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The best horror moments and episodes from non-horror TV shows

By October 29, 2023No Comments8 min read
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Halloween is right around the corner, which means that everyone will be watching their favorite horror movies. They’ve probably already been doing that for all of October. But horror doesn’t belong just to horror films. Elements of horror can be found in many places and genres. For this Halloween, we wanted to celebrate the horror-inspired moments from non-horror TV shows.

Some of these are full episodes of fear-inducing tension while others are just sequences, perfectly executed at the most opportune time in a show’s runtime. These episodes and sequences are exhilarating moments of some of the best horror you’ll come across when you’re least expecting it.

Doctor Who — Gas mask face in “The Empty Child”

Doctor Who and “being creepy” go hand in hand over its 60 year run and one early episode of its modern revival stands above many. In “The Empty Child,” The Doctor and Rose find themselves chasing an alien ship to London during the air raids of WWII and before long are chased by a child in a gas mask constantly looking for his “mummy.” The tension first comes from the unfamiliar as the locals The Doctor is trying to get details from are cagey and unclear.

Things get even more unsettling as they discover a hospital of people, all with gas masks fused to their faces. This culminates in the show demonstrating how this happened to them as the sole doctor treating them succumbs to the same condition, crying out for his “mummy” as his face contorts and a gas mask literally grows out of it. The effects are very 2005 but are quite visceral each time they are deployed across this episode and its conclusion in “The Doctor Dances.” The fear  increases in the second episode as it becomes clear that what The Doctor is dealing with is some kind of science fiction zombie apocalypse, all led by one of horror’s most powerful tools — a creepy kid. [Travis Hymas]

Infinity Train — Simon’s end in “The New Apex”

From the beginning, Infinity Train was never afraid to scare the kids who tuned in on Cartoon Network, but it wasn’t until its first Max exclusive season did the show go further. In the third season’s climax, fallen Apex leader Simon has a full breakdown when his belief that his train number should be increasing is challenged. This leads him to become something of a monster himself and even attempts to kill his former best friend. 

However, the real monster reveals itself as the manic Simon is cornered by a Ghom, a pitch black insect-esque creature that has haunted the cast of the anthology throughout, and is Simon’s personal terror. Pinning Simon down, the Ghom begins to siphon away Simon’s essence in front of the children who were following him and his friend, powerless to help. The animation is what really sells it, as Simon’s flesh is torn away in pieces, ultimately leaving a skeleton that crumbles into dust. The creature then explodes itself for still unclear reasons, leaving nothing but shock for both the audience and the witnesses. [Travis Hymas]

Barry — Sally’s Intruder in “The Wizard”

Merrick Morton/HBO

Bill Hader had a vision, and he executed it with conviction in the Barry Season 4 episode, “The Wizard.” The “Sally’s Intruder” sequence is not the first element of horror Hader deploys in Barry, but it is the more obvious one. And it delivers. Physically manifesting Sally’s depression, guilt, fear, and bitterness into a home intruder metaphor was a brilliant move.

Hader uses a deft hand at long one take shots, and the long build up as we follow Sally through their house creates the necessary tension. She’s looking for an intruder, and so are we. What we’re not expecting is the dark silhouette of a person standing right behind Sally. We’re certainly not expecting her to not notice it. Including the audio from when Sally murdered the biker guy gives the scene even more weight, a terrifying callback and culmination of the past eight years of Sally’s life. Barry was also marketed as a comedy but Bill Hader turned Season 4 into a playground of horror sequences, and delivered on every single one. “Sally’s Intruder” was shocking and tense but still managed to put us in Sally’s headspace perfectly. [Katey Stoetzel]

Avatar the Last Airbender — Bloodbending

As far as “children’s shows” go, Avatar: The Last Airbender was known to tackle some mature subject matter. There was one episode, however, that crossed the line into the horror genre in a shocking and disturbing way. The episode, which was advertised as a Halloween episode, finds the heroes in a small village where people have been mysteriously disappearing at night. 

While investigating this, waterbender Katara meets an elderly woman who reveals herself to also be a waterbender living in fire nation territory. While this is welcome news to Katara, what she soon finds out is that this woman has the ability to bend the water inside a human body, a talent also known as “bloodbending.” This horrific act allows her to move a person’s body however she pleases. This sub-genre of bending becomes a big red flag throughout this franchise going forward and only few have the ability to bloodbend. [Tyler Carlsen]

Severance – Dance Party

Apple TV+

The spookiness of Severance comes from the contrast between the mundane office activities and the bleak, sterile, and inhuman mid-century aesthetic that surrounds the Lumon Offices. However, nowhere is it as evident as in the “Musical Dance Experience ”, when Milchick brings the protagonist Macrodata Refinement team to a party to celebrate their achievements, which becomes a jazz-infused office dance party.

