The Horror genre has birthed many iconic (and terrifying) monsters and villains – and we’re going to tell you our favourites!
Horror movies. Some are good. Most are bad. Some people love them, some people hate them, lots of people are indifferent to them. Whether you love them or hate them though, there’s no question that some of the most iconic characters in cinema history have been born into the world with the pure intention of terrifying you. Is there a more noble cause?
Maybe you love your slashers and find Freddy Krueger to be a genuine nightmare, or perhaps you’d stick your head out for a more gorey killer like Jigsaw. Heck, it might even be that the classics do it for you and the likes of Vampires, Mummies and Frankenstein’s Monster have never been topped for you. One thing is certain, everyone’s got a favourite – and we’re gonna tell you ours right here! Let us know if you agree with ours, and who you’d pick for yourself.
The Thing – The Thing
The Thing is an absolute bloody nightmare. A presumably sentient, hive-minded entity that crash lands in the Antarctic wilderness, it can assimilate and take the form of the unfortunate souls that encounter it. Now that’d be terrifying enough; the idea of body-snatching aliens and the fact you can’t trust anyone. lest they point and yell at you like Donald Sutherland gives me the willies.
But once The Thing’s cover is rumbled, things get even more horrific. The seemingly familiar form of a friend or beloved dog suddenly distorts into a mangled, deformed imitation of what it once was. We’re talking human heads splitting from the neck and sprouting spider legs, a chest opening to reveal teeth sharp enough to gnaw off an arm, and a pile of what I can only describe as canine spaghetti. The fact that this was all achieved with jaw-droppingly impressive animatronics and practical effects makes everything all the more grotesque.
Very few movie monsters can conjure up paranoia and visceral disgust in equal measure, and that’s why The Thing stands out from the rest.
Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs
From a visually haunting creature to one that’s psychologically disturbing, we have Hannibal the Cannibal. I’m basing this entry on Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in The Silence of the Lambs, as I’ve yet to see any of the other films or, perhaps more egregiously, the 2013 TV series, but also because it’s arguably the most iconic chapter in the character’s mythos.
A chillingly intelligent, calculating genius, it’s Dr. Lecter’s mind that proves to be more threatening than his willingness to bite a human nose off. Even the smartest federal agents struggle to match his analysis and riddles, and ultimately resort to employing him to track down even other ne’er-do-wells.
If you told me I had to annoy the likes of Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and Pinhead, I’d still rather wind them up before Hannibal. They might try to kill you, he’d convince you to kill yourself
Red/Adelaide – Us
There’s been all sorts of discussion on the meaning of Us, and by extension what the real horror is. Is it about class, the wealthy’s fear that the neglected poor will rise up and take everything they own? Is it about race, middle class black Americans’ fear that they’ll be resented by others who didn’t get as much of a chance at social mobility? Is it about government secrecy, Americans’ fear that the people they put in charge of protecting their interests are running secret experiments on them?
No. These are all bullshit readings and should be disregarded. The real fear at the core of Us is people running with scissors. It is absolutely rampant in the film, and thousands die as a result. Anyone willing to recklessly turn over decades of wise parental warnings like that is the greatest villain ever seen. The kind of monster who would tell you, yes, you should jump off a cliff just because your friend told you to. Meet Red, the revolutionary leader of an army of clones who’ve come from underground tunnels to kill their copies and form a human chain across the US (do you get it?!)
First, the look, because a horror icon really only lasts if you can dress up as them for Halloween. I, for one, will be going this year as the May Queen from Midsommar, which only involves irresponsible drug use and bucketloads of flowers. Red’s outfit is an instant classic, consisting of a red jumpsuit, a single brown leather glove, and golden scissors. It’s partly inspired by Michael Jackson’s fashion, particularly ‘Thriller’, and possibly taking inspiration from Scissorman of the Clock Tower games. Speaking of, the scissors are a cool as heck weapon, thematically tied to Red’s goals and origins, and used to incredibly disturbing effect.
Next, the performance. In her dual performance as both hero and villain, the ‘above’ and ‘below’ versions of the same character, Lupita Nyong’o dominates with a huge range of emotion. Some would argue that 12 Years A Slave has the top spot in her career, but carrying an entire film is a bigger achievement in my mind. Frankly, Lupita was snubbed for an Oscar nomination, and I can only imagine that’s down to behind the scenes ‘for your consideration’ bullshit.
Finally, the sound. Red only really speaks three times, and when she does so, she speaks in a rasping, guttural voice that’s instantly iconic (apparently inspired by a whispering croak people sometimes use when they’ve suffered a trauma). It’s creepy as heck, and a little sad when you realise why she sounds like that in the first place. Great horror villains are also elevated by an iconic musical theme – think the Psycho stab, or Halloween’s synth. Red knocks that out of the park with the ‘Pas de Deux’ version of ‘I Got 5 On It’, a creepy string cover that’s fully replaced the song in my mind, much to my discomfort, and my love for Michael Abels.
Xenomorph – Alien
Everything about the Xenomorph is awful. Everything. Its reproduction cycle alone is one of the worst things ever conceived: a grabby little hand spider with a vagina mouth jumpscares out of a wet egg onto someone’s face and inserts an embryo down their throat. The embryo grows into a little penis with teeth and eats its way out of the host’s chest while they’re still alive, then grows into a much larger penis with teeth that methodically hunts and kills every living creature it can find. Eventually one of them inserts an embryo that becomes a Queen, who lays new eggs and waits for new hosts.
I’m pretty sure the closest thing to this in nature is the comparatively tame parasitic wasp. Wasps are unredeemable bastards of the lowest calibre, so the fact the Alien felt the need to one-up them is telling about its goals.
