For generations, classic storytelling has used the convention of the gruesome villain to incite the excitement and anticipation that comes with following the protagonist into the grips of danger. While not exclusive to the horror genre, it plays to the cathartic and escapist nature of the scary or thrilling narrative. The villain can work on various levels: juxtaposing the hero to create a clear distinction of good and evil, mirroring the hero to blur the lines between right and wrong, cautioning against giving into the darker aspects of human nature, and reflecting that which we might fear about human nature and ourselves.
Film theorist Robin Wood explains that the monsters we create for our stories are really just manifestations of that which we have repressed most in our civilized society – people who look different, or act different, or who can otherwise be considered outside of the norm. It’s fair to say then that the monster represents our own fears of being out-casted. However, it is also fair to say that in this golden age of violent narratives, the monster is not just to be feared, it is to be admired. There is something utterly captivating about a charismatic villain. They can make our skin crawl, shock us, scare us; and yet, we can’t seem to look away. Here are 15 gruesome villains that we just can’t get enough of.
15 Ghostface (Scream franchise)
In 1996, Wes Craven gave us a whole new kind of slasher killer. Ghostface was not like other teen-scream killers; he wasn’t on the outside avenging a loved one or being controlled by an evil family. He was entirely self-motivated and aware of his actions. Or, to be more accurate, they were completely aware. The killers who initially donned the Ghostface costume in Scream were seeking attention and notoriety. They understood the rules of the slasher film, as did their victims, and they were intent on breaking them. By giving the characters’ access to information about genre conventions, Scream was able to subvert them in a way that was nearly parodic. But the killers had information too. They were on the inside, teens themselves, who understood that being a good villain could be just as appealing as being a good protagonist. Four films and one ongoing TV series later, and the public is still gobbling up the Ghostface persona.
14 Annie Wilkes (Misery)
Annie Wilkes is one of the only female villains to have shook viewers to their cores. Though admittedly more terrifying in the book than in the film adaptation, Annie is scary because she is so unexpected. Annie uses the fact that she is a woman to her advantage, playing the role of caretaker and nurturer to Paul Sheldon, an author to whom she claims to be his number one fan. Playing on the frightful concepts of female hysteria and female fandom, the story twists Annie’s apparent altruism when she “saves” Paul from a car wreck, into the something that is the stuff of which nightmares are made. Annie holds Paul captive, first rather innocently (scary in its own right), and then malevolently as she forces him to fix the ending to his latest book. Paul is badly injured due to the car accident, and Annie keeps him tied down to a bed, and addicted to pain meds. She controls him entirely, threatening and inflicting violence when she deems necessary.
13 Norman Bates (Psycho)
We can’t talk villains without talking Norman Bates. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho is a benchmark for the horror genre, filmmaking, and storytelling – due in large part to the portrayal of Norman; a small, quiet, creep, capable of horrific things. Of course, the term Psycho here is especially apt because Norman isn’t just a killer, he suffers from a psychosis that drives him to kill. In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Marion and assume she will be our main character. However, she is quickly murdered in an iconic shower scene, and our attention shifts to Norman, the villain. The film is very much about him, compelling the audience to keep our eyes on a character from whom we would normally be tempted to look away. But Norman seemed so utterly normal, even in the moments between the crazy. An average looking man was chosen to portray him, and at first his awkwardness gives no indication that he is a threat; only that he is odd. This remains the magic of Psycho – it reminds us that anyone can be crazy, and that crazy can be pretty enticing. So much so that a TV series featuring a young Norman Bates has now hit the air.
12 The Trinity Killer (Dexter)
The Trinity Killer is a rare villain-treat in that he got to have multiple facets to his character, and got to be fully explored. He was a family man, a churchgoer, a sinner, a repenter, a killer. These traits were always at odds with one another, making it all the more creepy and fascinating. It was especially disturbing to watch that smile, with a glint evil rushing to the surface, just below. That juxtaposition always left audiences uneasy, but more to the point, it always kept us wanting more. Rolling Stone magazine called this killer the most prolific and disturbing, adding that he was “evil in a way not even our homicidal antihero can stomach.” But perhaps even more unnerving is that The Trinity Killer is simply not that different from Dexter. He does not want to be what he is, he just is. And therein lies the true danger.
