13 Scariest Villains From Horror Movies
Fear is mankind’s oldest instinct, and since the dawn of film we’ve sought out ways to confront it in the cinema. Here are 13 horror movie villains that will haunt you long after the closing credits.
Why do we watch horror films? Is it to satisfy our darkest curiosities? Is it because we secretly enjoy being frightened? Is it because we see a kind of truth about ourselves in their shadowy depths?
Whatever the reason, there’s little disputing that the key to any classic horror film is a great villain at its center. Here’s a countdown of the thirteen scariest villains from horror movies:
13) Leatherface (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974)
“It’s okay, he looks happy to see us.”
A group of friends takes a road trip to visit an old family home in Texas. Soon they find themselves at the mercy of a family of psychotic cannibals. And the worst of them is a bull of a man who speaks only in grunts and who wears a mask made of human skin.
“You’re right, this *was* more emotionally rewarding than a trip to Six Flags.”
Of course Leatherface is terrifying. Masks are creepy. Chainsaws are scary. But there’s something going on beneath the surface too. Leatherface isn’t just a random scary bad guy. Leatherface is a reflection of us.
Think of how a cow might perceive humans. Tall, lumbering things who wear the skins of other animals, who bludgeon your kind to death. Who dismember you, hang you from meathooks, stuff you in freezers and devour you with glee. The terror Leatherface inspires in us is the cattle’s terror of the slaughterhouse.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre turns us, literally and figuratively, into what we eat.
12) Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
The stuff of nightmares.
The teenagers of Springwood, Ohio are suffering from terrible dreams - dreams so real that the wounds they sustain while dreaming become physically real. After a girl is slashed to death by an unseen assailant, the teenagers begin to uncover the truth about what is going on - about the man who haunts their dreams, a man covered in burns and wearing bladed claws on his fingers.
Heather Langenkamp would go on to reprise her role as Nancy in future Elm Street films. For better or for worse.
The reason Freddy Krueger is a classic horror villain is almost laughably simple: he strikes in the places we feel safest, and proves that those places weren’t safe at all. In fact, Nancy comes to realize that the things that were keeping her safe that created Freddy in the first place: the police who failed to bring him to justice, the townsfolk who stepped in and intervened, the parents whose personal demons kept them indifferent and uncomprehending as he preyed on children in their dreams.
If you think that’s putting the blame in the wrong place, ask yourself this. Put aside the monster that he became after his death. What proof do we have that Krueger was guilty in the first place? The opinion of a group of vigilantes who took the law into their own hands. What if Krueger was innocent? What if the entity that targeted these people’s children took his name and face for itself, as a mocking reminder of their crime?
Food for thought.
11) Dracula (Horror of Dracula)
Dracula is really a perfect gentleman for the first half-hour of the film, until he turns into…this.
When Jonathan Harker fails in his mission to assassinate Count Dracula, the vampire begins a quest for revenge by targeting Lucy Holmwood, the woman Harker loves. Only Dr. Van Helsing possesses the knowledge of how to defeat the creature once and for all - but time is running out, and Lucy is already falling under the Count’s sinister spell…
Peter Cushing (Van Helsing) would go on to co-star in many more horror films alongside Lee.
Dracula is the seductive evil - the charming prince from a distant land who offers you forbidden pleasures. Bela Lugosi might be the actor most associated with the character, but his portrayal was overly theatrical even by the standards of the time and lost a degree of seductive charm. Lee was the first actor on the silver-screen to truly embody the character in its totality - a tall, handsome, cultured figure who would be highly attractive if it weren’t for the fact that he’s a raging undead monster. The horror of Dracula is in standing on the edge of a cliff and hearing that little voice in your head urging you to jump.
10) The Crawlers (The Descent)
The creatures navigate by smell and hearing, which gives them a pretty big advantage in a lightless environment.
A group of friends gather for a spelunking expedition. When a cave-in traps them in an uncharted cave system with no hope of rescue, the group have no choice but to press on further and deeper into the darkness. Soon they stray into the domain where they are not welcome, a domain populated by creatures that have adapted to survive in the pitch blackness of the caves. Creatures that subsist on the flesh of their prey.
The film is notable for having an all-female cast, a decision the writer-director made in order to go against genre convention.
As literal cavemen, the crawlers could be thought of as a feral offshoot of human evolution, though their true origins are left a mystery to us. The crawlers are marvelously effective horror antagonists in large part because of Neil Marshall’s direction, which emphasizes just how out of their depth the protagonists are in this primitive shadow kingdom.
9) The Entity (It Follows)
The creature is visible only to its quarry, which puts a crimp in any attempts to get help.
A high school student is being followed by a supernatural creature, a creature that disguises itself as random passers-by, a creature that will hunt her down and kill her unless she can pass on the curse the same way it was passed on to her - through sexual contact.
The protagonist Jay learns about the curse from the man who passed it on to her.
You’ve gotten involved in something terrible, and it’s destroying your life. You can’t tell your parents. You can barely tell your friends. And the only way you can see out of it is to lie or cheat or run away. The entity is the thing from your past that you think you can’t escape, the thing you secretly blame yourself for even though there was no way you could have known what would happen. It’s that uniquely adolescent fear: the fear that your life is over. And all that’s left is to wait for the consequences to knock at your door.
8) The Woman (Under the Skin)
The nameless woman is both protagonist and villain in the film.
A young woman roams Scotland seducing men and sending them to their deaths for a mysterious purpose. But as she comes to know more of humanity, she also begins to question her mission.
As the story progresses, we find ourselves drawn further into the woman’s mindset.
The word “villain” almost loses its meaning when it comes to the main character of Under the Skin. Yes, there are things she does that would make her primary antagonist material in a lot of other films - and yet the film shows us the world through her point of view, experiencing it as a curious but dispassionate outsider rather than someone who is evil or cruel for its own sake. Whether the horror factor of the film derives from her being a monster or from the world seeming monstrous to her is up to you.
7) Pennywise the Clown (IT)
I knew kids who would run screaming out of the room at the sight of Tim Curry’s face on the IT DVD’s cover. I probably know a few adults who would do the same, too.
In the small town of Derry, Maine, a group of children fight a malevolent entity that can take on the forms of their worst fears - an entity that devours children and inspires terror in them as a way of “salting the meat”. IT has no known true name, but one of its best-known aliases is that of Pennywise the Clown.
The Losers’ Club, a gang of Derry kids who band together to fight IT. And yes, that is Seth Green on the left.
Adults might have found Curry’s over-the-top performance more funny than scary, but they’re missing the point: IT is a creature that feeds on children, and so it is meant to terrify kids. Many of the things IT does seem to have no purpose. But that’s what abuse and violence looks like to children: purposeless, pointless pain that somehow continues even though there’s no reason for it to do so.
The horror of IT is the horror of living under a creature who is literally incomprehensibly evil, who embraces cruelty and suffering on a godlike scale beyond our imagination.
6) Sadako Yamamura (Ringu)
An iconic shot of Sadako peering at us from behind her long hair, like a caged animal.
It is said that there is a videotape that brings death in seven days to any who watch it. When her niece Tomoko dies a week after watching the tape, reporter Reiko Asakawa begins to investigate and slowly uncovers its history as well as that of its creator, Sadako Yamamura.
The main characters are Reiko, who is investigating the cursed tape, and her ex-husband Ryuji.
It’s no surprise that the idea of a cursed video tape could capture the imagination of a generation reared on TV. Ringu draws influence from classic witch folklore for its backstory, but it’s given to us through a thoroughly modern fear - that of watching something forbidden to us. It’s the characters’ morbid curiosity to see the tape that dooms them to Sadako’s curse, a poetic reversal of Sadako’s fate in the well.
5) Jack Torrance (The Shining)
This is Jack. He’s got problems.
Aspiring writer Jack Torrance accepts a position as winter caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel. He moves there with his wife and son and begins his work. But isolation and the harsh winter begin to grate at his nerves - and strange phenomena begin to manifest around the Overlook, taking on the appearance of long-gone guests.
You can just feel the family love radiating off him, can’t you?
In some ways, Jack is an outsider in this list. He doesn’t have any special powers or genetic abnormalities. He’s basically just a regular guy. But when the competition is a meek waif of a woman and a six-year-old child, a grown man with a fire axe pretty much is a superhuman monster. Forget the ghosts and the torrents of blood and the creepy twins: the beating heart of The Shining’s horror is Jack, a monster of the kind that exists in real life.
4) The Witch (The Witch)
Hint: she doesn’t *actually* look like this.
Banished from their settlement for religious differences, a family of Puritan settlers ekes out a living in the wooded wilds of New England. The threat of sin hangs like a curse upon the land, and strange omens and ill fortune befall their homestead.
The family struggles to find strength through renewed faith and prayer. But soon they begin to suspect that there is a greater malevolence behind their troubles. They begin to suspect witchcraft.
Although the film follows the entire family, the focus is largely on the rebellious daughter Thomasin.
The Witch is a masterpiece of atmosphere, and the key to that atmosphere lies in how it portrays the Witch herself: mostly, it doesn’t. Her presence is felt through the ominous silence of the surrounding forest, the freakish occurrences on the homestead, the family’s gradual slide into paranoia. When we see her she is on the edge of our perception: half in shadow, seen in hallucinations and by imaginative children.
If Jack Torrance is frightening because of how real he is, the Witch is terrifying because she might not be. And if she is in the minds of the family, then perhaps we all have a Witch of our own, lurking at the edges of our minds, waiting for the right moment to creep in and steal our lives from us.
3) The Xenomorph (Alien)
“Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
When a commercial spaceship responds to a distress signal on a nearby planet, its crew is attacked by an unknown organism. As the crew retreats to their ship and return to the depths of space, they do not suspect that the attack was merely the opening stage of a gruesome hunt in the bowels of the ship. Soon the alien is born and it begins to grow - grow bigger, stronger, and hungrier.
Protagonist Ripley (left) was originally scripted as a gender-neutral character, eventually resulting in a female lead who wasn’t bound by stereotype.
For thousands of years, we have lived in terror of predators that come in the night. The xenomorph is that ancient nightmare made flesh. Its slick black exoskeleton, its corrosive bodily fluids, and its gruesome method of reproduction all come together in a vision of the ultimate predator. A primordial creature of darkness, to be feared and held at bay with fire and hope.
2) Count Orlok (Nosferatu)
A distant ancestor to Slenderman, perhaps?
Solicitor Thomas Hutter is summoned to Transylvania to do business with his new client, Count Orlok. Little does he realize that Orlok is a creature of legend, a predator who feeds on the blood of humans and spews plague in his wake…a vampire. Hutter barely escapes with his life, but Orlok is making plans to move to Hutter’s home town - and he has his sights set on his wife, Ellen.
Thomas Hutter, who nearly loses his life in the Count’s employ.
Everything about Orlok is...wrong. His stiff, hunched gait. His hands, rigid and curved like claws. His empty, staring eyes. His clothes, wrapped around him like a straitjacket. He moves not like a person, but like a creature wearing a person. Nosferatu is almost a hundred years old, but Count Orlok is still mesmerizing to watch and visually the most frightening thing on this list.
That is, except for…
1) The Thing (The Thing, 1982)
The creature seems to rearrange body parts without particularly knowing what they’re *for*.
In the frozen wastes of Antarctica, an American research team stumbles upon the remains of an ill-fated Norwegian science outpost. As they slowly piece together what happened, an alien intelligence walks among them, wearing its victims’ bodies as a perfect disguise.
By the time they realize what is happening, there is no way to tell who has been converted and who hasn’t.
Until they start to change...
R.J. MacReady eventually takes charge of the effort to combat the Thing. But he himself could be one of the infected…
Some monsters hide offscreen, or in the dark, or in their lair. The Thing hides in front of you. It hides in the people you love.
The Thing is the quickening heartbeat, the shiver down the spine, the crawling of the skin. It is the eye-twisting feeling of looking at someone you know and suddenly realizing they are not what you think they are.
Watch the faces of these people closely. Watch them laugh and joke and drink and worry. Watch their warmth, their fire, and their life. And when they begin to transform, watch these things drain from their faces. Watch the humanity scooped out of them like flesh out of a pumpkin.
And you will know fear.
Monsters are everywhere. They live in our myths and in our bedtime stories; they live on the fringes of our society and among us. Some are outlandish creatures that could only ever exist in fiction. Some are real…as real as you and me.
Here’s to the horror genre, documenting our monsters since the dawn of time.
If you liked this article, you might also be interested in: