Happy ‘Halloween’: The Best Horror-Movie MonstersElias Stein
Halloween is on Saturday. We really like Halloween.1 And so we are going to use the upcoming holiday as an excuse to talk about horror-movie monsters for the next 4,500 words. But the whole point of this isn’t just to meander around the graveyard, it’s to figure out who the greatest horror-movie monster is. There are some rules in place to make this a more feasible task:
Rule 1: The monster has to be an actual monster. It can’t just be a person who is horrible and kills a lot of people. We’re talking literal monsters here, not figurative ones. To be clear, you can have the human form, but you have to be more than just a human. For example, guys like Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) or Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) — they have human forms, but they’re undead demons of some kind, so that means they’re monsters. Meanwhile, guys like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates or Jigsaw — just boring, old regular humans who kill and kill and kill — are out. The only exceptions we’re making here are for Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise because he has exhibited superhuman strength enough times to make his status as a regular human legitimately questionable, and Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise because he’s the best example of someone being a monster while not actually being a monster.
Rule 2: The monster can’t be a real animal. If it’s a real animal you can find in a zoo, it’s eliminated from consideration. Size doesn’t matter, either; could be 10 feet tall, could be 100 feet tall, makes no difference. That means there’s no Jaws, there’s no Lake Placid crocodile, there are no razorback pigs from Razorback, no animals like that.
Rule 3: The monster can’t be a benevolent monster. We’re only talking about monsters who are out for blood and death and gore. Benevolent monsters are boring and dumb and why are you even a monster if you’re not trying to tear someone’s arms from their body. FOH, Harry from Harry and the Hendersons.
Rule 4: The monster can’t be a monster who is only temporarily a monster. If it can transform back into a human, it’s out. Mostly this rule is here to get rid of werewolves, easily the least intimidating and most manageable type of monster.
Rule 5: You can’t pick any of the classic horror stuff. That means no Dracula, no Frankenstein, no Mummy, no things like that. Or, we suppose those of you playing at home can if you really want, but those guys are always a better idea than they are an actual thing. So let’s just leave them out so we don’t feel any obligation to pick them.
Before we get to identifying the greatest horror-movie monster, there are some horror-movie-monster awards we need to hand out first.
[Note: It goes without saying, but most of these videos are very bloody and very gross.]
Jason: The Mimic, Mimic.
Do monsters wear outfits? I wasn’t aware they did. Monsters, I’m saying, do not immediately strike me as being concerned about fashion. So this one stumped me for a bit, Shea. But then I thought: What if a creature needed to put its prey at ease, needed to keep its true, vile nature hidden so as to take its victims unawares and avoid the attention of potential predators? What if this monster were, in fact, a gigantic cockroach and therefore had good reason to care about appearances, because people instinctively find roaches disgusting, try to kill them on sight, and would be unlikely to let a roach the size of a human being anywhere near them? I give you the killer roaches from Guillermo del Toro’s American film debut, Mimic, whose chitinous outer shell and wings can be arranged in such a way as to appear like a creepy dude in a raincoat. Which, believe it or not, is better than looking like a roach.
Shea: Monsters do wear outfits, yes. Sometimes I like to think about Jason Voorhees getting ready for a long night of killing, standing in front of a mirror, wondering which tattered pair of pants or old military shirt to wear.
Imagine the Creeper from Jeepers Creepers trying to find a hat that best matches his coat.
Imagine Freddy opening a closet door and it’s just full of green-and-red-striped sweaters.
New Line Cinema
Monsters wear outfits, Jason. Yes. And nobody ever had a better outfit than Nomak from Blade II. Look at how great this shit is:
New Line Cinema
It’s so smart and I just really love all the layers. He’s wearing a scarf, Jason. A SCARF. A monster who wears a scarf is a monster that, I think, deserves all the respect and admiration. He legit looks like he walked straight off the Yeezy Season runway. I’ve never looked as cool at any point, even on my best day, as Nomak the monster did here. That’s a very sobering thing to realize, which is what I’m doing right now. Dang.
Most Creative Kill
Shea: I’m going to cheat a little bit here. The most creative kill came not from an actual movie monster, but from a movie cube. Have you ever seen Cube? It came out in 1997. Basically, it’s about a group of people who wake up inside a Rubik’s Cube–like prison and have to figure a way out, except all the rooms periodically shift locations, and oh, just for fun, most of them are booby-trapped and exist only to kill you. But that’s where we get the most creative kill. A guy enters one of the rooms, feels like he’s doing OK at navigating the cube, and then ka-blammo, this happens:
If you have to die in a movie, being turned into a bunch of cheese squares is just about the best way to go, I think.
