Tragic Details That Turned Innocent Characters Into Horror Villains

Horror is an innately tragic genre. While the early days of the genre were replete with metaphorical villains whose motives were often reduced to pure evil (as Billy Loomis said in "Scream," audiences never really learned why Hannibal Lecter liked to eat people), contemporary fare is considerably keener on grounding villainous descent. In other words, more often than not, horror villains are cautionary tales, normal people rendered villainous on account of some trauma or poor decision.

The characters on this list consist of some of the most tragic horror villains. Their origins are distinct, though all of them, in a different life and under other circumstances, may never have gone down these dark paths. Some are pushed to the brink, some grapple with loss, and others are bewitched by forces outside their understanding. Whatever the case, as villainous as these 17 characters are, it's nearly impossible not to have profound empathy for them.

I Saw the Devil

Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun), a National Intelligence Service agent, isn't strictly speaking the villain in Kim Jee-woon's "I Saw the Devil." By the end of its dense, two-and-a-half-hour runtime, though, he might as well be. A sordid tale of revenge, trauma, and exquisite, explicit violence, "I Saw the Devil" is a serial killer thriller for only the most hardened genre fans with a great deal to say about how easily righteousness is perverted into savagery.

After his fiancée is killed by a notorious serial killer, Jang Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), Kim Soo-hyeon endeavors to track him down. Rather than simply kill him, however, he implants the murderer with a tracking device so that he lives in perennial fear of Soo-hyeon's revenge. The twisted nature of his vengeance works in theory, though Soo-hyeon simultaneously puts several other innocent lives at risk by permitting Kyung-chul to continue his spree. It culminates in a tragic, almost operatic finale whereby both Soo-hyeon and Kyung-chul are shown to be mirrors of one another, two men motivated by only their basest instincts.


Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is the original Scarlet Witch. She isn't exactly a great person, though audiences were keen to support her unconditionally throughout Ari Aster's second feature, "Midsommar." After her entire family is killed in a tragic murder-suicide, she is begrudgingly invited to join her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for his summer trip to Sweden. Granted, Christian is no peach, either. He's dismissive, combative, and wildly disinterested in Dani's pretty hefty trauma.

Aster doesn't so much subvert cult horror expectations here as much as he illuminates them. Even non-genre audiences will quickly sense something is awry, and by the time the story ends, those suspicions are confirmed: this is a homicidal cult. Dani, for her part, acquiesces to the cult's whims, motivated in large part by the sense of community they share, something the modernity of her regular life lacks. Dani consents to the murder of her friends, ultimately being crowned the cult's May Queen. An unconventional villain, Dani's arc, while predictable, is still one of the most worthwhile things "Midsommar" has going for it.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Friday the 13th Part 2

Though the series' reputation has been sullied somewhat by interminable sequels, it's worth remembering "Friday the 13th Part 2" is one of the scariest movies ever made. A massive improvement on its predecessor — a conspicuous "Halloween" clone — it is the first entry in the series to introduce perennial icon, Jason Voorhees, to movie audiences (something Casey Becker of "Scream" unfortunately forgot). Additionally, Amy Steel's Ginny Field is one of the series' best, if not the best, final girls, adroitly weaponizing Jason's wounded psyche to emerge victorious.

As a young boy, Jason drowned at Camp Crystal Lake, the counselors too preoccupied with sex and booze to notice. Somehow, he survived and lives in the surrounding woods, only to watch his mother beheaded years later after she herself sought revenge for his ostensible death. A tragic figure abounding with subtext, Jason amounts to a lonely, orphaned boy, ill-equipped to make sense of the cruelty of the world. Resultantly, he lashes out, killing anyone and anything who steps foot in or around Camp Crystal Lake.

The Righteous

Mark O'Brien's ("Ready or Not") feature directorial debut is a whirlwind of religious trauma and agonizing guilt with heaps of gothic atmosphere to spare. O'Brien himself costars as Aaron Smith, a transient who stumbles upon the farmstead of Frederic and Ethel Mason (Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk), an older couple grieving the death of their adopted daughter.

Aaron is strange at first, though Ethel soon warms to his presence, despite Frederic's insistence that something is off about him. O'Brien leans hard into the Mike Flanagan style of horror, where monologues unspool trauma and secrets. It is suggested that Aaron is Frederic's son, the product of Frederic's time in the priesthood. Whether a crime was committed remains unclear, though it is evident Frederic abandoned both Aaron and his mother. When Aaron's mother died shortly thereafter, he was left with nothing. The embodiment of Frederic's demons, Aaron is demanding penance. One of 2021's greatest horror debuts, fans won't want to miss this one.

