Scariest movie characters for Halloween
This list is limited to solo characters, not groups of entities like in the following classics:
-“House on Haunted Hill” (ghosts)
-“The Haunting” (ghosts)
-“The Birds” (birds)
-“Night of the Living Dead” (zombies)
-“The Hills Have Eyes” (cannibals)
-“The Amityville Horror” (ghosts)
-“The Evil Dead” (zombies)
-“Jacob’s Ladder” (demons)
-“The Blair Witch Project” (witches)
-“The Sixth Sense” (ghosts)
-“The Others” (ghosts)
-“Paranormal Activity” (ghosts)
-“The Orphanage” (ghosts)
-“A Quiet Place” (creatures)
Now, on with the list!
30. Annabelle (“The Conjuring”)
Horror history is filled with creepy dolls from Chucky in “Child’s Play” to the clown under the bed in “Poltergeist.” As for the 21st century, the freakiest doll is easily Annabelle in James Wan’s instant classic “The Conjuring” (2013), following a pair of paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), who help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. The doll was such a breakout star that it got its own spinoff franchise with “Annabelle” (2014), Annabelle: Creation” (2017) and “Annabelle Comes Home” (2019).
29. Chucky (“Child’s Play”)
Long before “Annabelle,” the king of the creepy dolls was Chucky in “Child’s Play” (1989) with his signature line, “Hi, I’m Chucky, wanna play?” The film follows a single mother who gives her son a popular doll for his birthday, only to discover that it is possessed by the soul of a serial killer. The creative concept sparked a long-running horror franchise of eight films, as well as an upcoming TV series that is slated for 2021.
28. The Creeper (“Jeepers Creepers”)
Road rage was never as terrifying as in “Jeepers Creepers,” as a brother and sister are pursued by an old, rusty truck, its horn blaring by a terrifying superhuman driver in a giant fedora. Things take an even more twisted turn when the siblings discover the truck parked next to an abandoned church where The Creeper slides human bodies wrapped in blood-stained sheets into a large pipe sticking out of the ground. You’ll be shouting, “Don’t go in there!” But of course, they do.
27. Candyman (“Candyman”)
Say his name five times in the mirror and he appears to kill you with his hook for a hand. The urban legend of Candyman has haunted kids for three decades now, but upon rewatching, the scattered script doesn’t hold up quite as well as our terrified memories of the central figure. Points to Clive Barker’s story for attempting to discuss gentrification as a Chicago graduate student explores the South Side of Chicago, but hopefully the “white savior” elements are removed from the Jordan Peele remake, which was set for 2020 but bumped to 2021.
26. Pinhead (“Hellraiser”)
Upon seeing this 1987 horror flick, author Stephen King said, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker.” Based on his own novella “The Hellbound Heart,” Barker made his directorial debut in this tale of a puzzle box that opens a gateway to Hell where former humans now dwell as soul-torturing Cenobites. The Lead Cenobite (Doug Bradley) would become known as Pinhead over the course of a 10-film franchise.
25. Pennywise the Clown (“It”)
While it’s a general truth that there are far too many remakes, Stephen King’s “It” was begging to be updated because (a) “It” had never been a movie before (only a TV miniseries) and (b) the original is dated in its special effects despite Tim Curry’s phobia-inducing clown Pennywise. Thus, the 2017 remake is both a welcome revival and a significant upgrade with the children’s camaraderie of “Stranger Things” and an impressive performance by Sophia Lillis. It’s a total scream as a communal experience in a crowded movie theater, though not without its flaws, starting off far stronger than it finishes with diminishing returns of exponential jump scares. Either way, there’s no denying its pop culture impact, reviving the creepy catchphrase: “You’ll float, too.”
24. Jigsaw (“Saw”)
For better or worse, “Saw” ushered in the “torture porn” era, taking horror to gory new heights — or lows if you prefer slow-burn suspense. With all due respect to “Hostel” (2005), the crowned jewel of this subgenre remains “Saw,” featuring a Jigsaw villain that became an unstoppable franchise. Sure, the killer’s moral punishments are a “Se7en” knockoff and the final twist is far-fetched (requiring a sequel to explain the logic), but the powerful music stands with the very best in the genre, its director went on to make “The Conjuring” and its writer went on to make “The Invisible Man.” For all that, we say, “Wanna play a game?”
