20 TV Shows That Scared The Life Out Of Us As Kids
Some might say that children’s television these days is so watered down that it’s unlikely to ever offend, scare, or even excite. Things were different in the 1980s however, when creators of TV shows seemed far less concerned with wrapping their young viewers in cotton wool or protecting their eyes from anything slightly challenging.
And whilst we would take our childhood TV viewing over Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig any day of the week, we do have to admit that the more relaxed approach to programming in our youth meant there were a handful of shows that scared the absolute life out of us. Take the shows listed below, for example…
20. The Box of Delights
A festive TV show that holds a place in our hearts (and our deep-set childhood traumas) is The Box of Delights.
Originally broadcast as six half-hour episodes over Christmas 1984, it was adapted from John Masefield’s fantasy novel of the same name.
The Box of Delights told the story of a schoolboy given a magical box that allowed him to travel through time.
The box also gave our hero the ability to shape-shift, in order to protect the box from an evil magician
The Box of Delights starred the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, and with a budget of £1 million it was the most expensive show ever produced for Children’s BBC at the time.
We’d say that every penny made it to the screen – although we couldn’t say for certain, as we were hiding behind the sofa for a lot of it.
Gerry Anderson, legendary pioneer of Supermarionation (that’s ‘puppet shows’ to the rest of us), has long been famed for his enduring hits Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet.
When Terrahawks arrived in 1983, it marked Anderson’s first work with puppets in over a decade, and it would also be his last show to feature them.
It may have been a show made with models and puppets, but evil alien queen Zelda gave us some really bad nightmares. Just look at her!
Terrahawks (which, we might note, was set in what was then the far-off year of 2020) featured a band of humans who defended Earth against the aforementioned evil alien queen.
Though Anderson’s best known work was classed as Supermarionation, the puppetry used for Terrahawks was dubbed Supermacronation, as the show utilised latex puppets rather than the traditional wooden marionettes.
18. Dungeons & Dragons
Dungeons & Dragons was an animated show based on the popular role-playing game, and centred on a quintet of teens who are mysteriously transported to a magical world via a fairground ride.
The show originally aired from 1983 through 1985, and as fun as it was, it got very scary at times – not least thanks to intimidating bad guy Venger, and the five-headed dragon Tiamat.
We particularly remember the episode Maze of Darkness, which saw the friends encountering hypnotic lights that made them hate and attack each other.
There was also City at the Edge of Midnight, which saw small children being dragged through a portal located under their beds and then made to work in some kind of demonic factory.
All pretty creepy stuff – and made all the creepier as the show was cancelled before the story could be brought to a proper conclusion, meaning the kids never actually made it back home!
17. The Boy from Space
Given it was first broadcast all the way back in 1971, you’ll be forgiven for not being automatically familiar with The Boy from Space.
However, the show was repeated on British television in the 80s, and scared the absolute pants off most of us then, much as it had for the previous generation of young viewers.
The Boy from Space was a BBC science fiction series that saw siblings Dan and Helen doing their best to protect their new friend, a strange blue alien boy they named Peep-Peep, from the terrifying ‘Thin Man’.
Originally broadcast as part of educational children’s show Look and Read, the 80s broadcast of The Boy from Space featured the lovable presenters Wordy and Cosmo.
But as non-threatening as the presenters may have been, the Thin Man was still terrifying, and the show’s abstract style really got under the skin of many young viewers.
Few British TV shows of the 80s shaped the imagination of young viewers in quite the same way as Knightmare.
This brilliant British kids’ adventure game show sent teams of children into a computer-generated fantasy environment, which usually took the form of a scary dungeon.
There the contestants would try (and usually fail) to complete perilous quests, under the guidance of Treguard, the wise dungeon master – and all the while, a gradually decomposing skull in the corner of the screen would indicate how much life they had left.
The show’s creator, Tim Child, came up with the idea of using blue screen technology after he saw it being used in TV weather forecasts, and it resulted in some really creepy dungeon scenarios: terrifying monsters, evil wizards and giant spiders were often a part of this.
The number of kids who actually completed their quests was tiny compared to those who were ‘despatched’, to the sound of portentous bells and Treguard’s signature sign-off line, “ooh – nasty!”
15. The Chronicles of Narnia
Before the more expensive (but underwhelming) movies, there was a Chronicles of Narnia BBC TV series that aired from 1988 until 1990.
A beloved family favourite on Sunday evenings, the series adapted four of C.S. Lewis’ classic books for the screen: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair.
To modern eyes it may look a bit cheap, but The Chronicles of Narnia was enchanting – and often terrifying – to pre-teen viewers at the time.
The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe surely had the greatest impact: who could forget Barbara Kellerman’s sinister White Witch, the monstrous wolf Maugrim, and the truly traumatic murder of the beloved lion Aslan?
