While the art of film has produced many great characters few, if any, genres have led to the creation of more iconic and memorable villains than the genre of horror. We know the faces, the masks, the weapons, even the voices or mannerisms of countless baddies who have graced the silver screen racking up scares, kill counts and memorable one-liners that still today stand the test of time. As Horror Month comes to a close here on Cinema Spotlight I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the greatest, most iconic and scariest characters in horror history. So it’s time to delve into the hall of fame of freights and celebrate the villains that have made the horror genre one of cinema’s most popular and successful. These are my picks for the Top 15 Iconic Horror Movie Villains.
For this list I looked at any villain from the horror movie genre featured in theatrical films, but because there were so many to choose from I had to set some ground rules. I did not look at ANY villain from pseudo-horror movies meaning the likes of Hannibal Lector, Jaws and the Xenomorph were not considered for this countdown because the films in which they appeared were not considered horror movies first and foremost but rather thrillers or science fiction with horror elements. I also did not include any SPECIES as a group on this list so zombies, vampires or werewolves in general were not included although specific representations of those creatures were heavily considered for the list. The villains on this list did not have to be the same person throughout the franchise or even a physical being as long as they are identified as the antagonist in one form or another in a horror film.
I wanted this countdown to focus on pure horror so that’s where I felt like drawing the line and even then there were a lot of icons to choose from so I strayed from my normal cutoff of ten entries and decided this was a list worth adding some extras so today instead of ten you get fifteen.
Lastly I judged these horror icons based on their effectiveness as killers and their infamy and legacy both in their own in-movie worlds and in the real world as pop culture icons. Of course my own personal bias played a factor in this list as well.
Obviously this is as subjective as anything I post and I’m bound to make a few people angry with this countdown by leaving someone out so as always I want to hear from. What is your favorite iconic horror movie villain? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list.
15. Samara, “The Ring” Series
The antagonist of “The Ring” franchise, Samara is an insidious female ghost who kills her victims seven days after they watch an infamous video tape. There’s an entire mythology built around this character and her motivations with her existence and supernatural abilities often attributed to her being part demon and her birth being the result of a rape from a priest (revealed in the much maligned sequel “Rings”). Her powers caused her to become mentally unstable leading her stepmother to push her into a well where she died after seven days thus the arbitrary time she allows her own victims to live. Samara quickly became a modern horror icon with her video-based killing method, helping make “The Ring” an instant classic and spawn a slew of other American remakes of Japanese horror properties.
14. The Candyman, “The Candyman” Franchise
The Candyman is one of several entries on this list inspired by the works of Clive Barker and is somewhat of an interpretation of the “Bloody Mary” urban legend. Played in all incarnations by Tony Todd who later became a genre icon in his own right, the Candyman is a damned soul haunted by his own death under unjust pretenses and thus is driven by wrath. Containing a God complex and using a hooked hand as his main weapon the Candyman doesn’t kill for sport. He kills to keep his legend alive. What makes this evil killer even more frightening is he doesn’t bother with people who believe in him, after all spreading his legend is his purpose. He targets those who doubt his existence and uses those victims as proof of his terror. So, ironically enough, the more you fear this man the longer you will live. Through three films Candyman haunted our nightmares making him one of the 90s greatest horror characters.
13. The Wolf Man, “The Wolf Man”
The Wolf Man is actually a reluctant villain of sorts. A legendary Universal movie monster, the Wolf Man that popularized the stereotypical werewolf is actually Larry Talbot, a scientist bitten by a werewolf while trying to protect a woman in distress. This causes him to suffer from lycanthropy which turns him into the villain of the story, the bloodthirsty Wolf Man. In his wolf form Talbot kills without prejudice seeing pretty much anyone as his pray. This interpretation of the character was remade in 2010 with Benicio Del Toro taking over as the legendary monster but the classic never gets old and while the Wolf Man hasn’t remained as relevant as other Universal monsters there’s still no overlooking this creature’s impact and lasting legacy as a legendary horror character from the genre’s roots.
12. Chucky, The “Child’s Play” Franchise
Many people group Chucky with other horror icons later to come on this list but while the “Child’s Play” franchise continues to go strong Chucky as a character has never had quite as much staying power as his contemporaries. Still there’s something to be said about this mass murderer and many often forget Chucky is not the name of the actual doll. Chucky is actually the name of the human murderer who transfers his spirit to an ironically named “Good Guy” doll in the first film and throughout the franchise he commits creative and often brutal murders as he searches for a new human host, gets married and even has a child of his own. While he may not be as relevant today as he once was Chucky is still a lasting staple of the horror genre and, let’s face it, the source of many nightmares about our toys coming to life to kill us.
