Updated: Sep 30, 2020
I have been a horror fan for 25 years and before Buffy, Angel and anything Joss Whedon came into my life I was watching Dawson’s Creek and Beverly Hills, 90210. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on March 10th, 1997, my life was forever changed. From that day I became a huge Joss Whedon fan and have remained one ever since.
As a lover of the creepy and macabre, I enjoy everything the genre has to offer; from spooky haunted houses to demonic possession, I indulge in it all! So here are, in no particular order, my top 10 scariest episodes in the Whedonverse.
1) Firefly: Out of Gas (S01E08)
This is the only Firefly episode on the list! In "Out of Gas", an old part of Serenity breaks and the oxygen and heat on the ship is running out fast. Mal sends his crew on two separate pods to try and survive while he stays behind to see if anyone responds to the distress signal. As he slowly runs out of oxygen, he reminisces on how he met his crew.
Space is horrifying! You truly are in constant danger and isolated from everyone and everything. If just one thing breaks down, you could die. There is no 911 that you can call, no ambulances, no rushing to the hospital and absolutely no running to your neighbor for help. You are utterly alone in the big wide open space. Just as the tag line from Alien states “in space no one can hear you scream", and you will die alone, suffocating.
2) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hush (S04E10)
This definitely has to be on the list since it is the pinnacle of horror in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Gentleman are a group of silent killers who come to towns, and through magic, steal everyone’s voices. Once the town has been silenced they can come into your homes and cut out your hearts!
From the way the Gentleman glide seamlessly around town to their creepy lullaby sung by children (below), "Hush" comes the closest to the essence of a true horror film. A lot of Buffy episodes, mainly the earlier ones, are influenced by gothic horror and this one is no exception. There is a terrific jump scare in the episode when Olivia, Giles’ romantic interest from England, looks out the window to come face to face with one of the maniacal Gentlemen.
“Can't even shout. Can't even cry. The Gentlemen are coming by. Looking in windows, knocking on doors... They need to take seven and they might take yours... Can't call to mom. Can't say a word. You're gonna die screaming but you won't be heard.”
3) Angel: Smile Time (S05E14)
This is one of my favorite episodes of Angel and though it’s rooted in more comedy than horror (Angel turns into a goddamn puppet!), it is very creepy as puppets give me the wiggins. Smile Time is a very popular kids show on cable TV which resides in the same building as Wolfram & Hart. It’s full of lovable puppets that teach children how to read and count, while also telling them stories. After a string of children are found dead while watching the show - albeit with a large smile on their face - Angel and the team start investigating the source. It’s, of course, evil black magic that has turned the puppets into demons.
The puppets kill the kids by coming right up close to the cameras during their show, asking them to do the same, while they drain their lifeforce. It is very unnerving. Talking puppets, even alive puppets, is a type of horror that I think only resonates with a small group of people. Maybe it stems from sleeping in rooms with dolls as children or watching Child’s Play too many times, but the fear of puppets/dolls comes from a deep, primal place.
PS: See Buffy’s The Puppet Show (S01E09) for more puppet horror!
4) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Killed by Death (S02E18)
Buffy’s cousin died in front of her while in the hospital when she was just eight years old. We learn this in "Killed by Death" as Buffy becomes ill and requires a hospital stay. While there, she finds out that children are being killed by a monster they call “Death”. Initially Buffy and the Scoobies think it’s a doctor that is harming the children, a manifestation of their fear. But, it turns out to be Der Kinderstod, a monster that kills children by sitting on top of them, pinning them down, and sucking out their souls.
"Killed by Death" plays upon our fears of disease, sickness and death. Not to mention how incredibly terrifying the Der Kinderstod is. It kills the innocent in their most weakened states which makes him incredibly monstrous. Once Buffy realizes that this was what killed her cousin so many years ago, she is even more determined to stop it. Buffy can’t defeat death but she can fight the monsters that cause it.
5) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Ted (S02E11)
In the five seasons that we are delighted by the presence of Joyce Summers, she doesn’t have any romantic partners. She tries, but nothing really pans out. Of course, she does have a good romp (or two!) with Giles during "Band Candy", but she never had someone regularly in her life. As we know, living on a Hellmouth can prove challenging to have a sustainable, healthy relationship. This is when we get Ted, the misogynistic, serial killing, robot.
Ted (played by the ever wonderful John Ritter) seems like the perfect man - great job, very polite and willing to work with Buffy to gain her acceptance. He encourages fun and activities with Buffy’s friends and shows respect towards Joyce. However, underneath his squeaky clean facade there is a devilish, violent robot. He assaults not only Buffy but Joyce near the end of the episode, so he can live his dream of keeping her all to himself secluded in his basement home. Ted shows his true nature as the relationship progresses which is something that abusive men are known to do. Not only is he physically abusive, he drugs those around him in his cooking to make them happy, compliant and submissive - which is how he likes his women. As the episode ends, Joyce laments on how she thinks he will just pop out of nowhere which keeps her looking over her shoulder.
