There are plenty of villains who resort to sheer power and physicality to overcome their victims. There’s villains who call upon the supernatural and villains who come from the natural world. There are even those villains who pull strings and resort to hired help to harm those they don’t like. And then there are those villains who take a more subtle, but equally dangerous approach; the psychological villains. While the source for their desire to inflict harm may vary, psychological villains all use a manipulative mental approach towards their victims.
It’s because of this approach that villains of this nature have a special kind of fear innate to them. While their physical presence may not seem particularly threatening, it’s really of no consequence. A psychological villain can come packaged in any shape or size and still inflict incredible damage. The devil is truly in the details when it comes to villains of this nature and cinema is ripe with them. These are the villains that make us think and that leave us as viewers hoping we never encounter them. Here are some of the best at being the worst in psychological horror:
Honorable Mention: John Doe – (1995)
“I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.”
Each individual ‘sin’ in Se7en has multiple layers. In John Doe‘s eyes, every victim in his overall plan was guilty; guilty of sinning. And yet, he commits multiple sins himself all in an effort to make the public think about their own. As Detectives Somerset and Mills follow in pursuit of the killer, they begin to unravel and try to understand the mindset of such a person. John Doe takes the two detectives on a personal, mental journey along with him and once their two stories intersect a whole new set of manipulation begins to unfold. Once John Doe surrenders himself into the hands of the authorities, the final stages of his plan begin. While Somerset and Mills are both fully aware that Doe is constantly messing with them and trying to get into their heads and confuse the situations, they fall victim to it none the less. Mills, in the final scenes of the film, is shown physically and mentally battling the game that Doe is playing with him. And yet, in the end, Mills willingly decides to participate. Sometimes fighting is easier said than done.
10. Billy Loomis – Scream (1996)
“Well, I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. I mean did Norman Bates have a motive?”
There’s something to be said for Billy‘s organizational skills. For a significant amount of time, Billy methodically and meticulously worked through his plan to get revenge on the women of the Prescott household. Deeply emotionally wounded by the abandonment of his mother, Billy takes out his feelings in very physical and very mentally manipulative ways. Hurting the person he deemed responsible was not enough to satiate his pain and it was then that Sydney entered into his plan. For months he played the part of doting boyfriend, gaining Sydney‘s trust and affection. He entered her friend circle, her home and most importantly her head and her heart. All of this though was a carefully laid trap. And let’s not forget about Stu. Poor Stu also became a victim of Billy both physically and mentally as well. Overpowered by Billy‘s dominant and persuasive personality, Stu allowed Billy‘s words and hate to get inside his head and cloud his judgement. A true sheep in wolf’s clothing that neither Sid nor her friends saw coming.
9. Josef – Creep (2014)
“You know, that moment I scared you in the woods, and it was – There was murder in your eyes, but it was like, it was baby murder, you’re not ready to accept that yet…”
From the moment we are introduced to the character of Josef, our horror equivalent to “spidey sense” is activated. To both Aaron, and us as the audience, there is something off about Josef. However, maybe he’s just kind of a weirdo battling some deep inner turmoil? But then again…maybe he’s a weirdo battling some deep inner turmoil. Throughout Creep, we see Aaron fighting his own mind unsure what to make of Josef. Aaron mentally goes back and forth and is not sure if he’s helping this strange man, or putting himself in danger. He constantly battles his own fight or flight response as Josef finely walks the line of being…a creep. Josef slowly and carefully gets inside Aaron‘s head and because of this Aaron allows Josef to talk himself out of several situations and excuses his behavior due to his stated conditions. Ignoring his initial gut reactions, Aaron gives Josef way more leeway than he deserves and ends up dealing with the consequences of that choice.
8. Aylmer/Elmer – Brain Damage (1988)
“Come to me when you’re ready, Brian. Come to me and get my juice…”
While many villains on this list get in people’s heads metaphorically, Aylmer holds the unique distinction of being the one villain here that gets in heads both literally and figuratively. Aylmer is a parasite that takes over young Brian unwillingly exchanging human brains for a euphoric high. A physical manifestation of addiction, Aylmer messes with Brian‘s head convincing him that a life with Aylmer is a better one. He offers Brian a life without pain, fear, loneliness or worry. All Brian has to do is, you know…provide him with a steady supply of victims. A relationship that initially appears equal and desirable, quickly turns dark and Brian is left to make some hard choices. While drenched in humor and classic Henenlotter flair, Aylmer is still at his very core, a manipulative parasitic creature.
