By Mark Cox
There's no shortage of juicy horror icons, but MSU Denver English Professor Christina Angel, Ph.D., decided to focus on some less obvious choices. These are the characters who don’t need bladed gloves or chainsaws to set you on edge.
8. Darth Vader (Star Wars)
Forty years on, a deep-voiced man wearing a black costume with funny helmet and cape accessories probably doesn’t scare most people. But Angel said, "for 7-year-old me, seeing her first “real,” non-kid movie in a theater in 1977, Darth Vader had me positively crawling under my seat. I remember thinking: Who is this person? Why does he keep breathing so noisily? And what exactly is the 'dark side' of the force?" Way before he became a cultural icon, Vader was a fascinating and enigmatic bad guy who was so terrifically frightening precisely because his motivations were unknowable.
7. The Joker (The Dark Knight)
Here’s another villain most people don’t associate with horror, but Heath Ledger’s unforgettable Joker is straight out of people's worst nightmares. A complete sociopath, he is totally unbalanced and unhinged. The fact he just wants to watch the world burn strikes at the heart of everything we fear.
6. James Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes)
Holmes’ archnemesis was always a sinister presence in the original Arthur Conan Doyle books, but the new incarnation of his character in BBC’s “Sherlock” series is terrifying. Both funny and diabolical, he’s impossible to ignore. (The villain’s introductory scene, where he swings from playful banter to coldly promising Shelock: "I will burn you. I will burn the heart out of you!” will find its way into your worst dreams.) Moriarty is so scary because his character is entirely possible in the world – there’s nothing remotely supernatural or comic book-ish about him. He could be sitting next to you on the train, or even your new housemate.
5. Grendel (Beowulf)
This 10th century poem isn’t much read these days, but its fiendish star Grendel stomps all over Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster or any number of shuffling zombies from “The Walking Dead.” Those Anglo-Saxons really knew what was scary – and the genius of the murderous Grendel is that he’s almost exclusively described by his grisly actions, leaving your own fevered imagination to conjure up his actual appearance. Every night for 12 years, Grendel stalks and attacks King Hrothgar’s Mead Hall, ripping apart and eating warriors at will – until heroic Beowulf arrives to tear off the monster’s arm and take his head as a trophy. But then round two starts, as Grendel’s equally unsavory mother comes skulking along.
4. Witch King of Angmar (The Lord of the Rings)
The most powerful of the ringwraiths is truly the stuff of nightmares. How else do you describe a faceless, undead entity in a big spiky helmet who has the power to turn anyone into a creature of shadow with a mere touch of his blade? But ultimately the best thing about this scary creature is the manner of his end – defeated and destroyed by a woman warrior, based on a technicality. (“No man can kill me,” he loftily intones. So the woman pulls off her helmet, retorts “I am no man” and skewers him with her sword.) This Witch King was also clearly the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Dementors in the “Harry Potter” series, the horrifying shadow creatures who suck the souls from their victims.
3. Bluebeard (Charles Perrault)
Now things start to get nasty. Real fairy tales are full of horrors. But still, nothing strikes terror in readers like “Bluebeard.” Most people don’t know this story because there is absolutely no way to Disney-fy it. In the tale, Bluebeard’s new wife is given untold riches and the keys to his glorious castle. But there’s one provison – she is not to open one particular door. Of course, she does and discovers a blood-soaked room where pieces of Bluebeard's dismembered former wives are hanging from hooks on the walls. Worse, the enchanted key bleeds once used so Bluebeard knows she used it. Maybe the most disturbing idea here is that the wife might have lived “happily ever after” among the mutilated corpses had she not disobeyed that one request. Shivers.
2. Tom Riddle (The Harry Potter series)
Yes, Tom Riddle, rather than the cataclysmically evil Lord Voldemort character young Tom would later evolve into. Even at a tender age, he’s clearly a powerful wizard and a highly intelligent sociopath. (He hauntingly admits to Professor Dumbledore he can use his powers on other children to “make them hurt.”) Just the thought of his wickedness – unleashing a deadly giant serpent on his friends; killing another classmate and dooming her to exist as a whimpering bathroom ghost - is enough to keep people up at night.
1. The Pale Man (Pan’s Labyrinth)
If this impossibly freakish-looking ghoul with eyes in the palms of his hands doesn’t shake you to the core, you’re unflappable. A cross between a witch, ogre and all-purpose monster, the Pale Man is depicted in the movie as eating children. "The scene in which he stumbles up awkwardly behind our oblivious young heroine Ofelia while she’s munching on some grapes literally makes me too anxious to look at the screen," said Angel. "In fact, whenever I screen 'Pan’s Labyrinth' in a class, I almost always have to leave the room for a few minutes." Really, what child has not feared this kind of boogeyman?
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