Sometimes, you go to the movies expecting to be scared. That’s part of the fun. This article is not about those times.
Instead, we asked the assorted writers of Den Of Geek to recall moments where they went to see a film as a child, and found themselves confronted by a character that absolutely terrfied them. One they didn’t necessarily see coming.
As you’re about to discover, it seems we’re a bit of a tortured bunch. Here are the 15 movie characters that continue to haunt our minds, many years on…
Jaws – The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
One movie character who scared me as a child was Jaws, the shiny-toothed James Bond villain. Those silver teeth freaked me out, big time – I remember the early sequence from The Spy Who Loved Me was particularly chilling: Jaws lures a defenceless older man into a trap, and proceeds to bite into his neck, killing him. While we’re shown no violence, the whole scene terrified me: the way Jaws walked slowly towards the man in a knowing, menacing way, and the idea of him simply biting the man to death (though at least he had the courtesy to stun the victim first).
Being bitten by Jaws isn’t like being bitten by a vampire – he drinks no blood. Instead, he just seems to sink those artificial teeth into flesh and tear a hole big enough to cause fatal bleeding. Whenever I’d watch that scene, it made me deeply uncomfortable, probably more than it should have for such a young kid. I still find the idea of him scary, and don’t know which would be worse: being bitten by this Jaws, or his sharky-namesake.
Large Marge – Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a childhood classic, and with good reason. It’s a very energetic movie that successfully combines the talents of Paul Reubens and co. with some cracker-jack direction by Tim Burton before he was well-known. I think that lack of knowledge of Burton is why one of the movie’s most infamous scenes remains a horrifying left turn. As Pee-wee tries to recover his beloved bicycle, he goes through a series of misadventures—going to Texas, getting menaced by Cassandra Peterson, and most crucially, goes hitch-hiking. A dark night, a foggy road, and an incredibly creepy Alice Nunn as Large Marge, a trucker turned urban legend turned ghost who is one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever watched through my fingers.
During re-watches, Large Marge was the part of the video tape nearly worn through due to fast-forwarding; turns out knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t make it any easier on the nerves. Even now, that horrible leering Claymation face remains a little unsettling, if only because the set-up is so brilliantly done. The fact that looking it up for this article made the hair stand up on the back of my neck at the memory is a testament to Large Marge’s lasting psychic impact.
Max Zorin – A View To A Kill (1985)
The character that terrified me as child was Max Zorin, Christopher Walken’s bad guy from A View To A Kill. Christopher Walken is pretty terrifying at the best of times, but there was one scene in particular that really haunted me when I was a kid. It’s not an important, or even memorable scene. Zorin’s master plan of destroying Silicon Valley involves the creation of giant mine on the San Andreas fault. At the beginning of the third act, when construction is completed, Zorin stands at the top and just starts mowing down all the workers with a machine gun. This terrified me.
Maybe it was because my dad worked in the building trade when I was younger, but I couldn’t help but just think these were innocent, hard working men with families, who just needed a job, just like my dad. This idea would come up in two iconic comedies from the 90s – in the monologue in Clerks about independent contractors on the Death Star, and the multiple scenes in Austin Powers where friends & families of random evil lair security guards being told they won’t be coming home. It’s a weird thing to think about as a seven year old, I know.
I guess I just didn’t want Christopher Walken to shoot my dad.
Child Catcher – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) / The Hunchback – The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939)
I’ve written a lengthy piece about the super-scary Singing Ringing Tree on Den of Geek UK, but that was purely a TV experience. In terms of movies, there are a couple of characters that put the wind up anyone young enough in my sixties generation.
The first of these was the totally horrific Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, played in an uber-creepy way by Robert Helpmann. I was seven when this movie came out, and was even over my initial aversion to The Daleks, but I didn’t like the Child Catcher one little bit. I don’t recall crying, but whenever he appeared I would grip the arms of the cinema seat very tightly indeed, or do a careful stocktake of my boiled sweets inventory.
But what really gave me nightmares was being allowed to watch the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the one with Charles Laughton in it when I was about ten. This was a TV viewing experience that haunted me for at least three months or more, where I would wake in the night being pursued by the Hunchback. That he was the hero seemed irrelevant, it was how he was disfigured and the gothic backdrop of Notre Dame that freaked me out. Perhaps if they’d included comedy gargoyles, like the Disney animated version, I’d have been fine with it.
