The subconscious is a terrible place; dark, mysterious and peopled by spectres from the past. As a bit of a laugh then, we sent our writers journeying into theirs and asked them to drag out any TV terrors they found lurking in the shadows.
Some television fears had been ensconced there since childhood, others were more recent tenants. Some were morally terrifying; human beings with icy hearts capable of atrocities, others were simply… atrocities.
Join us as we count down in order of terror from the sort-of-creepy to the downright terrifying, the 50 TV characters that, for whatever reason, give our writers chills. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, so feel free to fill in gaps by adding your own peculiar television nightmares below…
50. Charn – Through The Dragon’s Eye (1989)
As an ex-teacher, I understand the need to jazz up a lesson, to sneak learning in under cover of fiction, YouTube clips and sweets. What I’m less able to grasp, some twenty five years after the fact, is the idea that a monster born from the mated imaginations of H.R. Giger and Hieronymus Bosch was the perfect way to teach kids how to read.
Take the beak of the Skeksis, the fingers of Freddy Krueger, the skeletal rib-cage of well, a skeleton, wrap it all up in Voldemort’s cape and what do you get? Night frights, wet bedsheets and the dawning realisation that nowhere, not even English on a Tuesday morning with Mrs Evans, is safe.
Charn was the villain of Look And Read’s Through The Dragon’s Eye, an 1989 adventure series that drew from the best of children’s fantasy to teach kids about vowel sounds and silent letters. Played by Look And Read stalwart David Collings, Charn could shoot lasers from the end of his clacking, knife-like claws that reduced people to puddles. All this, in aid of promoting literacy among the under-tens. It’s a wonder anyone born between the years of 1980-1984 learned to read at all. – Louisa Mellor
49. Stoppit and Tidyup – Stoppit And Tidyup (1988)
Stoppit and Tidyup freaked me out when I was five. There’s no in-depth psychological explanation I can give for this, nothing about how I forgot that the show existed until I read an issue of Sandman with a lot of demons in it, and started getting flashbacks. That did happen, but generally speaking the title characters of Charles Mills, Terry Brain and Steve Box’s series look like benevolent demons who would be unlikely to harm anybody. It was just that sometimes they would make strange braying screaming noises while their boggling eyes loomed and their jaws unhinged, and I would have to leave the room.
Don’t even get me started on I Said No. – Andrew Blair
48. The Hitch-hiker – The Hitch-hiker, The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964)
It’s a powerful bit of TV that stays with you for decades, which is exactly what The Twilight Zone episode, “The Hitch-hiker” has done with me. It’s with fair regularity over the years that when getting into the car and checking my mirror, I half-expect a be-hatted stranger to coolly ask from the back seat, “I believe you’re going… my way?” (Incidentally, if you share that specific fear, don’t tell your smartarse kids about it. They’ll only delight in doing just that every time you take them to Morrison’s.)
Based on Lucille Fletcher’s radio play of the same name, “The Hitch-Hiker” was a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Swedish actress Inger Stevens and Get Smart’s “The Claw,” Leonard Strong (notably playing a character scary not for reasons of 1960s cultural insensitivity!). It sees a young woman plagued by a very persistent hitch-hiker. Look it up, and see if it doesn’t spook you. – Frances Roberts.
47. The Crack Fox – The Mighty Boosh (2004 – 2007)
The Hitcher (with his solo-polo vision) aside, the wild creations of The Mighty Boosh were more kaleidoscopic than nightmarish. Fish-men in tutus, jazz fusion guitarists with doors in their hair, shamans and talking apes peopled the Boosh’s universe. As did one particularly nasty character: Jerome the Crack Fox (Julian Barratt), a newcomer to London who’d fallen foul of its hedonistic draw.
It’s not so much the Crack Fox’s sordid backstory, syringe fingers, or malodorous scent that made him terrifying, but his habit of muttering threats under his voice the moment Vince’s glam rock back was turned. “I’m gonna hurt you real bad” he repeatedly promises in an incongruous baritone, and had he not come a cropper with that bin lorry, I’ve no doubt he would have done. – Louisa Mellor
46. Marlo Stanfield – The Wire (2002 – 2008)
Marlo’s street political power came primarily from his role as insurgent, the up-and-coming disruptor to the long-standing situation of (relative) order that had obtained in West Baltimore when it was ruled by well-established kingpins.
Combining a capacity for ruthlessness that exceeded that of his predecessors with the nous to take advantage of difficulties in the existing Barksdale operation, Marlo’s drive to the top was supported by two lethal enforcers, Chris Partlow and Snoop, either of whom could have made this list on their own. Still, Marlo was the one in charge and with Jamie Hector’s chillingly effective performance, the almost supernaturally cold Marlo was a psychopath of economical menace, reducing all movements to the minimal needed to get his point across. Except of course when he was angry. And if you found yourself having given Marlo cause to anger… terrifying doesn’t even cut it. – Michael Noble
45. Light Yagami – Death Note (2006-2007)
This anime character based on the manga by Tsugumi Ohba begins the series as a mild-mannered high school student achieving top-class grades and on course for a career in law enforcement. By the final episode, Light Yagami is the world’s most notorious terrorist, responsible for international mass-murder and coercing governments all over the world to support him in his mission to ruthlessly rid the world of all criminals, at any cost.
What makes Light terrifying is the way his character’s facial animation distorts as he begins another killing spree or selects his next target; his appearance jumps from unassuming teen to demonic psychopath in a heartbeat. He also possesses a malice rarely seen in anime. Light’s emotionless reaction to his father’s death and pleasure at manipulating the women in his life are enough to chill anyone to the bone.
