A good scary movie is more than just the jump scenes and mysterious plot twists (though they surely help make it more interesting). A good horror movie isn’t remembered for its plot devices, but its characters. Think about it: It wouldn’t be the classic, humorous horror film it is without Bill Skarsgård’s Pennywise The Dancing Clown. A child-eating demon who masquerades itself as a creepy clown…that’s something no one can forget (thanks to Stephen King for the idea).
Ever notice how the best of the best horror films are remembered because of the villains? Norman Bates from Psycho. Jigsaw from Saw. Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street. We can go on. No matter if the villain is a shape-shifting ghoul or your average everyday murder, there’s something inexplicably fascinating about the “villain” of the story (honestly, could you even consider them villains?). Maybe it’s because they’re much more interesting than the survivors, but no matter the reason, we can all agree that a horror film isn’t a horror film without a kickass villain (and sometimes an interesting hero).
And, that’s why we’ve got this list (unranked, of course) of the best horror film characters. From Octavia Spencer’s “Ma” to Michael Myers from Halloween, here are the best murders and paranormal monsters we all know and love.
Jack Torrance in The Shining
Of course, we had to kick start this list with Jack Nicholson’s phenomenal portrayal of Jack Torrance. Even though the film is from the early ‘80s, it still remains one the greatest horror films to ever—the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene remains one of the best horror moments you’ll ever see.
Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th series
Ah, more ‘80s films. What’s so interesting about this selection is that Jason isn’t technically the villain of the first film—it’s his mother who murders the campers. He actually didn’t don his signature mask until the third film in the franchise—but that iconic hockey mask and machete made him a character the audience couldn’t forget, and would forever associate with both the franchise and horror movies at large.
Carrie White in Carrie
Okay—Carrie isn’t really evil. An overzealous religious mother and cruel high school classmates can make anyone mad and go on a path of murder and destruction. Hell, wouldn’t you want revenge if your classmates dumped pig blood on you at prom? A classic case where “the villain” is the actual hero.
Annabelle in The Conjuring and Annabelle
This creepy doll was so beloved that she got her own film after fans saw her for, like, a second in The Conjuring. Maybe it’s her creepiness (that eye makeup is something else, y’all) or the fact that she’s inspired by an IRL doll who supposedly murdered at least one person, but Annabelle is the toy you definitely want to avoid.
Ghostface in Scream
Scream is the iconic horror film of the ‘90s, though I Know What You Did Last Summer runs a close second. But this Wes Craven-directed film didn’t revitalize the modern horror genre by just its plot—its success is mostly owed to its antagonist, Ghostface. And, while he’s not exactly creepy, his silent/violent demeanor (and phone voice) is horrifying enough to seend chills down your spine.
Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist
Before there was The Conjuring or any horror film about demons and devils, there was The Exorcist. Poor Regan MacNeil—she’s a 12-year-old girl who plays with an Ouija board (the No. 1 no-no in horror movies, duh) and gets possessed by the Devil. The ‘70s film paved the way for the modern horror movie, and set up two major foundations: don’t trust children and don’t play with Ouija boards.
Chucky in the Child’s Play series
Do Not Trust Dolls, especially dolls that say: “Hi, I’m Chucky. Wanna play?” This horror slasher series follows a serial killer who transfers his soul into a “Good Guys” doll (Chucky) and terrorizes the doll’s owners. Talk about a toy gone bad. Next up? A Chucky series on USA/SyFy this fall.
Slenderman from Slenderman
A fictional character who originated as an urban myth and meme, Slenderman stars in, uh, Slenderman. Thanks to the power of the Internet, fans got to see this cultural phenomenon turned into a horror villain. But, even without the memes on Twitter, is anyone surprised that a tall, faceless entity that makes people vanish became a part of the horror film genre?
Laurie Strode from Halloween
Michael Myers may haunt your nightmares, but Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode will always be there to hunt him down. Curtis would be the #1 scream queen of all time even from her performance in the original Halloween alone, but her especially badass turn in the new Halloween series (which began in 2018 and continues this fall) is just a little sugar on top bonus.
Ash from The Evil Dead
As the final survivor in the original Evil Dead (spoiler!), Ash has become a memorable horror character for dealing with one malevolent spirit after another. His most well-known image is from the later films and the Ash v. Evil Dead television series, where his right arm is notably replaced with a chainsaw.
Ripley from Alien
Who doesn’t love Sigourney Weaver? The actress brought us the fearless Ripley, who first fights aliens in Ridley Scott’s original 1979 masterpiece. Although the slimy, bone-chilling Alien may strike fear into viewers, Ripley reminds them, actually, the Aliens should be afraid of her.
Annie Wilkes from Misery
Stephen King’s Misery has a simple lesson to authors everywhere: Never meet your number one fan. Kathy Bates’ performance as Annie Wilkes was so good it won her an Academy Award for Best Actress and launched her decades-long film and television career.
