When I was eight years old, my mother made the very unfortunate decision to let me watch Fatal Vision (1984), a made for television movie recounting the suspected murder of a pregnant woman and her two children by her Green Beret husband. To call the experience traumatic would be a vast understatement. Not only did I hide all the kitchen knives much to my grandmother’s chagrin, but I also made it a point to sleep under a wall of stuffed animals thinking that they’d provide the necessary protection should a family member decide to gut me in the middle of the night. My lingering psychosis aside, there is something about watching on the small screen a classically constructed horror film with clearly defined television tropes that makes the horror feel more intimate. Here is my list of the top 10 scariest, most tingle inducing made for television movies ever to air on American broadcast television.
One word: clowns. As yet another made for TV film based upon a Stephen King story, It challenges the audience to consider the role psychology plays in determining what it is that terrifies us as individuals. In the story, an evil energy is able to transform itself into its victim’s worst fear. The end result is a heart pumping journey into what creates fear and how those fears evolve as we age.
Based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi of the same name, Helter Skelter is a disturbing look at what happens when egomania and murder collide. As the story of Charles Manson and his devoted followers, the real horror found in Helter Skelter is derived from the sheer randomness of the violence. There is no rhyme or reason to who is murdered other than flighty notions of wrongdoing on the part of Manson. As a result, the film is infused with a sense of foreboding that is extremely accessible to the audience. Add in the fact that the film is shot on location (the depiction of the LaBianca murders takes place at the actual crime scene) and there is no way not to walk away from this film unnerved.
This film revolves around an increasingly disturbing set of phone calls from the presumed dead Michael which leads a nervous woman to confront her own psychosis. If you can suspend disbelief that there was a time before cell phones, this film will have to glued to the edge of your set and forever fearful of anything that remotely resembles a ringtone.
To be fair, To Catch a Killer is not straight horror. In fact, it dances the line between suspense and the macabre pretty explicitly. Yet, this story of the hunt for famed serial killer John Wayne Gacey incites a level of terror that comes directly from the audience’s knowledge of the nightly news. While the investigation can be categorized as suspense, the revelations of Gacey’s murders in explicit detail are nothing short of horrifying.
Horror and Stephen King are virtually synonymous and the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot illustrates why. When a man returns to his hometown only to discover that vampires are slowly taking over, the stage is set for a classic horror romp that draws heavily from vampire, haunted house and cemetery tropes. The stellar for its time production value and accessible mythology marks this film as a standout amongst the horror filled programming of the 1970s.
Stalked by a killer in a yellow rain slicker, four sisters are foisted into a deadly game of cat and mouse for reasons beyond their understanding. Produced by Aaron Spelling, this film has all the earmarks of camp horror: overdramatic performances, ridiculous dialogue, and chase sequences which bend the laws of physics. And yet, the film offers a very satisfying final act and more than enough jump from your seat frights to warrant repeat viewing.
With a very game cast and more horror tropes than you can shake a stick at (takes place in the deep south, killer wears an unusual mask, killer has a tragic backstory) , Dark Night of the Scarecrow is perhaps the most traditional horror film on this list. Its strong slasher sensibility coupled with its subversive commentary on small town America makes this made for television movie essential viewing for true fans of the genre.
Starring legendary horror impresario Karen Black, this trilogy set tackles horror from all angles. While the “Amelia” segment is arguably the most famous having achieved cult status, all three stories explore the connection between the repressed and horror in shockingly nuanced detail. Add to that a distinct tone of morbid humor and it is clear that this film rises above most predictable made for television fare. Trilogy of Terror is mandatory viewing for all horror fans.
If there is one film on the list that has inspired rabid online debate, this is it! In the aftermath of her sister’s death, Mary is visited by a vengeful spirit who convinces the girl that her family members would be better off dead. Audiences who enjoy their horror with a distinct side of camp will especially enjoy the many creative death scenes as well as the deliberate overacting of television mainstay, Valerie Harper.
A serial killer who may also be a vampire is at the heart of this slightly uneven but ultimately satisfying foray into the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas nightlife. Led by the always fantastic Darren McGavin (yes, the dad from A Christmas Story!), this movie is a perfect blend of intrigue and shock which really raised the bar for television horror. Need more inspiration to watch? This story served as the inspiration for Chris Carter’s The X-Files.