Don’t be fooled by the fact Nate Wolff of Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars fame is reportedly being strong considered to play him, Light Yagami is a monster. – Craig Elvy
44. Queen Admira – The Hugga Bunch TV Movie (1985)
The 1980s were the glory days of evil queens in kids’ movies. One of the best has to be Queen Admira from The Hugga Bunch Movie. In an attempt to stop her grandmother moving out of the family home as she is the only person who gives hugs, brave young Bridget must travel to Huggaland and get berries from the youngberry tree to made Grandma younger and thus now move to the retirement home (I didn’t say this was Oscar-worthy stuff).
However, Queen Admira possesses the only tree and keeps the fruit to herself, happy to eat (yes cannibalism in a kids’ movie) anyone who tries to steal them. A mix between the evil witch from Snow White and Mombi from Return To Oz, the really terrifying moment comes when our hero steals the fruit and runs off leaving the queen to shrivel up and die. Yes, she was evil, but did I really need to see her die a slow painful death and turn into Skeletor from He-Man? No.
Most horrifying of all though were the Hugga Bunch themselves, honestly go Google them right now – you won’t sleep tonight. – Carley Tauchert
43. Ray Wise – Reaper (2007 – 2009)
Ray Wise’s stunning satanic performance in Reaper lulls you into a force sense of security. He grins, cracks wise, and puts the central gang into all manner of crazy situations – he’s an altogether fun character, about 80 percent of the time.
He didn’t earn his status as the sadly doomed show’s MVP just by being charming, though – when Wise’s Devil snapped, he snapped hard. One such example came when a demon threatened the protagonist Sam, who was in Satan’s employ and therefor off the menu. Enraged by the attack, The Devil lashes out and disintegrates the assailant without hesitation. Note to self – don’t piss off the Devil.
He could be sinister in his quieter moments as well, though. For all this jokes, smiles and pep-talks, The Devil’s evil enigma often shines through. You rarely forget that he’s black-mailing Sam throughout the entire series. Wise finds a way to be funny and fierce at once, adding an unsettling and eerie air to proceedings. He couldn’t half put us on edge. – Rob Leane
42. Treguard – Knightmare (1987 – 1994)
This one speaks for itself, really; after all, what could be more terrifying than a man who decides to spend his middle age luring children to his castle, blindfolding them and then sending them into the catacombs so he can watch them die?
Though Treguard from ’80s kids’ show Knightmare was ostensibly on the side of light, actor Hugo Myatt and show creator Tim Child worked hard to make dungeon master Treguard a morally ambiguous character, imparting help and information to the teams where necessary but always maintaining a sense of detachment – great care was taken to ensure that the dungeoneers would never see or interact with Myatt outside of Treguard’s antechamber. At the end of each episode Treguard would address the audience at home with a sinister wide-eyed stare and ominous missives such as “Just remember: It’s only a game. Isn’t it…?”, leaving children everywhere to go into the weekend ever so slightly creeped out. But what really earns Treguard a place on this list is his reaction whenever a dungeoneer met a sticky end at the hands of an animated spider or a falling platform. Two words, said with such relish: “Oooh… Nasty.” – Pete Dillon-Trenchard
41. Lorne Malvo – Fargo (2014 -)
From his very introduction, it’s clear that Lorne Malvo is a bad dude. Anyone who can wear those severe bangs has to be someone you don’t want to trifle with, because that’s the hair of a man who has been in his fair share of fights. When that hair is attached to an ice-cold hitman and con artist, those fights don’t end well for the other party. By the end of the first episode, after delivering a bone-chilling monologue and killing multiple people, it’s clear that Malvo is not one to be trifled with.
For me, scary isn’t so much about creepy monsters and supernatural powers. Scary is a human being with no hesitation, no remorse, and no compulsion about killing, cheating, lying, and maiming to achieve his ends. There’s no character interaction between Malvo and someone else that either doesn’t end in violence or doesn’t feel like it’s going to end in violence. Even when Malvo isn’t doing the work himself, he’s inspiring it in those around him. Malvo isn’t a person, he’s a malignance infecting Bimidji, Minnesota. – Ron Hogan
40. Warren Mears – Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003)
Among all the rubbery-looking foes of the week Buffy has battled, there’ve been a fair few worthy of fear – some because the BtVS make-up department’s skills were on point (Gnarl); the character tapped into childhood fears (Der Kindestod); or they’re just horrible/I don’t want to think about them/you can’t make me (The Gentleman). But the one that’s stuck with me is series 6 Big Bad Warren Mears. Surface-level, he and his socially awkward n’ nerdy Trio members Andrew and Jonathan would fit into my group of friends easily, they look so everyday, regular and innocuous, but they represent a real-world danger that’s beyond Sunnydale.
In Dead Things, Warren + friends create a “cerebral dampener” to remove free-will – and the ability to consent – from female victims of their choice. As Warren’s ex-girlfriend Katrina makes clear later – what happens after that is sexual assault. After killing her, Warren’s descriptions of Katrina as “it” aren’t any different from how he saw her when she was breathing – she’s an object, moving parts, and he thinks he should be able to do whatever he wants with her – “it”. That attitude towards women is one that some share, out here in the real world with us. That scares me. – Phoebe-Jane Boyd.
39. Brother Justin – Carnivale (2003 – 2005)
Actor Clancy Brown’s real-life reputation for being a thoroughly nice bloke doesn’t lighten the sense of dread that underpinned his performance as Carnivale’s very own Avatar of Darkness. Although he has deployed his deep, resonant voice and considerable physical heft in other villainous roles, here Brown’s signature attributes are used to convey a power that comes from somewhere else and which even he doesn’t fully understand.
A figure of authority as much as he is a servant of it, Justin is a Methodist preacher whose use of words and jet black charisma capture the all-too-willing members of his expanding congregation in deadly rapture as the sinister minister pursues his evil duty. – Michael Noble
38. The Test-Card Girl – Life On Mars (2006 – 2007)
Is he mad, in a coma, or back in time? It would take five series to find out what happened to Sam Tyler (and latterly Ashes To Ashes‘ Alex Drake) but whatever the result, that test card girl meant trouble. Inspired by the BBC’s iconic Test Card F, featuring an eight year old girl playing noughts and crosses with a clown doll, she torments Sam throughout the two series of Life On Mars, spouting pessimistic lines like “none of this is real” to the displaced detective.
