The Witch opens Friday, and it’s already getting a well-deserved reputation as one of the scariest horror films in recent memory. But witches have terrorized the big screen since the very beginning of cinema. Here are the nine movie witches who’ve haunted us the most.
1. Helena Markos
In Italian horror pioneer Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria, an American ballerina named Suzy Banyon travels to Germany to study, but there’s something awfully peculiar about the school. “Do you know anything about ... witches?” one of her new classmates asks, and with good reason: the elderly headmistress, whom the girls overhear snoring very loudly during an impromptu school camp-out (thanks to, uh, a maggot outbreak), is actually the leader of a deadly coven. It takes the entire movie to get a look at Helena Markos in her true, terrifying form, and the payoff is SO WORTH IT.
2. The Blair Witch
We never even lay eyes on her/him/it, but The Blair Witch Project’s child-killing lurker in the woods still launched a thousand shrieks. Being lost in the woods would be scary enough without adding a supernatural menace, but it just gets worse as the situation escalates. The power of suggestion has rarely been more rattling—and the terror builds to one of the most memorable final images in all of horror.
3. The Wicked Witch of the West
No list of scary movie witches would be complete without the O.G. from Oz (played by the marvelous Margaret Hamilton). The shoe-coveting, dog-hating spell caster would be spooky enough on her own, but those damn creepy flying monkeys just take it over the top.
4. The Castavets
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into their dream New York apartment, where their neighbors, the Castavets, greet them with smothering kindness. Wacky old Mrs. Castavet (Ruth Gordon, who won a well-deserved Oscar) even gives Rosemary a good-luck charm containing pungent herbs, and makes a special dessert of “chocolate mouse” for the trying-to-conceive couple. Eventually, of course, the Woodhouses realize that the people they share a wall with aren’t just nosy ... they’re Satan-worshiping witches, too.
For Guy, a struggling actor willing to do anything to get ahead, this means a career boost. For Rosemary, it means a terribly painful pregnancy as she unknowingly incubates the Devil’s child, not to mention the sudden awful knowledge that she’s completely vulnerable, whether she’s in her own home (which has a secret door leading to Casa Castavet), her doctor’s office (since he’s in league with the coven), or just walking the streets of NYC.
5. Princess Asa Vajda
Another one from Italy, this time from legendary director Mario Bava. In this 1960 gothic chiller, Barbara Steele does double-duty as a Katia, a young noblewoman who becomes possessed by the spirit of her lookalike ancestor: Asa, an evil witch who was mutilated and burned alive centuries prior, and is now back for some tasty revenge. (Asa is especially scary since, in addition to being a sorceress, she’s also a blood-drinking vampire.) Black Sunday is gorgeously shot in black-and-white by the always artistic Bava; it also features an exploding coffin, which might not be especially scary, but is undeniably one of the coolest things we’ve ever seen in a horror movie.
6. Nancy Downs
In The Craft, a group of high school witches finds that despite their weirdo outsider status, they’re still not immune from girl-world competitiveness. Not even close. Charismatic leader Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) is like your worst frenemy crossed with a homicidal manic, with magical powers. We fear the crap out of her, and yet we want to hang out with her and swap make-up tips, too.
7. The characters in Haxan
In 1922, Danish director Benjamin Christensen created this silent oddity, a blend of fiction and documentary that examines the history of witchcraft. The film hypothesizes that “witches” in the Middle Ages were just misunderstood sufferers of mental illness. But it’s also oddly funny, in addition to containing nudity, gore, and other elements that made it highly controversial upon its release. And it’s an enduring cult classic today. It’s also packed with enough unsettling imagery to fill dozens of films about witchcraft. Like, uh:
8. Bathsheba Sherman
The Conjuring has a lot of spine-tingling moments. (We’re still recovering from the “clapping game.”) But the suicidal witch who’s behind all of the Perron family’s ghostly troubles unleashes her true terror at the film’s climax—and man, is it absolutely terrifying to behold. Back to hell, indeed! And, ugh, right into our nightmares.