11. Pinhead, The “Hellraiser” Series
The second character on this list derived from a Clive Barker work, Pinhead is actually only one of numerous Cenobites, demonic torturers summoned by solving mechanical puzzles. The most famous antagonist of the long-running “Hellraiser” franchise, Pinhead has become a horror genre staple known for the iron pins protruding from his head and his eloquent way with words. Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites were specifically designed to be scary as Barker’s answer to the slasher genre combining intelligence and a horrifying visage to put him above his victims in more ways than one. Obviously Barker was onto something because when his character was interpreted to film he became one of the genre’s most famous faces. To this day even those who have yet to watch the “Hellraiser” series still know who Pinhead is and are haunted by his obsession with eternal torture and suffering.
10. Pennywise, “It”
While the version of Pennywise featured on this list may be a more modern interpretation, this malevolent entity has certainly earned a reputation as one of author Stephen King’s most relevant and popular villains. Even before Bill Skarsgård took the role and made it his own in 2017 Pennywise, otherwise known as “the It”, became a pop culture icon with the help of Tim Curry in the original “It” miniseries. Regardless of which one you prefer Pennywise has certainly earned his place as a horror great by taking the form of the worst fears of his child targets who he feeds off of every 27 to 30 years. A shapeshifter often taking the form of an evil clown, Pennywise is the living embodiment of fear with mysterious origins and a charming but threatening personality that has made him a truly terrifying classic horror villain.
9. Ghostface, The “Scream” Franchise
The only character on this list who is always a different person, it’s the Ghostface persona that actually makes this countdown. The main antagonist of the “Scream” franchise, Ghostface was originally the joint masked disguise of Billy Loomis and Stu Macher who used the disguise to kill off people in accordance with horror movie clichés. That approach to the Ghostface legacy has followed the character throughout numerous films with nearly every antagonist incorporating the horror genre into their motivations for killing. Inspired by The Scream painting by Edvard Munch, Ghostface may never be the same person twice but the rotating door of antagonists has kept the character fresh and even still today that terrifying and creatively designed mask remains one of the most popular go-to Halloween costumes around speaking to the everlasting legacy of Wes Craven’s immortal creation.
8. Norman Bates, “Psycho”
Considered by many to be the original movie slasher, Norman Bates is the titular psycho of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece and is still one of the most famous horror figures in all of film. A mother-obsessed hotel owner suffering from dissociative identity disorder, this killer often dresses as his mother to commit his crimes before blaming the acts on her. While subsequent films delved more into Bates’ struggle with his own sanity his original appearance in the first movie is his most famous forever etching him in history as one of horror’s most iconic antagonists. The character of Norman Bates is still studied today as a respected representation of how mental illness can impact someone’s better judgement. As a result Bates has become one of cinema’s most famous murderers and set the bar high for the psychopaths that have hit the big screen since.
7. Jigsaw, The “Saw” Franchise
Some call him a murderer, he believes himself to be a teacher. John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, is the main antagonist throughout the “Saw” franchise and if he’s not behind the traps his disciples are. A cancer patient who once attempted suicide, Kramer had an epiphany that people often take their limited lives for granted and set out to teach those who do ignore the gift of their existence gruesome lessons. A smart and cunning man, Jigsaw sets up traps for his victims that they can survive, but at a cost. The traps are often symbolic of major crimes or sins committed by the victims in their lives to force them to face those misgivings if they want to continue living. Jigsaw often uses his now iconic puppet Billy to communicate with his targets and the puppet has sense become the image many associate with Jigsaw as a character. Say what you want about the “Saw” franchise there’s no denying how popular this villain has become as possibly the most recognizable figure in horror to come out of the 2000s.
6. Jack Torrance, “The Shining”
Jack Torrance actually doesn’t start off as the villain in the 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s horror classic. He slowly becomes corrupted by insanity which in turns morphs him into the psychotic antagonist we all know today. Brought to life by a spectacular performance by Jack Nicholson, this tortured writer is driven to madness eventually targeting his wife and son leading to iconic scenes and a film full of great lines and moments that have gone down in horror movie history. What makes Torrance even more memorable though is he’s also spectacularly human. Even when he comes unhinged there’s a certain charm about him that fans just seem to love. Torrance’s popularity has even surpassed the limits of the horror genre as some have named him one of the greatest overall movie villains of all time.
