The horror antagonists in scary movies – the source of the danger and fear – are some of the most memorable and enduring characters on the screen. Not only do individual figures achieve fame and fandom such as Jason, Freddy, Eli and Sadako, but horror archetypes have developed the who, what and why of our fear in horror movies…
The Slasher Serial Killer
The classic horror fiction villain begins with the anxieties closest to home. Often finding inspiration in true crime, these fictional murderers are obsessive, determined and very frightening because they are realistic and believable, and we could conceivably cross their paths in the real world: think Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wolf Creek.
The Supernatural Serial Killer
Strangely enough, this bad guy is scary for just the opposite reason: immortal, unstoppable, and inhuman in more ways than one. From Michael Myers to Freddy Kruger, these bad guys defy real-world rules to achieve the impossible, like suddenly getting in front of victims who are running away, displaying superhuman strength, and surviving for many, many sequels…
Monsters are always frightening for one of three reasons: magnitude, multitude or mutation. That is to say, they’re too big, too many or too messed up to deal with. From gruesome giants like Jaws or Anaconda to the hordes in Arachnophobia or Piranha to Godzilla’s grandchildren like The Host and Cloverfield, the most disturbing thing is when the monsters stop being dumb beasts, become anthropomorphized, and start thinking, planning – and hunting – like humans.
The fear here comes from the unknown and the unseen. The forces at work in The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity are emphatically unknowable and inscrutable, and you can’t fight what you can’t see, predict, or understand. The vulnerability and helplessness of the potential victims translate to its audience because the danger is always unexpected and often left unresolved.
Forget Twilight: the real attraction and anxiety about vampires are based on notions of superiority and the survival of the fittest. Vampires bump us from the top of the food chain and depending on the particular mythology, like evil superheroes they can outdo us in almost anything. Dracula was the original aristocrat, and his threat is enforcing oligarchy: humanity being both ruled and farmed by an undead elite…
On the other hand, zombies are creepy because they’re a kind of communism gone mad: everyone is equal and edible, or ruthless and faceless (sometimes literally). The horror of the original gem Night of the Living Dead with its shambolic brain-munchers who cared nothing for class, gender or race in their dinner plans has since been upped in movies like 28 Days Later and Quarantine, where zombies have got both faster, hungrier and far more desperate.
While other villains are fears of the dangers without, werewolves represent fears of the monster within. From Ginger Snaps to Dog Soldiers, worries about letting out our own ‘animal’ side, and what evil we have the potential to commit, manifests as ordinary people making physical transformations into hairy hideous beasts who can’t wait to sink their claws and teeth into their fellow man.
Supernatural is beyond human, but the alien is the antithesis, and therefore frightening as the ultimate ‘other’ and threat to our safe, secure ideas of ‘normality’. From the eponymous monster in Alien to the shapeshifter in It or the clones in Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, these nightmare characters literally come out of dark spaces, and their threat is often one of genocide or colonization.
The hellish face of the supernatural killer: this villain taps into all the fears of inhuman powers but is coupled with the weight of religious and moral power structures. Evil is therefore literally given shape in scary movies like Hellraiser and The Omen, and the fear they bring of eternal punishment and damnation feeds the victims’ horror at their possible fates…
The Possessed Child
A horror archetype that draws on numerous other villain influences here, from the ghosts haunting The Innocents to the demonic forces behind The Exorcist, the alien children in Village of the Damned, and the pragmatic hunters in Ils. This fear centers on the corruption of innocence, and attack on society’s most vulnerable and necessary part: the next generation. It undermines adult power and reasoning and upsets all our ideas about little children as subdued, sweet or sheltered. Of course, a scary villain is not the only factor that ramps up the fear in horror films: the psychology behind the places that scare us, and the judicious use of frightening cinematic devices are also important tools for the makers of scary movies, but it is the ambiguity and threat of the evil figure itself that continues to trouble our daydreams and haunt our nightmares long after the film has finished rolling.