I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We’re living in a golden age of horror on television. Whereas shows like Tales from the Darkside and Twin Peaks used to be TV anomalies, the airways are literally overflowing with terror in the 21st Century. And now that we live in the era of cable TV, many of the best-performing horror themed shows are unencumbered by the puritanical restrictions of the FCC, meaning they can be as bloody, gory, and sexy as they want to be.
In a landscape where many feel everything has already been done, brave producers, writers, and directors still manage to push the envelope to new extremes when it comes to horror on television. But while we’ve gotten some of our biggest collective shocks in recent years, there are still some classic moments of terror from decades past that manage to elicit visceral reactions.
Below, in chronological order, are the Top 13 Most Shocking Moments of Horror on Television. Take a stroll down Memory Lane with me as I relive the stunned disbelieve we felt during these unbelievable scenes. After you read the list, let me know what you think in the Comments section. Do you agree that these are the most shocking TV horror moments ever? Is there another jaw-dropping horror moment that deserves a spot on this list? Let’s discuss!
Warning: Below there be spoilers!
Tales from the Darkside: Inside the Closet (Season 1, Episode 7, 1984)
Monster is Revealed
Tales from the Darkside never got the same amount of love as its contemporary Tales from the Crypt; the scrappy, made-for-network-television series was gritty & gloomy by comparison, with an aesthetic that seemed dated even when Darkside was brand new. Still, the reveal of the monster in the Tom Savini-directed entry Inside the Closet scared the shit out of me. It’s not that we didn’t already suspect there was a monster in the closet—we just didn’t expect that sucker to be so bloody terrifying: An albino, almost amphibious creature that’s straight out of a child’s worst nightmare.
Twin Peaks: #2.2 (Season 2, Episode 2, 1990)
Episode #2.2 of Twin Peaks was a bit of an unsatisfying tease, as it with the first time showrunners David Lynch and Mark Frost promised to reveal who killed Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). In a flashback, comatose Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) remembers the night Laura was killed, revealing the brutal moment when Bob (Frank A. Silva) ended her life. The only problem was, we still didn’t know who Bob really was at the time. Still, the fury of this villain’s attack combined with Laura’s animalistic screams combined for a truly shocking moment.
Star Trek the Next Generation: Chain of Command Part II (Season 6, Episode 11, 1992)
The Torture of Picard
The only folks who are going to give me guff for this entry will be the ones who haven’t seen the episode for themselves. True, like its predecessor, Star Trek: The Next Generation is 90% lighthearted adventure, but the other 10% of the time, the show goes to truly dark places. In Chain of Command Part II, Captain Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) is tortured, dehumanized, and mentally broken by a Cardassian warlord for the best part of an hour, culminating in his triumphant yet devastating exclamation: “There are four lights!”
The X-Files: Home (Season 4, Episode 2, 1996)
Woman Under the Bed
Original fans of The X-Files know exactly where I’m going here! Home is an episode without any of the sci-fi trappings that are the series’ hallmark; instead, it’s pure horror, going toe-to-toe with classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the original Wrong Turn. As Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) search the home of the inbred Peacock clan, they find a woman under a bed; initially assuming she’s a sex slave, the Agents and the audience are shocked to discover this is actually Mama Peacock, deformed and mutilated, who has been having incestuous relationships with her inhuman progeny.
Related Article: Mulder & Scully Back on the Case for “The X-Files” Season 11
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Villains (Season 6, Episode 20, 2002)
Willow Flays Warren
In a series full of shocking moments, it was tough to pick just one; and even though the show was full of painful and devastating character deaths, the most shocking moment of all was when Willow (Alyson Hannigan) succumbed to her rage and flayed Warren (Adam Busch). The moment is jaw dropping, not simply because Willow did something bad, but because the character lost her soul and became a completely different person, no different than those she despises. The flaying FX were pretty extreme as well.
Dexter: The Getaway (Season 4, Episode 12, 2009)
Dexter Finds Rita
There’s so much violence and genre-pushing brutality in Dexter, it may seem like there couldn’t possibly be a single moment that rises above the rest—but there is. After disposing of the Trinity Killer (John Lithgow) Dexter (Michael C. Hall) returns home to find his wife Rita (Julie Benz) dead in a bathtub, with his infant son of the floor, sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood, crying. It’s an unprecedented moment in the series, one that also mirrors Dexter’s own childhood, as one of the antihero’s first memories is seeing his mother being killed. It’s devastation squared.
Black Mirror: The National Anthem (Season 1, Episode 1, 2011)
The very first episode of the dark sci-fi series Black Mirror remains the most shocking; in The National Anthem, a masked kidnapper demands the Prime Minister of England (Michael Callow) fornicate with a pig on live television in exchange for the life of a royal, Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson). There’s a sickness that builds slowly in one’s stomach as we realize this is actually going to happen. When the moment arrives, we’re shown the faces of shocked masses as they find themselves unable to look away from the indecent act. While we never see the action (thank God!) the disgusted looks on viewer’s faces force us to imagine it for ourselves—whether we want to or not!
