Everyone loves a great villain. Luckily, Hollywood seems to conjure up a new iconic killer/monster every decade and provides them with at least a dozen movies to strut their stuff. Sure, every good Friday the 13th chapter is followed by at least two bad ones, but you can’t deny the entertainment value provided by Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Freddy Krueger.
Of course, the most significant question in our universe is thus: which of the great horror icons is the best? Is it Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, or Leatherface? Are you more frightened of Freddy’s claws or Michael’s machete? Let the wicked debate begin!
Honorable Mention: Norman Bates
For you kids in the back, Norman Bates may seem like a bizarre addition to a list littered with modern horror icons but do a little research, and you’ll discover just how novel Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was in 1960. Nobody — outside of Europe, anyway — made films like this, a twisted psychological drama packed with shocking twists, overt sexuality, and gory kills. Even by today’s standards, Psycho captivates with its meticulous direction, stunning production design, strong performances, and (of course) Bernard Herman’s thrilling score. Don’t let the black and white color palette or the film’s 60+ age deter you; Psycho is terrifying and responsible for giving us one of the all-time great movie villains. The kindly, meek, friendly Norman Bates’ dual personality results in the single-greatest murder sequence ever put to film.
The Saw franchise may have sputtered creatively over a decade ago, but there’s a reason they keep making these darned movies: Jigsaw. As portrayed by Tobin Bell, the iconic killer is as recognizable as they come, down to his ghoulish appearance and deep-throated voice. He also enjoys an alternate disguise in the form of a creepy, tricycle-loving doll. Another positive in Jigsaw’s favor? He’s not that bad of a guy. I mean, he’s completely psychotic, but at least he kills with a righteous purpose: to punish evildoers for their crimes while giving them a slim chance at redemption. Also, he’s likely the most intelligent guy on this list, capable of crafting the gnarliest traps designed to torture and (often) kill his victims.
Leather is the ultimate example of an icon enduring despite existing in a lousy franchise. Adorned in a mask made of his victims’ faces, and swinging a chainsaw the way Jimi Hendrix handled a guitar, this beautiful lug left a lasting impression in Tobe Hooper’s eerie 1975 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, he saw his light dim after an assortment of useless sequels and clunky video games. Even so, passing through Lowe’s the other day, I saw a giant animatronic Leatherface that made my skin crawl. He may be little more to modern audiences than a creepy costume worn by your chainsaw-toting neighbor on Halloween. But Leatherface continues to shock and awe while waiting for a vehicle worthy of his greatness.
8) Jason Voorhees
Jason Voorhees is one busy momma’s boy. The hockey mask-wearing murderer chased teens around Camp Crystal Lake for a decade, wound up in Manhattan, went to Hell, went to space, and then returned to battle Freddy Krueger. The character certainly has the most gimmicky franchise, which is probably why he often runs away with the top prize in terms of classic horror icons. He’s too one-note to rank higher than the others below. He’s a pissed-off zombie massacring horny teenagers. And that’s it. He looks fantastic and is as forbidding as any character on this list, but I’ve never found him particularly scary. That’s mostly a result of the shoddy franchise he’s stuck in. Or maybe his mom took his mojo. One day, Jason will land a juicier part in a better movie. For now, he’s one of those characters who gets more credit than he deserves. He’s still iconic, but our idea of Jason Voorhees surpasses anything the character has accomplished.
Two iterations of Pennywise the Dancing Clown exist, and both are terrifying in their unique way. Tim Curry wins the prize for the most nightmare-inducing Pennywise, thanks to his performance in the cheesy 1990 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It. The actor brings a level of commitment not shared by the rest of the cast; he towers so high above his co-stars that it’s a shame his efforts are mostly for naught. No, really, the TV miniseries is awful, even by 90s standards.
Fast forward nearly three decades later, and Andy Muschietti tapped Bill Skarsgård to portray the killer clown with electrifying results in 2017’s It. This version isn’t nearly as scary as it probably should be, but Skarsgård’s performance left a mark and remains a famous icon in mainstream media. My seven-year-old knows who he is, for cripe’s sake!
Technically, Ghostface isn’t a person but a mask concealing an assortment of crazed, pop-culture-obsessed murderers. Some, like Billy and Stu, the teens responsible for the gruesome killings in 1996’s Scream, are better than others. Still, it’s hard not to shiver whenever that terrifying, lifeless mask appears out of the darkness, its owner brandishing a knife dripping with blood. None of the later entries are as exciting or fresh as the original trilogy. Still, every trailer that begins with a teenage girl picking up the phone and engaging in a bit of Hollywood trivia always induces excitement—even if the final product comes up short.
5) Bruce the Shark
As ruthless as any slasher villain but with a brain the size of a small cabbage, Bruce the Shark is all the scarier for his lack of compassion. There’s no reasoning with a hungry Great White Shark, as the residents of Amity Island discover in Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws. As Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) explains, “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks.” It doesn’t help that Bruce measures a whopping 25 feet, weighs three tons, and swims to his own chilling theme music (written by the maestro John Williams). When this colossal fish wants to attack, all you can do is hope to hell you’re near dry land… or a perfectly positioned air tank.
5) Hannibal Lecter
In 1991, Jonathan Demme stunned the world with his Oscar-winning adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs, introducing audiences to the delectable Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins in a legendary performance). Well, re-introducing audiences… the character first appeared on screen in Michael Mann’s equally absorbing 1986 thriller Manhunter, albeit played by Brian Cox. At any rate, Hopkins’ iteration is the one most remembered, aside from Mads Mikkelsen’s cunning portrayal on the TV series Hannibal. Hannibal Lecter stands as a classic villain complex enough to explore and re-explore repeatedly, often with a unique new perspective. He’s appeared in five feature films and a TV show and has carved out a nice hole within the public zeitgeist. We can debate who did it better, but there’s no denying the appeal of this iconic villain. Buffalo who?
4) Freddy Krueger
I’ll be honest: the original Nightmare on Elm Street freaks me out. Something about the aesthetic — the dim lighting, the grotesque gore, the synthesizer-fueled soundtrack — gets under my skin. Director Wes Craven knew how to produce a creepy atmosphere, which goes a long way in selling the Freddy Krueger mystique. He’s a creature who lives inside dark basements adorned with neon lights and heavy fog. As played by Robert Englund, Freddy is more than just a creepy face. His backstory is unique, and his supernatural abilities are fascinating. He’s like a ghost, a phantom who can travel between worlds, kept alive by our darkest nightmares. And while later films turned the character into a wisecracking goofball, his first few appearances still conjure dread. No one matches Freddy’s larger-than-life personality, and his look remains one-of-a-kind. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you… If you hear those words, you better run like the devil. That is, if Freddy hasn’t gotten to him first!
2 & 3) The Xenomorph and Predator
You have to hand it to 20th Century Fox. The studio created two of the most recognizable faces in sci-fi horror to date—the Xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien and the weapon-toting extraterrestrial in John McTiernan’s Predator—and milked them for all they’re worth. Both Alien and Predator franchises have subsequently burned to the ground following a solid start, but somehow, they always seem to come around again, boasting a slick new design and a fresh cast of victims. I can’t get enough.
No matter how many disappointments I endure—including the much-maligned Alien vs. Predator—I always get giddy at the prospect of a new Alien/Predator adventure, which shows the effectiveness of the creatures’ overarching lore. The Xenomorph is an intricately designed monster blessed with intelligence, survival instincts, and a ferocious set of teeth—a result of having two of the greatest directors working behind the scenes.
The Predator looks amazing, draped in combat gear and sporting otherworldly weapons. There’s nothing this beast can’t handle; I don’t care how many times he loses.
1) Michael Myers
Finally, you can’t spell Halloween without Michael Myers. October isn’t complete until I’ve watched this demented masked killer terrorize poor Jamie Lee Curtis. What makes Myers so captivating is his complex lore, which multiple directors have written and re-written, turning the character into a sort of Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together from far too many ideas. Myers works best without all the BS. He’s a stone-cold boogeyman draped in mystery and tragedy with not one but two arch-nemeses in Laurie Strode and Doctor Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), a killer theme (courtesy of John Carpenter) that never gets old, and a collection of films that vary wildly in their approach to his person. Is he a mystical being conjured by a cult or a boy in need of a hug? That intricacy is part of Myers’ appeal, as is his ability to drive towns mad and magically appear wherever the plot needs him.
Michael Myers has stood the test of time and has improved with each iteration. I dug the hammy sequels that dominated the late ’80s and early ’90s, enjoyed the clash between Michael and Laurie in the entertaining Halloween H20, got a kick out of Rob Zombie’s psychotic takes, and mostly had fun with David Gordon Green’s trilogy. Each entry has something new to say about the nature of evil—is it something we’re born with or something that’s learned throughout our lives? That’s the magic of Michael Myers—there’s a little more substance lurking behind that lifeless mask. He’s downright terrifying.