7. Minnie & Roman Castevet – Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
“He chose you out of all the world – out of all the women in the whole world, he chose you. He arranged things, because he wanted you to be the mother of his only living son.” – Minnie
You don’t often see these two on lists of horror movie villains, but they most certainly are. From the moment Rosemary and Guy move into their new home, they are viewed as targets. Under the guise of welcoming, lonely old neighbors, Roman and Minnie both move in on the young couple. Roman quickly moves in on Guy offering the talented actor the roles, fame and opportunities he has so desperately wanted. Minnie befriends Rosemary and offers the hesitant young woman advise, friendship and vitamin supplements. Rosemary cuts the two some slack due to their age, while they use it as a weapon. They dismiss Rosemary‘s feelings, wishes and boundaries making her feel rude and paranoid. Roman hits Rosemary closest to home by manipulating Guy and bringing her own husband in on their evil plan. To the very end their mental games persist. The choice of words in the phrase “He chose you” implies that Rosemary should feel honored and special when really she was raped physically and emotionally. The experience of being a first time mother that she yearned for so badly was taken from her. Her pregnancy was difficult, painful and basically hijacked. By eliminating her friend Hutch and manipulating Guy, they cut off Rosemary from the two people she felt she could truly trust. Rosemary is left feeling paranoid and crazy when she knows she isn’t. Mental manipulation at it’s finest.
6. Jigsaw/John – Saw
“Congratulations. You are still alive. Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you. Not anymore.”
Throughout the entire Saw franchise, the character of Jigsaw puts people through intricate, elaborate and deadly tests all in the name of ‘helping’ them. In his mind, he is waking his victims up to the sins, oversights, actions and choices that they have made in their lives. While his games fall upon deaf ears to some, there are those that find salvation through his games and become disciples of the Jigsaw way. By being put in such extreme situations, victims are forced to look within and make quick choices they otherwise might have struggled with. Even as audience members, Jigsaw‘s games cause us to pause and think about what his victims have done. His mental games break the fourth wall and after 8 films, are we not the ultimate Jigsaw victim?
5. Sutter Cane – In The Mouth of Madness (1994)
“I think, therefore you are.”
One of the key traits of a master manipulator is making a victim doubt their own mind. They get inside their victims head and cause confusion, guilt and a blurring of what is real and what is not. Sutter Cane takes this idea to the next level. Not only does he manage to get into John Trent‘s skeptical head, but the public at large all through his words. Through the manipulation of people’s perceptions, Cane is able to manipulate reality. The worlds he creates, the powers he unleashes become materialized in the physical world. What is real in the world of Sutter Cane? What is fantasy? Even as viewers we are left asking these questions.
4. Freddy Krueger – A Nightmare on Elm Street
“You’ve got the body, I’ve got the brain!”
Everybody needs sleep. Therefore, there’s something utterly terrifying about being targeted, attacked and tormented during this vulnerable and basic human act. And yet, this is the world in which Freddy Krueger roams free. The way in which he enters the young victims heads through their dreams, blurring the lines of reality is invasive to say the least. One can only resist for so long before nature fights back and sleep becomes inevitable. Only by determined lucid dreaming can the victims of Freddy fight and take back control of their minds, their dreams and their lives. And as we well know, this is often easier said than done.
3. Pennywise – It (1990 & 2017)
“I’m every nightmare you’ve ever had. I’m your worst dream come true. I’m everything you ever were afraid of.”
It takes a dark being to use a person’s fears against them; Pennywise is such a being. The way Pennywise is able to reach into the dark recesses of his victim’s minds, pull out their deep fears and manifest them is terrifying to say the least. The fact that his victims are children only make Pennywise that much more evil. However, the thing that makes Pennywise a real mental manipulator is his approach. His choice of physically manifesting as a clown can come across terrifying or innocent depending on interpretation. He often lures the children in with his words and childlike demeanor. He uses the innocence of childhood against the children themselves. Truly a bad dream come true.
2. Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” – Jack Crawford
One of the ways manipulators can get inside their victims heads is through language. Skilled with the power of words they can insult you in one breath while making you think it’s your fault in the next. There are few movie villains out there more skilled with words than Mr. Hannibal Lecter. In fact he’s so good with words, you could even call him an Anti-Villain in this particular story. Eloquent, intelligent and witty, Lecter was able to feel out and break down Clarice simply by her answers and responses to his words. While Clarice ended up being of interest to Lecter, not all of those he encountered ended up being so lucky. By using his background in psychology and his intelligence, Lecter was able to break the typical serial killer mold and not only elude capture by authorities, but remain elusive and mysterious to audiences as well. Want to read more about Lecter‘s messed up relationship dynamics? Check out a killer article by fellow NOFS Contributor Tyler Liston here.
1. Missy & Rose Armitage – Get Out (2017)
“You were one of my favorites.” – Rose
It’s hard to say which of these women get more into the heads of their victims. Is it Missy who, through the power of hypnosis, literally traps a person’s consciousness in a ‘sunken place’ that is nearly impossible to escape? Or is it Rose, who time and time again emotionally manipulates people into seemingly loving relationships only to reveal it was all a lie at the end? Individually, both women are terrible for using their skills and acumen for such dark purposes. However, it is with their combined efforts that the true horrors of their plans are implemented. One woman’s role is dependent on the other and their combined success is dependent on their individual success. The long con that the Armitage family has going is fully dependent on their ability to squash, trap and contain a person’s mind; suppressing an individual’s personality so that a more ‘desirable’ one can take hold. All of this in the name of financial gain.