Every year, fans come together on May 11 to celebrate National Twilight Zone Day. And if there was ever a TV show that deserved its own holiday, The Twilight Zone is definitely it. Rod Serling’s groundbreaking anthology series covered many genres—from sci-fi to horror to social commentary—but all of its episodes are united by a general sense of uneasiness. One of The Twilight Zone’s greatest strengths was its ability to pack so much story into each episode’s half-hour runtime, so it’s not too surprising that over 60 years later, many episodes are remembered for how genuinely scary they are.
In addition to its superb writing, The Twilight Zone is also famous for the number of shocking twist endings its episodes have. Some of those twist episodes are on this list, but we’ve focused more on episodes that keep the scares going throughout. So this National Twilight Zone Day, enjoy the show’s 11 scariest episodes.
Related: 13 Scariest TV Shows Ever Made
“Perchance to Dream”
Season 1, Episode 9
Edward Hall (Richard Conte) has a sleeping problem. He has a heart condition, and he believes his recurring dream of a mysterious carnival woman who lures him into a disturbing funhouse and then onto a rollercoaster will kill him. At the same time, he knows that his lack of sleep is also putting a strain on his heart. The terror of this episode comes from the fact that for Edward, death could practically come at any moment, and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Season 1, Episode 16
One of the most beloved Twilight Zone episodes of all time, “The Hitch-Hiker” follows Nan Adams (Inger Stevens) on a road trip from hell. After surviving a near-fatal car accident, she continues on her journey and passes by a shabby-looking hitchhiker (Leonard Strong). When she stops to get gas, she sees the same hitchhiker again, but the attendant doesn’t notice him. No matter how far she drives, every time Nan stops, the hitchhiker is there, always looking straight at her.
She becomes increasingly distraught, especially because no one she talks to can see the man. Her fear builds and builds until the episode delivers a perfect, terrifying twist.
Season 1, Episode 21
When Millicent Barnes (Vera Miles) asks the ticket agent at the bus depot when her bus will arrive, she’s confused when he says this is the third time she’s asked. While she continues to wait, she becomes increasingly convinced that her dopplegänger is secretly wandering around the bus depot. As if seeing her own copy in addition to her reflection in the mirror wasn’t distressing enough, Millicent knows that dopplegängers have to kill their copy in order to survive. She tries to confide in the other people at the bus depot, but, in true Twilight Zone fashion, no one believes her.
“The After Hours”
Season 1, Episode 34
Searching for a gold thimble in a department store, Marsha White (Anne Francis) is taken to the ninth floor, a barren space occupied only by a saleswoman (Elizabeth Allen) and a display case containing only a gold thimble. Confused about her bizarre shopping experience, she notices that the thimble is scratched, and goes to the store’s complaints department. But when she tries to explain the situation, she is told the store doesn’t have a ninth floor. She attempts to point out the saleswoman when she spots her in the store, only to realize she’s just a mannequin.
After one of the store’s managers lets her rest in his office, Marsha wakes up to discover she’s been locked inside the now-closed store. Trying to find a way out, she hears voices calling to her, but the only things around her are mannequins, who seem to follow her everywhere she goes...
“The Howling Man”
Season 2, Episode 5
While on a walking trip through Europe, David Ellington (H. M. Wynant) takes shelter from a storm in a monastery. While there, he hears desperate howling, but the monks refuse to acknowledge it. Eventually, he discovers a man (Robin Hughes) kept in a cell, who claims that the monks imprisoned and beat him for kissing in public. He begs David to free him, but he is stopped by the monks.
When David presses Brother Jerome (John Carradine) for answers, he explains that the man is actually the Devil himself and that the monks captured him using the “staff of truth”. Over the course of the night, the man continues to beg David to release him, and he will have to choose which story he believes. Is the man the unfortunate prisoner of fanatical monks? Or will freeing him unleash evil on the world once again?
Season 2, Episode 17
Professional dancer Liz Powell (Barbara Nichols) is plagued by a recurring nightmare. No matter how her dream starts, she always winds up in a hospital, where a nurse leads her down a hallway to room 22, the morgue, and tells her they have room for one more. Everyone around her assumes Liz’s dreams are just the product of exhaustion. But when she starts seeing parallels between the nightmare and her real life, Liz knows that something more is going on.
“It’s A Good Life”
Season 3, Episode 8
One day, the people of Peaksville, Ohio woke up to find that the rest of the world had disappeared. The cause? A six-year-old boy, Anthony Fremont (Billy Mumy), who uses his mysterious powers to control the town and bend it to his whims. He can read minds, and if anyone displeases him, he sends them to a mysterious alternate universe he calls “the cornfield”.
What makes “It’s A Good Life” so scary is the fact that Anthony is so all-powerful. Everyone around him lives in constant fear, and there is no escape.
“The Midnight Sun”
Season 3, Episode 10
In the world of “The Midnight Sun”, the Earth has been thrown off its orbit and is slowly moving closer to the sun. With the end of the world imminent, artist Norma (Lois Nettleton) and her landlady Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde) attempt to stick it out in their New York City apartment building. As the temperature continues to rise, tensions between the two women heighten. The concept of slowly cooking to death is terrifying enough, but the episode also delivers a brutal twist that will send shivers down anyone’s spine.
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
Season 5, Episode 3
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is easily the most famous Twilight Zone episode, and for good reason. Six months after suffering a nervous breakdown, Robert Wilson (William Shatner) is on a flight home to settle back into his normal life. When he glances out the window, he’s shocked to see a gremlin on the wing of the plane. He’s quick to realize that no one will believe him, since his last breakdown was also on a plane, but he continues to call people over for help when he sees the creature tampering with one of the engines.
At first glance, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” wouldn't seem that scary to modern audiences, especially because the gremlin costume is very campy. But the real scares come from Robert’s palpable fear. We don’t recommend watching this one if you have a flight coming up.
Season 5, Episode 6
Of course, no horror series would be complete without an episode dedicated to a scary doll. Erich Streator (Telly Savalas) has always been frustrated by the fact that he can’t have children and takes that frustration out on his young stepdaughter Christine (Tracy Stratford). When Christine is given “Talky Tina”, a wind-up doll, by her mother, Erich is instantly irritated by it. It turns out the feeling is mutual when Tina starts talking to Erich without being wound up, telling him how much she dislikes him.
Terrified, Erich tries to get rid of Tina, but no matter what he does, the doll ends up back in the house. As his paranoia begins to tear his family apart, Tina makes it clear she will not stop until Erich pays the price for his actions.
Season 5, Episode 19
Elva Keene (Gladys Cooper), an elderly woman, keeps receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of a stormy night. Every time she picks up, all the groaning man on the other end says is that he wants to talk to her. Elva is terrified, but her housekeeper believes it’s just a bad connection because of the storm. But things get even more confusing when the call is traced to a downed phone line in the local cemetery.
Featured image from "The Twilight Zone" via CBS.