11 11.Michael Myers (Halloween)
Perhaps the most enamouring thing about Michael Myers is that it’s never clear what drives him. Although, a close second would be that he never dies – despite not having any explicit superhuman abilities. In what is likely the most frustratingly unprofessional line ever given to a psychologist character, Dr. Sam Loomis (a name that references the boyfriend in Psycho), states of a six-year-old Michael “I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply... evil.” Michael’s motives can be debated, but ultimately what we have is a young boy who has killer instincts, and no understanding of how to control them. He is incarcerated, locked up in an institution where even his doctor can’t (or won’t) help him. As in Psycho, we have a case of just crazy. Michael’s inability to connect to his humanity spares him a conscience and upon his escape he begins to massacre people. Audiences are enthralled with this completely uninhibited killer, who has starred in 7 deadly films.
10 Gus Fring (Breaking Bad)
The adversarial conflict between Walt and Gus has been described as the most terrifying and satisfying one in all of TV history. As much as Walt was an anti-hero, he did not compare to the viciousness of Gus Fring. Literally a cut-throat businessman, it was quite a mistake for Walt to underestimate Gus in any capacity. Throughout his time on Breaking Bad, he made up some of the most cringe-worthy scenes, and added a layer of tension that was palpable, even from the viewer's own couch. Bone-chilling, spine-tingling, and all of the other cliche hyperboles aptly apply. Meanwhile, audiences ate it up, and asked for seconds; t which the network eagerly provided. For those who haven't had their fill, Gus Fring has managed to claw his way back to the small screen - or, at least it seems. A new trailer for spinoff Better Call Saul features the villain, hinting at more to come.
9 The Voorhees’ (Friday the 13th)
At the height of the teen-scream cycle that began in the late 1970s, Friday the 13th gave us yet another unstoppable killer – Jason Voorhees. It’s worth noting, though, that the first film was very original because the killer was not the silent and deadly outsider we associate with the franchise now. It was Mrs. Voorhees. Avenging the senseless death of her son 20 years ago, Mrs. Voorhees takes out a cohort of wild, unsuspecting, teen camp counsellors, one by one. What was so unexpected was not just that it was a woman killer (so rare!), but that she was committing incredibly violent murders. The trail of blood and gore she left behind made the big reveal all the more shocking. But it wasn’t over yet; at the very end we glimpse a half-decayed Jason attack a canoe on the lake. Jason then became the name of the game, spawning another 11 films, with one more set to release in October 2017.
8 Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs / Manhunter / Hannibal)
Horror is absolutely the underdog genre. Despite its popularity, it is routinely written off as low-brow, unintelligent entertainment. So, it's no surprise there aren't a whole lot of Oscar nominations floating around for horror movies. But Anthony Hopkins broke the mould when he portrayed Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, and for that, he won the Best Actor academy award that year. We would be sorely mistaken if we attributed this solely to the brilliant talent of the actor, though. The truth is, this was an expertly crafted villain straight out of the gate. The proof is in Hannibal's multiple successful reincarnations. First in Manhunter, an adaption of Red Dragon, in which Hannibal is portrayed stunningly by Brian Cox. In yet a third rendition, the TV series Hannibal handed the role over to Mads Mikkelsen who gave us one more sinister and captivating portrayal of the character. All three Hannibals are different, but what rings true of all of them is their ability to disturb us while simultaneously drawing us in.
7 Jack Torrance (The Shining)
Heeeeeere’s Johnny! The oft-quoted line is from the Stanely Kubrick favourite, The Shining. Seclusion, alcohol, and a touch of the supernatural send this villain into a frenzy of destruction that never fails to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. As we watch Jack rip through the halls of the massive hotel, hunting down his wife and son with crazy eyes and murderous determination, we can’t help but be in awe of how incredibly believable Jack Nicholson makes Jack Torrance. There is something genuinely frightening in his demeanor; and we love it. Jack’s face through the door has become an icon of the horror genre and is an image that manages to incite fear AND excitement. The film is nothing short of a rollercoaster ride, and it’s one that we ride again and again and again.
6 Kilgrave (Jessica Jones)
Even with a captivating anti-hero protagonist like Jessica Jones, villain Kilgrave simply stole the screen in every appearance. Granted, he wasn’t in very many episodes, but he had a big impact on audiences. He was a complicated villain (almost as complicated as Jessica is a hero), especially because he did not necessarily think of himself as a bad guy. He saw his evil powers as an extension of who he was, and therefore did not have misgivings about using them to get what he wanted. For a moment, the show even dangled the idea that this captivating villain could be coerced into becoming a hero (a difficult task that was executed to perfect effect with the character Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). This didn’t end up being the case, but the point is it could have worked, because audiences would have never said no to more of this guy. He has even been deemed one of the best Marvel villains of all time.