Last Night in Soho

Edgar Wright's "Last Night in Soho" arrived with impossible expectations. A victim of perennial COVID-19 delays, anticipation for Wright's latest horror opus was perhaps too high, and when it arrived, the reception was mixed. Still, it remains a gloriously, lovingly crafted mix of supernatural scares, contemporary feminism, and Swinging Sixties style. Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise Turner, a burgeoning fashion student who travels to London to study at the London College of Fashion. She doesn't quite fit in, and when her school-sanctioned accommodations don't work out, she seeks a room in Ms. Collins' (Diana Rigg) bedsit. That same night, Eloise is transported back to the 1960s in her sleep where she embodies the spirit of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer looking to make it big. 

Eloise soon witnesses what she believes to be Sandie's murder, and for the remainder of the film, she endeavors to prove it to contemporary law enforcement. Only, Sandie wasn't murdered. In fact, she's very much alive as the older Ms. Collins. What Eloise saw was Sandie murdering her manager and pimp, Jack (Matt Smith). Rather than make her dreams come true, Jack prostituted her out, and having endured enough trauma, Sandie finally put an end to it, murdering the men who commodified her.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

The Hills Have Eyes

While Wes Craven's original "The Hills Have Eyes" is a classic, director Alexandre Aja's 2006 remake is arguably the better movie, considerably amping up the savage gore factor, resulting in one of this century's most horrifically brutal mainstream horror releases. Additionally, Aja eschewed Craven's ambiguous origins for the monstrous cannibals plaguing the central family, suggesting they're the result of the United States' nuclear testing in the early part of the twentieth century.

While it certainly doesn't excuse the sheer, unbridled savagery on display, it does imbue the antagonistic cannibals with a degree of sympathy. Neglected by their government and left to rot, the community of desert-dwellers are plagued by physical deformities, pegged as monsters by default. Resultantly, they developed their own rural commune, only attacking when their land is intruded upon. It's a compelling moral subversion, and while the move admittedly doesn't consider it too much when the slaughter begins — it's clear who the good and bad guys are — it does add some fascinating political subtext to what would otherwise be a conventional horror remake.

The Others

Alejandro Amenábar's "The Others" has one of the most famous twists in horror history, rivaling "The Sixth Sense" in terms of sheer influence and memorability. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace Stewart, a mother of two living in a rural Jersey mansion in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Awaiting the arrival of her husband, she spends her days brusquely caring for her two children, both of whom are sensitive to sunlight. Grace hires three new servants, and shortly thereafter, begins to believe the house is haunted by ghosts.

She's right, though the ghosts aren't what Grace believes them to be. In a fit of despair, Grace murdered her own children before killing herself, and the presence in the house isn't a supernatural one, but rather the living presence of the home's new owners. Grace and her children were the ghosts all along. It's a tragic portrait of maternal commitment and regret, one rendered all the more effective by a career-best Nicole Kidman in the lead. Ghost stories have rarely been better than this.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.


Ti West's "X" is the slasher throwback fans have been craving for years. One of A24's most accessible wide releases, West is less interested in subverting expectations than he is in delivering a perfectly calibrated, grindhouse slasher. Mia Goth stars as Maxine Minx (and antagonist Pearl in a dual role), an aspiring porn star who travels to a rural Texas farmstead for a shoot alongside several coworkers. Once there, they're quick to jump into production, but during that first night, they realize that something isn't quite right with married hosts Pearl and Howard (Stephen Ure). Pearl soon begins to systematically slaughter the group of burgeoning porn stars in increasingly stylish, gruesome ways.

West does a lot right with "X," though perhaps its best element is a profound and poignant reflection on aging. As an older couple, West permits Howard and Pearl to be graphically intimate on-screen, a rarity not just in horror, but in any genre. Pearl covets youth, particularly Maxine's, and she can't help but lash out at the nubile performers staying on her property. Pearl is one of the best slasher villains in years, easy to both empathize with and fear.