That’s not to say the later shows didn’t have their scary moments too: take the sea serpent that attacks the boat in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
14. Doctor Who
If there’s one show that’s always been synonymous with sending kids to hide behind the sofa in terror, it’s long-running science fiction series Doctor Who.
Despite it now having many times the budget it did in its early incarnation, Doctor Who isn’t half as scary as it was when we (and our parents) were children.
This is largely because the Daleks, now seen as something of a joke, were completely terrifying when they first hit black and white TV screens all the way back in 1963.
Nor were the Daleks the only terrifying thing Doctor Who presented us with in the old days: there was also the Cybermen, the Autons, the Zygons…
Credit where it’s due, though: the 21st century revival of Doctor Who has had its share of scary monsters, not least the Weeping Angels.
13. The Real Ghostbusters
Every kid in the 80s, and we should hope most of those born since then, know that the question “who you gonna call?” can only ever be answered with “GHOSTBUSTERS!”
As much as we all loved the first two movies (let’s leave the 2016 reboot out of this), it was arguably animated TV series The Real Ghostbusters that ensured the franchise remained close to our hearts.
The Real Ghostbusters (so named because of rights issues, due to a pre-existing cartoon named Ghost Busters) may have been aimed squarely at kids, but this didn’t stop it being genuinely spooky viewing.
The Real Ghostbusters featured H.P. Lovecraft references, as well as stories that had nods to Norse mythology and even the Bermuda Triangle.
Fan favourites like Slimer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man featured in there too, but the show also gave us a veritable smorgasbord of hideous demonic entities which would surely have been too much for younger viewers in live action form.
12. The Girl from Tomorrow
Any good children’s adventure show had to include at least a hint of peril, and The Girl from Tomorrow definitely brought this.
An Australian children’s television series, The Girl from Tomorrow was based around Alana, a girl from the year 3000 who has the power to heal via a futuristic device called the Transducer.
At the beginning of the first series, Alana is kidnapped by Silverthorn, a criminal from the year 2500, and then brought back in time to the year 1990.
The fact that Alana constantly had to run away from the bad guys in their white van was something that caused us a large amount of stress when we were young.
There was an added edge to proceedings as, while he may have been a pure villain, Silverthorn had a good reason to be after Alana: she was the only one with the power to cure his own fatal ailment.
Before you say it – no, this was not a kids’ TV show centred on the future antagonist of the Saw movies.
Still, considering the psychological impact that Jigsaw had on some of us, perhaps it might as well have been.
Jigsaw was a BBC ‘entertaining puzzle-based show for under sevens’, which originally aired between 1979 and 1984.
If you ever watched Jigsaw it then you are very likely to remember Mr Noseybonk, the scary long-nosed creature that crept around with his white gloves.
The intention may have been innocent, but that mask with its exaggerated features and staring eyes was the stuff of nightmares!
10. Dark Season
This 1991 Children’s BBC drama was notable for launching two major talents: one of them was writer Russell T Davies, who would go on to spearhead the revival of Doctor Who.
The other was actress Kate Winslet, who would headline the gargantuan box office smash Titanic, and later scoop a Best Actress Oscar for The Reader.
But before any of us knew that, all we could tell you about Dark Season was that it was one creepy piece of television.
Dark Season centres on a trio of curious youngsters who notice things getting weird when their school suddenly receives new computers from a mysterious man by the name of Eldritch (nothing suspicious there, then).
In the years since this sinister sci-fi adventure first aired, many fans and critics have noted that Dark Season is similar in tone and content to the Doctor Who stories Davies would work on over a decade later.
9. The Demon Headmaster
Launched in 1982, The Demon Headmaster book series by Gillian Cross was staple reading for a whole lot of kids from the 80s into the 90s.
However, it wasn’t until 1996 that Cross’s creepy creation really broke through to the wider audience with the launch of the Children’s BBC adaptation.
Actor Terrence Hardiman took the title role – and in so doing entered the nightmares of a generation of younger viewers.
As his handle might suggest, there’s something more than a little off about this particular school principal, who has strange, hypnotic powers.
The Demon Headmaster proved to have enduring appeal, to the extent that it was rebooted on the CBBC channel in 2019.
8. Are You Afraid of the Dark?
While all the shows we’ve discussed so far had scary elements, few of them embraced scariness so whole-heartedly as Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Debuting in 1990, this Canadian series was essentially a kid-friendly version of Tales from the Crypt, telling a completely new chilling story in each episode.
However, instead of the Crypt Keeper, Are You Afraid of the Dark? featured the Midnight Society, a group of teens who got together specifically to share their best, scariest stories.
The show packed in scary stories galore, as well as providing early roles for a slew of future stars including Neve Campbell, Jay Baruchel, Elisha Cuthbert and Ryan Gosling.
Are You Afraid of the Dark? is another show which has remained popular enough for it to be rebooted, with the latest incarnation of the series first airing in October 2019.
Children’s ITV series T-Bag really is one of those shows of which you can honestly say they don’t make them like that anymore.