Curiously many, many years later I noticed it was on TV one Sunday afternoon and I decided to watch something else, just in case it trigged the nightmares again…
Jareth – Labyrinth (1986)
Apart from a few incidents believing there was a wolf outside my front door, I was generally a pretty fearless kid. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of being scared, especially by films, and loved stories with monsters – the Sarlaac in Return Of The Jedi being a particular favourite of mine. But there were a couple of films which really got under my skin.
First of all there was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I loved the movie, but hated the eels which crawled in your ear. I had to fast-forward that bit…
But the film I couldn’t watch at all was Labyrinth. David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King scared me silly. It was a film which I’m still not wild about, but has all the ingredients of a dark fairytale which normally I can’t get enough of. But there’s something just enough ‘off’ in Bowie’s portrayal of Jareth that it creeped me out spectacularly.
Was it the fact he would just steal a baby brother like it was no big thing (I had only recently got a baby brother of my own), or was it his too tight trousers? A combination of both perhaps? Either way, friends will know the terror I harbour for Jareth and his labyrinth. A terror I attempted to dispel earlier this year by dressing as him for a party, looking into a mirror as myself as Jareth, and whispering softly, ‘You have no power over me’.
Yoda – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Starting my journey into a cinematic obsessive at the dawn of the eighties, it’s safe to say that I was spoilt for choice when it came to terrifying movie characters. I’d be surprised not to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Judge Doom, Return to Oz’s Mombi and a few of The Dark Crystal’s Skesis (a film I still struggle to watch) scattered throughout this list. My wife also does a fine impression of The Junk Lady from Labyrinth to freak me out from time to time – give me Freddy and Jason any day, yeesh.
However, at the ripe old age of five my Dad took me to go and see The Empire Strikes Back, a film that has since become my all-time favourite, but rather than cower from the black cloaked form of the villainous Darth Vader, it was the little old Jedi Master that had me trembling with fear. Thankfully, like any self-respecting Star Wars fan, I’ve come to love and adore Yoda for the incredible character he is, but I must confess I still have a slight residual fear imprint from his one utterance, which I’m sure you can guess is “You will be… you will be.”
I appreciate that Yoda is doing his best to knock the arrogance out of Luke, but it’s the sudden shift in manner that makes it so unsettling. We’ve seen the kooky slapstick antics of raiding young Skywalkers’ stuff, then the shift to serious despair when speaking to Ben Kenobi, but the bearing of teeth and the way in which the masterful puppetry conveys Yoda’s intent is powerful work. It might not scare me in the same way now, but it’s always going to be a scene that sends me right back that place in time where Yoda was an unknown commodity. Only time will tell if it has the same impact on my own youngling…
The Grand High Witch – The Witches (1990)
At the age of nine, watching anyone peel off their face will leave behind a mental scar. Watching Anjelica Huston do it whilst dressed confusingly sexily and screaming in an ‘Allo ‘Allo German accent will stay with you for life. Especially when what’s revealed under said face is a demonic beak, Divine’s eyebrows, the distended earlobes of a disenchanted ex-hipster, and skin like a dripping candle.
As the undisguised Grand High ‘Vitch’ in Nic Roeg’s 1990 Dahl adaptation, Huston rivals both Charn from Through The Dragon’s Eye and The Dark Crystal’s Skeksis (both frequent fliers in my ship of childhood trauma) for soul-itching terror. It might be the accent, the claw-like fingers, eye-lasers, or the disconcerting pelvis-rocking Huston engages in whilst counting down to poor Bruno’s murine fate. Over-reading it, there’s probably something existentially terrifying to a mother-loving child about lurching rows of square-toed, cackling bald women who hate kids. Either way, I can pinpoint this scene as the exact moment I developed a robust fear of both formal wear and Nancy Dell’Ollio.
Scary Robot Woman – Superman III (1983)
Superman III? It absolutely terrified me.
I’ve always had a softer spot for the film than most, and might have over-analyzed the programming code in the film in slightly too much depth in the past. But even though it’s a notable tonal and quality change from the two movies that came before it, I’ve always enjoyed it. Partly as a Richard Pryor comedy, and partly because it sees Christopher Reeve do some of his best work in blue tights, in the infamous Superman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice fight sequence.
Yet the ending I never saw coming.
