Some horror villains are quite simply larger than life. Oftentimes, the very best of these sinister antagonists not only carry their own franchises, but they also tally hefty box office revenues for their respective movie studios. However, a perfect storm is often necessary for a single character to become immortalized in the annals of horror history. Some noteworthy examples of characters who've accomplished this feat and become undeniably memorable are Chucky, Leprechaun and the Creeper.
But for every icon of the macabre, there are a much larger number of deranged dentists, serial-killing Santa Clauses, and sorority house murderers who don't quite rank as highly in the frightening food chain. In fact, it's been a while since a character came along and asserted his or herself as the next count of the Carpathians or chainsaw-wielding maniac. Whoever steps up next has some big shoes to fill, because these are the crème de la crème when it comes to history-making evildoers.
Now, enjoy EW's list of the 20 best horror villains of all time.
The first entry on EW’s list seems like a perfect foil for Aquaman: A violently powerful creature becomes enamored with the lovely Kay (Julie Adams) during a geological expedition. If the plot sounds a bit like King Kong (1933) set in a lagoon, that’s only because it is. Actor Ben Chapman portrayed the iconic creature during the land sequences, but he had a very different take on the horror villain.
Chapman believed the Gill-man was the good guy simply protecting his home from invaders. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) reveled in the spotlight as the only Universal Monster to reign in theaters during the 1950s, and the creature’s first adventure was also released in 3-D.
You’ll also enjoy The Shape of Water (2017).
Are two heads really better than one? The gentle Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) finds it’s definitely not worth it when he succumbs to his own lofty ambitions and the sinister evil within him. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is an exceptional exploration into split personalities, and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s character — who first appears in the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) — has been adapted numerous times over the years.
Paramount Pictures’ 1931 classic was the 13th film adaptation of Stevenson’s book, and its protagonist/antagonist stands out for a number of reasons. First, there’s the ingenious in-camera movie magic director Rouben Mamoulian employed to capture the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde in just one shot. Second, March became the first actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor in a horror movie.
You’ll also enjoy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) is one of the most gruesome-looking horror villains of all time because, as his name implies, he wears the skin of his victims’ faces as a mask. Catching a glimpse of Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) temporarily paralyzes his victims much the same way a glance from Medusa will turn someone into stone. Not that he needs such an advantage when he can just slice and dice with his handy chainsaw.
While the film is anything but funny, director Tobe Hooper does provide a somewhat comical explanation for Leatherface’s motivations when it comes to killing all those teenagers in the original movie. “It’s a terrible day for Leatherface,” Hooper explained. “He keeps wondering, ‘Where the hell are all these kids coming from?'”
You’ll also enjoy X (2022).
Fans, do not play a game with this man! John Kramer (Tobin Bell) is one of the most intelligent and ruthless horror villains of all time. In the original Saw (2004), Kramer is trying to teach Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) a valuable life lesson when he restrains him and a photographer in a large bathroom with shackles. No spoilers here, but there’s only one way out of Jigsaw’s trap: a saw.
In a film franchise numbering nine installments, or 10 if you want to count director James Wan’s 2003 short, the actor who plays Jigsaw had a more practical approach as to why he was so excited the first film worked out financially. “I had a car payment or two that I needed to make,” Bell explained.
You’ll also enjoy Hostel (2005).
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) didn’t ask for what happened to him, but he was bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi) all the same. So, when the full moon grows bright, and the wolfbane blooms, mild-mannered Talbot transforms into one of the Universal Monsters’ most dangerous villains: the Wolf Man. Even the woman Talbot falls for, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) isn’t immune to the animal’s evil charms, and the creature nearly chokes the life out of her in one scene.
Sadly, in real-life, Ankers didn’t get along with Chaney, but their on-screen chemistry still comes across. Viewers who have never had the pleasure of seeing The Wolf Man will undoubtedly root for Gwen to somehow save Talbot from himself. However, it’s hard to reason with a werewolf behind all of Jack Pierce’s fantastic movie makeup.
You’ll also enjoy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Can you hear it: the music of the night? The Phantom (Lon Chaney Sr.) haunts the Paris Opera House, and his wicked heart is set on possessing the young understudy, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), at any cost. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is a benchmark for the ghastly horrors which accompany unrequited love, and Chaney’s twisted character will go to absurd lengths to have his way. And when he doesn’t get it, the Phantom drops a glass chandelier on the opera house’s audience and crushes many of them to death!
Chaney was a brilliant actor, and he was dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” He garnered the moniker because of his unique and complex makeup which he himself designed and applied. Chaney’s makeup kit still survives to this day, and it is preserved at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
You’ll also enjoy The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).
Pinhead (Doug Bradley) has such sights to show anyone who dares to solve the Lament Configuration puzzle box, and he’ll do more than torture his victims: He’ll tear their souls apart! The leader of the Cenobites can only invade Earth if the box is opened, but his attacks are some of the goriest captured on film: Metal hooks linked to chains obey Pinhead’s commands and rend the flesh from his victims!
