The best horror movies (opens in new tab) are always over too fast. 90 minutes of short, sharp, shocks and you’re done and onto the next one. If you’re sick of constantly being on the hunt for your next short fix, there is another solution. Horror TV might seem thin on the ground but there are hours of terror out there just waiting to force you to keep the light on tonight. From episodic slashers to creepy anthologies of teeth monsters, here are our best horror TV shows to fuel your darkest nightmares. Sleep well.
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20. The Exorcist
The show: It takes serious cojones to take an actual horror classic and try and build a modern TV show around it, but this Fox series gets an A+ for effort and giving Geena Davis a role she can really chew to bits. It's part family drama, featuring teenage sisters, a worried mother and a father recovering from a debilitating trauma, part all-out Catholic circus complete with warring priests and the pope.
Why we love it: It delivers plenty of twists - and we're not just talking about the necks of the possessed - and isn't scared to go all out with the gore and special effects. Davis is brilliant and Ben Daniels plays a tormented demon-hunting priest like he's going for an Emmy. Like it or not, the devil gets all the best shows..
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The show: This Channel 4 conspiracy drama was somehow made even better by the fact it received hundreds of complaints for its violent content when it aired back in 2013-2014. The plot centres around a group of people in possession of a manuscript sequel of a cult graphic novel called The Utopia Experiments which hides a multitude of secrets.
Why we love it: What makes the show so terrifying is the horribly realistic scenarios, including a particularly awful primary school shooting scene in season 2. Torture expert Lee is a chilling part of season 1, and the way Wilson develops from cyber geek to ruthless, eye-patch wearing killer is a brilliant turn of events in the latter season. Err, Channel 4, maybe time for Utopia season 3? Otherwise let’s all wave at Netflix.
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The show: Now, incredibly, in its thirteenth season, Supernatural is about two brothers keeping up the family business of hunting down demons across America. Despite the fact it’s now impossible to count how many times the siblings have taken a trip to hell or lost their souls at a crossroads, Sam and Dean Winchester’s adventures have taken monster of the week to a whole new impressive level.
Why we love it: Because Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles as Sam and Dean are still far too much fun to watch. A bit like watching a scary movie with a comfort blanket, the brothers’ blend of horror and comedy is still Goldilocks levels of just right. The even more impressive thing is that while there are ridiculous jump the shark moments (like the episode where the pair ended up in the real world), there’s still genuinely frightening monsters and heartfelt drama amidst the laughter.
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17. Black Mirror
The show: An anthology of dystopian short stories that cover everything from social media to politics to love, all with the vantablack wit of Charlie Brooker running through their veins. Guest directors like 10 Cloverfield Lane's (opens in new tab) Dan Trachtenberg and The Road's John Hillcoat help bring their own visions to the stories, making sure no two ever feel the same.
Why we love it: We've never needed Black Mirror more. "That's so Black Mirror" has become a catchphrase for every slightly sinister tech announcement, and is a reminder that, say, being able to make a unicorn pull funny faces on your iPhone might just have a downside in five years time. Some episodes are funny, some are horrific, and some, like San Junipero, are the most touching and beautifully written pieces of science fiction ever written.
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The show: If you’re looking for real horror stories, look no further than Amazon Prime’s Lore. Based on the podcast of the same name from Aaron Mahnke, this creepy anthology series re-enacts a selection of strange but true stories from history. From Robert the possessed doll to the fact that someone once thought icepick lobotomies were a good idea for treating mental illness, the horror selection on offer is the kind that’s all the more scary for being horribly true.
Why we love it: While some of the reenactments are a little on the daytime TV cheap side when it comes to acting, not a moment of each episode is wasted when it comes to the nasty facts of history and you’ll genuinely feel educated by the end, even if you’d rather not be. Stylish animations and creepy topic selections means that season 2 can’t come soon enough. Until then, you could always listen to the podcast.
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15. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The show: Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons and forces of darkness… And so began seven seasons of gloriously funny, smart, touching and genuinely scary television that proves that it is possible to go to high school, make friends, date vampire, and be the slayer all at once.
Why we love it: Because it’s the ultimate balance of humour, horror, and how much it hurts to be a teenager. Sarah Michelle Gellar and co combined with Joss Whedon’s razor sharp script redefined teen television and made dating a vampire seem cool. If you’re looking for serious scares, look no further than season 4’s Hush where the grinning suited Gentlemen steal the voice of every Sunnydale resident so they can steal hearts without anyone hearing the screams. Yes. Dark.
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The show: Based on Wes Craven’s teen slash ‘em up, MTV’s two seasons of Scream manage to deliver what the later films just couldn’t; a set of likeable characters you really don’t want to see diced up by a masked murderer, and a truly twisted guessing game. Even a bonus two hour Halloween special, while truly Scooby Doo in nature, is more entertaining than Screams 3 and 4 combined.
Why we love it: A great set of characters, smart script and an impressive soundtrack combine to make a gory, jumpy slasher that stretches over two full seasons without feeling tired. Sure there’s plenty of texting and podcasts to make sure we know we’re in the 21st century, but there’s just enough brutal slaying and hilarious gory surprises to keep you on your toes. Thankfully leading final girl Emma Duvall isn’t going to have to be stalked for another season as we’re getting a new set of fresh teen meat next year.
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13. The Returned (Les Revenants)
The show: You just know the combination of crime, mystery and a dark Alpine village are a recipe for chills, and French series, The Returned is no exception. The simple plot of dead people coming back to life as if nothing has happened is as clever as it is simple, proving that sometimes the best horror TV shows are understated.
Why we love it: When teenage bus crash victim Camille walks back into her family home, now four years younger than her twin sister, it’s impossible not to get goosebumps. There’s also the little fact of serial killer Serge coming back from the dead. This series has been compared to Twin Peaks and it’s easy to see why they’ve both harnessed the power of tension and used it to create something gripping. Just remember to watch the original, not the (far inferior) American remake.
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The show: The first season of JJ Abrams Fringe was like a breath of scary fresh air in TV-land. The criminally underrated show follows Olivia Dunham in her role as an agent of the Fringe Division, which uses the minds of Dr Walter Bishop and his son Peter to solve mysterious, science-based crimes. Cue crazy experiments, twisted serial killers and even more messed-up death sequences.
Why we love it: A lethal toxin that causes people’s noses and mouths to seal over with skin is tame compared to most of Fringe's best horror moments. My highlight has to be the Marionette episode, where a psycho killer rigs up a deceased girl to a pulley system and moves her body like a puppet. Yep, it’s just as awful as it sounds. The show sadly ended in 2013 but there are plenty of places to catch up on the twisted action.
Read more: Top 20 Fringe episodes (opens in new tab)
11. The X-Files
The show: It was the relationship between Mulder and Scully that kept fans coming back for nine seasons and two spin-off movies back in the ‘90s, but there are plenty of great horror moments in this cult show about unexplained phenomenon. While the recent return of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny to their iconic roles last year was met with varied reviews, there’s no denying that the horror of the original few seasons still haunts a whole generation.
Why we love it: Before it got a little too obsessed with the conspiracy theories of the Lone Gunmen and the Cigarette Smoking Man, The X-Files managed to fuel some serious nightmares with characters such as Eugene Tooms, a man who could compress himself into tiny spaces to murder people, eat their liver, and make a lair out of their bile, or swarms of light resistant insects that would devour you alive in the dark. The cannibalistic episode Our Town isn’t for the faint of heart either.
Read more: The 10 creepiest X-Files episodes so far (opens in new tab)