What’s a horror story without a boogeyman, a nefarious presence, a stone-cold killer with a plan, the bad guy just around the corner? Horror movies live and die (and sometimes, die and die and die) on the strength of their baddies, from masked murderers and supernatural beings to raging psychopaths and even the odd killer disease or two. Just who is knocking on your front door this spooky season? And why the hell would you answer?
There are clusters of killers that immediately come to mind when curating a best villains list. Take a look at the horror history books and you’ll quickly stumble onto the Universal monster movie headliners: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and so on. Look further and you’ll find yourself amid the late ’70s and mid-80s slasher staples: Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Michael. Continue on to the champions of the late ’80s and early ’90s: Chucky, Hellraiser, Candyman. These days, many of those same names are haunting cinemas again — shout out to “Halloween Ends” and “Hellraiser” (2022) — but we’re meeting just as many one-off weirdos in critical triumphs such as “Barbarian” and box office winners such as “Terrifier 2.”
Though their insidious ends are often the same, the most memorable predators stand out from the crowd because of the menacing means they use when picking off their victims. Of course, not all these approaches are equally effective in terms of fear. (Lubdan the Leprechaun may be entertaining but scary he is not!) So with a focus on the most actively scary antagonists in mind, IndieWire has rounded up 31 of the genre’s most iconic, chilling, and downright dastardly villains from some of the best films and franchises. Get to know them below, but make sure to double check those locks first. It is the witching season after all, and you don’t want the likes of Pennywise, the Babadook, Jack Torrance, the Strangers, or — heaven forbid — Death’s Design darkening your doorway.
For more villains to motivate your next horror movie watch, take a look at our guide to The 18 Scariest Horror Villainesses, from “Pearl” to “Carrie” to “Jennifer’s Body.”
With editorial contributions by Kate Erbland, David Ehrlich, Eric Kohn, Tambay Obenson, and Zack Sharf.