Welcome to CBR’s countdown of the greatest monsters in movie history! We took a hard look at the psychos, spirits and creatures that plague people in Hollywood cinema, and we chose the most popular and historically significant. Our picks either became icons or starred in films that symbolized popular horror trends.
It wasn’t easy. There are arguably dozens of deadly villains who deserve recognition, but some stand out more than others. We tried focusing on fictitious, larger-than-life horrors instead of people who are similar to real-life serial killers (sorry Hannibal Lecter; you too, Norman Bates). We also had to whittle down the list to include monsters that withstood the test of time; the pop culture “iconsters” of the big screen, both old and new. So take a look at our list of iconic horror film villains and see if you agree with the choices!
15. Ghostface (Scream)
Unlike most of horror’s iconic murderers, Ghostface isn’t associated with a single villain. In the “Scream” films, one or more people don the mask and black robe for their killing sprees, so Ghostface itself is more of a job or an idea than it is a particular individual. Starting with the original 1996 “Scream” film, the Ghostface identity has been a magnet for new psychos in each sequel. Collectively, they turned the concept into an underground ring of copycat killings that kept on going.
But the real horror icons are the “Scream” films themselves. The franchise offers commentary on horror cinema’s themes and symbolism, and Ghostface exists to set up statements that directors and screenwriters want to make. There’s no better way to demonstrate and deconstruct horror clichés than to create an example horror tale that puts them on display. In “Scream,” Ghostface facilitates ideas that transcend the character itself.
14. The Blair Witch (The Blair Witch Project)
The Blair Witch entity herself is notable not just for what she is, but for what her stories represent in horror history. The 1999 film “The Blair Witch Project” was the first found footage-style horror movie to blow up the Hollywood box office so explosively. The film earned more than $248 million worldwide on a $60,000 budget, and it kicked off a trend of similar found footage horror tales, including the profitable “Paranormal Activity” series. Thanks to huge success and multiple sequels and media tie-ins, the Blair Witch character is a household name.
The Blair Witch herself is the twisted spirit of a girl who was accused of witchcraft by villagers and executed in the 1800s. In “The Blair Witch Project” and its 2016 sequel “Blair Witch,” the full extent of her abilities and motivations is unclear because the camera’s point of view focuses purely on how victims react to her and the environment. She appears to have the power to trap people in an alternate realm if they venture into the wrong part of the woods. They can’t escape the new plane, and the witch, often unseen, messes with their surroundings and picks them off one-by-one.
13. Chucky (Child’s Play)
Chucky’s a homicidal doll with a serial killer’s spirit trapped inside it. In 1988’s “Child’s Play” film, Brad Dourif plays Charles Lee Ray, a voodoo-obsessed murderer running from the police. Ray’s hiding in a toy shop when an officer shoots him dead, but Ray performs a voodoo ritual that transfers his soul into a Good Guy doll. Chucky goes on a murderous rampage in his new body as he tries to capture a human host. He’s menaced victims over the course of multiple films and various media tie-ins.
Chucky is probably the most well-known killer doll. He caught on so well with audiences because of his resemblance to Hasbro’s My Buddy line of boy dolls, which were on-sale and massively popular at the time. Both were baby-faced kids in blue overalls that appeared cuddly and harmless, with filmmakers likely loving the irony in turning something cute into a vicious killer. The most dangerous threats are the ones no one suspects, after all; especially the ones they leave alone with their kids.
12. Pinhead (Hellraiser)
In the “Hellraiser” films, books and comics, Pinhead is a leader of the Cenobites, extradimensional sadomasochists with supernatural powers who worship pain. They torture people so much that pain thresholds surpass sensory overload (and the laws of physics). With long, thin pins planted in his skull along a geometric pattern, the leather-clad Pinhead symbolizes what makes the “Hellraiser” franchise unique: it turns horror’s signature gruesomeness into something cerebral and sci-fi. On a surface level, “Hellraiser” stories examine the link between pain and pleasure, sometimes even acting as almost morality tales.
