Is there anything more terrifying than the cold, hard stare—or well-lit rage—of a woman…in a movie? These deranged, and sometimes evil, characters come in many forms, from those possessed by strange entities to those struggling with their own personal demons. And while many of these characters have been featured in horror films, we’ve also ventured outside the genre to bring you the 12 scariest female characters in film history.
In celebration of Kathy Bates’ 71st birthday, join us as we take a look back at 12 of the most terrifying female characters in the history of film. Enjoy!
12. Joan Crawford – Mommie Dearest
Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest is everything. Watching it as an adult, you can appreciate the campy, over-the-top, violent performance by Dunaway; but as child, mistakenly watching this film…? Scarred for life. For those who are unaware, Mommie Dearest was a 1981 film adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir of the same name. Christina was an adopted daughter of screen legend Joan Crawford, and according to Christina, living with Joan, and trying to be her daughter, was hell on earth. The book was disputed by Joan’s biggest supporters, but it’s the film that really paints her as being the personification of a manic nightmare. All things considered, the film made $39 million at the box office. In 1981 that equated to big success. One viewing of the film, and you’ll shudder at the sight of a wire hanger. “NO! Wire! Hangers! Ever!”
11. Mrs. Mott/Peyton Flanders – The Hand That Rocks the Cradle
Addressing one of the underrated actresses on this list, we take a look at the work of Rebecca De Mornay. For those unfamiliar with Rebecca, we recommend introducing yourself by viewing the cult classic Risky Business. Whatever you do, don’t come to know her as Mrs. Mott/Peyton Flanders in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Simple skills of deduction reveal that she played two roles in the film, meaning she was a special kind of crazy. There’s nothing better than a really scary female villain, and it’s always most satisfying when they’re gorgeous. Rebecca certainly was in 1993 when the film was released, and she still is today at 56. The story line in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was nothing spectacularly fresh, focused on the obsession of a woman who would stop at nothing to perfect her agenda, but the catalysts and execution were spot on.
10. Mallorie (Mal) Cobb – Inception
Didn’t your skin crawl every time you saw Mal in Inception? How does one take the beautiful Marion Cotillard, allow her to retain her sweetness, yet tap into a terrifying darkness, obsessed with a surreal demise? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you let the Oscar-winning actress do her thing and get out of her way. Chris fell in love with Marion as an actress working on Inception. So much so, he insisted on her presence in The Dark Knight Rises as Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul. One of the most enjoyable things about Inception is sharing it with friends who haven’t seen it, and watching their reaction as the elevator drops into Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) dream levels. It doesn’t matter how many times you watch it, she makes your stomach sick with her delusion…or was it reality? Oh, Christopher Nolan and his ambiguous endings. Love ’em.
9. Catherine Tramell – Basic Instinct
Basic Instinct was a steamy thriller that starred Michael Douglas, and launched Sharon Stone into the stratosphere of stardom as Catherine Tramell. There wasn’t much that Sharon didn’t expose in the film, but she played the murderous, black widow type to perfection. If, in fact, she was the murderous, black widow type. The 1992 thriller still holds up well, nearly 25 years later, with Catherine Tramell considered to be one of the most evil characters ever created.
8. Evelyn Draper – Play Misty for Me
Creepiest girlfriend ever? Quite possibly. Evelyn Draper was played by the underrated Jessica Walter in the 1971 drama/creeper that happened to be Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut. There was little question that Clint was a capable director after he put this work onto silver screens worldwide. But, we’re here to discuss Jessica Walter as Evelyn Draper. Evelyn Draper served as a new character archetype, and Jessica Walter did her supreme justice. Brief synopsis: Clint Eastwood plays a very cool disc jockey, Dave Garver, who has a quick fling with Miss Evelyn Draper, after she conveniently places herself at a local bar. She eventually admits to being a fan of Dave, which is flattering, until he figures Evelyn isn’t quite right in the brain space. She keeps upping the stakes in the form of stalking, and then takes it to the next level when Dave shows interest in another woman.
7. Alex Forrest – Fatal Attraction
Greatly influenced by the Evelyn Draper archetype, Glenn Close played the seemingly sweet Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, opposite Michael Douglas (who apparently has a panache for sexing up crazy people in the movies). The catalyst to crazytown: an affair between Michael’s character Dan Gallagher, a married father, and his legal colleague, Alex. After a few lingering glances, one thing leads to another, eventually leading to the antihero and villain in the bedroom while Dan’s family is out of town. The night turns into a weekend. Trouble. When Dan’s ready to get back to reality, Alex has other ideas. They are, after all, the perfect couple. Things get ugly. As Tom Hanks proclaimed in Sleepless in Seattle: “Well I saw it, and it scared the sh—t out of me! It scared the sh—t out of every man in America!”
