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The Most Disturbing Criminal Minds Episodes Ever

It's no secret that "Criminal Minds," which aired from 2005 to 2020 on CBS, is pretty frightening. The profiling team of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit –- a real unit that can be traced back to the 1970s –- tackles the most gruesome cases the country has to offer, many of which are inspired by real-life killings and serial killers. Though the fact that it aired on CBS means they could never go quite as far as they might have had it aired on cable, the show has a way of creeping you out by showing you just enough to give you the heebie-jeebies.

Cannibalism? They've got it. Killers of children? Also got it. Children who are the killers? You bet. Victims strung up like puppets or dressed like dolls? You can count on it. And while the horrific acts these killers commit are frightening in and of themself, it's the psychological analysis the BAU performs about these "unsubs" that take the chills to another level. All of this is to say that "Criminal Minds" is not for the faint of heart. Even some of the show's most dedicated fans have episodes they hesitate to rewatch. But, if you're one of those people who likes being terrified, then look no further. Read on to learn about the most disturbing "Criminal Minds" episodes ever.

The Lesson (Season 8, Episode 10)

There seems to be something of a consensus among "Criminal Minds" fans that "The Lesson" is one of the most disturbing episodes the show has ever produced. On the r/criminalminds subreddit, u/TemperatureDizzy3257 asked fans of the show "Which episode did you find the scariest/most disturbing?" They answered this question for themselves first, noting that they "couldn't sleep at night" after watching "The Lesson." u/generalmaamager, responding to u/jennamimi's question about the scariest episode of the series, responded, "10000% The Lesson. I'll never look at marionette dolls the same."

These fans are definitely on to something here -– "The Lesson" is totally disturbing. The episode follows Adam Rain (Brad Dourif), a man who wakes up from a coma and begins behaving like a child. He starts abducting people and then turning them into marionettes by dislocating their joints and hanging them by ropes. Even more disturbing, he abducts a father and son pair and forces them to watch his marionette play. Luckily, the BAU team eventually catches him, but not before our perception of marionettes has been forever changed.

Lucky (Season 3, Episode 8)

Another episode that many fans seem to agree is hard to shake is "Lucky." The episode follows Floyd Feylinn Ferell (Jamie Kennedy), a cannibalistic serial killer. What's so disturbing about Ferell is not that he himself is a cannibal, but that he forces other people to be cannibals too. The BAU team learns that he feeds his victims the body parts of previous victims. He even has a cannibal cookbook full of homemade recipes. The most disturbing moment of the episode comes near the end, when Ferell drops a bomb that's hard to forget. When Ferell is talking with a priest, the priest tells him "God is in all of us." Ferell replies, "So is Tracey Lambert."

Tracey Lambert was one of Ferell's victims, and we learn at this point that he actually joined the rescue team that was out looking for her and served a stew made of her remains to the rescuers. It's one of the most disturbing kickers in any "Criminal Minds" episode. "Gives me chills to this day," u/just-tryingmybest said of that line, a comment that received over 200 upvotes. "I may never forget 'So is Tracey Lambert'" wrote u/christinaawesome in response. Is there anything more disturbing than cannibalism? Well, it turns out there are a few things that can give this episode a run for its money.

A Shade of Gray (Season 4, Episode 21)

The episode entitled "A Shade of Gray" dives into one of the most horrific topics in the world of criminal profiling: child killers. In this episode, the team travels to New Jersey to tackle the case of a missing boy named Kyle. They initially believe it's the work of a serial pedophile named Hugh Rollins (John Billingsley), who has abducted two other boys in the area recently. Fairly quickly, they begin to suspect that Rollins did not actually abduct Kyle. It's Prentiss that first begins to suspect that Kyle's older brother, Danny, is the killer after she spends only a few minutes with him and immediately picks up on his psychopathic behavior.

It's later revealed that Danny did kill his younger brother because he hated and was jealous of him. His parents, along with a local detective, help cover up the crime. While not as violent as some other episodes of "Criminal Minds," the subject matter is incredibly disturbing and hard to wrap your head around. As u/summersaphraine wrote, the episode "will always leave me feeling sad and uneasy, because the killer was just a kid." It's definitely one of those episodes that leaves a lasting impression.

The Uncanny Valley (Season 5, Episode 12)

Some episodes of "Criminal Minds" are disturbing because of how deranged the killers are, and some are disturbing because they're just plain sad. "The Uncanny Valley," an episode from Season 5, is definitely the latter. The episode follows a woman named Samantha Malcolm (Jennifer Hasty), a "collector" type of serial killer who abducts women and dresses them up as dolls in her house. The team discovers that her father had molested her as a child and then given her dolls as an apology, and she has been abducting these women in order to replace the dolls she has lost.

