It’s well known that The Walking Dead is one of AMC’s top hits. It’s also well known that the show features some scenes that are really on the disturbing side. From zombie attacks to brutal attacks, the series has never shied away from scenes that viewers can cringe over and freak out about. However, TWD is hardly alone when it comes to some disturbing scenes on television. Indeed, between cable TV and even broadcast television, there are plenty of shows that can offer stuff that makes Dead look downright tame. CBS’ Criminal Minds regularly features twisted serial killers committing brutal acts. Other cable shows push boundaries in violence and many a horror anthology from The Twilight Zone on down has introduced some creepy elements.
It’s not just in modern times either. Even the 1980s could offer some truly gripping stories and scenes, some of which you can’t believe ever got on air in the first place. Some involve supernatural elements while others are all too believable and thus even more disturbing. From brutal deaths to just tough elements, these are sequences that have the power to shake you up majorly watching, even years after they first aired. It’s amazing to see these moments which can make you squirm and give you nightmares. Here are 15 TV scenes that can make Dead look downright tame and how television in any format can have the power to make you freak out.
Quite obviously, SPOILER ALERT!
15. Maggie Gets Sawed In Half – American Horror Story: Freak Show
You can pack an entire separate list for the most disturbing moments of American Horror Story. The FX anthology seems to go out of its way to give viewers moments that make them squirm and even shriek at home. Perhaps it’s fitting one of its most cringe-worthy moments comes from the “Freak Show” season. Maggie Esmerelda (Emma Roberts) had been showcased as a con artist who joins the circus act to try and find a “freak” she can sell. It leads to various twists and turns as she romances the lobster-handed Jimmy but rocked when someone else cuts off his hands to sell to a museum.
Late in the season, Maggie is called upon by would-be magician Chester (Neil Patrick Harris) to take part in his saw-in-half trick. She agrees, unaware Chester happens to be a nutcase prone to hallucinations. Two circus workers secretly cuff Maggie’s feet together to make it impossible for her to escape. Chester then proceeds to saw her in half, not grasping he’s using a real saw. Maggie starts screaming but he keeps right on going. He then pulls the box apart, allowing Maggie’s internal organs to flop to the ground. Chester attempts to put her together to no avail (obviously) and the rest of the freaks just shrug as Maggie had it coming. They proceed to bury her and steal her jewels. Even by the standards of AHS, this was one truly brutal death scene that even Maggie didn’t deserve.
14. Katz’s Death – Hannibal
You’d expect a series involving one of the most infamous killers in fiction to have gruesome stuff. NBC’s prequel to The Silence of the Lambs was hailed by critics for its fantastic style and griping plot twists. Mads Mikkelsen played the younger Dr. Hannibal Lecter who aids the FBI while hiding his murderous antics. In the first season, Lecter expertly frames FBI agent Will Graham as the Chesapeake Ripper, putting Will in jail. However, agent Beverly Katz believes in Will’s claims of innocence and checks out Hannibal’s place for evidence.
Sadly, she’s discovered by Hannibal as he turns the lights off. FBI boss Jack is then called to an observatory where we see Katz’s body in a glass case. The camera then turns as we see that she has been expertly filleted into separate sections, each one put in a different glass case like some sort of twisted anatomy diagram. That she still has her clothes on makes it even freakier, showing the twisted care Hannibal put into this. It’s one of the darkest twists of an already dark show and a reminder of the terrifying figure Hannibal the Cannibal is in any incarnation.
13. Penguin’s Special Meal – Gotham
Among Batman’s various villains, the Penguin is seen as downright normal. Sure, he’s a killer and has that umbrella obsession but in no way is he as insane as others. In Gotham, Robin Lord Taylor plays the younger Oswald Cobblepot who rises to a powerful crime lord. In the second season, Oswald is taken out of power and imprisoned in an asylum, freed and trying to change his life. He soon discovers the rich father he never knew (played by Paul Reubens) who takes Oswald in and the man is happy to have a good life. However, the man’s wicked wife (Melinda Clarke) and her bratty children aren’t as happy about this new heir. They plan to poison Oswald but his father ends up drinking it instead.
At first working as the family’s housekeeper, Oswald discovers what happened and it reawakens his dark side. At dinner, he serves step-mom Grace with a special meal. He then reveals he knows what they did as Grace calls out for her children. She asks where they are and a giggling Oswald asks how she thought the two steaks tasted the same. He then rubs a finger over and licks it to note “Sasha was more tender.” A horrified Grace has a moment to realize what’s happened before Oswald stabs her multiple times. That’s right: The Penguin murdered his step-siblings and then cooked and fed them to their own mother. Even the Joker would be going “that’s a little harsh.”