Ed and Lorraine Warren from The Conjuring
Never fear when the Warrens are near. Based on the true stories of exorcist couple Ed and Lorraine Warren, 2013’s The Conjuring has now birthed multiple sequels and an entire universe of possessions and horror tales. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reportedly visited the real-life Lorraine Warren to get as accurate portrayals of her and her husband as possible.
Pennywise from It
You can’t walk away from It without being at least a little scared of clowns. Tim Curry first portrayed the not-so-funny villain in a 1990 miniseries, and Bill Skarsgard recently took up the mantle in a reboot of the same name and its conclusion in 2019.
Pinhead from Hellraiser
1978’s Hellraiser introduced audiences to Pinhead, leader of the Cenobites. These disturbing extra-terrestrials have come back in nine sequels, seven of which Pinhead’s Doug Bradley has appeared in.
Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs
There’s Hannibal Lecter, and then there’s Clarice Starling. The FBI agent is one of the most well-known heroines in movie history, and Jodie Foster even won an Academy Award for playing opposite Anthony Hopkins’ equally memorable Dr. Hannibal Lecter. A new take on the character, starring Rebecca Breeds, just concluded its first season on CBS and will likely continue on Paramount+.
Babadook from The Babadook
What did we say before? Never trust children. They start hallucinating children’s book characters like Babadook in The Babadook. A white-faced man in a top hat with razor-sharp teeth…the Babadook is one creepy MF-er.
Brahms in The Boy
Aside from children, dolls are your worst nightmare (literally). Take Brahms from The Boy for an example. He’s a creepy life-like doll who haunts anyone who comes near. If you ever encounter a porcelain life-like doll, run away.
Chris Washington from Get Out
Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington is the unfortunate protagonist of Jordan Peele’s Get Out. His terrifying entrapment by his girlfriend’s white family takes meeting the parents to a whole new level of scary.
Red/Adelaide from Us
Us wouldn’t be nearly as unsettling without Lupita Nyong’o’s Red/Adelaide. On a trip to the beach, Adelaide and her family are attacked by their doppelgangers. Nyong’o plays the protagonist and her double so well, it may put you off your next beach visit. In fact, she 100% deserved an Oscar nomination for the performance.
Candyman from Candyman
Even if you never saw the 1992 film, you may have been dared to whisper this villain’s name in a mirror as a child. Based on Clive Barker’s story “The Forbidden,” Candyman is remembered for its commentary on race and class, and Tony Todd’s unforgettable portrayal of the villain.
Blade from Blade
Wesley Snipes stars in this Marvel adaptation of an epic vampire-hunter. Already the source material offered an incredible character, but Snipes’ portrayal of Blade increased public interest superhero films, and he continued to play the character in two sequel films. The character will return in the next few years, as Mahershala Ali is on board to play Blade in a new MCU film.
Samara Morgan from The Ring
What is with evil entities masquerading themselves as innocent people? And why do we love it so much? Samara Morgan initially looks like a shy, withdrawn young girl, but man is she evil. In fact, she’s actually a Japanese onryo spirit who seeks vengeance (for what? We don’t know). But her appearance helps us remember one thing: never trust children in horror films.
Norman Bates from Psycho
There’s no horror list without mentioning the one, the only, Norman Bates. Anthony Perkins’ original performance as the motel killer makes the 1960 film a classic. And even if you haven’t seen the film, everyone knows the shower scene. Plus, with the film helmed by Alfred Hitchcock, it was obvious Bates would be remembered for years to come.
Black Phillip from The Witch
A devil-possessed goat who’s hunting a puritanic Christian family? Well, no one can say this film’s antagonist isn’t creative.
Esther from Orphan
Ah, who couldn’t love Esther, a 33-year-old woman who masquerades herself as a nine-year-old girl and gets adopted by a couple mourning the death of their unborn child? Hmm.
Leatherface from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Although it wasn’t actually based on a true story, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a villain so terrifying you’ll forget it’s fictional. The human skin-wearing Leatherface hacked and slashed his way into our public consciousness, and even though its been many decades (and many not so great sequels, spinoffs, and reboots) since the original film, horror fans still shudder at the thought of the depraved villain.
Dr.Heiter from The Human Centipede
A deranged German surgeon kidnaps three people and sews them together, forming a centipede. This character is perhaps the most disturbed horror character (and that’s saying a lot).
Damien Thorn from The Omen
Again, another reason why you shouldn’t trust children in horror films. While this lovely family believed their son was Heaven on Earth (cue eye roll), Damien was literally the Antichrist. He smiled as he murdered people…how more signs does the Thorn family need?
Ma from Ma
Despite the film’s critical failure, Octavia Spencer’s performance as Ma is one for the ages. Spencer plays a woman who seeks revenge on her former classmates and their children after she endured years of bullying. Even if the film is more comical than scary, Ma lives on as a meme-worthy film.
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