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The 25 Most Terrifying Horror Characters

Listen, it’s January. Nobody’s noggin is capable of ingesting long-form essays about multimedia of the creeps-and-cauldrons variety. That said, I’ve got a quota to hit! So gather ’round and let’s yell about horror villains. There’s more than a handful, and I’m sure we’re all harboring personal stories about childhood traumas inflicted by cretins lurching forward from VHS rental racks. No judgments anywhere, but let’s get one thing straight–you’re in my world. I don’t want to hear bellyaching about how I “forgot” [insert character] or are wrong about [redacted for spoilers]. These are the twenty-five most terrifying horror villains. Deal with it, then let me know who you’d swap in!

25. Pumpkinhead (Pumpkinhead Franchise)

Practical effects will forever be the backbone of horror cinema, especially when it comes to creature features. Pumpkinhead, aka “Demon Of Vengeance,” is the brainchild of Alec Gillis, Shane Mahan, John Rosengrant, and Tom Woodruff, Jr. (who wore Pump’s suit). The design borrows from Xenomorph cranial traits with bulbous shoulder additives and almost dinosaur-like curvature, creating a memorable monster who seeks nothing but hateful retribution. Those who summon Pumpkinhead find themselves bound to the damned monster, evoking the horrors of consequence in addition to outright creature-driven snarls. Color me shocked that Stan Winston’s directorial debut unveils one nasty beast from the wrong side of the patch.

24. Count Orlok (Nosferatu)

The idea that groundbreaking black-and-white achievements can’t be “scary” is hogwash, given how F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu still demands relevance in today’s modern cinematic era. The silent vampire tale stars Max Schreck as Count Orlok (“The Bird Of Death”), a more grotesque embodiment of vampiric traits than the sparkly Edwards or dapper Draculas now in prominence. His fingers curled like claws, ears like radio antennas, and all the bat-like features that resemble more monster than man. Still, in my regard, the quintessential “look” for how vampires should appear if they’re not modeling body glitter. Something that’d divert your course post-haste should its Transylvanian outline be visible in the distance.

23. Billy (Black Christmas)

For the record, I’m sticking with Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas. While the killer’s name is never explicitly revealed on-screen, behind-the-scenes stories have since dubbed the sorority voyeur “Billy.” A slasher we only see darting eyes through tactical peepholes or hear shouting vulgar obscenities into a telephone receiver like he’s speaking in tongues. He’s evil for evil’s sake, lurking out of frame until our guards lower enough to gasp when another corpse slides under the Christmas tree. Often, what we cannot glimpse occupies our minds with even more frightful impact. Billy’s hide-and-seek tactics prove what horror filmmakers can accomplish with heavy panting, the whites of leering eyes, and a crystal unicorn.

22. Werewolves (Dog Soldiers)

At one point, this spot went to Ginger Snaps. In another, An American Werewolf In London. I settled on Dog Soldiers because while the movie might be a full-throttle military defense flick that highlights horrific action, the werewolves depicted are the least pettable of the bunch. Neil Marshall’s Scottish family-turned-mongrel mutations are muscular, aren’t limited to four-legged mobility, and exhibit primal ferocity. If actual wolves injected steroids and underwent cosmetic redesigns based on the grimmest horror folklore, these would be Marshall’s beasties. Eat your heart out, Jacob…or better yet, get your heart eaten out by true alphas.

21. Annie Wilkes (Misery)

Is there anything scarier than a crazed superfan? Tell me about it! Imagine having someone obsess over your existence only to find out they’re also plotting a murder-suicide when you finish your latest masterpiece. Annie Wilkes, first famously played by Kathy Bates in Misery, kidnaps her favorite author and does unspeakable things while he pounds away on a typewriter. Her gazes, her aversion to dirty language, the snaps into violence, it’s all tremendously delivered by Bates and obscenely stirring in bursts. I’ll trade fame for nothingness if it keeps both my feet attached.

20. The Blob (The Blob 1988)

I’m serious. A pink, gaky clump of ooze deserves its spot on this list given how it devours humans like they’re a shrieking buffet. Whether it’s yanking dishwashers through industrial kitchen sinks or dissolving flesh and bone through a thinly stretched purplish film, The Blob hits upon identifiable fears of the unknown. One minute you’re smooching your sweetie, the next her bosom sprouts tentacles for a different kind of sloppy after-dark experience. It might resemble some middle-school science experiment gone wrong, but out-of-bounds consumption paints this goopy threat to humankind a certain shade of “aw hell nah.” Squish between toes or fingers at your own risk.

19. Kayako (The Grudge Franchise)

What forgotten soul could match Sadako (whoops, spoilers)? Why, Kayako and her little baby-boy Toshio, of course! Her bone-white complexion juxtaposes against midnight-black hair that’s long enough to ensnare targets based on visuals, but what’s worse is the croaking, limb-crunchy noises heard in the distance before Kayako even appears. It’s the waiting game of knowing something fiendish doth approach, building anticipation and anxiety before either a hand reaches outward, or a foot thumps, or her head enters frame, mouth agape. J-Horror ghosts are a cut above, and Kayako’s death rattle is just the start.

18. Jigsaw (Saw Franchise)

John Kramer’s transformation into “The Jigsaw Killer” is terrifying for multiple reasons. He’s a man with nothing to lose (medical diagnosis and familial loss) who’s already nipping at death’s heels. Worse, he’s been disenchanted by society so mightily, his jaded shell has soured his stance on humanity to the point of moral obligation. Jigsaw believes—and makes others believe—his teachings are a new gospel. He’s a false prophet and a convincingly effective one. On a list full of the paranormal, the imaginative, and the most fantastical monsters, don’t discredit man’s unconscionable lows—someone who kills in the name of self-asserted importance, with an ego befitting only a remorseless king.

17. Frank Zito (Maniac 2012)

I single out Elijah Wood’s portrayal of Frank Zito because Joe Spinell’s version is that of a “regular” psychopathic sleazeball. Wood is afforded more backstory, more developmental hellishness by acting as a conduit to repressed sexual traumas inflicted upon childhood. Wood’s not only playing a perverse serial slasher who targets women. First-person camera views make him a tour guide of sorts. He’s not only selling his killer’s instability and broken psyche but allowing viewers into the mind of someone capable of crushing a woman’s windpipe during intercourse or talking to department store mannequins with festering scalps stapled to their heads. A “nice guy” skinsuit harboring unchecked repugnance, and goddamn if Wood still manages to garner even the tiniest flashes of sympathy for someone who deserves the lethalest injection.

16. Ghostface (Scream Franchise)

The power behind Ghostface resides in whoever dons the popular distorted mask, which makes this slasher mainstay a tad more unique. Ghostface can be considered more of an idea than an entity, fitted onto deranged mothers’ motivations or unsalvageable boyfriends who ushered the slasher genre into meta contextual glory. How can you defeat something that’s continually changing and evolving in ways that cannot be predicted? Scream asked us what our favorite scary movie was, then subverted all the tropes in whatever your answer might reveal. For all Ghostface’s at-times hapless chases and frantic physical slip-ups (er…slapstick bumbles), he’s still a merc with his/her hunting knife and telephone inspirations that remind us of Black Christmas. There’s nothing scarier than a slasher with an elaborate and selfish motive.

15. Mary Shaw ft. Billy (Dead Silence)

My favorite part about writing lists like this is flaunting total control. I can proclaim whatever I want, anything I believe in because this is my space. Am I, most likely, one of the only horror fans who consider Mary Shaw and her dummy cavalry the pinnacle of spooky-scary? Say what you want about James Wan’s Dead Silence, but Mary Shaw’s pale, afterlife profile and sunken eyeballs are a grandmotherly vexation—that’s without even considering her mannequin children. A woman so deranged she turned herself into a doll, always flanked by misfit ventriloquist companions with the deadest, most wooden pierce-your-soul stares. The mythos, the outlined jawline, it’s all underrated. There’s a reason Raven’s Fair cowers in fear.

14. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence Of The Lambs)

Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter earned him a Best Actor victory thanks to his cannibalistic serial killer’s charm. Fava beans and a nice chianti, yadda yadda. It’s all about the terrorization Lecter relishes because he knows the FBI needs him, and he’s not making their duties any easier. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, but necessity makes him all the more horrifying. Characters trust a madman to catch other, freely roaming parallel killers. The way Hannibal Lecter feeds off that desperate energy is lick-your-lips sickening (the right kind).

13. Candyman (Candyman Franchise)

The horrors of Candyman both scold society and viscerally repulse (like, well, most horror). Specifically, how Tony Todd’s breaking of barriers as a ’90s black slasher villain utilizes racism as an impetus and further haunted imagery as punctuation. It’s all the mystery of an urban legend (“Candyman” five times), the impact of sentencing a black man to death for daring to live free, and the signature traumatization of watching bees fly out of Candyman’s mouth or ribcage gaps. Sweets to the sweet, except never how you want ’em. Hook for a hand, honey and revenge coursing through his veins. Forever Todd’s most prolific contribution to horror cinema.

12. The Jackal (Thirt3en Ghosts)

We don’t recognize Thirt3en Ghosts as a sublime taste of aughts horror quite enough. The Black Zodiac is rostered with abhorrent apparitions, but none are as invasive as Ryan Kuhn, aka The Jackal. He’s the returned spirit of an 1880s sexual predator who was jammed into a straight jacket and had to have his head locked inside an iron box, eventually burned in an asylum fire. The Jackal is always seen thrashing about, flailing energetically, and if you were a child around the time of his film’s release, you understand the lasting impression The Jackal leaves. In the film’s monster menagerie, none are as frightening as Randy Ryan.

11. Regan MacNeil (The Exorcist)

There’s a reason why Linda Blair almost won Best Supporting Actress gold for her portrayal of Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. From the head-screw laughter to Regan’s backward, inverted spider-walk down a staircase, once Regan is possessed, pretty much everything causes those ever-tingly chills. In full prosthetic makeup, covered in slash marks and caked in green bile, Regan scares as both an exorcism mark and adolescent archrival. Mix in the battle between Heaven and Hell for notes of blasphemy, and you’ve got a powerful vision of satanism that laughs at holy-water-soaked crucifixes.

10. Pennywise (It)

Clowns are carnie-eerie, doubly so when they dwell in Maine pipe systems and feed upon tasty children. Whether you’re referring to Tim Curry’s or Bill Skarsgård’s portrayal, Pennywise’s beady eyes are the last thing you’ll want to see glowing in the distance. Er, or maybe that’s his unhinged mandibles that clamp down on yummy little boy appendages? Where Curry is more the silly (enough) prankster, Skarsgård attacks with slobbery, white-matted disregard for human lives. As the eyes separate or limbs contort, Pennywise’s dance jingles and jangles with the bells of impending ruination. One a more colorful nose-honker, the other a pioneer jester with a massive forehead and quick-to-turn frown.

9. Cenobites (Hellraiser Franchise)

From Clive Barker’s mind springs entities who travel between time and space to spread their mantra of unorthodox hedonism. Hellraiser introduces us to Pinhead, the most recognizable Cenobite, who has such sights of the flesh to show mortal fools. Between the BDSM leather and extreme piercings, there’s something religiously unsettled about Pinhead’s manifestos of excruciating chain-bound delight. From “Butterball” to “Chatterer,” the Cenobites take many grotesque forms that tickle Barker’s sadistic commitment to gratifying the underworld. Doms summoned from puzzle boxes don’t sound particularly horrific, but I assure you, there is nothing more distressing than watching a Cenobite writhe with pleasure as another victim endures their kinky-and-masochistic punishments.

8. Leatherface (Texas Chain Saw Massacre Franchise)

A hulking cannibal with a chainsaw who wears jerky-dried masks made from his victims? Yes, Leatherface is a maniac extension of the Sawyer clan who deserves the lion’s share of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre attention. Every family pillar is some flavor of maniac, but the brute savagery of Leatherface mixed with his stunted cognitive mechanics blends a hint of tragedy with otherwise slaughterhouse comprehension. The revving of a gassed-up saw in the distance elicits a panicked sensation for all the right reasons. If you want to avoid impalement onto a meat hook like a butcher’s handiwork, then being served as award-winning chili, you run the other way. There’s no sense in challenging the most iconic iteration of Leatherface (a character otherwise retconned to hell in lesser sequels). Ed Gein would be proud.

7. Xenomorph (Alien Franchise, AvP, AvP: Requiem)

Like an extraterrestrial being with acid blood and mini-mouths within its actual mouth was going to be left off this list? Alien introduces what I consider to be the authority in cosmic creature design, from the elliptical skeletal structure to jet-black color that camouflages death-dealers in the thickest darkness. As if Facehuggers and Chestbursters weren’t terrible enough? These wretched H. R. Giger sketches can coil their tails, scale spaceship walls, and eliminate their prey without tripping a single alarm. The sleekest, deadliest model of galactic adversary any machine gunnin’ grunt could ever combat.