23. The Fly (“The Fly”)
Whether it’s the 1958 original starring Vincent Price (“Help me!”) or the 1986 remake starring Jeff Goldblum, “The Fly” is a pivotal piece of horror history. To these eyes, the remake is surprisingly superior, thanks to the direction of visionary filmmaker David Cronenberg, who shocked us with “Videodrome” (1983), “Dead Ringers” (1988), “Naked Lunch” (1991) and “A History of Violence” (2005). “The Fly” may very well be his masterpiece, as Goldblum transforms into a man-fly hybrid during a botched attempt at human teleportation, as Geena Davis delivers the best tagline in horror history: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
22. The Thing (“The Thing”)
After revolutionizing the slasher flick with “Halloween” (1978), John Carpenter switched gears to body mutation in “The Thing” (1982). A grotesque alien life form takes on pieces of whatever it bites, making us squirm with concoctions of dog jowls mixed with human arms. Scariest of all, Kurt Russell and his arctic colleagues don’t know who among them is already infected, an unexpected preview of the coming coronavirus pandemic. “The Thing” is that rare horror remake that’s actually better than the original, though movie buffs should still check out “The Thing from Another World” (1951) — just for the sake of comparison.
21. Mrs. Danvers (“Rebecca”)
In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock crossed the pond to direct his first American picture for David O. Selznick, who was fresh off a Best Picture win for “Gone with the Wind” (1939). The result was another Best Picture winner in “Rebecca” (1940), starring Joan Fontaine as a newlywed who moves into Laurence Olivier’s gothic estate Manderley, which is haunted by the memory of his first wife Rebecca. Judith Anderson steals the show as the creepy caretaker Mrs. Danvers, who does everything in her power to drive away the new Mrs. de Winter en route to an iconic fiery finale.
20. Georgina (“Get Out”)
No one expected comedian Jordan Peele (“Key & Peele”) to switch genres and deliver a horror knockout in his directorial debut, but that’s what he did with one of the top-grossing movies of 2017 and the Oscar champ for Best Original Screenplay. While the film features comic relief by LilRel Howery’s TSA agent, this is a chilling social commentary that repays on repeat viewings with symbolic cotton picking, deer antlers, Lincoln vehicles and American flag wardrobe. Daniel Kaluuya is a revelation shedding tears in the Sunken Place, Allison Williams is unforgettable as his girlfriend, Bradley Whitford is haunting as her “post-racial” father and Catherine Keener is hypnotic as her tea-stirring mother, but the creepiest characters were the house servants Walter and Georgina, who were kept around when the grandparents died: “I couldn’t bear to let them go.”
19. Minnie Castevet (“Rosemary’s Baby”)
Before “The Omen” showed the Antichrist as a living child, “Rosemary’s Baby” had an unborn fetus conceived by the devil. Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) move into New York’s Dakota Building, only to find that their neighbors practice witchcraft. Guy sells his soul for an acting career, while Rosemary is impregnated by Satan in a trippy hallucination sequence. Ruth Gordon wins an Oscar for a darkly comic performance with a peephole introduction, Krzysztof Komeda scores a creepy lullaby theme, B-horror producer William Castle makes a cameo and Roman Polanski directs to perfection despite his future real-life demons. Not only were his parents killed in Nazi concentration camps, but his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was also murdered by the Manson Family a year after “Rosemary.” Was it a coincidence or divine payback? In the coming years, Polanski would flee the U.S. on statutory rape charges, Farrow would become ensnared in her own bizarre split with Woody Allen, and John Lennon would be murdered in the same Dakota entrance where Farrow and Cassavetes appear at the film’s outset. If a real evil ever hung over a movie, it’s this one.
