The Exorcist returns this month for a second series of chills and terrifying TV moments on Syfy.
Premiering on Wednesday, October 11th at 9pm on Syfy (BT TV 319/375 HD), it's must-watch TV - if you dare!
To celebrate the new series, we put together a list of the eeriest, spookiest, downright scariest television shows of all time.
1. The Returned
This stylish French import took a subtler-than-average line when it came to people coming back from the dead. It replaced the visceral horror of zombies with an unsettling brand of magical realism. People just wandered back into the sleepy French village with no recollection of having died and no clear explanation of how they got back.
The matter-of-fact response displayed by many of the characters feeds the quiet dread into your brain piece by piece, where it stealthily assembles itself like a ship in a bottle.
2. Doctor Who
We all had a moment or two as children where we trembled with terror at the sight of the errant Time Lord’s cardboard-and-canvas foes. In retrospect, though, none of them quite carry the menace that they seemed to at the time. Steven Moffat’s more modern episodes have the benefit of more sophisticated effects technology and can even make our adult selves jump on occasion.
But the most spine-chilling episode of modern Who relies little on special effects. In The Empty Child, a Moffat-written episode from 2005, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) travels back to 1941, only to meet a spooky youngster wearing a gas mask. Watch it once, and the phrase ‘Are you my mummy?’ will haunt your dreams forever.
3. The Twilight Zone
It’s hard to pick one story from the long-running series of standalone spine-chillers. One of the strongest contenders is Long Distance Call, an episode first broadcast in March 1961.
Young Billy Mumy – later of Lost in Space and even later of Babylon 5, plays a young lad who thinks he can talk to his grandmother on a toy telephone. Only his grandmother is dead. And she’s urging the boy to join her. It’s the horrors we can’t see that stay with us the longest.
4. Hammer House of Horror
This 1980 series, following the bloody vein of the successful series of portmanteau films made by Hammer’s rival studio Amicus, delivered a different distressing drama every week. Of all of the memorably mad stories Hammer told us, The House That Bled to Death is probably the standout.
A family –played by Nicholas Ball, Rachael Davis and Emma Ridley – move into a house in which an horrific murder has taken place. So far, so Amityville Horror, but the blood-drenched children’s party is a masterpiece of grand guignol horror and the double-twisting sting in the tale of this scary tale is the icing on the blood-soaked cake.
5. Inside No.9
League of Gentlemen co-creators Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton evidently grew up watching Hammer House of Horror and The Twilight Zone. While their idiosyncratic take on this format is leavened with a few more laughs, it still has its share of shocks.
The final episode of the show’s first series was its best. In The Harrowing, a couple who rarely leave their home employ a housesitter to keep an eye on their creepily-furnished house while they’re out at an event. The housesitter makes the mistake of going into a room she was told never to enter. We’re all too often warned that the TV show we’re about to watch ‘contains distressing scenes’. In this case, the warning was entirely warranted.
6. Black Mirror
Black Mirror’s creator Charlie Brooker is, like Shearsmith and Pemberton, a child of the Hammer, Tales of the Unexpected era. But while Inside No.9 was always a touch retro, Black Mirror’s focus is on the immediate future.
In one of its creepiest episodes Hayley Atwell stars as a woman whose boyfriend (Domhnall Gleeson) tragically dies. In Black Mirror’s near-future the technology exists to create a near-perfect replica of the dearly departed. But inevitably it ends in tears. Creepy, plausible, and deliciously underplayed.
The long-running sci-fi series got a bit weighed down by its own conspiracy plot by the end of its run, but some early episodes, such as 1993’s Squeeze, are still among the scariest network TV shows ever. In Squeeze, we meet Eugene Victor Tooms, a bizarre creature who looks human but can slither through openings too small for any normal person to negotiate.
He uses his power to break into homes and eat the occupants’ livers. With effects created using a mixture of CGI and a real contortionist it had every viewer double-checking the cat flap as they locked up that night. Toombs was such a popular character that he was brought back for a second episode later in the series.
8. Salem’s Lot
David Soul - the floppy-haired one from Starsky and Hutch - as a vampire hunter? When you have Stephen King writing your story, even the most unlikely circumstances can seem believable. With a genuinely horrific central vampire that brings to mind the classic Nosferatu, and well as eerie levitation scenes and dead children tapping at windows, it endures in the memory far longer than its pulpy premise might suggest.
While Orson Welles’s mockumentary War of the Worlds was never intended to deceive a credulous public, Ghostwatch had slightly more mischievous intent – and almost as much impact.
A supposedly live inquiry into poltergeist activity at a North London house hosted by trustworthy faces such as Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith and Sarah Greene, Ghostwatch fooled plenty of viewers despite hastily added credits that made its fictional provenance clear. Cases of post-traumatic stress in people who had seen the show were later listed in the British Medical Journal.
Of course the real horror is not ghosts, werewolves and vampires. It’s other people. Specifically, other people armed with nuclear missiles. Broadcast in 1984, Threads realistically depicted a Russian nuclear strike on Sheffield. The impact of the show was immense: traumatised half a generation, and convinced the other half that there was no point making adequate provision for their retirement.
Canadian university lecturer Professor Andrew Bartlett wrote in a paper on the impact of fictional representations of nuclear war: “Threads works on the viewer with a peculiar power: one finds oneself horrified, fascinated, numbed, provoked, unsettled, made restless… we are unable to relax into Threads as 'just' a movie.”
It isn’t just a movie. It’s the scariest piece of telly imaginable.
The Exorcist series 2 premieres at 9pm on Wednesday, October 11th on Syfy, available on BT TV 319/375 HD. Catch up on the BT Player.