Pinhead’s the thinking man’s slasher. Killers like “Friday the 13th’s” Jason Voorhees don’t speak, but Pinhead talks to victims with intelligence, and sometimes even bargains with them. He’s also stronger than most horror villains, with hellish powers that include the ability to summon hooks that fly through the air and quickly tear away flesh. Humans summon Cenobites to Earth, often unknowingly, by unlocking an intricately designed box; but in many cases, the box — and the Cenobites themselves — are really drawn by something dark within the human’s soul. Sometimes victims deserve Cenobite punishment; other times, they actually want it. That’s what makes them so terrifying: they reflect our inner darkness.
11. Jigsaw (Saw)
Thanks to the graphically gruesome “Saw” franchise, Jigsaw’s the only major horror villain who uses elaborate, grotesque tests to terrorizes people. Perhaps he’s a metaphor for the nightmarish stress we’ve suffered in school exams and other areas of our lives, or maybe he’s just an excuse for filmmakers to devise disgusting ways to kill people. Either way, “Saw” films exemplify the torture horror craze that started to become trendy in the 2000s.
Jigsaw’s story began in 2004’s “Saw” and continued over six sequels. Before he became a killer, Jigsaw was John Kramer, an engineer who was dying from an inoperable tumor. He developed an appreciation for life after a botched suicide attempt and decided to force others into a similar appreciation by testing their wills to live. He devised ornate, life-threatening trials that tortured or killed unsuccessful subjects. If anyone ever asked you those weird questions at parties like, “Which would you rather endure, being stung by 100 bees or getting bitten by a 20 rattlesnakes?” then you can start to imagine what Jigsaw’s tests were like, though they were often much worse.
10. The Shark (Jaws)
In the “Jaws” films, carnivorous man-eating sharks racked up high body counts and scared the hell out of millions of moviegoers. That’s quite impressive when you consider that their competition in horror history includes demons, zombies, vampires and slashers that never die. Yet, upon further thought, it’s easy to see why a shark would evoke such terror. Human beings are out of their element in the water, where sharks maneuver more easily and can seize two-legged prey without even being seen.
The first “Jaws” was released in 1975, an early film from legendary director Steven Spielberg, and it featured a realistic movie monster. You’ll probably never encounter a werewolf or man-hunting alien in your lifetime, but you can encounter a persistent shark. Horror films make people fear characters and situations that don’t exist, but “Jaws” reminded them that the real world creates the worst monsters.
9. The Demon (Exorcist)
People have always been afraid of demonic possession, and 1973’s film “The Exorcist” tapped into that fear. Based on 1971’s novel of the same name, “The Exorcist” was a supernatural horror tale where a demon possessed Regan MacNeil — a young girl played by actress Linda Blair — until it was exorcised. It was jarring and bizarre for audiences at the time to see a girl swearing and antagonizing grown-ups on screen, and Hollywood created a vivid depiction of the possession stories people had heard in real life.
“The Exorcist” was a hardcore filmgoing experience for people who hadn’t yet seen the vivid horrors of 1978’s “Halloween,” 1979’s “Alien” and the countless other visceral or atmospherically scary movies that came later. “The Exorcist” earned more than $400 million worldwide from a $12 million budget, which was gigantic for the 1970s. It was also the first horror film to earn a Best Picture nomination. With “The Exorcist,” scaring people became an art, and it is Hollywood’s most famous demonic possession tale to date.
8. The Predators (Predator)
Predators, as their name suggests, are hunters from space who prey on other aliens for sport. They’re unique in horror movie monsterdom because they have a code of honor that prevents them from killing enemies who impress them or pose no threat, though they don’t always follow it. When they do decide to kill, they’re ruthless and brutal, skinning and decapitating adversaries and keeping body parts (usually heads) as trophies. They’re sentient humanoid bipeds with advanced technology, including spaceships and sophisticated tools and weaponry.
