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The 13 Scariest Modern Horror Movie Villains

Pennywise leaps from a screen in IT
(Image credit: Warner Bros)

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for A LOT of recent horror movies. So, unless you are confident that you have seen everything you need to see or you do not mind knowing secret plot detail beforehand, beware

We are living in a great time to be a scary movie fan, with many of horror's latest releases being some of the strongest and scariest we have ever seen, as far as I am concerned. Of course, with most new horror movies, there also comes a slew of new villains to haunt our nightmares.

I have been very impressed by the characters we have met in creepy thrillers released in just the last couple of decades or so - including both the protagonists and antagonists. In fact, I would say many of them are on par with classic horror villains like Michael Myers or Pamela Voorhees. The following are our picks for some of the scariest modern horror movie villains from some of the best horror movies in recent memory, starting with one that became an instant classic by paying homage to the classics and is still killing it today.

Ghostface in Scream

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Ghostface (Scream)

In 1996, writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven flipped the slasher genre on its head with the cleverly meta, but still undeniably thrilling Scream by introducing a killer who was partially motivated by horror movies themselves. The story added fuel to fire by revealing there were actually two Ghostface killers - namely Skeet Ulrich’s Billy Loomis and Matthew Lillard as Stu Macher - and that the villain could be resurrected with a new faces (or pair of faces) behind the now-famous mask in future sequels. Part of the fun of looking forward to the upcoming sixth Scream installment is wondering who will be wreaking havoc on Westview next.

The Entity from It Follows

(Image credit: RADiUS-TWC)

The Entity (It Follows)

Another terrifying horror movie villain devoid of any specific identity is the unnamed entity that the “it” in the title of the 2015 masterpiece, It Follows, refers to. Writer and director David Robert Mitchell’s striking sophomore effort stars Maika Monroe (one of our most talented modern day horror Scream Queens) as a college student who must outrun a deadly, unstoppable, shapeshifting demon, of sorts, that only she can see, as part of curse passed onto her through sexual intercourse. It is actually a pretty clever twist on the common slasher trope that having sex makes you a target while, in this case, it is also the one thing that could save your life.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise in It

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Pennywise (It) 

Another iconic horror character that can appear as whatever it wants, all the better to scare you, is the “it” that the title of Stephen King’s 1986 novel It refers to. Of course, this otherworldly, shapeshifting creature usually has no trouble preying on the fears of his victims - typically children - by appearing as its default creation: a dirty, bulbous-headed, yellow-eyed clown. As established, Pennywise was first invented in the mid-1980s and was also previously played by Tim Curry in a memorable two-part TV movie from 1990, but Bill Skarsgård’s devilish portrayal in Andy Muschieti’s two-part theatrical adaptation from 2017 and 2019 is on a whole different level of frightening.

The Babadook book

(Image credit: IFC Films)

The Babadook (The Babadook)

A character who also feeds off of fears and insecurities (and also has a special connection to Pennywise, according to some internet users) is the menacing, nightmarish titular antagonist of The Babadook, which is not just some ghost or demon that roams the earth in search of a victim. In fact, it could actually be argued that, even in the world of writer and director Jennifer Kent’s 2014 Australian import, it does not really exist. It is truly a symbol of the grief that Essie Davis’ single mother, Amelia, suffers after losing her husband - something that, like how The Babadook is described in the pop-up book it comes from, she is unable to get rid of but, in the end, must learn how to live with.

Daveigh Chase in The Ring

(Image credit: Dreamworks)

Samara Morgan (The Ring)

Before we had monsters like The Babadook manifesting from pop-up books, we had Samara Morgan popping out of the freaking television screen in The Ring. This is the way that the vengeful spirit of said murdered child - played by Daveigh Chase of Donnie Darko and Lilo & Stitch fame - appears to her victims before claiming their souls within seven days of watching a cursed VHS tape. Her unforgettable appearance at the end of Gore Verbinski 2001 update of Hiroshi Takahashi’s Japanese horror classicRingu, is what makes it one of the few English-language updates of an Asian horror favorite that is worth rewinding.

Isabelle Fuhrman in Orphan

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Esther (Orphan)

I would say, “Let’s go from one creepy kid to another,” as a way to introduce our next villain, but that would not actually be accurate, given what we learn about Esther at the end of Orphan. In the 2009 cult favorite from Black Adam director Jaume Collet-Sera, Scream Queen Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard’s characters adopt a surprisingly intelligent 9-year-old girl, played brilliantly by Isabelle Fuhrman, who actually turns out to be a 33-year-old woman with proportional dwarfism and a long history of making life for her adoptive families a living hell. The plausibility behind the otherwise shockingly bizarre concept is what makes Esther an especially disturbing character and, more specifically, one of the best female horror movie villains in my eyes.

