upset me the most in TV and film are moments in which women are hurt or assaulted. Beyond the fact that too often these scenes are gratuitous and emblematic of television’s habit of carelessly overlooking how women are depicted, as a father of three girls and a man who respects the women in his life, this stuff is often just very difficult for me to watch. That said, the scene which lands at the top of this list for me wasn’t necessarily gratuitous, but it was creepy, chilling and excruciating to sit through. It was the scene from the first season of “American Horror Story,” now known as Murder House, where Connie Britton’s character Vivien has sex with a man in a latex bondage suit who she assumes is her psychiatrist husband, Ben. But the audience knows it isn’t Ben; later we learn it is one of his patients, a sociopath who also turns out to be a ghost. Truth be told, there wasn’t much that scared me about “AHS” beyond this storyline, as the audience was left guessing who the man was, when Vivien would find out and how she would react upon learning she was pregnant with twins, only one of which was fathered by her husband. Just, ewww.

Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet), IndieWire

Look, “The X-Files” featured a lot of horrifying moments that deserve mention on this list — the episode “Home” rightfully deserves mention as a truly horrific hour of television — but as a young lass, the episode that left me unable to sleep at night was “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” the Season 2 installment in which Mulder and Scully investigate the appearance of the occult at an otherwise normal-seeming high school. Things start out spooky and get downright horrifying once substitute teacher Mrs. Paddock and her pet boa constrictor get involved; the supernatural horror blends into more prosaic horror as Mrs. Paddock finds both mundane and extraordinary ways of killing those around her. The dissection scene, the basement scene, the shower room, and don’t forget “It’s been nice working with you.” Chills.

Stephen King's "It" miniseries

Stephen King’s “It” miniseries

Lorimar Productions/Warner Bros. TV

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

It was the night of November 8, 2016… and CNN had the spooookiest show on that featured a radioactive-orange monster — OK for real though, in recent memory I’d hand the honor to “Black Mirror’s” “Playtest,” which combined creepy haunted-house moments with bona fide psychological terror as Cooper whimpered not knowing what was real and what wasn’t after we all thought the gaming company fried his brain. But for all-time scares, the honor goes to a miniseries which had me hiding under covers for years and avoiding curbside grates to this day: Stephen King’s “It.” That scene when Georgie follows his paper sailboat down the side of the street and then meets Pennywise the clown, who is just chilling in a gutter, still gets me to this day. Clowns with fangs!? What the heck, Stephen King? WHAT THE GOSH DARNED HECK?!?!?!?

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), TVGuide.com

My immediate answer is “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” Nothing scared me more when I was kid. Getting to stay up until the wee hours of 10 p.m. to watch the show made it even more eerie! I had nightmares and avoided my own dollhouse for days after “The Tale of the Dollmaker,” in which a girl was turned into a doll and trapped inside a dollhouse. I can still picture her creepy porcelain doll face in my head.

The only thing that’s come close to replicating that level of fear was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” “Hush.” The Gentlemen are scary AF, but the most unsettling thing about it is the silence, the inability of their victims to scream — that bloodcurdling call we use to convey our agony and despair just gone. It’s chilling and unnerving without saying a word at all.

"Living Doll" episode, "The Twilight Zone"

“Living Doll” episode, “The Twilight Zone”


Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Something like Pennywise in the sewer drain in “It,” I attribute to Stephen King and not necessarily to Tim Curry and the TV movie, so I can’t include it. Unfortunately, unless I want to be a hypocrite, that means I can’t pick the vampire kid at the window from the original “Salem’s Lot” and that’s close to the scariest thing I can imagine, TV-wise. I bet there’s a good answer from Lars Von Trier’s “Kingdom,” but I’m blanking on the perfect specific answer, but I want to at least mention it so that somebody does. If I’m being completely honest on the most freaky, messed up thing I’ve ever seen on TV, it honestly might be when the worm crawled into Jenny’s ear on “Survivor: Kaoh Rong” and then she spent the next day slowly going crazy on the beach and then… STOP. Gotta stop thinking about it! OK. Seriously, though, the 10 scariest moments of TV ever are probably ALL from “The Twilight Zone” and so for purposes of this answer, today, my answer is going to be, “My name is Talky Tina… And I’m going to kill you.” Final answer: “The Twilight Zone” and “Living Doll.”

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Nothing has rattled me quite like the presence of a horrifying masked rapist lunging out of the woods in the incredibly strange, incredibly horrifying, incredibly unsettling to watch in 2017 “Sylvia” two-parter from “Little House on the Prairie.” Yes, “Little House on the Prairie” had not just one episode featuring a young woman who was being stalked by a masked rapist but an entire two-parter. Yeah, I guess watching this as an adult, it’s far more clear that the episode is cheesy, trashy stuff — like all involved in making “Little House” got bored and decided that, hey, they would make an exploitation film for a week. But seeing these episodes pop up in syndication as a wee one, and having to have my mom explain to me what was happening, that was a scarring experience. (Even stranger: There are multiple episodes of “Little House” that are inappropriately scary, including an extended Halloween episode filled with ghosts and other goblins.) Combined with the pirate ghosts of the Garfield Halloween special, “Sylvia” gave me an aversion to horror that lasted until roughly high school, when I started overdosing on “The X-Files.” Sure, shows have scared me as an adolescent and adult — but none have made me swear off an entire genre.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “The Leftovers” (four votes)

Other contenders: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (three votes), “Better Call Saul” (two votes), “Twin Peaks” and “The White Princess” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.

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"Little House on the Prairie"

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