If fans are watching Hellraiser (1987) for the first time, they’ll be surprised to find that Pinhead only appears on-screen for about 10 minutes. More so, the villain is never called by his name, and he is extremely eloquent, which juxtaposes his malevolence. “I have these extraordinary lines and this wonderful language,” Bradley said. “The character has this love affair with the English language, and he likes to play with people.”
You’ll also enjoy Nightbreed (1990).
Now, you see him…now you die! One of the Silver Screen’s most dangerous villains, Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), has the uncanny ability to perpetrate any crime he desires thanks to his power of invisibility. Unfortunately, the scientist’s ground-breaking method for becoming invisible is slowly driving him insane. Rains is arguably best known for his role as Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942), but he wasn’t even the second choice to play Griffin in The Invisible Man (1933).
Director James Whale wanted his Frankenstein (1931) star, Boris Karloff, to take on the lead role, but he walked away from the project over a dispute. Another Frankenstein alumnus, Colin Clive, was then approached by Whale, but he also turned down the part. And fans may be shocked to learn that actress Gloria Stuart, who plays Griffin’s fiance, also portrays old Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).
You’ll also enjoy Doctor X (1932).
Forget UV radiation, in the summer of 1975, director Steven Spielberg gave the whole world something else to be afraid of when they went swimming in the ocean. The film’s villain, “Jaws,” is a great white shark with a relentless nature — and the creature doesn’t discriminate. Anyone is fair game! Besides giving birth to one of the most powerful horror villains of all time, Jaws became the first summer blockbuster.
Today, all the big movies open during the summertime, but Jaws was the trendsetter. Now, the mechanical shark featured in the film is notorious for malfunctioning, which irked Spielberg to no end. “They made a big mistake, and they built the shark for freshwater,” Spielberg explained. “Now, they all knew we were going to the Atlantic Ocean, but for some reason they built it for fresh water.”
You’ll also enjoy Deep Blue Sea (1999).
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is more times than not pegged as one of the greatest horror villains of all time, but is she truly the monster, or is she the victim? Being bullied by her peers in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel certainly brings about Carrie’s untimely demise, but it’s easy to sympathize with the young girl’s plight.
In preparing for the audition, Spacek claims to have deliberately arrived to read for the role all disheveled. In fact, the actress greased her hair with Vaseline, and she didn’t even bother to brush her teeth that morning! Talk about your all-time method acting, and Spacek’s largely empathetic performance mixes into a maelstrom of murder when her character finally snaps and wipes out most of her schoolmates and the faculty at the infamous prom.
You’ll also enjoy Ginger Snaps (2000).
Jason Voorhees’ evolution began as a moss-covered boy who leapt out of Crystal Lake in Friday the 13th (1980), but Jason eventually, and unbelievably, evolved into an Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque cyborg in Jason X (2001). All his iterations have one thing in common, though: Jason cannot be killed.
Friday the 13th director Sean S. Cunningham writer Victor Miller began the character’s arc by casting Ari Lehman as the teenage Jason who attacks Alice (Adrienne King) in the original film. However, had Cunningham’s wife not objected, the filmmaker planned to cast his own son, Noel, in the part. “My mother said, ‘You’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to let my kid spend four hours in a lake in the middle of fall in New Jersey to be in your stupid movie!'” Noel explained, though he went on to say that he wasn’t bitter at all about his mother’s decision.
You’ll also enjoy Sleepaway Camp (1983).
Pound for pound, there’s not a deadlier horror villain on this list than the King of the Monsters. Sure, sometimes he’s an old softie and takes up the mantle of hero, but Godzilla was pure evil when he first appeared in Gojira (1954). A symbol of nuclear destruction, Godzilla trampled Japan and scorched it with his fiery, atomic breath.
Arguably, Godzilla’s most memorable kill comes against a lowly, misguided war veteran who believes the beast cares about him in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). The man nods in reverence from inside a building to salute the monster, but Godzilla doesn’t reciprocate his kindness. No, the King of the Monsters unleashes his fiery breath on the man and incinerates him instead.
You’ll also enjoy Godzilla vs. Kong (2021).
“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…” The dream stalker Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) is the most unique of all the slasher villains, and the most dangerous, because he can invade his victims’ dreams. And if Krueger kills someone in the dream world, they die in real life! A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is by far and away the scariest of the franchise’s installments, but with each passing picture, Krueger’s personality becomes more and more flamboyant.
Just killing the Elm Street children wasn’t good enough for Krueger. No, he had to taunt them with one of his infamous one-liners before offing them, and Englund won the coveted role after David Warner left the project due to a scheduling conflict. Englund said he envied how attractive his co-stars Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp were, and he used that feeling of resentment to find some of the anger in his character.
You’ll also enjoy A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” Don’t answer that question over the phone, because this is Ghostface’s trademark taunt. However, what’s even more ingenious at setting him apart from other horror villains is how the killer offs his victims by using the rules of horror films against them. Several actors donned the iconic guise of Ghostface in the Scream franchise, but one of the most intriguing is Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich).
