The 10 Scariest Movie Characters of All Time
We wouldn't want to run into any of these monsters in a dark alley.
Like humor, horror is often in the eye of the beholder. What scares me might seem laughable to you, and vice versa (but probably not, because when it comes to scary movies, I'm a big baby). But then there are those terrors that are so great as to be practically universal—the killers and monsters basically everyone agrees creep them out. Read on for 10 that stand among the scariest movie characters ever conceived.
Freddy Krueger, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It's hard to think of a more iconic horror image than Freddy Krueger's (Robert Englund) razor-fingered glove, but the horribly scarred serial killer wins out over his contemporaries (including hockey mask-clad Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise) for the sheer terror of his murderous modus operandi. Entering the dreams of his victims, Freddy has the power to hurt us where we're most vulnerable (our subconscious minds) when we're most vulnerable—everybody's gotta sleep, right?
(Disregard later incarnations of the character, who spends as much time crafting bad puns as carving up victims.)
Michael Myers, Halloween (1978)
I don't find Michael Myers terrifying for how he looks—though a hulking guy with a huge knife and a ghostly William Shatner mask is definitely creepy—but for how he sees. John Carpenter's Halloween essentially perfected the modern slasher movie, but his chronicle of a relentless killer's rampage in a small town unsettles and terrifies most when the camera takes on the point-of-view of the murderer himself, making us party to his unspeakable deeds as we peer through the eye holes in his mask.
Ghostface, Scream (1996)
Another masked killer, the knife-wielding maniac(s) of the Scream films are scary both for the general vibes—that elongated Edvard Munch mouth will never not creep me out; there's also just something so up close and personal about a knife as murder weapon—and for the mystery of who is under the mask. Because as one film after another in the series has shown us, it's probably someone you know, and maybe even someone you think is your friend. And you won't know you're wrong until they stick it to you. Literally.
The Alien, Alien (1979)
The Alien franchise has spanned genres, from action epic (1986's Aliens) to prison drama (the much maligned Alien3), but Ridley Scott's 1979 original is a horror flick through and through, with the otherworldly menace standing in for any number of more human serial killers. The creature's iconic design—impossibly elongated, glistening with deadly goo, far too many teeth and one more mouth than seems strictly necessary—is terrifying enough; that the film shows it to us in only glimpses makes it that much scarier.
John Doe, Seven (1995)
Many serial killer movies position the killer as an alluring menace—Hannibal Lecter is as charmingly sophisticated as he is a cannibalistic murderer, for example. But the nameless antagonist of David Fincher's Seven, his sadistic narcissism perfectly embodied by Kevin Spacey in ways that feel even more disturbing in retrospect, is a far freakier creation: A self-aggrandizing obsessive who is convinced of the moral clarity of his cause, even as he falls victim to it himself. His schemes may not be as elaborate as the wild traps of the Saw films, but there's no doubt John Kramer learned at the knee of Joe Doe.
The Pale Man, Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
There's an argument to be made that the horrors faced by the young protagonist of Guillermo del Toro's fantasy horror drama Pan's Labyrinth are all metaphorical—outward manifestations of the traumas wrought upon the young girl by fascism in Francoist Spain. But real or imagined, things don't get much creepier than the Pale Man (played by famed creature actor Doug Jones), with his eyeless face, distressingly non-eyeless hands, and apparently insatiable appetite for children's flesh.
The Candyman, Candyman (1992)
Set in a derelict housing project in Chicago and focused on a series of grisly supernatural murders, 1992's urban horror thriller Candyman would already be scary enough for its desolate setting and dark themes (racism and racially motivated violence) were the titular figure, played by Tony Todd, also not so darn scary: A towering figure in a trench coat, wielding a meat hook as a weapon and heralded by swarms of bees. Just say his name five times into a mirror, I dare you.
The Babadook, The Babadook (2014)
Before Mister Babadook became a meme or a queer icon, he was simply the monster in an indie horror film from Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent—albeit one meant to stand in for complex metaphorical themes (grief, depression, trauma) that are all the scarier because we struggle with them in real life. Plus, with his elongated limbs, pale skin, impossibly oversized mouth, and shroud like trench coat—not to mention the stutter-step way he moves across the ceiling like a spider—he's terrifying on a visceral level, too.
Annie Wilkes, Misery (1990)
The most human monster on this list, Stephen King's creation of obsessive fan Annie Wilkes (brought to life in an indelible, Oscar-winning performance from Kathy Bates), pulls the broken body of her favorite author from a car wreck and proceeds to take him home to "care" for him—which means forcing him to shape his art to her whims. In the internet age, the character feels like a prescient prediction of toxic fan culture that has become normalized in social media discourse and problematic parasocial relationships. She's also scary in less symbolic ways—uncompromising in her demands that she be given what she wants, because she wants it, even if she needs a sledgehammer to bring you around to her point of view.
The Other Mother, Coraline (2009)
Henry Selick's Coraline (based on the Neil Gaiman novel) is ostensibly a stop-motion animated movie for kids, but I wouldn't dream of letting my wee ones watch it. When its young titular protagonist finds her way into a magical mirror world, everything initially seems better, from the talking animals to her home's colorful garden to the better, friendlier, more accommodating versions of her parents—especially her Other Mother (voiced by Teri Hatcher), the same in every way except for her wider smile and her glossy button eyes. But those unknowable eyes are hiding a dark hunger, and there's nothing quite like contending with the knowledge that your own mother wants to gobble you up, soul-first.
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