Series creator Matthew Graham explained the fear factor best in an interview with Radio Times: “In 1973, when television transmission had ceased for the night, when the story is done and the characters have vanished into nothing, the BBC would switch to the Test Card girl. So she, if you want to be melodramatic, represents the apocalypse, the end.” She’s responsible for some of the scarier moments in the series and she leaves you wondering why Sam ever turns his telly on. It’s all the more disturbing then, that she is the final character we see in Life On Mars, playing with kids in the street and skipping up to the camera to turn off our TVs. – Mark Harrison
37. ‘Vee’ – Orange Is The New Black (2013 – )
The best antagonist of the Netflix series so far, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) sashays into season two and proceeds to make “hard time” even worse. Basically Richard III with better hair, she is a master manipulator who is able to sniff out people’s weaknesses and use them to her advantage in less time than it takes most villains to twirl their moustaches. Always thinking, always evaluating, and always calculating, Vee is the scariest denizen of the rogues gallery that constitutes the show’s cast.
Even when the odds are against her, Vee is smart enough to think on her feet, and has no compunction about playing the victim to avoid getting in trouble – like all great manipulators, she is a consummate performer able to mask her genuine emotions. Actress Lorraine Toussaint’s poker face is far scarier than anything else in the show – you never know what she is thinking: she is just as capable of clubbing someone over the head with a sock filled with locks as she is of fixing Crazy Eyes’ hair. The ultimate mother hen from hell. – Tim George
36. Gemma Teller Morrow – Sons Of Anarchy (2008 – 2014)
Sons Of Anarchy is a show about outlaw bikers, so of course it’s full of terrifying and violent characters, almost any of whom could sit quite comfortably on this list. But the scariest of all might not be a biker at all – instead, it’s Gemma (Katey Sagal). The widow of one of the Sons’ founders, John Teller, when the show starts she’s married to its new president, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) – and mother of one of its future presidents, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam). Maybe she’s not technically a member, but she’s definitely inextricably linked with the Sons, and party to most of its worst crimes.
Gemma commits plenty of crimes herself, of course. She’s constantly scheming to get rid of people she doesn’t like, and when there’s no-one around to manipulate into doing her dirty work, she’ll do it herself. Without spoiling too much, there’s one particular episode (season 6, episode 13) where she demonstrates exactly how far she’ll go to protect her club, and it’s probably the shockingly violent show’s most shocking violent moment of all. – Sarah Dobbs
35. Jerome – Gotham (2014 -)
Portraying a potential version of The Joker is no easy task, but Cameron Monaghan stepped up to the plate in a big way during his first Gotham guest appearance in “The Blind Fortune Teller.” He truly sent a shiver down our spine when he first broke into hideous laughter towards the end of that episode.
Unlike most screen Jokers, Monaghan’s Jerome started as a sympathetic character – breaking down into tears upon finding out about his true parentage in his first episode. Then suddenly, he snapped upright at began insulting his mother, freaking out everyone present and bursting into hysterical laughter.
When he came back into the show for season two, Jerome was given center stage and allowed to really let loose. Whether exacting revenge on his family, invading the GCPD, or almost chopping Bruce Wayne in half – Jerome always finds a way to make a sinister situation even scarier with a giggle, a zinger and consistent bloodshed. – Rob Leane
34. Papa Lazarou – The League Of Gentlemen (1999 – 2002)
The League Of Gentlemen was no stranger to the odd grotesque or two, but none were more unnerving than Reece Shearsmith’s demented circus master, Papa Lazarou. Plenty of the show’s sketches are not so much darkly comic as they are pitch-black, but this one feels like something straight out of a grim horror movie.
Lazarou’s appearance is immediately unsettling, from his freakish black and white face to his rasping voice, stained yellow teeth and clawing fingers bedecked in the rings of his victims. For anyone who already possesses a phobia of clowns, this demonic oddity taps right in to that same vein of fear. Lazarou gains his trinkets by coercing his way in to the homes of housewives and after tricking them in to handing over their wedding rings, he mutters those immortal words that inspired a million bad impressions: “You’re my wife now”. With that, the women become his property and are whisked away to do his bidding. The unspoken truth about what exactly he does with his captives only serves to make him scarier. – Rob Keeling
33. Zachary Kralik – Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003)
The Gentlemen? Creepy. The unseen thing that Dawn raises in “Forever“? Unsettling. Moloch the Corruptor? Terrifying… that anyone thought that plotline was in any way acceptable.
For my money though, Zachary Kralik, from Season 3’s “Helpless,” is one of the scariest villains that our dear Buffy ever faced – pretty impressive considering that he was a vampire, creatures that weren’t particularly frightening in season one, let alone three seasons in. Brilliantly played by Jeff Kober (who would later portray sleazy warlock Rack), Kralik was fairly scary pre-siring, an abuse victim who tortured and murdered multiple women before being committed to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he was made into a vampire. He went on to eat his own mother (his abuser – fun times!), and freely admitted to having “a problem with mothers.”
Piling on the badness, the Watchers Council – having had the bright idea of using Kralik for the Cruciamentum, a ritual in which Slayers are robbed of their power and forced to fight a vampire – lose control of the monster, leaving him on the loose with Buffy’s mother in his none-too-stable clutches. The combination of Kober’s performance, a creepy abandoned house, Buffy’s vulnerability (one of the few times we see our heroine in real physical peril) and James A. Contner’s direction makes for one of the most nerve-shredding episodes in Buffy’s entire run. Those Polaroids… shudder… – Stefan Mohamed
32. The Doppelganger – The Twilight Zone, Mirror Image (1959 – 1964)
There’s terrifying in the tentacles-and-pointy-teeth way, and then there’s the existentially terrifying, the kind of metaphysical chill that creeps in and never quite goes away. The doppelgangers in 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, “Mirror Image,” fall into the second category.
It’s a spooky idea, that your exact double could be out there somewhere needing to eliminate you to ensure their own survival, and one handled to perfection in this chilling episode. There’s nothing intrinsically scary about the neat young blonde woman and the man in a suit and tie who provide the scares in “Mirror Image,” but to their counterparts, they’re fear itself.
Young Millicent encounters her doppelganger at a bus depot, and fails to convince sceptic Paul of the fact. More fool him. The final scene is one that’s stayed with me since childhood: Paul chasing an impishly grinning version of himself, never catching up to him… – Caroline Bishop
31. The Boogieman – The Real Ghostbusters (1986 – 1981)
Just about every young child can relate to the irrational fear of the dark. Of flinching at a random creaky noise or being afraid something is lurking unseen in the shadows. The makers of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon milked this idea for all it’s worth in The Boogieman Cometh episode, where the Ghostbusters are tasked with stopping the Boogieman feeding on the fear of a young brother and sister.
The Boogieman seen in the show has an oversized head, jagged teeth, bright yellow eyes, a horrible raspy voice and the dodgiest mullet this side of Limahl. He’s a ghastly sight, but what led The Boogieman from this episode giving a generation of children nightmares is how well he tapped into their primal fears. The bedroom is supposed to be a safe place, but then in the middle of the night this toothy demon emerges to feed on their fear. And the scariest thing is he clearly enjoys his job too. – Padraig Cotter
30. Hyde – Jekyll (2007)
ITV has provoked complaints for airing Charlie Higson’s new take on The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in a pre-watershed slot, but going on the first episode alone, it pales in comparison to Steven Moffat’s modern post-watershed adaptation of the same material, 2007’s Jekyll. Dr. Tom Jackman is so disturbed by his transformations into a vastly more powerful alter-ego that he has segregated himself from his family in order to try and contain the demon within.
Hyde is a name that he adopts after learning of Stevenson’s work, but he proceeds to drastically live up to it. Wielding superior strength and speed, he is physically different from Jackman and utterly out-of-control. Spouting one-liners like “Killing is like sex, only there’s a winner”, Hyde is truly unpredictable every time he’s on-screen and James Nesbitt’s dual performance bounces marvellously between mild-mannered foil and terrifying bastard.
29. Vernon Schillinger – Oz (1997 – 2003)
In all honesty, any number of characters from Oz could have made this list. At one time or another, each one has had to deploy fear in the pursuit of the central goal of the brutalised inmates of Oswald State Penitentiary: survival. However, in Aryan Brotherhood leader Schillinger, that particular rogue’s gallery has an individual who rules his end of the prison network with a viciousness that is capable of shocking the most jaded viewer.
Vern’s capacity for violence, manipulation and, let’s be frank, hypocrisy make him the sort of fictional inmate who operates as a one-man-advert for keeping on the straight and narrow. His victims are left physically, mentally and emotionally broken. J.K. Simmons may have won an Oscar for his performance as a merciless music teacher, but his earlier run as the sadistic convict was perhaps the more intense performance. The most terrifying part? Simmons didn’t forget to humanise him, making him a very real monster indeed. – Michael Noble
28. George Hearst – Deadwood (2004 – 2006)
Racist and anti-Semitic beyond levels that were accepted at the time (the Old West: a bad time), Deadwood’s fictionalised version of real-life prospector George Hearst is the scariest thing to ride into town since smallpox. During his short time in camp, Hearst has 1) a proportion of his workers offed for trying to unionise, 2) Al Swearengen’s hand hammered during a chat 3) Dan Dority almost beaten to death in front of the whole town 4) Alma Ellsworth shot at, just to rattle her a bit. Oh, and he calls her “reckless” at one point for coming into his quarters and not expecting to be sexually assaulted and/or killed, and 5) Whitney Ellsworth murdered because ol’ George is bitter about being thrown in jail overnight and wanted to piss everyone off.
Hearst introduces himself to people as jus’ a good ol’ boy from Missouri done good, and if anyone doesn’t play along with the “nice guy” act his eyes turn icy with offence. His “friendship” with his cook Aunt Lou is the tensest thing to watch – she’s frightened of him, even though he describes her as his “closest confidant.” And she’s right to be scared. – Phoebe-Jane Boyd.
27. Zuni Fetish Doll – Trilogy Of Terror (TV movie, 1975)
Despite having the ingredients to become a success – a script by Richard Matheson, direction from Dan Curtis, and the presence of horror icon Karen Black – the Trilogy Of Terror film is largely forgotten. However, one part of the anthology, the film’s finale “Amelia,” lives on in infamy because of one creepy character, the Zuni fetish doll known as He Who Kills. Everything about this doll is unsettling, from his stringy black hair to his jerky-textured skin, but most unsettling are his little tiny weapons and miniature stature. Big knives aren’t terribly scary, but someone with a scalpel is terrifying, and when that person is the perfect height to cut off a toe or slash an Achilles tendon, it’s even scarier.
The doll is a pop culture icon, and his appearance in this film is terrifying. He scuttles around, hiding under things and making a terrifying high-pitched garble, like something between a Gremlin and the Tasmanian Devil, but armed. Sure, it’s a little silly at times, but that’s also part of the charm. Smile now; all the mirth will go away when the final shot of the movie is slowly revealed. – Ron Hogan
26. Leigh Emerson – American Horror Story: Asylum (2011 – )
He only appeared in two episodes, but Leigh Emerson (Ian McShane) was by far Asylum’s creepiest inmate. His backstory is full of serious villain-making awfulness: imprisoned for petty theft, he was raped by his fellow prisoners on Christmas Eve, leaving him deranged and with a serious hatred of Christmas. Having killed eighteen people, including a charity Santa, he ends up committed to Briarcliff. And for Asylum’s Christmas episode, he was given his own Santa suit and allowed to run riot.
