Children’s television has always been a slightly more experimental place, where imaginations run a little wilder, and our disbelief is put in time-out.
It is also where many of us began our journey into the creepy and fantastical – who wouldn’t with TV shows full of fantasy tropes, new worlds, and physics-defying stunts?
Who remembers when Courage The Cowardly Dog was asked to “return the slab” or when the opening theme to Goosebumps did its job so effectively that the tiny hairs on the nape of our neck immediately stood at attention, expecting another terrifying story?
We decided to take a walk down memory lane and open up the chest we put all those scary memories in to investigate which kids’ TV shows creeped us out the most as children.
Hint – it’s all of them!
Tales From The Cryptkeeper, CBS (1999 – 2000)
Hailing from the success of Tales from The Crypt, this animated TV show was aimed at young minds on the hunt for a Saturday morning scare and had a successful 3 season run before heading into the proverbial grave it rose from.
A fun fact is that the series is actually based on a series of E. C. Comics Horror Anthology comic books from the 1950s!
The premise revolves around an animated Cryptkeeper telling terrifying stories with a moral twist at the end.
Although it keeps its young audience in mind, the show pulls no punches and leans deeply into its horror atmosphere.
Spooky cackles, rival storytellers, witches, and new takes on mythological beasts make this one of the creepiest shows to come from our childhoods.
Goosebumps, Fox Kids (1995 – 1998)
From the mind of R. L. Stine – often described as the Stephen King of children’s literature – comes one of the most memorable horror entries into children’s television programming.
Having written more books than one child could get through in a summer holiday, it was time for the horrific visions of the Goosebumps franchise to come to the small screen.
Each episode of the anthology show is based on a different book and often features young protagonists who find themselves in perilous situations with a supernatural twist.
One of the creepier episodes that still plagues many fans is The Haunted Mask; a horrifically claustrophobic morality tale, and that is all we can say without spoilers!
The legacy of Goosebumps still lives on today and has spawned many reprints, movies, and even a highly anticipated reboot of the series on the way.
Are You Afraid of The Dark?, Nickelodeon (1990 – 2002)
If you weren’t afraid of the dark as a child, you certainly were after a few episodes of this anthology horror series.
It proved so popular that it has seen two revivals since its original airing in 1990, with the latest being in 2019.
Meet The Midnight Society, a group of young teens on the hunt for some serious scares and creeps.
In each episode, they meet up around a campfire and elect a member to tell a story that would make the dark itself shiver.
As the storyteller readies their audience by saying “Submitted for the approval of The Midnight Society, I call this story X”, we, along with the other members of the group would settle in as the scene transitions to the story we’re about to see.
Sometimes the stories would be based on classic horror tropes like witches, vampires and ghouls, and other times the teens would draw from their own lives and write tales of vengeance and punishment with a supernatural air.
As the story ends, The Midnight Society would put out the flames, leaving the viewers in the dark, and hopefully afraid.
Courage The Cowardly Dog, Cartoon Network (1999 – 2002)
The offbeat embodiment of everyone’s anxiety, Courage is a small bundle of nerves trapped in a nightmare universe in the Middle of Nowhere.
This comedy horror show centers on the titular Courage and his owners, one a loving doting motherly figure and the other a typical grumpy old man who sees none of the shenanigans happening around them and has nothing but disdain for our tiny protagonist.
Courage is an absolutely terrifying trip for any child and has a special place in the hearts of many creep-seeking TV watchers.
As a puppy, he was abandoned after his parents were sent into space by a malicious vet, and from there it has been a rollercoaster of supernatural surreal horrors.
Despite all his fear and anxiety, Courage has but one goal and that is to protect his new owners, specifically Muriel, from these invading forces.
The weekly show had some recurring characters and often posed deeply philosophical questions that the creators seemed to be working out through this tiny dog.
And of course, for those in the know, “return the slab…”, remains three of the creepiest words we’ve heard as children.
The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Cartoon Network (2001 – 2008)
On the surface, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy is a creepy concept – young devious Mandy and her happy-go-lucky best friend Billy manage to trick death himself, Grim, into a life of servitude after beating him at a game of limbo.
However, deep down it is a wholesome story of friendship and acceptance with a bizarrely supernatural twist.
Although Grim is miserable at first, he grows to possibly like the two of them, at times even protecting them.
Of course, he will never admit it and often convinces himself that he’d rather be able to kill them – which is always expressed through a sarcastic quip.
The two children take full advantage of their creepy new bestie and use his powers for their benefit – whether that is popping into the Netherworld to cause chaos or abusing his abilities to fulfill impossibly selfish needs.
Ultimately, the show usually involves our favorite long-suffering skeleton cleaning up the mess of the menaces he has come to call family.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, CBS (1969 – 2021)
With too many iterations to mention, Scooby-Doo and the gang have terrorized our screens since 1969.
