Forget about monsters, zombies, and vampires. We highlight some of the most terrifying human villains from horror!
Sometimes the scariest thing about horror is when the threat is something human rather than some corrupted, otherworldly beast. We’re human and we all know far too well what it’s like to have a bad idea or see some news report about some seemingly normal fellow who just couldn’t take it anymore. It’s scary to think of how the human mind can snap and spawn such dangerous, yet some of the most memorable villains from out of horror happen to be non-monsters. Sure Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, and Predator, you’re all great, but let’s dig into how warped men can become.
Jack Torrance from The Shining
The Shining should be mandatory viewing not just for any horror fan, but any fan of cinema in general. There’s a lot to love about this movie but one of its greatest strengths is Jack Nicholson’s unhinged, psychotic performance as Jack Torrance. Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack has been aped endlessly because of how effective it is. Near the end he moves with such ruthless, unstoppable efficiency you’d think that he was a Terminator or something. Sure, there are supernatural aspects in play here and aiding Jack on his rampage, but part of what makes this works so well is because he is just a man. He’s a man trying to murder his family and in a lot of ways something as simple as that is more terrifying than any Pumpkinhead or Xenomorph.
John Kramer (Jigsaw) from the Saw Franchise
I love when horror audiences can get modern franchises and villains to look forward to like the people of the ‘70s and ‘80s got spoiled with, with Saw being one of the better examples of a modern hit. The Saw films are without a doubt remembered for their deranged booby traps and they might be responsible for popularizing the “torture porn” sub-genre of horror, but there’s a very human character lying underneath all of that. Pulling back all of the layers of the Saw films leaves you with John Kramer, the man who became so disenfranchised and deluded with life and the people “living” that he would become Jigsaw. It’s the sort of sordid, dramatic backstory that’s perfect for a Batman villain, so it’s probably why this character resonates so strongly (and why the films would continue to try to find a way to work John Kramer into them even after his demise). Even after Kramer leaves the picture, there are many followers willing to take up the Jigsaw mantle and continue pushing his ideology. There’s a lot of Tyler Durden in the old guy too in that way and seeing the way that his actions simultaneously cause people to open their eyes and stop wasting their lives paints him as the sort of layered villain that only humans can be. It’s like he’s a human that’s upset at others for wasting their humanity. It’s perfect.
Asami Yamazaki from Audition
Audition is one of the best sort of slow burns and you’re really not sure what sort of film it’s going to be as it gets going. The premise sees a recently widowed man holding auditions, so to speak, for his next wife, with his selection, Asami Yamazaki being one hell of a pick. Like some of the most compelling human villains, Asami is the product of abuse and conditioning that has turned her into the insecure, unstable person that she now is. She’s the absolute worst person that you’d want to ghost on or dodge calls from, which Aoyama learns the hard way. Takaski Miike brings out Asami’s vengeance and playful insanity with dreadful anticipation. Asami connects so well on some levels because this is just your standard vengeance story and the experience of getting stood up or jilted by some lover is a largely relatable one. Potentially anyone could snap like Asami does or you might just happen to set off the wrong person. You never know who’s going to have a giant sack in their room. She’ll also leave you never looking at needles and piano wire the same way again.
Angela Baker from Sleepaway Camp
Sleepaway Camp is a real guilty pleasure for me simply because while other people might laugh at touches in the film like “crazy” Aunt Martha or the image that the film goes out on, these are elements that curl me into a ball and make me full of anxiety. Whether the movie makes it the subject matter or not, Sleepaway Camp is a horror film that is brimming with mental illness and the effects of ignoring such a thing and thinking about all of that makes this film much more disturbing. Sleepaway Camp holds out on telling you who the killer is until its ending (so, err—spoiler alert, sorry…) but by reverse engineering everything you get an idea of how messed up Angela is through this whole thing. There’s such a sadness to a helpless individual that’s forced into living a certain way and developing problems accordingly. She’s probably even unaware of the murders she’s committing. Angela’s just a big ball of triggers and a place like summer camp that’s full of hormones being a prime place to set her off. That final image of the film really gets me and I think has more impact than the closer of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but it also tells you everything you need to know about this broken, confused individual.
Billy Lenz from Black Christmas
Billy Lenz doesn’t get his due in horror fandom, which is really a shame because he’s ostensibly the prototypical slasher villain and even an inspiration for the likes of other early, influential titles like Halloween. Billy is largely a cipher through this film but we get an idea of how sadistic he is based on the almost sarcastic executions he pulls off throughout the film. Stabbing someone with a glass unicorn implies some sort of messed up sociopath at play here. One of my favorite things about Billy is that he kills so many people but you have no idea if he has some personal obsession with Agnes or if all of this is random. Like most modern remakes, 2006’s Black Christmas tries to flesh out Billy’s backstory with the typical strokes, but it’s really not needed. The film’s final reveal of him is so perfect and chilling that you don’t need to know much more than that.
