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My face when watching most of these
Image: CBS

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Every blissfully trashy Halloween episode of Criminal Minds, ranked

Despite being on air for 299 episodes, the crime procedural only has 6 Halloween episodes

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

It’s no secret that I love Criminal Minds. And it’s also no secret that I think it is an objectively bad show. That’s part of the reason I love it, actually.

Criminal Minds ended earlier this year. Following the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, the show dealt with the sort of serial killers that would usually only make appearances on Very Special Episodes of regular crime procedurals. It was gimmicky, over-the-top, and absolutely wonderful to consume for hours on end.

Across its 15 season, 299 episode run, apparently Criminal Minds has only had six Halloween-themed episodes. That seems a little low for a show that was on since 2005 and dedicated to grandiose murders more befitting of horror movies than crime procedurals. But that’s also the perfect number of episodes to marathon on Halloween. But in what order should you watch them?

Consider the worst-to-best marathon. Using a totally scientific rubric examining the Halloween-ness of the episodes in question, as well as the crimes and murders in question, I ranked all the Halloween episodes of Criminal Minds.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for some old episodes of Criminal Minds]

6. “Keeper” (Season 12, episode 4)

a bloodied dude in a dog muzzle Image: CBS

Official Criminal Minds plot synopsis: The BAU travels to the Appalachian Trail in rural Virginia in search of a serial killer who is operating along that route. Meanwhile, Reid is faced with a dilemma regarding his mother.

How central is Halloween to the plot?

If this episode were not listed on the Halloween TV specials Wikipedia page and had it not premiered on Oct. 26, I would not even have known it was a Halloween episode. The rest of these episodes, at the very least, use Halloween as a framing device for the non-crime-solving bits. Not this one.

Is anyone in costume?

The Behavioral Analysis Unit’s tech analyst Penelope Garcia wears a bright orange ensemble, but other than that, no.

Is there a reference to a Halloween tradition?

Nothing! Nothing at all! Frankly, I want to formally pen a letter to the Wikipedia user who suggested this.

Does the crime in question feel like it belongs in a horror movie?

The episode starts off promising: a police officer finds a bag of severed limbs among a homeless man’s stuff. We cut to the homeless dude flinging more limbs onto a hiking trail. What’s going on here? There’s definitely more disembodied arms and legs than on a typical Criminal Minds episode, but the eventual mystery has more to do with the homeless man’s fixation on a dog that doesn’t exist than it does any grandiose murder schemes. We learn that this homeless guy didn’t actually do anything wrong! He’s covering up for his brother, who he thinks is a dog, and is murdering men who remind him of their abusive father. It’s actually kinda sad!

5. “About Face” (Season 3, episode 6)

a missing persons poster of a blonde woman Image: CBS

Official Criminal Minds plot synopsis: The BAU travels to Dallas to assist in the search for a murderer who scares his victims with “missing” flyers that display the soon-to-be victims’ photos. Also, SSA David Rossi returns to the BAU from retirement.

How central is Halloween to the plot?

The whole reason the first lady gets murdered is because the police dismiss her concerns as a Halloween prank! Already we’re making much more use of the holiday than the previous episode on this list. Throughout the episode, the mistake haunts them. The second victim didn’t go to the police, because she was afraid her concerns would also be dismissed — does that hit too close to real life? Perhaps, but I’m pleased that this episode really used Halloween to its full dramatic potential.

Aside from the crime, the team discusses Halloween plans. This is the first mention of Halloween on the show and my boy Spencer is a huge fan of the holiday, apparently. He and bad boy Derek Morgan have a brief chat about their differing opinions of the holiday. Spence is a huge fan of it, because he loves dressing up, whereas Morgan doesn’t really care for it.

Is anyone in costume?

Spencer shows up to the office wearing a Frankenstein mask and expresses how much he loves costumes! A man after my own heart. Also, there are plenty of trick-’r-treating kids around. In fact, when they rescue the last victim, the team interrupts some Halloween festivities going on outside. So as that one song they used to play on the American Idol outro plays around them (“Home” by former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry, a fact I learned while writing this article), the emergency responders wheel an unconscious lady into an ambulance and the BAU hands out candy to the children who have … gathered around them. Sure!

Is there a reference to a Halloween tradition?

Oh, you bet. There are lots of decorations, both in the FBI headquarters and around Dallas. Spencer talks about dressing up in costume. We see trick-’r-treaters. A very Halloween-y episode, indeed!

Does the crime in question feel like it belongs in a horror movie?

