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10 scariest moments on TV

Benjie Goodhart / 27 October 2021

We take a look back at some of the spookiest moments in TV history, including TV series and specials.

Spooky TV

Halloween is almost upon us. The annual fright-fest sends a shiver down my spine, albeit only because it means my children will eat impossible amounts of unhealthy snacks and dash about on an insane sugar rush before being sick and having to be put to bed weeping.

In honour of this spooky date, we give you the lowdown on the ten creepiest TV shows of all time.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

This 1968 Jonathan Miller production was adapted from a 1904 MR James story. James was arguably the finest writer of ghost stories this country has ever produced, and his tales have been adapted for TV countless times – indeed, Mark Gatiss has written one for BBC Two this Christmas (The Mezzotint). This was the first British adaptation (in 1968), and arguably the best.

Michael Horden plays Professor Parkin, a stuffy academic holidaying in an East Coast hotel. Out walking one day, he comes across an overgrown graveyard, where he finds an old bone whistle lying on the ground. Examining it later in his hotel room, he sees the inscription “Qui est iste qui venit?” (Who is this who is coming?). He blows the whistle, and a terrifying series of events begins to unfold. The moment he realises that both of the beds in his hotel room have been slept in, despite him being alone, is a truly chilling one.

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Hammer House of Horror

Only one series of this terrifying horror anthology was ever made, back in 1980, but it was a belter. The thirteen episodes, shown on ITV on a Saturday night (although very firmly not in our household, where I was an impressionable eight-year-old) varied in quality, but the best one was The Silent Scream.

Brian Cox played Chuck, a burglar who, on release from prison, went to work for kindly old pet shop owner Martin, played by Peter Cushing. Of course, Peter Cushing being Peter Cushing, he was never likely to remain kindly, and so it proved. It turned out that Martin was a former concentration camp officer who conducted experiments on animals and, where possible, humans. Unsurprisingly, Chuck and his wife were next on his list, and the denouement is horrible.

Lonely Water

This public information film from the 1970s has achieved legendary status, despite being only 90 seconds long. Probably because it traumatised a generation of kids. It was meant to warn youngsters about the dangers of swimming in lakes and quarries and ponds. It certainly achieved its aim. Donald Pleasance voices The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, a grim-reaper-style figure hidden in a monk’s cowl, just itching for a chance to suck hapless children to a watery grave.

Another Public Information film, Apaches, warned of the risks of playing on farms. It followed six children as they went to play at being Apache warriors on a farm. Of the six, five died, each in separate accidents, which is bad luck in anyone’s book. The closing credits contained a long list of children who had died in accidents on farms the previous year.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents

The original incarnation of this spine-tingling anthology show ran from 1955 to 1965, consisting of 361 episodes, and boasting stars including Robert Redford, Bette Davis and Walter Matthau. One of the most famous was Man from the South (written by Roald Dahl), which featured Steve McQueen taking on Peter Lorre in a bet that he can start his cigarette lighter ten times in a row. If he is successful, he wins a car. If not, he loses a finger.

For me, though, the most chilling episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was Final Escape, wherein a prisoner makes an arrangement with the elderly prison mortician that he will slip into a coffin, along with a dead body, and be carried out of the prison and buried. The mortician will then come and dig him up, and he will be free. Only, once he’s buried, the prisoner sees the face of the corpse he’s sharing the coffin with. And it’s… yep, you guessed it…

Tales of the Unexpected

Roald Dahl’s superb TV series, originally based on his short stories, but subsequently opened up to other writers, featured much of his trademark macabre humour and sinister plot twists. Among the most famous was Lamb to the Slaughter, wherein Susan George plays a mild housewife, Mary, who eventually snaps and bludgeons her unpleasant, bullying husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb. When the police come to investigate (led by Brian Blessed) she cooks and serves them the lamb, as they discuss how the key to cracking the case is finding the murder weapon. “It’s probably right under our very noses,” ventures one of them. In the corner, Mary quietly giggles.

Tales of the Unexpected attracted the great and the good of the acting world, with appearances from John Gielgud, John Mills, Joan Collins, Michael Gambon and Derek Jacobi. Other notably scary episodes included The Landlady, about a nice old woman who rented out rooms to young men, only to poison and stuff them, and The Flypaper, a story about a girl encountering a creepy old man on a bus, with a terrifying twist at the end.