5 Penguin (Gotham)
Robin Lord Taylor’s portrayal of Penguin in the series, Gotham, is flawless. He is sensational, always straddling the line between sympathetic and brutal. Penguin’s rise to bad is a journey to which the viewers are actually privy, which is not a common device in superhero narratives. More typically, we follow the hero and know exactly who the bad guy is without having to face the why or how of it all. Like Kilgrave in Jessica Jones, Penguin has layers. For him, rising through the mob ranks and earning respect is the way for him to overcome his inferiority complex. It’s also the way for him to take care of his mother. Following her death, he is driven by both madness and grief, but it keeps coming back to him needing to prove something to all the people that treated him as if he could not amount to anything. It’s an underdog story that is difficult not to invest in, even if he is an untrustworthy killer.
4 Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street)
Freddy Kruger has become an absolute horror icon. He is the face of the genre, in so many ways. From a movie franchise to merchandise to Halloween costumes, Freddy is everywhere. His introduction in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) took the industry by storm, spawning a new type of villain admiration, in which viewers cheered on the killer. This was in large part due to the way he was written. Freddy has a lot of lines in his movies, which is something that was not particularly popular at the time, with Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees representing the silent but deadly archetype of the genre. Moreover, his dialogue was comical. The films demonstrate an influx in the appeal of body-horror – Freddy spills gore and guts on screen, all the while making crude jokes about sex and the body. And audiences enjoyed this excessive combination so much, that they often rooted for Freddy, making him a simultaneous villain and (anti)hero. This year, actor Robert Englund will don the gruesome makeup once more for a documentary about the ground-breaking special effects of the series.
3 Joker (The Dark Knight)
Fans of comic books and comic book movies probably unanimously agree that The Dark Knight’s portrayal of Joker absolutely nailed it. That is not to say the Joker in this film was more authentic than past Jokers, but rather to point out that this film really captured the essence of the Joker. His penchant for chaos is not simply a device for antagonizing Batman, it is something he truly believes in and is willing to fight for, just as Batman is compelled to fight for justice. The major difference is that Batman is not a killer; which Joker can and does use against him, time and time again. This Joker is so captivating not only for his excruciatingly menacing laugh and actions, but also for what he says. The mind of Joker is an infinitely interesting and messy place, that is hauntingly rational at times. It seems downright unfair that Jared Leto (or anyone, for that matter) would be asked to follow these footsteps.
2 Negan (The Walking Dead)
The biggest conundrum of The Walking Dead yet – whether to hate Negan, or to love him. We simply can’t ignore the double beat-down of beloved characters Abraham and Glenn in what is easily one of the most brutal TV episodes of the year. It was heartbreaking, gory, horrific, and traumatizing. It seemed the audience may never recover, and certainly would never warm up to Negan. But have we? Negan is charismatic, funny, and somehow – likeable. In a time of death, despair, and survival, it’s not so easy to judge the lengths at which someone will go to protect what’s theirs (let’s not forget, Rick’s group attacked first). Creator Robert Kirkman has gone so far as to say that our protagonist, Rick, and Negan are not all that different, and that had we been following Negan’s story, instead, we would be rooting for him. With each episode, Negan’s character becomes a little more nuanced. He remains terrifying, because he is unpredictable, but captivating nonetheless.
1 The Lannisters (Game of Thrones)
Ambitious in the worst way, the Lannisters are a family of blood-thirsty, power-hungry beasts (with the exception of Tyrion, who is the resident black sheep). It’s no wonder their house motto is “Hear me roar,” and not “with great power comes great responsibility.” The Lannisters are all about looking out for themselves, their name, and their throne. But if season 6 taught us anything, it’s that even the mighty will fall. Shrinking in numbers and influence, the Lannisters seem to be finally getting what’s been coming to them. But there is always the chance that they still have a few more tricks up their sleeves. After her walk of shame, Cersei managed to make her way back to the castle and although she has clearly been emotionally dragged through the mud, she’s not exactly broken. It’s probably safe to say that we haven’t seen the last of this villainous family. We don’t know what’s in store for them next – but we are eager to find out.