Whether chasing down monsters, battling ghouls and unmasking criminal masterminds, Scooby, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne, and Fred are a part of almost any childhood.
Trooping along in their trusty Mystery Machine, these 4 “meddling kids” and their great Dane are a match for any investigation.
Each member of the team brings a unique perspective to the mystery ahead, and they often split up, not only upping the stakes but also the shenanigans as they get themselves into strange predicaments.
Each episode would open with a highly supernatural mystery that draws the gang in, and inevitably after many scares and creeps, the monster would be unmasked as human through a series of traps set by the intrepid teen detectives.
Deadtime Stories, Nickelodeon (2012 – 2014)
Based on a series of books and a 1986 film by the same name, Deadtime Stories is an anthology of horror-fantasy stories read by “The Babysitter” to her unfortunate clients.
The 11-episode show is a cult favorite with stand-out episodes including “Grandpa’s Monster Movies” and “Who’s Giggling Now?” which features one incredibly creepy clown called Giggles The Killer Clown.
The show ventures a little further away from the lighthearted and leans into the horror aspect with glee, making it a 10/10 for childhood trauma.
The live-action premise also drove home the realism of the scares, not to mention the intensely scary atmosphere the creators were aiming for.
Expect reanimated corpses, ghosts, and haunted objects.
Eerie, Indiana, NBC (1991 – 1992)
Meet Marshall Teller, a newcomer to the creepy isolated town of Eerie, Indiana – a very fitting name for a town with a population of 16, 661.
He quickly befriends Simon Holmes, a fellow outsider due to his normalcy in a town with a very odd population.
The two best friends are drawn into many mysteries, one of which includes a group of sentient dogs intent on world domination!
The show loves to draw on popular myths and legends with plenty of nods to urban legends like Bigfoot and Captain Ahab.
For a show with only 19 episodes in total, it leaves behind a scary legacy with some even thinking it may have served a small part in inspiring Stranger Things.
Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension (1998)
Eerie’s lasting legacy could not be laid to rest, and in 1998 it resurrected with a spin-off series.
The show featured a similar plotline and concept, but this time we follow Mitchell Taylor and his best friend Stanley Hope as they run into out-of-this-world terrors.
The premise draws on the original show by setting the new Eerie in a parallel universe that is infected by “weirdness” from the original Eerie after an unfortunate incident with a portal in the opening episode of the show.
So Weird, Disney Channel (1999 – 2001)
Described as the “X-Files for kids”, So Weird is narrated by protagonist Fiona Phillips whose unique life exposes her to a wealth of paranormal encounters.
Young Fiona lives on a tour bus with her famous musician mother, who is using her chance to get back into rock n roll and means to grieve the recent loss of her husband.
Fiona on the other hand is determined to make contact with her father, and this leads her into her investigations of the paranormal.
Initially, she isn’t believed by those around her, which prompts her to start sharing her encounters on her website, titled “So Weird”.
As she deepens her investigation, we the audience get scared out of our seats by aliens, vampires, angels, and the very memorable Scottish Will o’ the Wisp that closed the first season of the show.
Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids, CITV (2000 – 2013)
Based on a series of books by Jamie Rix, the show started a series of 10-minute cartoons and later returned with a new look in the form of Grizzly Tales for another 26 episodes.
This show had absolutely no reservations about injecting us with nightmare fuel, and the core premise was about awful kids getting their comeuppance – scary for a young mind to absorb!
In the second iteration of the show, things really took a turn for the terrifying as The Night-Night Porter would banish bad children to spend an eternity trapped in his hotel of horrors.
The show may be award-winning, but it certainly creeped us out as kids – especially when the narrator delivered a moral lesson that hit a little too close to our own misdeeds as kids!
The Demon Headmaster, BBC One (1996 – 1998)
Another British gem based on a series of books, The Demon Headmaster hails from the mind of Gillian Cross.
Dinah Glass is an orphan who moves in with a new foster family, the Hunters.
Of course, with a new family comes a new school – one with a lot of strange goings on.
The headmaster seems a little too authoritarian, even for a headmaster, and the students are slightly too willing to obey – and this is just the tip of the strange iceberg.
Now it is up to Dinah and her newly adopted brothers to solve the mystery and set things right.
The show is remarkably dark and plays with all our own fears of authority taking it too far as children.
Who didn’t hate the headmaster that would always break up the fun?
Aaahh!! Real Monsters, Nickelodeon (1994 – 1997)
Perhaps not as dark as some of our other entries, the thought of a group of monsters in training under the subway of New York City can certainly send a young mind spiraling into some fearsome thoughts.
The show is centered on Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm, three young monsters learning the ins and outs of monsterhood under the guidance of their headmaster The Gromble.