Jason: This is easy. It’s the electric-chair-lift kill in Gremlins.
In order to pull off this cruel and ingenious murder, the Gremlins needed to:
- Break into old Mrs. Deagle’s home without her knowing. This step is the easiest for creatures as intelligent and devious as the Gremlins.
- Pretend to be Christmas carolers. This is harder than it appears. It requires, first, advance knowledge of Mrs. Deagle’s hatred of Christmas carolers. This part still mystifies me. Then the creatures have to sing in a recognizably carol-y enough way to lure the cantankerous harridan out of her home, AND be prepared with hats, scarves, and — because the Gremlins really are sticklers for landing a sight gag — matching sheet music.
- Within only the few seconds that Mrs. Deagle is preoccupied while gaping in horror at her yowling little green visitors, the inside Gremlin must then sabotage the woman’s motorized lift chair in such a way for it to accelerate uncontrollably, launching the chair and its occupant out of the window on the top floor of her home and into the street.
Shea: You know what? I watched Gremlins last Christmas with my kids. I remembered it being this charming, fun movie. I’d totally forgotten about all the murder that takes place in it. Those motherfuckers were really just out there killing A LOT of people. I mean, it wasn’t as bad as when I watched Scream with my kids, which was a big-time mistake on my part, but it was surprisingly close.
Hardest to Vanquish
Jason: Sex parasites from Shivers.
True fact: Sex is integral to the survival of the human species. Basically, we have to do it or the human race will just, like, die out. Nature, oh worker of wonders, is a problem-solver and understands this conundrum, which, I would imagine, is why sex feels really good and why the act of human sexual congress can bring people to higher levels of interpersonal understanding, strengthen emotional ties, and engage the mind, body, and soul. In other words: Sex, as a general rule, cannot be avoided.
Which is why the sexually transmitted blood parasites from David Cronenberg’s 1975 sex-horror classic Shivers are the hardest — the pun writes itself — monster to vanquish. They are essentially unvanquishable.
Shea: This is actually a great, inarguable answer. I was going to say something like the plants from The Happening, which were releasing that neurotoxin into the air that caused people to commit suicide and were basically unavoidable and also nobody ever figured out how to get rid of them, but I think I like your answer better.
Shea: No movie monster ever had one-liners like Freddy Krueger had one-liners. He was basically the Arnold Schwarzenegger of movie monsters. Remember “Wanna suck face”? Remember “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy”? Remember “No screaming while the bus is in motion”? He had so many great ones. His best one, though, was in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, when he hit that TV-obsessed girl with a “Welcome to prime time, bitch” and then smashed her head into a television. That’s just some truly first-class needling.
(Also: Laurence Fishburne makes a cameo in that clip. I love Laurence Fishburne so much.)
Jason: The writings of the novelist Sutter Cane, In the Mouth of Madness:
Best-selling horror novelist Sutter Cane’s latest book causes people to go violently insane. In itself, it’s not that big of a deal since that means they have to purchase the book first. The real problem is that Cane’s writings are imbued with hidden messages from a race of evil gods from another dimension.
Shea: I think this is probably the best example of the philosophical difference between you and me, Jason. A category comes up in this article about the best weapon a horror-movie monster has ever had and here you are skirting around the edges of obscurity, slow-dancing with shrewdness. And I’m like, nah, the best weapon was when the Lubin rapped in Leprechaun in the Hood:
That’s a hot-ass song, my dude. IT’S NOT MY PICK, THOUGH.
My pick is definitely Leatherface’s chain saw. It has to be, right? There’s just no other reason a person who is not a lumberjack would be holding a chain saw except to mess you up. Plus, you don’t even have to see it to be scared. You just have to hear it. It’s so loud and unsettling and just is a totally terrifying thing. It’s the worst. It is SO the worst.
Most Likely to Be Able to Turn His or Her (or Its) Life Around
Jason: Swamp Thing.
I know you said no benevolent monsters, but let’s be real: A true monster would never be able to turn its life around. A true monster sees people as walking Hot Pockets and just wants to eat their intestines. So I went with Swamp Thing.
