Last Updated: January 24th
Making a scary show is tough enough, and making a scary show that’s also compelling entertainment is practically a minor miracle. That’s reflected in the selection of Netflix‘s content library, too. But the small sampling contains quite a few certified gems, not to mention some terrifying programs that don’t quite fall under the horror umbrella. Read on for a reader’s digest of the scariest shows on Netflix currently lurking in wait for you to watch, and know that there’s no shame in sleeping with a nightlight all the way through Halloween.
This will be replete with spoilers, so read at your own discretion.
10. Penny Dreadful
3 seasons, 27 episodes | IMDb: 8.2/10
John Logan’s playful, yet disturbing, tribute to Victorian horror mixes and matches both original characters and bit players from classics like Dracula to tell an unnerving tale of Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), a former explorer desperately searching for his family with the help of mysterious medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), a Wild West performer with a past (Josh Hartnett), and an arrogant anatomist with a dark secret.
9. The Twilight Zone
4 seasons, 156 episodes | IMDb: 9/10
Rod Serling’s timeless collection of strange tales of the macabre and supernatural lives today almost as a novelty object, a look back into a time of simpler, more transparently allegorical storytelling. Serling’s finest half-hours were part social commentary, part masterfully composed exercises in tension, part pulp genre indulgence, but the charmingly dated special effects have greatly diminished the show’s capacity to shock. There’s still plenty of fear to be found in The Twilight Zone, however. It just sets in hours later, as the viewer’s laying in bed wondering just how plausible it would be for neighbors to turn on one another in the face of a mysterious external threat. The most fearsome monsters in this vintage series were always the humans and our many failures — distrust, ignorance, bigotry, malice, you name it — are far more hazardous than that week’s ghoul. Serling’s scares get under your skin and slowly work their way up to your brain, burrowing into the little corner in the back of your mind still afraid of the monster under the bed.
8. Bates Motel
5 seasons, 50 episodes | IMDb: 8.2/10
This prequel to Psycho shouldn’t be able to wield as much power to shock as it does; even if you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s immortal 1960 thriller, you know the friendly kid gets all stabby in the shower when he puts on a wig. And yet, young Norman Bates’ inexorable transition into the homicidal corporeal ghost of his controlling mother still scandalizes and surprises. For one, the incestuous heat radiating from stars Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga is engrossing and stomach-turning in equal measure. But watching the subtle manipulations she works on him, the gaslighting, the deceptions, and the mind tricks, the depth of their dysfunction takes on a scariness all its own. A brain’s a powerful thing, and when one person can exercise total control over someone else’s, darkness creeps in. Norma lays the seeds of insanity in her own son, and knowing just how they’ll blossom doesn’t make watching the process any less painful.
7. The Kirlian Frequency
1 season, 5 episodes | IMDb: 7.6/10
This web series from Argentina migrated to Netflix not too long ago, and it’s been scaring the sh*t out of people who happen to stumble on it ever since. An animated, short-form horror show, the story revolves around a radio that broadcasts only at night from a small town deep inside Buenos Aires Province where all kinds of macabre and supernatural events occur. It’s twisted and beautifully crafted and the easiest binge-watch you’ll find on this list.
6. Dead Set
1 season, 5 episodes | IMDb: 7.8/10
Charlie Brooker, the mastermind behind Black Mirror, was a media critic before he got into fiction, with a particular focus on the unethical behavior and cheap theatrics of reality television. Brooker presented a good cynical, misanthropic front, but as you watch Dead Set, his 2007 series, his concern with how television, especially reality TV, is too often built on dehumanizing and destroying people comes to the fore. And all of that was condensed into one five-episode series.
Dead Set’s premise is simple: the Big Brother house (and yes, it’s the real set) is crashed by a swarm of zombies and a bunch of self-centered celebrity wannabes have to try and take shelter from the undead. It was, blatantly, a stunt, right down to casting multiple real members of former Big Brother casts in small roles. Brooker even talked the network into airing all five episodes on five consecutive nights leading up to the finale broadcasting on Halloween 2008, which makes it perfect for binge watching. What’s admirable is how dedicated Brooker is to the show’s conceit, and it shows the balance of criticism and scares he’d bring to Black Mirror just a few years later.