The juxtaposition between that familiar red-and-white suit and Ian McShane’s gleefully evil performance is chilling. Yeah, there have been other Christmas horrors, and this isn’t the first time Father Christmas has been turned into a murderer, but it’s hard to think of a time when it worked quite so well. McShane really commits, malice radiating off him so strongly you can almost see it, and because American Horror Story delights in extremes, there really was no telling what he’d do to his fellow inmates. – Sarah Dobbs
25. Arthur Mitchell aka The Trinity Killer – Dexter (2006 – 2013)
It’s no surprise that typing the words “John Lithgow” into Google immediately brings up Dexter as the first word link, despite him accruing decades worth of memorable screen villains. Dexter cleverly traded in on was Lithgow’s ability to play harmless and bumbling (3rd Rock from the Sun, Harry and the Hendersons) against his big screen bastardry (Raising Cain, Cliffhanger, Ricochet and um… Santa Claus: The Movie).
It also made for an interesting and complex time for Dexter, in that once he tracked down the notorious Trinity Killer, he found a man who seemed to be a normal, upstanding member of society and perhaps someone to emulate, especially when he was able to hold a family life together. However, on closer inspection the cracks appeared and Dexter found himself faced with an adversary who was every bit as lethally cunning as he was, a factor which substantially ramped up the threat.
While it was Lithgow’s performance that kept us terrified, as his persona got increasingly more explosive and unpredictable towards everyone from his own family, to random children, it was, of course, his final act that cemented him as one of the most infamous screen villains of all time. The sheer shock of it, combined with the cruelly cyclical nature of what he does still upsets to this day and will no doubt continue to do so. – Duncan Bowles
See entries 25 – 1 on the following page.
24. Francis Wolcott – Deadwood (2004 – 2006)
Garret Dillahunt played two different roles on Deadwood. The first, Jack McColl, was a drunkard on a quest for vengeance who managed to shoot Wild Bill Hickok during a game of poker – horrible in his own way, for sure, but not especially terrifying. The second, though, was properly nasty.
Francis Wolcott turns up a few episodes into season two, acting as a scout for a new mining operation. He’s a threat to Deadwood just because he heralds the arrival of a major political and commercial force that’ll change the way the town operates, and also because he’s a mentally unstable misogynist who can’t control his violent urges. He murders several prostitutes, almost against his own will, and aside from the obvious, there’s something about the way he does it that’s really unsettling. He’s one of those only-on-TV sociopaths who likes to soliloquise about the way he sees the world, and that’s never not disturbing. – Sarah Dobbs
23. The Headmaster – The Demon Headmaster (1996)
When Terrence Hardiman, the actor behind this hypnotic villain, popped up in the 2010 Doctor Who episode The Beast Below, my immediate reaction was to raise a trembling finger at my television screen and cry out “argh, the Demon Headmaster!”
The 1996 show excelled in being unsettling and had a bleakness to it that would shock those more accustomed to post-millennium CBBC. That a character intended for children’s television can stick in the memory so vividly for fifteen odd years is testament to both Gillian Cross’ original literary creation and Hardiman’s sinister portrayal. The concept of a headmaster capable of hypnotising his students into perfect obedience is one that resonated in the fragile mind of children who watched this CBBC classic and despite the first, most widely remembered, series only comprising of six episodes, the Demon Headmaster left a long-lasting impression on an era of British ’90s kids. – Craig Elvy
22. The Governor – The Walking Dead (2010 – )
It wouldn’t be a Den of Geek list if I didn’t somehow try to crowbar The Walking Dead in somehow and especially the Governor. It speaks volumes about the character that even though he featured for just one and a half seasons, David Morrissey’s towering interpretation has left a lasting impression.
What made the Governor so terrifying was the calm, charming outward persona, that made his allure and the trust people placed in him so believable, while his much darker side was only revealed in smaller moments here and there, as we watched poor Andrea get closer and closer to danger. In many ways he functions like the most notorious of serial killers, with secrets locked behind closed doors (literally in the case of Penny) and included his head filled trophy cabinet.
It was the episode “Prey” that really kicked the Governor’s ability to scare up a gear, as the combination of the stalk and slash format and the fact that he finally turned against Andrea saw him emerge as a bonafide monster. Of course that was only the start of the horror and the screams of sorrow he extracted from the other characters in the short time he was a part of The Walking Dead universe. – Duncan Bowles
21. Lee – Utopia (2013-2014)
Some shows use CGI and visual effects to elicit terror from viewers, while others rely on extravagant make-up and musical cues. Utopia’s murderous Lee on the other hand, achieves the same level of fright using nothing but marvellous acting from Paul Ready, sizzling dialogue and a spoon.
As a killer for mysterious organization “The Network,” Lee is naturally devoid of mercy and emotion and not someone you’d want to meet down a dark alley (or indeed a well-lit one for that matter). But Lee stands out from the glut of television hitmen largely due to his unnervingly calm demeanor. Paul Ready somehow manages to portray a man who simultaneously has a permanently short fuse and an effortless unflappability. When Lee gouges out poor Wilson’s eye with a spoon, without once losing his patronising, cool vocal tone, you’ll undoubtedly spend the rest of the series fearing what he’s capable of. – Craig Elvy
20. The Tripods – The Tripods (1984 – 1985)
If you, like me, spent a chilling and formative childhood evening in the late 1970s crouched at the top of the stairs eavesdropping on your parents’ first play of Jeff Wayne’s The War Of The Worlds LP, then the arrival on TV a few years later of The Tripods might have done you in. It almost did me.
To my nine-year-old mind, those long-limbed, mechanically clawed alien invaders looked as though they’d lurched right out of that dread LP cover and onto the screen. Bu this time, there wasn’t even the comforting voice of David Essex—a childhood staple in our house—to carry me through the scary bits.
It wasn’t until much later I learned that The Tripods enslaving England on TV weren’t based on Wayne’s musical, but adapted from John Christopher’s series of novels, books I should probably be ashamed to say I’ve yet to drum up the courage to read. – John Denton
19. Queen Bea – Prisoner: Cell Block H (1979 – 1986)
You want to meet someone scary? Say hello to Bea Smith, played with brutal menace by Val Lehman. “Queen Bea” started as she meant to go on, jamming sweet Lynn Warner’s hands in the steam press in her very first outing, setting the tone for the rest of her 376-episode reign. (Her way with the steam press is the main reason I’ve sworn off ironing for life.)
Whenever there was a “scrag fight” in the prison, Bea was in the middle of it. When the series began, Bea was already in prison for murder. She’d offed her husband’s mistress, and was busy plotting the death of her non-lamented ex, Harry, whom she blamed for the death of her daughter from a drug overdose.
Bea never carried the burden of worrying about the health of others. Scissors to the head, punching, kicking, pushing people around – and these were her friends!
After shooting Nola (Carol Skinner) right between the eyes, a final brawl with The Freak (Maggie Kirkpatrick) saw Bea transferred to an even tougher prison in episode 400. – Ebony McKenna
18. Mad Pierrot – Cowboy Bebop (1998)
A psychotic man-child who operates as a hired killer and lives in a disused theme park, Mad Pierrot is the most unsettling villain of this well-loved anime series. Maybe it is because everything about him makes no sense. With his unblinking gaze and rictus grin, he looks like a lesser-known resident of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
Appearing and disappearing at will, Mad Pierrot pops up like a jack-in-the-box to completely disorient and destroy whoever gets in his way. He is super-strong, seemingly invulnerable, he can fly and he’s packing heat. The fact that he is so deranged in appearance and personality, and is simultaneously capable of causing so much death and destruction, makes him far scarier than any of the terrorists, killers or criminals the Bebop crew typically have to deal with. Even Spike, the most competent fighter of the group, finds himself almost completely outmatched in his encounters with the mad man. And when we learn his backstory, it just makes him even creepier. – Tim George
17. Ramsay Bolton – Game Of Thrones (2011 -)
Iwan Rheon’s take on Roose Bolton’s bastard son has seen him achieve something that once felt impossible: he’s actually created a character to rival Joffrey Baratheon in the Game Of Thrones “vicious little bastard” stakes. In a show like this one, where torture, pain and cruelty are basically par for the course, it takes a lot to really stand out. What makes Ramsay’s own particular brand of cruelty so powerful is the immense joy he takes in the suffering of others. He doesn’t just let others carry out his bidding either, he dives in and gets his hands nice and bloody. His physical and mental torture of poor Theon has lasted for several seasons now, and has caused a man be broken down to nothing before our very eyes. Ramsay is a truly malevolent presence with no discernible conscience whatsoever. He kills, rapes and tortures as he sees fit and what’s more, he revels in every moment. It’s impossible to say just what horrors this unhinged horror will resort to next. – Rob Keeling
16. Chinga – Chinga, The X-Files (1993 – 2002)
Okay, look, I know what you’re thinking. In the grand scheme of TV terrors, including just those found in The X-Files alone, Chinga probably doesn’t rate that highly on most people’s scare-o-meter. For me though, she will always be the root cause of a sleepless week back in my early teenage years. For those who don’t know, Chinga is an antique doll that is evil incarnate and forces people to kill themselves. Taken in isolation, that sentence may not conjure up much in the way of terror for some, but it gets me every time. Much like ventriloquist dummies—another inanimate object that haunted my dreams thanks to Goosebumps—there’s something about this toy, designed in theory to be played with and loved, its blank stare seemingly rendering it devoid of any emotion, that just makes it all the more sinister.
In this episode, it’s the little touches that freaked me out, like the “Hokey Pokey” music that played in the background or the eerie reflections that directed people to their own death. However nothing chilled me quite like that little things eyes flicking open and it uttering the truly chilling words “Let’s have fun”. – Rob Keeling
15. The Beast – Doctor Who, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006)
Most of Doctor Who’s big scares come in the form of the creepy or unsettling; the Weeping Angels and The Silence being prime examples. The Beast/Satan/The Devil from the David Tennant era however offered something unique by taking on two vastly contrasting forms throughout the two-part story. The monster begins by possessing poor Toby (Will Thorp) whose menacing vocal change and determination to kill all his mates are Doctor Who at its dark best.
When the Tenth Doctor eventually comes face-to-face with The Beast itself however, the terror comes from the sheer scale of the CGI creation. The gloriously rendered, mountainous demon towers over our Time Lord hero, offering no intelligent communication, simply struggling relentlessly against his shackles. The fright here is in the intimidation factor, the strong inference that this Beast is the fabled Satan himself and the fact that the audience knows if this monster breaks free, it doesn’t matter how many hearts he has, the Doctor’s finished. – Craig Elvy
14. Der Kindestod – Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003)
Throughout its run, Buffy The Vampire Slayer produced some great and memorable demons, but there are few to rival the sheer creepiness factor of Der Kindestod, a fairytale monster with a penchant for sucking the life out of children. He appeared in the second season episode “Killed By Death” during which Buffy came down with the flu, nearly losing a fight to Angelus in the process. She’s put into hospital where, in the throes of a high fever, she sees a man with a horrifying visage walk past her bedroom door. Everyone assures her that there is nothing wrong, but she soon finds out that the residents of the children’s ward have been seeing him too and there has been a spate of child deaths.
