Iconic villains have always been a staple of the horror genre. For many, they are the recurring character in their own franchises that fans come to know and love. They have a wide variety of backstories and motivations, usually making them far more interesting than the protagonists (something true in most fiction, not just horror).
However, amidst all the dark and vicious deeds these characters carry out, it wouldn’t be fair to call them all pure evil. In fact, many are merely misunderstood, or do not even understand that what they’re doing is bad. So let’s take a look at 8 horror villains, that are not truly evil:
Death (Final Destination franchise)
Let’s begin with the “villain” for whom we all share a mutual fear. Death is the one thing that unites all living creatures, and as self-aware humans, we all know that it’s coming for us one day. This dynamic made for an interesting film franchise (which admittedly got more ridiculous with each sequel).
The very idea that one could survive a near death experience, only to have death follow them to pay what it is owed is a compelling and terrifying idea.
While we never see death manifested in any physical, grim reaper-like form, its potency is ever present as it stages elaborate ways to kill those people whose souls are owed to it. Death is merely a natural progression of life.
Without it, the planet would run rampant with overpopulation and those suffering from debilitating diseases would never know the mercy of being released of their pain. And while no one wants to die young, unfortunately some do, and there is no rhyme or reason to it. Death is not evil or malicious, rather it is inevitable.
Frankenstein’s Monster (Frankenstein)
First published in 1808, “Frankenstein” or “The Modern Prometheus” marks the first example of a story dealing with a man-made creation turning against its creator. The same theme would be echoed in later media like Terminator, Jurassic Park, and The Matrix. The 1931 film adaptation with Boris Karloff does a brilliant job of portraying a “monster” that is more confused and upset than sinister.
He was created artificially into a world he doesn’t understand, and the most vicious thing he does (tossing a little girl into a lake where drowned) was a complete misunderstanding.
He saw her throwing flower petals into the water and didn’t grasp the concept that throwing her in would be harmful, he just wanted to play. And when the villagers come for him, he’s scared and doesn’t realize why they wish him harm. His story is a tragic one, which warns that whenever man plays God, there are consequences.
HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey)
Although this film is technically Sci-Fi, there are certainly horror elements to it. Eli Roth once described the AI machine as scarier than any hotheaded psychopath because it is so cold and calculating.
Once it makes the decision to kill a person, it cannot be reasoned out of it. And while HAL does go on a bit of murder rampage, killing all the astronauts aboard except for Dave, its motives were completely understandable.
It got wind that the crew was planning to disconnect its mainframe due to some errors, and to a machine, this is the equivalent of death. Upon finding out that one’s crew is scheming like this, who wouldn’t intervene out of mere self-preservation?
As a machine, HAL is not capable of love or compassion, but this also means it’s not capable of hate or malice. The only concept it can really understand is the will to survive, our most basic instinct.
Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th Franchise)
In many ways, Jason is sorely misunderstood. Let’s take a look back at his past and try to better understand him. After drowning as a boy, he witnesses his mother killing several people, then get decapitated herself.
This left him with the following issues: a mother who set a homicidal example, freakish strength, and immortality, and the mind of the child who merely wants to be with his mother. He doesn’t murder teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake out of malice, rather he does so because he doesn’t know how to properly channel his emotions. Are we really surprised he lashes out with rage? Even in Freddy vs. Jason, we see that beneath his mask, he’s still just a frightened little boy.
Jigsaw (Saw franchise)
John Kramer remains one of the most unique horror villains in all of cinema. He’s perhaps the only one that honestly doesn’t want his victims (or subjects as he calls them) to die. Despite putting them through incredibly difficult “tests” which almost always result in death, Kramer would very much like to see them succeed.
He’s not interested in punishing people for their sins, rather he’s trying to help them appreciate their lives. Not at all to suggest that what he’s doing is right or moral, but his reasons are purely altruistic, at least in his own mind.
Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise)
Leatherface is certainly responsible for some of the most gruesome crimes of any horror film. He even seems a bit more frightening than Jason or Freddy because he has no real supernatural abilities, making him all the more real. He’s just a man who cuts people to bits with a chainsaw. And yet, as horrific as this is, he does so solely on the orders of his family.
Mostly communicating via grunts and yells, we never do get to hear him speak properly, perhaps because he’s unable to. Much like Jason, he probably has the mind of a child and doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. But his cannibalistic family sets him loose upon innocent victims because they have him manipulated and know he will do their bidding, no matter how grisly.
Margaret White (Carrie)
It’s debatable whether or not Carrie herself should be considered the villain of this film. Assuming she is, she’d certainly make this list. But there’s another character who fits the role of antagonist much better, who also can’t be called truly evil. Carrie definitely suffers at the hands of the popular girls, but that barely compares to her mother’s years of emotional and physical abuse.
Yet, unlike the cadre of bitchy mean girls, Margaret White bears no ill will towards her daughter. She’s a god-fearing woman who literally lives in a constant state of intense fear, believing that sin will damn her and her daughter to eternal suffering. In her delusional state of mind, being so strict and firm with Carrie is the only way to save her immortal soul.
Pinhead (Hellraiser franchise)
Pinhead (or “Hell Priest” as is his true name) is a bit of an enigma. His very existence displays the great duality of the universe. When Kristy asks him and the cenobytes what they are, he replies, “Angels to some, demons to others.” He and his cenobytes exist in a universe where pleasure and pain blend together.
One the one hand, he can be seen as a demonic figure doling out punishment to those who deserve it, but on the other hand, some seek out such BDSM inspired torment out mere pleasure. Pinhead neither judges, nor praises his “victims”, rather he acts as the consequence for those who open the puzzle box. He’s less of an evil villain, and more a force of nature that operates outside the bounds of morality itself.
As we’ve discovered, just because someone is a horror villain doesn’t mean that they’re vile to the core. Do you agree/disagree with our list? Which villains here are actually evil, or are there any other misunderstood ones we missed? Let us know in the comments!