We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Man is the greatest monster.” Screenwriters deploy it to shock the audience or make a larger point about the greater evil of human beings, those whose actions outdo any famous monster because they are real. Indeed, some of the best horror movies of all time pull a reversal on audiences, showing that despite the razor teeth or dark powers their baddies may wield, regular people always pose a greater threat. Find here 25 of the best examples of human beings outdoing the monsters from classic Hollywood up through today.
1. Frankenstein (1931)
In the 1818 novel Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, the monster created by Victor Frankenstein explains his reasons for wanting to kill his creator, the man who gave him life and thrust him into an uncaring world. While the James Whale adaptation makes the Monster (Boris Karloff) far less articulate, the creature has the same relationship with the rest of the world. Yes, a misunderstanding does lead to the death of a young girl. Still, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and the mob of villagers who embrace violence, indulging their worst impulses instead of nurturing the innocent, lonely monster.
2. King Kong (1933)
“Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes,” filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) declares, staring at the body of the massive ape. “It was beauty killed the Beast.” Poetic as Denham’s statement sounds, it doesn’t quite go far enough to capture the theme of King Kong. Actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) encountered the beast because Denham smelled money, capturing Kong and taking him from Skull Island to New York City. If Denham hadn’t wanted the credit for discovering the Eight Wonder of the World, Kong would have never become the beast who threatened the mainland.
3. Godzilla (1954)
Even a viewer not familiar with the history of American attacks on Japan can understand the metaphor at work in Godzilla. The classic by director Ishirō Honda burns with such primal anger that one cannot help but feel a larger travesty burning behind it. Long before the character devolved into safe, kid-friendly adventures, Godzilla pointed to a greater monster as she stomped through Tokyo, the atomic bomb created by Allied forces and unleashed into the world, all in the name of freedom and democracy.
4. Eyes Without a Face (1960)
With her petite frame and featureless mask, Édith Scob’s Christiane seems like the obvious monster of director Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face. Set to the chilling calliope music by Maurice Jarre, Franju’s camera follows Christiane as she floats through the mansion where she’s confined or stands above the unconscious body of Edna Grüber (Juliette Mayniel). Whatever these looks might suggest, Christiane means no one harm, despite losing her face in a horrible accident. Rather, her father, Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), captured Edna, the latest innocent victim who loses their face in his pursuit of perfection.
5. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
When not dodging flesh-eating ghouls in George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead, Ben (Duane Jones) and the other humans must deal with their true enemies: each other. Even when he seems to find shelter in a deserted farmhouse, Ben has to overcome a catatonic woman (Judith O'Dea), as well as a scheming father and his ready-to-turn daughter. But the worst comes at the end of the film after Ben has survived the onslaught. As soon as he makes his way outside, Ben gets shot in the head by a vigilante mob who mistake him for one of the zombies. Although Romero claims he didn’t intend the implication of the killing, as he never specified Ben’s race and chose Black actor Jones because he gave the best performance, the image of an innocent Black man killed by armed white men points to a monster far worse than the Living Dead.
6. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Roman Polanski’s paranoid classic Rosemary’s Baby has a pretty scary monster. After all, Satan impregnates poor Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). But no one expects less of the Prince of Darkness, nor does the betrayal of Rosemary’s neighbors, revealed to be Satanists who want to bring about the son of the Devil, shock viewers. No, the true evil comes in the form of Rosemary’s husband Guy (John Cassavetes), a struggling actor who exchanges his wife’s body for a little bit of fame. The one person whom Rosemary could have expected to help her tosses her aside, something that must disturb even Satan.
7. Witchfinder General (1968)
Matthew Hopkins is a good man, a man of God. Announcing himself as the crown’s Witchfinder General, Hopkins (Vincent Price, in his most nuanced performance) crosses the country looking for evil and punishing whatever he finds. In theory, then, the monsters of Witchfinder General should be the daughters of darkness he encounters. In practice, Michael Reeves’s adaptation of the Roland Bassett novel makes Hopkins a greater threat than any witch, real or imagined. Certain of his righteousness and inflexible in his methods, Hopkins will kill and torture in the name of God.
8. The Exorcist (1973)
As with Rosemary’s Baby, nobody in The Exorcist is as bad as the demon Pazuzu, who takes over young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). But one of the more horrific sequences in the classic from the late, great William Friedkin involves not the supernatural but the all-too-mundane. Before enlisting the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller), Regan’s mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), first turns to medical doctors. Amidst mundane scenes of Chris talking with a doctor, Friedkin inserts shots of Regan strapped to machinery, her blood shooting from sterile instruments, offering a horror equal to, if not quite surpassing, the supernatural.
