Too often in this world, women are not afforded the chance to get even.
Not so in the annals of the horror film, where female baddies have long been every bit as likely as their male counterparts to spill blood, take prisoners and generally scare the sh*t out of us.
So on a day devoted to all things spooky, we asked our editorial staff to compile, rank and discuss the 20 horror-genre ladies who terrified them most.
From possessed adolescents to ax-wielding fangirls to more witches than you can shake a broomstick at, here they are.
20. The Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), The Woman (2011)
One might find it hard to believe that McIntosh’s titular character, the last of a tribe of savage, forest-dwelling cannibals lurking along the northeast coast, is not, in fact, the film’s villain. But when she’s wronged — and boy, oh boy is she wronged — her ultimate retribution is swift, terrible and incredibly satisfying. Super disgusting, but satisfying.
19. Mommy (Susanne Wuest), Goodnight Mommy (2014)
What happens when your mother comes home with a new face? And why does she have a new face, anyway? And what happened to the father? And why are there cockroaches everywhere, including crawling in and out of her mouth while she sleeps? Goodnight Mommy answers all of these questions deliberately and cryptically, as a good horror movie should.
18. Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), The Orphan (2009)
We’ve seen a few directors manipulate the innocence of children for their own scary cinematic gain, but none do it as masterfully as Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Orphan. As if the name Esther didn’t give us the heebie jeebies enough, this not-so-little girl brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “child from hell.” Adopting a brilliant, angelic, underprivileged youth sounds like a great idea until that youth turns out to be a diabolical, predatory, unstable 30-something here to murder your wife and children in cold blood. Oh, and then try to seduce you.
17. Genesis & Bell (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas), Knock Knock (2015)
Poor, poor Keanu. Does his best as a married man to resist the temptations proffered by a pair of allegedly lost, incredibly nubile lasses who come knocking at his door in a rainstorm, but ultimately succumbs to their advances only to find that post-tryst, they’re hell-bent-for-leather on torturing him and ruining his life. Beware “free pizza,” lads — it always comes at a cost.
16. The Woman (Beatrice Dalle), Inside (2007)
Pregnant women are just supposed to be off-limits. A pregnant woman’s belly in particular. Cradle of life and all that. But Beatrice Dalle’s deranged, nameless antagonist apparently didn’t get the memo, as she embarks on a horrifyingly brutal mission to cut the unborn baby out of a hapless Alysson Paradis. Shocking violence masterfully tangled with themes of maternal instinct and psychological breakdown, plus an absolute doozy of an ending that, while we won’t ruin it for you here, might give second thoughts to those considering children in the near future.
15. She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Antichrist (2009)
Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier has made a career of making audiences squirm, and Antichrist, the first installment of his “Depression” trilogy, may very well go down as his most divisive work. For the first three chapters of the film, Gainsbourg’s unnamed (and masterfully depicted) character is unerringly sympathetic: a mother grieving for the loss of her only son, now subjected to torturous daily therapy sessions by a domineering husband (Willem Dafoe). But after he makes a startling discovery at a cabin in the woods, she goes — in a word — apesh*t. We’ll spare you the details here, but let’s just say neither one of them will be having kids again anytime soon.
14. Dollface and Pin-Up Girl (Gemma Ward and Laura Margolis), The Strangers (2008)
One of the most genuinely tense home-invasion thrillers in a genre that has seen its fair share of stinkers of the last two decades, The Strangers counts two women among its trio of eponymous antagonists. And one of them delivers what is surely the film’s most chilling line: “Because you were home.”
13. The Dwarf (Adelina Poerio), Don't Look Now (1973)
So you spend the better part of two hours on a head-trippy journey with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie through the drabbest, greyest Venice that has ever been captured on film, examining the psychology of grief and its effects on a couple in the wake of their child’s death. Heavy. And then, to cap it off, the film’s closing moments find Sutherland pursuing a small child in a red rain slicker identical to the one his daughter died in, ultimately cornering his elusive quarry in an abandoned palazzo. As he reaches out to offer assistance, we can almost believe he is finally about to connect with the spirit of his dear deceased progeny — but alas, she turns and reveals herself to be a terrifying wrinkled dwarf crone who promptly brandishes a meat cleaver and uses it to slice a shocked Sutherland’s throat. As far as WTF endings go, this is a Hall of Famer.
12. The Girl (Sheila Vand), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, (2014)
Vand’s female vampire might not be the most terrifying femme fatale on this list (scene in which she casually bites off a pimp’s finger notwithstanding), but watching her skateboard down the deserted, halogen-lit streets of director Ana Lily Amirpour’s fictional Iranian ghetto Bad City, chador streaming behind her like a traditional Persian nod to Dracula’s cape, it’s hard to argue that she’s not the coolest. Bonus points for her semblance of a moral compass in victim selection as well.
