The horror genre is filled with our insatiable love for villainous archetypes. It seems we perpetually create and recreate icons for every fear we can imagine, and as such, we certainly won't be locking them back inside Pandora's box anytime soon.
Instead, we make slasher flicks to drown our eyes in red while dulling our wits with blood-curdling screams, or turn to paranormal ghost stories and supernatural thrillers to pinch a different nerve.
What makes us so afraid of the horrific creatures we watch? What strengths or weaknesses make them a threat to us? The truth is that we all face the same terrorizing moments in life. We fear the things we do not understand. We steer clear of the dark places we cannot see and we avoid the creaking sounds from underneath our beds.
Simply put, we fear the unknown. The writers within our ranks study it, characterize it and categorize it into the bone-chilling classic villains we love to hate…
Archetype 1: The Slasher Killer
Iconic Examples: The Collector, Letch (The Hills Have Eyes), Victor Crowley (Hatchet)
The slasher flick most often uses visual aspects to instill fear. Its icon is usually a larger-than-life killer with a ghastly redrum-stained weapon. He is strong and towers over us, his horrific countenance designed to repulse. He will often have a disfigured face and/or mask and he may even have other physical and psychological deformities. Think about it: We seldom fear the Mr. Rogers type — except, perhaps, in the case of Norman Bates.
However, our terror doesn't stop with the physical traits of the slasher; it extends to the slasher's personality, to his very actions. Why? Because these movies are about one thing: the chase.
The slasher's most frightening characteristic is his absolute commitment to that chase, or more precisely, his unyielding determination to kill. We watch in dread, moment by nail-biting moment, realizing nothing can stop him. He is unyielding. He is relentless. And he won't stop until everyone is dead.
And worse, he'll usually kill everyone without a word because the sound of a monster's voice is seldom as frightening as his silence.
Horror Archetype 2: The Paranormal/Supernatural Being
Iconic Examples: Samara (The Ring), Demon Worm ([Rec]), Ghost (Paranormal Activity)
The supernatural is truly a window to the unknown recesses of our mind's eye. It is every crevice of darkness and sound we cannot identify in real life. Movies take advantage of this fact, and the best paranormal horror flicks magnify that innate fear by preying on our weaknesses.
This can include our fear of darkness, dreams, thought, of what happens when we close our eyes and what we don't see. With the paranormal, it isn't always the characters we fear; sometimes we are stalked by fear itself. This is a fact we well learned in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension when we actually saw the ghosts; you may note that this was the least successful installment of the franchise.
Even when we see a physical manifestation of the supernatural, the entity's form should still attempt to exploit our fear of powerlessness against the unknown. The wormlike demon in [Rec] is a prime example. Consider the impact of feeling it slither down your throat to possess your soul. And do you remember the chills you felt the first time you saw those broken, inhuman, bone-cracking movements made by the preternatural demons in Silent Hill or The Grudge?
The paranormal subgenre of horror often combines the supernatural with archetypes from other subgenres, as in Jeepers Creepers. The Creeper was so successful as a horror icon because he merged supernatural powers with the slasher's unyielding and relentless nature. In such cases we still depend highly upon the same physical characteristics as the slasher while often adding supernatural qualities and/or creature enhancements.
Archetype 3: The Psychological Torturer/Serial Killer
Iconic Examples: Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Jigsaw (Saw)
The serial killer like Jigsaw or Patrick Bateman is scary because he could be real. This character's strength is rooted in the fact that he/she could be your neighbor, your co-worker, the mom down the street. The serial killer is usually a genius with a brilliance tainted by madness. He or she has no empathy, no pity, no conscience and no remorse, and because of these factors, you have no defense against the serial killer. You will simply wake up in his/her trap or look up to see a blade about to split you in half, as is the case with Jigsaw throughout the Saw franchise. The serial killer taps into our greatest fear of all; absolute helplessness.
It is for this very reason that some of our most grandiose icons within the genre do not wear masks or shoulder great disfigurements. Their ability to inspire fear comes from a look, a chilling smile or an abrupt change in expression. Once he wants you to see who they really are, it only takes a second for you to realize: It's dying time.
Archetype 4: The Creature
Iconic Examples: Alien Species (The Mist), Monster (The Host), Creature Feast (Cabin in The Woods)
The creature feature has been making a huge comeback in the 2000s. Between the gory blood bath Cabin in The Woods, zombie movies like 28 Days Later and TV hits The Walking Dead, Teen Wolf and The Vampire Diaries, we certainly have no shortage of content.
Most interesting of all is the onslaught of larger-than-life monsters not seen since the days of Godzilla and King Kong. The Cloverfield monster brought creature features to a new level of scary by letting us feel the impact of these giant alien invaders while barely getting glimpses at them.
This is also a tactic we saw in Stephen King's The Mist, with monsters that can kill us with the swipe of a claw or tentacle or a single bite, yet we cannot see them. Again, we are left in the dark, afraid and utterly helpless against the monsters in the mist.
The real power behind these monsters comes from that unknown quality even more than their size or power. Learning the full extent of our hopelessness little by little as we spot spiderlike fangs or insect claws is paralyzing. A good director builds that tension slowly and steadily toward one unavoidably terrifying moment — when we finally scream.