New-horror pioneer Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing, the schlocky 1982 adaption of the Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson DC Comics character, is the most underrated movie in the director’s oeuvre. Which is not to say it’s a good movie. The costumes appear and indeed were cheap. There are numerous continuity errors and the writing is bad. But Craven got the idea for A Nightmare on Elm Street while working on the movie, his first Hollywood picture, so there is that.
Anyway, the titular Swamp Thing was once the botanist Alec Holland, who was working on creating a plant-animal hybrid for the government. An attack by a shadowy mercenary group wrecks his lab and sends him fleeing into the swamps, his body doused in chemicals and burning with an eerie flame. Transformed into the hideous Swamp Thing, he still — as the scene above shows — retains his personality and intelligence. So, like, all he needs is a cure for looking like human food mold and he’s totally good to return to society.
Shea: You’re probably right. But I’m just a sucker for a man who’s a rebuilding project, I suppose. Give me Pinhead from Hellraiser for this category. I just really feel like if I hung out with him for long enough, I could convince him to chill. Plus, I’m very into the whole suburban goth thing he has going on. He’s secretly the most handsome of all the horror-movie monsters. That should matter here.
Most Misunderstood Movie Monster
Jason: It’s Dren from Splice.
Dren, the product of a genetic experiment combining human and animal DNA, did not ask to be created. She did not ask to experience the loneliness of being the only thing (thank god) like herself on earth or to biologically mature at an astronomical rate that was totally out of proportion with her mental and moral development. So, while truly a monstrosity, she is basically innocent.
Shea: This is the only time I’m mad about the rules we set in place. Jaws from Jaws would’ve been perfect here. He wasn’t a monster. He was just hungry, which, as far as I can tell, is the whole point of being a shark.
Jason: The Xenomorphs from the Alien series.
Forget for a moment that the Alien prequel Prometheus was kinda garbage-y from an entertainment standpoint.2 Here is the backstory for the Xenomorphs established by the film: Alien scientists3 whose mission calls for them to sacrifice their lives in order to seed barren worlds with life using a viscous black goo, and who are probably the source of all life on earth, establish a facility on a faraway world that is subsequently hastily abandoned. It is discovered by human beings, one of whom becomes impregnated by the black goo, eventually giving birth to a cthulhu-like beast that itself goes on to impregnate one of the original alien scientists with something we later find out is the precursor to the Xenomorphs. Now that’s a backstory.
Shea: It is quite a backstory, yes. But I like my backstories to be easily explainable and easily understandable, particularly in a horror movie, because you need to be able to explain everything important in no more than, say, three seconds, because that’s usually about how long you have to react if you want to survive. So if I’m sitting in my house with a person who has zero knowledge of anything and a killer walks in the front door, I need to be able to say something like, “Yo! That’s the guy who went crazy and killed his sister! He’s gonna kill us, too! RUN!” and have that be the end of it. I don’t have time for questions. I don’t need someone like, “Wait a second. Did you say Jesus was an alien scientist?” because when you start asking questions is when you die. So for that reason, give me Michael Myers’s backstory. It’s nice and linear.
Most Evil Monster
Jason: Satan, The Prophecy.
It’s Satan, yo.
Shea: OK. You got this one. I concede.
Least Intimidating Movie Monster
Jason: Lubin from The Leprechaun movies.
It’s a leprechaun, yo.
Shea: WHAT? No, Jason, no. You’re trending the right direction — it’s a smaller guy — but it’s not Lubin. Lubin was legit terrifying. And stout. He looked like a little ball of muscle. He’d be a tough out.
Here’s how I’m thinking about this: Let’s say it’s just you versus a horror-movie monster in an empty room and only one of you is leaving alive (or as alive as a movie monster can be, anyway). If it’s you in that room and Lubin walks in? Nah. Nope. There’s no way you’re not intimidated by him. He’s just a scary, creepy-looking dude. The only guy who could walk into that room and you’d be like, “OK, I’m good here, I’m not the guy who’s dying”? Chucky from Child’s Play. Look at him:
You could literally pick him up and just hold him away from your body and you’d be 100 percent safe. No way it’s anybody but Chucky for this category. No way any movie monster is less intimidating than him.
That’s enough awards, I think. Let’s get to the 10 best horror-movie monsters.
