What makes for a great Halloween villain? I think it comes down to three factors:
- How nasty is the villain (or how high is their VQ, or Villainy Quotient)?
- How popular is the villain, or how deeply does it connect with the times?
- How well does the villain translate into a costume?
A while back I developed both a Heroism Quotient (HQ) and Villainy Quotient (VQ). I rate pop culture villains along five factors (0-20), yielding a Villainy Quotient (VQ) with a maximum score of 100. The factors are drawn from the thinking and research of Dr. Philip Zimbardo (of the Stanford prison experiment) and other experts on evil. The higher the VQ, the more diabolical the villain.
A lot of villains become very popular, like Harley Quinn in 2016, and/or make for great costumes, like Cruella Da Vil, but are not particularly nasty. Harley would not earn a high VQ because she became a hero (or at least an anti-hero) in Suicide Squad. If PETA had anything to say about it, Cruella would be considered quite vile. But her evil turn in the animated 101 Dalmatians (or in the live-action reboot) just doesn’t stack up to other villains on factors such as the degree of damage or track record of havoc.
Sign of the Times
The best Halloween villains capture the public’s imagination, often fleetingly. They tap into the zeitgeist, shedding light on the anxieties of the era. Frank Underwood of House of Cards preys on concerns with our political climate, but he’s not a good costume villain. On the other hand, Preacher’s Saint of Killers earned a high VQ and would make for an awesome costume, but he’s not a hot villain right now.
Considering this factor is why I don’t think characters like Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jigsaw, etc. are great Halloween villains. When franchises span years (or decades), what zeitgeists do they represent?
Is costumability a word? If it were, I would want it to mean how well a character can be captured with a costume. Costumes are integral to the Halloween experience. So for a heavy to be considered a great Halloween villain, costumability has to be strong.
Amy Dunne had a high VQ and Gone Girl was a big hit when it premiered right before Halloween in 2014, but that character didn’t lend itself particularly well to a costume. On the flip side, classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, and the Mummy make for great costumes (and would earn high VQs) but the zeitgeist consideration drags them down.
The Rogues Gallery
With nastiness, popularity, and costumability in mind, here is my list of great Halloween villains, in no particular order. Disagree? Others come to mind? Please share comments below!
The 2017 version of It was a smash that everyone was talking about, including my sons who I refused to let see the movie. Clowns can be pretty creepy. Murderous, demonic clowns take it to another level.
Talk about one for the ages. Anthony Hopkin’s Oscar-winning performance as Hannibal the Cannibal in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs still lingers in our collective psyche- just try thinking of anything but Dr. Lecter when someone mentions fava beans, chianti, or the census. That mask was elegantly simple and terrifying (straight jacket optional).
Wicked Witch of the West
This villain was wildly popular in the wake of The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She’s never gone away, resurrected a bit every October 31st by trick-or-treaters. The success of Wicked, and the telling of her backstory, certainly helped.
The Governor and Negan
These two heavies from The Walking Dead probably won’t hold up over time (the Governor has already faded and Negan has become annoying since his mind-blowing entrance). Both were the subject of much water cooler talk in their heyday. The eye patch and Lucille made the Governor and Negan easily identifiable, respectively, at costume parties. “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,” will have a different connotation for years.
Heath Ledger’s Joker
This legendary performance earned Ledger a posthumous Oscar for 2008’s The Dark Knight. He was diabolical, unpredictable, and intimidating. The Joker has always been a costumable character. Ledger’s look was distinctive and iconic, to the point that his smell seemed to waft off the screen.
Kylo Ren and Darth Vader
I’m lumping these two together because of their familial bond. Vader likely will have more staying power (he’s been a Halloween fixture for decades), but around the 2015 release of The Force Awakens, Vader’s grandson was a hot commodity.
This may seem like an out-of-left-field call. But Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is an incredible, disturbing movie and Alex is one of the more deranged villains ever put on film. Plus, his white outfit, bowler hat, and single-eye mascara elevated his costumability.
The Ring was a big hit in 2002. This little girl turned TV stalking demon freaked out a lot of people (including me). Don’t watch random VHS tapes! Her eerie look was easy to recreate with a long, dark-hard wig.
Okay, so I’m on record as claiming that horror franchise villains (Jason, Freddy, Michael, etc.) don’t really speak to a particular era. However, the original three Scream movies formed a trilogy that was full of suspense and post-modern flair. They forged new ground in the slasher genre and their centerpiece? The ubiquitous Ghostface killer(s).
Craig Pohlman is the co-author of CinemAnalysis: Learning about Psychology through Film. If given the choice between being a villain or hero, he would probably choose hero. Probably.