Predators are large and imposing compared to humans, and they’re physically much stronger. They have mandibles around their mouths, similar to ants, but helmets hide these facial features. The original 1987 film “Predator” featured a lone predator antagonist hunting human soldiers in a jungle. The film was a graphically violent macho kill-fest where most of the cast (led by Arnold Schwarzenegger) were ultra-masculine. The storyline was scary because it depicted a situation where only the toughest warrior could survive, and since most viewers weren’t alpha fighters, the average person would never last. The hardcore, kill-or-be-killed environment would’ve been a nightmare scenario for sedentary cinema fans. According to reports, director Shane Black plans to make a brand new “Predator” film in the near-future.
7. Werewolves (Various)
Werewolves are unique among movie monsters because of their primal, animalistic menace. These legendary lupine beasts are people that shapeshift into wolves or human-wolf hybrids, and they attack with a wolf’s ferocity and speed. Regular wolves can tear bodies to shreds, but a human-sized (or bigger) werewolf can do it with more strength; and depending on the story, it can stalk prey with a human’s cunning and intelligence. In some stories, werewolves can control their basic predatory impulses, and in others they can’t.
For centuries, stories with werewolves and other shapeshifters have been a part of folklore throughout many countries. However, the famous 1941 horror film “The Wolf Man” is probably what started pop culture’s werewolf fascination. In the movie, actor Lon Chaney played a man who was bitten by a werewolf and transformed into one himself, and the rest is entertainment history. Like zombies, werewolves often convert others through bites, but werewolves are similar to more realistic threats. In real-life, we have more to fear from carnivorous animals than from cannibalistic corpses, and being eaten or torn apart alive is a horrific — and entirely possible — fate.
6. Dracula (Various)
Count Dracula is an enduring horror icon, and due to his frequent appearances in pop culture media, he’s the most famous vampire of all-time. The character first appeared in Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic horror novel “Dracula” and became a wildly popular supervillain who’s appeared multiple films, TV shows, comics, games, novels and other media. In Stoker’s original tale, Dracula was a centuries-old undead count with amazing supernatural powers, a thirst for living blood and an aversion to sunlight: the archetype that nearly all other vampire characters in entertainment have been based on.
Dracula’s personality is also why he’s so unforgettable. He was a highly emotional man who lived in a dark, imposing castle and controlled a small army of people and creatures who did his bidding. This is why vampires are usually at or near the top of the monster food chain in the media — they were based on a man who was often in charge of everyone around him. Even though Dracula died at the end of Stoker’s legendary novel, he’s so beloved that writers, directors and game designers always find ways to bring him back to menace hapless humans over and over again.
5. Xenomorphs (Alien)
The extremely aggressive xenomorphs from the “Alien” franchise exist purely to increase their numbers and destroy competing lifeforms. Unlike most cinematic extraterrestrials, the xenomorphs don’t have their own technologically-advanced civilization; they think like bugs — smart bugs, but bugs nonetheless. They’re parasites that forcibly implant embryos into human bodies, which then mature and burst out of their chests, which is, as you might expect, fatal to the host. Adult xenomorphs slash, impale and maul people to death, usually before eating them, and the creatures have acid blood flowing through their veins.
The xenomorphs’ frightening appearance is truly a masterpiece of creature design. Artist H. R. Giger created the look, which debuted in the first “Alien” film in 1979 and underwent modifications in successive films. A typical xenomorph is much taller than a human, and its body is a fusion between humanoid and insect, housed inside a sleek black biomechanical-looking exoskeleton. They have clawed hands and feet and segmented, blade-tipped tails that are similar to a scorpion’s. Each creature has a long, oblong skull and carapace, as well as an extensible mouth with twin jaws and sharp teeth. They walk upright or run on all fours, alternating between human and animalistic movement. Xenomorphs are slick, fast and deadly; nightmare beasts that no one would ever want to face.
