When we tend to talk about women in horror, it’s very easy to conjure up the age-old trope and imagery of the female slasher victim – like in Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street – because of their promiscuity and body positivity within said slasher movies. Female antagonists however have been more than just the gory, tantalising titillation aimed at bringing hordes of men to the cinema. As we look at these terrifying female horror villains, you will recognise those from movies you know and love, and be surprised to learn of a few female antagonists whose villainous calamities you’ve failed to remember.
10. Nancy Downs | The Craft (1996) | Portrayed by Fairuza Balk
Nancy Downs might be number 10, but I am pretty certain for a lot of people this is understood to be subjective and if we changed the dynamic of this list somewhat, Nancy would be our number 1. The Craft rose to worldwide commercial and critical acclaim, and truly was one of the first teen horror movies to really focus on young women. While still loosely stereotyped in this movie, the main antagonist Nancy is maniacal in her madness. The recognisable bully, the backhanded complimenting that most people see when really paying attention, intertwined with the hunger for power and control in her otherwise uncontrollable life. A true example of understanding why horror villains do what we do.
“We are the weirdos, mister.”
Fairuza Balk plays this character incredibly well… almost too well that it’s unsettling to watch! While she receives her comeuppance towards the end of the movie, she wreaks chaos amongst her victims and continues to grow more confident with her power, losing her humanity along the way. A truly riveting revelation of women in power, or our teenage angst power dreams coming to reality and really not giving in to morality, or allowing any part of it to take hold while we dig further and further into the darkness, losing ourselves along the way.
9. Ginger | Ginger Snaps (2000) | Portrayed by Katharine Isabelle
Ginger Snaps (review) focuses on small town mentality and depravity in the form of teenage sisters Ginger and Bridgette; with one sister unfortunately the victim of a horrific werewolf attack. What’s so interesting about this film is it covers so many topics: sisterhood, teenage angst, suburbia and boredom, all while telling an incredible werewolf horror story. All of this entwined leads to a fantastic movie, but the core of Ginger Snaps revolves around Ginger’s attack and her havoc reeking behaviour in the aftermath within the suburban town; threatening the sisterhood relationship Brigette and Ginger have grown apart from.
Ginger is an incredibly nuanced character, and even more so when we add the complexities of teenage angst to the midst. Frankly, had this been Teen Wolf it would have been a heralding success. Ginger Snaps really is the ultimate depiction of teenage angst and journey to adulthood. Katharine Isabelle’s Ginger is still to this day one of my all-time favourite villains – so unsuspecting and really controlled by her urges – and for that reason, Ginger is number 9.
8. Minister Mason | Snowpiercer (2013) | Portrayed by Tilda Swinton
Sometimes a villain doesn’t have to be outrageously maniacal. That’s the beauty of the truly great horror stories of our time, and whilst Snowpiercer straddles a few genres, it’s definitely a horror movie! Minister Mason, a teacher and second in command aboard the ever-moving Snowpiercer train, is charged to protect the life she and the upper echelons of society live, by oppressing the lower classes to the result of murder and mayhem. There are no redeeming qualities in this character, but Tilda Swinton takes it a bit further and almost creates a caricature that Minister Mason is overwhelmingly associated with the movie.
Most maniacs and typical horror villains wouldn’t work in Snowpiercer, but with the type of cowardly characters, such as Minister Mason, it works wonderfully! And you can bet that we have each witnessed the type of character Swinton portrays in real life. It’s hard to write characters that are so over the top, but also brought to life when life and death is held to such a linear line as living on a train that never stops due to the chaos exposed outside for 18 years. It’s the main reason for Minister Mason’s inclusion, and whilst she isn’t the core villain, she is one of the core components of this movie and it wouldn’t have been as impactful if she wasn’t there.
7. Red | Us (2019) | Portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o
Us is a masterpiece from visionary Jordan Peele; a tale so unsettling in tone and so different when compared to most horror blockbusters we witness. What makes this movie so unsettling is the ability to truly recognise its villains; are they the direct doppelgangers of our main protagonists, or are the protagonists really the antagonists? Red is of course our main antagonist (or so we are led to believe) and is in fact the only direct doppelganger who can muster up some words, compared to that of her fellow mute collective.
Red is so disturbing and so driven to obtain what she wants, to simply be free in her society instead of underground, playing a relentless force for the narrative of the movie; breaking down barriers and obtaining ultimate freedom in such a horrific way. The messaging in this movie is so close to home in the underlying core ideas it portrays – racism, classism and privilege – with Red reminding us that becoming human and free is probably the biggest fight of our life, and she’s willing to fight fucking hard for it in such a menacing and frightening way.
6. Missy Armitage | Get Out (2017) | Portrayed by Catherine Keener
It’s difficult to pinpoint one villain from this movie as there really are so many – and quite a few female villains to boot – but Missy Armitage is really the epitome of terrifying in Get Out (review). Missy’s ability to hypnotise our main protagonist Chris, using her medicine and brainwashing skills to make Chris vulnerable, powerless and succumb to the terrifying ordeals of brain transplanting to whomever is on the Order of the Coagula’s list of next service.
Missy is unsettling in so many ways; she’s quiet and calm in her demeanour, never revealing her intent. And the fact that I am sure so many people seek out therapists, equating that level of vulnerability to be exploited in such a terrifying way – to transport the victim to any headspace necessary to torture and attack – is really why Missy is number 6 on this list. I could talk all day about the power balances at play but Missy is a truly terrifying depiction of depravity, all whilst wielding the most unsuspecting killer tool of all time: the teacup.
5. Baby Firefly | House of 1000 Corpses (2003) + The Devil’s Rejects (2005) + 3 from Hell (2019) | Portrayed by Sheri Moon Zombie
Most horror fans know Rob Zombie, and most of those fans certainly know Sheri Moon Zombie. While it’s easy to attribute the House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and 3 from Hell’s (review) success to that of Rob Zombie’s writing credentials – developing a trilogy that introduced fan favourites such as Captain Spalding and Otis (played by the immeasurable Sid Haig and Bill Mosely) – we were also introduced to one of the key members of “The Devil’s Rejects”: Sheri Moon Zombie’s Baby Firefly. Baby is a wild ride of a character, honestly, and I don’t think there is another female character like her amongst the huge catalogue of horror movies of our time.
“Well, you gonna take me back to your room and play with me? Or is my brother going to have to shoot your fuckin’ teeth outta your head?”
Baby Firefly is of course absolutely insane and integral to the success of the other two antagonists in a trilogy following a bunch of absolutely degrading, despicable serial killers – watching them torturing victims and playing drunken games with each other – all while Baby not only takes part in the depravity, but is key to the success of the family’s murdering ways. She truly is a terrifying depiction of the ultimate female villain uncensored and unfiltered. She doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks about her and yet there is a redeeming quality in the character; a message that conveys far beyond the originally intended narrative of the trilogy.
As enjoyable as the finale of The Devil’s Rejects is – witnessing the cops shoot seven kinds of shit out of all the antagonists whilst trying to ride into the sunset (with the impeccable sounds of Freebird by Lynrd Skynrd playing over the carnage) – you can’t help feel sorry for almost all of the characters, particularly Baby, which is a testament to Sherri’s powers as an actress and Rob’s writing chops. I hope we don’t ever see a real-world representation of Baby in this lifetime as she truly is one of a kind but for all the wrong reasons. You know the whole murdering thing!
4. Helen Lyle | Candyman (1992) | Portrayed by Virginia Madsen
It’s difficult to really dig into the character of Helen Lyle, and some might argue that she wasn’t really a villain, and instead was manipulated by the Candyman before ultimately redeeming herself towards the end of the movie. But what is really fascinating about the character is that we may never really know what happened to Helen. Virginia Madsen played a superb character, both from the intrigued aspect of an innocent research student invested in their subject (maybe a little too much!) to one who can convey emotionally that they have strayed too far into the darkness of the subject matter itself.
“Candyman, huh? You scared of him?”
While ultimately the story of Candyman is to never forget the atrocities faced by those persecuted – who now are seeking revenge on any and all who exploit them to keep the “Candyman” story alive – the ending provides numerous opportunities to do just that with a female perspective and have a Helen Lyle story. I still hope we witness a spin-off, as it would have been an interesting perspective; a new tale to be told. The female horror villain is important in that it shows that female characters can be written with such diversity, and it’s shocking that it is still so difficult to find really well written female characters in horror. This is why Helen is ultimately number 4 on my list.
In fact, with the release of the 2021 direct sequel – written by the creator of the superbly written Get Out – Jordan Peele and director Nia DaCosta put a unique perspective and twist on the protagonist’s partner, where she ultimately utilises the Candyman to her direct advantage. Yes, this advantage is quite rightly warranted, but that doesn’t make it less horrific; allowing the character to step over the line from victim to villain quite rapidly, allowing audiences to continue questioning the dark/good morals portrayed in horror films such as Candyman that make them such classics.
3. Pamela Voorhees | Friday the 13th (1980) | Portrayed by Betsy Palmer
It’s easy to forget or overlook the fact that the main antagonist in the original Friday the 13th (review) was of course Pamela Voorhees; the mother of Jason Voorhees, a young boy who drowned due to neglect at the now infamous Camp Crystal Lake some decades earlier. 12 movies, and TV series, and numerous comic books later, people still latch on to Jason, the cash cow villain.
Indeed, his impact on horror/slasher movies from then until now is unmistakable. But we mustn’t forget that Pamela was our original slasher villain, targeting unsuspecting and promiscuous teens – a standard horror trope that still exists to this day – with a really surprising twist; Betsy playing the caring mother and then turning up the villainous character to 11 at the culmination of our movie, leading to her decapacitation. Pamela is still one of our most infamous villains of all time and quite frankly the mother of slashers in general. While its shock ending is still very iconic, even though it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, you can never forget the expression on Pamela’s face when she knows she’s about to be killed off.
2. Carrie White | Carrie (1976) | Portrayed by Sissy Spacek
An adaptation of a Stephen King novel of the same name, Carrie (review) is the ultimate revenge tale. It’s difficult to categorise Carrie as a horror film alone as it follows the standard formula/tropes of the revenge thriller, but also has a lot of humanism in our main villain. Carrie White is a bullied, victimised teen with an extreme religious and coddled upbringing adding to the complexity of the character.
We have a tendency in a lot of revenge movies to side with the antagonist and Carrie is no different. We legitimately feel for the antagonist when witnessing her experiences which leads to the telekinesis culling of those responsible for the torment she has been subjected to. Carrie is the ultimate character portrayal, and an excellent delve into the psyche, of a traumatic teen succumbing to her darker powers and the inevitable fate that is beholden to that of Carrie White.
1. Annie Wilkes | Misery (1990) | Portrayed by Kathy Bates
It comes as no surprise that my favourite villain in this list is no other than Annie Wilkes from the 1990 Rob Reiner adaptation of the infamous Stephen King novel Misery. Kathy Bates performance as the shy, obsessed, unhinged Annie Wilkes earned her an Oscar win and rightfully so. Annie’s character is so apparent in normalcy that it reeks of disturbance, even more so than the average slasher-esque movies allow for. Bates, and of course King, scratch the surface of humanism and the idea that anyone can instantly switch from our most rightous human selves into something dark, horrifying and genuinely evil.
“There’s nothing to worry about. You’re going to be just fine. I will take good care of you. I’m your number one fan.”
While Stephen King superbly writes characters in all of his works, Annie is really a testament to Kathy Bates’ performance of playing such a vulnerable character who can immediately become the horror villain that only our worst nightmares can conjure in the blink of an eye, or in the swing of a sledgehammer. It’s easy in horror to make a character innocent and vulnerable, but it’s not as easy to switch them from vulnerable to torturer in the smallest of moments that the writers want to convey. But Annie is so uneasy of a character to reconcile the idea of her evil ways compared to her normalcy, and really that is all down to her obsession taking over. It’s the ultimate terrifying and horrific experience, which is why Annie will always be number 1.