To be sure, people go to horror stories for a good fright. But they go to horror movies in particular to see something frightening, to marvel at the scary spectacle of cinema. Thanks to the power of the movies, even characters who have long literary pedigrees live as movie stars in the public imagination. Although horror pictures have given us countless great creatures to fill our nightmares, check out the best movie monsters ever.
1. Godzilla (Godzilla, 1954)
Like the best movie monsters, Godzilla is just a guy in a rubber suit. But in 38 movies made on two continents across almost seven decades, that rubber suit creature has done everything from representing the psychological terror of atomic weapons to entertaining children of every age. Directors have reimagined Godzilla in several ways over the years, but his atomic breath and unmistakable roar remain iconic. No wonder that Godzilla earns the title, The King of the Monsters.
2. Frankenstein’s Monster (Frankenstein, 1931)
Frankenstein’s Monster might have his roots in Victorian literature, but in 1931, director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff cemented the creature’s position as cinematic royalty. Whale and his collaborators may have done away with the lengthy pontificating in which the Monster indulges in Mary Shelley’s original novel, but Karloff needed only a few words to bring his character to life. Between his hulking frame and his sad, sunken eyes, Karloff told viewers everything that they needed to know about the Monster’s broken heart.
3. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984)
Only movie fans from the 1980s can understand the popularity of Freddy Krueger. Wes Craven introduced the Dream Demon as a child murderer who haunted the nightmares of Elm Street’s teens. Just a few years later, Freddy could be found hocking products to kids in TV commercials and hosting his own 900-number. Part of this shift comes from the natural demystifying all monsters undergo over the years, but it also stems from actor Robert Englund’s irrepressible charisma. Englund made Freddy impossible to hate, even when he terrorized kids with his razor gloves.
4. Dracula (Dracula, 1958)
Most actors who portray the Bram Stoker creation Count Dracula tend to veer toward two extremes, mimicking either the regal figure played by Bela Lugosi in the Universal films or the animalistic take of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. However, few have balanced the extremes like Christopher Lee, who starred in several vampire movies for the UK studio Hammer Films. With his booming baritone and imposing height, Lee’s Dracula carried an air of sophistication. But beneath his dapper looks lurks a brute just waiting to tear people apart.
5. Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988)
Arriving late in the 1980s, Chucky seemed destined to remain in the shadow of other icons of the decade, Freddy and Jason. And while his first three movies fared better than the Friday the 13 and A Nightmare on Elm Street entries of the late 80s and early 90s, Chucky didn’t have the immediate legacy of his forerunners. But when Don Mancini gained greater control over his creation with Bride of Chucky, he reimagined the killer as a more comedic character and gave him a vast backstory, making Chucky even more popular than ever today.
6. Xenomorph (Alien, 1979)
Given the Xenomorph's few on-screen appearances in 1979’s Alien, director Ridley Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon could have skimped on the design of the central invader. But instead, they got Swiss artist H. R. Giger to create something inexplicable and upsetting. Even before revealing its secondary mouth or its acid blood or its tendency to use victims as incubators, the Xenomorph disturbs people with its slick exterior and insectoid body. Later variations introduced in other movies, such as the animal hybrids in Alien 3 or the earlier versions in Prometheus make the Xenomorph that much more frightening, proving that its very nature defies all understanding.
7. Yajuta (Predator, 1987)
With Predator, writers Jim Thomas and John Thomas and director John McTiernan needed a creature that could tear apart Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and other 80s meatheads. Their first version, a goofy ostrich-looking thing (portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme), didn’t cut it. But the second version, an imposing creation of effects master Stan Winston, did the trick. Even though later movies introduced new variations of the Yajuta, they all stick to Winston’s basic design, proving its timeless, terrifying appeal.
8. The Priest (Hellraiser, 1987)
In his novella The Hellbound Heart, author Clive Barker referred to the lead Cenobite only as the Priest. Despite his frightening appearance — especially as brought to life by Hellraiser effects team members Bob Keen, Geoff Portass, and Jane Wildgoose —the Priest wasn’t even a monster. He and the other Cenobites appeared to those who solved the Lament Configuration and offered a reward in the form of untold pain and pleasure. Later sequels made the Priest a more traditional monster and saddled him with the moniker Pinhead; he still feels more unknowable and frightening than the average bad guy.
