Halloween no longer feels like a single date on the calendar. The whole month of October is full of discount candy aisles at megamarts, haunted house attractions (many opening their doors on October 1st), and a significant increase in featured horror movies on television and our preferred digital streaming services.
And while that’s not all bad, it’s not exactly all good. Not all horror movies are created equally, nor are all horror movie antagonists created equally. In some cases it can be fun – like when you know you’re watching a B-movie horror (and its even more fun when the producers and directors of those movies know and embrace that they’re making a B-movie). But its pretty sad and self-defeating when a horror movie attempts to scare you with a big-bad and he/she/it falls flat.
So I’m treating you to two lists this week aimed at pointing you towards some reliable horror movie material. This first one focuses on horror movie antagonists that were at some point real people, even if they are no longer so. The next list will focus on monsters, aliens, and other entities that have no historical claim to once being human.
Here are my Top 7 Horror Movie Villains (in no particular order):
Diana – Lights Out
That’s right. The villain from a PG-13 movie made my list. Actually…it surprised me, too. There are two things I really, really dig about Diana:
- Her mechanics. They way the movie plays with her dependence upon darkness, the way she moves through it, and the fact that fear of the dark a) is one of the most primal fears and b) informs, affects, or emphasizes almost every other fear. The movie just does a really neat (read: interesting and entertaining) job of exploring how she moves and operates.
- The metaphor for mental illness. I’ve read several good articles on Diana’s relationship with and power over Sophie and their metaphorical link to mental illness – most of which were written by folks who profess to struggle with depression themselves. That perspective, while not essential to the way Diana works as an antagonist, certainly brings a new dimension to the movie. The only problem I encountered in these articles were the implications of the resolution of the film upon those struggling with mental illness in real life.
Chucky – Child’s Play franchise
Chucky scared the mess out of me when I was a kid. And there were layers to this fear:
- He was a toy – which I generalized even as a young child. If he could get into a doll, he could conceivably get into any toy…including my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers.
- Somehow he consistently and remorselessly killed adults even though he was two feet tall. As a four foot tall child, I stood no chance.
- His whole thing isn’t so much killing (although he did that and enjoyed it) as much as it was attempting to transfer his consciousness into another human…Which means that that human’s consciousness would then be put into the doll. We often overlook or forget this during the course of his killing sprees, but that is scary in its own right! I don’t want to be no doll!
Say what you will about Chucky, this horror franchise has an unparalleled life to it. That little doll has been consistently scaring audiences for 30 years. And, yes, there is a reboot out now (don’t get me started), but there is also an in-the-original-canon television show coming, too. So the streak continues!
Vampires – Various franchises
I’m a sucker (pun totally intended) for a good vampire movie. They have so much going for them that adds to their mysticism and fright:
- They’re creatures of the night, and so they (like Diana) are intimately tied to the natural
apprehension or fear that comes with darkness or the night.
- Their rules (can’t enter a space uninvited, have no reflection, etc) add this really sharp edge of the unknown and mystical/magical to them.
- They tend to operate in cohesive, cooperative, and intelligent groups towards shared goals. They’re organized in ways that, say, zombies just aren’t. They’re calculating as opposed to purely instinct-driven.
- They can actually offer their victims something: Limited (by things like the sun and stakes and such) immortality and youth. And they can be convincing. In other words: They do not always work by force, but can do their dastardly deeds with their victims’ permission. This is wholly unlike any other villain on this list.
Listen, not many people are lining up to be turned into any of the other villains on this list. But in most (if not every) franchise that vampires are featured in, there are groups of people that want to become vampires. That puts them on a whole different level in my opinion. (Click here for our list of top 7 vampires and here for a post on how to make them extra scary in your Dungeons and Dragons campaign.)
Jigsaw – Saw franchise
While I’m not really a fan of the Saw franchise, I have to admit that Jigsaw is a twisted and frightening villain for sure. He stages people in elaborate, macabre, and deadly scenarios, but never without giving them an “out” that usually forces them to take a flaw or bad habit to its extreme in order to escape.
Oh, you like to watch others and play the snitch? Cut that key out from behind your eye to unlock the trap attached to your neck.
You like to peddle drugs? Find the key to the door before you in this pit of rusty hypodermic needles.
Part of what made Jigsaw so darn scary is that he parades around as a good guy – as if he’s really got your best interests at heart. Pass my test! Become a better person! Or don’t and the world is rid of you. Either way, the world becomes a better place.
I only watched the first two so I don’t know that this pattern survives beyond them, but that twisted benevolence was sick and haunting.
The Firefly Family – House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects
When I watch most of the other villains on this list, what I’m seeing them inflict upon others is violent and frightening. When I watch the Firefly family at work, I add qualifiers like “deeply disturbing,” “unbearably discomforting,” and “vulgar” to the list.
These guys and gals are distilled and concentrated psychopaths; so much so that I can’t stand watching them. My reaction to their actions is so visceral that I literally just can’t. I can marathon any of the other movies represented on this list without so much as batting an eye, but Rob Zombie’s deranged family is too much for me.
They’re not supernatural. They’re not forces of nature. And I think that is part of what makes them so darn scary – they’re just people with no filters, boundaries, or remorse. They’re supremely believable and that is supremely frightening.
Michael Myers – Halloween franchise
Michael Myers is hands down one of the best examples of excellent horror movie antagonists and has been for 40 years.
His blank features, his absolute silence, his steady and unrelenting gait, his near indomitability…He really does seem like a force of nature in the movies.
And this has always struck me as odd given his lack of character. He doesn’t really emote, he doesn’t express or explain himself, there’s no “getting to know” Michael Myers…And I think that is part of what makes him work: You don’t understand him, so there’s no negotiating or empathizing. All you know is that he’s coming for you and that no matter how fast you run, he’s going to catch you without ever having more than one foot off the ground at any time.
(Psst…that means he never jogs or runs)
Zombies – Various franchises
- They’re indiscriminate in a way that no other villain on this list is.
- They require skill to dispatch permanently (i.e. you can’t just shoot them in the chest to arrest their shambling).
- Their condition is contagious which means they’ve got the potential for tremendously overwhelming numbers, and they are not limited to certain hours of operation.
- They have little-to-no instinct remaining for self-preservation so they’ll gladly risk what little life or whatever limbs they might have left for a chance to feast upon your brains and offal.
They’re not pulling up short of your barricade. They’re not frightened away by the loud bang of your gun. They’ve got one thing and one thing only on their minds: Your mind. And while they scream for our brains, what they’ve really captured are our hearts. (Click here for our story of how real life zombies come to be and here for a post on how to turn up the fright factor on these guys in Dungeons and Dragons.)