11. Witches (Bathsheba Garnett and Sarah Stephens), The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015)
The film that scary movie fans loved to hate, The Witch shirks quick-and-easy adrenaline spikes in favor of a slower-burning brand of horror steeped in existential and religious fear, with womanhood and self-indulgence offered as a tonic to one Puritanical family’s oppressively pious experience with the world. The family, helmed by a tired man of arrogant character, becomes the object of a forest coven’s base, ungodly desires. There are many readings to these characters. Here is one: Fear of God (or eternity) and acceptance of a hard lot in an inhospitable world is one way to live. Or you can harness your own powers to become impervious to judgment, piety and perhaps even the patriarchy.
10. Pam Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), Friday the 13th (1980)
Summer camp cooks and overprotective mothers are already two of the scarier groups on the planet, and Jason’s mom Pam Voorhees is a member of both. Hell hath no like a woman scorned — or a disgruntled mess-hall cook with an ax, or extra-large hunting knife, to grind.
9. The Female (Scarlett Johansson), Under the Skin (2013)
Had Stanley Kubrick made Species, this is what you’d get: Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial in human form, coolly seducing men back to her home in the country, where a kind of dark, primordial goo swallows them up upon entry. The film is inscrutable on many levels, but a subversion of rape culture — in which the alien female is the predator, and her nondescript suitors, the prey — is surely its most lucid narrative thread.
8. Eli (Lina Leandersson), Let The Right One In (2008)
Think of a time you dealt with an unhinged child: the wailer one table over at dinner or that kid who threw a rock through a window in a fit of rage. These manic episodes are usually followed by relative calm and no hint of remorse, as if nothing happened. That’s the basis of Eli’s eeriness. Except instead of screaming and breaking objects, she lurches out from the shadows to slurp blood from a gaping hole in a stranger’s neck — with no qualms about staining her clothes. Leandersson is so convincing (in a performance that wipes the floor with the English remake Let Me In) that when she softly pads over to her friend Oskar and embraces him, you know your 12-year-old self would help satisfy her vampiric needs as well.
7. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), Fatal Attraction (1987)
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” would be the simple takeaway from this sultry and deeply disturbing flick. What begins as an “innocent” affair between a married man (Michael Douglas) and his co-worker (Glenn Close) quickly spirals into a demented obsession when the man tries to break things off. Safe to say, she doesn’t take it that well. The results of which include bunny boiling, kidnapping and murderous resentment. Though had the original ending run, the vengeful coworker’s obsession would’ve delivered audiences a severely more chilling lesson: that our actions have consequences.
6. Margaret White (Piper Laurie), Carrie (1976)
The real evil in Carrie wasn’t a telekinetic, postmenstrual high school student covered in pig’s blood who kills an entire student body. No, this horrifying event was the result of a frighteningly religious mother (“They’re all going to laugh at you!”) coupled with the ills of high-school social stratification and a lack of decent sex ed.
5. Asani Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), Audition (1990)
A lesson to all you gents out there who think it might be a swell idea to find yourself a new wife by holding a phony open casting call: there is a chance that the pretty young ingenue you become enamored of turns out to be an unhinged psychopath prone to dismembering her lovers, forcing mutilated prisoners to eat vomit and gleefully engaging in needle torture. The male gaze has consequences, y’all!
4. Samara (Daveigh Chase), The Ring (2002)
Revenge is a dish best served via dying technology and wet, stringy hair. Sort of the literal representation of “she’s your problem now.”
3. The Queen, Aliens (1986)
When Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) first confronts the crest-headed alien queen, a very loud film goes very, very still. Soundtrack bombast and fiery explosions give way to a quiet, terrifying awe of witnessing this enormous, egg-laying biomechanical H.R. Giger nightmare. Look, she’s a mom and she’s fiercely protective of her kids, OK?
2. Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), The Exorcist (1973)
“Your mother sucks c*cks in Hell.” Forget Mean Girls: Linda Blair’s transformation from sweet young daughter to foul-mouthed demon spawn, replete with invariably cutting insults, perfectly represents the rigors of female adolescence (though the author of the book apparently just wanted people to think more highly of God).
1. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), Misery (1990)
Of all the nightmare-inducing monsters Stephen King has created, this distinctly human sociopathic superfan might be the scariest. Not because she’s particularly physically imposing, but because she has no problem committing acts of great cruelty in both a calculated manner or on a whim. Childlike at times and prone to bone-breaking tantrums, Wilkes has no problem hurting the people she loves — or using the phrase “cockadoodie” with a straight face.