With all the production value and performance quality of a pantomime, you’d be hard-pressed to envisage kids of today taking the slightest interest in it.
Yet back in the 80s (when our viewing options were admittedly far more limited), we couldn’t help but be transfixed – and more than a little terrified – of the weird, ongoing saga of the malevolent witch T-Bag and her hapless young helper T-Shirt.
Starting in 1985, T-Bag originally centred on the villainous Tallulah Bag, played by Elizabeth Estensen, until Estensen left the show in 1990 and the focus shifted to her character’s sister, Tabatha Bag, played by Georgina Hale.
As kitsch and colourful as it all was, there was something inescapably sinister about the whole thing, thanks in no small part to its truly eerie opening theme music.
6. Round the Twist
Created by author Paul Jennings in 1990, Australian TV show Round the Twist became a firm favourite of young viewers in the early 90s.
The show had many notable strengths, including a theme tune that is impossible to get out of your head (“Have you ever, ever felt like this…”).
However, Round the Twist was also notable for pushing the boat out pretty far on what we might normally expect to see in a kids’ show.
Not content with just scaring kids, Round the Twist often seemed eager to do real psychological damage to its viewers, getting truly weird, gross and often astonishingly inappropriate.
Round the Twist brought us episodes in which a boy gets pregnant, another in which a kissing curse results in accidental incest, multiple instances of public nudity (with children, no less), and – honestly – a story in which a boy’s penis magical gets propeller-like powers.
Arguably, there’s no single entertainment franchise more synonymous with child-oriented horror than Goosebumps.
Based on R.L. Stine’s best-selling series of novels, Goosebumps first came to screens in the form of the 1995 TV series.
The anthology horror series would continue until 1998, with a total of 74 episodes made.
The episodes directly adapted Stine’s stories, and while the show probably didn’t have the same impact as the books themselves, they did wonders to help the brand.
No doubt the popularity of the show was a factor in Goosebumps being relaunched as a film franchise in recent years.
4. Eerie, Indiana
For most viewers, Omri Katz will always be associated first and foremost for his role as Max Dennison in perennial Halloween family favourite Hocus Pocus.
However, those of us who were around in the 90s will remember him as Marshall Teller, hero of the short-lived but sensational TV series Eerie, Indiana.
Katz’s Marshall is the new kid in town, who comes to the realisation that there’s something distinctly not-normal about his new digs. (Which sounds quite a lot like the premise of Hocus Pocus when it’s put down like that.)
A single 19-episode season was produced between 1991 and 1992; it came hot on the heels of Twin Peaks, which would seem to have influenced the show’s surreal, sometimes funny but often very sinister tone.
Sadly, Eerie, Indiana was deemed a bit too weird for the time and was quickly cancelled, although years later it built up enough of a cult following to spawn the equally short-lived spin-off series Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension in 1998.
This six-part adaptation of Helen Cresswell’s novel of the same name was one of the most eerily atmospheric Children’s BBC shows of the 80s.
A chilling, hard-edged ghost story, it centres on a modern day teenager who, whilst staying in the country, finds a mysterious moondial that mystically transports her back in time.
Here, her fate becomes entangled with that of two other children, and they all must work together in order to save each other.
While it may be a children’s series, Moondial touches on some harsh issues: losing a parent, child labour, prejudice.
And, of course, it’s all kinds of creepy, no least in the sequences in which a mob of cloaked children angrily chant “devil’s child.”
2. Children of the Stones
This seven-episode Children’s ITV series from 1976 has been hailed as the all-time scariest TV show for kids.
Set in a small village that houses a neolithic stone circle (actually shot at the real stone circle in Avebury, Wiltshire), Children of the Stones is a mystical mystery of the highest order.
Famously, the show’s director, Peter Graham Scott, was genuinely shocked on reading the script that it was intended to be a children’s show.
Nightmarish and abstract, the series involved druids, time travel, and all manner of paranormal phenomena.
Even without taking the subject matter into account, Children of the Stones was pure nightmare fuel thanks to the opening theme music, with its howling winds and terrifying atonal voices.
1. Worzel Gummidge
There are those who will argue that there is absolutely nothing harmful about Worzel Gummidge, the beloved 70s TV series based on Barbara Euphan Todd’s books.
However, our lifelong complexes about 1. malevolent scarecrows and 2. talking severed heads beg to differ.
Doctor Who’s Jon Pertwee took the title role, as a living scarecrow – who to our innocent young eyes looked more like a walking corpse (and still does, honestly).
Perhaps Worzel and his scarecrow chums were essentially well-meaning, but those leering expressions combined with those make-up jobs from hell made us run screaming from the television.
And it seems our generation is not the only one to have been scarred horribly by Worzel Gummidge.
The recent Worzel reboot starring Mackenzie Crook drew widespread criticism, for giving Crook a face that many likened to A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger.