WIHM 2023: The Most Terrifying Women in Horror Film: A Ranking of Iconic Female Villains
The Most Terrifying Women in Horror Film: A Ranking of Iconic Female Villains
By Luisa Colón
When coming up with a list of the ten most terrifying female villains in horror films, certain themes do seem to pop up. One is needs and anger; women are famous for repressing these ugly qualities or turning them into furiously productive activities such as knitting or—in the context of the horror genre—cutting men’s feet off. Another is competence; apparently, many male filmmakers are absolutely horrified by the concept of an efficient, accomplished woman—even if those accomplishments are represented by body count. And finally, a common theme is the female body. What it does, and how it does it, seems to be the subject of much disgust and contempt, which (sorry, guys!) only reveals how goddamn threatening it is.
I guess women are scary! Remember, Hannibal Lecter ate people, and yet in the years since he made his screen debut, “fava beans and a nice Chianti” has never stopped being a punchline. But a woman wanting a baby? God help us! From a mother’s love to the menstrual period from hell, these ten female horror villains are all woman. Warning: spoilers abound!
1. PAMELA VOORHEES, FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
It’s the question Drew Barrymore gets wrong in the opening of Scream when she plays a movie trivia game with Ghostface over the phone. “Name the killer in Friday the 13th,” Ghostface commands.
“Jason,” screams Barrymore. “I saw that movie twenty goddamn times!”
“Then you should know Jason’s mother, Mrs. Voorhees, was the original killer,” Ghostface retorts. “Jason didn’t show up until the sequel.”
Yes, Ghostface is correct. Although “Jason” is synonymous with Friday the 13th, the franchise’s OG was Jason’s vengeful mother, Pamela (Betsy Palmer).
There are other movies where a woman masquerades as a male killer—Haute Tension comes to mind—or vice versa, but Friday the 13th hits home because of the powerful motherlove projected by Pamela. In a comfy cable-knit sweater and short mom ‘do, she gives a stirring explanation for her murderous deeds. Jason, it turns out, was her only son and not a particularly good swimmer. While working mom Pamela prepared meals as the cook at Camp Crystal Lake, the counselors who were supposed to be watching Jason “were making love”—OMG Mom, no one says that anymore, that’s so cringe!—and the little boy drowned.
The moment Pamela explains that Jason wasn’t a good swimmer might actually bring a tear to your eye, and when she says “I am Jason,” it’s the ultimate expression of the unique bond between a mother and her child—one that, given its context, naturally manifests amidst a massacre of fun-loving teenagers.
2. NOLA CARVETH (THE BROOD 1979)
Divorce can be a bitch—but there’s nothing as bitchy as your ex-wife battling you for custody of your kid. At least, that seems to be David Cronenberg’s attitude in his body horror film The Brood. Cronenberg made The Brood fresh out of his own grim divorce and custody fight, and called it “my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic.”
Art Hindle and Samantha Eggar star as Frank and Nola, an estranged couple at war over the custody of their daughter, Candy (Cindy Hinds). At first, the villain(s) of the movie are difficult to discern. Goblinesque, asexual children without belly buttons go on bloody killing sprees, knocking off Nola’s real and perceived enemies. Nola’s psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) is definitely involved in what’s going on.
But in another, gorgeously and artfully realized expression of motherlove, Eggar is magnificently revealed at the film’s end—lifting her dress so that it resembles butterfly wings, and revealing an external womb—to be a woman so filled with rage that she’s literally giving birth to her anger in the form of her killer babies. Eggar revels in the role of Nola, while the film and its filmmaker are simultaneously awed and infuriated by the maternal bond, as well as the power of a woman and her body.
3. SIL (SPECIES, 1995)
The female body is also the subject of male confusion and terror in Species. While it’s certainly a flawed movie—especially the final scenes, in which H.R. Giger’s visceral alien design is reduced to a CGI mess—the antagonist Sil (Natasha Henstridge) is deadly, efficient, and smoking hot. In other words, pretty much a perfect villain.
Sil is the fast-growing, ill-and-yet-very-well-conceived mashup of human and alien genes; Dr. Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) explains that female DNA was chosen for the experiment to ensure that the results would be more “docile and controllable.” Not only is Sil anything but docile and controllable, she’s also on a mission to mate and have a baby because, you know, evil alien plot. And women!
What transpires is the embodiment of many a rage-fueled female fantasy. Sil brutally murders a woman who c-blocks her at a trendy club. Then she makes quick work of a guy who won’t take no for an answer by stabbing him with her tongue. Then she dispenses with a rich doctor who freaks out when she says she wants a baby (commitmentphobes, die!). And finally, she offs Stephen Arden (Alfred Molina) after having sex with him, probably because he’s been so friggin’ annoying (as evidenced by his last words, when he mansplains conception to an otherworldly supermodel who aged twelve years in three months). In short, Sil is the kind of villain that many women can relate to.
4. ALEX FORREST (FATAL ATTRACTION, 1987), EVELYN DRAPER (PLAY MISTY FOR ME, 1971)
Although Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) talks a good game when she proposes some casual, no-strings-attached sex to Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), by the end of their romantic weekend together, she’s feeling pretty pissed off when he gets out of bed to go home to his wife and kid. First she takes it out on herself by slashing her wrists, forcing Dan to stick around and take care of her. When Alex recovers, she goes after Dan, Dan’s family, and—memorably—the Gallagher’s pet rabbit. While, of course, Alex is psychotic and her behavior unacceptable, there is something amusing about watching Dan’s privileged life come crashing down around him because a woman he slept with has decided she’s not going to be ignored. She messes with him, harasses his family, and destroys his car (you see what happens when you fuck people in the ass?!).
Fatal Attraction closely mirrors Play Misty For Me, in which Jessica Walter plays a similarly unstable but sort of more fun and wackadoo character who is all Miss Fun Fling with DJ Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood) at first, but then starts getting… clingy. Her eventual campaign of terror is aimed at destroying Dave’s life, his career, and his mojo. Play Misty for Me is not as evenly realized as Fatal Attraction, which delivers punch after vicious punch until the viewer is irrevocably on edge. Dan nearly having a heart attack towards the end of the movie when his wife benevolently appears in his den is representative of how we all feel at that point. However, Dave waking up to a crazed, knife-wielding Evelyn in Misty will make you jump out of your skin; it is one of the scariest things, like, ever.
What makes both Alex and Evelyn such effective villains are the seeds of truth and relatability buried within their psychosis, as well as their ability to pinpoint—and competently carry out—exactly what will hit their targets the hardest below the belt.
5. RHODA PENMARK (THE BAD SEED, 1956)
Girl, you’ll be a woman soon… but in the meantime, “What’ll you give me for a basket of kisses? That’s the adorable catchphrase employed by blonde, impeccably braided Rhoda (Patty McCormack), to which her doting father loves to answer, “I’d give you a basket of hugs!” Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly) is increasingly less doting as the film wears on, and it becomes apparent that little Rhoda is a stone-cold killer.
Rhoda’s kills are unambiguously evil. We learn that she killed a kindly old neighbor years ago; the neighbor promised to leave Rhoda a tchotchke when she died, and little Rhoda wanted it sooner rather than later. When a classmate beats her in the school’s penmanship contest, Rhoda one-ups him by beating him with the heels of her iron-enforced “tap shoes” and causing him to fall into a lake and drown. She messily dispatches nosy handyman/groundskeeper Leroy (Henry Jones) by setting his mattress aflame and practicing piano while he loudly burns to death. In fact, Rhoda is so evil that, as per the Hays Code, she is killed off twice in the movie (although she prevails in the novel): once literally by a strike of lightning, and then again figuratively by breaking character at the end and laughingly enduring a playful “spanking” at the hands of Nancy Kelly. You know you have a real villain on your hands when even the filmmakers seem afraid of her.
6. SUE ANN STEPANEK (PRETTY POISON, 1968)
Beautiful blonde Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) could be a high school-age version of Rhoda in the cult classic Pretty Poison. After just one look, Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) is hooked on the effervescent Sue Ann. Perkins and Weld would later appear together just four years later in Play it As It Lays, but their performances in the latter film are melancholy and exhausted. Their pairing in Pretty Poison, however, is pure fire—and to certain fans like myself, it’s the cinematic combination of the century.
Like Rhoda, Sue Ann is just plain bad, but there’s a manic energy in Pretty Poison that emphasizes Sue Ann’s desire for excitement (as opposed to tchotchkes or penmanship medals). When she and Dennis literally fall out of his car having sex, and she proclaims her post-coital mood to be “empty,” it’s a clue that Sue Ann is looking for bigger kicks. Climactically, Sue Ann gets her brassy, bossy mother (a fantastic Beverly Garland) out of the way by shooting her at point-blank range while grinning and licking her lips; she then seamlessly frames Dennis for the murder and is seen at the end of the movie setting up a new fall guy in order to further her adventures. Tuesday Weld is perfection in the role. Her long blonde hair is luminescent, and her gingham perfectly on point, but her nervous gestures—running her tongue over her lips, pushing her hair out of her face—belie rocky waters beneath her lovely facade.
7. “BABY JANE” HUDSON, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962)
The sheer competence of a movie villain can be terrifying, and although “Baby Jane” Hudson (Bette Davis) looks like a hot mess, her vendetta against paraplegic sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) is relentlessly on point. Jane was a popular child star in the vaudeville days, but fell into obscurity and alcoholism as an adult, while Blanche became a successful dramatic actress. Blanche’s career ended after a super-sus car accident broke her spine (all signs point to a drunken Jane as the perpetrator), and the two live together in Blanche’s mansion with Jane as the dubiously effective caretaker.
With her thick pancake makeup, crazy eyes, and sausage curls, Davis is terrifying as Jane, right down to details such as the coy, heart-shaped beauty mark on one cheek and her doily-inspired little girl getups. Her expression goes from bright-eyed psychotic to barely contained fury in an instant and it’s really scary. In Baby Jane, rage is again a core feature of the villain. Jane resents Blanche’s success and wealth, her elegance and reserve. Although Jane tries to drown her sorrows in a never-ending delivery of alcohol (“I’d like to order six bottles of scotch and three bottles of gin”), that rage is simmering. When it finally boils over, Jane commits to making Blanche’s life even more of a nightmare—and damn, she’s good at it.
Blanche frequently gets thisclose to summoning help, but Jane thwarts her every time. In some instances, it’s hilarious, like when Jane imitates Blanche’s voice on the telephone. Blanche’s subsequent beatdown by Jane, wielding the same telephone, is much less hilarious. The film actually becomes downright nauseating as Jane continues to torture Blanche, at one point serving up dead rats instead of food, murdering their kindly housekeeper, and starving Blanche nearly to death before dragging her to the beach for a sisterly heart-to-heart, ice cream cones, and impromptu performance.
8. ANNIE WILKES, MISERY (1990)
Baby Jane is one of many films illustrating the nightmarish scenario of being held captive by a total psycho. But Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Misery adds a frisson of extra horror for us writers.
A lot of times in horror movies, you wonder why the protagonist-in-peril doesn’t just suck up to their captor. Tell them anything they want to hear! “Yes, Jigsaw, I now appreciate life.” “Michael, did you know you have another sister? Tricia Myers! Hold on, let me get her contact info.” “M3gan, I have some new software that will make you even more powerful, can I shut you down for just a couple of mins?” But the thing about Misery is that Paul Sheldon (James Caan) does cleverly play Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), and she still has the upper hand for most of the movie!
Paul is an author who recently finished up his latest book when he gets into a snowy, icy, cliffy car accident with the manuscript by his side. Another of his works, the soon-to-hit-the-shelves Misery’s Child, kills off his popular heroine Misery Chastain. This is bound to disappoint his legions of fans—particularly his “number one fan,” Annie, who rescues Paul from his snowy wreck. She saves his life, brings him to her home, and takes excellent care of him (again, there’s that scary competence).
“You’re very brilliant, and you must be a good man,” Annie gushes while shaving Paul’s face. “Or you could never have created such a wondrous, loving creature as Misery Chastain.” Annie is just tickled as all get-out to snag a copy of Misery’s Child, which she proclaims “better than perfect” before she actually finishes it. When she does finally finish it, there’s a serious problem: she hates it.