18. Samara (“The Ring”)
You answer a ringing phone and a child whispers on the other end: “Seven days.” That’s how long you have left to live after watching a static-filled videotape that continues the bizarre, experimental legacy of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou” (1929). The Japanese horror classic “Ringu” (1998) quickly became Gore Verbinski’s Hollywood remake “The Ring” (2002). While so many U.S. remakes are inferior to their foreign originals, I have to call this one a draw. Both are super creepy thanks to the undead Samara, her long, dark hair hanging over her face. Careful, she just might emerge from your television to petrify you.
17. Max Cady (“Cape Fear”)
“Counselor?!” Few movie characters instill as much fear in our hearts as vengeful ex-con Max Cady. The role was originated by Robert Mitchum, who stalked Gregory Peck, Polly Bergen and Lori Martin in the creepy 1962 original, turning Cady into the AFI’s No. 28 Villain of All Time. Still, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer terror of Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake, stalking Nick Nolte and Jessica Lange. Bernard Hermann’s 1962 score was so good that Scorsese retained it for the remake.
16. Annie Wilkes (“Misery”)
Sometimes the simplest of ideas can turn into the most terrifying of stories. Author Stephen King brilliantly came up with the idea of a best-selling author, Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who crashes his car during a snowstorm, only to be pulled from the wreckage by his No. 1 fan. Nursing him back to health, Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) has her own ideas for his novels, holding him hostage at a typewriter to rewrite his next masterpiece in her honor. Bates deservedly won the Oscar for her hobbling performance, while Rob Reiner proved his versatility as a director after the fantasy of “The Princess Bride” (1987) and the romantic comedy of “When Harry Met Sally” (1989).
15. Leatherface (“Texas Chain Saw Massacre”)
Loosely based on real-life Wisconsin killer Ed Gein, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is more of an experience than a movie. Director Tobe Hooper shot with a gritty, almost documentary style, lending a horrific authenticity to Leatherface and his house of horrors. Perhaps Hooper’s best trick is convincing us that the film is the goriest movie ever made, when in fact we hardly see any blood at all. The movie is really just a collection of macabre animal skulls, hanging moons and eerie sounds. But like “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) decades later, it convinced terrified audiences that they were watching a real-life account.
14. The Xenomorph (“Alien”)
Ridley Scott put himself on the map by turning science fiction into “science friction.” Is there anything scarier than an alien life-form attaching itself to your face, inserting its genitals down your throat and impregnating you with a baby alien that will burst out of your chest? “Alien” took the classic “monster in the house” design and removed the option of fleeing the house. On the starship Nostromo, there’s nowhere to run, and “in space, no one can hear you scream.” H.R. Giger’s alien design was just as horrifying as it was influential, made more so by Scott’s decision to rarely show it until the end. Meanwhile, Sigourney Weaver turned Ellen Ripley into the AFI’s No. 8 Hero of All Time, cementing her place in the sequel, “Aliens” (1986), calling the Queen Alien a “b-tch.”
13. Damien Thorn (“The Omen”)
Few film moments are scarier than Gregory Peck trimming the hair of his adopted son Damien, looking for “666” beneath his hairline, as his demonic nanny sleeps in the adjacent room. This Antichrist tale could have easily turned ridiculous, but director Richard Donner handles it masterfully, building the tension from a chilling nanny suicide at a birthday party, to howling baboons at the zoo, to panting guard dogs in a cemetery — all set to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score “Ave Satani.” “The Omen” holds up better than many of its peers because it relies very little on special effects, while nailing the one big effect it does try: a gruesome decapitation. Peck is believable in his fatherly denial, Billie Whitelaw is chilling as the child’s protector, Lee Remick is tragic with motherly intuition and young Harvey Stephens is unforgettable with his devilish smile.
12. Jack Torrance (“The Shining”)
“Here’s Johnny!” Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel is a claustrophobic tale of author Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd) getting snowed in at the remote Overlook Hotel. With each passing day of “all work and no play,” Jack increasingly loses his mind, while young Danny learns he has a special psychic ability known as “the shining.” It’s a horrific power, allowing him to see the ghosts of past guests who faced murder (“Red Rum” backward), including a terrifying pair of twin girls, revealed by Kubrick in a Steadicam shot through the labyrinth-style hallways. The shocking images continue to chill us, from an elevator full of blood to the surprise contents of Room 237. The thought-provoking ending recalls the lyrics of “Hotel California,” where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.
