Everyone loves villains. Or... they love to hate villains.
Doubly so when it comes to horror movies, which is generally where one finds the most violent, creative, tenacious, and terrifying villains of all. So here's just one horror fan's take on the 33 scariest (coolest, curious, deadly, etc.) villains the genre has ever seen. Don't turn around -- our picks are right behind you.
Stephen King's killer dog gets the final spot on the list because, while he’s remarkably intimidating as he terrorizes Dee Wallace and her little boy for over an hour, it’s not his fault he’s bloodthirsty. A rabid bat bit the poor pooch!
32. Seth Brundle (from The Fly, 1986)
The spliced creature of David Cronenberg's classic remake also falls under the “unwitting villain” category, mainly because our hero becomes the villain for the saddest reason: he falls in love. Then he gets jealous. Then he (stupidly) climbs into a telepod that combines his DNA with that of a fly, and man oh man, is the result a huge, gory, tragic mess.
31. The Gill-man (from The Creature From the Black Lagoon, 1958)
Oh sure he looks a little silly if you stare too closely, but within the context of this classic monster movie he’s quite the eerie, ominous presence. Doubly so if you’re an inattentive young woman on a boat.
30. Jigsaw (from the Saw franchise, 2004-2017)
I think veteran character actor Tobin Bell would agree that, with the right grimace, he can be creepy-looking on his own. But surround the guy with steel dungeons, horrifying torture devices, and a weird little clown on a tricycle, and you’ve got yourself one ravenously villainous horror icon. Sure he talks a lot (even from beyond the grave), but he’s still pretty damn scary.
29. Frankenstein's Monster/The Bride (from Frankenstein, 1931; and Bride of Frankenstein, 1935)
These poor creatures also fall firmly into the “tragic villain” category, and while they’re considerably more worthy of our sympathy than our revulsion -- which is one of the more compelling themes in both films -- there’s no getting around how creepy they look and how damn clumsy they are around us fragile humans. And the actors behind the stitches, Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester, are amazing.
28. The Crate (from Creepshow, 1982)
Call this one a personal anti-favorite, partially because the creature design is so damn cool, but also because this simple yet effective short, based on a story by Stephen King about a mysterious crate that’s been untouched for decades, gave me nightmares for weeks. Spoiler: The monster is in the crate.
27. Sil (from Species, 1995; and Species II, 1998)
Most murderous space aliens manage to terrorize humans by way of weaponry, biology, or psychology. Sil (played by Natasha Henstridge) covers all three. But it’s a fourth component -- sexuality -- that makes this shockingly beautiful space alien so scary: the creature looks precisely like a woman that anyone with a proclivity for attractive females would want get next to. And that’s when all the carnage begins; this alien wants to mate.
26. David Kessler (from An American Werewolf in London, 1981)
This spot almost went to Lon Chaney’s classic The Wolf Man from 1941, but let’s be honest here: this horror-comedy contains the scariest, freakiest, and most ferocious wolf-man combo we’ve ever seen. He’s another tragic villain to be sure, but between his first transformation, his initial killing spree, and that mayhem at Piccadilly Circus, yeah, scary werewolf.
This surreal cult classic rambles all over the place from missing teens to haunted mortuaries to alternate dimensions, but the most ominous aspect of Don Coscarelli's dreamlike horror movie is by far Angus Scrimm’s performance as the mysterious “tall man.” He’s super strong, really creepy, and somehow in control of flying silver spheres that drill victims' brains out. Like I said: surreal.
24. John Ryder (from The Hitcher, 1986)
Dutch character actor Rutger Hauer has played villains in lots of movies -- notably Blade Runner (1982) and Nighthawks (1981) -- but horror fans know that his performance as the intense, evil, and virtually unstoppable John Ryder, a serial killer who preys on the those kind enough to give him a lift, is among the man’s most disturbing work.
23. It (from It Follows, 2014)
David Robert Mitchell’s psycho-sexual horror-thriller parable offers a whole series of odd, eerie, and disturbing stalkers wandering around its periphery, and with zero explanation as to the cause. Are they born from infection? The result of a curse? It's unclear, but they're relentless. None are as scary as that one tall one in the door frame. Don’t even pretend that thing didn’t scare the hell out of you.
22. Sadako (from Ringu, 1998)
How scary could a girl trapped inside a VHS tape be? Oh, wait. Maybe she’s down in that creepy well. Or maybe she’s not as “trapped” as everyone thinks! Just don’t watch the tape to find out. Kudos to actor Rie Ino’o who (despite all that hair in her face) for creating a new horror icon for the ‘90s, and honorable mention to Daveigh Chase for reprising the spooky role for the surprisingly solid 2002 American remake.