12. Carrie’s Bath Time – Homeland
Showtime finally hit the creative jackpot with Homeland. The gripping espionage thriller focused on Carrie Mathieson (Claire Danes), a brilliant but bipolar intelligence operative tracking suspected POW turned terrorist Brody. The series won Emmys for Best Drama and Danes who showcased how Carrie is basically a mess, convinced staying off meds helps her thinking process and she and Brody soon engage in an affair. It ends with him hanged by a mob and Carrie pregnant with his child. The show had already showcased a lot of dark turns for Carrie, willing to engage in illegal activities to get ahead and more. However, the series may have crossed a line with the fourth season premiere. After time away, Carrie returns home where her daughter has been cared for by her sister. Fans expected to see a happy reunion but got something much darker.
Alone with the child, Carrie gives it a bath when it slips and falls under the water. For a chilling moment, which feels so much longer, it’s obvious Carrie is considering letting it drown. The camera even switches to a view from the baby of its mother staring down from above the water. This is a woman already troubled and now adding post-partum depression to her list of mental woes. She was far happier in the field, doing her job, not a mother and for a brief moment, she thinks she can be that way again. Thankfully, Carrie regains her senses to pull her daughter up and give her a hug. It’s a terrifying moment and even Carrie realizes it’s better she be away from her daughter until she gets her head on straight. The series has shown Carrie far better with her growing child but many a viewer found her actions more terrifying than any terrorist act.
11. The Lizard Baby Birth – V The Final Battle
Created as an obvious allegory, V was also a fantastic ratings success. The series focused on humanoid aliens called the Visitors coming to Earth and soon integrating into all parts of human society. However, a small Resistance discovers they’re actually lizards in disguise with Nazi-like ways out to steal Earth’s water and turn humans into food. As part of her twisted experiments, Visitor leader Diana (Jane Balder) gets one Visitor to impregnate innocent human teenager Robin. At first in denial, Robin is forced to admit the truth after eating raw meat and getting a green band around her neck. She tries to have the pregnancy terminated but it can’t be done.
Going into labor, Robin is brought to the Resistance’s medical center and leader Julie handles the birth. At first, it seems to be going well, ending with a beautiful baby girl born. Robin is happy to see her, an aid holding the child up…at which point, a forked red tongue streaks out at everyone. Naturally, they’re hysterical when suddenly Robin starts feeling pains and realizes she has twins. To the horrified eyes of everyone, out crawls a twisted lizard creature whose almost human eyes open to growl out. For viewers of the time, this was a truly disturbing moment and a highlight of this gripping sci-fi tale.
10. Pope’s Revenge – Sons Of Anarchy
FX’s Shakespearean motorcycle drama never shied away from dark stuff. However, even by its standards, this was a doozy. Clay kills Piney in a fight and Piney’s son, Opie, shoots Clay in retaliation. Worried this can affect the gang, Jax puts out the story that Clay was shot by a member of a gang called the Niners. This backfires as hot-headed Tig tries to run down the Niner gangbanger he thinks shot Clay. The Niner survives as Tig kills his girlfriend…who just happens to be the daughter of Damon Pope, the most feared gangster in California.
Dragged to an abandoned train yard, Tig assumes Pope is going to kill him. Instead, Pope states he wants Tig to know the same pain Pope is feeling. He reveals Tig’s teenage daughter Dawn lying in a pit and has her doused in gasoline. Tig begs for him to be killed instead but Pope flicks his cigar into the pit. Chained up, Tig can only watch helplessly as his daughter erupts into flame, screaming for help from her father. Her screams finally die out with her as Pope tells Tig to let this go or he’ll go after Tig’s other daughter. This kicks off a brutal war between the Sons and Pope’s crew and even for SOA, killing an innocent teenager in such a brutal manner was a shocking move.
9. Home – The X-Files
In a way, it’s ironic. Over nine seasons, The X-Files specialized in freaking out fans with segments of aliens, mutants, science-created monsters and more. Yet, what most fans consider its most terrifying episode is about a threat all too real. Investigating the body of a baby, Mulder and Scully suspect a local tribe of brothers called the Peacocks. The baby has signs of inbreeding which baffles the duo as to how the brothers could have done this. They go after them only for the Peacocks to strike back. They bludgeon the sheriff and his wife with bats and when the deputy arrives to arrest them, he’s decapitated by a trap. Then it gets bad.
The house is something out of the nightmares of Eli Roth, packed with hidden passages and doorways which the brothers use to attack Mulder and Scully. The duo eventually finds the clan’s mother, a twisted quadruple amputee who’s been sleeping with her sons. While the agents manage to kill two of them, the mother and another brother escape to start a new family elsewhere. The episode rocked viewers with Fox never re-running it due to viewer outcry. Even the producers have admitted it was a bit much. Incredibly, it could have been worse; the opening was originally to have the idea of the baby being buried alive and crying but the network said there was no way to get away with that. Ask anyone who worked on The X-Files and they’ll agree that “Home” is the one episode that was way too scary for them.
