I am often asked who I think is the “scariest” of movie monsters. Yes! It’s a clichéd question, dragged through the blood of and gore of movie-loving minds the world over. Sometimes the answer is impulsive and easy, as it should be; other times, with more thought and criteria, and the need to justify, it’s not so easy at all. The first question is where to begin with choosing the contenders. Without narrowing the field, it becomes a who’s who of almost everyone and everything, impossible to find a winner. For simplicity, I will debate only the more iconic monsters with a human form, looking more or less like us, whether we like it or not. While the candidates may vary, (and some will insist I’ve left out the best), my ballot includes the following: Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Leatherface. For diversity, I’ll even throw in Pinhead from Hellraiser, Pennywise the Clown from It, and The Thing (from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic). With these seven contestants are choices from the real world, the supernatural world, and worlds beyond our own. Why are these so often the usual choices? Maybe, again, it’s because they are more like us than all the others, all the more terrifying being familiar. Let’s consider each one individually.
Jason Voorhees is the hockey-mask-wearing, machete-wielding, son-of-a-camp-cook turned serial killer from the now-famous Friday the 13th slasher series. The Camp Crystal Lake killer is even supernatural eventually, with superhuman strength and regenerative powers, making him nearly invincible. He is also much like a zombie, able to shake off anything a mere human can do to fight him. Jason kills those who he deems violaters of morality, possibly from his rage over having been drowned as a child. “What more of a monster could you want?” you may ask. “How much more does it take to make a monster the ’scariest’ of all’?” For me, the deepest recesses of my mind that get truly scared have trouble connecting with the “superhuman, supernatural” being, with “regenerative powers.” As a fantasy and fiction, it’s fine; but, my logical mind reminds me, again and again, that Jason isn’t (and could never be) real. A monster he is for sure; but, he is one who lives only in the imaginations of those who care to think of him. Jason could never really endanger you and your world; he, instead, remains forever just a figment of movies and books. Too bad you didn’t stay mortal, Jason! Too bad the zombie craze and superhuman powers didn’t get the best of you! Ironically, you would have lasted longer in the ring!
Freddy Krueger (from Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street) is, true to the title, a nightmare demon. He stalks his victims in their dreams, killing them as they sleep. As a child murderer in life, Freddy was murdered himself by the neighbors in his own community. In death, he continues his rampage of perversion and murder, carrying his burn scars from life with vengeance, strengthening him as a monster exponentially. To top off the horror, Freddy sports a disfigured face, a red-and-green-striped sweater, a brown fedora, and a trademark metal-clawed brown leather glove only on his right hand. Krueger is the embodiment, in human/monster form, of our subconscious fears as children, adults, and anyone with a mind to dream. The fact that he stalks us in sleep makes us all vulnerable, and a potential victim sooner or later. The one “saving grace” is the fact that, when brought to the real world, Krueger is as vulnerable and mortal as the rest of us..but certainly still deadly. “Okay, he must be your choice as the scariest,” you think–a nightmare demon with a clawed hand, invincible in dreams, who kills us when we sleep! Personally, I’ll pass on Freddy too. It’s all very imaginative, with what is undoubtedly a cult icon and horror-film fiend to rival the best…complete with a stylish fedora! However, I again get lost in all of the very unreal, supernatural nature of it all. How many times do real monsters exist only in dreams? Yes! To me, there are places far more frightening than Elm Street. There are plenty of monsters with a permanent address right here on Earth!