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The Twilight Zone

The original (and best) incarnation of The Twilight Zone was a ground-breaking anthology series created by Rod Serling, which ran from 1959-64. The prolific Serling wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, and hosted and narrated all of them. One of the most celebrated, and sinister, episodes was To Serve Man, about an alien race, the 9ft tall Kanamits, who arrive on Earth to share their technology for humanitarian purposes. They put an end to famine and war, and share with humanity a coded book, entitled To Serve Man. They offer humans the chance to visit their own paradisical planet, and the man in charge of deciphering the book is awaiting his turn to go. As he boards the spacecraft, one of his fellow codebreakers frantically shouts up to him, having broken the code. She screams the immortal line: “It’s… it’s a cookbook,” just as the spacecraft door closes. ‘To Serve Man’. Geddit?

Doctor Who

No matter what vintage you are, the chances are you spent at least some of your childhood watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa, or through your fingers. One of the thrills of the show was that it introduced kids to a genuine element of fear. But times change, and while the Daleks were enough to induce nightmares in youngsters 50 years ago, they are seen by the current generation as rather comical tin cans who can’t climb stairs.

The scariest of all the Doctor Who antagonists arrived in 2007, in an episode called Blink. The Weeping Angels were a race of aliens who turn to stone statues whenever any living creature looked at them. Believe me, it’s considerably more frightening than it sounds. Guest starring Carey Mulligan, the climax of the episode was named by SFX magazine as the scariest moment in Doctor Who’s long history, described as “a terrifying combination of scary concept and perfect direction.”

American Horror Story

Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story has run for ten series, with each season a self-contained story with its own unique characters and settings. All of them are deeply sinister, with moments of almost unbearable terror, but series two, Asylum, is widely regarded as the best. Set in Briarcliff Manor, a New England Hospital for the criminally insane, it follows the story of Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a journalist who ends up unjustly committed to the institution that she is investigating. Jessica Lange plays the twisted head nun running the place, while the somewhat unconventional staff roster includes a serial killing psychiatrist and a doctor who is a former Nazi war criminal.

The whole thing sounds preposterous, but it is actually a remarkable piece of work, and even manages to tackle issues including racism, homophobia, mental illness and religious doctrine.

Ghostwatch

That this extraordinary show was ever transmitted on the BBC is remarkable. A scripted, pre-recorded drama, it was nevertheless made to look like a live documentary, broadcast on Halloween night in 1992. The concept saw Michael Parkinson and Mike Smith in the TV studio, while reporters Sarah Greene and Craig Charles were on location investigating Britain’s most haunted house, in Northolt, North London.

The house was supposedly the domain of Pipes, a poltergeist who disturbed the owners by continually banging on the water pipes. After a jovial beginning, events began to take increasingly sinister turns, with Charles injured by a falling mirror, and one of the house’s residents, a young girl, disappearing. The whole thing culminated in Greene being snatched by the ghost, and the show’s paranormal expert declaring that the spirit was using the power of the broadcast to invade homes across the country. The studio was plunged into chaos, the lights blew, and the crew fled, with Michael Parkinson ending the broadcast seemingly possessed by the voice of Pipes, reciting “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum.” The BBC received tens of thousands of anguished calls, including one from Parkinson’s mother. The show was never repeated.

Inside No. 9

Unlike the other shows on this list, Inside No. 9 is a comedy – albeit a very dark and brilliantly sinister one. The brainchild of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, the half-hour anthology series reached its undoubted peak with a phenomenal live Halloween Special in 2018. Purportedly the story of a man called Arthur Flitwick, who had found a lost phone, the broadcast had just started when technical difficulties interrupted the sound, and the BBC continuity announcer apologised, and introduced an old episode of the series.

While some viewers switched off, those that stayed on were treated to a virtuoso horror story. The old transmission was interrupted, as cameras returned to the live feed from the TV studio, with Pemberton and Shearsmith playing themselves in their dressing room, squabbling and tweeting their frustration to followers in real time. Gradually, events in the studio became more sinister, as it emerged that the place was haunted by a disgruntled former employee who had killed himself. Strange clips from disasters on past shows were broadcast. Co-star Stephanie Cole unwisely picked up a haunted phone, with grisly consequences. The whole thing built to a nightmarish denouement. It was, quite simply, brilliant, agonisingly scary television.

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