Hannibal Lecter from the Red Dragon Trilogy
It’s a little crazy to think that on AFI’s list of Top Villains, Hannibal Lecter would often be vying for the top spot amongst the likes of other heavy hitters such as Darth Vader. Lecter connects with audiences and Hopkins’ performance is so memorable and haunting that it not only earned him an Oscar, but it’s the factor that pushed Hannibal and Red Dragon to get made in the first place. It’s kind of mind boggling when you realize that Hannibal is only on screen for 16 minutes of Silence of the Lambs but he makes all of them count. While a lot of the villains on here are tortured, confused individuals, Hannibal works so well because of his intelligence and how he regards himself better than everyone else. He’s the ultimate puppet master and a prime example of what happens when extreme intelligence is put towards ill means. Hannibal’s murders are not only brutal, but they show off his wit and intellect in a way that make them even more disturbing. This list might be restricted to cinema, but Mads Mikkelsen’s portrayal of Lecter in Hannibal also manages to knock everything Hopkins does out of the water and create an even more intriguing character that operates like the Devil himself, even though he’s still somehow human.
Reno Miller from The Driller Killer
The Driller Killer might not be on your radar but you should get it on there as quickly as you can. Abel Ferrara’s ultra-violent genre picture from the ‘70s operates with such reckless, gleeful disabandon. The film depicts Reno Miller (played by Ferrara himself) as a struggling New York artist who eventually snaps from the stress of it all and begins murdering people with a drill. And murdering them violently I might add (not that there might be a gentle way of murdering someone with a drill…). Reno Miller works so well as a character because his struggle is so regular and something that most of us are experiencing in some respect. The other side of this sees Miller killing so extravagantly that he naturally stands out as a villain. He’s human but he creates messes that could easily be the work of a werewolf. His efforts are so extreme that unsurprisingly The Driller Killer was banned in the UK and a number of places due to Miller’s murders.
Frank Zito from Maniac (2012)
Part of why Frank Zito is such an interesting horror villain is that you get to spend the entire film inside his head—literally. Maniac is presented entirely through the first-person POV of Frank so you get to see his carnage along with him. This also means that you’re privy to Frank’s delusions and crumbling sanity, which makes this experience all the more interesting. To say that Frank is going through a lot would be an understatement, but seeing how beleaguered and worried he is most of the time makes him a villain that you actually want to root for. His murders almost seem to hurt him as much as his victims. Throw in an unhealthy obsession with mannequins and slipping hold on reality and how can you go wrong?
Norman Bates from the Psycho Franchise
Norman Bates, along with Jack Torrance and Hannibal Lecter, are really the all-stars of this category, but it’s not without good reason. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a masterful piece of horror but Anthony Perkins performance as Norman is really a revelation. Perkins sinks so completely into this role and every twitch and fidget is felt. Great work is done where you want to root for Norman through the first half of the film, thinking he’s as much a victim here, and then you learn the complicated truth behind everything and his character gains countless depth. There’s a wealth of sexual issues wrapped into all of this which often manifest themselves through Norman’s killings too, but really just watching this reluctant, two-minded individual lose it is the centerpiece here. Also, I could have just left this limited to the first Psycho film alone, but honestly the further films in the series—whether you want to acknowledge them or not—only deepen and make this pained character more interesting. Norman continues to go on a roller coaster and killing spree that redefines an challenges who he is, which is the sort of journey that a monster can’t necessarily go on.
Thomas Brown Hewitt (Leatherface) from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Franchise
Leatherface and the Hewitts in general are an upsetting backwoods family that have spawned countless imitation through the years. I love the idea of society just forgetting about a certain family and it truly feels like the Hewitts have removed themselves from the world as they’ve built their own nightmare version instead. I think it’s significant to single out Leatherface himself here, rather than picking the Hewitts as a whole because it’s implied this sort of fate was forced onto Leatherface. He was born into this life and unable to know anything else, while the rest of his family might have had some modicum of choice. It’s worth mentioning that while Leatherface has become to be known as more of a monster than a human through the years, I think he works here over someone like Michael Myers for instance. Myers doesn’t seem human. He’s a force of nature, whereas Leatherface offers up brief glimpses of humanity where we can guess what’s happened to get him to this point. It’s these touches of Thomas Brown Hewitt sneaking through that make it work all the better.
But what say you? Billy Loomis from Scream? Kevin Spacey’s mastermind from Seven? The gang from You’re Next? Who are your favorite examples of horror villains that kept it simple and didn’t get supernatural?