The make-up effects for Der Kindestod are some of the show’s best work, his face a rotting gentlemanly grin, all teeth and pale flesh. The CGI of his eyeballs leaving his head to clamp on to Buffy might not hold up well, but anything with detaching eyes is still very creepy. What is terrifying about him though is that he can only be seen by sick children, recalling memories of monsters under beds that your parents swore weren’t there. He is truly the stuff of childhood nightmares. – Becky Lea
13. Azazel (The Yellow-Eyed Demon) – Supernatural (2005 -)
Supernatural has featured a lot of demons, many of them terrifying, up to and including Satan himself. The scariest of all, though, is probably the first one we met, known for years only as The Yellow-Eyed Demon. Being first of course helps, as the story and world were new and unfamiliar. But Old Yellow-Eyes has other qualities that put him above the rest. His modus operandi, for example, is to pin your loved ones to the ceiling, slice them across the abdomen and set them on fire, and his non-standard yellow eyes are queasily eerie.
The real strength of Yellow-Eyes, though, is the actors who played him. Like most Supernatural demons, Yellow-Eyes switches human vessels several times, but every actor who took on the role – primarily Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who initially created the character, Fredric Lehne, who played him most often, and Mitch Pileggi, who put in a fantastically creepy performance as Azazel in the body of Sam and Dean’s grandfather – gave him a sleazy, slimy and manipulative manner and personality to go with his obvious villainy, which made him all the more memorable and all the scarier. – Juliette Harrisson
12. The Joker – Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
To this day Batman: The Animated Series remains one of the definite adaptations of the character. Everything from the art deco style to the voice acting to the writing is rock-solid, and remarkably rich and nuanced for a Saturday morning cartoon show. Amongst the show’s many crowning achievements is its portrayal of the Clown Prince of Thieves himself, The Joker.
A cackling maniac who takes great delight inflicting panic and chaos throughout Gotham, as well as playing mind games with Batman, what makes The Joker so creepy in this iteration is how easily he switches from corny jokes to frightening temper tantrums. He can be unfailingly polite one moment before trying to beat someone to death with a wrench the next, laughing manically all way.
Combined with his pale white features, demonic grin and the sterling voiceover work by Mark Hamill The Joker featured here is – arguably – the defining portrayal of the character. – Padraig Cotter
11. The Weeping Angels – Doctor Who, Blink (2007)
In my eyes, the Weeping Angels are to Doctor Who as the Gentlemen are to Buffy.
When I watched Blink for the first time, the Angels were nothing more than background, albeit sinister, accessories. It isn’t until Larry (Finlay Robertson)’s momentary lapse of concentration that the Angels show their terrifying capabilities; moving at speed of lightning and manipulating a lit lightbulb – in other words, controlling the simple gift of sight; the one thing that can freeze them but enable them to attack.
Yet they are, apparently, the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely. That’s if they don’t scare the crap out of you in a blink of an eye first. – Katie Wong
10. Eugene Victor Tooms – The X-Files (1993 – 2002)
Anyone who watched The X-Files‘ first season will remember Eugene Victor Tooms. He appeared twice in the show’s inaugural year, and remains a highlight of the entire run.
Like an evil Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards, Tooms enjoyed unnatural flexibility: he could stretch and contort his body in order to squeeze into narrow spaces. And what did he use this strange ability for? Did he fight crime and take on evildoers with fantastical names?
Nope! He did the next logical thing: crawled through ventilation ducts to murder people and feast on their livers. Not only that, but he appeared to be immortal, too: every thirty years, Tooms would emerge from his self-made nest (of newspaper strips and bile, no less) to kill, feed, and then hibernate for another three decades.
Two things helped to make Tooms one of the most memorable and downright terrifying characters to ever grace television screens: a) his ability to enter your home even when you feel secure behind locked doors, windows, and intruder alarms, and b) that no real, tangible reason for his abilities is given – his elongation, his flexibility, and his occasionally-yellow eyes remain unnervingly unexplained. – Kyle MacManus
9. The Borg – Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994)
Of all Star Trek’s major races, the Borg are easily the most terrifying. As cybernetic organisms that think with one mind, they bundle together several concepts that most people find chilling on some level.
At times, the Borg are like zombies: slow-moving, but difficult to fight and incredibly numerous. They are, essentially, the reanimated dead – only they’re reanimated by technology, not mysticism. They can even turn you into one of them.
Other times, their threat is almost political. Becoming a Borg involves the total subversion of your individuality in service of a greater whole. At times, this been interpreted as a metaphor for the threat posed by anti-democratic communism, which is the total inverse of what their freedom-loving American audience loved.
And of course, the Borg represent the fear of progress without ethical restraint. They may be stronger and more advanced than us, but their cold brutality suggests a society stripped of compassion and mercy by its achievements. The idea that by pursuing science to the exclusion of all else, we’ll lose the best part of ourselves. Any one of those things would make a race of villains scary. Together? Let’s just say we can see why they quickly became TNG‘s most compelling foes. – James Hunt
8. The Woman In Black – The Woman In Black (1989)
My first memories of the 1989 adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black were of pre-watershed TV spots with high-pitched violins and a lingering figure in a graveyard. At the age of seven, that was enough to create a lingering fear of the eponymous character so intense that I couldn’t sleep without the light on for months.
In comparison to the ghostly spectre of the 2012 feature, Pauline Moran’s Woman In Black appears as a real person, which only makes her more terrifying. For the most part, she does very little besides linger around young lawyer Arthur Kidd (Adrian Rawlin), but this only builds the fear of her presence. The clincher comes when Moran essentially steals the film in a pants-wetting scene where she shrieks demonically over Kidd, who passes out in his horror.
If the sight of a ghost hovering over you while screaming into your face doesn’t give you nightmares, I don’t know what will. – Katie Wong
7. Pipes – Ghostwatch (1992)
Many of us of a certain age remember what they up to on Halloween night 1992, the reason being that we were scared half to death watching Ghostwatch. Headed up by popular presenters of the time, it was a mockumentary looking into the haunting of a house in London by a ghostly entity called Pipes.
