The horror genre is notable for creating some of the most iconic characters in all of fiction. The best of the best tap into our primal fears and personify them in palpable, terrifying forms. From horrifyingly unnatural figures that exemplify existential fears to all-too human killers that tap into the very real dangers of life, the greatest villains in horror operate on many different levels. But the best of the best all tap into something absolutely terrifying in order to stay in the minds of viewers long after their stories end.
The following 13 villains of the horror genre have captivated the minds and fears of viewers for decades, ranging from massive franchises to single appearances.
13. Samara (The Ring)
A ghostly child that kills whoever watches a cursed tape seven days after doing so, Samara is emblematic of J-horror. Her twitchy movements, grotesque appearance, and inescapable wrath are terrifying on an elemental level. Worst of all, escaping her is only done by passing the curse to someone else, haunting her victims on a completely different level.
Scariest Moment: After a film full of build-up and creeping terror, Samara emerges from the television to claim her victim, embodying all the inescapable J-horror creepiness personified in The Ring that uniquely terrifies in ways that few other types of horror films can.
12. Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th)
One of the iconic slashers of the ’80s, Jason Voorhees went from deformed psychopath to undead monster in the course of the Friday the 13th franchise, but always maintained his love of brutal kills. He’s iconic and instantly recognizable while still retaining his terrifying nature thanks to his wordless, deadly rampages, even if his films function more to entertain on a grotesque level than outright scare. Read more about the Terror of Crystal Lake in “Jason Voorhees: Conservative Hero of the ’80s.”
Scariest Moment: Resting after having seemingly killed Jason, survivor Christ rest in a boat, only to see the bloodied and crazed Jason suddenly alive and coming after her once again. As the corpse of Pamela Voorhees pops up to grab her from the water, we see it’s only a dream, but it’s still frightening stuff.
11. Deadites (Evil Dead)
While the may seem like zombies at first glance, Deadites operate on a different level, as they are people possessed by the demonic force of The Necronomicon. Once taken over, Deadites seek to torture, maim, and kill their victims while perverting the memories of their loved ones. While they became more comical in films like Army of Darkness, Deadites can still frighten and revolt.
Scariest Moment: Thought to be a murderer, Ash is locked in the cellar in Evil Dead 2. But when the group finds out that one of their member’s mothers was buried down there after being possessed, she bursts forth from the ground in order to try to kill the now-defenseless Ash.
10. Pazuzu (The Exorcist)
The idea of a child being possessed by a demon is enough to disturb most, but it’s the sights, sounds, and actions of young Regan MacNeil that disturb the most. From her horrific appearance to all manner of disturbing developments as an exorcism is performed on Regan to expel the demon Pazuzu, decades of viewers have been horrified by the terror at the center of The Exorcist.
Scariest Moment: Completely taken over by Pazuzu, Regan resists her exorcism, curses at the priests and breaking apart everything around her. It all culminates in a slow, insane 360 degree head spin, disturbing on a deep, visceral level.
9. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs)
One of the most human villains on the list, yet still outrageous in his own way, Hannibal Lecter scares not just through his horrifying acts of cannibalism, but by his predatory intellect. Even in an inescapable cell, Lecter terrifies through his sheer presence, constantly playing mind games and taking control of his targets’ minds. And once he’s free, the sheer horror is taken to another level.
Scariest Moment: Moved into a new cell, Lecter enacts his escape plan by ruthlessly attacking his guards, which includes biting the nose off one of them and taking the other one’s face. The sudden and nasty nature of the escape combined with Lecter’s brilliance is terrifying on many levels.
8. Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre)
A chainsaw-wielding, skin mask-wearing, cannibal doesn’t need much explanation as to why he terrifies. Leatherface represents the horror that rests in the unexplored, rural parts of the country, where family values have been twisted into the worst possible ideas and fellow man is seen as food. Massive, mute, and on the loose, Leatherface is grotesque and shocking on both a visceral and ideological level.
Scariest Moment: As the traumatized Sally manages to escape at the climax of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the thwarted Leatherface dances in the road, swinging his chainsaw in mad defiance of the world. Ending the film on a sudden and bleak note, we know that the madness just seen can never truly be escaped.
7. Pennywise (It)
Clowns are scary enough as is, but supernatural beings that take the form of ravenous clowns in order to consume children is next level scary. Leave it to Stephen King to create the ultimate creepy clown, which has continued to terrify through actor Tim Curry’s interpretations for decades.