Pinhead is the tortured soul from the Hellraiser series, out to recruit as many as possible to the depths of Cenobite Hell. As “angel to some, demon to others” he is the leader of the black-leather-clad clan of flesh-mutilating monsters with the tentacled Leviathan as their God. In Pinhead’s hell, pain and suffering are one with pleasure; they are savored with screams and agony. Humans are stripped of skin and flayed, flesh is torn from their bodies with hooks and chains, and blood is beautiful. “Your suffering will be legendary, even in Hell,” Pinhead says, with a smile. “I’ll rip your soul apart!” “What a waste of good suffering.” “The box…you opened it, we came!” Yes! All of this and more can be yours, if you dare, with the opening of “the box”–Lemarchand’s Configuration–and the eerie music-box notes, playing like a lullaby, ironically, before the slaughter. “What can be ‘scarier’ than a monster that loves pain?” you ask. “What can be ‘scarier’ than a monster who feels pleasure with the worst of things we can do to him?” As much as I love Pinhead and find him frightening, he is not the scariest movie monster I know. While he (from the ingenious mind of Clive Barker), is one of the most original, imaginative creatures to come along in decades, he is again, exactly that—a monster born of, and dwelling only within, imagination. There are scarier monsters in the real world and, as Pinhead says, “I have such sites to show you!”
Pennywise the Clown (from the TV mini-series IT) is on the ballot for several reasons. First, like many people, I’ve always found clowns ironically frightening. Maybe it’s because they are the face of joy and happiness outwardly, yet they are someone (or sometimes something) unknown beneath. The recent urban legend of creepy clown sightings across the country (and now overseas) fuels even more of the fear and hysteria surrounding them. Sightings of clowns attempting to lure unsuspecting children into the woods to kidnap and kill them have been rampant. (The year 2016 marked the first Halloween for which clown masks were not even sold at most stores in the city where I live!) Ultimately, maybe clowns are frightening because something so “creepy” to so many is specifically meant to attract and entertain, of all most vulnerable humans, children. Of course, current events as they are have equal power in making something the “scariest” at a time.
“Dressing up as a clown to scare people may seem like a joke, but it is no laughing matter,” Cumbria Superintendent Mark Pannone said. “The fear of such incidents is deeply upsetting children in Cumbria and causing them a great deal of distress.” ~ CNN
In a quote from Stephen King’s novel, It, Pennywise says that frightening children is like “salting the meat,” suggesting that children taste better when they are scared. (How creepy is that?) So, dance and frighten them he does, to make his meals all the tastier…and all the more plentiful. A clown that frightens and devours children seems like the ultimate monster, right? Of course! What’s more is that there are parallels between Pennywise and a real-life killer clown I would be remiss not to mention here. Many even theorize that this real killer clown was King’s inspiration for Pennywise. That clown is one of the most vile, perverted humans in all of history and one whose name I almost refuse to include– John Wayne Gacy. Gacy was a pedophile clown who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys between 1972 and 1978. During the same time, he also entertained and amused people in his own community as a real clown. What greater monsters are there than those who kill children? What monsters are scarier than those who commit such atrocities, all under such a harmless guise?
With Pennywise as a child-murdering clown akin to Gacy, it would seem that our monster contest here is over. It could indeed be, if it were not for one important detail about Pennywise that alienates him, quite literally, from reality, Gacy and first place. Pennywise, as you may know is, in fact, an alien from another world (or another universe entirely), only disguising himself as a clown to attract the children he needs for food. Pennywise is an entity from the “Macroverse” who existed even before the Big Bang. He crash-landed like an asteroid millions of years ago in what would become the Town of Derry. There, he remained in a state of hibernation until 1715, now returning to wreak havoc at 30 year intervals. This shapeshifter, whose true form can’t be perceived by the human mind, has many names: It, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Robert “Bob” Gray, The Eater of Worlds, and Consumption are some. Wow! What a biography!
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize…” ~ Stephen King
Yes! Pennywise’s cosmic origins disqualify him in my mind, since aliens (as much as I believe they are out there), have not yet been proven to exist on Earth. In other words, it’s a case of too much fiction for minds that need terrestrial connections. Yes, Pennywise! You’re actually not enough like Gacy, and I’m happy to say so. Even with an out-of-this-world performance from Tim Curry, you’re down for the count and out of the universe. Those sharp teeth you have look dangerous, but for reasons beyond the stars, the fear doesn’t bite! Your shapeshifting form that can’t be perceived by humans is far too abstract for fear of the “scariest” kind.