Ulrich was attracted to the role of Sidney Presscot’s (Neve Campbell) boyfriend because the character wasn’t written as the stereotypical boy-next-door. However, Ulrich nearly had a different love interest in the movie. Molly Ringwald was offered Sidney’s part, but she decided not to accept it because the 27-year-old didn’t want to play a highschooler again.
You’ll also enjoy I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997).
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) finds adoration and horror don’t mix when she is faced with the adoration of the sinister Candyman (Tony Todd) in the 1992 film classic. Please note: The author of this piece took special care not to write Candyman’s name down too many times in a row because conjuring one of horror’s all-time villains would probably ruin his and everyone else’s otherwise pleasant day.
In preparation for one of Candyman’s most intense and visceral scenes, actor Tony Todd was stung 23 times by the swarm of real bees used in the movie, and the haunting imagery of those bees flying out of Candyman’s mouth (filmed for real with no special effects) remains ingrained in horror fans’ imaginations to this day. Now, Todd was smart enough to make a bargain with the filmmakers, and he negotiated a contract that ensured he was compensated for each and every bee sting: to the tune of $1,000 for each painful prick.
You’ll also enjoy Candyman (2021).
This guy is ruthless: He killed his own sister when he was a kid! Now, as an adult, Michael Myers is a lot like Jason Voorhees in that they’re both soft spoken, slow-walking killing machines that won’t die. However, Myers sports the I’m-cooler-than-you William Shatner mask, and Jason looks like he’s trying out for a community hockey team. Known as “the Shape” in John Carpenter Halloween (1978), Michael doesn’t seem to have a rhyme or a reason for his killing spree — and he is seemingly unstoppable.
$300,000 is all it took to launch one of the most lucrative and frightening slasher franchises of all time. Well, $320,000 to be exact. Actor Donald Pleasence, who plays the psychiatrist intent on stopping Michael’s reign of terror, was paid the additional $20,000 for his five days of work on the project, but the veteran actor gave the low-budget affair a real sense of gravitas.
You’ll also enjoy Halloween (2018).
“We all go a little mad sometimes,” says Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who represents a number of infamous fictional killers who could arguably make this list. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), and Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) all garner honorable mentions, but Alfred Hitchcock’s serial killer is the straw who stirs the drink.
It’s hard to go into story details without spoilers, but Norman is involved in one of the biggest twist endings of all time. On set, Hitchcock was quite fond of Perkins, and he referred to the actor as “Master Bates.” The filmmaker gave Perkins some room for improvisation, and that’s how Norman’s love of candy corn came about. Speaking of food, every time fans see blood on screen in Psycho (1960), they’re looking at Bosco chocolate syrup.
You’ll also enjoy Rear Window (1954).
Dr. Frankenstein’s (Colin Clive) creation is a creature of immense strength, but the abnormal brain rotting away in his head makes him incapable of rational thought in Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein (1931). The Monster is the precursor to slasher villains like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhess who lumber along on their killing sprees, though this blueprint is far more sympathetic.
As ghastly as Frankestein’s accidental drowning of a young girl (Marilyn Harris) is, the creature is much more a victim than villain, at least in the original movie. In the 1994 remake starring Robert DeNiro, however, the creature is more like the character in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel: intelligent, deadly and dastardly. Bela Lugosi was originally slated to star as the Monster in the 1931 version, but when he passed, Boris Karloff was chosen by director James Whale after a chance meeting in the Universal commissary.
You’ll also enjoy The Curse of Frankenstein (1957).
With no way of stopping the serial murderer known as Buffalo Bill, special agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is forced to join forces with the brilliant but dangerous Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in order to catch the savage killer. Fans of the television series Monk may not realize it, but their beloved Captain Stottlemeyer is none other than the Buffalo Bill actor himself, Ted Levine.
However, it’s the other madman, Hannibal Lecter, who ranks as one of the best horror villains of all time. For his performance as the fava-bean eating and Chianti-drinking Lecter, Hopkins became only the second performer in history to win a Best Actor Oscar in the horror genre. Fredric March accomplished the feat 60 years earlier for his performance in the titular role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931.
You’ll also enjoy Red Dragon (2002).
Dracula is the most influential horror villain of all time. The Count stalks like a slasher, murders in droves like a serial killer, and is the inspiration for every single vampire movie made after 1931. Dracula’s vast powers, and his immortality, make him the most formidable of any killer on this list, and while Bela Lugosi is most often associated with the character, it was Sir Christopher Lee who made the Count the vile, sadistic creature of the night.
Lee gave the character a grandiose feel thanks to his imposing height, and there was a sexuality the villain exuded which made him irresistible to women. Unlike his colleague and friend, Peter Cushing, Lee loathed reprising the role because Hammer wasn’t faithful to Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. “I wanted to play Stoker’s character,” Lee explained. “It wasn’t remotely like the book.”
You’ll also enjoy Horror of Dracula (1958).