Back before the Beethoven franchise showed us how lovable and helpful St. Bernards can be, Cujo had us running in terror from these gargantuan canines. All it takes is a little bat bite and this friendly household pet morphs into a raging, bloodthirsty monster. Cujo accomplishes a lot with one simple, terrifying premise – a mother and her toddler son are trapped in a broken down car as a rabid dog stalks them. At least the movie had a happier ending than the book.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was an early classic of the horror genre and the book that many consider to be the dawn of science fiction. It’s little wonder that Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his signature creation have appeared in so many film adaptations. While the first Frankenstein movie appeared way back in 1910, it’s Universal’s 1931 adaptation that remains the most iconic. Boris Karloff defined the look of this lumbering, fearsome monster, as well capturing all the tragedy that makes him such an enduring character in pop culture. Frankenstein’s Monster has appeared in dozens of movies over the decades and inspired countless more.
Within the world of Ghostbusters, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is a cheerful, rotund corporate mascot akin to the Pillsbury Doughboy or the Michelin Man. He even has his own animated series. But a pop culture icon became Manhattan’s worst nightmare when the Ghostbusters battled the dark god Gozer atop 55 Central Park West. Gozer instructed the Ghostbusters to “choose the form of the destroyer.” Ray was the only one of the four who failed to keep his mind blank, and thus Stay Puft emerged as a colossal beast bent on wiping out all life in Manhattan.
Luckily, the gang crossed the streams and averted disaster. Stay Puft has remained one of the most recognizable symbols of the franchise alongside Slimer and the anti-ghost logo. He even returned sporadically in the animated series The Real Ghostbusters as a helpful ally.
Norman Bates is the proprietor of the Bates Motel, a seemingly innocent little inn that holds great danger for any who stop for the night. Bates’ severe psychological problems make him prone to spying on guests, stabbing them in the shower, and dressing up like his dead mother. Bates was brought to justice at the end of the original Psycho (one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best), but he returned in several sequels, a remake, and pilot for a proposed TV continuation called Bates Motel. None of these spinoffs have come close to topping the original, but Bates remains a charismatic and disturbing villain throughout.
If the Omen series proved anything, it’s that children can be just as creepy as adult villains like Norman Bates. Damien is the central antagonist of the Omen series. He happens to be the Anti-Christ, a fact which most of the adults in his life discover far too late. Even as a young boy, Damien was sending his enemies plummeting to their deaths and generally getting in good practice for the day he would seize control of the world. His reign of terror and legacy were explored in three sequels and a recent remake.
The Creeper more than lives up to his name in the Jeepers Creepers series. This villain might look like a man at first glance, but he’s actually an ancient demon who appears for 23 days every 23rd spring to feast on human flesh and assemble himself a new body from the various body parts. He also drives a massive truck that has become as much a hallmark of the franchise as anything else. The Creeper returned in a 2003 sequel, and the word is that MGM has given writer/director Victor Salva the go-ahead to film a back-to-back pair of sequels. The Creeper should be feasting on human flesh for a long time to come.
With the ’70s and ’80s playing host to so many great horror movie villains, it seemed liked Hollywood had nothing left to add by the time the ’90s rolled around. Cue Ghostface, the villain of the horror satire Scream series. Ghostface is characterized by his signature Halloween mask and proclivity for taunting his victims and drawing out the act of murder. The twist is that Ghostface isn’t any one single villain. Instead, each film centers around the mystery of who has donned the costume and renewed the process of killing young, dumb, pretty people. That formula has given us four Scream movies so far.
The Candyman is a villain who will appeal to anyone who ever stood in a dark bathroom and whispered “Bloody Mary” into a mirror. Like that infamous ghost, Candyman is a vengeful killer who appears before anyone dumb enough to summon him. He’s distinguished by his tattered cloak and the hook that rests where his hand used to be. However, Candyman is more than your average slasher villain. He has a tragic backstory, and the original movie is often praised for offering a more intelligent and thoughtful alternative to the Nightmare on Elm Streets and Friday the 13ths of the horror world.
Samara Morgan (and her Japanese counterpart Sadako Yamamura) is the demonic poster child for the Ring series. This twitchy, creepy villainess appears to her victims seven days after they watch a cursed videotape. We can’t imagine many things worse than seeing Samara crawl out of a TV screen and right into your living room. And despite the attempts of the protagonists in the Ring movies to put an end to the curse and quiet Samara/Sadako’s restless spirits, these demonic girls just keep on killing.
Is there any horror villain with a longer Hollywood history than Count Dracula? The first confirmed adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel was the 1922 silent classic Nosferatu, though due to copyright concerns the character’s name was changed to Count Orlok. Dracula’s most enduring film appearance came nine years later when Bela Lugosi starred in Universal’s Dracula. That movie defined the look and mannerisms of the character for decades to follow. Dracula has appeared in hundreds of movies, played by everyone from Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gary Oldman. And though moviegoers are currently obsessed with vampires who sparkle and smolder, there will always be a place for the most famous bloodsucker of them all.
The villains of Poltergeist aren’t physical monsters or serial killers, but rather disembodied spirits that terrorize a hapless family. These spirits are led by a dominating force called The Beast that attempts to lure young Carol Ann Freeling through the family’s TV set and into the realm of the dead. Ultimately, viewers learned that the restless spirits were angry that the Freeling family home was built atop a burial ground. Later sequels served to complicate that arrangement and the nature of The Beast itself. But regardless, the original continues to scare viewers who fear what they can’t see. The fact that the movie has built up a reputation over the years for being cursed itself doesn’t hurt either.
John W. Campbell’s novel Who Goes There inspired the 1951 sci-fi movie The Thing From Another World, where a group of Antarctic researchers battled a plant-based alien life-form. However, most horror fans know “The Thing” as the titular monster in John Carpenter’s 1982 classic. More faithful in tone and execution to Campbell’s novel, The Thing easily ranks among Carpenter’s scariest movies. The scene of the Thing consuming a room full of dogs and its inhuman scream upon being torched with fire still give us nightmares even today. The fact that the monster rarely appeared in the flesh, but rather disguised itself as various human characters, only added to the creep factor. Until the end, viewers could never be sure who was real and who had been consumed by the Thing (and some argue that even the final scene is ambiguous in that regard).
Dolls are creepy. It’s something about their big, glassy eyes and almost human features that rubs people the wrong way. The Child’s Play series played on that shared fear when it introduced the world to Chucky. Reportedly inspired by Hasbro’s My Buddy dolls, Chucky debuted as a talking doll with the peculiar ability to come to life and murder every adult that crossed his path. As it turned out, the doll was actually possessed by the soul of a serial killer/voodoo enthusiast. That particular spell proved to have significant staying power, and Chucky has returned to menace the children of the world in various sequels over the years. He even got married and had a baby.
Ask anyone for their list of the scariest movies of all time and you’re bound to find The Exorcist high up in the rankings. In this 1973 classic, an innocent girl named Regan begins displaying bizarre behavior that her mother and doctors initially blame on puberty. Puberty sucks, but it doesn’t explain floating furniture or the ability to spin one’s neck 360 degrees. Regan’s mother eventually realizes that her daughter has been possessed by a demon named Pazuzu. The demon is eventually driven out, but it has a habit of returning again and again to torment Regan and others in the various sequels and prequels. None of those followups have the raw, terrifying appeal of the original and its many iconic scenes of demonic possession (the head-spinning, the soup-barfing, the spider-walking, etc.).
Jack Torrance suffered from the world’s worst case of cabin fever in this adaptation of the popular Stephen King novel. Torrance, along with hi wife Wendy and son Danny, is hired to serve as winter caretaker to the famed Overlook Hotel. Unfortunately, the hotel has a sordid past and is practically crawling with ghosts. These spirits feed off of Torrance’s fragile psychology and his son’s psychic talents, growing stronger and more dangerous over the course of the winter. Before long, Torrance snapped and set about trying to murder his family with an ax. He managed to kill the cook, but ultimately Torrance’s fate was to freeze to death while lost in a hedge maze.
The Shining is host to numerous scary scenes (the bloody elevator, the women in Room 237), but Torrance’s appeal centers on the idea that even a good man can become a depraved killer once he’s pushed far enough.
Humanity has a primal fear of the ocean and the dangers it hides. No animal better encapsulates that fear than the Great White Shark. And no movie captures the terror of a shark attack quite like Jaws. Based on Peter Benchley’s novel (which in turn was loosely inspired by the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks), Jaws follows the reign of terror of one oversized shark as it torments the inhabitants and tourists of a New England community. The movie works so well because it leaves so much to the viewer’s imagination. Until the climax, viewers rarely catch more than a glimpse of the shark, instead seeing shots from its point-of-view and hearing the iconic musical cue that announces its arrival.
Though the shark (affectionately dubbed Bruce by the film crew) exploded at the end of the first movie, more Great Whites returned to terrorize Amity in various sequels. But other than the decent Jaws 2, those sequels are better left forgotten. We can only assume that the reason so few directors have attempted to make a serious horror movie about sharks is that there’s no topping Jaws.
Zombies may have supplanted vampires as the most common horror movie villains these days. The contemporary idea of what constitutes a zombie was introduced in George Romero’s seminal 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead. But while Romero may be the father of the modern zombie, countless other directors have tired their hand at depicting the undead apocalypse. A few common traits appear almost every time. Zombies are the reanimated bodies of the dead. They crave human flesh (with a preference for brains), and can only be killed by destroying the head. Zombies are generally dangerous because of their large numbers, although some films like 28 Days Later have introduced zombies that can run and kill with frightening ease.