The Thing (from John Carpenter’s indisputable 1982 classic) is another that I cannot exclude from the contest of “scariest” monsters in human form, although his flaws here may be already obvious. The Thing fits the bill for fear indeed, and is also a monster from one of my all-time favorite science fiction/horror films (so, I will try to be impartial). Yes! The Thing is another shapeshifting doppleganer from another world, truly terrifying because it could be anyone around you. It is a monster we don’t understand that resides in the facade of our friends, family, and all of those with whom we have (or should have) no fears. The Thing is a monster that kills you by absorbing, on a cellular level, all that you are, using genetics to reproduce you–or anyone else (or thing) it has previously consumed. It is a growing collective of everything it eats, becoming all the more dangerous and intelligent with every meal. The tension, fear and paranoia in the characters, as MacReady gives everyone a blood test, matches the best of anything I’ve seen in a horror film; it is also the essence of true terror The Thing creates in us all–fear and distrust of everyone we know.
Of course, who can forget the scene in which Vance’s head, having fallen from the gurney, sprouts legs and scurries across the floor like a spider, unbeknownst to the others in the room? Who doesn’t feel the urge to tell them (to scream out) that this Thing is on the loose, although we know it’s just a movie? This is but one of the many scenes that are now classic (and truly scary) in John Carpenter’s The Thing, etched in our collective consciousness, shared and felt by all. Given too much suspicion, The Thing can even become “man’s best friend”–breaking through our protective layers further, making us more vulnerable yet again! The Thing is a monster (like Stephen King’s It) that hides in plain sight, all the more scary in doing so! Here, like many others, it’s the monster beneath the skin that is all the more terrifying!
As you may guess from my analysis of It, The Thing has the same shortcomings, when judged with the rubric for this contest. The Thing, like It, is from another world and, in my mind, has greater difficulty scaring the part of my brain that feels fear. Perhaps in a nightmare, when I am vulnerable like those in The Thing, I could feet it; but, not in the waking world of reality. I cannot feel as afraid of aliens from another world that are not proven to be among us. I cannot believe, really, in anything that absorbs my friends and morphs into their physical facade. Again, my logical brain keeps reminding me all too often, as a primal self-defense I cannot disarm. In a science fiction/horror world, perhaps in the future, I will be in great danger unless I adapt quickly. However, for now, as much I truly love The Thing, I must, with regret, say that there are monsters still who scare me more. As with It, The Thing’s origins are too abstract and too far away.
Michael Myers is the quintessential serial-killer kid, scarier than the best in most nightmares and real life. What’s special about Michael? He is the only monster, so far, who is truly human, with no supernatural traits whatsoever. Yes! Michael’s Halloween monster status is the product of simply being mentally deranged (if that is ever so simple). He is a sociopath and a psychopath driven by his illness and whatever evil that motivates him further. Dr. Loomis calls Michael “the most dangerous patient I have ever observed.” Yes! At the age of 6 he killed his sister. After escaping from the mental assylum at age 21, Michael goes on a rampage aimed at killing his remaining family members, along with whoever else gets in his way.
“I met him, fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left. No reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.” ~ Dr. Sam Loomis
As a child/murderer combo, Michael taps into the fear we have about the most innocent among us being the most dangerous. He is the most dangerous because he is a child–someone who would cause us to lower our guard and be totally vulnerable in his presence. At 6, Michael is already a knife-wielding pyscho, with a mask mirroring his sociopathic apathy for human life; as a child, he is already devoid of emotion or empathy for anyone. Dr. Loomis said he realized that “…what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.” As a an adult, the evil in Michael lives on; and, he is all the scarier because, with the mask, we see him as the more terrifying child murderer he was. Whether from the 1978 original or the 2007 Rob Zombie remake, Michael is a horrific example of what humans (and children) can really become, at their worst, all the more frightening because they are children. Yes, Michael! You’re a close runner up for me; but, there’s just one problem. You’re still fiction. You didn’t really exist, and there are those who did!
