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5 episodes that prove The Twilight Zone is one of the scariest shows ever made

Looking for bite-sized horror this Halloween season? Look no further.

An airline passenger (William Shatner) comes face to face with a horrific monster (Nick Cravat) in one of The Twilight Zone's most famous — and scariest — episodes.
An airline passenger (William Shatner) comes face to face with a horrific monster (Nick Cravat) in one of The Twilight Zone's most famous — and scariest — episodes.
Paramount Television
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It happens every year around late October. You want something scary, but you don't want to spend a whole evening on it. What are you to do?

Consider The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's classic, which ran from 1959 to 1964, is one of the best TV series ever made — and also one of the scariest. Good horror is hard to do on television, because good horror is all about build-up leading to a climax, and TV is mostly concerned with endless build-up, over an untold number of seasons. But The Twilight Zone doesn't have that problem. Every episode is its own story, and that story can be thoughtful or provocative or goofy. Or it can just be downright terrifying.

No one's going to mistake the more atmospheric scares of The Twilight Zone for the jumpier shocks of The Walking Dead or American Horror Story, but that's also the point. Oftentimes, the best horror works by building a thick fog of dread that settles over the viewer. Zone has many episodes that function in this manner.

Even better — the whole thing is readily available via online streaming and DVD. If you have a subscription to a streaming service, you have access to at least some of the show's run. (The rights to the fourth season — which consists of hour-long episodes — vary from package to package.)

So if you need some appropriately eerie viewing this evening, hope for howling winds, and consider one of these five classics.

"And When the Sky Was Opened" (season 1, episode 11)

Serling's adaptation of a short story by Richard Matheson (himself a frequent writer for the show) actually improves upon the printed version by adding extra malevolence.

The episode centers on a trio of astronauts whose experimental spacecraft briefly blips off the radar during a flight. When they return to Earth, they begin to feel as if they no longer belong — and some force may be trying to erase them from existence. Unsettling and eerie, the episode perfectly taps into that all-too-human sense of alienation from everybody you know.

"The Hitch-hiker" (season 1, episode 16)

The Twilight Zone is primarily remembered as a science-fiction series, and for good reason. Many of its episodes play around with the tropes of that genre, including space travel, time travel, and alien civilizations. But the show was just as good at playing around with the tropes of fantastical horror, of the urban legend.

Consider this rough spin on the old phantom hitch-hiker ghost story, with a woman on a road trip who becomes aware of a presence along the side of the road. There's a kind of grim acceptance here — as she slowly becomes aware of what kind of story she's trapped in — that only gives the episode more potency.

"The After Hours" (season 1, episode 34)

This brilliantly eerie episode plays off of the unsettling feeling one gets when alone in a public place after dark. A woman becomes trapped in a department store after closing, and the atmosphere of unease slowly builds all around her, until she finally has a dreadful realization. So many of the best horror-skewing Zones involve characters who struggle to avoid a horrible — or even not so horrible — fate, then grudgingly realize they have to accept it. "The After Hours" is a perfect version of that.

"The Howling Man" (season 2, episode 5)

A traveler in Europe happens upon a castle where a monk claims to have locked up the devil himself — in the form of a man who endlessly howls, his cries haunting the surrounding countryside.

Charles Beamont's script relies perhaps too heavily on a pat conclusion, but the depiction of the titular fellow here is one of the most downright disturbing things the show has ever done. And there's a refreshing ambiguity for much of the episode's run — is the true villain here the man locked up, or the man who holds the key?

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" (season 5, episode 3)

There were other very good-to-great episodes of the show in its final season, but Serling had stepped back his involvement in the project over the final two years, and quality became more hit and miss. Thus, "20,000 Feet" is perhaps the only stone-cold classic that every TV fan knows from that last batch of episodes. But there's good reason for this! Matheson's script digs into the fear of flying so many already have, then ramps up the tension by adding a monster out on the wing that only one man can see. Add in terrific direction from a young Richard Donner and a stunner of a performance from William Shatner, and you have a great recipe for suspense.

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