5. The Walking Dead
9 seasons, 152 episodes | IMDb: 8.3/10
The zombies on AMC’s blockbuster program often serve allegorical purposes in the show, representing any sort of external threat that puts disparate collections of people into crisis mode and revealing extreme truths about human nature pushed to the edge. But of course a zombie series must also be a horror series, and while the show tends to err away from traditional horror filmmaking, there’s still plenty of room for jaw-dropping set pieces of suspense and terror. The zombies themselves have grown ever more gruesome as the show’s budget has increased proportionally with its popularity, but it’s the desperation of life post-outbreak that disturbs audiences the most. Drastic times drive ordinary, good people to commit craven, self-serving, or even sadistic acts. No suggestion the show makes is more unsettling than the idea that decency can no longer exist in a world gone mad.
4. Twin Peaks
2 seasons, 30 episodes | IMDb: 8.8/10
David Lynch’s foray into the small screen has maintained a fiercely devoted cult audience due to its trapped-in-amber ’90s style, surreal sense of slightly-off humor, and deep ensemble of lovably eccentric locals in the lumber town of Twin Peaks, Washington. Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost displayed such a talent for inhabiting a wide array of tones and styles, that when they occasionally shifted the dial to “horror,” it came like a knife out of nowhere. Lynch works in the visual language of dreams, his tendrils of terror creeping out from the periphery of consciousness and gradually turning an ordinary scene into a nightmare. Killer BOB, the villain of the initial stretch of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” episodes, may very well be one of the most horrifying characters in the history of the TV medium, his human form masking a primal, animalistic violence. Later episodes would fly off the rails in a spectacular fashion following creative clashes between the showrunners, but when Frost and Lynch were working in perfect harmony, they could compose unexpected nocturnes of pure fear.
3. Black Mirror
5 seasons, 22 episodes | IMDb: 8.8/10
This speculative-fiction series has packed more ideas and complex philosophizing into seven episodes than most shows manage over several seasons. Like a sleeker, tech-themed Twilight Zone successor, it explores the potentially ruinous effects of leaps forward in cybernetic and virtual innovation, following these possible futures toward the darkest possible outcomes. (Some of these episodes have turned out to be eerily prescient; in one episode, the British Prime Minister violates a pig on national television to placate a kidnapper, which actual PM David Cameron allegedly did for real during his college years!) Unsurprisingly, the cumulative effect of technological advances is usually something deeply disturbing.
2. American Horror Story
8 seasons, 106 episodes | IMDb: 8.1/10
Living proof that a show need not be well-calculated, intelligent, or even coherent to be scary, Ryan Murphy’s anthology series has made it five seasons by throwing everything at the wall and using whatever sticks. The gambit of starting from square one with new characters in a new plotline every season suits the show well, in that it frees the creators from consequences, American Horror Story‘s enemy #1. The complete absence of internal logic makes effective storytelling of any sort virtually impossible, but it allows Murphy the freedom to assemble whatever traumatizing tableaux might cross his deranged mind without worrying about how it might fit into a larger narrative. Spectacle has historically been Murphy’s strong suit; American Horror Story is really no different from Glee, except the elaborate production numbers have been replaced by displays of hair-curling gore and graphic disfigurement. Everything else is extraneous, and Murphy’s job is to get it out of the way to make room for the fireworks.
1. The Haunting of Hill House
1 season, 10 episodes | IMDb: 8.7/10
Mike Flanagan knows how to do horror, and his series for Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House, is proof of that. The show, like the book off which it’s based, follows the fractured Crain family as they try to make peace with their dark and twisted path. Of course, through some carefully-timed flashbacks, we see why the Crain siblings are so messed up: They lived in a haunted house as children, a house that eventually caused the death of their mother. There are plenty of frights to keep horror fans interested in this thriller, but the real point of this show is investigating trauma and its lingering effects. Makes sense that horror is the best way to do that.