5. Leatherface, The “Texas Chainsaw” Franchise
While murderer Ed Gein has been the inspiration for several Hollywood villains including the aforementioned Norman Bates this is by far the most popular and well known to the masses. The main antagonist of the “Texas Chainsaw” franchise, Leatherface is a brutal killer who wears the skin of another on his face like a mask and utilizes a chainsaw as his weapon of choice. A member of a cannibalistic family, Leatherface is one of the few classic horror antagonists without any supernatural elements making his actions completely human, usually driven by fear. More light has been shed on this killer over the years revealing him as simply a “big baby” killing because he has been threatened not because he is a mindless freak making him that much more human and complex depending on the film. As one of the first horror movie icons after the rebirth of the genre in the 70s Leatherface has built quite a legacy and paved the way for many others still to come on this countdown.
4. Freddy Krueger, The “Nightmare on Elm Street” Franchise
The terror of everyone’s dreams, Freddy Krueger is not only one of the most memorable horror movie villains he’s also one of the most animated. A master of wit and sarcasm, Freddy is a serial killer who was executed for his crimes at the hands of citizens who left him to burn giving him the image of a completely burned human. In his afterlife he haunts the dreams of his executioners’ children along the titular Elm Street using his famous clawed glove and a variety of creative scenarios to get the job done. Krueger mocks his pray and plays with them before finally killing them off which has earned him many fans thanks to his unique and, at times, ironic ways of killing off teenagers in their sleep. From his burnt face and twisted sense of humor to his iconic stripped sweater, hat and glove Krueger has become ingrained in horror culture and has even been featured in numerous properties outside of his own series including a fan favorite battle with Jason Vorhees.
3. Michael Myers, The “Halloween” Franchise
The prototype for pretty much every serial killer brought to the big screen since his 1978 debut, Michael Myers’ popularity is astounding despite the fact that initially we knew nothing about him. Many films have delved into his backstory which has been retconned with the most recent sequel released over the weekend. Regardless of how many times we see his story though the many continuations of his legacy have helped Myers remain relevant with horror fans fascinated over what makes him tick. His trademark mask is one of the most famous in all of horror, his often-utilized knife is a simple but effective weapon and his lack of speech and facial twitches make him an delightful enigma. For such a simple character Myers has somehow managed to garner one of the largest fanbases in all of horror making him a lasting part of the eventual big three of modern horror that includes himself, Freddy Krueger and the number two entry on this list.
2. Jason Vorhees, the “Friday the 13th” Franchise
That hockey mask, that machete, that theme song. All of these come together to make Jason Vorhees one of the most memorable modern movie villains ever. The irony is that Jason himself wasn’t even the villain of the first “Friday the 13th” movie. His role as antagonist was developed in the sequels showing him to be a ruthless and relentless killer and he’s been racking up the kills ever since even going to space at one point. While not as creative or even well designed as some of his contemporaries it’s Jason’s simplicity that has made him a lasting staple of horror. His hockey mask alone has been ingrained in pop culture for decades. For a villain that took a few films to really come into his own compared to the likes of Krueger and Myers, somehow Jason Vorhees has become the king of this epic trio in the minds of many. But there’s a different king that tops this list. A more legendary villain who set the standard for everyone featured so far.
1. Dracula, Various Franchises
The king count of all horror movie bad guys, Dracula is the most legendary vampire ever brought to the big screen, even more famous than his predecessor Nosferatu who was actually inspired by Bram Stoker’s original “Dracula” novel. The first officially recognized appearance of Dracula in his purest form on the big screen is the 1931 Universal Monster movie that essentially set the tone for all other similar films that were still to come with Bela Lugosi giving us the most famous image of the vampire. Other actors have also brought the count to life, including famous interpretations by Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman. Cunning, seductive, charming and ruthless in his conquests Dracula has become possibly the most well-known and imitated movie monster with a legacy that has surpassed most of the previous entries on this list combined. Everyone knows who Dracula is and his impact on both literature and film and every generation seems to have a great version of the villain to embrace. So it’s a no-brainer for me to choose him as the greatest horror movie villain of all time.