6. Jason Voorhees (Friday The 13th Franchise)

No matter what fashion statement Crystal Lake’s executioner attempts to make, he’s still a slasher icon for the same reason. Whether there’s a fabric bag covering his deformations, or protective space metals, or the sliminess of Manhattan’s sewage runoff, Jason Voorhees is the unstoppable pursuer who slays without mercy. He kills for Mommy no matter what obstacles might present themselves, like the energizer bunny with a machete. Is it sacrilegious if I say 2009’s remake gives us the scariest iteration of Jason’s familiar hockey-mask-and-jacket attire? Although, I’ll still defend Über Jason no matter how much the internet rejects my wisdom.

5. Michael Myers (Halloween Franchise)

All Halloween needed was a jumpsuit and a William Shatner mask to alter horror history. Michael Myers, also known as “The Shape,” butchers Haddonfield residents without any semblance of an emotional response given the nondescript facial cover. That’s the absolute scariest aspect of Michael, much like Jason. Begs and outcries fall on deaf, uncaring ears. There’s something supernatural about their massacres, as few can outrun the creation of John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Different iterations portray Myers as a man-child of sorts or an emotionally abused offspring, but there’s a reason he’s referred to as “The Shape,” and it’s a traumatic one. He’s a figure who kills, haunts, and displays zero sympathies when stabbing through bodies like they’re filled with pumpkin guts.

4. Bughuul (Sinister & Sinister 2)

Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s devourer of children, that silenced demon Bughuul, is textbook-definition “terrifying.” While not a true Pagan deity, Bughuul is said to be the mute brother of kiddie sacrificer Moloch because what’s a little added real-world recognition? Like those greasy black strands, blacked-out eyeholes, and smothered mouth aren’t enough to make the boogeyman quake even with that dapper funeral suit. Whether he’s haunting a photo or gripping a child’s soul, Bughuul is the real deal when it comes to modern horror monsters. One of the more frightening genre creations of the last decade if we’re talking about heavyweight genre baddies.

3. Chucky (Child’s Play Franchise)

Is Chucky small enough to punt like a football? Roughly. Does Brad Dourif’s voicework cause shivers to run up audience spines when that all-too-recognizable cackle echoes through a toy factory? Chucky’s pint-sized stature and comedic leanings may cause some to laugh aloud, but this red-headed devil doll is responsible for many a peek-for-safety closet check. Maybe it’s the idea of innocence lost? Perhaps Charles Lee Ray’s gleeful playfulness when snapping necks or poisoning priests? Chucky is the epitome of bastardized innocence, as Don Mancini takes something children depend on for comfort and turns it the wickedest shade of overall evil. As I’ve written about before, my horror obsession started with countless years of avoiding Chucky at all costs because, well, phobias are a real damn thing.

2. Sadako/Samara (Ringu/The Ring)

There are critical differences between J-Horror’s Sadako and the Americanized Samara, but both are extreme haunters of the same ilk. Sadako’s healthier presentation emphasizes her slouched posture and curtain-draped hair, while Samara’s sore-covered skin and almost rotten exterior resemble a waterlogged corpse. They both crawl from your television with the intent to collect their curse’s debt but hand it to Samara. There’s a reason why The Ring still stands as one of the more prominent modern stateside horror titles, remake or original, and that’s primarily due to Samara’s gangrene appearance. Sadako deserves credit as the O.G. and still causes quite the startle, but Samara is the queen of bedtime quivers. Bonus points awarded for malicious kiddo content.

1. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare On Elm Street Franchise)

Horror villains don’t come more sadistic than Wes Craven’s dreamland assassin, Freddy Krueger. Remember how your mother always said not to play with your food? Krueger’s built a franchise around tormenting the teenagers of those who lit his earthly vessel ablaze, said to be based on actual Los Angeles deaths all linked to recurring nightmares. Robert Englund’s passion for macabre one-liners and an increasingly zany escalation in franchise kill sequences proves how there’s no escape from Freddy Krueger because, well, either you die supernaturally in slumber or die naturally staying awake. Hell, he’s mean enough to shake you sleepless even in a Christmas-colored sweater. Need I explain further (while ignoring that inexcusable 2010 reboot)?

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Written By

Matt is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Nerdist, Fangoria, Collider, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, Atom Insider, Flickering Myth, SYFY, and Fandom. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.

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