Bobby didn’t want to come back, Mommy. – Dead of Night
Tomorrow is May Day, halfway around the year from Samhain; today is therefore May Eve, a springtime counterpart of Halloween. As I explained in last year’s column for the occasion, “the night was…believed to be one on which spirits walked abroad, and…bonfires were [used] to keep them at bay…though it’s become less common in the past few decades, 19th and early 20th century horror stories often depicted dark doings taking place on April 30th.” Last year I shared my picks for the ten scariest short stories of all time, and back in October of 2011 I shared my list of scariest horror movies; today I’m going to sort of combine the two and give you a list of video equivalents of short stories, in other words my picks for some of the scariest TV episodes I’ve ever seen.
Notice I didn’t say “of all time”; when I decided to do the list, I immediately realized that any list I could create would be like an antimatter version of the ridiculous lists created by twenty-something-year-old entertainment journalists, in which “of all time” actually means “since 1984”. Since I stopped watching commercial television in 1980, broadcast television in the mid-‘90s and virtually all new television in 2003, my experience is as skewed as that of those young critics for whom the word “cheesy” usually means “anything in black and white or without digital effects.” But just as I was about to give up on the idea, I realized it didn’t matter; many of my younger readers may not know of most of these selections, and I suspect even my older readers may be unfamiliar with some of them. So without further ado, I present my top nine (and a few honorable mentions), listed in chronological order by original air date.
1) One Step Beyond, “Vanishing Point” (February 23rd, 1960)
Unlike its contemporary The Twilight Zone, this show featured dramatizations of reports of psychic phenomena and other weird happenings; sometimes the real people who claimed to have experienced them actually appeared on camera in an epilogue. Regardless of one’s opinion of the veracity of these accounts, they made captivating television and, thanks in large part to the directorial talents of John Newland and haunting music by Harry Lubin, many are as creepy as anything ever to appear on the small screen. In this one, a man is tried for the murder of his wife after she vanishes without a trace…and after he is acquitted for lack of evidence, his research discovers that she wasn’t the first mysterious disappearance in the house’s history. HM: “The Forests of the Night”
2) Thriller, “The Grim Reaper” (June 13th, 1961)
This effective tale of a haunted painting stars William Shatner; those who only know him as an action star or an elderly self-parodist may not realize that before Star Trek, he often played psychologically-disturbed young men tormented by internal (or external) demons. His most famous role of this type was of course in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, but other examples include “Nick of Time” (The Twilight Zone), “Cold Hands, Warm Heart” (The Outer Limits) and “The Hungry Glass” (earlier in this season of Thriller). Considering that the latter two stories are honorable mentions in this list and the Star Trek episode “Wolf in the Fold” (like “The Grim Reaper”, written by Robert Bloch) has a few horrific moments as well, that actually makes Shatner – an actor not generally associated with horror – the name appearing most often in this column.
3) The Twilight Zone, “It’s a Good Life” (November 3rd, 1961)
Though this series scored a very high number of brain-searing episodes, this tale of an amoral six-year-old with godlike powers edges out all the others in my estimation. Its power to haunt is attested by the fact that there have been at least two attempts at sequels or remakes designed to paste a happy ending onto the horror, as if to exorcise it from the re-makers’ minds. Honorable mention: “And When the Sky Was Opened”, based on a Richard Matheson story of the wholly inexplicable and utterly horrifying fate of three astronauts.
4) The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “Final Escape” (February 21st, 1964)
This series was known more for suspense than horror, but sometimes it’s a hard line to draw; the very first episode, “Revenge”, is so shocking it still had impact when remade for the revival series thirty years later. In my opinion the later, hour-long episodes are not generally as good as the earlier half-hour ones, but this episode about a convict’s attempt to escape from prison is as harrowing as anything which has ever aired.
5) The Outer Limits, “Wolf 359” (November 7th, 1964)
This series is remembered especially for its monsters, all of which were created with the minimal special effects available on a television budget of the time. The creature in this one is literally a hand puppet, but in the context of the story (about a tiny artificial planet haunted by a malevolent spirit-like entity), framed with skillful directing and a creepy Harry Lubin score, you probably won’t care unless you’ve sacrificed your capacity for imagination on the altar of CGI.
6) Night Gallery, “The Cemetery” (November 8th, 1969)
Rod Serling did not produce this series (he was only its host and an occasional writer), and it showed; its quality was far below that of The Twilight Zone, and a few episodes are almost unbelievably bad. This one, however (from the original pilot movie) is not one of them; it stars Roddy McDowell as a young ne’er-do-well who murders his uncle in order to inherit his fortune…only to find that the old man has no intention of staying put in the grave.
7) Space: 1999, “Dragon’s Domain” (December 5th, 1975)
As I have explained before, this British series is usually mistaken for science fiction because of its conventional sci-fi trappings such as spaceships and laser guns. But nearly all of its threats are thinly-disguised supernatural ones; they include a ghost, a vampire, an immortal serial killer, possessing spirits, a cannibal race and even an immense entity clearly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Azathoth. But it’s the tentacled Lovecraftian horror in this episode that gave a generation of young fans nightmares, and the creature itself is only the most obvious scare in a show that gives frissons from start to finish.
8) Dead of Night, “Bobby” (March 29th, 1977)
After Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis went on to produce a number of made-for-TV horror movies (including the pilot for The Night Stalker). Many people remember Trilogy of Terror, and though the first two stories making up Dead of Night are nothing to write home about, the third part – “Bobby” – is something else entirely. Richard Matheson penned this utterly terrifying story of a woman so obsessed with her dead son that she resorts to black magic to get him back, and soon discovers what a truly bad idea that was.
9) Tales from the Darkside, “The Geezenstacks” (October 26th, 1986)
Though this series was often creepy or spooky (though many episodes were funny, confusing or just irritating), very few episodes were actually scary; this is one of those few, and in my opinion the scariest one (though it’s one of those that gets scarier the more you think about it and talk about it to friends at 2 AM). The script was adapted from a story by Fredric Brown (notice how some of these names keep popping up in different columns?) about a family who discovers that the daughter’s dolls seem to be predicting everything that happens to them. HM: “Inside the Closet”