Modern television audiences have embraced horror in a way that was unheard of decades ago, with series’ from Dexter to American Horror Story to The Vampire Diaries populating our screens. Their long-form stories catch our attention and pull us in because we want to see how it all ends. Sometimes, though, horror fans don’t want to invest six seasons’ worth of time to a series; they just want a solid hour of well-made horror.
Here is a list of single episodes of television that can be watched free of the rest of the series, and just enjoyed as an hour of horror. Minor character information aside, each of them plays like a mini-movie with unique and compelling concepts that make the time worth investing.
The list runs from most well-known to most obscure…
SERIES- The Walking Dead
Episode- “Clear” (Season 3, Episode 12)
Many things have been said about the series, both positive and negative, but most viewers agree that there are a handful of episodes that are undeniably effective. “The Grove” and “Here’s Not Here” are often cited, along with this episode. Though the back story between Rick and Morgan is from a previous episode, the interactions and the tragedy of Morgan’s plight are obvious no matter how little the viewer knows about the characters. The balancing act between hope and despair, a longtime theme of the series, is brilliantly on display in “Clear.”
Episode- “Amuse-Bouche” (Season 1, Episode 2)
After the stunning hour that was the pilot, Hannibal didn’t rest on its accomplishments. The first episode of the series to embrace the “case of the week” element that weaved through season one, “Amuse-Bouche” is a procedural episode so dark and grotesque that Law & Order: SVU wouldn’t touch it. It also has beautiful cinematography, fantastic performances, and a score that will put your teeth on edge.
SERIES- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episode- “Hush” (Season 4, Episode 2)
A lot has been said about this series and this episode in particular. An episode that is almost entirely without spoken dialogue, this one would be noteworthy for its gimmick alone. However, the gimmick is just part of the appeal; the terrifying villains, The Gentlemen, are truly iconic monsters. Silent, floating cadavers dressed in fancy suits with straight-jacketed minions attack Buffy and friends, looking to collect human hearts. The slow, deliberate movements of The Gentlemen (one of whom is played by horror mainstay Doug Jones) are wholly unnerving.
SERIES- The X-Files
Episodes- “Home” (Season 4, Episode 2) & “Daemonicus” (Season 9, Episode 3)
“Home” is a notorious hour of television, one that fought a hard battle to reach television screens and which was never rebroadcast on Fox. The graphic discussion of incest, the disturbing make-up, and the especially upsetting home invasion sequence all combined to make “Home” not only one of the scariest episodes of The X-Files, but one of the most notorious episodes of television ever.
Since that episode of The X-Files is so well-known that horror fans might already know about it, there is another episode that might surprise and shock, from much later in the series. Another story with a disturbing home invasion sequence, “Daemonicus” is an episode from the Doggett/Reyes era, written and directed by Frank Spotnitz. The guest appearance by James Remar is creepy and sticks with you.
SERIES- Masters of Horror
Episodes- “Imprint” (Season 1, Episode 13) & “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns” (Season One, Episode 8)
It takes an extreme piece of horror for producer Mick Garris and the Showtime network to decide that an episode of a series is too graphic and disturbing for American pay cable. Takashi Miike is the man to make that extreme piece of horror. “Imprint” was intended to be the thirteenth episode of the first season, but Miike’s episode was so extreme that it was pulled from the airing order, and only appeared in the complete season DVD release.
Another episode of Masters of Horror which was less controversial but equally compelling, “John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns” is a return to filmmaking for the director after a four-year break from features. “Cigarette Burns” was a supernatural spin on the plot of 8MM with disturbing visuals and excellent performances from Udo Kier and a pre-The Walking Dead Norman Reedus – Carpenter enjoyed the experience so much that he returned for another episode in season two.
Episode- “Covenant: (Season 1, Episode 16)
Hot off the success of The X-Files, Chris Carter created one of the darkest and most emotionally devastating crime series’ of all time with Millennium. Following an intuitively skilled criminal profiler played by Lance Henriksen, the series looked into the dark heart of humanity and dealt with the aftermath of violence. Nearly any episode from the first season makes for an excellent standalone experience, but the heartbreaking revelations in “Covenant” are a perfect example of the unflinching look at tragedy that the show did best.
SERIES- The River
Episode- “Los Ciegos” (Season 1, Episode 3)
A fascinating experiment in found footage horror television from the creator of Paranormal Activity, The River ran for eight episodes on ABC but never received a further episode order. Many of the episodes were tightly locked into the narrative about a son’s search through the mystical Amazon for his jungle reality star father, but the third episode, “Los Ciegos” (from The X-Files writer Glen Morgan), is fairly self-contained and packs some effective moments into its run time.
SERIES- Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King
Episode- “Battleground” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Before he was known for his TV work on Damages and Goliath, William Hurt was a movie star who did this single, brilliantly weird episode of the Stephen King anthology series Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It was inspired by The Outer Limits episode “The Invaders” and directed by Brian Henson, Muppets producer and son of Jim Henson. There is not a single line of dialogue in the entire episode, and the action of the story is somehow both intense and absurd. While every episode of the series is a standalone story from King, “Battleground” is by far the most memorable.
SERIES- Fear Itself
Episodes- “Eater” (Season 1, Episode 5) & “Skin and Bones” (Season 1, Episode 8)
After creating Masters of Horror, producer Mick Garris brought a similar concept to network television with Fear Itself, an anthology series directed by some of horror’s most famous directors. The first episode listed here is “Eater,” from director Stuart Gordon. It follows a young police officer, played by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, as the sole survivor of a police station slaughter by a supernatural slasher. The cannibalistic elements of the episode were shocking for network television at the time.
More shocking than “Eater” is “Skin and Bones,” an episode about the Wendigo myth directed by Larry Fessenden. Starring the previously mentioned Doug Jones as an emaciated wilderness survivor whose actions to remain alive have changed him in unusual ways, the episode is a taut chamber piece with moments of cannibalism even more disturbing than “Eater” because of their emotional immediacy and frankness. A tour de force performance from Jones makes this episode a no-brainer.
SERIES- The Greatest American Hero
Episode- “The Beast in the Black” (Season 2, Episode 6)
It may seem strange to have a comedic super-hero show from the early 1980s on this list, but there was a single episode of The Greatest American Hero that scarred many unprepared young viewers: “The Beast in the Black.” When the main hero’s friend is possessed by the spirit of an evil woman, the hero must face a monster from another dimension hidden in a portal inside a brick wall in a creepy old house. Though the episode is dated, the impact of the scares still works now, and the full episode can be seen up above.