8. The Attack – The Day After
Back in 1983, this was a television event that basically scared the absolute living hell out of anyone who saw it. Running with no commercials, ABC’s movie focused on a small Kansas town as well as Kansas City itself. Ripped from the headlines, it imagines the Soviet Union doing a military buildup in East Germany that soon has NATO on alert. The citizens of the town are concerned but still think cooler heads will prevail. However, it just ends up exploding into World War III. As folks from Jason Robards’ doctor to John Lithgow’s professor watch, nuclear missiles sail out of silos and they know the Russian response is coming.
Driving home, Robards is rocked as every car goes out and then a mushroom cloud erupts over Kansas City. In a sequence horrifying for 1983, flashes showcase people from schoolrooms to shoppers irradiated into ash. Buildings explode as cities are wiped out. A family who waited too late to run are engulfed in flame. A young boy is instantly blinded by the explosion as the shockwave blows away more buildings. The movie showcases the survivors dealing with the fallout and the chilling realization almost no one is going to survive all this. Over 100 million people tuned in and according to rumors, President Ronald Reagan was so disturbed that he immediately began making moves to avoid such a confrontation for real. Even today, this realistic view of nuclear war is terrifying to an amazing degree.
7. The Red Wedding – Game of Thrones
The best summation of how gripping this sequence is comes from George R. R. Martin himself: “They took the darkest thing I ever wrote and made it darker.” While book readers were prepared for this scene, even they were taken aback at how graphic the filmed version was. So imagine how it felt for those who hadn’t read the books. When Robb Stark chooses to marry Talisa for love, he angers Walder Frey as Robb had agreed to marry his own daughter in a political move. Nonetheless, Frey appears to hold no grudge as he hosts the wedding party with Robb, mother Catelyn and their gathered forces. It’s going well as the band begins “The Rains of Castemere” and Catelyn senses something is off. As Frey talks of how he’s preparing a “gift,” Catelyn sees that Roose Bolton is wearing armor under his clothing. She slaps him and calls out for Robb but it’s too late.
Frey’s son moves in and stabs the pregnant Talisa several times in the stomach. At which point, all hell breaks loose. The band and other Frey guests pull out crossbows to fire down, knives flash and the Stark group barely realizes what’s happening as they’re massacred. The same happens outside the hall as even Robb’s wolf is killed in its pen. Having just finally found her family, Arya is horrified to see this happening and dragged away by Sandor.
Inside, Catelyn grabs one of Frey’s wives, saying she’ll spare her if Robb lives. Instead, Roose stabs Robb and a sobbing Catelyn kills the wife. She stands there, overcome with grief and it’s almost an afterthought when her own throat is slit. It was a horrifying moment that rocked fans to the core and a reminder that in the world of Westeros, no one is safe.
6. Werewolf Transformation – Hemlock Grove
Usually, werewolf transformations in TV shows are handled as nothing major. True Blood has people shifting into wolves in a second and Teen Wolf shows it as something cool too. But Netflix’s horror series gave what may well be the single most gruesome transformation sequence of all time. Considering the series is produced by infamous horror master Eli Roth, you’d expect something nasty. Throughout the first episode, gypsy Peter (Landon Liboiron) has been running from this but his plans to lock himself up go awry when he’s attacked by thugs. With the full moon rising, the transformation begins and it’s horrific. You hear the cracking of bones as Peter’s body shifts, his spine, arms and legs all changing in size.
Instead of just shifting color, his eyeballs fall out of his head. Fur tears through his skin as what looks like a wolf’s head emerges from his mouth. With one final shake, the wolf literally sheds the human skin and stands tall on its own. The idea the guy goes through this three times every month is the real horror and puts so many of the old werewolf myths to shame.
5. Al’s Surgery – Deadwood
Kidney stones are not a pleasant thing to experience. Now try to imagine how it must have been in 1886. HBO’s fantastic Western series was acclaimed for its fantastic acting and some of the most coarse language ever put on television. However, it may have reached one of its most disturbing moments early in the second season. Having been established as a conniving murderer, Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) has been having obvious health issues, unable to relieve himself. Doc Cochran determines he has kidney stones which today would be dealt with by a little medication and maybe a quick surgery. But in this time, the only way to handle it is as absolutely unpleasant as you can imagine.