It’s a horrifying scenario for any writer, but the idea of this..this lonely, middle-aged bumpkin with a pet pig criticizing a literary great like Paul Sheldon? (Never mind that he’s his own worst critic.) She also hates his recently completed manuscript, which he had hoped was his shot at critical redemption, and makes him set fire to it. And she forces him to write a new novel that brings Misery back to life, against his own creative instinct. She hobbles him. (No, she really hobbles him.) Basically, Paul is in writer’s hell, and Annie is the devil. Or maybe just a literary agent.
9. REGAN MACNEIL, THE EXORCIST (1973)
You could argue that the devil himself is the villain of The Exorcist, but I’d counter that the developing female body is posed as the most frightening thing in the movie. Chipper little Regan becomes possessed by Satan, causing a series of events that manifest as a psycho, bizarro version of pubescence. Regan starts copping a serious attitude and sassing adults. She loses control of her body, peeing on the rug during one of her mom’s late-night soirees. She begins masturbating (with a crucifix) and bleeding (due to penetration with said crucifix), and using inappropriate language. She belligerently flings her mother across a room and is so out of control she must be tied to her bed. She becomes very cold—literally. She has the acne breakout from hell. And she purges like no one has ever purged before: the famous, projectile stream of pea soup that drenches the horrified men in the room.
Like many teenagers who have bodies and emotions being put through the wringer, Regan’s seem like a cry for help. Or maybe it’s the puffy letters that appear on her stomach saying “Help me” that are really the cry for help. Regardless, the movie is terrifying, but not always for the reasons you might expect. Yes, the devil is scary. But the film’s perception of a young girl developing into a woman is even scarier. Regan rants, bleeds, oozes, pukes, and threatens not just men but all of mankind with the exaggerated implications of her very existence, played out in the film as distortedly as the reflection in a funhouse mirror.
10. ASAMI YAMAZAKI, AUDITION (1999)
The meaning(s) behind Takashi Miike’s really super-duper disgusting movie is open to interpretation, but I see it as the ultimate ode to how freaked out men are by “needy” women. And therefore, this movie terrifies its male audience like no other.
Based on one of those ridiculous ideas where couples are tricked into falling in love—but eventually, actually do—widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) “auditions” women to be his new love via a phony casting call. Of course, he zeros in on the crazy chick. Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is beautiful, youthful, and dressed all in white. Their relationship encompasses the age-old conflict between what men want and what they think they want, and how and when they want it. Asami initially sits silently by the phone in her nearly empty apartment, for days, waiting for Shigeharu to call. Isn’t that cute? She has no belongings (baggage) save for a mysteriously lumpy sack on the floor, and her only focus is whether or not her love interest will reach out.
But then she demands that Shigeharu love her, and only her, which feels kinda too needy, but Shigeharu is getting sex out of the deal, so he promises eternal love. However, and here’s where it starts getting scary, the guy can’t meet her needs, he can’t do anything right, the picture he keeps of his late wife really sets Asami off, and she ends up rendering him paralyzed so she can torture him (“kiri, kiri, kiri,” she chirps while plunging needles under his eyes—although it’s translated to “deeper, deeper, deeper,” the term actually refers to “sharp pain” in Japanese). She then cuts off his foot with a wire saw, which is apparently her M.O. Remember the sack in her apartment? In it are the living remains of one of Asami’s old love interests, a dude with no feet, no tongue, and various other missing parts, who’s so dependent on Asami that he eats her vomit, which she serves to him in a dog dish.
A needy young woman. A guy completely and totally dependent on her. A boyfriend set to follow suit (oh, she’ll take his freedom away, all right!). Alex Forrest wanted to take Dan Gallagher’s family away. But Asami? Maybe it’s because she doesn’t like the power dynamic between a young woman and a rich older man; maybe she doesn’t appreciate being tricked into love, or broken promises. Whatever the reason, this loony chick wants to remove her crush object’s limbs. Long story short? Audition is a man’s worst nightmare.
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Luisa Colón is a writer, artist, and cinephile born and raised in New York City. Her first novel, Bad Moon Rising, is a Latinx YA horror/thriller, and will be published by Cemetery Dance in August 2023.