For those would-be audience members who are just too shaken by the notion of seeing a scary movie in theaters — subjected to a stream of unsettling images and a cacophony of disturbing sounds, with fingers clasped over their eyes or a sprint to the exit as the only reprieves — television can help you familiarize yourself with the horror genre while maintaining a sense of distance and control. Who is to say we don’t become fully engrossed in gross-outs, jump-scares, hackings and slashings, and the like when given the option to tweak the brightness, adjust the volume, and press pause when the experience becomes too much?
Here, toward the end of Halloween season, IndieWire offers a guide for the shows that could ease anyone into becoming a horror buff, with designations of spooky, scary, and downright terrifying indicating which shows may briefly give you chills all the way to the series that often feel like waking nightmares. Have a look below, if you dare.
“Black Mirror” (Streaming on Netflix)
Strictly speaking, Charlie Brooker’s unsettling exploration of our brave new world where technology reigns is a work of science fiction. (Editor’s note: We pointed out as much in a recent guide to scary episodes of non-horror TV shows highlighting Season 3’s “Playtest.”) There really aren’t many horror tropes built in, there’s barely any murder, but the very first episode is a perfect litmus test for how much discomfort a viewer can handle. As an anthology series, there are certain episodes that are funny, kitschy, and even romantic, but then you run into an episode like “White Bear” that breaks one’s brain, makes them question reality, and go to bed with a bit of a queasy feeling in their stomach.
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Streaming on Hulu)
©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection
The iconic Sarah Michelle Gellar vehicle certainly has little pops of horror throughout its seven seasons, but if one can handle how the vampires look, with their fangs and their super-pinched T-zones, then there will be very few episodes that will be hard to get through. In fact, the supernatural teen drama is a series where many former antagonists, like punk vampire Spike (James Marsters) or vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield Ford), become fan-favorite characters as the show goes on.
“True Detective” (Streaming on HBO Max)
Season 1 of creator Nic Pizzolatto’s crime drama is the definition of bad vibes. A tale told through the years, there are scenes where stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson act discomfortingly skeezy, and the murders tap into the darkest parts of the Southern gothic genre. The uneven-at-best Season 2 causes a stir for different reasons, but Season 3, starring Mahershala Ali post-Oscar win, offers that same brand of unease. The anthology series may not be scary enough to give viewers any bad dreams, but it will definitely have them call the kids back inside, and maybe lock their doors at night.
“Evil” (Streaming on Paramount+)
There is no way of getting around it, a procedural about a psychologist, a priest-in-training, and a contractor going off to investigate supernatural events, including demonic possessions, is going to have its thrills and chills. The Michelle and Robert King-created series does not try to pull too many punches in the horror department. But leads Katja Herbers, Mike Colter, and Aasif Mandvi have great chemistry together, which gives the series a welcome sense of levity. Also, for anyone who enjoys the ripped-from-the-headline episodes of “Law and Order,” just wait until you see how creative this show gets with that kind of wink-and-nod plot.
“Stranger Things” (Streaming on Netflix)
Courtesy of Netflix
Given the age of the cast, it is easy to assume the flagpole Netflix series is a show for kids, but boy do things start getting bloody even in Season 1. That said, the Duffer Brothers creation, executive produced by Shawn Levy (“Free Guy”), is meant to evoke the feeling of being a child of the ’80s, where eerie films like “Gremlins” and “Poltergeist” became cultural phenomena. Each season brings more monsters and mayhem with it, making it an intermediate gateway into horror, but characters like Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink) are just too lovable to turn away from.
“The Walking Dead” (Streaming on AMC+)
While “Stranger Things” is a show that gets scarier and scarier, this AMC series continues to crank out spin-offs at a rate that’s desensitized some viewers to its gory zombie violence. The so-called end conflict that never seems to end? Humans are the real monsters. And even if one gets sick of that point being hammered in over and over again, the 11 season show can be worth watching — if only to see the impressive amount of world-building it accomplishes.
“American Horror Story” (Streaming on Hulu)
Serious horror fans may take issue with this “terrifying” classification, given the whacky places the landmark Ryan Murphy series has gone in ints later seasons. But those frightening first two tales — “Murder House” and “Asylum” — changed horror TV forever. Being an anthology, the series offers many different flavors of the horror genre, and tears through them at such a speed it’s tough to name many horror concepts it hasn’t attempted at least once. Almost every season brings one memorable moment (or more!) that will haunt viewers for the rest of their TV-watching days, but if someone can make it through all 11 seasons of the FX series, they should be able to sit through most scary movies.
“Penny Dreadful” (Streaming on Showtime)
Though the Showtime series and its 2020 reboot “City of Angels” are no more, audiences are still haunted by the frights “Penny Dreadful” contained. Season 1 alone depicts just about every one of the standard monsters, with its version of the Frankenstein story being particularly gruesome. Star Eva Green is a sight to behold though, especially if you are the type of person that watched “Hereditary” just to see what all the fuss around Toni Colette’s performance was about. Both characters the actresses play have their demons to exorcize, and “Penny Dreadful makes that a special kind of serialized hell.
“The X Files” (Streaming on Hulu)
Yes, it’s another supernatural procedural that could seem a bit pedestrian, but when this Chris Carter creation wanted to, it could generate abject horror scary enough to burn in your brain. Make it past the fancam-generating will-they-won’t they tension between F.B.I. agents Mulder and Scully — played expertly by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson — and one will find themselves subjected to an episode like “Home,” the Season 4 episode that sits atop almost every Most Disturbing TV Episodes of All Time list. In theory, “The X-Files” is for everyone, but in practice, the legendary series is not for the faint of heart. Watch and see one’s horror sensibilities sharpened by an evolving experience that always keeps you guessing.