Related Article: Director of “Hard Candy” & “30 Days of Night” Helming Mystery Episode of “Black Mirror”
The Walking Dead: Pretty Much Dead (Season 2, Episode 10, 2011)
Sophia Comes Out of the Barn
The first time The Walking Dead truly shocked its fans remains the most devastating moment in the show’s history. While many will argue that Negan’s (Jeffery Dean Morgan) assassination of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) was the series’ most shocking moment, it was a tragedy we expected (we knew someone was going to die). No, Sophia’s (Madison Lintz) emergence from the barn near the end of Season 2, and the revelation that she’s become a walker, was as devastating as it was shocking; an unforgettable moment that can still reduce grown men to tears.
Related Article: Let’s Stop and Marvel at How Awesome the “Water Walkers” Were
Ash vs Evil Dead: The Morgue (Season 2, Episode 2, 2016)
Head Up the Ass
No one who watches Ash vs Evil Dead will ever forget that scene where Mr. Williams (Bruce Campbell) ends up with his head up a corpses’ ass; while his face was visible through an autopsy incision, the look includes a huge pierced penis hanging from Ash’s throat like a necktie. In this case, the moment was as hilarious as it was shocking. Check out a teaser for The Morgue from Season 2 below, along with an interview of Campbell discussing the unforgettable moment.
Related Article: Premiere Date and Plot Details for “Ash vs Evil Dead” Season 3
American Horror Story Roanoke: Chapter 9 (Season 6, Episode 9, 2016)
Live Immolation of Paranormal Investigators
Season 6 of American Horror Story, Roanoke, is hands down the most controversial; from the fluid/changing forms of presentation to the level of violence that plays out on screen, Roanoke had as many detractors as fans. Personally, I thought Season 6 was the best so far; and while the mutilation of Lee Harris (Adina Porter) at the hands of inbred cannibals was excruciating and extreme, the most shocking moment came in the season’s penultimate episode, when paranormal investigators Sophia (Taissa Farmiga) and Milo (Jon Bass) are skewered Cannibal Holocaust style before being immolated alive. Thy unfortunate young adults are wearing Go-Pro cameras that literally put is in the fire with them. Is it getting hot in here?
The Exorcist: Chapter Three: Let ‘Em In (Season 1, Episode 3, 2016)
Masturbation with Curling Iron
The most shocking moment in 1973’s The Exorcist was when Regan (Linda Blair) masturbates with a crucifix. Jeremy Slater’s TV adaptation of William Friedkin’s seminal horror movie paid homage to this scene—and even managed to up the ante. The moment comes in Chapter Three: Let ‘Em In when Casey (Hannah Kasulka) puts a hot curling iron in that most sensitive of places, revealing an expression of pain and pleasure. Even Slater was amazed that executives at Fox and the FCC let this shocking moment air on network television, as the tweet below reveals.
— The Exorcist (@TheExorcistFOX) January 19, 2017
Related Article: Everyone is Talking About “That Scene” from “The Exorcist” Episode 3
The Santa Clarita Diet: So Then a Bat or a Monkey (Season 1, Episode 1, 2017)
That’s a Lot of Vomit
In a series where each 40-minute episode packs in as much gore as 3 or 4 of your average zombie movies, The Santa Clarita Diet shocked for featuring a lesser seen bodily fluid: Vomit. As Sheila (Drew Barrymore) succumbs to her cannibalistic illness, she experiences what’s definitely the most extreme case of reverse peristalsis ever committed to film. Remember that episode of Family Guy where Brian, Stewie, Peter, and Chris drank ipecac? Imagine all that puke in “real life”, all coming out of a single person’s body.
American Gods: The Secret of Spoon (Season 1, Episode 1, 2017)
Bilquis Sex Scene
American Gods just recently premiered, and showrunner Bryan Fuller is in prime form delivering an episode that’s lush, surreal, captivating, and disturbing. The Secret of the Spoon includes a sex scene that no one who sees it will ever forget. A love-making session becomes a ritual of worship where the beautiful demon Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) pulls a man into her womb at the moment of climax. It’s a moment that simply must be seen to be believed, and unfortunately, it’s too racy for us to show you here. The gif below will give you just a taste at the shocking moment.
Official Synopsis: Ex-convict Shadow Moon roams a world he doesn’t understand, left adrift by the recent, tragic death of his wife. Little does he know his life is about to change after he meets a crafty, charismatic con man named Mr. Wednesday, who offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard. As their journey begins, Shadow encounters a hidden America where magic is real and fear grows over the ascending power of New Gods like Technology and Media. In a grand plan to combat the threat, Mr. Wednesday attempts to unite the Old Gods to defend their existence and rebuild the influence that they’ve lost, leaving Shadow struggling to accept this new world and his place in it.