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man

(Image credit: Universal)

Adrian Griffin (The Invisible Man)

The plausibility behind the special suit that Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) creates to make him virtually undetectable is what makes him such a haunting villain, and writer / director Leigh Whannell’s reinterpretation of The Invisible Man from 2020 so refreshingly fascinating. Not to mention, the way he psychologically tortures his estranged wife (Elisabeth Moss) and makes her appear delusional to loved ones and authorities offers some real thought-provoking social commentary about gaslighting. This is yet another character on our list who originates from literature, and was first introduced in H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, but unquestionably deserves a spot for the reasons above.

Christian Bale in American Psycho

(Image credit: Lionsgate)

Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)

Another essential example of social commentary in horror is Patrick Bateman - the central character of American Psycho, who embodies a kind of masculinity so toxic, it is deadly. His intense need to appear as the ultimate charming, attractive, wealthy alpha male is part of what drives him to commit such heinous acts as chasing a sex worker with a chainsaw or feeding a stray cat into an ATM - or, at least, that is what the film initially has you believe. Aside from the ambiguous ending of Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel, it is Christian Bale’s stunning performance as the incurably deranged, Huey Lewis-loving, 1980s Manahattan yuppie that is really to die for.

Sebastian Stan hovering with a charming smile in Fresh.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

Steve (Fresh)

You know, a great example of the kind of person Patrick Bateman might aspire to be is Steve, who is portrayed in Fresh in such a charismatic fashion by Sebastian Stan that, like Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Noa, you cannot help but like him. That is, however, until about half an hour into director Mimi Cave’s feature-length debut when he reveals that he is a cannibal and also makes a living selling the meat of his female victims to people with similar appetites. Writer Lauryn Kahn’s inspiration for the character came from her own fascination (and fear) of the uber-wealthy, which - on top of the film’s distressingly spot-on depiction of modern dating - makes it feel almost a little too real for comfort, yet irresistibly delicious.

Allison Williams in Get Out

(Image credit: Universal)

The Armitage Family (Get Out)

Speaking of shady activity from America’s 1%, I really hope what goes on in Get Out has no semblance to reality - let alone that it does symbolize real-world prejudices. In writer and director Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning debut, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) learns his suspicious about visiting the childhood home of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), were right, because her father, Dean (Bradley Cooper), mother Missy (Catherine Keener), and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) offer a service to implant elderly white brains into the bodies of unwilling, young Black people. I would actually vote for the remorseless Rose as the real MVP in creep factor, as the ending twist reveal that she has lured Chris into her family’s trap is one of the film’s most unforgettably chilling moments.

Black Phillip in The Witch

(Image credit: A24)

Black Phillip (The Witch)

There is also a pretty epic twist at the end of writer and director Robert Eggers’ masterpiece in slow-burn horror, The Witch, which depicts the strange and violent destruction of a family of seven in 1630s New England. You never really know if it is actually some mystical evil hiding in the woods or their own paranoid delusions tearing them apart, until you discover that it was all orchestrated by the Devil himself, posing as the family goat, Black Phillip. I will never forget the moment he reveals his true form to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin and officially lures her into the world of black magic by asking, in an unnerving whisper, “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”

Annabelle Wallis in Malignant

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Gabriel (Malignant)

For my money, one of the coolest, creepiest, and craziest horror movie twists in years occurs near the ending of Malignant - co-writer and director James Wan’s homage to campy Giallo slashers from the 1980s. After struggling to understand her connection to a vicious, grotesque killer named Gabriel, whose murders she could see in her dreams, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) finally discovers that he is literally connected to her and is her long-dormant parasitic twin who takes control of her body to punish the doctors who tried to remove him. Madison does manage to assume full control of Gabriel and says she will be ready if he tries to break free of the mental prison she has locked him in, which is why a sequel is in order, I think.

Rebecca Ferguson as Rose the Hat in Doctor Sleep

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Rose The Hat (Doctor Sleep)

One of my favorite horror movie sequels as of late is Doctor Sleep - a brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s follow-up to The Shining from modern horror auteur Mike Flanagan - which stars Ewan McGregor as a grown-up Danny Torrance. The telepath must protect a young girl with stronger abilities than himself named Abra (Kyleigh Currran) from a cruel group of psychokinetics called The True Knot, who feed off the abilities of other gifted individuals to achieve immortality and are led by the power-hungry Rose the Hat. I think that Rebecca Ferguson deserved awards attention for her performance as the central antagonist, especially for maintaining such a cold and conniving demeanor during the film’s most disturbing scene, featuring Jacob Tremblay.

You know how they say that a horror movie is only as good as its villain? Well, I usually don’t like to buy into the rule so heavily, but these freaky modern baddies may have convinced me otherwise.

Jason Wiese
Jason Wiese

Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.