10. Ganush, Drag Me to Hell
Shea: You know what? I feel like maybe I got this one wrong, but maybe I didn’t. Here’s the thing, Jason: Whenever you and I work on one of these things, I always end up having to watch a few movies I missed from the past. Drag Me to Hell was like that. I didn’t see it when it came out, and were it not for researching this article, I likely never would’ve seen it. But I watched it. And I loved it. It’s such a good scary movie, in that it’s scary and gross and occasionally unsettling but also fun and enjoyable and with parts you never even thought you wanted to see. To wit, there’s a YouTube video called “To Hell (2009) – Mouth Moments (Funny),” and it’s just all the parts of the movie when something crazy happens that involves a mouth, one of which is Ganush vomiting bugs into the mouth of the woman she’s haunting.
Some monsters that I expected to make this list didn’t. There’s no Pinhead, there’s no Sil from Species, there’s no Seth Brundle from The Fly, there are no super earthworms from Tremors, there’s no fish monster from The Host, there are no cave dwellers from The Descent (one of my favorite scary movies of the last 10 years), there’s no Creeper from Jeepers Creepers (another of my favorites, and a wildly underrated franchise), there’s no Pennywise from It (WHAT????), there’s no Slither, there’s no It Follows, there’s no Chucky from Child’s Play, THERE’S NO CANDYMAN (FOH HOW DID CANDYMAN NOT MAKE IT??????). But Ganush makes it. I don’t know how, but she makes it. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
9. Samara, The Ring
Jason: If someone gives you a cursed videotape, don’t watch the tape. After you don’t watch the tape, continue to not watch the tape and repeat not watching the tape for the rest of your life. If you should happen, somehow, to watch the tape, then, within seven days, copy the tape and give the copy to someone you don’t like, making sure not to mention it’s cursed.
Shea: I would give TF outta this tape to people. There’s no way I’m dying if the only thing I have to do not to die is have someone else die. That’s a little thing called Darwinism, my friend. Same thing if I’m running from a killer. I love you, Jason, but if it’s me and you and we’re running from someone who’s trying to kill us both, I am 100 percent kicking you as hard as I can in the knee so you’re hobbled so the killer can catch you and I can escape. That’s just how it’s going to happen. I’m sorry.
8. Michael Myers, Halloween Series
Shea: He’s always seemed like the coldest, most ruthless, most black-eyed killer of all the movie monsters. I think it’s because he never talks (same as Jason Voorhees) and also because he wears a mask even though it’s not necessary, which I’m sure says something about his general psychosis (Jason’s mask was functional, in that by the end of the series it was very clear he was not a human anymore).
He’s second in total kills (Jason is the leader with more than 300 confirmed kills; Myers has 111; Lubin from The Leprechaun has 45; Freddy Krueger has 42; Pinhead has 35) and first in consistency (nobody is more on-brand). He’s my favorite horror-movie killer, so I’d have liked to have seen him land closer to the second or third spot, but eighth feels right, him hiding back here in the bushes waiting to drive that butcher knife into your sternum.
7. The Babadook, The Babadook
Jason: [THIS ONE CONTAINS SPOILERS.] If you find a strange and mysterious children’s book in your home, think twice before reading it to your child. If, after reading said strange and mysterious book to your child, you find yourself experiencing unexplained events and weird dreams, leading you to destroy the book, only to find that the book has reassembled itself and is waiting for you on your stoop, then seriously consider whether you may have, in fact, written the mysterious book yourself and are repressing the memory of doing so.
Shea: I just watched this movie. As soon as it was over I was like, “Well, I guess I’m never reading another book to one of my kids again.” Also, “Babadook” is just a great fucking name for something that’s supposed to be scary.
6. Leatherface, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Series
Shea: I still remember watching the remake at the movie theater in 2003. I was in college. And I was really feeling like it was a good idea to take the girl I was dating. But it was not a good idea. It was a super-bad idea. There was that one part when Leatherface hangs the guy on the meat hook and the girl tries to get him off it but she can’t and so she’s trying to slide him off and he keeps dropping back down on it. That remains the closest I’ve ever come to throwing up in a theater. AND THAT WAS JUST THE REMAKE OF THE SCENE, which is inferior to the original version, in which Leatherface hangs a girl on a meat hook and then carves up a guy with a chain saw in front of her as she dangles and screams and dangles.