Pipes has much in common with horror king Freddie Kruger as so much in they were both child molesters who died and now haunted the living, however by 1992, Freddie was almost (ironically) a kid-friendly panto villain while Pipes is still a creepy creation who can haunt your nightmares. From his voice, to the creepy way he turns up unexpectedly to the banging noise he made (to this day banging heating pipes give me the chills) he was an expert creation in frightening people to the core, even his final possession at the end of the show is haunting (even taking into account Michael Parkinson’s er, questionable acting). He was the perfect spooky spectre. – Carley Tauchert
6. Dracula – Count Dracula (1977)
Lord save us from over-emoting Draculas. When you watch Louis Jourdan’s performance in this version of Bram Stoker’s novel you hear all the same lines of dialogue, and see all the same situations, that we’ve come to expect from this story. But there’s no overacting, no grotesque laughter and no bared fangs. Instead Jourdan – a Hollywood heart-throb in the 1950s and 1960s – brings a weary, aristocratic intelligence to the role. He is mesmeric, seductive, and very frightening.
“Listen… the children of the night; what music they make,’ he muses quietly, in between eloquently holding court on the history of Transylvania. It makes perfect sense for his suave, lyrical character to converse with Jonathan Harker in such a manner, charming both him and us. And underneath the charm? Not a monster so much as a man who has reached into unimaginable depths of evil, and will take you there with him easily. – Aliya Whiteley
5. The Flukeman – The Host, The X-Files (1993 – 2002)
To call the creature from The X-Files’ season two episode, “The Host,” terrifying feels like something of an understatement: not only does he look grotesque, but the Flukeman’s nasty habit of biting people and implanting a parasite into their body (which leaves them dead upon exiting) really sends a shiver down the spine.
Unlike that other iconic monster, Tooms, the Flukeman’s origins are explained, sort of (hint: the Russian freighter aboard which he hitched a ride to American shores came from Chernobyl), but this makes him no less terrifying. As if the idea of being bitten wasn’t bad enough, the threat of an alien presence living inside you adds salt to the wound (and has echoes of Alien’s legendary Star-Beast).
If they can face it, fans of the Flukeman may want to check out IDW’s fantastic comic-book continuation of The X-Files (season 10), which sees the monster return. – Kyle McManus
4. Pennywise – Stephen King’s IT (TV mini-series, 1990)
It’s hard to go wrong creating a scary character when you have source material like Stephen King’s horror novel It. The titular monstrosity takes the form of whatever its young victims find most frightening and feeds on their fear, which is scary enough in itself, but Its primary forms are particularly shudder-inducing – a clown called Pennywise who lures children into drains, and a giant spider which is the way humans perceive Its true form, containing Its lethal Deadlights.
For the 1990 TV mini-series, then, the production team had a head start in creating something terrifying. Focusing in particular on Its Pennywise form, the casting of Tim Curry in a wild and nerve-shredding performance ensured that the TV version of the character leapt off the page to attack our hearts and leave us shivering in fear. The giant spider at the mini-series’ conclusion is as terrifying as a giant spider usually is, but it’s Curry’s performance that has you looking for It in every drain you pass. –Juliette Harrisson
3. Davros – Doctor Who (1963 -)
People far more erudite and knowledgeable than me have tried to explain just what it is that makes Davros, creator of the Daleks, one of the most terrifying villains in popular fiction. Is it that blank, yet hollow face? Is it his appalling ideology of genetic superiority and unflinching hatred of “the other”? Is it the way he sits there, all still and silent, before exploding into spittle-flecked life that betrays his roots as one-part The Mekon to two-parts Dr Mengele? Or is it simply the fact he created – at such great personal cost – the most perfect and unstoppable killing machines the galaxy has ever seen?
Arguably all of those things play their part, but for me they’re not “it”. No, what makes Davros so utterly terrifying is something far simpler. Davros simply thinks he’s right. No argument. No question. No compromise. As a child it was the Daleks that sent me scurrying behind the sofa, but as an adult it’s their creator that still has me reaching for the armrest… – James Peaty
2. The Gentlemen – Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003)
You know that nightmare where something horrible is happening and someone who could help is standing right there with their back to you, but you can’t scream or shout or make a sound to let them know you’re in trouble? As the central concept of one of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s most popular episodes, that is surely terrifying enough.
But not for Joss Whedon. To this ultimate nightmare scenario Whedon insisted on adding The Gentlemen. Played by expert mime artists, gliding along a few feet above the ground in immaculate suits paired with exquisite monster make-up giving them terrifying teeth and clawed hands, The Gentlemen’s appearance and movements are terrifying enough in themselves. Once you factor in their removal of everyone’s voices – not just their ability to speak, but their ability to make any kind of vocal sound at all – you have a monster so terrifying you won’t be able to sleep for weeks. – Juliette Harrisson
1. Bob – Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991)
In a show full of extraordinary images, the terrifying sight of Bob – the otherworldly killer of Laura Palmer – is arguably the show’s most potent. It’s difficult to describe who or what Bob actually is. An impish demon? A personification of the evil that men do? The Id brought to life? An alien from another dimension looking for his creamed corn? All of these theories have been postulated. Some have even been confirmed. And yet none of them comes close to capturing what it is that makes Bob so utterly terrifying.
Memorably brought to life by stagehand Frank Silva after being accidentally caught on camera during production of the pilot, Bob came to be woven into the fabric of the story so deftly and deeply that it’s hard to imagine it existing without his untamed, animalistic fire burning at its heart.
Like so much of David Lynch’s work, Bob doesn’t operate in the zone of narrative clarity. Bob is an enigma. An abstraction. And yet, despite that seeming lack of definition, he’s also creepily familiar and utterly relatable. It’s testament to Lynch’s power as an artist that 25 years later we’re still wrestling with the questions Bob poses, while also keeping a worried eye on the mirror to check that the he isn’t looking back. – James Peaty