While the show thankfully doesn’t get too graphic, it’s clear that Doc has to slide a metal pole up Al’s manhood into his urethra. That’s already gripping but then you realize that there was no anesthetic back then and, in fact, knocking Al out would make it worse. Thus, Al’s gang members have to physically hold him down as Doc slides the pole in. The camera focuses on McShane’s face as he sells the utter agony Al is enduring. His screams of pain echo through the entire town and even enemy Bullock is shaken by it. This is a series filled with brutal fights and deaths yet watching Al endure this painful procedure is a reminder how dark the Old West could be.
4. Dorian’s Portrait – Penny Dreadful
Showtime’s popular series mixed together classic Victorian gothic stories into one great mix. Among the characters was Dorian Grey, from the classic story of a man who stayed eternally young while a portrait of him aged. Played by Reeve Carney, Dorian was shown as charming, a bit bored by his eternal life but still fun and fans liked him. However, that was thrown out the window in the second season when Dorian and his male lover, who he seemed to truly give his heart to, share a drink. After a few moments, the lover shakes and collapses, dying of poison, Dorian simply looking down coldly as it sinks in that this is how he deals with lovers when he grows bored of them.
That leads to the reveal, at last, of the portrait. It is utterly horrific, a figure with ashen skin and covered in scars and burns, chained up as it curls onto its knees. That’s bad enough…but then the portrait looks right up at the viewer. The implication is that the portrait is somehow alive and feels nothing but pure hate for the man who throws all his sins onto the drawing. This scene shows that even in a world with Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mr. Hyde, Dorian may be the greatest monster of the bunch.
3. Helen’s death – Spooks
Known as MI-5 in the United States, Spooks was a popular spy drama on the British intelligence branch that had a big premiere in 2002. Lisa Faulkner was well known in England as a soap opera star and a chef. Thus, it was assumed she would have a major role on the series as Helen Flynn, an analyst for the team. In the second episode, Helen and teammate Danny are sent undercover to investigate a radical man preparing to induce race attacks. They do their best but are found out and the terrorist demands to know who they’re working for.
Fans may have expected something rough but no one dreamed of what was going to happen. Tom refuses to talk as the terrorist pushes Helen’s hand into a deep fryer. When Tom still refuses to give up anything, the man shoves the woman’s entire head into the fryer. He then pulls it out, giving viewers a glimpse of Helen’s horrifically burned face before shooting her in the head. Luckily for Tom, the man’s battered wife throws her cigarette into the fryer, giving Tom a chance to escape. Worse, the team is told they can’t go after the guy for Helen’s murder because their superiors want to keep tracking him…so leader Harry has him killed on his own. Killing off what looked like a major character in only the second episode was a shocker but doing it in such a grisly way showed Spooks wasn’t playing by the rules.
2. Punky Goes Crazy – Punky Brewster
You wouldn’t expect this show on a list like this. The 1980s NBC series starred a young Soleli Moon Frye in the title role of a street kid taken in by an older guardian. It was mostly fun and upbeat although some surprisingly powerful episodes (one has Punky dealing with the Challenger explosion) to teach kids. But in “Perils of Punky,” the show suddenly looked like it was being made by George Romero. The kids are at camp, hiding out from a storm in a cave where some Native Americans tell them of a dark spirit in the woods. This leads to the stuff of nightmares.
Punky is attacked by a monstrous spider. Punky’s friends are taken with the decapitated head of one stuck in a cave wall calling for Punky’s name. Another’s head floats in the air with red eyes and then the body of another falls, basically withered to a skeleton. She’s then shown a vision of her foster dad saying he’d be better off without her and finally the skeleton of her dog. Punky ends up defeating the spirit and it turns out this was all a ghost story she was telling her friends to pass the time in the cave. Still, transforming a kid’s comedy into The Blair Witch Project counts as one of the darkest things NBC ever put on the air.
1. Jamie And Black Jack – Outlander
Starz’s hit adaptation of the best-selling novels has long been loved by fans for some adult material. It focuses on Claire Randall, a nurse from 1948 who falls through a portal to 1743 Scotland. She soon meets and falls in love with Jamie, a Highlander who is forced to marry Claire to protect her from his clan. The two also run afoul of “Black Jack” Randall, an utterly ruthless British colonel who happens to be the lookalike ancestor of Claire’s 20th century husband. A gripping sequence had Randall attempting to assault Claire but stopped by Jamie.
Later in the first season, to save Claire’s life, Jamie gives himself up to be captured by Randall. He expects torture but not what happens next. In a cold prison cell, Randall proceeds to whip Jamie, burn him and also crush his hand. But the worst is when he has his way with the Highlander, subjecting this proud man to repeated sexual assaults. It’s disturbing, especially when it’s clear that, in his own twisted way, Randall has some feelings for Jamie. Even after Claire rescues him, it haunts Jamie and pushes Randall as the show’s main villain to set up an epic battle later in the series.