I went on this haunted hayride thing one time in San Antonio. It was real cool. You paid $10 or so, then you just sat on this platform that was pulled by a tractor through the woods and all of these scary things would happen along the way. Michael Myers was there. Jason was there. Freddy was there. But nobody inspired the same sort of fear that Leatherface did when he came running out from the brush with his chain saw just BRRRRRRRARAAARRRRRing. People were literally jumping off the ride to run away. I’ve never forgotten that. (I didn’t run away, because I’m not a coward. I just closed my eyes real tight and grabbed hold of whomever it was that was sitting next to me because actually, yes, I am a coward.) I think maybe it’s because he’s the one guy out of all of these movies who could actually exist in real life. Or maybe it’s the sound of that chain saw starting up. Or maybe it’s his mask made of human skin. It’s probably some combination of all of those things (but mostly him possibly being real). Either way, he deserves to be on here. He probably deserves to be higher, truthfully.
5. Sex Parasite, Shivers
Jason: In Shivers, a bioengineered parasite runs rampant through an upscale Montreal apartment complex, transforming the building’s bourgeoisie inhabitants into an orgiastic horde of zombies who hunger for fresh flesh to infect. After the last holdout is organized into submission, the DTF-infected surge into the streets to turn out Montreal proper and, one expects, the world.
4. Freddy Krueger, Nightmare on Elm Street Series
Shea: As far as iconography goes, Freddy is either at the very top or he loses out only to Jason Voorhees. I mean, he had a fucking song with Will Smith, that’s how popular he was in the ’80s.
(The best thing about this song is the disbelief Will expresses about Freddy wearing a sweater even when it’s hot outside. I suppose this is a valid concern.)
One of the things I’ve always liked about Freddy is his sense of self-awareness. He’s a showy guy, and he’s not above hamming things up when need be. I think that’s important, at least some of the time. And yet, still, he’s a master killer, and he for sure is inescapable (he’ll either kill you in your sleep, or you’ll go crazy and die from not getting any sleep, which is a real thing I didn’t know could happen). He’s got that great face, that great glove, that great voice, that great attitude, that great everything. It feels wrong having him fourth. It just feels wrong.
3. The Thing, The Thing
Jason: You’re not paranoid if everyone around you really is an alien in disguise that’s out to kill you. The alien monster in The Thing could be anything: your wife, your husband, your dog, your best dude, pre-diebeetus Wilford Brimley, anyone.
Shea: Very surprised the Thing managed to sneak this far up the list.
2. Jason Voorhees, Friday the 13th Series
Shea: He. Is. A. Relentless. And. Perfect. Killing. Factory.
He has the greatest horror-movie kill of all time (when he snatched that girl up while she was in her sleeping bag and slammed it against the tree), he has great accessories (his mask, of course, but also his machete), he has a very strong backstory (died as a kid, returned to kill a bunch of people because he was mad about that and also about his mom getting killed), he quietly had a sense of humor, or if not that then a sense of irony (remember when that one boxer tried to fistfight Jason and so he just stood there and let the guy punch himself out and then hit him with a left cross that literally knocked his head off his shoulders? Or the time he was on Arsenio Hall?), and he was essentially unkillable. I will argue forever that he should’ve finished first. He’s the obvious winner, Jason.
1. The Alien, Alien Series
Jason: The alien Xenomorph MOUNTS YOUR FACE, FORCES ITS EGG DEPOSITOR INTO YOUR MOUTH AND DOWN INTO YOUR STOMACH, AND LAYS ITS EGG INSIDE OF YOU, WHERE IT GROWS UNTIL IT BURSTS OUT OF YOUR CHEST, BEGINNING THE CYCLE ANEW. THIS IS THE BEST MONSTER IN MOVIES.
Shea: Oh snap. I forgot about that part. Out of all the ways we’ve seen someone die in this column, having an alien deposit an egg in your stomach via your mouth (GROSS!) and then having that alien explode out of your chest (GAH!) is probably the least desirable way to go. Please continue.
Jason: Right. And to make things even scarier, the alien’s fictional life cycle and biology is actually mirrored in real-life science. The dementor wasp injects its prey with a venom that turns it into a zombie, allowing it to be devoured alive. And a newly discovered wasp species lays its eggs inside a stink bug, where the juveniles eat the bug from the inside out.
Shea: Fucking science, man.