There’s nothing uniquely creepy about the first few moments, other than the stark contrast characteristic of the show. Yet, as the lighting becomes copper and Milchick’s dance moves become exaggerated until the party’s violent end, its creepiness shows. The dance scene takes a normal activity and turns it deeply eerie and unsettling, just as the show does with the contemporary office experience. Spooky stuff. [Pedro Graterol]

The Simpson’s – Secret Twin, Treehouse of Horror

The Simpsons Halloween-themed anthology series, “Treehouse of Horror,” has several bite-size bangers, including but not limited to the Stanley Kubrick-inspired “The Shinning” and the intergalactic spooktacular “Hungry Are the Damned.” However, one of the shorts that keeps me up at night, even as an elder Millennial, is “The Thing and I.” Featured in the episode “Treehouse of Horror VII,” the creepy short follows Bart as he uncovers his family’s deep dark secret: he has a secret evil twin brother named Hugo.

Inspired by the 1982 horror film Basket Case, this segment from “Treehouse of Horror VII” is equally terrifying and funny. Like many incredible “Treehouse of Horror” shorts, the killer jokes and excellent execution of horror tropes make this episode a worthy contender for one of the best horror moments in television. Nothing, not even a pleasant episode of The Great British Bake Off, will remove the image of a conjoined rat/pigeon from my mind. [Phylecia Miller]

Courage the Cowardly Dog

There’s something uniquely terrifying about Courage the Cowardly Dog that is present in almost every episode — the sense of isolation. Each of the horrors of the show is constantly built around the fact that Courage can’t articulate the experiences he is living to Eustace and Muriel, who in turn often remain oblivious to the horrors that lurk around the house.

For many children, some parts of reality that seem obvious to us seem scary and their fears are not commonly acknowledged. This point of connection might explain why it was one of the first earnest approaches to horror for many Gen-Zers. However, episodes like “The House of Discontent” are still very creepy. [Pedro Graterol]

Spongebob Squarepants – Squidward moves to Tentacle Acres

Growing up, the term “existential dread” might not have been in our vocabulary just yet but when Squidward moved to Tentacle Acres in Spongebob Squarepants, it played across our screens just the same. Annoyed by Spongebob and Patrick’s antics, Squidward decides to move to Tentacle Acres, a gated community wherein other Squidwards live.

At first, Squidward loves it; he bikes, he plays the clarinet, and he buys canned bread all without being disrupted by Spongebob. But the montage of Squidwards new life soon turns depressing. As each day passes by in the same fashion, Squidward’s face increasingly droops with boredom. It’s a sequence that’s been seared into my brain for years. The conformity of living “how we’re supposed to,” not even allowed to break the cycle to do something new and exciting? Horrifying. [Katey Stoetzel]

Doctor Who – “Midnight”

When an episode can terrify you without even showing the monster, it’s got something truly impressive up its sleeve. “Midnight” is a late episode in David Tennant’s run as The Doctor. The episode follows The Doctor as he interacts with his fellow passengers on a cruise to a planet called Midnight. It’s a planet made entirely of diamonds but can’t be viewed properly by the human eye. Nothing can live on its surface. So when a knock is heard from the outside of the cruise, the travelers’ pleasure cruise turns terrifying quick.

The knocking continues until whatever force is outside makes its way inside, possessing one of the travelers. The creature mimics the voices it hears, repeating every word the passengers say, until it eventually steals the smartest person’s voice — The Doctor. Lesley Sharp delivers a fantastically terrifying performance as the creature but the episode is also very blunt about who the real monsters are — even centuries into the future, humanity still fears what it doesn’t understand. [Katey Stoetzel]

Featured images courtesy of Apple TV+ and Max

Photo illustration by Katey Stoetzel

Katey Stoetzel

Katey is co-founder and tv editor for InBetweenDrafts. She hosts the “House of the Dragon After Show” and "Between TV" podcasts and can be read in various other places like Inverse and Screen Speck. She wishes desperately the binge model of tv watching would die, but still gets mad when she runs out of episodes of tv to watch.

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