Traditionally, villains in horror movies tend to be male, but there have been tons of vicious female characters over the years—both mortal and supernatural—who’ve terrified victims and audiences alike. With the excellently versatile Octavia Spencer currently spawning nightmares in Ma, we decided to count up our favorite scary-movie antagonists who just so happen to be women.
A famous author (James Caan) who wants to break out of his romance-novel rut has the incredibly bad fortune of falling into the clutches of Annie, an obsessive fan who tortures him while forcing him to continue the story of her favorite character. We’ll be getting some origin-story insight into Stephen King’s sadistic, sledgehammer-swinging nurse in the second season of Hulu’s Castle Rock, but Kathy Bates’ Oscar-winning performance in Rob Reiner’s 1990 Misery will no doubt remain the portrayal that shows Annie Wilkes at her most potently dangerous. Once seen, that ankle-breaking scene can never be forgotten.
She had a son. His name was Jason. After his death—which she blamed, probably not inaccurately, on the inattentiveness of certain frisky camp counselors—Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) took bloody revenge before retreating into the woods, only to emerge 20 years later for even more bloody revenge when the long-shuttered camp began prepping to reopen. One of the genius (and oft-imitated) gimmicks in the original Friday the 13th movie is that you don’t even see the killer until the last-act confrontation with the film’s final girl character. The reveal is made even more horrific by the fact that all the vicious carnage up until that point has come courtesy of...a middle-aged woman with a sensible haircut and a cable-knit sweater.
The Scream series pays homage to Friday the 13th (along with every other classic slasher film it references along the way) with Mrs. Loomis (Laurie Metcalf), who plays the avenging mother of Billy Loomis—the kill-crazy boyfriend that Sidney (Neve Campbell) broke up with forever at the end of the first film. We meet Mrs. Loomis early in the sequel when she’s pretending to be a journalist, but like that Friday scene on the shores of Camp Crystal Lake, Mrs. Loomis’ diabolical contributions to the film’s escalating body count are revealed in the gory climax.
Technically, the Nun, a.k.a. Valak, is a demon, not a human. But since nuns are female, and a female actor plays Valak (the intense Bonnie Aarons) we’re gonna add her to this list. Valak first popped up in Lorraine Warren’s dark visions in The Conjuring 2, making such a haunting impression she got her own spin-off movie a couple of years later. While Valak’s not the most dynamic character—though she’s outstanding at materializing ominously out of the darkness—her soul-stealing ambitions, as well as her fixation with killing beloved Conjuring characters like Lorraine’s husband Ed, mean she’s still got plenty of dread to spread around.
Another Stephen King creation, and a character that’s made it to the big screen several times by now. But Brian De Palma’s 1976 version with Sissy Spacek will always be the most chilling. Spacek was in her mid-20s when she played the traumatized high-school outcast, but she looks every bit the fragile teenager—until it’s time for Carrie to turn her devastating telekinetic powers on her cruel classmates (and even crueler mother), who realize too late that they fucked with the wrong prom queen.
Alien didn’t flesh out its antagonist much more than “space monster more powerful than anything humans have ever encountered.” That was enough to make sci-fi horror history, but Aliens upped the ante by bringing in multiple space monsters and then showing exactly where all those sinister eggs were coming from. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)—who’s heartbroken to learn she’s outlived her own daughter early in sequel, and then becomes the protector of a young girl (who’s recently lost her own parents to aliens) she meets on the mission—must battle another formidable mother when the massive alien queen emerges in a fury near the end of the film.
Mario Bava’s 1960 gothic horror classic introduces us to Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele), a 17th century witch/vampire/sorceress who’s captured by her own brother, then nailed into a mask and burned alive for her crimes—but not before vowing to return one day in the name of Satan for some payback. That chance finally arrives 200 years later, when she’s accidentally revived (out of her exploding coffin!) in a time period that just happens to contain a lookalike descendant who’d make the ideal vessel for her earthly return. Though Asa ropes in male slaves as she needs them, she’s still Black Sunday’s main menace—that nail-spiked face is something to behold—and the otherworldly Steele turns in a dual performance that lets her play good and evil versions of herself against each other.