9. Jaws (1975)
Of course, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) appears on this list. The lead politician of Amity Island, Vaughn has become the face of the government’s inability to prevent capitalists from trampling safety precautions in search of another buck. But after the death of the Kintner boy, eaten alive on a full beach midway through Jaws, Vaughn turns toward a furious Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) and puts things in perspective. “Martin,” he croaks. “My kids were on that beach too.” With that admission, audiences see that the monster of Jaws isn’t the shark, nor is it a little politician resisting regulations. It’s an economic system that demands success during a single summer month to save Amity Island residents from starvation.
10. Carrie (1976)
In the infamous climax to Carrie, shy teen Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) unleashes her telekinetic abilities and kills everyone inside. Destroying the bullies who dumped pig’s blood on her alongside kind gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), Carrie shows no mercy. However, because Carrie is based on a Stephen King novel, the true evil stems not from poor Carrie, nor even from the foolish high schoolers who goad her. Rather, it begins with Carrie’s mother, a religious fundamentalist whose hate-filled rants leave the girl broken and afraid. Piper Laurie eschews any sense of complexity or shading to play Mrs. White, giving her the over-the-top rants fitting such an evil character.
11. Alien (1979)
The robot Ash (Ian Holm) calls the xenomorphs of the Alien franchise “the perfect organism,” a creature whose “structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” But after surviving an encounter with one xenomorph in the original Alien, why does Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) keep dealing with them? Because of the company Weyland–Yutani, which never stops pursuing the xenomorph for its economic plans. Throughout the franchise, the company shows itself willing to sacrifice endless human lives just to get a little more money and power.
12. Poltergeist (1982)
“You left the bodies, and you only moved the headstones!” realtor Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) screams at his boss, Teague (James Karen). That revelation comes late in the Tobe Hooper film Poltergeist, long after Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), the youngest daughter of Steve and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams), gets sucked into the netherworld. It explains why malicious spirits have overtaken the quiet suburban home, turning their American Dream into the worst nightmare. As is often the case in these inversions, the blame leads back to a company trying to increase its profit margin, no matter who — or what — they offend.
13. Basket Case (1982)
Like his goofy twin brother Duane (Kevin VanHentenryck), Belial just wants to be loved and accepted for himself. Never mind that Belial is a clawed, screeching lump of flesh once conjoined to Duane. Directed by the philosophical schlock auteur Frank Henenlotter, Basket Case embraces its bad taste as much as it does its low-budget effects and off-beat acting, portraying the story of Duane and Belial’s revenge on the scientists who separated them. Without sacrificing the movie’s gross-out core, Hennenlotter makes audiences sympathize with the brothers, making the victims of their rampage seem evil, even as they meet their ghastly ends.
14. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Nancy needs help, but she knows she won’t get it from the parents of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Forced to look into her parents’ past by the appearance of a dream demon killing her friends, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) learns the truth about Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), the child killer they executed in an act of vigilante justice. But even after facing their past, the parents refuse to hear Nancy’s warnings that Freddy has returned, going so far as to lock her in her house, trapping her inside with the killer. With the image of Nancy grasping the bars and screaming at her father (John Saxon) while Freddy lurks behind her, director Wes Craven shows that the real threat to children will always be their parents.
15. The Stuff (1985)
If you found a white goo leaking from a downed asteroid, what would you do? If you said anything other than “Eat it and then sell it,” you’re not one of the people targeted in Larry Cohen’s satire The Stuff. Advertised as the great-tasting but completely healthy find of the century, The Stuff overtakes Americans, who guzzle the product for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When corporate spy Mo Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) investigates the product for rival companies, he learns the true cost of the goo, learning that it eats the insides of anyone consuming it. Terrifying, sure, but that’s nothing compared to the execs who view the Stuff’s destructive nature as nothing more than a problem to be solved with clever advertising.
16. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988
Explicitly designed as a rip-off of Halloween, the Friday the 13th franchise had lost steam by the time it hit its seventh entry, The New Blood. To give it some energy, producer Sean S. Cunningham decided to pit Jason Voorhees against another horror icon, Carrie White (well, a legally distinct copy called Tina, played by Lar Park Lincoln). In a fit of passion, Tina’s powers free Jason from his shackles in Crystal Lake, leading to his rampage and building to a face-off between the two. Despite some fantastic and brutal kills from Jason, nothing quite matches the evil of Tina’s psychiatrist Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser), who manipulates the girl in hopes of securing an impressive book deal.
17. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Few cinematic moments max the power of the tracking shot that introduces Anthony Hopkins as Doctor Hannibal Lecter. Despite a glass wall separating him from trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), Lecter exudes menace, a desire to kill relayed by his dehumanizing stare. Starling can stand up to Lecter because she’s used to these looks. Throughout his adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme uses shot/reverse shot to put the viewer in Clarice’s place, a woman inundated with condescending stares, whether they come from Lecter or her FBI boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn).
18. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
The Wes Craven horror comedy The People Under the Stairs features three groups of people. There’s Fool (Brandon Adams), a boy forced by older man Leroy (Ving Rhames). There’s the titular people, a shabby and ragged group of cellar-dwellers who accost Fool when he enters the house. And then there is the Reaganite couple called Man and Woman (Twin Peaks partners Everett McGill and Wendy Robie). And, of course, the Man and the Woman are the monsters. An over-the-top look at gentrification and 80s conservative values, The People Under the Stairs goes to ridiculous but entertaining lengths to show how the most normal people can be the most hateful monsters.
19. Jurassic Park (1993)
Despite his spritely walk and delightful chuckle, John Hammond is the most terrifying thing in Jurassic Park. No, he’s not as craven as many of the humans on this list, as demonstrated in the heartfelt monologue about a flea circus that Richard Attenborough delivers late in the film. But the raptors and T-Rex who rampage across Isla Nublar cannot bear the blame for the many deaths they leave in their wake. No, all culpability rests on Hammond, the man whose love of spectacle and scientific ingenuity resulted in chaos. If only he had listened to Dr. Malcolm’s (Jeff Goldblum) chaos theories.
20. The Descent (2005)
Set in the hills of North Carolina, The Descent follows a girls’ trip gone wrong. To help Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) deal with the sudden death of her family, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) brings the group from the UK to the U.S. to go spelunking in hidden caves. Director Neil Marshall relates the terror of tight spaces, taking the breath away from the audience long before cave-dwelling mutants beset the women. Scary as those elements are, the greater terror comes from the friends' interpersonal dynamics and jealousies, which lead to destructive decisions.
21. Jennifer’s Body (2009)
The Megan Fox vehicle Jennifer’s Body flopped on release, despite a script from the hot new writer Diablo Cody and able direction from Karyn Kusama. But in years since, Jennifer’s Body has become a cult favorite, thanks to its resonant portrayal of a normal girl (Fox) transformed into a succubus by selfish nice guys led by Adam Brody. Despite the protestations of her best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried), Jennifer remains a monster of the nice guys’ own making, no matter how many indie rockers she slaughters as a result.
22. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010)
“College kids!” shouts Dale (Alan Tudyk), his words mangled by the bee stings swelling his face. “We’ve got your friend.” In most movies, that statement would be read as a threat, a taunt from some violent redneck about to do something unspeakable to a poor girl. The horror comedy Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, directed by Eli Craig and written by Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, flips the script, making the grubby good ol’ boys a pair of kindhearted Southerners trying to enjoy their vacation home (read: a dilapidated shack) as a group of preppies from the city try to “defend themselves” by attacking the duo. A delightful inversion of Hicksploitation tropes, carried by Tudyk and Tyler Labine at his sweetest, Tucker & Dale takes the “true monster” cliche to its most hilarious extremes.
23. Get Out (2017) monster
Sure, Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford) may have wanted to vote for Obama three times, but he and his family’s habit of putting the brains of white people into Black people’s bodies makes him one of the evilest creatures on this list. Over the course of director Jordan Peele’s lauded breakout feature, audiences learn that Dean and his family, including daughter Rose (Allison Williams), have been engaging in this activity for generations and plan to make Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) their next victim. Somehow, none of them quite compare to blind art dealer Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), who wins the bid for Chris’s body. When Chris begs for an explanation from Jim, who seems so different from the other white people he encountered, the dealer shrugs, meeting horrible injustice with a resigned sigh.
24. Hereditary (2018)
Nothing is scarier than Toni Collette towering over the dinner table and bellowing, “I am your mother!” Even before she manifests mystical powers that let her scale the ceiling and set people on fire, the grief and anger that Annie (Collette) directs toward her son Peter (Alex Wolff) make her the most frightening part of Hereditary, more so than generic demon Paimon who takes up the film’s climax. Such is the genius of Ari Aster’s debut film, a movie that forces audiences to wonder about what horrible qualities they’ve inherited from their parents.
25. Barbarian (2022)
In Barbarian, a movie full of shocking revelations, the most notable might be the cut from an Air B&B renter meeting a horrible end to the sunny California coastline, where actor AJ (Justin Long) bops along to a pop song. Whatever warm feelings we might have about AJ — in part because of his magnetic personality and in part because he’s played by Long, who has portrayed scores of likable characters — we soon learn that he’s a despicable creature, not just because he wants to exploit the trouble Detroit real estate market. As director Zach Cregger unfolds the plot of Barbarian, AJ becomes just the latest in a long list of good-looking normal people capable of outrageous acts of cruelty.
Greensboro, North Carolina resident Joe George writes for Den of Geek, Sojourners Magazine, The Progressive, Think Christian, and elsewhere. Joe's areas of geek expertise include horror, science fiction (especially Star Trek), movies of the 60s and 70s, and all things superheroes. He posts nonsense from @jageorgeii on Twitter and from @joewriteswords on literally every other social media site in the world.