Backstory is the favorite writing tool of Mythic Quest’s C.W. Longbottom, but it doesn’t always land in the horror genre. Sometimes, the best horror villains are the ones with no backstory whatsoever. A killer who kills for the sake of it is undoubtedly scarier than a killer who kills because of some specific childhood trauma spelled out in a flashback.
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But some horror filmmakers have made backstory work beautifully. Michael Myers’ backstory gives Halloween the perfect opening scene. Annie Wilkes’ backstory provides a real jump fright with the scrapbook reveal in Misery. Freddy Krueger’s backstory makes the kids’ parents partly responsible for their metaphysical murders in A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The opening scene of Child’s Play sees the spirit of serial killer Charles Lee Ray – better known by his nickname “Chucky” – being transferred into a “Good Guy” doll. This doll ends up in the hands of a little boy who finds himself in grave danger when it starts trying to kill him.
The audience suspends their disbelief for this delightfully zany origin story because it succinctly sets up the brilliant premise of a kid’s favorite toy coming to life and trying to murder him.
9 Michael Myers
One of the great things about Michael Myers – also known as “The Shape” – is that he’s a faceless symbol of evil. He doesn’t kill people on Halloween night for any particular reason; he just goes around Haddonfield, beating and stabbing and bludgeoning people to death because he wants to.
But he does have a clear backstory, and that backstory provides the perfect opening scene for John Carpenter’s seminal slasher masterpiece. After a point-of-view long take follows a murderer into the bedroom of a teenage girl, where he stabs her to death, a cut reveals the killer to be her six-year-old brother, Michael.
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John Kramer, better known by his sadistic alter ego “Jigsaw,” has a surprisingly wholesome reason for the grisly games he plays in the Saw movies. After being diagnosed with colon cancer and surviving a suicide attempt, John had a new lease on life and wanted to inspire other people to share his newfound optimism.
This is a nice thought, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. He kidnaps unsuspecting strangers, confines them to various elaborate traps, and forces them to commit horrible acts like cutting off their own foot to renew their appreciation for life.
7 Sadako Yamamura
Thanks to various remakes and reboots, Sadako Yamamura is a universally recognizable horror villain known by a few different names. In addition to Sadako Yamamura, she’s also known as Park Eun-suh and Samara Morgan. In the Ring series, she’s the young woman who climbs out of the well in the cursed videotape.
The character’s backstory varies from reboot to reboot, but in every version, she’s the ghost of a psychic who creates the tape to seek revenge for being murdered and thrown into a well, which makes her surprisingly sympathetic.
6 Freddy Krueger
Just when the tropes of the slasher genre were starting to become stale in the mid-1980s, Wes Craven revitalized it with supernatural elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unlike the slasher villains that came before, Freddy Krueger stalks his teenage victims in the dreamscape.
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Toward the end of the second act, Nancy and her friends learn that Freddy is the “Springwood Slasher,” a local child murderer who was burned to death by the town’s parents after escaping justice. Now, he haunts their kids in their dreams as a form of retribution. This twist makes the kids’ parents partly responsible for their deaths. It’s also an interesting exploration of the ethics of eye-for-an-eye justice.
5 Damien Thorn
The short version of Damien Thorn’s backstory from The Omen movies is that he’s the Antichrist who is unwittingly adopted by a politician and his wife after their biological child is stillborn.
But Damien’s exact origins are as haunting as anything in the movie itself: he was born on the sixth day of June at six o’clock in the morning, to a jackal who died during childbirth. The jackal was buried under an alias and the orphaned Damien was eventually taken in by the future American ambassador to Great Britain, Robert Thorn, and his wife Katherine.
4 Annie Wilkes
Annie Wilkes’ backstory is summed up nice and succinctly in scrapbook form in Misery. While Annie is out, imprisoned author Paul Sheldon escapes from his room and looks around. He eventually stumbles upon a scrapbook full of ominous newspaper clippings that demonstrate the kind of monster he’s dealing with.
The headlines reveal that Annie has been a serial killer since her childhood in Bakersfield. She killed her own father, her college roommate, a family from her neighborhood, and a hitchhiker she once picked up. She also killed patients at hospitals she worked at, including 11 infants when she worked as a maternity nurse. Naturally, Paul begins to fear that he’s being targeted as her next victim.
3 Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Buffalo Bill is the primary villain in The Silence of the Lambs, but FBI rookie Clarice Starling’s most compelling dynamic is with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the convict who intermittently assists with her investigation while relentlessly profiling her.
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Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated performance is the most notable thing about Dr. Lecter, but his origin as a well-regarded psychiatrist who also turned out to be a cannibalistic serial killer is pretty fascinating, too.
Tony Todd made an iconic slasher villain out of the titular hook-handed mirror-dimension ghoul in the Candyman franchise, but the character’s backstory also provides some poignant social commentary. The Candyman is the ghost of Daniel Robitaille, a Black man who was killed for dating a white woman.
Nia DaCosta’s recent Candyman reboot significantly expanded the lore, introducing a handful of other Candymen, all victims of similar racially charged violence from throughout history.
1 Norman Bates
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho simultaneously succeeds as highbrow arthouse cinema and schlocky, blood-drenched horror. Initially, the audience is led to believe that Norman Bates’ mother is committing the murders at the Bates Motel and that Anthony Perkins’ mild-mannered lobby boy is simply a loving son who cleans up the evidence to keep her out of jail.
Of course, the truth turns out to be far more sinister: Norman murdered his mother out of Oedipal jealousy, then mummified her corpse and merged her personality with his own to deal with the guilt.
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About The Author
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Ben Sherlock is a writer, comedian, independent filmmaker, and Burt Reynolds enthusiast. He writes lists for Screen Rant and features and reviews for Game Rant. He’s currently in pre-production on his first feature (and has been for a while, because filmmaking is expensive). You can catch him performing standup at odd pubs around the UK that will give him stage time. Previously, he wrote for Taste of Cinema, Comic Book Resources, and BabbleTop.
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