Already 15 years the Winchester brothers on the CW’s “Supernatural” have hunted anything and everything that posed a threat to humanity — including both the devil and God themselves. But while the show started out as a monster-of-the-week procedural, the battles Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) had were not just with creatures but also with their own fears. (Sorry about the clowns, Sam!)
Here some of the best traditional horror episodes of the show.
Season 12, Episode 4
Written by Davy Perez; Directed by John F. Showalter
When you consider how many wars were started because of religions, few things may be scarier than religious zealots, and that is exactly what this episode deals with — with a dash of psychic abilities thrown in for extra graphic visuals. A truly terrible matriarch locked away her psychic daughter, forcing her to whip herself, and when the daughter tried to reach out for help, she inadvertently ended up killing people. If that wasn’t bad enough, the mother planned to poison the entire family, rather than risk her secret being exposed.
When The Levee Breaks
Season 4, Episode 21
Written by Sera Gamble; Directed by Robert Singer
The horror in this episode comes from watching someone in the throes of addiction go through withdrawal — and all the hallucinations, body spasms and emotional torture that comes with it (the latter for both the person detoxing and the person’s loved ones, in this case, listening on the other side of the door to Bobby’s panic room).
Season 7, Episode 15
Written by Ben Edlund; Directed by Thomas J. Wright
There is nothing better than digging into the psychology of “Supernatural,” and this is the perfect example, both with the case of the week and with Sam himself. In the former, a man who was once possessed but exorcised by Dean and Sam turns out to still be killing. Now a run of the mill serial killer, he’s blaming the demon for opening his eyes to what he could be and actually wants to summon him again to justify his actions. Meanwhile, Lucifer inside Sam’s mind is not just making him see twisted things but also helping him figure out the case, which is a nice advancement that implies how connected the two are becoming within Sam’s psyche.
Season 1, Episode 5
Written by Terri Hughes Burton & Ron Milbauer; Directed by Peter Ellis
Anyone who grew up going to sleepovers likely had some flashbacks, if not downright PTSD triggers from this episode. Fittingly, it starts with such a party, during which girls are encouraging each other to chant the titular character’s name in the mirror. The show takes the urban legend beyond just flickering in the mirror behind the person who summoned her and allows her to travel through any reflective surface, making her victim pool vast and wide.
Season 1, Episode 19
Written by David Ehrman; Directed by Phil Sgriccia
The episode features some classic horror elements, including a creepy little kid (immortalized in a haunted painting) and a very Haunted Mansion style “the ghosts will follow you home” vibe in the fact that everyone who owns the painting ends up murdered. The unraveling Dean and Sam have to do of the story behind those in the painting — to determine it is the little kid that is the problem — also creates a very self-contained mini-movie style story, aided all the more by the fact that it also includes a doomed love story of sorts when Sam meets Sarah (Taylor Cole). Although thankfully she doesn’t fall victim to the painting as one might assume she would, it’s a reminder for Sam — and the audience — that he just can’t have a normal life.
No Rest for the Wicked
Season 3, Episode 16
Written by Eric Kripke; Directed by Kim Manners
The finale of a WGA strike-induced shortened third season not only kills off one of its two main characters but does so in a heartbreaking way, as the hellhounds finally come for the man who struck a deal to save his brother. Dogs never seemed scarier than when they were invisible, growling, snarling, snapping things tearing after and at Dean, resulting in him being strapped to a rack in hell. But before the episode got there, it delivered Lilith in the form of a pre-teen. They are scary on their own, but when possessed by such a force, people literally dropped dead with a simple hand gesture.
Season 1, Episode 9
Written by Eric Kripke; Directed by Ken Girotti
In a move out of any classic horror franchise, Dean and Sam have to go home again to battle some demons. This time, it’s not literal — though they do take on a poltergeist that is haunting the house they would have grown up in, had their mother not passed away there. But while saving another mother and her two young boys from this spirit, they have to face losing their mom more head-on. The visual effects used to depict the ghost’s actions are tame compared to what the show has the budget and technology to do in its latter seasons, but it’s full of old-fashioned scares, as well as picking at psychological and emotional wounds for two characters who thus far had seemed pretty unflappable.
