Twilight Zone: 15 Scariest Episodes, Ranked | ScreenRant
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone is famous for elevating the often harshly-judged sci-fi and horror genres with convincing actors and compelling themes. Many of the signature ironic twists provided lessons in morality, and they also explored sharp social commentary, which wouldn’t otherwise be accepted back then. The anthology was ruthlessly observant and imaginative, influencing countless successors.
However, for all of the show’s thematic maturity, it never forgot to legitimately entertain. Furthermore, there have been many grounded episodes with a particular aim to terrify. Horror thrives when viewers are invested, and The Twilight Zone already featured strong performances, realism, and bold creativity.
Updated on August 24th, 2021 by Tanner Fox: Though it was canceled nearly fifty years ago, the original version of The Twilight Zone laid the groundwork for horror television and inspired more than a few horror cinema tropes. While various spin-offs and reboots have been attempted, none have come close to usurping the original Rod Serling series.
It may not seem like much to modern-day horror hounds, but some episodes of The Twilight Zone were unimaginably creepy when they first debuted. In fact, a few of them are still fairly unnerving, even after five decades.
15 The After Hours (Season 1, Episode 34)
Many episodes of the famous anthology show involve the epiphany that the protagonist’s reality and purpose are not as they initially seemed. This suspenseful episode corrupts an ordinary department store setting. Rather than claustrophobia, the emptiness from its sheer size is an oppressive force.
Red herrings regarding the staff fuel the bizarre mystery of this vast setting as a woman seeks a gold thimble. Besides the unsettling exploration of an unknown floor, she becomes surrounded by mannequins. These frozen imitations of humanity are innately scary, but the supernatural revelation of the story is equally horrifying too.
14 Where Is Everybody? (Season 1, Episode 1)
The very first episode of The Twilight Zone ever to air, “Where Is Everybody?” set a strange tone for the series. In the episode, an amnesiac finds himself in a town that was seemingly abandoned, though all appears to be normal save for the lack of inhabitants. The isolation has a profound effect on him, and, in the end, it is revealed that the town was actually a hallucination brought on by the man’s extended stay in an isolation chamber meant to prepare him for a solo voyage to the moon.
This episode is made particularly frightening through the brilliant camerawork. Many of the later scenes track the character and are filmed at odd angles to induce in the viewer the same sense of bewildering terror that’s experienced by the isolated man.
13 The Dummy (Season 3, Episode 33)
This is a familiar story and killer dolls, like the modern-day horror staples Anabelle and Chucky, can be found in many movies and TV shows. Much like the mannequins, they are unnerving because of their likeness to a human face. Furthermore, ventriloquist dummies are larger than most dolls and designed to emulate sentience in any act.
In this story, the protagonist is struggling with alcoholism and a dwindling career and the dummy never takes control or appears sentient at any other time than when he is alone. As such, audiences remain doubtful throughout, wondering if it’s all a morality tale regarding hard drink. However, there’s no question that the ending is an example of top-notch horror. The taunts and laughter are haunting, and the twist ending is a visual sting above most.
12 The Midnight Sun (Season 3, Episode 10)
Many episodes of The Twilight Zone dealt with apocalyptic scenarios and societal collapse, but few were as bleak and unbearable as “The Midnight Sun.” In this episode, two women are made to survive in an apartment after a strange phenomenon sets the Earth on a collision course with the sun. The two apparently succumb to heatstroke as the walls begin to melt, but, in a surreal twist, the events were revealed to be a dream.
Things get even weirder when it’s revealed that, in reality, the Earth is somehow being pulled away from the sun, and everyone is freezing. The episode offers an intriguing philosophical stance on the fragility of life on Earth, and it feels particularly poignant in the modern era.
11 The Howling Man (Season 2, Episode 5)
Surprisingly enough, this is a story about the Devil. Given how many countless stories there are of the figure, this should have suppressed the episode’s originality. But, although the story somewhat feels like an urban legend, it’s unique nonetheless.
The howling itself is absolutely chilling. More than just a religious tale, it is a compelling horror story with convincing performances from the cast and some memorably exotic set design for the series.
10 Perchance To Dream (Season 1, Episode 9)
It isn’t unreasonable to connect this classic episode to the popular horror series A Nightmare on Elm Street. They’re conceptually identical stories wherein a horrifying being gradually attempts to kill the protagonists by attacking them in their nightmares. Given the effort of many episodes to pursue startling realism, this focus on the surreal is both refreshing and nifty.
Also, the fact that the protagonist has a heart condition when he’s wide awake makes a suspenseful ticking clock. But, the nightmares themselves are truly disturbing, and the carnival setting offers a cruelly playful sense of malice. The episode certainly conjures an atmosphere of strangeness. It’s simply a powerful premise that preys on the natural need to sleep and the universal feeling of helplessness in nightmares.
9 Eye of The Beholder (Season 2, Episode 6)
In what is without a doubt one of the most creative episodes of the classic horror anthology series, a woman undergoes a kind of facial reconstructive surgery, and, though she’s eventually revealed to be conventionally beautiful, her doctors deem the procedure to be a failure.
