As any lover of horror will tell you, picking a short list of favorite monsters is no easy feat. The most classic of movie monsters are those with an element of tragedy; the ones who evoke empathy as well as horror. While I love the classics and admire the craft required to create a sympathetic monster, I don’t know that they are the most terrifying of monsters. To qualify, a monster must be truly frightening, something that makes you want to hide under the bed, if only you could be sure that there wasn’t something much, much worse lurking, just out of sight, down there. For truly terrifying fiends, films can find a tremendous amount of mileage in fears of children and childhood. Read on for my top five in this category!
1. Creepy Kids
By subverting the notion of children as harmless innocents, creepy kids make for extraordinary effective movie monsters. Whether made evil by external intervention, as in The Exorcist or Pet Semetery, or simply born bad like little Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, these children of horror are more perceptive than you, more devious, and without a single moral objection to your violent dimise. Playing upon mankind’s perceived biological imperative to protect children, these monsters ruthlessly twist any act of mercy and care into a lethal mistake.
One of my favorites of these is Samara from 2002’s The Ring. Rachel, our protagonist, sees poor Samara as a tragic figure, murdered by her own mother simply for being too different. This progressive perspective also allows Rachel, presented earlier in the film as a questionable mother to her own son, Aidan, to become a nuturing hero, saving Samara and therefore proving her own superior, enlightened maternal instinct. Except no. Samara is actually a sea monster rape-baby who gleefully wants to burn awful images into your mind until you die horribly. She doesn’t “just want to be heard,” Rachel. She just wants to kill you.
Aidan: What happened to the girl?
Aidan: Is she still in the dark place?
Rachel: No. We set her free.
Aidan: You helped her?
Aidan: Why did you do that?
Rachel: What’s wrong, honey?
Aidan: You weren’t supposed to help her. Don’t you understand, Rachel? She never sleeps.
2. Scary Dolls
Psychologists recognize automatonophobia as the fear of anything falsely representing a sentient being, including robots, dolls, and ventriloquist dummies. Perhaps, like creepy kids and evil clowns, dolls make for terrifying monsters by representing the juxtaposition of the joyous things of childhood with the looming inevitability of death and decay. Scary dolls are like creepy kids, but littler, creepier, and therefore more likely to be tucked into hidden spaces, watching you. Watching and waiting…
Although horror offers plenty of scary dolls to chose from, including the disturbing Dolly from Dolly Dearest and sinister Hugo from Dead of Night, the eponymous dolls from 1987’s Dolls win in a multi-way tie for my favorite scary doll monster for sheer horrifying volume alone. Killed and imprisoned in toys to pay for their crimes, the evil souls possessing these dolls might be sympathetic if they weren’t so completely full of malevolent, unrepentant mischief, fully committed to killing you, even if it takes their tiny doll hands all night to do it.
3. The Monster in the Closet
That thing that’s lurking under the bed. Or possibly in the closet, or in the dark at the bottom of the basement stairs, where the light doesn’t quite reach. These monsters, easily dismissible in the light of day, gain a terrifying immediacy and presence in the dark, when you feel the sudden, irrational imperative to gauge the leap between the light switch and the relative safety of your bed.
Well represented by Lovecraft’s Night-Gaunts and The Whisperer in the Darkness, my favorite Monster in the Closet can be found in Stephen King’s short story, The Boogeyman, which asked “Did you look in the closet?” and left me unable to sleep alone for an entire summer. Since the latest short film version of the story hasn’t been released yet (and we don’t acknowledge the 1982 full length atrocity of an adaptation), I’ll use a short film inspired by a collection of two-sentence horror stories, The Little Witch, to illustrate my choice. Sleep tight, kittens.
4. Evil Clowns
Clowns were once considered gentle buffoons, the perfect choice to entertain crowds of children. Now we know better. As a society, we have recast clowns as monsters, lurid freaks and crazed killers, their painted-on smiles intense grins of maniacal joy. In The History and Psychology of Scary Clowns, Smithsonian Magazine notes that no less an authority than Andrew McConnell, English professor and coulrophobia historian, credits Charles Dickens with introducing the idea of the clown as a secret, sinister monster, “an off-duty clown…whose inebriation and ghastly, wasted body contrasted with his white face paint and clown costume.”
Whatever the reasons clowns make for fabulously frightening movie monsters, there are no shortage of candidates for a favorite. However, when it comes to childhood fears, the 1982 classic Poltergeist hits the nightmare trifecta of monster in the closet, something under the bed, and a scary clown that really, really, wanted to see you dead.
5. The Monster that Doesn’t Need an Explanation
As children, we fear many things that do not have a name. Some monsters, horrifying abominations that defy definition, become no less repugnant as we age. These monsters push at the boundaries between dimensions, shrugging off all normal rules of physiology and rationality. The very alienness, the wrongness, of these creatures is exactly what makes them so completely terrifying. My favorite monster in this category needs little introduction and bears no explanation – the thing from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing. Sure, it was based on a novella and there was an attempt at an extraterrestrial back story, but there’s really no amount of explaining that can rationalize a whip-mouthed spider dog monster that wants to be inside you. Monstrous, abhorrent, and viciously single-minded, this monster simply is. Best start running now.
This piece was originally published last year in response to Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular’s “Top Five Favorite Monsters” prompt. You can check out the original piece here, and make sure to put AFS in your regular rotation for classic horror, vintage trailers, and new release reviews!