11. Carrie White (“Carrie”)
“The Shining” may be the scariest Stephen King adaptation, but “Carrie” was the first — and arguably the most faithful. Sissy Spacek is the bullied student who hones her telekinesis to seek revenge on her school bullies and violently religious mother (Piper Laurie). The eye of director Brian De Palma (“Scarface,” “The Untouchables”) is ever apparent, from Carrie’s slow-mo menstruation in the steamy locker room, to her tour-de-force prom night inferno with De Palma’s impressive Figure-8 shot to reveal the bucket of blood. The final grave scene is a classic graveside jump scare, as De Palma instructed his actress to walk backward so that he could then reverse it for a dreamlike feel — capped by an iconic graveside jumpscare.
10. The Monster (“Frankenstein”)
The same year that Bela Lugosi delivered an iconic Dracula, his Universal Studios rival Boris Karloff created a legendary monster in James Whale’s 1931 horror classic based on the Mary Shelley novel. Elsa Lanchester matched him as a big-haired bride in the even-better sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), while Colin Clive delivered one of the AFI’s Top 50 Movie Quotes of All Time — “It’s alive!” It’s alive!” — spun into comedic gold by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Mel Brooks’ side-splitting spoof “Young Frankenstein” (1974). Can you think a more iconic monster?
9. Count Dracula (“Nosferatu,” “Dracula”)
Max Schreck’s Dracula in F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” (1922) remains the undisputed champ of silent horror masterpieces. The film is still creepy today with its German Expressionist shadows and iconic practical effects, reversing the image to allow Schreck to rise eerily from the ground. Bela Lugosi brought the role into Hollywood’s “talkie” era in Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931), delivering the legendary line: “Children of the night! What music they make.” The legendary Christopher Lee later assumed the role for Hammer Films’ “Horror of Dracula” (1958), followed by Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992).
8. Ghostface (“Scream”)
By the 1990s, the late Wes Craven was an established horror master, from “The Last House on the Left” (1972) to “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) to “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). But in 1996, he created something entirely unique, a loving satire of the genre that was also intensely scary with the knife-wielding Ghost-Faced Killer. Drew Barrymore’s opening slaughter was the most shocking whack of a moviestar since Janet Leigh’s early demise in “Psycho” (1960), only this time she’s on the phone answering horror movie trivia to the killer’s question: “Do you like scary movies?” Craven breaks down the genre rules: (1) Never have sex, (2) Never drink or do drugs, (3) Never say, “I’ll be right back.” It all builds to a Columbine climax where the killer duo diagnoses pop culture: “Movies don’t make the psychopaths. They make the psychopaths more creative.”
7. Jason Voorhees (“Friday the 13th”)
After a dozen films, the “Friday the 13th” franchise has become synonymous with Jason Voorhees wearing a hockey mask and carrying a machete. How easily we forget that Jason wasn’t even the villain in the original; it was actually his mother seeking her revenge for her son’s drowning — as “Scream” (1996) so lovingly reminded us. Of course, Jason’s spirit hovers over the soundtrack with an apocryphal chant (“kill kill kill, ma ma ma”) and actually surfaces for a jolter of an ending. Let’s face it: Kevin Bacon doesn’t stand a chance out at Camp Crystal Lake.
6. Freddy Krueger (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”)
Robert Englund’s slasher icon Freddy Krueger was both terrifying and snarky, mocking his teenage victims with sarcastic quips before ripping them to shreds in their nightmares. Is there anything scarier than a clawed burn victim killing you in your sleep? Just ask Johnny Depp in his bloody breakthrough film role. All the while, the late Wes Craven layers his soundtrack with little girls chanting,”One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, get your crucifix. Seven, eight, don’t stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again.” Got that right.
5. Michael Myers (“Halloween”)
With loving homages to “Psycho” and “Rear Window,” John Carpenter brought the slasher genre into a new era of “Friday the 13th” (1980) and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984). Carpenter’s auteur gem “Halloween” tells the simple tale of Michael Myers, a young boy who killed his sister on Halloween night. Locked away in an insane asylum for years, the adult Myers breaks loose on the anniversary, wearing a William Shatner mask painted white. Aside from Jamie Lee Curtis as the virginal babysitter and Donald Pleasence as the asylum expert, the rest of the acting is quite cheesy. But pay no attention to the cast behind the curtain; this one’s all about Carpenter’s haunting piano score and stalker camera, moving in and out of P.O.V. shots and filling each pan with dread as we wonder what lurks just outside the frame.
4. The Shark (“Jaws”)
You might label “Jaws” a summer action-adventure, but let’s be serious: it’s the ultimate monster movie ever made. The killer shark is downright terrifying, from the opening attack on Chrissie to the underwater inspection of a boat wreck. Roy Scheider is rock solid as Amity Police Chief Brody, Richard Dreyfuss brings comic relief as the marine biologist Hooper and Robert Shaw does his best Captain Ahab as the screw-loose shark hunter Quint. Still, the most important character is John Williams’ famous two-note score, which stood in for a mechanical shark that didn’t work. The film launched Steven Spielberg’s career, became one of the biggest summer blockbusters in history and inspired a worldwide phobia with a tagline warning: “Don’t go into the water.”
3. Norman Bates (“Psycho”)
Alfred Hitchcock not only invented the slasher genre in the Bates Motel shower, but he also changed movies as we know them. In 1960, audience screams were so loud that you couldn’t even hear Bernard Herrmann’s famous slashing soundtrack. Today, the stabbings may seem arcane, but the suspense leading up to them is textbook tension. Anthony Perkins is unforgettable as the mother-obsessed Norman Bates, whose dark secret is symbolized in everything from the opening credits to window reflections to stuffed birds on the wall. Hitchcock went to great lengths to conceal his twist, buying up copies of the novel, holding red-herring casting sessions, and ordering theaters locked after each screening started. It’s hard to imagine a movie that will ever change horror history the way the Master of Suspense did when he invited us into the male gaze, shifted our sympathies, challenged our complicities and posed the disturbing question: “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
2. Hannibal Lecter (“The Silence of the Lambs”)
Most movies struggle to create just one terrifying villain. “The Silence of the Lambs” delivered two in the cerebral cannibal Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and the skin-slicing serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Overcoming her childhood fears of screaming lambs, Jodie Foster instantly turned Clarice Starling into the AFI’s No. 6 Hero of All Time, while Hopkins turned Lecter into the No. 1 Villain, winning an Oscar despite just 16 minutes on screen. “Lambs” joins “Rebecca” as the only horror-ish films to ever win Best Picture, while it remains one of just three movies in history to win the Big Five Oscars: Best Picture, Director (Jonathan Demme), Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster) and Screenplay (Ted Tally). So put the lotion in the basket, don some night-vision goggles and order some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Slurp!
1. Regan MacNeil (“The Exorcist”)
The default answer is also the correct one: Regan MacNeil is the scariest villain in the scariest movie of all time as “The Exorcist” mines slow-burn suspense from the mystery of faith, then jolts us with the most shocking moments ever put on screen. In 1973, it left audiences vomiting in the aisle and passing out in the lobby on its way to shattering box office records. Adjusted for inflation, it remains the No. 9 highest grossing movie of all time, regardless of genre. Director William Friedkin chose William Peter Blatty’s novel as his follow-up to Best Picture winner “The French Connection” (1971), and wouldn’t you know it, Blatty won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. How many horror flicks can boast such acclaim? The film features power performances from Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Jason Miller and Linda Blair, who pulls her satanic voice from the legendary Mercedes McCambridge. Not only is it terrifying, but it has also become local legend with the Georgetown house and stairs as tourist attractions. No matter how much time passes, it will always be “an excellent day for an exorcism,” making our heads spin to the eternal sound of “Tubular Bells.”
WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes scary movie characters (Part 2)
Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.
Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.
© 2020 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.