As we all know by my history, I have trouble sticking to the rules. As usual I struggle to narrow my lists down to ten and I almost always have some genre jumpers. You will see that I stuck to American horror in order to set some useful limits for myself. As with any top ten list, this is completely subjective. I am listing in chronological order, some of the most memorable female antagonists that jump into my mind when I think of horror. My choices may not be the most remarkable for their leading roles, their murders, or their mayhem. Rather, they are true to the definition of infamous: well known for a bad quality or deed, disreputable, wicked, or abominable. No matter the size of their role, these women live in infamy in the dark corners of my mind.
Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden) in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). No one ever made bad, look oh so good. The Countess Zaleska is the quintessential sympathetic villain. Her piercing, controlling gaze is what makes her so memorable. She represented fears of the “new woman” during the 1930s. This new and unrestrained woman wreaked havoc on the world around her and exposed the fears of white, heteronormative, American society. Her ability to render her victims powerless as well as her ability to expose the cultural fears of the American spectator makes her a force to be reckoned with.
Rhoda (Patty McCormack) in The Bad Seed (1956). I get it, Rhoda is a kid, but she cannot be discounted due to her age. Rhoda could make even the most caring mother wince at the thought of raising her. In addition, she brought the horror IN to the home, even when most films during the 50s focused on external assaults. Her acting was so good, it made me think of Louise Fletcher in her Academy Award acceptance speech for her role as Nurse Ratched ,“Well, it looks like you all hated me so much that you’ve given me this award for it, and I’m loving every minute of it. And all I can say is I’ve loved being hated by you.” Patty McCormack equally made you hate Rhoda from your core. And for that, she earns a spot on this list.
Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) in The Exorcist (1973). Not many people would disagree with this one. Linda Blair killed this role. In addition to her acting, the overt bile infused, cursing, puking demon on the screen makes Regan one of the most visually memorable characters on this list. Not until the J-Horror ladies much later on, did we see such physical contortions and guttural yawps. Even though Regan is technically a sweet innocent little girl, it is her physical representation of Pazuzu that burns her into the mind’s eye.
Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in Stephen King’s Carrie (1976). I know for a fact that my co-creator Elizabeth will agree with me on this one. You want to talk monstrous mothers, Margaret White makes Mommy Dearests look like a Cub Scout den mother in comparison. It’s not even about her religious fanaticism; her rigid views on the female body and sexuality are enough to warp even the most well-adjusted child. Let’s be honest here, anyone who uses the words “dirty pillows”…yeah, I won’t forget that anytime soon.
Julia Cotton (Claire Higgins) in Hellraiser (1987). Who can forget the true evil villain of the movie Hellraiser? I can forgive her marital indiscretions, since it is none of my business. However, when you lure countless men into your home, murder them and feed them to her skinless letch of a boyfriend…well that might be my line in the sand.
Zelda Goldman (Andrew Hubatsek) in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989). Yes, I know that Zelda was played by a man. I don’t care, because the character was a female. And anyone who visits this website frequently enough knows that Zelda is my favorite character ever. There was a quality to her that no matter how little airtime she got, you remember her. While not a core villain, Zelda is the embodiment of repression and family secrets. She is the physical manifestation of family members who don’t want to deal with their “different” little girl. She is the nasty little part of the familial bond that is called obligation. And on some level, we all have those moments where we want to purge ourselves of it. Zelda holds a mirror up to us and reminds us of that.
Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Stephen Kings’ Misery (1990). I don’t think I will get any hesitation from the masses on this pick. Annie Wilkes had that dead pan stare. She was so matter of fact that it was haunting. It is no secret I have several Stephen King characters on here, but only because he has a gift for creating magnificent character profiles. Not many horror films win mainstream awards (like the Exorcist) but Kathy Bates took home the Oscar for her portrayal of this obsessed fan. Wilkes makes Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction 1987) look like an irrational neophyte.
Mommy / Mrs. Robeson (Wendy Robie) in The People Under the Stairs (1991). Rich white folk make great fodder for the stuff of horror. In The People Under the Stairs there is a clear racial and class narrative to the story. That being said, the Robesons are crazy and Mommy rules the roost in their house. What is magnificent about Mommy and this film is that it challenges our expectations of the world around us. It reminds us that horror can come from people and places that we generalize as “normal” on the outside. If anything, Mommy clearly challenges my definition of suburban normality.
Samara (Daveigh Chase) in The Ring (2002). My focus on the American re-make is not meant to slight the original Japanese horror, Ringu. I could not move on without including Samara in this list. She ushered in the return of the horrible child trope with vengeance. She was the stuff of nightmares, a child so inherently evil that she drove the adults to insanity. A child that took work to love, she evoked images of news stories about mothers returning their adopted children to their country of origin with a note pinned on their shirt. Like any relationship, it takes work and not everyone is compatible. Samara and The Ring contain my horror trifecta: family horror, creepy little white kids, and social commentary.
Auntie Ruth (Blanche Baker) in The Girl Next Door (2007). The fact that this film is based on some actual events reminds us that some monsters are real. Ruth Chandler is one of those monsters; she is the sadistic, pathological embodiment of real evil. The reason she is on this list is she serves as a clear reminder that horror is about more than the big screen and CGI.
Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) in Orphan (2009). Esther built upon Rhoda and Samara and perfected the modern representations of kids you can’t stand. (I know there is more to her, but I am not trying to give more spoilers than necessary). She literally can make a mother want to lash out at her child. Esther (as well as her peers in Joshua 07’, David in Whisper 07’, and Lilith in Case 39 09’) revealed the definitive shift in the balance of power within any household. I tend not to overly focus on Freudian analysis, but even in its absence Esther warns of the blind pursuit of parenthood for with it come many rewards as well as many possible consequences.
The Honorable Mentions:
The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) in The Wizard of Oz (1939). I know that The Wizard of Oz is not horror. But, I just feel that Margaret Hamilton deserves some type of mention for being one of the most memorable infamous women of all time (and of any genre). Not only will she steal a little girl’s puppy right out of her arms, she will pull your friends to pieces, taunt you with flying monkeys, dope you up on poppies, and steal your new shoes. Sounds rougher than a gang initiation.
Kayako Saeki (Takako Fuji) in The Grudge (2004) and Megumi Tanaka (Megumi Okina) in Shutter (2008). Both of these women are somewhat auxiliary characters, yet without them the story would be incomplete. I realize that both are American re-makes of Japanese horror films (and I tend to always prefer J-Horror versions) so I want to consider them as part of the larger continuum. These Yurei (some might argue jibakurei) create the sense of omnipotent dread in these films and leave us with bone chilling representations of horror.
Sister Jude, Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) in AHS (2011- ). The only reason that Jessica Lange is on the honorable mention list is because of her medium. I felt some kind of way about adding a television horror character into a list that was meant to focus on the big screen. That being said, Lange’s portrayals of Sister Jude and Fiona Goode were impeccable. She was the baddest, the smartest, the most complex, female character in recent horror. The AHS series was not the same this season without her and I don’t anticipate that will change anytime soon unless she comes back (Although Kathy Bates, Frances Conroy, and Angela Bassett are/were power houses in their own right).