The most haunting episodes of classic TV Westerns
Lightning strikes twice on Bonanza.
Great Westerns toy with tension just as much as any horror master. On TV, Westerns like Rawhide, The Rifleman, Bonanza and Wagon Train occasionally ventured into spooky territory, spinning ghost stories and introducing spellbinding witches. These episodes weren't just scary, they were often tragic, and the result is a more haunting effect than you might expect from the Old West, even with all its ghost towns.
Ready to see The Rifleman shaking in his boots? Here are the scariest episodes from classic TV Westerns, where cowboys donned masks and their piebald steers ended up as dark omens branded with "Murder."
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1. Rawhide - "Incident of the Murder Steer"
"The Incident of the Murder Steer" is one of serious Rawhide fans all-time favorite episodes, for good reason. Its story is as easily branded on the memory as the ugly word "Murder" that keeps appearing on the side of a cow at scenes where men have died, victims of violent murders. It's an ominous mystery that finds Gil Favor pulling tricks to out the real killer, and it's based on an old Texas legend about a ghost steer reportedly seen in the frontier following a murderous scuffle between real-life cattle owners.
2. Bonanza - "Devil on Her Shoulder"
It's a witch, or at least that's the conclusion that's drawn on Bonanza for this episode, where a woman is made an outcast by a religious group. Naturally, Little Joe immediately falls under the woman's spell...
3. Bonanza - "Dark Star"
You could say Little Joe has a type. In "Dark Star," he's once again smitten with a woman accused of being a witch and turned out of town. This time it's a girl who earnestly believes she is a witch, born under a dark star. Her dances around the fire light the sky, and she even threatens to turn Little Joe into a toad!
This episode packed a double punch for fans of Halloween. As Joe's love interest spooks everyone including the horses, Hoss is off tracking a wolf that has its own mysterious backstory.
4. The Rifleman - "Hostages to Fortune"
The Rifleman was one of the only Westerns to have a straight-up Halloween episode. "Hostages of Fortune" is a case of mistaken identity, where young Mark and his pals play harmless pranks in masks to celebrate the holiday and this inspires real thieves to don similar masks in hopes of pointing the blame at the boys. The masks are crude and genuinely creepy, and it plays on Lucas' biggest fear: that he raised his boy wrong.
5. Gunsmoke - "Legal Revenge"
We're used to thinking of Cloris Leachman as Mary Richards' flaky neighbor or the wacky new den mother on The Facts of Life. Those fans would probably be shaking in their boots if they caught one of her early TV appearances on the scariest episode of Gunsmoke, "Legal Revenge." It's basically the plot of Misery, just set in the Old West, where a badly injured man sleeps with his gun to protect himself from the abusive wife who is his caretaker. Leachman plays the wife Flory, and in one of the slowest burns in Gunsmoke history, she's terrifying as she controls the tension in the room.
6. Wagon Train - "Little Girl Lost"
In one of the most haunting episodes of Wagon Train ever, Charlie Wooster assumes he must be going mad when a little girl appears only to him. Others can only hear her crying. In the end, the ghostly girl is tied to a shocking true story in American history. The Donner Party was a group of pioneers on their own wagon train, who met misfortune and a gruesome turn when they had to cannibalize each other to survive. This wide-eyed girl got lost somewhere along the way...
7. The Wild Wild West - "The Night of the Man-Eating House"
When Agents West and Gordon decide to stay overnight in an abandoned mansion on The Wild Wild West, it lays the framework for plenty of spooks in store. In "The Night of the Man-Eating House," the first hint something was amiss is when the front doors of the house swing open on their own, then slam shut behind them. As a ghostly woman's cries punctuate the night air, they all struggle to figure out where the voice is coming from, but they fail before the first life is claimed. It's an imaginative episode that's got as many twists as rooms in the dilapidated mansion, and the ending is perhaps the most haunting part.
8. Rawhide - "Incident of the Haunted Hills"
"Incident of the Haunted Hills" is one of Rawhide's most tragic episodes, with multiple murders and a terrifying storyline that finds Gil Favor battling a violent tribe as well as geysers that unexpectedly burst from the ground. It not only doesn't have a happy ending, but the ghostly winds that rip through the episode practically carry the episode's chills right out of your screen.
9. The Rifleman - "Face of Yesterday"
If Lucas McCain looks like he's seen a ghost, that's because he thinks he has. "Face of Yesterday" finds the tough guy rifleman face to face with a man he could swear he's killed already, back in the war. It's rare to see Lucas so shook, so this episode still haunts fans of The Rifleman, who ends the episode in a dark place with the line, "This is something I want to forget."
See also: Can you map these TV Westerns to their distinct Old West settings?
Here's a geography quiz only a Western whiz can pass. Take quiz.