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The 18 Most Terrifying Horror Villains in Film and TV

The 18 Most Terrifying Horror Villains in Film and TV

[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with DIRECTV and “The Babadook” available exclusively on DIRECTV beginning October 30.]

If you’re seeking a new horror film to watch this Halloween, you can’t do much better than “The Babadook,” Jennifer Kent’s terrifying debut feature that debuted at Sundance this year, and is now available to watch on DIRECTV. The film’s many scares are all thanks to the titular monster that lives in the bedroom of a single mother’s young son. In honor of Kent’s sure to be enduring horror creation, here are some of our favorite spooky horror villains of yore.

READ MORE: ‘The Babadook’ Writer-Director Jennifer Kent on Telling Horror Stories from a Female Perspective

Mick Taylor, “Wolf Creek” (2005)

You’re in the Australian outback camping with your friends. Your car breaks down. A man masquerading as a good samaritan comes to the rescue — except he’s a serial killer. It sounds like the stuff of the Hollywood horror manufacturing co., but make no mistake: “Wolf Creek” is one of the most genuinely harrowing efforts of its kind. That’s because it unfolds like a documentary. There are no red herrings or other genre tropes to detract from the horror that is Mick Taylor, a sadistic, mind-warping killer with an uncanny ability to oscillate between a ruse of emotional intelligence and unadulterated insanity. To make matters worse, the film is based on real events that occurred in Australia known as “the Backpacker Murders.” 

Frank the Bunny, “Donnie Darko” (2001)

“Do you believe in time travel?” These words, uttered by the most terrifying bunny since the dawn of “Bunnicula,” entered the cult consciousness and struck fear into the hearts of lonely surburban teenage boys across America with the release of “Donnie Darko.” Frank the Bunny, a creature with seemingly omniscient powers, has come to show Donnie that the manipulation of time, space, and the universe is at his fingertips. “I can do anything I want, and so can you,” Frank tells Donnie. Though Frank appears sinister and shows up at inopportune moments urging Donnie to perform destructive acts like arson, Frank insists his efforts are actually for the common good: they’re creating a wormhole so that Donnie can save the universe. This makes villifying him a bit of a complicated matter (if you’re into saving the universe, that is), but we think he’s nightmarish enough to qualify.

Leatherface, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974)

Forty years on, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” still packs the same punch it did when it first came out and changed the face of horror. A lot of that has to do with the film’s chief villain, Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen), who is always seen with a mask made of human skin (hence his name) and often wielding a chain saw in maniacal glee. The character has since appeared in the film’s endless parade of sequels and remakes, but Tobe Hooper’s seminal classic captures the horrific creation at his ghastly, powerful best.

The Crawlers/The Protagonists, “The Descent” (2005)

This British horror movie starts off with the simplest of premises: Six young women, exploring a pitch-black cave in the Adirondacks, get lost. By keeping things simple, character comes first, and by the time these young women start getting really scared, we’re just as scared for them — which makes things even worse, when it’s revealed the cave they’re exploring is infested with feral albinos. But the Crawlers, while terrifying and deadly, don’t prove to be the real villains; the real damage is what the girls do to each other. “The Descent” doesn’t just refer to their journey into the earth — it refers to the darkness within us all. 

Grand High Witch, “The Witches” (1990)


Sure, “The Witches” is considered a family film given it’s based on a book of the same name by Roald Dahl. But as anyone who’s seen the film can tell you, it’s not. Directed by Nicolas Roeg (the guy responsible for the very adult “Don’t Look Now”), “The Witches” centers on a young boy who vacations with his grandmother to a beachside hotel where they encounter a band of evil, child-fearing witches, led by the Grand High Witch (played by none other than Angelica Huston). In disguise, her highness resembles, well, Ms. Huston, but once her wig and mask come off, the High Witch reveals herself to be a creature so grotesque she’s sure to plant herself in your nightmares for years to come (Jim Henson and his team were responsible for the effects). She’s also inherently evil — at one point she attempts to push a stroller with an infant off a cliff. There’s nothing redeeming about the High Witch, apart from her fabulous-looking doppelgänger. 

The Alien, “The Thing” (1982)

John Carpenter’s eerie tale of an alien shapeshifter gradually overtaking a research base in Antarctica is technically a reworking of “The Thing From Another World,” but Carpenter’s eerie, atmospheric thriller is less focused on a supernatural presence than the paranoia it induces. Over the course of the movie, the alien takes several forms — from a dog to one of the base’s scientists — but right down to the last scene, there’s a lingering sense that it could be anyone, anywhere, anytime. Ever the savvy termite artist, Carpenter’s allegorical approach turns the alien into a timeless metaphor for society’s destructive tendencies in the face of disaster. As fear of Ebola continues to circulate, “The Thing” remains as modern as ever.

Nosferatu, “Nosferatu” (1922)

Max Schreck’s wide-eyed and lanky screen presence in the first movie adaptation of “Dracula” retains its iconic status in film history because it doesn’t quite feel like a performance. There’s a reason the 2000 drama “Shadow of the Vampire” envisioned a production of “Nosferatu” in which Schreck was actually a vampire. F.W. Murnau’s seminal boost of German Expressionism is dominated by Schreck’s menacing physicality, which doesn’t need much in the way of special effects to enhance its creepy appeal. Instead, the slower he moves, the scarier he gets. 

Bloodyface, “American Horror Story: Asylum” (2012)

The second installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthological horror series introduced a villain that was on the one hand terrifying — given his fetish for skinning women alive — and, on the other hand, awesome for killing Adam Levine. While “American Horror Story: Asylum” was filled with Nazi doctors, aliens, satanic spirits, and zombie Chloe Sevigny, Bloodyface was its centerpiece. The sadistic killer who dons a bloody mask made of women’s skin, teeth, and hair — inspiring his clever pseudonym — is actually Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), Briarcliff’s friendly resident therapist. Though, he has some deep-rooted, fucked-up issues of his own. After being abandoned by his mother as a child, he longs for a maternal replacement to use for his own sexual gratification. Any women he deems inadequate is decapitated, skinned, and used for a decorative lamp shade or a contribution to his mask. His lust for blood and perforated skin is passed down to his spawn who continues the Bloodyface legacy, inciting terror in those who cross him. He may have some more mommy issues than Norman from “Psycho.”

Norman Bates, “Psycho” (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” wasn’t only surprising because it (spoiler alert) killed off its leading lady during the first half of the film, but because it created one of the most iconic and creepy villains in “mama’s boy” Norman Bates. Guys, the psycho (pun intended) killed his mom, kept her rotting corpse in their house and dressed up like her to then murder guests of his last-option hotel. Audiences thought there was a wacky old lady on the loose for the entire film, and then BAM — she’s just a skeleton in the basement. Norman has become such an iconic creepazoid that he needed a prequel to explore how he got so messed up. Thus, “Bates Motel” starring Vera Farminga and Freddie Highmore was born on A&E, and boy do they ever explore how much a lonely kid can be messed up by dear old mom.

Abin Cooper, “Red State” (2011) / Howard Howe, “Tusk” (2014)

Kevin Smith seems to be all about terrifying audiences these days, and, lucky for the filmmaker, he has the perfect culprit to work with in actor Michael Parks. The veteran character actor — who’s also worked with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez — turns in equally terrifying performances in Smith’s last two films, “Red State” and “Tusk.” In “Red State,” Parks embodies Abin Cooper, a sadistic fundamentalist who cages and murders anyone who doesn’t ascribe to his twisted beliefs. And in “Tusk,” Parks terrifies as Howard Howe, a rich Canadian nut-job who kidnaps an obnoxious radio personality and transforms him into a walrus (really). Both characters could have been played as broad, nutty caricatures, but in Parks talented hands, both Abin and Howard are wholly formed creations that feel all too real.

Hannibal Lecter, “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and “Hannibal” (2013-Present)

No matter the context and apparently no matter the actor, Hannibal Lector is undoubtedly one terrifying individual. Whether he’s on TV,

in a movie, or merely existing as words on a page, the diabolically clever cannibal is an iconic symbol of horror because — for as gruesome as his acts can be — he’s not mad as a hatter. Hannibal is a doctor, making him quite dissimilar to many of the other deranged nasties on this list. Dr. Lecter went through years of study to obtain a lofty degree, thus making him perhaps the most frightening killer of them all: one with a brain. He’s as manipulative of his patients minds as he is capable of helping them face their own demons, or in other words, he chooses to do what he does willingly, carefully, and purposefully. He’s Hannibal the Cannibal, but don’t forget the preceding honorific.