Annie Ross’ Vera had a sinister, Anne Ramsey-esque edge to her work in the film, but when she stepped into Gus Gorman’s supercomputer (that nowadays, of course, couldn’t hold the code required just for the text of this web page) and turned into a sort-of-RoboCop/Terminator prototype, my young carcass jolted back in its seat. I mean, just look at her. Never mind that she was defeated easily enough, it was the fact that Evil Vera existed in the first place.
What under 10-year old in the 1980s went to watch a Superman movie and saw an evil killer robot woman coming? Not bloody me…
Scar – The Lion King (1994)
The sheer unadulterated joy that Scar has while implementing his Shakespearian plan when he kills Mufasa and banishes Simba in The Lion King will stay with me for as long as I live. Casting Jeremy Irons, a brilliant actor who specialises in playing exceptionally deviant characters was a brilliant move by Disney that would leave a generation of children like myself scarred (yep) for life.
Consider for a moment that Scar is one of the few characters in a Disney movie who commits cold blooded murder. If witnessing a brutal murder on screen isn’t enough for you, perhaps blaming the murder on a child might also compel you to run from the theatre in sheer terror as you begin to wonder if this same scenario could happen to you?
To make matters worse Scar also manipulates a bunch of ravenous hyenas to help him maintain his control of the pride and these hyenas are literally driven to the point of insanity by hunger and therefore become capable of anything including attempting to murder a child. When Scar eventually finds out that these hyenas did not do their job his unbridled anger at their failure is the stuff that fuelled nightmares in my mind for years. Disney also decided seemingly just for fun that Scar’s final confrontation with Simba would take place with the jungle burning around them and perhaps not so coincidentally the aesthetics of this scene resemble the Judeo-Christian version of Hell which seemed far too realistic for me. Thanks for the nightmares Disney. Thanks.
Wednesday Addams – The Addams Family (1991)
To be honest, I probably fancied Wednesday Addams as much as I was frightened of her. Christina Ricci and I were born in the same month and seeing a girl your own age in a movie is pretty heavy crush material for an eleven year-old boy. The hormonal hum of proto-adolescence no doubt made her all the scarier and gave me an additional reason to scarper in the unlikely event that she pitched up in my Midlands cul-de-sac.
And Wednesday was scary. Sure The Addams Family resounded with horror tropes and general spidery gruesomeness but for the most part it was all played for laughs, more Carry On Screaming than Dracula, Prince of Darkness. But Wednesday? Whether suggesting that Girl Scout cookies were made from real Girl Scouts or going to a party as a ‘homicidal maniac’, that girl was dark. And her forced smile in the sequel was enough to haunt a young man’s dreams well into puberty.
Most terrifying of all was the scene in which she straps her alarmingly calm brother into an electric chair for the purposes of ‘a game’. What’s the game called, asks Pugsley. ‘It’s called “Is There a God?”’ she replies. Great, Flatliners Babies. Yelp. That’s a pretty heavy drop of metaphysical dread right there. Stayed with me for years.
E.T. – E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)
The scariest movie character from my childhood? Not Freddy. Not Jason. And while the shark from Jaws came a close second, it was actually another Spielberg invader that did me in: E Frickin’ T.
I saw the movie at a drive-in in 1982, and given my tender age, it’s unclear if I made it through the whole flick. But that’s not what scared me. It was the E.T. storybook from Putnam & Sons and the imagery within. I could make it through the first chunk of the book, particularly when E.T. was healthy.
But once the Halloween scenes take place, E.T. began to take on a sickly pallor. Elliott even looked gaunt and deathly in his Halloween garb. But the bit with both of them, white and sickly and sprawled out on the kitchen floor – presented in a two page spread?
Couldn’t handle it.
It was the Spread That Must Be Avoided. So too were the images of our protagonists in the hospitalized house, complete with scientists putting ECG meters onto the pair. And then came the image of Elliott looking at DEAD E.T. in a bodybag!
But wait – even when the little critter sprang back to life, HIS HEART WAS GLOWING BLOOD RED!
In the movie, with that helpful John Williams score, it all makes sense. But for a kid trying to piece the story together using images from a book (because at 7 years old, I couldn’t read the words), it was like E.T. came back from the dead as a glowing-hearted zombie.
Spielberg’s Jaws? A cakewalk. E.T.? Your worst nightmare come true.