6. Angela Baker – Sleepaway Camp
Angela Baker is most likely unknown to people reading this list, but she is a 1980s slasher legend. We must tread lightly on this ground, because the chance of leaking a spoiler is probable. For those who haven’t seen Sleepaway Camp, it’s a must. This is especially true for those who appreciate classic 1980s horror. It holds up beautifully to that strange filmmaking standard. Sleepaway Camp does take place at a summer camp, and it stars Angela Baker, a girl steeped in sadness, who lost a sibling at a young age and has struggled to cope ever since. It doesn’t help that the loss forced Angela into social awkwardness and she struggles to fit in at camp. This dilemma also leads to some very memorable cinema, with an ending that drops a bomb labeled WTF.
5. Annie Wilkes – Misery
“He didn’t get out of the cocka-doodie car!!!” Kathy Bates launched herself into legendary status with her portrayal of Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery. Like most films based on Stephen’s work, the book is better than the film, but Kathy’s performance is not to be missed. For those who struggle through horror flicks, maybe enjoy a couple glasses of wine, or several sips of whiskey before watching. It’ll help with the squirms. It’s not often that you see a horror/thriller that garners acting award nominations. Kathy was so outstanding in Misery, she was nominated for nearly every award in 1991, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Her portrayal will haunt your dreams. You’ll want to sleep with a light on, and a baseball bat near the bed.
4. Margaret White – Carrie
Everyone loves to talk about Sissy Spacek in the original screen adaptation of Carrie, but Sissy wasn’t that creepy. She was awkward, and uniquely gifted. The creepiness of Carrie is born in Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. This character has been played three times by three different actresses—Piper Laurie, Patricia Clarkson, Julianne Moore—each of them bringing the wood. We’re going to honor Piper as the original, and the creepiest. The hairs on your neck start to raise imagining her screeching, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” And how about her obsession with “dirty pillows.” Nothing tops her inclination to self-injure when she feels Carrie won’t listen to her. The remakes of the film are more glossy than the original, but they don’t compare to the 1976 Brian De Palma classic. There is something inherently creepy about the look of the aged film. It’s as if it really happened.
3. Wicked Witch of The West – The Wizard of Oz
The Wicked Witch of The West is terrifying. Think back to your first viewing of The Wizard of Oz—remember the first time you saw that green witch? Margaret Hamilton gave her all, and then some, to the roles of Almira Gulch and Wicked Witch of The West in the 1939 classic. To many-a-child, she is the personification of pure evil. The Wicked Witch could easily be at #1 on this, because this film holds up so well. It is worth watching annually, and introducing it to some friend who lived their life under a rock, or a young relative who is ready for the rite of passage. Looking back, it is obvious Margaret’s performance as the Wicked Witch has been drawn upon for some of the characters on this list. And directors choosing how to shoot their villains…? You can see the influence to this day.
2. Woman of Room 237 – The Shining
For those who struggle to get extremely disturbing images from their head, here is your disclaimer for the final two. Our next character has no name, but sweet mercy did she play a role in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining!? Technically, the Woman of Room 237 was credited as Young Woman in Bath, and Old Woman in Bath, and were played by Lia Beldman and Billie Gibson, respectively. If you haven’t seen The Shining, it’s another must. One of the creepiest, most stirring films ever made. The scariness of this character was only made that much more intense by the masterful performance of Jack Nicholson, who approached Room 237 with the same agenda and execution as any man losing his mind. Though Stephen King wasn’t thrilled about the film, he can’t deny the filmmaking was masterfully done and creepy as all get-out.
1. Regan MacNeil – The Exorcist
Another terrifying film that really holds up: The Exorcist. Released in 1973, it was too much for many viewers, who had to leave the theater—they were simply overwhelmed by the images, and the imaginings on the screen. Regan MacNeil was a young, teenage girl who became possessed by an entity and literally unleashes hell on anyone around her. The practical FX in this film differentiate as to why it’s a classic, and the duds made in the 21st century offer little more than shock value. Linda Blair gave an unbelievable performance as Regan, and she was countered by the mastery of screen legend Ellen Burstyn. Add to that mix, Max Von Sydow—the cast was perfect. Still, when it comes to the scariest characters in cinema history, Regan MacNeil takes the cake—the physical manifestation from which fear is derived.