Like most ghosts, Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey) only appears in the dark, though her tragic backstory eventually reveals that when she was alive, she had a severe light sensitivity that contributed to her death, as well as malevolent psychic powers that carried over into the afterlife. That’s kind of a lot of exposition, but fortunately, David F. Sandberg’s horror tale (a remake of his own short) mostly focuses on the visually striking concept of a boogeywoman who skulks from shadow to shadow, creeping closer and closer to her next victim. She’s never seen as much more than a silhouette, but she’s still somehow scary as hell.
I decided not to include female characters who’re more “spooky kids” than “scary ladies” on this list (for instance: Samara in The Ring; Rhoda in The Bad Seed), but The Orphan’s Esther is a special case. While she appears to be a small child, she’s actually a 33-year-old psychopathic grifter who happens to have a very rare hormonal disorder—bad news for the family that’s decided to welcome a new daughter into their home. And since actor Isabelle Furhman really was a tween when she played Esther (or Leena, as she’s known once her real identity is discovered), that adds yet another creepy layer to the character.
Before he dug into the Derry sewers and unearthed a certain dancing clown, director Andy Muschietti expanded his short film Mamá into this chilling feature produced by Guillermo del Toro. Deep in the woods, two young girls are saved from being murdered by their distraught father by the ghostly title character, who becomes violently protective when they’re found—nearly feral, but miraculously alive—several years later. Once the mystery of Mama (played by different actors, depending on the situation she’s in: grim flashback, inky ghoul, etc.) is unraveled, her own terrible past, including her own baby’s tragic end, explains why she’s clutching onto the girls from beyond the grave. Doesn’t make her any less ominous, however.
After deciding it’s time to remarry, a widower strikes up a tentative relationship with a quiet young woman who isn’t at all who she seems to be—much like Audition itself, which begins as a kind of slow-moving drama before escalating into extreme brutality, severed body parts, and soooo many needles. Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike’s Audition was released just as the escalating popularity of Asian horror was making the genre irresistible to the American remake machine. But while films like The Ring and The Grudge swiftly got the Hollywood treatment, anyone who’s seen Audition can muster a guess as to why a remake never materialized. That said, the movie did influence the wave of “torture porn” that followed; not for nothing did Miike have a cameo in Hostel.
Underappreciated in its time, Karyn Kusama’s black-comedy tale sees a friendship between two high-school girls seriously tested when the flamboyantly hot one (played by Megan Fox at her Transformers-era peak) turns into a demonic succubus who must feast on human flesh to survive, and the nerdy one (Amanda Seyfried, a few years after playing a different kind of cool-kid hellbeast in Mean Girls) tries to stop her. With a script by Diablo Cody, who’d just picked up an Oscar for Juno—a decidedly less gruesome, but no less self-consciously irreverent, high-school drama—Jennifer’s Body does want to frighten you with its monstrous main character, though Jennifer’s toxic teen-queen powers are ultimately the most nightmarish element in this offbeat horror film.
Here’s a tip: If an alien civilization contacts you with instructions on how to splice human and alien DNA into a new kind of hybrid, proceed with extreme caution. And while you’re at it, definitely don’t assume that just because you genetically engineer the creature to be female, she’ll be more “docile and controllable.” Sexism gets a reptilian foot up its ass when Sil (Natasha Henstridge, in her film debut) breaks out to escape termination and heads to the heart of Los Angeles, intent on finding a man who’ll help her reproduce. Since her human form is gorgeous and statuesque, Sil has zero problem finding willing partners—though the fact that she’s being hunted like an escaped lab animal does complicate matters, and the inevitable violent rampage, complete with shape-shifting, skull-puncturing, and other nasty delights, soon ensues.
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