Childhood is a sensitive time, when the slightest little scare can send you off into a frenzy of fear and uncertainty. If you’re anything like us, then films and TV provided much of the fearful imagery that set your young mind running riot, with all manner of sinister figures who fuelled our nightmares.
If you can bear to peep through the gaps in the fingers that will shortly be covering your eyes, join us in taking a terrifying trip down memory lane with 20 terrifying characters that scared the life out of us when we were children.
20. General Woundwort (Watership Down)
Kids and parents everywhere assumed that any animated film about rabbits would inevitably be cute and cuddly, but we were seriously proven wrong by Watership Down. The adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel seriously gave us the creeps when we were kids, not least because of the fearsome General Woundwort.
With his foaming mouth, bloodied teeth, menacing cloudy eye and gravelly voice supplied by acclaimed British actor Harry Andrews, this is one bunny who was never in any danger of being confused with Thumper from Bambi. Millions of kids who had previously begged their parents for a pet rabbit quickly changed their tune after seeing the General.
19. The Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz)
Before the Harry Potter series changed the way we viewed witches, there was The Wizard of Oz. The 1939 classic has been a childhood favourite of generations of viewers, and it provided the blueprint for most 20th century portrayals of witches in the form of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West.
With her green skin, taloned fingers and all-black wardrobe including the essential pointy hat, the Witch was scary enough to look at, but it was her evil laugh and relentless persecution of Dorothy which made her particularly terrifying. Of course, the character’s sympathetic portrayal in Wicked and Oz the Great and Powerful may have made her less threatening to viewers today.
18. Scar (The Lion King)
In 2014, Scar of The Lion King topped the Huffington Post’s list of iconic Disney villains, and it’s fair to say he earned his place. Modelled on a whole host of depraved figures, ranging from King Claudius in Hamlet to history’s most infamous dictators, the cold-blooded brother of Mufasa and uncle of Simba has scared us all for years.
With his jet black mane, pointed fangs and emerald eyes, Scar gives off an extremely threatening aura. By his own admission he’s not the most physically imposing lion around, but it’s his heartlessness that really makes him terrifying, after he plots to murder his own brother and blame it on his nephew. (Boo, hiss!)
17. Rasputin (Anastasia)
Historians were less than thrilled with 1997 animated movie Anastasia, with its fairy tale take on the events surrounding the Russian revolution. Still, that didn’t stop audiences from being entertained – and it certainly didn’t stop younger viewers from being seriously creeped out by the film’s take on Rasputin.
A figure shrouded in mystery and intrigue in reality, in the movie Rasputin is presented as a sorcerer who sells his soul to curse the Romanov dynasty, and proves near-impossible to kill. It certainly helps that he’s voiced by Christopher Lloyd, an actor with a real knack for making his characters extra-scary (as we’ll see again later in this article).
16. Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Frollo is potentially the most underrated Disney villain of all time. While nobody’s disputing that he’s a creep, he’s a lot creepier than people seem to realise. Pretty much immediately, we learn that Frollo doesn’t really care that he’s guilty of murdering an innocent woman.
He’s also very ready to kill the woman’s baby (the then-infantile Quasimodo) and has some horrible things to say about the baby’s deformities. While murder isn’t off the cards for most Disney villains, but infanticide is pretty next level stuff. Small wonder the 1996 film is considered one of, if not the darkest entry in the canon of Disney’s animated movies.
15. Miss Trunchbull (Matilda)
Whenever we found ourselves feeling deathly afraid of our teachers and being desperate not to go to school (which was often, for most of us), we could always reassure ourselves of one thing: at least we didn’t go to Crunchem Hall, and at least our headmistress wasn’t the dreaded Miss Trunchbull, as was the case for poor old Matilda.
Pam Ferris may have found fame as the kindly Ma Larkin in TV’s The Darling Buds of May (or more recently as a considerably nicer headmistress in the Nativity films), but as the Trunchbull she was a true titan of terror. Whether swinging a small girl by her pigtails or forcing Bruce Bogtrotter to eat an entire chocolate cake, she was everything a good teacher shouldn’t be.