As it turns out, the humans of this world all have strange, distorted facial features, though they consider their morphology to be normal. The episode offers a clear critique of the concept of beauty, and the fact that the actors’ faces aren’t shown until the shocking reveal makes for one of the most jolting moments in the series.
8 The Hitch-Hiker (Season 1, Episode 16)
Lonely roads can be very intimidating. Drivers are cut off from assistance, and the unfamiliar is always daunting. More so, the concept of the terrifying hitchhiker has been used in countless movies and TV shows. But, in this case, it’s a ghostly figure rather than some unstable killer. His gradual approach feels totally oppressive and eerily supernatural.
The protagonist is completely on her own after a car accident, adding vulnerability and sympathy. Also, the intent of the story is an effective mystery, and it’s totally unpredictable. Ultimately, it’s a clever stalking story, with a profound ending that horror fans have seen duplicated in iconic films focused on the paranormal.
7 Night Call (Season 5, Episode 19)
Famed author Richard Matheson, known for I Am Legend, wrote a handful of truly effective episodes of the show. This episode is one of The Twilight Zone‘s many underrated treasures. It is one of the most strictly paranormal tales, abstaining from some of the fantasy and sci-fi elements included in many other episodes. As such, it may get further under the skin of some viewers.
A fragile, elderly woman receives a series of frightening phone calls, and as simple a premise as it may be, it’s downright terrifying. The mystery and confusion combined with the protagonist’s vulnerable age and isolation make for a memorable ghost story. The acting is brilliant, with brisk pacing and clever camerawork.
6 Mirror Image (Season 1, Episode 21)
There is something inherently disconcerting about the concept of a doppelganger. It violates the notion that we are all unique, and the likeness is automatically invasive and unexpected. Such imagery also digs into the duality of human nature. This visual theme still scares audiences today, as evident by the film Us.
A woman waiting for a bus believes her double is suddenly seeking to replace her in order to survive. Sly direction captures the mystery in some truly eerie circumstances, which escalates the horror throughout. Brushes with the double begin as mere hints, with suspicious instances, but they slowly evolve into truly effective, nightmarish confrontations.
5 The Shelter (Season 3, Episode 3)
There are few things more frightening than a desperate mob, as human beings resort to cruel mercilessness when survival is on the line. In this memorable episode, Serling explores this dichotomy by first establishing a lighthearted birthday party. Then, when a nuclear attack is announced over the radio, that ticking clock makes the suspense absolutely tangible. The panicked urgency is relentless, and it becomes clear only one family prepared a bomb shelter.
The fight for that space provokes everything from racism to a ferocious mob. Nothing could be more fitting than to rob the characters of their apocalyptic end. It forces them to confront their actions, their deepest flaws revealed. The acting and writing are nothing short of brilliant.
4 Twenty Two (Season 2, Episode 17)
This episode has very distinct influences on the Final Destination franchise, particularly the first entry. The story involves a woman who is tormented by a recurring nightmare of being invited to the morgue. It is unclear at first if the fatigue she was hospitalized for is compelling these dark visions.
Ultimately, the protagonist avoids a deadly plane accident because clues from her vision appear in real life. Most notably, the haunting nurse from her nightmare is the stewardess welcoming her aboard the plane. The ghost story aesthetic fuels the atmosphere of the episode. Recurring nightmares feel unnatural with their routines, and the episode really captures that aura of mystery and shadowy horror.
3 Living Doll (Season 5, Episode 6)
Well, the source of horror is right there in the title. There’s no mystery about this episode; Talky Tina, perhaps the most iconic Twilight Zone threat, is unquestionably sentient. But, the true focus is the family drama, involving the particularly coarse stepfather who gets his comeuppance.
Because he’s infertile, the stepfather resents his stepdaughter and Talky Tina’s terrifying disapproval of the man’s unprovoked hostility only exacerbates things. Talky Tina’s invulnerability may be horrifying, but it’s only a vehicle to address the stepfather’s cruelty, and, in The Twilight Zone, such things rarely go unpunished. This episode boasts superb performances, intriguingly sensitive themes, and plenty of supernatural thrills. Without a doubt, it’s a quintessential episode of the original Twilight Zone series.
2 The Masks (Season 5, Episode 25)
A wealthy man on the brink of death is visited by his immediate family. After trying in vain to expose their flaws, he forces them to partake in a strange ceremony during which they must wear ugly, contorted masks that are meant to serve as reflections of their inner selves. The wealthy elder succumbs to his condition at the stroke of midnight, and his family all pull off their masks to discover that their faces have now been warped to look like the visages they had been wearing.
While not outwardly shocking, “The Masks” is the sort of subtly sinister series installment that’ll keep viewers up long after midnight.
1 Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (Season 5, Episode 3)
Regarded as one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone according to IMDb, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” plays on the common phobia of air travel. In the episode, a man with an intense fear of flying sees a yeti-like monster walking on the wing of the plane in which he’s sitting. He can’t convince any of the passengers of what he’s seeing, so he eventually takes matters into his own hands, throwing open the emergency exit and attempting to shoot the beast.
It may seem trite by today’s standards, but “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” induces a strange sense of paranoia and discomfort in the viewer, and it features one of the most effective jump scares in all of retro horror.