Doctor Who is renowned for doing scary stories and people have been “hiding behind the sofa” while it’s on for decades. Though it’s not just a horror-based show (at times it dips into practically every genre), it is very much one of the things that it does best.
This predisposition towards spookiness is exactly why Doctor Who is a great show to watch in the build up to Halloween. We’ve decided to look at ten of the scariest Doctor Who episodes that are worth a watch at Halloween time, drawing from both the modern run, the classic series and even one from the expanded universe. We’re hoping this will give you some inspiration for this year’s Halloween viewing.
For reference, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are so many great, creepy Doctor Who stories that they can’t all fit into one article, so if your favourite episode isn’t here, rest assured: it probably still terrified us.
Here are our picks:
Trapped on a moonbase (which is under quarantine due to a mysterious virus), where Cybermen have been spotted by crew members in the middle of the night, the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly and Jamie sure have their work cut out for them.
There are a lot of things which help to make this a really creepy story. There’s the fact that the TARDIS team are stuck on a small base, surrounded by the barren surface of the moon. There’s the fact that the Cybermen keep to the shadows and don’t draw attention to themselves (which leads to one particularly chilling reveal) and then there’s the virus added to the mix (and we all know how scary viruses can be).
It’s one of those stories which probably benefits from the fact that it was shot in black and white. The old Cybermen look extra-disturbing when seen through the lens of a fuzzy, 1960s camera. Their voices in this story are great too. It’s a shame that two episodes from The Moonbase are missing, but the DVD gives us two brilliantly animated reconstructions!
While most people probably think of Blink when thinking of the scariest Tenth Doctor episode (and it is great, don’t get us wrong), we wanted to focus on a story that is possibly even more scary and which doesn’t get as much recognition.
While Donna enjoys a relaxing spa day, the Doctor decides to take a trip on a space bus. It’s all fun and games until the bus breaks down in a remote and mysterious part of the galaxy. Though no life should be able to survive outside the bus, someone, or something, is pounding on the outside. Soon, a passenger named Sky starts to act really strangely, only speaking by creepily echoing words other passengers have said. In a chilling depiction of the way fear can make even the most level-headed people act selfishly and irrationally, her fellow passengers conclude that she has been possessed and debate how to kill her. Slowly they all start to question and turn on one another. Ultimately, it makes for a brilliant piece of psychological horror.
In the Doctor’s many travels, it’s rare to see them as vulnerable as they are in Midnight. In most stories, the Doctor defuses scary and tense situations by being silly – here, the Doctor is just as afraid as anybody else and you don’t really know what’s going on. It’s masterfully written, acted and directed.
The Tenth Planet
Many fans agree that the very first Cyberman design was the creepiest one. From the fact that they genuinely look like somebody hooked up to a bunch of medical devices, through to their really bizarre sing-song voices, there’s a lot of reasons to be unsettled by the original Cybermen.
Though these Cybermen have appeared in a number of different stories, we thought that their debut was the one that most deserved a place on this list. Here the First Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive at a space tracking station in the South Pole. While a pair of astronauts experience some difficulty, a whole new planet suddenly appears in the sky not far from the Earth. Soon, the Cybermen also make their arrival…
This story is the final adventure of the First Doctor and his era certainly ends on a high. Something about the isolated base, with the Cybermen walking through the snow swept wasteland works really well. We can only imagine how scary it must have seemed for fans watching back when it originally aired! The fourth and final episode in this serial is missing, but just as with The Moonbase, the DVD comes with an excellent animated reconstruction to fill its place.
Often the creepiest Doctor Who stories are the ones where you don’t really know what’s happening. This was the case for Midnight and, once again, it’s true for Listen. In this story, after having a creepy experience while alone in the TARDIS, the Twelfth Doctor begins to wonder whether we are ever truly alone and if there might be a creature that has evolved to become the “perfect hider” which is with us at all times.
Along with a somewhat reluctant Clara (who is just trying to have a date with Danny), the Doctor travels to various locations as he tries to gather more information about these potential creatures. This brings him from a children’s home in the dead of night, all the way through to the end of the universe. It’s a story that taps into very primal fears and having it partially set in a children’s home only helps to remind us of the heightened sense of fear we all had when we were younger.
It’s such an unusual Doctor Who story in that there is no clear enemy or monster and, really, everything that happens in the story could all be all in their heads, but I think that helps to make it all feel even more disturbing. The contrast of the frightening moments against the everyday aspects of Clara’s dating life really help to strengthen the sense of unease.
Just look at that title. You can tell Night Terrors is going to be a creepy one. The story starts with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory responding to a distress call. Fairly standard. Except this distress call has come from a child from modern-day Earth who is terrified of monsters hiding in the cupboard.
