Like all great ideas for blog posts, this one came from a discussion with work friends when everyone should have been busy doing other things.
So, what are the scariest characters in movies?
When I started thinking about this seriously, I realized I could only see it one way: the things that had frightened me as a child (OK, with one exception). Those are the most intense scares, the ones that leave scars. Not bad scars; the kind of scars you want to show off at parties.
In any list, there are always ones that didn’t quite make the cut. The honorable mentions. These are mine. The bugs from Mimic (1997), because I hate bugs. I saw this movie a few years ago and, to be honest, can’t remember a lot about it. I know it freaked me out, I know it involves roaches, and I know whenever I see it listed on Netflix I swish past it just that little bit quicker than I need to. I love Guillermo Del Toro but this one I’m going to have to ignore.
The flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz (1939), because they were more frightening to me than the witches. In fact, the flying monkeys in Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) were one of the more successful parts of the movie…but not as scary as the originals…
Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), because I was young and had too much of an imagination. I know he’s a tragic figure; I know he’s the hero. But I also know that after I watched it for the first time on TV, I could not sleep for the fear that Quasimodo would come swinging through my window and…and I don’t know what. But the thought of finding out kept me awake for too many nights.
The alien from Alien (1979), because it looked scary, because it hid just above you, and it bled acid. And those teeth (and those teeth inside the teeth). And, now I think of it, there’s something roach-like about them and how they’re almost impossible to kill.
So, maybe there’s a pattern there: bugs or things that scared me as a child. Let’s delve into the top five and see if that’s a theme all the way through.
5. Ants (THEM!, 1954)
I don’t know how old I was when I first saw this. I remember it was just past midnight, New Year’s Day, one year in my impressionable childhood. I remember that I had never seen a monster movie that didn’t involve one of the classic characters, a Frankenstein, Dracula, or a wolf-man. Didn’t know what a B-movie was. As such, the things we now call “tropes” (which may well be just a fancy word for cliché) were all new to me. I didn’t understand how they got ants that big, or how science was the enemy and our only hope. I just remember feeling terrified for the people. They’re fighting bugs, but enormous bugs! Ants the size of houses! As the party carried on around me, with my mother probably limbering up for her once-a-year folk-song performance, I was curled up in the corner, eyes unable to leave the struggles on the screen. I don’t remember the story now, if the humans won or if the radiation-bathed ants took over the world. But I remember the terror of seeing the giant mandibles click-clicking above the heads of the cornered people. It’s burned into my brain like the nuclear blast the created the evil multi-legged abominations.
4. Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men, 2007)
With movies, is it the whole picture that’s important, or are a series of images enough? Chigurh is not really a character – he’s not well rounded with a full set of motivations, emotions, and complicated back story. He’s not really human at all; he’s a homicidal force of nature, or a supernatural agent of vengeance, or a symbol of the intransigence of fate. All made human in the form of Javier Bardem. Chigurh kills people. He’s very good at it, very determined, and he does it for no good reason. He doesn’t seem to be motivated by money or any kind of personal animosity. He just kills; that’s who he is. He’s a literary comic-book character, spinning a coin like Batman’s Two-Face to decide if the shopkeeper will live or die. He could have been ridiculous with his name that sounds like someone choking on a nut, his haircut that my mum could have done better, and his superhuman powers of killing. But Bardem inhabits the character, makes him cold and merciless and, most important, chillingly real. The spectre of unpredictable, pointless, remorseless violence is perfectly captured onscreen. Anton Chigurh gives me nightmares.
3. The shark (Jaws, 1975)
I’m not a swimmer. At school, I was one of the kids who were sent to the paddling pool to learn to not be afraid of drowning before the swimming instructor could actually do anything with them. They never got anywhere with me because I was always afraid of drowning. Because water so deep that goes over ours heads is scary. Anything could happen, not just the terrible suffocating end of drowning (especially in front of classmates – how terribly embarrassing; I’d not be able to look them in their eyes again if I drowned during school swimming lessons). No, almost worse than drowning was the helplessness of not being able to move quickly; my clumsy splashing around in the water was so slow and amateurish. This was an issue because there could be something in the water. Probably not in my community swimming pool in the north-east of England, but elsewhere. There could be anything in there. Snakes, eels, mythical creatures that rose from the deep. Sharks. Sharks are the fish version of Anton Chigurh: cold-eyed, relentless, remorseless, death-bringers. They’re terrifying in a primal, instinctive way. And Steven Spielberg knew that when he threw one up on the big screen. Bastard.
2. Darth Vader (Star Wars, 1977)
Darth Vader is the Satan of my generation. OK, so (spoilers), he may end up being redeemed, but in that first movie, he was the worst of the worst. An impassive killer who didn’t even have to touch you to choke you. Like Chigurh, there was no escape from Vader. If he took a dislike to you, he’d be waving his black-gloved hand and you’d be choking into your soup. It wasn’t just that he was the bad guy; it was that he was universally feared. No one (except Peter Cushing) could stop him from carving his way through the galaxy.
He was huge, he dressed in black, he had the coolest light saber. He was a classic villain with a cape and a deep, ominous tone. But he held the fate of whole planets in his hand. His was a higher level of destruction. If you weren’t deathly afraid of Darth Vader after that first movie, then you were not paying attention.
1. The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 1968)
Some people are just creepy. They look creepy, they walk in a creepy way. They have a creepy creepy voice. And those people can lurk in a small child’s dreams. For a long time.
The child catcher moves in smooth, deliberate steps (the actor was a ballet dancer), all the time doing nothing but look with his huge black eyes for children to steal (and almost certainly eat because he has a Grimm aura of fairytale evil about him). He uses their wants against them, offering treats and surprises, if only they’d forget what the sensible grown-up had told them and instead run up to the perfectly reasonable hatch in the side of the perfectly reasonable horse carriage and order as much sugary treats as could be crammed into a child’s mouth.
But the carriage’s walls fall away to show metal bars, the sugary treats evaporate into thin air, and their subconscious fear of the creepy creepy man proves well-founded. They knew they shouldn’t fall for his lies, but they did anyway.
And, sitting at home, we knew we would probably have done exactly the same thing. Slaves to desires and greed, we’d have ended up in that cage faster than you can say candy floss. So, while the child catcher is the thing that haunted my nightmares, the scariest thing about him was that, if he’d called my name, I would have lamb-to-the-slaughtered my way to my own demise.