Some people have a deep-rooted fear of clowns. And after watching It, it’s really not difficult to understand why. Another adaptation of a Stephen King book, It follows the trials and tribulations of a group of friends in a small Maine town who encounter a demonic, sewer-dwelling clown named Pennywise as both children and adults. Pennywise is anything but a jolly, fun-loving entertainer. Not unlike Gozer in Ghostbusters, Pennywise’s perceived form is determined by the minds of the victims he torments. And like any good horror movie villain, he slumbers for decades before reawakening to renew his reign of terror. The fact that Tim Curry was cast as the villain only helps the fear factor. Curry’s distinct voice makes him scary in just about any movie.
Pinhead is easily one of the most visually distinctive horror villains of all time. He leads a group of bondage enthusiasts/demons known as the Cenobites in the various Hellraiser movies. Hapless humans who solve a puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration are rewarded with a one-way ticket to Pinhead’s realm and an eternity of pain and torture. But as fearsome as he is, part of Pinhead’s appeal lies in his regal charm. There’s an element of Dracula-esque nobility and tragedy to this dark figure, which set him apart from ’80s contemporaries Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger.
If you want to talk charismatic villains, the conversation has to include Hannibal Lecter. Intelligent and charming in equal measure, Hannibal is also a serial killer fond of cooking and eating his victims. Though ostensibly the villain of the movies Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon, viewers can’t help but root for Hannibal. After all, he usually only punishes those deserving of his wrath.
Hannibal made his cinematic debut in the 1986 film Manhunter (played by Brian Cox). However, it was Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins who elevated Hannibal to a movie icon in Silence of the Lambs and its spinoffs. 2013 will see the debut of a Hannibal TV series. Time will tell if Mads Mikkelsen can embody the role as well as Hopkins did.
One of the first of the iconic band of slasher movie villains, Leatherface is a serial killer inspired by real-life figure Ed Gein. Leatherface is known for wearing masks made of human skin and wielding a chainsaw. His victims in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series are those hapless teenagers and police officers who wander too close to his dilapidated home. Part of Leatherface’s terrifying appeal is that one never truly knows what evil is lurking behind closed doors. We just know we never want our van to break down in the Texas wilderness.
The original Alien introduced the Xenomorph, a bloodthirsty alien carnivore that grew from human host bodies and managed to nearly wipe out an entire spaceship crew before being sucked out into space. Aliens upped the ante considerably by introducing an entire colony of Xenomorphs. Worse still, these aliens were merely drones serving the gargantuan Alien Queen, a much larger and more fearsome version of her children. Heroine Ellen Ripley narrowly escaped her first encounter with a Queen in that movie, but she wasn’t so lucky the second time around. The Alien Queen has been a recurring threat in many of the Alien and Alien vs. Predator films since.
Michael Myers is one of the most popular and enduring slasher movie villains. Unlike a character like Freddy Krueger, Myers has no real personality or emotion. He’s simply a cold, silent, remorseless killer – a true embodiment of the boogeyman. The various Halloween films establish that Myers was incarcerated in a mental institution as a child after killing his sister. Many of the films see Myers escape from imprisonment or apparent death and return to torment Laurie Strode (who Rob Zombie’s remake made Myers’ sister). He can’t be killed. He can’t be stopped. There’s no escaping the wrath of Michael Myers.
Jason Voorhees is the central antagonist of the long-running Friday the 13th series. He’s instantly recognizable as the lumbering killer who hides his deformed face behind a hockey mask and wields a deadly machete. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the third Friday the 13th movie that his look was solidified. Voorhees wasn’t even the central villain of the original film. Instead, his mother was the one who set about murdering a group of camp counselors in revenge for her son’s drowning years before. But Jason emerged from the grave to carry on his mother’s legacy. No one is more skilled at murdering pretty, boneheaded teenagers in various brutal ways. And like Michael Meyers, Jason seemingly can’t be killed. His thirst for blood has even taken him to the cold reaches of space and back.
When we opened the horror villain polls, the only real question was whether Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger would claim the top spot. And clearly, most of you felt Freddy was the top dog. It’s hard to argue with his track record. Freddy debuted in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and has enjoyed a long and robust career of tormenting innocent people in their dreams. That supernatural quality is partly what sets Freddy above the pack. It doesn’t hurt that he has such a striking visual design – the burned face, the razor-sharp shears, the tattered sweater and fedora.
Freddy was played by Robert Englund for eight consecutive movies between 1984 and 2003, culminating in his long-awaited clash with Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs. Jason, as well as in the TV series Freddy’s Nightmares. Jackie Earle Haley took over the role in the 2010 reboot. One thing these movies have made abundantly clear is that Freddy Krueger is a man to be feared in both the waking world and dream world.