Season 1, Episode 18
Written by Daniel Knauf; Directed by Whitney Ransick
A shtriga from the Winchesters’ childhood has returned to suck the life force out of some new children (literally), which gives the show the opportunity to flash back to Dean’s younger days of being responsible for Sam when John was on hunts. It’s a chance to get insight into the elder Winchester brother’s sense of responsibility, and the guilt that comes with it when he doesn’t succeed at what he’s supposed to do. The scale of this episode leans heavier on such backstory than the shtriga (although it is sufficiently creepy to watch), and there are extra raised eyebrows (but also emotional weight) because the present-day adult Winchesters recruit the little boy the shtriga is after as bait.
Season 4, Episode 11
Written by Jeremy Carver; Directed by Phil Sgriccia
There are some traditional haunted house scares in this episode because for a good portion of it Dean and Sam thing they are hunting ghosts. But the true terror sets in when everyone learns it is not a spirit in the walls of the home but a real-life, in-the-flesh brother and sister duo who were the products of incest and who were so horribly abused they turned into tormentors themselves.
Season 1, Episode 10
Written by Richard Hatem; Directed by Guy Norman Bee
The boys head to the titular, abandoned asylum and find a combination of a ghost story and something of a murder mystery. The doctor at the institution carried out twisted procedures and experimental treatments on patients, and while he haunts the grounds, so, too, do the tortured souls of some of his patients. It is the spirit of the doctor that is the most troublesome, though, as he infects anyone who dares to step foot in the halls where he works, making them turn against their loved ones. That culminates in him getting inside Sam’s mind and going after Dean. What adds to the fear factor of the episode is the dark visuals, in addition to the dark tone of story.
Season 2, Episode 9
Written by John Shiban; Directed by Robert Singer
Admittedly, this one moves up significantly on this list due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dean and Sam are trapped in a small-town clinic with a doctor and some other townspeople as a demonic virus breaks out. There is a lot of back and forth about who might actually be infected and what to do with the ones who are, with Dean, of course, coming down on the side of murdering them, even when they’re contained — until (again, of course) Sam gets infected. Dean has been put in situations before where he’s had to consider what he’d do if his brother became evil, but never so overtly. The horror here really comes from loved ones having to separate from each other and consider humanely killing each other if they are infected, as well as from the paranoia about who may be infected. The way the virus just disappears by the end of the episode — before Dean actually has to take action against Sam — is still way too easy and the perfect example of not being able to stick the landing on a story. But until that moment, the story delivered the best kind of tension.
Season 2, Episode 6
Written by Matt Witten; Directed by Kim Manners
Spirits are scary enough when they’ve just turned vengeful after death, but the spirit of a truly terrible person makes for an episode like no other. That’s exactly what we have here, with the boys — and Jo! (Alona Tal) — encountering the ghost of H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. Since Jo is exactly his type (young, blonde, pretty and female), she, of course, gets taken, which makes the scariest thing about this episode its messaging.
Season 1, Episode 6
Written by John Shiban; Directed by Robert Duncan McNeill
When Sam learns a college friend was accused of murder, the Winchesters investigate, only to discover a shapeshifter is taking over seemingly average men and using their skin suits to commit heinous crimes against their own loved ones. This creature is scary not for prosthetics but for subtle shifts in facial expressions and behaviors that lead to violent actions, proving anyone (even Dean!) can become a monster when you least expect it.
Season 1, Episode 15
Written by John Shiban; Directed by Peter Ellis
All of the expected shots from a monster movie are here: long lens voyeuristic imagery, implying something stalking prey; low angles as if from the point of view of something lying in wait. But the Big Bad is not a creature, nor a spirit but “just people.” A rural family that kidnaps unsuspecting people, puts them in cages for an undetermined amount of time and then lets them out — only to hunt them. This episode was the first time people became the real problem for the Winchesters, but it was far from the last: In truth, these people were the most blatant about their villanry, but most of what Dean and Sam would be up against for the better part of the next two decades were problems created by people — summoning demons, dabbling in spells, drawing symbols they don’t understand, making demon deals, etc.