To list just some of the things that make it unfathomably scary: it has no visible eyes, yet it can see perfectly well, so you can’t read any intent in its actions. Eyes are the windows to the soul, so it makes sense that a soulless nightmare like the Alien would have no need for them. Its mouth is a horror in itself, consisting of a lipless permanent grin that constantly drools goop, usually from above onto hapless victims. And oh, I almost forgot, it has a mouth inside of its mouth that it shoots out to stab holes in people. I have just one mouth and I will scream.
The worst part about the Xenomorph, though, is its sadism. It seemingly doesn’t need to eat – ironic for something with two mouths – which makes its motivations feel distinct from a normal animal’s. It only appears to kill for pleasure or capture people alive for new hosts. Combine that with oodles of deeply uncomfortable psychosexual imagery (again, it is a walking death-penis), and you have a being that’s monstrous in more than just looks.
Basically, the quality of the many films in the series notwithstanding, the Xenomorph itself is the most terrifying horror monster ever designed.
Speaking as the token POC here at UDS, I’d also like to list one honourable mention – White People from Get Out. And also the real world. A greater horror than penis demons and people running with scissors is the fact that racism still exists.
Howard Stambler – 10 Cloverfield Lane
A movie in which the alien invasion going on outside the safety of your nuclear bunker is less chilling than what’s going on inside, 10 Cloverfield Lane shows that humans are the real monsters we need to be afraid of.
If you’ve not seen the film, I shall do my best to avoid spoilers because I heartily recommend it (perhaps even more so than its spiritual predecessor Cloverfield, which is great in its own right). The basic premise is that a woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving away from her home following an argument with her boyfriend, and despite his persistent begging that she return, she refuses. Her car is soon after struck and flipped off the road, with her waking up chained in a concrete room. She’s been placed there by a man named Howard (John Goodman) who claims that it’s for her own safety as there’s been a massive attack outside, and that they’ll have to remain inside his well-stocked bunker for at least a year or two.
As the movie goes on, doubts and questions begin to arise as to whether this supposed attack actually happened and as to the motives of Howard. Has he genuinely brought Michelle (and a third resident called Emmett) into his bunker out of the kindness of his heart purely to keep them safe, or has he got something else on his mind?
The sheer brilliance of this movie comes upon first viewing it and not knowing yourself what’s truly going on. This could be a story about an alien invasion, it could be about nuclear war and hiding out to avoid the consequences, or it could be a tale about a man with insidious motives. John Goodman’s portrayal of Howard is outstanding, and will keep you guessing throughout. Always sinister, often cold, but genuinely seeming to have a point throughout, there are twists and turns aplenty to keep you on your toes. Don’t let the fact I’ve chosen Howard in an article about Horror villains fool you, this guy has several different shades of grey to him.
The Midnight Entity – Midnight (Doctor Who)
“Taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight – what could possibly go wrong?”
It may seem unusual to pick a Doctor Who monster for an article such as this, but the sheer truth of the matter is this creature would be my worst nightmare and has had a lasting effect on me far more than ANY horror movie monster or villain I’ve ever seen.
Again, without wanting to spoil too much, David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor joins a group of strangers in a windowless shuttle across a planet called Midnight, the surface of which is bathed in lethal radiation from the star it orbits. The group soon start to chat and generally seem to really get along, but it’s not long before this jovial 4 hour journey to see a waterfall made of sapphires turns into a mob mentality horror story. On a planet covered in lethal radiation where nothing has ever been observed living (I mean, how could it survive out there?), something begins knocking on the walls of the shuttle…
I’ll put a *SPOILER WARNING* here because I fully recommend you go into this episode blind.
To jump ahead a bit, a creature manages to get inside and possess one of the group members, Sky Silvestry (Lesley Sharp). Starting out silent with The Doctor asking questions to try and understand what’s going on, the possessed Sky soon starts to mimic the speech of everyone aboard the shuttle, causing a great deal of panic through which The Doctor attempts to be a voice of reason. Each of the individuals aboard the shuttle with The Doctor shows their panic and fear in their own way, some of them really imprinting their own inner turmoil onto the creature. Eventually, she begins to only copy the Doctor, with the group beginning to turn on him and planning to throw him out.
I won’t say anymore on the plot here, but the true horror for me at least is seeing The Doctor, someone who almost always comes out on top, truly out of his depth. As his voice begins to be stolen by this creature, he finds himself without his strongest weapon – his ability to talk himself out of any situation is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of the Tenth Doctor, specifically. With the creature using his voice and having somehow left him in a paralysed state, we see genuine fear on the Doctor’s face in a way we’ve never seen before – it’s both heartbreaking and terrifying as you genuinely wonder if there is really any way out of this.
This episode does within 45 minutes what about 90% of horror movies fail to do in 90-120 minutes. Growing up with Doctor Who, there’s no doubt that large swathes of my personality were formed by this character I love so much, and perhaps seeing so much of myself within the character really adds to the horror for me.
To cap it all off, the most chilling thing about this episode is that we never find out what the Midnight Entity was. We never know what it looked like. We never know what its motives were. All we know is what we saw. This is an episode of a family Sci-Fi show, and it’s arguably one of the most successful horror stories I’ve ever seen, all because of this unknown entity. And if you’re like me, perhaps there’s nothing more frightening than an unknown quantity that can take control of a situation and use your own voice against you. Whether you’re a Doctor Who fan or someone who’s never seen an episode, I really can’t recommend Midnight enough.
Have we missed any notable villains or monsters? Let us know in the comments below! While you’re here, please subscribe to Upside Down Shark on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts!