Horror films present movie-goers with some of the most exhilarating, edge-of-your-seat experiences in filmdom. That’s why people watch them: to feel the rush of terrifying themselves, and to become absorbed in the fantastical, terrifying world that is created.
When a horror movie gets it right, it's easy to forget that what you're watching is 'just a movie'. A believable premise, relatable characters, and gripping fear can make nightmarish creations uncannily believable.
Some monsters, creatures, and characters have remained in our collective consciousness and have become iconic for horror film buffs everywhere. These characters are the stuff that nightmares are made of. Viewers' sleep is often disturbed for weeks after first witnessing these horrific tales. Such is the power of a good psychological thriller, or slasher film, or any other subgenre that fits the 'horror’ mould.
The following are the most iconic, terrifying creatures and characters in film history that have haunted our collective consciousness since their inception.
15 Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th franchise
The iconic vulnerable boy turned psychopathic-slasher is Jason Voorhees. Since Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), the hockey-mask-wearing, machete-wielding murderer has been the bane of poor-decision-making teenagers everywhere. He has appeared in 10 movies, and has been played by 10 different actors.
One of the mute stalker’s scariest moments actually appears in Friday the 13th part one, when Jason is young, un-masked and malformed. At the end of the film, Jason decapitates the film’s murderer and his mother, Mrs. Voorhees. And while the final girl, Alice (Adrienne King) relaxes on a drifting canoe, the rotted corpse of Jason rises out of the water and pulls her into Crystal Lake.
14 Pinhead in the Hellraiser franchise
All of the demonic Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise are terrifying, but none more than their leader, Pinhead. It takes a true sicko to be dubbed the leader of such an evil group, but Pinhead pulls off the feat masterfully. Dressed in black leather, with the infamous nails sticking out of his face, Pinhead’s signature killshot is to summon hooks and chains that mutilates and rips his victims apart.
As his backstory goes, Pinhead was once a British captain, Elliot Spenser, who rejected God and roamed the land practicing sadistic hedonism, ultimately becoming Hellraiser’s main antagonist. Besides his gruesome kills, another goosebump-instigating moment happens when Pinhead rises up behind a scared Kirsty Cotton (played by Ashley Laurence), and in his marbled voice tells her, “We have such sights to show you.”
13 Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise
Freddy Krueger is another iconic, nightmare-inducing serial killer that belongs on any 'most terrifying’ film list. Played by Robert Englund in 11 Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and then by Jackie Earle Haley in the 2010 franchise reboot, Freddy’s premise is altogether creepy and disarming. The burnt, razor-gloved killer attacks victims in their dreams, which causes their deaths in the real world as well.
Created by Wes Craven, Freddy is a vengeful child-killer who once was a child molester. When people are at their most vulnerable - namely while sleeping - Krueger is a near-indestructible force.
However, he can’t avoid the normal, human vulnerabilities that come when he is pulled into the real world. Since his debut in 1984, the character has become known for his morbid wit, as well as the creative, gory ways that he kills his victims.
12 Brundlefly in The Fly (1986)
The Fly, a remake of the 1958 film of the same name, stars Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Seth Brundle. The film deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Makeup in 1987.
When scientist Seth Brundle wants to prove modern science’s perceived limitations wrong, he designs a teleportation chamber for himself. And when a housefly buzzes into the chamber, it creates a gradual Kafka-like metamorphosis of Brundle into that of a hideous, man-sized fly creature.
Through great storytelling, director David Cronenberg manages the near-impossible feat of making the Brundlefly both terrifying and sympathetic. At one frightening part in the film, character Stathis Borans (John Getz) tries to rescue Veroniva Quaife (Geena Davis) from the Brundlefly, when the mutant insect-man melts Stathis’ left hand and right foot with its acidic vomit.
11 The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro has always been known for his wonderfully grotesque creations, having grown up with H.P. Lovecraft’s literature and Universal Monsters. But it was his 2006 Spanish-Mexican masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, that gave him worldwide fame.
The film tells the tale of an oppressed girl, Ofelia, who creates fantastic dreamworlds in her head to escape her militant stepfather’s tyranny. It is full of twisted creatures, such as the Faun, who guides Ofelia to the fantasy world, and the Pale Man.
The Pale Man is a horrifying creature with an appetite for children. During one tense scene, the eye-less Pale Man grabs two eyeballs from a plate, stuffs them into his palms, and then opens his palms in front of his eye area, allowing him to see the little girl who has disturbed his rest. A truly original and ghastly creation, the Pale Man is just one of many disturbing creatures to make an appearance in Pan’s Labyrinth.
10 The Tooth Fairy in Darkness Falls (2003)
What better way to scare the bejesus out of people than to take a classic children’s tale - the Tooth Fairy - and make her into a terrifying, child-killing ghost? That is the premise of Jonathan Liebesman’s 2003 film, Darkness Falls, where a well-respected widow, dubbed the Tooth Fairy because she would give children gifts for their missing teeth, becomes a tortured burn-victim, and then a vengeful ghost.
The Tooth Fairy wears a porcelain mask to shield her from her one weakness: the light. She preys on sleeping children (and adults who try to calm their children’s irrational fear of the dark), breaths heavily while waiting for them to awake, and then promptly murders them. She creeps along walls, always staying clear of the light, and together with her scary premise and appearance, has given a new generation of people a reason to sleep with the lights on.
9 The Vampires in 30 Days of Night (2007)
30 Days of Night was originally a three-issue horror comic book series written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith. The series takes place in Barrow, Alaska, so far north in the winter that the sun doesn’t rise for 30 days. Given that excellent premise, you can already tell some horrible shenanigans are going to take place.
Sure enough, those shenanigans take place in the form of vicious, bloodthirsty vampires who - being vulnerable to the sunlight - take advantage of the prolonged darkness to openly kill and feed on townspeople.
The 2007 film adaptation, directed by David Slade, does a great job of portraying the comic’s terrifying bloodsuckers. One of the vampires is a little girl with the voice of a demon and blood pouring from her mouth, and the film stars many frightening human-to-vampire transformations, creating an altogether fresh take on the vampire mythos.
8 The Creeper in Jeepers Creepers (2001)
In a genre known for its lack of originality, 2001’s Jeepers Creepers was a creative amalgamation of monster movie and slasher film tropes.
The film’s titular antagonist, The Creeper, is a mixture of several ideas - he’s a winged, flesh-eating creature who only comes out every 23rd spring for 23 days, lives in a house tucked away on the side of a highway, and adds a piece of a victim to his collection of human organs and limbs when he leaves.
At first you think The Creeper is some kind of Buffalo Bill-like leather-face who just likes killing teenagers. Then he is ran over by main character Justin Long, and you think he’s dead. Then demon wings sprout out from his back and you realize that these teenagers are in a whole lot more trouble than they bargained for.
7 Alien in The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter has always given us new ideas to be scared about, and 1982’s The Thing is no different. In the film, the primary antagonist is a parasitic extraterrestrial life-form that assimilates other organisms and imitates them. Besides its gruesome transformations and appearance, the subtle scary part is that you never know who he’s going to be.
In the film, the Thing infiltrates an Antarctic research center and takes the appearance of the researchers it absorbs, creating paranoia within the group. The Thing turns its hosts into everything from incredibly grotesque monstrosities, to tentacled spider-like creatures.
In one such moment, a character (Copper) tries to resuscitate a friend (Norris) with a defibrillator, causing Norris’ chest to cave in, and giving way to massive fangs that bite Copper’s arms off at the elbows. Seconds later, an oozing, spider-like creature with Norris’ head hops out of the open chest.
6 Cave Dwellers in The Descent (2005)
With a small budget of £3.5 million, British film The Descent caused a huge splash in the horror world, garnering $57 million at the box office. The film, directed by Neil Marshall, follows six women who become trapped in an unmapped cave system, and are hunted by flesh-eating humanoids.
What makes these Dwellers so frightening is that they live in a pitch-black cavern, they are fast as hell, and they are first introduced through the lens of a found-footage camera. The first two acts of the film are based on the paranoia and panic growing through the trapped women’s group, until the 45-minute mark first introduces the flesh-eating ghouls. The blind Dwellers stalk the ladies through sound, and eat their flesh and innards as a means of survival.
5 Mary Shaw in Dead Silence (2007)
Dead Silence, directed by James Wan and written by Leigh Whannel, the creators of Saw, is about a mysterious, killer ventriloquist doll named Billy. And while Billy is scary enough, it’s the doll’s owner, Mary Shaw, who is truly terrifying. In the film, Shaw was a famous ventriloquist who was killed by villagers when a child went missing, and buried with her 101 puppets.
Mary Shaw returns as an old ghost-lady demon who can only kill her victims when they're screaming (hence the name of the movie). So as long as you don’t scream, you’re good. But how often does that happen? Not often.
Dead Silence is filled with the prefect ingredients for a horror film: killer dolls, violent murders, a clown dummy, rocking chairs that always seem to be rocking, and deadly old-lady ghosts.
4 Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973)
The Exorcist franchise, and especially the iconic original, plays on a parent’s fear that their child will become vulgar and aggressive and uncontrollable. The fear that an innocent child could suddenly become a monster is a real, modern-age fear. Therefore you have to call a shrink, a doctor, or - in this case - a priest to oust those demonic urges.
Enter Pazuzu, the demon who possesses young Regan MacNeil. The infamous “pea-soup-vomiting” scene goes down in history as one of the most grotesque scenes in horror films, and The Exorcist has been named as the scariest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly and Movies.com.
The film earned 10 Academy Award nominations, won two, and became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, grossing over $441 million worldwide, over a budget of just $12 million.
3 Xenomorph in the Alien franchise
Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 masterpiece, Alien, is chock-full of some of the greatest shock moments in movie history. The acid-mouthed nightmare called the Xenomorph - complete with a little fang-filled head inside its huge mouth - comes from the mind of Swiss artist H.R. Giger, and has yet to be matched in its frightening beauty.
One of the trademark sequences, and scariest shock-moment happens when executive officer Kane, having recently been face-raped by a small alien, starts convulsing at the spaceship’s dinner table, and then his chest bursts open and a tiny alien slithers across the floor. Anyone seeing Alien for the first time had to have been wide-eyed and terrified at that classic moment.
2 Pennywise from Stephen King’s It (1990)
Stephen King’s novel, It, has caused generations of kids and moviegoers to fear clowns. While he may not be the one who originated the unreasonable fear of clowns in people, he is the one who perfected it. And there are no clowns scarier than the killer clown Pennywise, from the 1990 film adaptation of King’s novel of the same name.
The antagonist is actually an inter-dimensional, predatory life-form which has the ability to transform itself into its prey’s worst fears, which usually happens to be “Pennywise the Dancing Clown.” The clown is played by Tim Curry, famous for Rocky Horror Picture Show. He kicks things up a notch when his fangs come out.
Yes, he has fangs, and he eats kids - he even folds one kid in half.
1 Sadako in The Ring (1998)
The 2002 American remake of The Ring by Gore Verbinski is scary, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original Japanese film of the same name. The movie follows a TV-reporter and single mother who is caught up in a series of deaths surrounded by a cursed video tape that kills anyone who watches it, after seven days.
Sadako is a vengeful, telekinetic spirit who was a little girl, murdered by her father. The iconic scene is of Sadako, shown on a TV screen, crawling out of a well and through the TV set. This terrifying scene caused the watcher to die of cardiac arrest (in the movie), and it will likely have a similar effect on anyone watching the film.
The Ring launched the Asian horror phenomenon, and Sadako is the most famous and most frightening yurei (ghost) of all time, by far.