21. The Blob (from The Blob, 1958; and The Blob, 1988)
It may sound silly in concept -- and even on the screen on some occasions -- but I bet it stinks when a stadium-sized glob of ravenous red jelly absorbs you inside its gelatinous innards. While both movies make it pretty damn clear that this ooze from beyond the stars kills its victims in horribly painful fashion, it’s the 1988 remake that truly exploits that premise in gruesome fashion. And yes, I left 1972’s Beware! The Blob off the list for a reason. (Reason: it's not good.)
20. Freddy Krueger (from A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)
My fellow horror freaks may want to pillory me for ranking Mr. Krueger so damn low on this list, but hear me out: he’s only actually scary in one movie. Freddy earns this spot solely for Wes Craven's original Nightmare, and not for the goofy-ass, catch-phrase spouting comedian he became in the sequels. But as far as that first movie goes, wow. The “long arms” nightmare still kinda freaks me out. Forgive me, horror fans.
19. Michael Myers (from Halloween, 1978; and Halloween 2, 1981)
Fair is fair. While Michael Myers is truly terrifying in the original Halloween and more than a little intimidating in the sequel, he quickly devolved into a semi-dull, personality-deficient, lump of a boogeyman in subsequent sequels. Don’t blame me: Blame Hollywood, which gradually turned an amazing monster into sort of a violent mope.
18. Jason Voorhees (from Friday the 13th Part 2, 1981... and some random sequel moments)
First off, half this award goes to Betsy Palmer, who played Jason’s disconcertingly kooky mother in the original Friday the 13th, but since we’re dropping all the ‘80s slasher classics together, let’s cut to it. Jason’s pretty scary in a “what’s hiding in those shadows?” sort of way -- not to mention a “holy crap, he’s unstoppable!” sort of way -- and he’s at his best in Part 2, Part 4, and Part 6.
Some people think Jack Nicholson is way too unhinged from the outset to make the transformation into family-stalking lunatic truly effective, but if it’s me you’re asking? Nope. Torrance is clearly intense and a little desperate as the story begins, but the man’s (and the actor’s) descent into madness is one of the very best things about this classic haunted hotel epic. And I’m not talking about the “Here’s Johnny!” stuff. I mean the dark, creepy, gradually more aggressive behavior.
16. Pennywise (from It: Chapter One, 2017)
OK, maybe this pick has a lot to do with what we call “recency bias,” but if you’re looking to be scared, there’s a whole lot to appreciate in both the performance of Bill Skarsgård and the wildly creative special effects that were used to bring Stephen King’s horrid sewer-dwelling clown to life. Plus it helps a whole lot that we like all the kids. That sort of thing just helps to make the monster scarier.
15. Daniel Robitaille (from Candyman, 1992)
Like many of the scariest villains, Candyman started out as a perfectly decent human being who made a bad mistake, was horribly murdered, and found a way to return from the grave to wreak all sorts of twisted vengeance on a young college professor researching urban legends deep in inner city Chicago. But not every horror movie villain is as effortlessly cool and dryly ominous than the awesome Tony Todd. That this Clive Barker-based cult classic is also a damn good horror film only serves to deepen our appreciation for Candyman’s nefarious ways.
14. Pinhead and select Cenobites (from Hellraiser, 1987; Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, 1988; and a few segments of the other sequels, but not many)
At the beginning Pinhead and his disgusting cohorts weren’t even the villains. The repulsive Uncle Frank was the villain, and Pinhead’s posse was just his escort into a horrific dimension of eternal pain. But even considering how nasty Frank is (and how awful the villains in Hellraiser 2 are), there’s still something primally disturbing about these distinctively demonic freaks that make (at least) the first two Hellraiser chapters so damn disturbing.
Long before becoming a gay icon, Mr. Babadook was simply a horrible monster that lived inside of a child’s storybook -- and then broke out. Thanks to some brilliant special effects, some masterful artistic choices, and Jennifer Kent’s sure-handed direction, the monster has become one of horror cinema’s most quickly-appreciated new villains (who doesn't actually "appear" in the movie at all). Here’s hoping for a sequel, right?
12. Henry (from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, 1986)
If all you know of the always-cool Michael Rooker is his work in movies like Mallrats, Slither, and Guardians of the Galaxy, then you should sit down, strap in, and prepare for one of the terrifying horror film performances of all time. Because not only is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer one of the most stark, dark, and compelling horror films of the 1980s, but Rooker’s unhinged performance is nothing less than a dark force of nature.