Finally, there is Leatherface (from the 1974 classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). He is another monster of the human kind, pure and simple, without superhuman, supernatural, or otherworldly traits. Leatherface is based loosely on a real man now infamous in the annals of murder and depravity—Ed Gein–known officially as The Butcher of Plainfield. Yes! He was a man (if you can call him that) whose atrocities are legendary, adding to the cult following of the movie itself. Gein was a monster who dressed out humans like game animals, hanging them on meat hooks to be bludgeoned, eviscerated, slaughtered, and bled…alive! Human bones, teeth, body parts, and skin were used to make personal and household items. Female lips, nipples and sex organs were collected…and yes, true to the movie, a mask was made from a human face! Soon after his mother’s death, Gein even created a “woman suit” so that “…he could become his mother—to literally crawl into her skin.” Searching Gein’s house, authorities also found the following horrors:
- Whole human bones and fragments
- Wastebasket made of human skin
- Human skin covering several chair seats
- Skulls on his bedposts
- Female skulls, some with the tops sawn off
- Bowls made from human skulls
- A corset made from a female torso skinned from shoulders to waist
- Leggings made from human leg skin
- Masks made from the skin from female heads
- Mary Hogan’s face mask in a paper bag
- Mary Hogan’s skull in a box
- Bernice Worden’s entire head in a burlap sack
- Bernice Worden’s heart “in a plastic bag in front of Gein’s potbellied stove”
- Nine vulvae in a shoe box
- A young girl’s dress and “the vulvas of two females judged to have been about fifteen years old”
- A belt made from female human nipples
- Four noses
- A pair of lips on a window shade drawstring
- A lampshade made from the skin of a human face
- Fingernails from female fingers
The fact that Leatherface is only loosely based on a real man and his atrocities is part of the horror that makes it scarier. The list of body parts collected by the real Ed Gein (as stand alone information) makes him even worse than the chainsaw-toting Leatherface we know from the movie. However, Leatherface commits enough of the same atrocities as Gein to take him to the finish line here. Like Gein, Leatherface kills his victims with raw, gritty brutality. He treats them like slabs of meat ready to be butchered, hitting them with sledge hammers, hanging them on meathooks while still alive and, of course, cutting them to pieces with a chainsaw. To make it worse, Leatherface squeals like a pig as he kills, enjoying it all!
With all of his cinematic horrors, Leatherface is an edited version of the real man, representing the most terrifying truthes about humans at their worst. Even the occasional deviant like Gein stains us all, rubbing our evil potential in our face. Leatherface is not just a movie monster; he’s a real-life monster, reminding us of who we are as humans, haunting our nightmares as well as our world awake. Yes! He is part of the world in which we live, creating real horror for us all—dangers we cannot predict or sometimes even imagine. Whether in the small-town of of Plainfield, Wisconsin, your own hometown, or in the house next door, Leatherface is there, somewhere, when you least expect him, ready to kill you in the worst way. He is one of us, until we find out he is not; without his mask, he looks just like you and I. (Look at the ordinary-looking man in the photo above, and see for yourself.) So, yes! Leatherface is not just “scary,” he is truly and utterly terrifying. Without a doubt, and with regret, he wins the contest.
This is, of course, only my personal analysis of what is truly “scary” about monsters, making one more terrifying than another. Ultimately, however, it’s all a very personal and subjective thing. Fear is a matter of what makes us tick as humans, resulting from our experiences, our perceptions of the world, and our innate differences as individuals. No! I don’t think I have the answer for all, but I damn sure have the answer for myself…and with that, I am very scared, indeed! As Pinhead says, this “presses the stinking face of humanity into the dark blood of its own secret heart.” Leatherface is, by far, the worst and most truly human of monsters…and that, indeed, scares the hell out of me!