“About Face” aired during season 3, so we’re still in the “this is extreme, but believable enough” range. Only one person actually dies in this episode, which is quite tame. Also, the inherent action of warning the women before means they have … time to hide and contact the authorities. Compelling, but inherently flawed, which explains the “we’re not taking women’s problems seriously!” plotpoint to give some more oomph here.

The Unsub (Unknown Subject, aka what the team calls the criminals) also doesn’t get any interesting backstory. The team just kind of figures out who he is and then it’s all over relatively quickly.

4. “In the Blood” (Season 9, episode 6)

a creepy collage stalker wall Image: CBS

Official Criminal Minds plot synopsis: When the BAU investigates victims of possible ritualistic murders in Utah, clues lead them to believe that they are looking for a serial killer who holds a deep fascination of the Salem witch trials. Also, Garcia prepares for a “Day of the Dead” celebration over at her apartment.

How central is Halloween to the plot?

Despite it being about witch trials and having very spooky elements, Halloween as a holiday isn’t actually mentioned much. The non-case bits instead focus on Garcia throwing a Day of the Dead celebration — though she and Spencer do talk a bit about Halloween. But there isn’t anything about this episode that is specifically Halloween-related, though Garcia’s apartment does have some cute Halloween decorations.

Is anyone in costume?

At one point, Garcia puts fake blood on her face, but that’s about it.

Is there a reference to a Halloween tradition?

There is a lovely Day of the Dead celebration at the end, where the team talks about the people they’ve lost, both within the show’s duration and prior to the show’s events. (Obligatory mention about how two men on the team have had women they’ve loved brutally murdered on this show! Criminal Minds loves the Fridge.) That’s not directly Halloween, but worth mentioning.

Does the crime in question feel like it belongs in a horror movie?

Absolutely. The killer is basically stuck in a delusion that he’s in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts, so that alone already feels very horror movie-esque. The murder methods involve entombing a woman alive, flinging another lady off a cliff, and hanging a dude in the middle of a town square — all while our killer hallucinates a mob of hooded Puritans with torches cheering him on. He’s obsessed with the witch trials and at various points throughout the episode, he is seen flailing himself with a whip to atone for unspecified sins.

Oh, also there is a cult (??) mentioned in the beginning as a red herring that just gets dismissed about 10 minutes in and not brought up again. Truly a wild time. If only it had a wee bit more to do with Halloween as a whole.

3. “Boxed In” (Season 10, episode 5)

a boy in a skeleton costume Image: CBS

Official Criminal Minds plot synopsis: When a young boy who mysteriously went missing in San Diego on Halloween suddenly reappears one year later, the BAU must work fast when another trick-or-treater disappears under similar circumstances.

How central is Halloween to the plot:

It’s a big deal! We eventually learn that the Unsub’s motivations stem from one fateful Halloween night in his youth. The various kidnapped children were all taken during Halloween. This is a very Halloween episode.

Is anyone in costume?

The little boy who shows up is dressed in a skeleton costume. When the kidnapper abducts the next child, it’s right after some Halloween tomfoolery (so we see kids in costume) and he is also in a creepy-looking dark costume with a skull mask.

Additionally, the non-crime related part of the episode sees Agent Hotchner on a quest to get his son, Jack, a perfect Darth Vadar costume … which apparently he can’t just order and has to pick up in the rain from a psychic (??), who got it delivered from Los Angeles.

Is there a reference to a Halloween tradition?

The episode starts with a nice little fall carnival, where a mom and her son try to find a perfect pumpkin. That’s when they find the first missing boy The boy who gets kidnapped in the episode eggs a house while others are out trick or treating. A different take on Halloween traditions! Also, while we do not see Jack trick or treating, we see him asleep after an eventful night out.

Does the crime in question feel like it belongs in a horror movie?

You know, for something that happens so late in the show, this one felt … rather tame. The Unsub kidnaps boys who misbehave during Halloween and locks them in a box for a year, because his father locked him in a trunk during Halloween years ago… which incidentally was also the night his mom finally fought back and murdered the bastard and he helped her hide the body.

Examining it from a real world perspective, it is is of course very messed up and cruel, but in the scheme of Criminal Minds — wherein just in this list alone we’ve had a dude try to recreate the Salem Witch trials and … the next entry on here — the crimes in question are just ho-hum.

2. “The Good Earth” (Season 8, episode 5)

henry dressed up as reid Image: CBS

Official Criminal Minds plot synopsis: When four men go missing in rural Oregon, the BAU searches for a common link among them in order to track them down. Also, JJ becomes upset when her son Henry doesn’t want to celebrate Halloween this year.