9. King Kong (1933)
Universal Pictures brought romantic monsters to the big screen earlier in the 1930s with Dracula and Frankenstein. But with King Kong, special effects artist Willis H. O'Brien added pure spectacle. When Kong first strides out of his cave on Skull Island, viewers believe that they’re witnessing the eighth wonder of the world. Equal parts heroic, vulnerable, and terrifying, King Kong continues to loom large over all other movie monsters, setting the standard to which all other beasties aspire.
10. Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)
The psychological approach writer Thomas Harris took in Red Dragon has launched an entire subgenre of evil geniuses, sophisticated serial killers with wit matched only by their ruthlessness. However, all of these pretenders fall far short of Dr. Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins plays Lecter as a pure predator, a man who gets almost giddy when agent-in-training Clarice Starling reveals a vulnerability, who relishes the pain he inflicts on a handcuffed guard. No matter how evil he gets, Hopkins’s Lecter never loses his intelligence, embodying a man who knows the difference between good and evil and always chooses the latter.
11. Mothra (Mothra, 1961)
Who said all monsters must be evil? Where Godzilla embodied nature revolting against humanity’s hubris, Mothra reminded viewers that nature remains beautiful, even when destructive. More often than not, Mothra operated like a hero, battling King Ghidorah and other bad kaiju. And yet, whenever she emerges from her cocoon to unfurl her wings, viewers can’t help but recoil in fear.
12. Scare Bear (Annihilation, 2018)
Writer and director Alex Garland had a difficult task before him in adapting the surreal sci-fi novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. The uncanny imagery of the book helped the reader to fill in most of the gaps, but Garland had to visualize the creatures mutated by a meteor that crashed in the Florida Everglades. Most of the creatures in the film had an unsettling beauty, none more so than a bear that melded with human victims. Every time the bear roared, it emitted something between a growl and a person screaming for help, a sound that promises to live in viewers’ nightmares forever.
13. Pale Man (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006)
Guillermo Del Toro loves his creepy crawlies and has created some of the best monsters ever to grace the screen. The most enduring of the bunch is the gangly white figure who sits at the head of a banquet in Del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. Portrayed by actor and classically-trained mime Doug Jones, the Pale Man has a rotting elegance, making him menacing even before he places his eyeballs into his hands and spots young interloper Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). The way the Pale Man stands up and moves toward Ofelia secures his position on this list.
14. Gill-Man (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954)
The Creature from the Black Lagoon came in rather late in the classic run of Universal horror pictures, but the Gill-Man established himself right away as a rival to Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s not just his instantly recognizable reptilian design, but also the way the Gill-Man moves both on land and in water. Performed by Ben Chapman, Tom Hennesy, and Don Megowan on land, the Gill-Man has a sort of lumbering quality that suggests little more than a beast. But when stunt performer Ricou Browning portrayed the swimming Gill-Man in all three Universal films, he took on a graceful, even beautiful quality, demonstrating to audiences that the Lagoon will always be the Gill-Man’s domain.
15. Tar Man (Return of the Living Dead, 1985)
Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, from a story conceived by Night of the Living Dead co-writer John A. Russo, Return of the Living Dead changed zombie lore forever by insisting that reanimated ghouls don’t just eat flesh, but they desire brains in particular. That genre-shaking revision may not have stuck if it weren’t for the most memorable of the movie’s zombies, the Tar Man. Puppeteer Allan Trautman gives the Tar Man an uncanny gait and wide-gleeful eyes, which light up when he sees lunch in the form of bumbling punks. There’s a joy to the devastation wrought by the Tar Man, which captures the anarchic spirit of Return of the Living Dead.
16. Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)
Leatherface kills people with a chainsaw and uses their faces as a mask over his own. He also eats his victims. Pretty straightforward bad guy, right? One would think so, but director Tobe Hooper and his writers have much more in mind. In the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which Hooper co-wrote with Kim Henkel, Leatherface is just one of the madcap creatures in the cannibal Sawyer clan, one who treats his grotesque face masks like the fancy suit and make-up he wears to dinner. In the 1986 sequel, Hooper and writer L. M. Kit Carson reveal Leatherface as the runt of his family, tormented by his brothers and uncomfortable in his own skin. Does any of this justify the whole “killing people with a chainsaw” thing? Well, no, but it does make him a far more rich character than first assumed.