Though there are many episodes of "Criminal Minds" where the killers are totally unsympathetic and seem to have no humanity at all, Samantha is a killer who viewers tend to feel sorry for because of all that she's gone through at the hands of her father. It's undoubtedly a very creepy episode, even if you weren't afraid of dolls before watching it. But, some fans on Reddit noted that it's also a great episode for Reid, and they loved how he treated the unsub. "Reid handled her so well," wrote u/MontanaDukes.

Into the Woods (Season 6, Episode 9)

So far we've tackled kid killers and cannibals, but there's another category that belongs on this list: killers of kids. In the Season 6 episode "Into the Woods," the team travels to Pennsylvania after a ten-year-old boy is found murdered on the Appalachian Trail. The boy was abducted months prior and kept alive all winter, only to be discovered in March. The BAU discovers the killer is a man named Shane Wyland (Gill Gayle), who lives in the woods and abducts children off the trail. Though the two children Wyland has since abducted are rescued, Wyland evades capture and remains at large when the episode ends.

One of the things that's most disturbing is the fact that Wyland is abducting these children in order to sell them to other pedophiles. It's an incredibly terrifying underground network that, honestly, we'd rather not know exists. As u/ayorules put in on Reddit, this episode disturbed them to their core. The fact that the unsub was never caught makes it even worse.

North Mammon (Season 2, Episode 7)

Season 2's "North Mammon" depicts one of the most terrifying situations you could imagine. Three teenage girls on the local soccer team are abducted and held in an underground bunker. The unsub provides them with no food and water, and then tells them he will let them go if one of them dies. He throws them a hammer and forces them to decide who it will be.

Unlike many episodes of "Criminal Minds" that primarily focus on the BAU team and their efforts to catch the killer, "North Mammon" mostly follows the three girls who have been abducted and what they must do to survive. The BAU is actually not all that successful in this episode because, by the time they catch the unsub. two of the girls have already been released -– and done the unthinkable. It's a horrifying premise that is executed expertly, but it's definitely not easy to watch. As u/Cookie_Brookie puts it, it's an episode they always skip upon rewatching the series.

Revelations (Season 2, Episode 15)

Sometimes, the episodes that are the hardest to watch are the ones where our favorite characters are at risk. That's certainly the case with "Revelations," which follows Reid when he gets kidnapped by a man named Tobias Hankel (played by "Dawson's Creek" star James Van Der Beek). Hankel is a devout Christian who suffers from dissociative identity disorder. He kidnaps and tortures Reid, forcing him to relive moments from his past by drugging him with his own psychedelic concoction. To make matters even more stressful, there is a camera set up in front of Reid, and the rest of the team are forced to watch him suffer through a live feed while they rush to try and find his location.

While Hankel may not be the most fearsome killer on "Criminal Minds" (though it is fun to see Van Der Beek try), seeing Reid in trouble is what's really disturbing about this episode. Luckily, Reid is so smart that — even in his drugged-up state — he's still able to give the team secret clues about his location, which eventually allows them to rescue him. But unfortunately for Reid, this episode is only the start of the many hardships he endures at the BAU. It's also one of the highest-rated "Criminal Minds" episodes according to IMDB users, so it's clear fans enjoy watching their favorite characters go through hell -– as long as they come out on top in the end.

Scared To Death (Season 3, Episode 3)

Some of the best episodes of "Criminal Minds" are more reminiscent of horror movies than they are of cop procedurals, and this is the case for the Season 3 episode "Scared to Death." The episode has a lot of parallels to the 1980 horror film "Phobia," directed by John Huston. "Scared to Death" follows a psychiatrist who learns about his patients' worst fears and then uses these fears against them. As is true with many unsubs, we learn that this behavior stems from his childhood, when he was abused by his mother.

The reason this episode is so scary is that it prompts viewers to imagine that it were them in this situation. It's terrifying to think about someone using your worst fears against you, especially when that person is a therapist you thought you could trust. Each victim dies in a different way, depending on their fears. The team realizes that the psychiatrist has lured his victims into a false sense of security, professing that he is trying to cure their anxiety — when he really is about to torture and kill them. The BAU finds out that what the unsub is really trying to do is tackle his own fears, using his victims as proxies for his trauma. Truly, a worst-case scenario for anyone seeking psychiatric treatment. As u/burnthroughrome put it on Reddit, "i would never trust a man to put me in a box no matter how many degrees he had on his wall."

To Hell... And Back (Season 4, Episodes 25 & 26)

The two-part Season 4 finale of "Criminal Minds, ” entitled "To Hell..." and "...And Back," is as gross as it is frightening. A group of sex workers and unhoused people were kidnapped, and the police haven't done anything to protect them. When the BAU are brought in, they discover a two-person killing team: Lucas Turner (Paul Rae), a mentally disabled adult who has been manipulated by his brother Mason (Garret Dillahunt) in order to carry out these crimes.