How central is Halloween to the plot:

The actual crime itself has very little to do with Halloween (but it is ridiculous that maybe it does). The episode lead-up, however, has former communications liaison, now profiler JJ concerned that her son doesn’t want to go trick or treating. Apparently, a boy in his class told him that real monsters come out on Halloween. He also overheard a conversation that she and his father had about the cases they take on and how there are so many “monsters” out there, so he’s very scared. That’s OK, though, because by the end, JJ tells him that they need his help identifying monsters.

Is anyone in costume?

JJ’s son Henry shows up to the FBI office dressed as Spencer! Very cute.

Is there a reference to a Halloween tradition?

Only when talking about Henry’s reluctance to go trick or treating. It’s a pretty Halloween-lite episode, all things considered.

Live reaction of me watching this episode
Photo: Petrana Radulovic/Polygon

Does the crime in question feel like it belongs in a horror movie?

If a Criminal Minds murderer doesn’t have me watching the show with my jaw agape in sheer “what the actual fuckery,” then are they even a Criminal Minds murderer? Because the Unsub of “The Good Earth” absolutely makes the upper echelon of totally ridiculous Criminal Minds murderers, this episode itself ends up nearly topping this list despite lack of Halloween elements, because holy hell.

Where do I begin? Not only is she kidnapping men — she is specifically picking physically fit men, drugging them with her own home-brewed melatonin smoothies, stringing them up in her barn, force-feeding them animal feed through a tube in their noses, and then hacking their limbs off so she can use them as fertilizer for her tomatoes.

Why is she doing this? Well, a few years ago she had a bad skin disease and she thinks that her husband’s ashes — which were scattered in the garden — were key to curing her skin. She doesn’t have the skin disease any more, but she hallucinates that she and her daughter do. Also! She kidnaps a pregnant woman, carves out her placenta, stitches the baby back in, then force feeds the placenta to her daughter. Y’all, this is the quality entertainment that I tune into this show for.

This episode would’ve topped the list had the actual Halloween-ness of it been played up more. But as such, it can only make second on the list.

1. “Devil’s Night” (Season 6, episode 6)

a carved jack o lanter Image: CBS

Official Criminal Minds plot synopsis: The BAU is called to apprehend a killer who has struck Detroit for the past three years during Devil’s Night, the notorious pre-Halloween celebration.

How central is Halloween to the plot:

The killer moves specifically on Devil’s Night to take advantage of the fact that people across the city are lighting fires — and also so he can pass off his scarred, burned face (which people compare to Freddy Krueger) as a costume and not draw attention to himself. It’s absolutely factored into his M.O.

The non-crime part of the episode sees Hotch frosting cookies with his son and trying to get him excited about trick or treating. Meanwhile, at the office, Spencer talks about all the cool things he wants to do for Halloween ... and tries to invite the team to come with him, but no one wants to go. I’ll come to the Phantasmagoria with you, Spence.

Is anyone in costume?

Spencer wears a mask at the beginning and Garcia has a cute Halloween ensemble. A flashback sees some costumed people at a Halloween festival, but the real heartwarming moment comes at the end of the episode. Jack was supposed to be Spider-Man, but he comes down the stairs dressed as a “real hero” — his father. How sweet.

Is there a reference to a Halloween tradition?

The entire episode is structured around Devil’s Night in Detroit, which has historically been more rampant with vandalism than similar festivities around the country. The team discusses Halloween plans.

Does the crime in question feel like it belongs in a horror movie?

A good Criminal Minds killer doesn’t just execute murders in a completely unbelievable way — in this particular case, kidnapping people and burning them at the stake in the middle of abandoned warehouses and factories — they also have interesting motivations. Our killer here is specifically going after people who have wronged him in the past. The dude was in a horrible car accident which left him in a coma, and upon waking lost everything. A lot of the mystery is centered around figuring out what’s getting this guy to kill like this, which is actually pretty interesting.

The crimes are grandiose, the motivation interesting, but the thing that makes “Devil’s Night” not just a good Halloween episode, but a good episode of Criminal Minds in general, was that it got kinda sad at the end and gave the Unsub some humanity.

Some of the best Criminal Minds episodes have weird tearjerker moments where you’re almost like “wow, that was sad? Am I going to forgive this dude for brutally murdering a bunch of people?” I rarely do, but there was enough sympathy at the end that made me consider it for a split second. Truly, a feat.

Criminal Minds is available to stream on Netflix.