11. Count Dracula (from Dracula, 1931; Horror of Dracula, 1958; Dracula, 1979; and Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1992)
Take your pick. They’re all great for different reasons. Bela Lugosi was mostly a monster; Christopher Lee brought some civility to the beast; Frank Langella went for a sexier approach; and Gary Oldman just went super creepy weird. What’s even more interesting is charting how the vampire lord has d/evolved over his decades in movies -- but also remains largely the same: he may be gross, handsome, sexy, or monstrous, but bottom line? He’s a freaky parasite who lives on human blood. Like a very tall tick.
10. Dr. Jack Griffin (from The Invisible Man, 1933)
Is this the scariest of the classic Universal monsters? Certainly creepier than Gill-man (too goofy), the Wolf Man (too hairy), Frankenstein’s monster (too dopey), or his Bride (too nervous). And that leaves Dracula. Frankly I think The Invisible Man is scarier than all of these freaks for three simple reasons: 1. He’s a human madman. 2. Claude Rains’ voice is wildly freaky, especially as he gets crazier. 3. Anyone willing to run around outside completely naked has a few screws loose.
Even just a “normal fan” Annie Wilkes is a little creepy. But once inhabited by the amazing Kathy Bates, at the end of her wits, staring down at a helpless James Caan with a sledgehammer in her hands. Yikes. Easily one of the most imposing horror villains of the 1990s, Annie is interesting because she’s also interesting, occasionally funny, and sometimes sort of pitiful. But once she gets angry, look out. Nightmare fuel.
8. Norman Bates (from Psycho, 1960)
Some creeps you can see coming a while a way… and I’m sorry but if you can spend more than five straight minutes with Norman Bates -- and his freaky stuffed animal collection -- without feeling the heebie-jeebies, you need better heebie-jeebie radar. Even long before he goes completely off his rocker in the finale act of Psycho, Anthony Perkins's masterfully fractured performance is nothing less than fascinating.
7. John Doe (from Se7en, 1995)
We don’t actually see a whole lot of Kevin Spacey until the third act of David Fincher’s brilliantly dark crime thriller -- although he does leave an oppressive impression through his apartment, his notebooks, and of course his crimes -- but between his blood-covered confession in the police station, the brilliantly upsetting monologue he gives in the back of a car, or his truly twisted final twist of the knife... this guy is big time scary.
6. Shark (from Jaws, 1975)
Scientists have actually proven that every person in history has had a nightmare about being eaten by a shark. OK that’s a lie, but I bet it’s pretty accurate. Of course it’s not a shark’s fault that he’s hungry, horrifying, but that doesn’t stop this giant fish from becoming one of cinema’s most memorable villains. (Although some would say that honor goes to the mayor who kept the beaches open.)
The most terrifying thing about the alien that invades an outer space cargo ship is not that it lives inside humans, bleeds acid, and seems to actually enjoy killing people. Nope. The scariest thing about this alien is that one simply never ones what form it will take next. First. It’s a “facehugger.” Then it’s a “chestburster.” And that’s just the beginning of this thing’s frankly off-putting biological cycle.
4. Pazuzu (from The Exorcist, 1973)
Most people would consider young Regan MacNeil one of horror cinema’s scariest monsters, but that’s not really accurate, is it? This poor kid is little more than a puppet dangled on a string held by a tenacious demon called Pazuzu, and man does he put Regan through all sorts of terrifying ordeals.
3. The Thing (from The Thing, 1982)
Another super-monster that’s scary for (at least) two reasons: (1) at first it’s one of the goopiest, goriest, nastiest alien beasties you’ll ever see, and (2) later on it takes makes (perfect) copies of human beings, which in turn causes endless amounts of paranoia, terror, bloodshed, and gooey, gorey... goo.
2. Margaret White (from Carrie, 1976)
We’ve covered more than a few tragic, unwitting villains on this list so far, and while Stephen King’s Carrie White certainly qualifies in that department by the time all of the telekinetic high school carnage has subsided, let’s not overlook the true villain of the piece: the stunningly intense Piper Laurie as Carrie’s horrible, hateful mother. Because she’s the one who turned a sensitive kid into a murderous monster.
1. Leatherface (from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)
He’s a brutal murderer, a depraved cannibal, and a lunatic long since past the point of any sort of redemption. And that’s all pretty scary. But it’s the flat, matter-of-fact way in which this hulking monster carries out his work. He sees his victims as livestock, treats them as such, and cannot be reasoned with in any way. For my money, Leatherface is the purest cinematic distillation of sudden, random, unspeakable terror -- and he also wears a super-gross mask that, well, let’s just say it’s not made of leather.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Scott Weinberg is a film writer and critic who has written for outlets such as Playboy, FEARnet, and Nerdist. He tweets @scotteweinberg but ignores mean people.