The TARDIS team arrives at the flat in which the boy (George) lives, where it soon becomes clear that these are more than simple nightmares. Inexplicable things start happening to everybody who lives in that block of flats. If you’re someone who is afraid of creepy dolls, then this story is either one to avoid or one to add to the top of your list, depending on how much you enjoy a good scare.
Something that this story has in common with Listen is that the down-to-earth parts of the story make the creepy happenings all the more disturbing. The block of flats that this story is set in is the kind of setting many of us will be familiar with, making the strange happenings all the more unsettling.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Regarded by many as one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time, the story of a strange gas mask-faced boy who roams the streets of WW2 London at night eternally calling for his mother is one that is both gripping and unnerving.
Once it’s revealed that the people the child touches soon end up with a gas mask for a face themselves, the story gets even creepier. There’s one particularly iconic scene in which we see someone’s face slowly transforming as a gas mask seems to push its way out from under their skin. It helps that gas masks generally look pretty weird anyway.
It’s one of the few Ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack stories and all three of them are on top form. Back when the first series was airing, there was no way of knowing whether or not it would continue afterwards and it’s thanks to stories like this one that Doctor Who remains on television to this day.
While the Third Doctor era was more about action and international intrigue than it was about horror, there were still some great spine-tinglers in the early ‘70s. The Dæmons is a great example of this.
The storyline is basically this: The Master decides to pretend that he’s a vicar and then tries to summon demons to help him conquer the world. In some ways, it’s a very silly story, but in other ways, it’s fantastic. One scene has giant footsteps mysteriously appearing in the countryside as an invisible demon tramples the countryside. At another point, everyone is nervously watching the television for live reports on an excavation which many believe is going to unleash the devil.
Set in a small English village called Devil’s End, in many ways it feels like a Hammer Horror movie, especially when the Doctor and Jo team up with a woman named Olivia Hawthorne, the local witch. Some scenes are genuinely unnerving, while others are just a lot of fun. These five episodes make for great viewing in the build up to Halloween if you’re a fan of camp B-movies.
The Haunting of Villa Diodati
The current run of stories with the Thirteenth Doctor has been fantastic and she’s already had a number of frightening adventures to rank among the best.
For this list, we’ve chosen The Haunting of Villa Diodati. The Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz decide to drop in on Mary Shelley during the storm in which she famously wrote Frankenstein. Already you’ve got a creepy old house at night, which is a prime horror setting, then you just need to add a lone Cyberman to the mix and as the famous monster’s creator might say, “It’s ALIVE!”
Cybermen stories have featured a lot here, haven’t they? Well, the Cyberman in this story is quite different to what we’d seen before. Here you have a partially Cyber-converted killer who murdered his own children. (Speaking of which, it’s crazy that some still write off Doctor Who as a kids’ show) Never before has a Cyberman been so intimidating – and that’s saying something.
The Deadly Assassin
During his run, the Fourth Doctor has a lot of ‘horror’ themed stories. Some of them have aged better than others, but none are as unique (or as disturbing) as The Deadly Assassin.
Returning to Gallifrey, the Doctor is wrongly accused of assassinating the Lord High President. He soon finds himself having to enter the Matrix (a vast computer system containing all Time Lord knowledge) so that he can find out what’s really going on. However, it’s not just a case of opening some files: the Matrix is a virtual reality and is a veritable nightmare-scape as the Doctor explores it.
In this bizarre world, the Doctor faces malicious, laughing clowns, gets his foot caught on a train track and is almost run over, falls off a cliff and almost gets violently drowned. During all of this, he’s being hunted down by a mysterious (and deadly) assassin. It’s one of the most surreal Doctor Who stories of all-time, which really helps to reinforce the uneasy feeling you get throughout it. Famously, this story was used as an example of the show being too violent back in the day.
The Nightmare Man
Doctor Who is so much more than just the main series. From the fantastic audio dramas made by Big Finish, through to the comprehensive novel-range and tonnes of television spin-offs, it’s a large universe. We wanted to acknowledge the expanded universe with at least one of the entries on this list and our choice is: The Nightmare Man.
Though some people dismissed The Sarah Jane Adventures because it was targeting a younger audience, the quality of this series was no lower than the rest of Doctor Who. In the same vein, they were also just as good at being scary when they wanted to.
In this, Luke, Sarah Jane’s son, finds himself having nightmares as he gets closer to big, life changing events. The Nightmare Man himself is a strange, disturbing figure who taunts Luke from inside his dreams, making for quite a brilliant villain. The rest of the cast soon finds themselves stuck in a world of nightmares and fighting to get out. It’s a really great, spooky story which has a genuine heart at its centre.
Buy The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 4, along with The Nightmare Man now.