It would be easy for audiences to assume that Andy Muschietti's "Mama" is producer Guillermo del Toro's movie. His touch is all over it, from the fairytale periphery, fluttering moths, and preeminent focus on generational trauma. Jessica Chastain stars as Annabel, girlfriend to Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and reluctant adoptive mother after Lucas' long-missing nieces are found in the woods.

No one is quite sure how they survived for so long, though "Mama" being a horror movie and all, it soon becomes clear: Javier Botet's titular Mama has been caring for the girls. A kind of tangible ghost, Mama killed the girls' father (also played by Coster-Waldau) after he took them into the woods to murder them following the 2008 financial crisis. Annabel, suspecting something is amiss, tracks down the origins of Mama, learning she's an old asylum patient, Edith, who died after her child was taken from her. As Edith fled, she jumped over a cliffside with her baby. The baby's blanket snagged on a branch, though, leaving Edith to drown alone. Since then, she's been desperate for a child. It's standard del Toro tragedy with Muschietti's stylish touch, and it results in one of the last decade's most effective supernatural outings. 

The Haunting of Hill House

Carla Gugino was sensational in Mike Flanagan's miniseries adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel of the same name. As the mother of the Crain children, and for the bulk of the series, she is seen only in flashbacks. Audiences know she is left behind in Hill House when Hugh (Henry Thomas) flees with the children when the supernatural occurrences come to a head. But until the penultimate episodes, audiences are left wondering why.

In the past, Gugino's Olivia Crain is besieged by paranormal experiences in the house. She sees the corpses of her own children and is told by the ghosts in the house that the world outside is unsafe and intends on devouring her children. Her mental state crumbles, and though she is sent away, she never goes, instead returning to Hill House on the family's final, fateful night there. She invites three of her children for a tea party in the house's Red Room, intending to kill them. A neighbor, sleeping over, dies, though her children successfully escape with Hugh. Olivia, desperate to wake up from what she considers a dream, jumps from the top of a spiral staircase to her death. It was Olivia's presence in the house that had a chokehold on her children, eventually leading to their return and the death of younger sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti). It's one of the most heartbreaking horror series out there.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Ginger Snaps

John Fawcett's "Ginger Snaps" is an angsty, teen slasher masterpiece. It truly is unmatched. Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle are transcendent as Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald respectively, two teenage sisters in suburban Bailey Downs with a pact to either leave the suburbs or die together at 16. They don't quite fit in at school, and writ large, their lives are miserable, moving far beyond conventional adolescent angst.

One evening while endeavoring to kidnap the dog of a school bully, Ginger is bitten by something, soon revealed to be a werewolf. As a result, Ginger starts to change. Her disposition becomes more aggressive, hair grows from her scars, and she menstruates unnaturally heavily. Brigitte is rightfully concerned and soon endeavors to stop Ginger's transformation, an act that will likely kill her sister. Funny, bloody, and tragic, "Ginger Snaps" is one of the definitive werewolf movies, a cunning hybrid of monster thrills and melancholic coming-of-age sensibilities.

The Call

Lee Chung-hyun's "The Call" is criminally underrated. Dumped on Netflix in November 2020, "The Call" was a victim of COVID-19 fatigue and Netflix's perennial habit of dropping really great movies without so much as an announcement, all but ensuring they're relegated to genre obscurity shortly after release. It's a shame since "The Call" is a masterful hybrid of time travel fiction and bonafide slasher thrills.

Kim Seo-yeon (Park Shin-Hye) is visiting her mother at her rural childhood home, and having forgotten her cell phone, makes use of an ancient landline. Curiously, the landline allows her to dial back to 1999 and talk to Oh Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), one of the home's previous residents. Young-sook is enduring traumatic abuse at the hands of her adoptive, Shaman mother, and Seo-yeon learns that soon, Young-sook will be killed in an exorcism. The two exchange notes, altering both the past and present, and Young-sook survives. The only problem is, Young-sook grows up to be a serial killer, and by saving her life, Seo-yeon has irreparably changed the present day. It's tense, traumatic, and gut-wrenching stuff, resulting in one of 2020's best horror movies, full stop. Young-sook especially makes for a terrifying, though profoundly empathetic, antagonist.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

The Ring

It's hard to watch Gore Verbinski's "The Ring" and not feel bad for antagonist Samara. A remake of Hideo Nakata's "Ringu," with Nakata later going on to direct the sequel to Verbinski's remake, the movie is urban legend incarnate. Almost everyone, genre fan or not, knows about the movie's cursed videotape, subsequent phone call, and ghost girl with long black hair crawling out of television sets. It ignited the J-horror craze in the west, solidifying the tropes and conventions that would persist for an entire decade.

Samara (Daveigh Chase) is revealed to be a young, quasi-telekinetic girl with the power to etch mental images into the minds of humans and animals alike. She tormented her adoptive parents, though flashbacks show Samara isn't entirely in control of her power. Later, her adoptive mother pushed Samara into a well, ostensibly killing her. She didn't die in the fall, however, and instead endured for seven days, the last thing she saw being the ring of daylight around the cap to the well. Sure, Samara is a monster, but who wouldn't be after that tragic ordeal?


The titular Candyman in both Bernard Rose's original and Nia DaCosta's sequel has one of horror's most tragic origin stories. A manifestation of racial trauma and generational prejudice, Candyman is said to have been the son of a slave in the late 1800s. A renowned artist, he fell in love with a white woman, and soon, she became pregnant. Her father, furious, sent a lynch mob after him, severing his right hand, smearing it in honey, and leaving him to be stung to death in a local apiary. His body was then burned atop the land where Cabrini-Green would be developed, Candyman's nexus in both the original and sequel.

The sequel especially expands on Candyman's mythos, detailing his capacity for recruiting other Candymen (maybe that's the correct terminology) amidst systemic discrimination, police violence, and racial trauma. Candyman isn't just one man, but an entire lineage of Black men whose lives were cut short by the vicious knife of racial injustice. It's weighty stuff, and DaCosta adroitly proves why, in 2021, "Candyman" was just as relevant as it was 30 years prior.

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.


Whether Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is truly a villain is up for debate. That moniker is likely better applied to her zealous mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), or any number of ruthless school bullies, all of whom taunt Carrie mercilessly, whether it be over her menstruation or desire to go to prom with Tommy Ross (William Katt), one of the most popular boys in school. Villain or not, however, it is Carrie White's telekinetic powers that wreak havoc on her high school prom.

After a bucket of pig's blood is dumped on her head, Carrie's powers activate in earnest, resulting in the kind of split-screen savagery only Brian De Palma could pull off. It's a classic horror set-piece, one rendered all the more tragic upon Carrie's return home whereupon she's quickly attacked by her own mother. Both are killed as the house collapses in on itself, a tragic end to what should have been the best night of Carrie White's life.

The Night House

Rebecca Hall absolutely kills it in David Bruckner's "The Night House." It's the kind of fully-felt performance that is too often undermined with unnecessary genre qualifiers. The horror genre is abounding with intimate, profound performances, and Hall's work in "The Night House" rivals Toni Collette's in "Hereditary" or Lupita Nyong'o's in "Us" as genre-defining roles.

Hall stars as Beth, a schoolteacher whose husband, Owen, recently died by suicide. Racked with grief, she shifts her focus to unpacking Owen's life, desperate to find answers where there might not be any. She soon discovers he was obsessed with occult iconography, and in particular, a house in the woods that is the reversed layout of theirs. Turns out, Beth had a near-death experience in her youth, and something evil followed her back. Since then, Owen has been trying to trick the entity, including building an entire house to deceive it. Unfortunately, Owen also murdered several women, hoping the entity would believe them to be Beth and finally leave his life, and Beth, alone. It doesn't excuse his homicide, though, in a weird way, it's horrifically romantic.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Sleepaway Camp

The tragic details in "Sleepaway Camp" remain controversial to this day. There's an argument to be made that the movie's final twist and killer reveal is steeped in transphobia. After several slayings at Camp Arawak, the killer is revealed to be protagonist Angela (Felissa Rose). In her youth, Angela's Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) is shown to have forced Angela into gender-bending abuse. Angela is shown by the lakefront, naked with a penis in plain view, growling like a wild animal.

Admittedly, later sequels dispel the idea that Angela is rendered homicidal on account of her queerness, though it isn't exactly an unfair assessment of the first's final moments. It is reasonable, however, to take the movie's contention in earnest, that abuse, not queerness, rendered Angela homicidal. Good, bad, or indifferent, it's still one of the genre's most shocking endings, both for the way it was brazenly revealed and how few unsuspecting audience members could ever see that ending coming. "Sleepaway Camp" is a slasher classic for more reasons than one, but Angela's killer reveal is arguably what cemented its legacy.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.