Mombi – Return To Oz (1985)
I honestly think Disney rubbed its hands with glee in early 1985. After all, that summer it was going to release a sequel to The Wizard of Oz, one of the most beloved movies ever to come out of Hollywood. What it didn’t expect was to mentally scar a generation of children with the horrors that movie would unleash, one of which was the evil Mombi, who if I am in the right state of mind can cause shivers to run down my spine.
Now up until this point viewers had been treated to Dorothy almost being lobotomised, by the ‘reality’ version of Mombi Nurse Wilson, they’d been taken to a destroyed Oz where her friends have been turned to stone, become friends with a Pumpkin and a moose head and been tormented by a gang called Wheelers who had wheels for hands and feet.
And then there was Mombi. The same Mombi who can take off and switch off her own head depending on her mood.
The scene where Mombi is taking Dorothy down the hallway of heads in chilling as an adult and utterly terrifying as a child, and makes her in my opinion one of the scariest villains Disney has ever created.
Judge Doom – Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
My first encounter with Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Judge Doom didn’t even take place in the fright-nurturing atmosphere of a dark cinema, but on a sunny afternoon in a pal’s living room at a tenth birthday party, surrounded by cheery friends and Wotsits. Even in that jolly locale, Christopher Lloyd’s character was able to reach out of the screen, grab a handful of my soul, and twist it into a silent scream.
It was the eyes. A red, bulging, uncanny combination of human and animation. Then the voice – the high-pitched proof that the Dip-spraying Judge was really the toon who killed Eddie’s brother. “Holy smoke, he’s a toon” said Bob Hoskins. “Gnnnggghhhhh” said my brain.
From the moment the Judge flipped up acrobatically from underneath that steam roller to his Wicked Witch of the West demise, the character was etched into my nightmares. It helped that mugging, maniacal Lloyd absolutely sold the performance in his undertaker’s clobber and Stan Laurel hair. Granted, the bouncing shoes weren’t the most terrifying of accessories for a villain, but when Judge Doom lurches towards Eddie, saw-hands outstretched and eyeballs spinning white and red like a demonic fairground clown, there are few – in children’s or grown-up films – so scary.
The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come – Scrooge (1970)
As a wide-eyed Christmas-loving child, I didn’t really pick up on the themes of regret, loss and redemption that course thickly through the veins of this underrated musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Primarily, I absorbed the following: funny grumpy old man; Christmas is great; songs; Christmas really is great; more songs. And while the initial entrance of Alec Guinness’s (otherwise pretty campy) Jacob Marley and his and Scrooge’s flight through a phantom-filled sky had a certain creepiness to them, I was mainly excited to get to the next lavish scene of Christmas merriment, or the next musical number, or a funny bit with Scrooge being grumpy to someone. The song “I Hate People” combines both of these latter two elements to brilliantly curmudgeonly effect.
Then BOOM. Up pops a silent, terrifying hooded figure, who turns out to be a silent, terrifying grinning skeleton, who basically pushes Scrooge into his own grave, causing him to fall into Hell itself. Was I taken aback by the appearance of this horrendous apparition? Yep. Did it haunt my dreams? Yep. Did it stop me forcing my family to watch the film every Christmas anyway? Nope. I just hide when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears. I mean hid. In the past. ‘Cos I’m a grown-up now.
Medusa – Clash Of The Titans (1981)
In preparation for this piece I went back and re-watched the scenes in Desmond Davis’ 1981 fantasy epic Clash of the Titans where Medusa the Gorgon tracks our young hero Perseus through her darkened lair. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monster may appear tame by modern standards, but I maintain that to an impressionable child of around six years old, she is downright terrifying.
It’s gone down now in family folklore that after watching the serpent-haired creature stalking her prey, I actually had nightmares and barely slept for about a week. What it was exactly about this character that proved so disturbing compared to countless others I can’t be completely certain, but I’m pretty sure that my ongoing deep-rooted fear of snakes played at least some part . The stop-motion animation certainly helped too, with Harryhausen’s work giving a bizarre and jarring effect to the way that Medusa moved. Add to this though that ghastly face and that demonic look in her eyes and it all added up to a fearsome beast that haunted my younger self’s dreams. Obviously I’m over all that now. Definitely won’t be sleeping with the light on tonight. No sir.