4. Michael Myers (Halloween)
Michael Myers is one of the first masked slashers who became a horror icon, and is unquestionably a symbol of the genre’s brutality. He debuted in 1978 as the silent, deadly killer in the first “Halloween” film, arguably John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece. In the original “Halloween,” a psychotic Myers kills one of his sisters when he’s a little boy, and he hunts his other sister on Halloween when he matures to try and kill her too, slaughtering others along the way. He wears a white mask and dark jumpsuit, wields a large knife and speaks no dialogue while he single-mindedly embarks on a murderous journey.
Myers has stabbed and bludgeoned his way through 9 out of 10 “Halloween” films. He’s scary primarily because he’s a large, strong man who kills constantly but never speaks. He’s even scarier because he always comes back to life after he’s seemingly killed, which enhances his status as a fearsome opponent. The Michael Myers character is a reason why the slasher character archetype is a part of pop culture history.
3. Jason Voorhees (Friday The 13th)
With respect to our previous entrant, Jason Voorhees personifies slasher savagery. The burly, hockey mask-wearing monster from the “Friday the 13th” series has slaughtered hundreds of people across 11 films (his mother did the slaughtering in one of them). Voorhees often wields a machete for killing, but also uses his bare hands, projectiles or any useful object or device. His murders are often creative, including electrocution, decapitation, drowning,impaling, skull crushing and folding suckers in half. With Voorhees, death became an artform.
In early “Friday the 13th” films, Voorhees was a mentally challenged boy who seemingly drowned at camp Crystal Lake because negligent counselors didn’t notice he was in trouble. Years later, his mother declares war on all the camp’s counselors and begins killing them for revenge. Later, a still-“living,” grown-up Voorhees follows suit. As the series progressed, writers gave Voorhees a supernatural resistance to injury, superhuman strength and the ability to return from the dead. He began as a serial killer and became one of horror’s iconic death gods. Director Breck Eisner plans to make a brand new “Friday the 13th” film sometime in the future.
2. Zombies (Various)
Zombies are undead beings generated from reanimated corpses, decaying husks that can withstand pain and abuse that living bodies can’t. Even worse, they spread like a disease. If they bite (or sometimes scratch) a human, that person eventually transforms into one of the living dead, which is why zombies multiply like crazy. Other movie monsters can occur in groups too, but becoming one of a deadly horde of mindless, flesh-eating monsters is the defining fear in the zombie mythos.
The term “zombie” comes from Haitian folklore, where legends usually depicted them as people magically changed into undead slaves that performed labor. However, zombies consume flesh in modern films and TV, created by supernatural or scientific methods. They first became significant in mainstream media with 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead,” and they’re enjoying a pop culture renaissance thanks to successful stories in other media, including the wildly popular “Walking Dead” TV series and comic book. Modern zombies are a potentially apocalyptic threat, but they’re also particularly disturbing. How many of us are strong enough to fight or kill zombified versions of our parents, spouses or even children? A zombie’s not just any monster; it’s potentially someone you loved, so facing one could be pure psychological torture.
1. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare On Elm Street)
Freddy Krueger is terrifying because he’s unstoppable. He’s a supernatural serial killer who slaughters victims in their dreams when they sleep, which kills them in real-life. Krueger has godlike power in the dream realm, so fighting him there is usually hopeless. He’s also unavoidable because everyone has to sleep eventually. With his bloodlust, disfigured burnt skin, bladed gloves and deific abilities, Krueger’s arguably the most fearsome horror icon on the list.
Krueger debuted in Wes Craven’s 1984 horror hit “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and claimed countless victims over multiple sequels. Robert Englund played Krueger in all live-action appearances, until Jackie Earle Haley took over the role in 2010’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reboot. Thanks in large part to Englund’s original, masterful portrayal, most adults today know Krueger as the lanky, menacing boogeyman who scared them when they were kids. Krueger personified nightmares and made a generation of young people afraid to go to bed.
Which movie monsters are your personal favorites? Scare up a good conversation in the comments!
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