The Witch, “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)

In this cult classic found footage film, three student filmmakers disappear in the woods of Maryland in October 1994 during a quest to document the legend of the Blair Witch. We actually never get to physically see the famed Witch, but that alone makes everything much more terrifying. We’re forced to watch the utterly doomed fate of the filmmakers, as details concerning the Witch are fleshed out throughout the course of the movie. The claustrophobic and amateur style of the recorded “found footage” takes the viewer on a journey rummaging through dark places and abandoned spaces, all building up to the final scene where Heather’s grueling distant screams are heard with the unforgettable image of her companion, Mike, facing a corner. It’s uncertain what happens to them, but it’s safe to assume that the story of the child-murderer Rustin Parr, allegedly driven to violence by the Witch, repeats itself. The creepy factor of the Witch is wholly visceral and stems from the fact that not a lot is confirmed about her, thus spawning theories and leaving the imagination to run wild. After all, “The Blair Witch Project” plays like a modern myth, bordering more on the realistic rather than fantastical, and that is where the true horror lies.

Michael Myers, “Halloween” (1978)

Not to be confused with the funny gentleman who played Austin Powers and provided the voice of Shrek. This Michael Myers, the masked serial killer central to the “Halloween” franchise, was written to be pure evil. Creator John Carpenter described the character as “almost a supernatural force – a force of nature. An evil force that’s loose,” a killer who is “unkillable.” Indeed, though Myers seemed to have been vanquished by the conclusions of a multitude of films, he kept coming back, implying a frightening deal with the devil to continue enacting his murderous, psychotic rage on unsuspecting teenagers. He even came back to haunt Jamie Lee Curtis one more time in “Halloween: H20,” 20 years after his original rampage. There’s been no “offical” end to Michael Myers, so he’s still out there.

Asami Yamazaki, “Audition” (1999)


Step aside “Boo!,” and “rest in peace.” The words that really inspire terror on Halloween are “Kiri, kiri, kiri.” Takashi Miike’s “Audition” tells the story of lonely widower Shigehiko searching for a new wife. His friend, a film producer, helps him hold an ersatz casting session to find one. Reprehensible an action as this might be, by the end of the film your sympathies are with Shigehiko. The woman he “casts” is young and beautiful, and she seems innocent at first. Come to find out, she is a brutal and terrifying sadist — one for the villain hall of fame.

Bob, “Twin Peaks” (1990)

In most episodes, he’s only onscreen for seconds at a time, but he’s seared into viewers’ minds forever. Where would the terror be in “Twin Peaks” without BOB? (Probably solely in the crest of Leo Johnson’s hairline.) The actor who plays BOB, Frank Silva, was a prop master and set decorator by trade, but Lynch saw him on set and wanted to put him in the show. Since the first season wrapped, Silva has passed away (R.I.P.), so many questions remain about the fate of BOB. First and foremost, “How’s Annie?”

Dr. Caligari, “The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari” (1920)

Who’s the true villain of “The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari”? You have to watch the whole movie to figure it out, but Robert Wiene’s psychological horror show stands out for more than just introducing the first third act twist in film history. With its fairy tale sets and flashback structure, the story of scheming Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) and the murderous somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who obeys the doctor’s will, generates a continual sense of ominous mystery at every turn. Caligari, portly and squinty-eyed, certainly looks like the face of evil, but it’s that very superficial assumption that the film manages to exploit with brilliant narrative trickery, questioning the very foundations of the villain in popular culture. There has never been another movie like it. 

Dr. Heiter, “The Human Centipede: First Sequence” (2009)

Big screen doctors don’t come more twisted than “The Human Centipede’s” baddie Dr. Heiter (a terrifying Deiter Laser), the German psychopath who kidnaps three unlucky souls to stitch together his magnum opus of the title. He professes at the outset of Tom Six’s savage film he’s a world-renowned expert at separating Siamese twins, and over the course of “The Human Centipede” he takes his practice much further, into the realms of the absurd. His victims defecate, cry and wail as they endure the grisly transformation. All the while Dr. Heiter looks on in total glee. He takes great pleasure in his process and that’s what makes him so horrifying to behold.

[Editor’s Note: Nigel M. Smith, Casey Cipriani, Liz Miller, Ben Travers, Rachel Bernstein, Emily Buder and Zainab Akande contributed to this article.]

READ MORE: ‘The Babadook’ Is A Terrific Look At The Horrors Of Having Children

Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the television premiere of “The Babadook” which is available exclusively on DIRECTV. “The Scariest Horror Movie You Have to See Right Now.”-GQ.  Find out more and how to watch here.

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