In each episode, they eventually surface to practice their new scare tactics, which as a young viewer only served to teach our imaginations new ways to be scared of the dark!
One particularly memorable creepy moment is when Oblina performs her favorite trick – which includes gruesomely pulling out her own internal organs and inducing nightmares.
Luckily the animation style negated the horror of the show and we were able to enjoy their exploits.
The Storyteller, BBC (1987 – 1989)
From the mind of the incredibly talented Jim Henson, The Storyteller retold a number of European folk tales through the use of puppetry and live-action.
Episodes open with actor John Hurt as the titular Storyteller, who tells these stories to his very sassy and sarcastic dog next to a fire.
Though it seems to be a very whimsical concept, the stories themselves are quite creepy and terrifying.
Watch as death is captured in a magic bag, or a woman gives birth to a hedgehog child and as a viewer try and keep the nightmares at bay.
The show proved so popular that it has a follow-up in 1991 entitled The Storyteller: Greek Myths – where the storyteller is in a labyrinth with his beloved pup and tells him stories of the ancient Greeks, such as Theseus and the Minotaur.
The Boy from Space, BBC (1971)
Taking a more surreal twist, The Boy from Space is part of the BBC Look and Read library.
The show is centered on siblings Dan and Helen who befriends an alien boy in a blue suit following a meteor crash.
Affectionately naming him Peep-Peep, the siblings take it upon themselves to protect their new friend from a very creepy thin man who does not have the best intentions.
For children of the 70s, the concept of an alien being hunted by even scarier aliens was a deeply haunting thought – many adults have even gone on message boards looking for the show because they only have small memories of show snippets to go from.
The show has an enduring legacy and has been rebroadcast and re-released in many forms, with added scenes where a grown-up Dan and Helen open the show by walking down memory lane and triggering flashbacks to their years with Peep-Peep.
The Real Ghostbusters, ABC (1986 – 1991)
Whenever we hear the phrase “who you gonna call”, we immediately hear the opening theme of The Real Ghostbusters.
Although many of us recall the iconic movies, the series it spawned came with plenty of scares of its own.
Follow Dr. Peter Venkman, Dr. Egon Spengler, Dr. Ray Stantz, Winston Zeddemore, and their secretary Janine Melnitz as they take on even more supernatural boogie men and menaces.
In the animated show, we are also introduced to Slimer, who is now a good guy – choosing to slime to evil-doers of the world.
He proved so popular to the audience, that the fourth season of the show was renamed Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters.
Although the humor that comes with ghost busting easily offsets the scares, it still stuck in our young minds, because a world populated with ghouls, spooks, and specters is a creepy place!
BONUS: TV shows with unintentionally terrifying single episodes
Dexter’s Laboratory Season 1, Episode 6 “Dee Dee’s Room”
Dexter’s Laboratory follows boy genius Dexter and his many adventures in his secret laboratory.
Besides his regular nemesis Mandark, Dexter must also butt heads with his sister Dee Dee.
In the episode Dee Dee’s Room, Dexter is forced to enter his sister’s room to recover one of his inventions that was stolen.
While this show is typically a bit absurd and offbeat, for the most part it isn’t scary, except for this episode.
Once in Dee Dee’s room, Dexter has to try and avoid Cooties, which are represented by flying creatures that try to overwhelm him.
The episode feels claustrophobic and generally quite unsettling compared to all the others.
The Powerpuff Girls Season 2, Episode 12 “Speed Demon”
This show has had its fair share of strange characters, such as Mojo-Jojo and the devil-like villain known only as HIM.
Despite these odd antagonists, the subject matter of the show has always been light-hearted and fun, with the exception of this episode.
In Speed Demon, the Powerpuff Girls race each other and accidentally run fast enough to time travel 50 years into the future, where they are stranded in a nightmare version of their town.
All of the villains have grown with power, and the regular citizens are struggling to survive.
This is extremely distressing to the Powerpuff Girls, and they do everything they can to return to their timeline.
This is also quite jarring for the viewer, with this episode leaving the Powerpuff Girls grappling with existential dilemmas.
Invader Zim Season 1, Episode 14 “Halloween Spectacular of Spooky Doom”
Sticking with the theme of “nightmare universes”, this episode of Invader Zim finds Dib chaotically traveling between his universe, and one filled with monsters via a portal in his head.
Invader Zim doesn’t shy away from absolutely bizarre and crazy plotlines and stories, coming from the mind of Jhonen Vasquez, who is also known for his comic series Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (definitely not for kids!).
In this episode, Dib and the viewer are forced into another suffocating and uncomfortable scene as the time spent in the nightmare universe keeps increasing, to the point that Dib starts believing he may be trapped there permanently.
In typical fashion with the show, the characters find a creative and absurd way to solve the problem.