14. Jaws (James Bond)
Never mind Steven Spielberg’s killer shark film: the Jaws that really scared us as kids was the 7ft 2in giant with metal teeth who terrorised Roger Moore’s James Bond in two of our favourite old school Bond movies, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.
He may have borrowed his name from Spielberg’s movie, but Jaws was largely based on the character Sol ‘Horror’ Horowitz in Ian Fleming’s novel The Spy Who Loved Me, who also had a mouthful of scary steel-capped teeth. Kids were creeped out, but also loved the character, hence when Kiel came back in Moonraker the character was reworked to become more heroic.
13. The Child Catcher (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang)
The otherwise light-hearted family film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang contains one of the most terrifying cinematic bad guys of all time in the form of Robert Helpmann’s Child Catcher, hired by Baron and Baroness Bomburst to catch and imprison young children from the street.
Let’s face it, the idea of a man luring kids with sweeties then stealing them away is every bit as terrifying to parents as it is to children. Though Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is based on Ian Fleming’s children’s novel, the character of the Child Catcher did not appear in the book, and was likely the brainchild of screenwriters Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes.
12. The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
Right from the very beginning, Walt Disney Pictures established that a key part of any great animated movie was a truly terrifying antagonist. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs brings one of the most memorable of them all in the form of the Evil Queen, a vain and cold-hearted ruler jealous of Snow White’s innocence and beauty.
It’s bad enough that the Queen orders a henchman to hunt down her own stepdaughter, cut out her heart and bring it back in box she’s picked out (or had made especially?) for the occasion. She then proceeds to creep us out even further by using her magic to turn into a fearful old woman who gives Snow White a poisoned apple.
11. Emperor Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon)
Flash Gordon was a childhood favourite of just about any 80s kid worth their salt, and as much as we all grew up wanting to be like Sam J. Jones’ Flash, we also lived in dread of the evil Ming. The film may be considered a camp classic, but with the great actor Max Von Sydow in the role, Ming is a truly scary villain.
Ming’s outright villainy is obvious from the very beginning, when he launches an attack on Earth for no better reason than that he’s a bit bored. He seems to be killed at the film’s end, but as the closing moment suggests he’s survived (setting the scene for a sequel that never happened), many of us grew up in fear of Ming popping out to get us when we least expected it.
10. Chucky (Child’s Play)
Okay, so as children we really shouldn’t have been watching the Child’s Play movies – but let’s be honest, plenty of us 80s kids were able to get our hands on VHS copies of movies we were much too young for. So it was that many of us wound up seeing the murderous misadventures of killer doll Chucky when we weren’t really ready to encounter such terrors.
Voiced by Brad Dourif, the possessed piece of plastic is relentless in his quest to transfer his soul to the body of his initially unwitting owner Andy. If we weren’t already creeped out by Cabbage Patch Dolls and the like, we certainly were after Chucky came along.
9. Judge Doom (Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
He may be best known as the beloved, grandfatherly Doc Brown, but as we’ve established Christopher Lloyd has a real knack for provoking terror. He was never more terrifying than when he took on the role of Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s seriously sinister bad guy with the suitably portentous name, Judge Doom.
With his black hat, glasses and cloak, Doom is immediately intimidating, and he only becomes more fearful when we witness his sheer ruthlessness in cruelly killing an innocent animated shoe. Yet somehow he only becomes more terrifying in the finale when (spoiler alert!) we learn he’s actually a toon himself, with an evil screeching voice and literal dagger eyes.
8. The Grand High Witch (The Witches)
As if Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel wasn’t scary enough, kids everywhere were left gibbering wrecks when The Witches was adapted into a film. The 1990 big screen take on Dahl’s scariest children’s book burned its way into the nightmares of every 80s kid, thanks in no small part to Anjelica Huston‘s turn as the horrifying Grand High Witch.
While the Grand High Witch wears a disguise to blend in with the rest of society, her true form is ghastly indeed. The scene in which the usually lovely Huston literally peels off her own face to reveal the monster beneath was one of those moments that really pushed how far the PG rating could be taken back in the old days.