17. Audrey II (Little Shop of Horrors, 1986)
Pop culture of the 1980s borrowed from pop culture of the 1950s and early 60s, including advancements in creature effects. So it’s fitting that 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors, directed by Frank Oz from the stage musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, would put a (then) modern spin on the giant Venus flytrap from the 1960 Roger Corman film of the same name. Oz used skills he gained working alongside Jim Henson to visualize Audrey II with the help of effects supervisor Lyle Conway. Together, they did the impossible and made a funky singing plant monster believably interact with poor old Rick Moranis.
18. Graboids (Tremors, 1990)
The producers of Tremors didn’t have to work that hard. Not only does Tremors have a winning human cast, with a small town full of memorable characters and a pair of charming leads in Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward, but its central monster spends most of the time under the ground. Director Ron Underwood and the effects team from Amalgamated Dynamics could have just made a couple of tentacles and called it a day. Instead, they designed the most disgusting and haunting sandworms of all time, giving the real power to the full reveal of the monsters who heretofore stayed scurrying under the ground.
19. Gremlins (Gremlins, 1984)
The idea of gremlins dates back to World War II, when pilots created a mythology to describe plane machine failures. But when writer Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante brought them to the screen for their dark Christmas comedy Gremlins, they hired special effects man Chris Walas to create ghoulies that needed to be mischievous, frightening, and still recognizable as variations of the far-cuter Mogwaii. Walas and his team surpassed expectations, letting Dante shoot the Gremlin’s toothy grins as sometimes evil and sometimes playful.
20. Cheddar Goblin (Mandy, 2018)
Panos Cosmotos, who directed and co-wrote Mandy with Aaron Stewart-Ahn, would be hard-pressed to explain the plot of his film. It involves Nicolas Cage getting revenge on a Manson-like cult for killing his ethereal girlfriend with the help of demon bikers, and that just scratches the surface of the bizarre imagery. Making things even more incomprehensible is a television commercial that Cage’s character spies, in which a green monster spews macaroni and cheese at cheering children. Mandy never indicates if the Cheddar Goblin exists in the film’s world or if it’s some hallucination. But whatever it is, the Cheddar Goblin stands out in a movie filled with freakish sights.
21. Brundlefly (The Fly, 1986)
Moviegoers of the 1950s cite the final shot of 1958’s The Fly as one of the most frightening things in cinema, a scene featuring a fly with the head and arm of a human being. Ever the boundary-pusher, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg took that image even further for his big-budget remake in 1986. After accidentally mixing his DNA with that of a housefly, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) finds himself taking on more insect-like features. As upsetting as Seth looks in these incarnations, there’s nothing like seeing the giant bug he becomes at the end of the film.
22. The Blob (1988)
Yes, the Blob is just a big glob of goo. But that makes it so scary. The Blob has no face, no discernable motivation, nothing even a little relatable. It lives only to consume and, as made clear in the excellent 1988 remake, it consumes everything it can. There’s something spine-tingling about seeing a glob move toward a victim with slow but deliberate determination, making the Blob more frightening than the vast majority of movie monsters.
23. Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th Part III, 1982)
Jason Voorhees ranks as one of the most iconic monsters of all time, but “iconic” is not the same thing as “interesting.” Most people know Jason as a giant man in a hockey mask. But those who know the films know he doesn’t get that mask until halfway through the fourth movie and then dies in the fourth, only to be replaced in the fifth and then resurrected as a zombie in the sixth. At one point, Jason even becomes a bug creature that possesses other people's bodies. In short, Jason might look cool, but that’s all he has going for him, and too often, filmmakers try to take that away from him too.
24. Michael Myers (Halloween, 1978)
Poor Michael Myers. He somehow has it worse than even Jason, his inferior copycat. Director John Carpenter and writer Debra Hill imagined Michael as inexplicable evil, who kills because he can and wears a painted William Shatner mask because it makes him happy. Remakes and sequels have made him a troubled youth haunted by the ghost of his mother, a man driven to kill his sister and/or niece and even a tool of evil druids. Despite these silly revisions, Michael stays a powerful part of horror history.
25. Space Alien (It Came From Outer Space, 1953)
For most of its running time, the Jack Arnold-directed sci-fi flick It Came From Outer Space follows the model of most 50s creature features, in which men in lab coats sit around and talk about scary things. The screenplay, written by Harry Essex from a story by Ray Bradbury, finds new reasons to hide the invading alien from viewers. But when the alien appears, it chills us to the bone, with distorted features and a leering single eye. High tech? No. One of the best movie monsters? Absolutely.