When Emmy voters can spooked, it’s often frighteningly good. Take a tour through our photo gallery below featuring 14 of the Emmys’ scariest acting wins in the history of the TV Academy.
Of course we had to include the various wins from “American Horror Story.” The horror franchise’s five installments have thus far reaped victories for Kathy Bates as a hate-spewing witch, James Cromwell as a deranged Nazi doctor, and Jessica Lange, who makes our list twice as both a murderous neighbor and a malicious sorceress.
Also making the list twice is Michael Emerson, who scared the pants off us as a serial killer in “The Practice” before making our skin crawl as the mysterious leader of the Others on “Lost.”
Another multiple-murderer to make the cut is John Lithgow for his terrifying guest role in “Dexter” (well, technically supporting, but that’s for another item).
And let’s not forget sci-fi classic “The X-Files,” which brought trophies to Gillian Anderson as an FBI agent investigating paranormal activity and guest star Peter Boyle as an insurance salesman who can predict people’s deaths. Gallery originally published 2016.
14. Lee Jung-jae
“Squid Game” (2022)
Red light! Green light! As Seong Gi-hun, aka player #456 in the titular Squid Game, Lee Jung-jae’s character watched as 455 of his friends and competitors died before his eyes, often in terribly gruesome and violent ways. Because of his cunning inteligence (and, sometimes, luck) Seong Gi-hun was able to survive the game and live to fight another day. Lee Jung-jae’s Emmy win for Best Drama Actor made him the first non-English language performer to claim the category.
13. Peter Dinklage
“Game of Thrones” (2011, ’15, ’18, ’19)
Peter Dinklage was the only performer on the HBO fantasy series to win an acting Emmy; in fact, he won four. Although not an outright horror series, his character Tyrion Lannister lives in a world filled with night walkers, demon babies, skeleton zombies and fire-breathing dragons.
12. Patricia Arquette
NBC’s successful horror/procedural hybrid about a ghostly crime solver surprised awards watchers when Patricia Arquette won Best Drama Actress in 2005 for the show’s first season. Each episode of “Medium” began with a haunting then with Arquette waking up in a panicked shock, just like a true horror heroine.
11. Peter Boyle
“The X-Files” (1996)
A year before Gillian Anderson would win a trophy of her own for “The X-Files” (more on that later), the late Peter Boyle got under our skin as the title character in the Season 3 episode “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.” Boyle played an insurance salesman who possessed the ability to foresee people’s deaths. Emmy voters may have overlooked him for “Everybody Loves Raymond” (he was the only major cast member to never win for the laffer), but they swooned for his performance in this darkly comic episode, which also won Best Drama Writing for Darin Morgan.
10. Joe Morton
Joe Morton earned his first career Emmy Award as Best Drama Guest Actor for playing B613 Command Rowan Pope, the cold-hearted leader of a secret group of American assassins. Despite his villainous demeanor, Rowan’s weapon of choice is actually a bottle of red wine. He’s the kind of guy who’ll drink with you at night before killing you in the morning.
9. Jessica Lange
“American Horror Story: Coven” (2014)
In Season 3 of the popular FX horror franchise, Jessica Lange won Best Movie/Mini Lead Actress for playing Fiona Goode (the last name is ironic), the malicious supreme witch of the coven who would do anything – and kill anyone – to remain in power. Fiona’s quest for the fountain of youth ended rather poetically, as her daughter (Sarah Paulson) wound up replacing her elderly, decrepit mother at the story’s end.
8. Terry O’Quinn
Terry O’Quinn won for the show’s third season, thanks to the episode in which we finally found out how his fan-favorite character John Locke became paralyzed. It was also the year Locke was kidnapped and beaten up by the creepy Others and was then shot and left for dead by Michael Emerson (who shows up later on our list) in a hole filled with rotting corpses. Thanks to a ghostly vision of Walt (Malcolm David Kelly), Locke was able to regain his faith and then stopped at nothing to keep all the other Losties from leaving the island, by any means necessary.
7. Jessica Lange
“American Horror Story: Murder House” (2012)
TV’s horror queen Jessica Lange won the Movie/Mini Supporting Actress race in 2012 for the FX anthology series’ ghost-themed first iteration. For Lange’s Emmy-winning start in Season 1, she played chain-smoking nosy neighbor Constance Langdon, who knew more than she let on about the hauntings in the Murder House. In fact, she even caused one or two of her own.
6. John Lithgow
Many considered the fourth season of “Dexter” to be the show’s apex, thanks to the bloody back-and-forth battle between Dexter (perennial Emmy bridesmaid Michael C. Hall) and John Lithgow at the Trinity Killer. Lithgow’s character was a pro serial killer, murdering men and women in threes across the United States until Dexter finally took him down. Despite actually being a supporting player that season, Lithgow’s name was submitted at the Emmys as Drama Guest Actor and he secured victory in 2010.
5. James Cromwell
“American Horror Story: Asylum” (2013)
While some awards watchers were banking on co-star Zachary Quinto to win the Emmy for playing deranged serial killer Bloody Face, it was actually James Cromwell‘s Nazi experimental doctor who secured victory. We’ll never forget that final shot of Cromwell’s character Dr. Arden embracing Devil-possessed Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) as they slid into the flaming crematorium furnace together. It was a fitting end for a character known for torturing others throughout his monstrous career.
4. Gillian Anderson
“The X-Files” (1997)
Fans of sci-fi and horror were given a special treat in 1997 when Gillian Anderson became the first genre performer to win a Lead Actress Emmy. Thanks to a superb fourth season where her character contracted brain cancer, Anderson was able to show a softer, more emotional side of Agent Dana Scully and wowed Emmy voters. It was a nice change of pace from the normal mutant, alien and demon storylines Scully and Mulder (David Duchovny) usually faced on the Fox hit. Anderson’s win helped pave the way for future genre actors and actresses to be taken seriously by the TV academy.
3. Kathy Bates
“American Horror Story: Coven” (2014)
Over the course of “Coven’s” 13 episodes, Kathy Bates’ Madame LaLaurie tortured her daughters, applied fresh blood to her face, created her own living minotaur, fought off a horde of zombies and ultimately had her head chopped off. But since she’s immortal, her decapitated head kept spewing that oh-so-chilling venomous hatred. This frightening turn won Bates the Emmy as Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actress.
2. Michael Emerson
Michael Emerson was a late addition to the already-established cast of “Lost” – joining as a guest star in Season 2 before becoming a series regular in Season 3 – but he made an instant impact on audiences and Emmy voters alike. His win came in 2009 for the time-jumping fifth season, in which his character Benjamin Linus murdered John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) by hanging him in a hotel room, interacted with a ghost inside a creepy cabin, and came clean about his sins – including watching his adopted daughter die – via a face-to-face with the island’s notorious smoke monster.
1. Michael Emerson
“The Practice” (2001)
Like Jessica Lange, horror king Michael Emerson makes our list twice. For this breakout role on Season 5 of legal drama “The Practice,” Emerson was able to pull off an Emmy jawdropper by winning Best Drama Guest Actor without having name recognition (that of course wouldn’t be the case when he won again for “Lost”). By playing manipulative serial killer William Hinks, Emerson stood out so much that voters would’ve been fools to ignore him. Or maybe they were just afraid that if they did, they’d end up with their heads chopped off and put in a freezer.