7. Gmork (The NeverEnding Story)
The NeverEnding Story is filled with images that have haunted us since childhood (Artax drowning, anyone?) but one character that we all remember being particularly petrified of was Gmork, the wolf with the glowing green eyes, mighty fangs and – perhaps creepiest of all – the ability to speak English.
Wolves are scary enough to begin with, but the fact that Gmork was able to articulately express his bloodthirsty intent only made him more terrifying. Honestly, what kid wouldn’t be disturbed by a wolf threatening “if you come any closer I’ll rip you to shreds”?
6. The Library Ghost (Ghostbusters)
She appears for just a few moments, but the mild-mannered librarian ghost’s sudden transformation into a horrific spectre in Ghostbusters gave us one of the biggest scares of our young lives. One second she’s floating along looking at books, the next she’s metamorphosed into a roaring demon.
It’s one of the all-time great jump scares: unexpected, very scary, but also kind of funny all at once, and as such it perfectly encapsulates the eccentric tone of Ghostbusters. The other ghosts in the movie might be pretty scary (not least those massive devil dogs), but none of them have quite the same impact as that first spook in the library.
5. Skeletor (Masters of the Universe)
Despite his bare-skulled face, Skeletor was ultimately a pretty non-threatening villain in the classic Filmation animated series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. When the character got brought to live action, however, the makers of the 1987 Masters of the Universe film went to greater lengths to make him genuinely intimidating.
The make-up used wasn’t the greatest (look at that nose, for goodness’ sake), but the big screen Skeletor became a truly imposing villain thanks to the casting of Frank Langella in the role. The seasoned stage actor gives the role all he’s got, revelling in his many melodramatic monologues detailing his determination to become the most powerful being in the universe.
4. General Zod (Superman II)
A recurring problem in the Superman movies is giving the near-invulnerable superhero an opponent that can pose him an actual physical threat. Superman II manages this by pitting Clark Kent’s man of steel against three other survivors from the planet Krypton, who have all the same powers as him – but evil intentions.
Scariest of the lot was, of course, the leader of the Kryptonian criminals, General Zod. Portrayed by Terence Stamp, Zod memorably demands that Superman kneel before him, and we shuddered to see our hero genuinely intimidated. We’ve seen no shortage of comic book super-villains in the years since, but Zod remains one of the most memorable and frightening of the lot.
3. Medusa (Clash of the Titans)
Stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen marked his retirement with 1981 fantasy classic Clash of the Titans. Harryhausen may have decided to step back because his FX style was getting outdated, but that didn’t stop his magical creations from being genuinely creepy – not least the central monster Medusa.
One of the most iconic creatures from Greek mythology, Medusa is traditionally a woman with snakes for hair who can turn people into stone with a single look. Clash of the Titans makes her all the more terrifying by giving her a more reptilian body, complete with a rattlesnake-like tail. The pivotal sequence in which she faces off against Harry Hamlin’s Perseus in a dimly lit temple is a masterclass in suspense.
2. Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
We definitely shouldn’t have been watching any of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies back when we were kids. However, Freddy Krueger became so iconic in the 80s that all of us knew who he was, what he looked like, and that he came to get you in your dreams – and we were truly terrified of him, regardless of whether we’d seen the movies or not.
Everything about Freddy was scary: his hideously burned skin, his razor-tipped glove, the cruelty and sadism that actor Robert Englund brought to the part. Add in the fact that he stalked victims in their nightmares making it impossible to escape, and it’s no wonder the character remains so eerie and iconic to this day.
1. The Rancor (Return of the Jedi)
The Star Wars series had no shortage of memorable monsters, some of them pretty darned scary – but none struck quite so much fear into our hearts as the fearsome Rancor of Return of the Jedi. Kept by the evil Jabba the Hutt to inflict terror and torment on his enemies, the massive monster has one function: eat anything that crosses its path.
Kids everywhere were scarred by the sight of the big old beast chowing down on one of Jabba’s unfortunate guards whilst Luke Skywalker struggled to get away, making us fear for our hero’s life. Still, despite the Rancor’s terrifying nature, we can’t deny it tugged on our heartstrings a little to see how upset his keeper was when Luke managed to kill the beast.