Scariest Moment: “They all float down here.” Everyone familiar with It knows this scene, as Pennywise peeks his head out from a storm drain to attack a kid who lost his boat in the rain. I’m never going near a drain again.
6. The Shark (Jaws)
Representing the scariest parts of nature, the shark in Jaws is a primordial monster that exceeds what man believes himself capable of conquering. Largely unseen for most of Steven Spielberg’s film, the shark makes its presence known through the death and destruction it leaves in its wake. This 25-footer is terrifying both near land and deep at sea. Read more in “Why Jaws is the Perfect Summer Blockbuster.”
Scariest Moment: Keeping the beaches open despite knowing of the danger lurking in the ocean, the shark strikes a group of kids, sinking its teeth into the young Billy Kitner in a sudden spurt of blood and death. The moment isn’t just terrifying due to the shocking violence, but because of the irrevocable, horrifying nature of the death itself.
The modern undead menace of zombies have been ever-present since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Through countless iterations, both slow and fast, zombies have stood as metaphors for everything from disease to culture, with their rotting bodies and flesh-ripping ways horrifying in numerous ways. Zombies may be over-saturated now, but they remain potent figures in horror.
Scariest Moment: There have been countless zombie movies, so picking a single moment is nearly impossible. But the gut-ripping death of Captain Rhodes in George Romero’s Day of the Dead is one of the best, most gruesome, most terrifying moments in all of zombie movie history.
4. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
Freddy Krueger may have lost some of his visceral terror when he morphed into a joke-filled prankster in the later Elm Street films, but the idea of a clawed killer who can get you in your dreams preys on our most vulnerable moments. By taking the safety of our bed and dreams and turning them into a killing ground, creator Wes Craven attacked our most primordial fears, turning Freddy into an iconic killer that can still frighten after decades.
Scariest Moment: Krueger sinks his claws into his first victim in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, dragging poor Tina up a wall and onto the ceiling in the real world as he kills her in a dream. The bloody, physics defying moment cements Kruger as a reality-defying danger for all time.
3. Michael Myers (Halloween)
The simplicity of Michael Myers is a massive portion of what makes him so scary. The blank white mask and emotional vacancy of a killer who is seemingly unstoppable means that all manner of fears can be projected upon him. Most importantly, his penchant for targeting victims in quiet suburbia upends the safety of home, meaning that John Carpenter’s founding slasher villain can turn even the most average setting into something horrifying.
Scariest Moment: Teenager Laurie Strode thinks that she has killed Myers and is finally safe after being attacked by the killer. But as Laurie breaks down crying, with the dead Michael in the background, The Shape suddenly rises silently, ready once again to attack his victim.
2. The Thing (The Thing)
There are plenty of stories centering on aliens coming to Earth and supplanting humans one by one, but John Carpenter’s The Thing perfectly plays on our fears through its constant twists and grotesque menace. The nameless alien entity known only as The Thing destroys from both outside and inside, changing people and turning everyone on each other through its unknowable nature and horrifying power. Read more in “Inescapable Horror in the Flesh – John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’.”
Scariest Moment: The alien creature reveals itself, changing from a husky into a whirling, disgusting vortex of horror as it attempts to consume all around it. It’s unknowable, fleshy nature horrifies everyone who sees it and shows the true danger of the creature.
1. Xenomorph (Alien)
From its first moments on screen, even in the form of an egg, the Xenomorph was a terrifying figure in science fiction horror. And from its shadowy, elemental nature in the original Alien to its bug-like swarm in Aliens, the Xenomorph operates on many different levels of fear. And unlike many other villains on this list, its power to terrify hasn’t been weakened by overexposure, although it no longer lacks the mystery it once had. Above all, the Xenomorph encapsulates both the terror of the unknown and a gruesome body horror from within. Read more in “Celebrating Feminine Power in the Alien Franchise.”
Scariest Moment: The Xenomorph is born for the very first time in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, suddenly bursting from an unsuspecting Kane’s chest at a dinner table in all manner of bloody, shocking glory. The creature’s ability to terrify has never been greater.
Honorable Mentions: The Entity, Pinhead, Mr. Babadook, Dracula, The Tall Man, Norman Bates, Jack Torrance
Who do you think are the scariest villains? Let me know in the comments!