Ted: “I don’t take orders from women, I'm not wired that way.”
PS: See the Angel episode "I Fall to Pieces" (S01E04) for similar themes of stalkers and obsessive men.
6) Angel: Expecting (S01E12)
In horror, pregnancies are almost always a nightmare with alien and demon spawn crawling out from the insides of unsuspecting women creating chaos in their wake! In "Expecting", Cordelia has a one night stand with this handsome, rich, successful man (a perfect man in her eyes) and wakes with a very unpleasant surprise: she is almost nine months pregnant. After a very emotional realization, Wesley and Angel find out the cause and destroy it, but not before Cordy gets a taste for blood and her demonic maternal instinct kicks in!
"Expecting" is a poignant episode of comedic horror covering the harsh realities of unwanted pregnancies. Cordy describes it as a “nightmare” at the Gyno, and her other friend that ends up being demonically impregnated is caught drinking alcohol by Angel and says that she hopes that it will harm the baby. These are all dark thoughts of women who were forced into pregnancy and those who would abort if they could.
7) Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Nightmares (S01E10)
This is a classic, fright filled episode where everyone’s most horrific nightmares come to life! A Sunnydale student dreams of tarantulas, Cordelia isn’t popular, and Xander goes to school naked. As the Scoobies keep hearing the words “lucky nineteen” being spoken during these nightmarish incidents, Buffy discovers the true story behind them - a young boy, Billy, is in a coma because he was assaulted by his little league coach for, in his eyes, losing their final game.
"Nightmares" mixes common horror tropes like evil clowns (!!!) with the real terrors of life - parental disappointment, losing our ability to read, and abuse. It’s a stellar episode and shows, early in the series, the depths to where Buffy can take us: out of reality and into gothic horror/fantasy while showing us that many metaphors in horror are true to life.
8) Angel: Billy (S03E06)
"Billy", though similar in overall themes to "Ted "and "I Fall to Pieces", is much darker than you would expect from Angel and it deserves its spot on the list. In "Billy", Billy is a man with demonic powers that, after touching the skin of a man, causes them to go into a misogynistic rage. It can happen immediately or hours later and the results are terrifying.
In a moment of horror influenced brilliance, Wesley gets infected with the woman-hating rage and goes after Fred, making her feel threatened, helpless and very small. He demeans and hits her. Then, in a very Shining-esque scene, stalks her with an axe throughout the hotel trying to kill her.
After Billy is killed life returns to normal but Wesley is ruined. Unbeknownst to Fred, he loves her and the fact that he brutalized her is too much for him to bear and he locks himself in his apartment, unable to come back to work.
9) Angel: I’ve Got Your Under My Skin (S01E14)
Cordelia gets a vision of a family in danger so Angel gets close to them, initially assuming it’s the Father that has something to hide. After a magical herb reveals that Timmy, the son, is possessed by a demon, the Angel team immediately steps into action to perform an exorcism and save the family.
Once the demon has been freed, they think all is well. Yet in a sudden turn of events, the demon tells them that the child is empty, devoid of all humanity and has the darkest mind he has ever felt. Queue the creepy evil child!
"I’ve Got You Under My Skin" is a classic mixture of both possession and evil kid horror tropes which makes for a spooky episode with a twist ending.
10) Dollhouse: The Attic (S02E10)
Since Dollhouse is a sci-fi TV series, it contains minimal to no horror conventions but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss "The Attic". Dollhouse deals with themes of identity, consent, souls and our fears of technology -- the advancement of it and how that affects us. But nothing is more upsetting than the concept of the Attic.
In this episode, our trio of Actives - Sierra, Victor and Echo - have already been placed into the attic. In the Dollhouse, you either obey orders without question, be sent to the Attic or die. In the Attic you are hooked up to machines to monitor your vital signs while your mind is placed in a state of constant adrenaline and fear. Your greatest nightmares are re-lived over and over again. For Sierra, this is where she is having sex with Victor, her beloved partner, but then he suddenly turns into the rapist who she killed in an earlier episode. Sierra has to experience this trauma, over and over, until she is released from this prison of the mind. As per Topher, “no one comes back” from the Attic.
PS: If you haven’t watched Dollhouse, I urge you to remedy that immediately. I personally believe it is a brilliant show well before its time. Its themes are just as relevant now as it was in 2009, maybe more so. Though the show may not be horrific, the themes will make your skin crawl.
After 25 years of being a horror fan I have come to realize, and fully appreciate, the intricacies of what the genre has to offer. It’s incredibly diverse and not only can it thrill you and shake you up, it’s a safe space where creators can comment on society and fully express their own fears. Horror isn’t just cheap jump scares and gore, it’s so much more than that and I believe that each of these episodes demonstrate this. Real life is scary enough so let’s escape to a place where we can safely face our fears and come out stronger than before.