It turns out that these people are being kidnapped for experimentation — and when the experiments are completed, they are then fed to the pigs. Though it's not quite as disturbing as cannibalism, there's still something deeply unsettling about how disposable these people are to the brothers, and how Mason has manipulated his brother so fully. It's one of those episodes that many fans are hesitant to rewatch. The episode "made me sick to my stomach," wrote "Criminal Minds" fan u/k_amusta.

Mosley Lane (Season 5, Episode 16)

Many of the most disturbing "Criminal Minds" episodes involve children, whether they be the victims of crimes or the perpetrators. Season 5's "Mosley Lane" is one of the most upsetting episodes in the whole series for this exact reason. The episode follows Anita and Roger Roycwood, a married couple who seem to have adopted a number of kids over the last decade. However, what the BAU comes to find out is that they have not actually adopted these children — they abducted them. (The eldest of these children is played by "American Horror Story" veteran Evan Peters.) When the children misbehave or grow too old, the Roycwoods kill them in their very own home crematorium.

The episode is chock-full of disturbing moments, one of the most upsetting being the scene where Anita sings a nursery rhyme to a child who is sleeping in a box. She then pushes the box into the crematorium, burning the child alive. Many fans agree this is one of the creepiest episode of the whole series, with u/Leavemebelioness156 calling it "unbelievably disgusting and horrific."

Our Darkest Hour (Season 5, Episode 23)

Like the self-contained episode "North Mammon" or the '80s-inspired "Scared to Death," "Our Darkest Hour" is another "Criminal Minds" episode that owes a lot to the horror genre. First of all, this episode's unsub is played by the great Tim Curry, who played Pennywise in the 1990 "It" movie. The second spooky element of the episode is the rolling blackouts that occur in Los Angeles every so often. No one had ever connected the dots, but it turns out that Curry's Billy Flynn has been committing a series of rapes and murders for the last 26 years, always during these blackouts.

The team finds out that one of Flynn's earliest victims was actually a detective on the case many years ago. To make matters even spookier for the audience, Curry's unsub is eerily reminiscent of the "Night Stalker" killer who terrorized Los Angeles in the 1980s. It's a favorite of "Criminal Minds" fans, with u/hotchnerseyebrows rating the episode 10/10 and u/sarbear0903 noting that it's "one of a handful of episodes that extremely creep me out whenever I watch them."

Heathridge Manor (Season 7, Episode 19)

Another episode that leans into horror, "Heathridge Manner" is directed by "Criminal Minds" star Matthew Gray Gubler — himself a big fan of the horror genre. The Season 7 episode is one of the most unnerving episodes of the series, according to fans. The episode begins when the team is called in to investigate when a woman -– dressed like she is from the 16th century -– is found dead in an asylum. They initially suspect satanism is at play, owing to the ritualistic, gothic nature of the killing .. but the truth is even more disturbing.

What they find out is that the killer is a young man named James Heathridge (Kyle Gallner). James' mother was a psychotic who thought she was fighting against the devil, believing it to be her mission to kill the devil's wives. She even chopped off her own daughter's arm so the devil wouldn't take her. James, who has hallucinations, believes he has been called to finish his mother's mission, and he has begun kidnapping and killing women in order to do so.

While James' behavior is scary enough, it's the ending of the episode that really gives you chills. After James dies while fighting Hotch, James' sister Lara stays in Heathridge Manor, the house where her mother and brother had their psychotic delusions. At the end of the episode, Lara answers the door to find a man dressed in black holding a skull-shaped cane. Presumably, this man is the devil, and he tells Lara that he's been waiting to take her with him. She takes his hand, but then we see there's no one there -– it's all a hallucination. We never get an update on what happens to Lara in that house, but it can't be good.

The Boogeyman (Season 2, Episode 6)

Though "A Shade of Gray" is a memorable child-killer episode, it was not the first in the history of "Criminal Minds." That distinction goes to "The Boogeyman," an episode from Season 2. In this episode, the team travels to a small Texas town to investigate a series of child murders. While the evidence initially points to a local hermit, they soon find out they've been led astray, and the real killer is another child named Jeffrey Charles (played by a young Cameron Monaghan from "Shameless"). A burgeoning psychopath, Jeffrey is jealous of the other children because his father –- a guidance counselor -– seems to spend more time with them than he does with him. Jeffrey bludgeons three children to death, keeping their things as trophies in his room.

Seeing someone as young as Jeffrey displaying all the traits of a serial killer (trophies and all) is deeply unsettling, as is the fact that he seems to display no remorse for the killing. Jeffrey can mimic the emotions of other children, but he most certainly does not feel them. We can only hope that Jeffrey and Danny never meet up down the line.