Horror films get a lot of momentum from mystery, building a sense of dread from — to reference Jaws — not showing the shark. Still, there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. Other films opt to lay it all bare, betting that the film can show you everything and still make your skin crawl.
In that latter category, we get a lot of origin stories for the horrors at the center of the scariest films. Sometimes it's a strategy; sometimes it's because a franchise needs somewhere to take the story. You can start a Hellraiser by barely showing Pinhead, but if you're going to make 11 movies in a series, at some point, fans are going to want to know where Pinhead comes from. While it doesn't always work to focus on a villain's origin — see: Rob Zombie's Halloween — sometimes it's damn delightful. To honor those magic origins, here are some of the absolute best horror movie villain origin stories.
Everett Collection Chucky of 'Child's Play'
Appearances: Child's Play, Child's Play 2, Child's Play 3, Bride of Chucky, Seed of Chucky, Curse of Chucky, Cult of Chucky, Child's Play (reboot), Chucky (TV show)
Origin Story: Some origin stories are painfully dumb. That can ruin a movie, or it can cause a kind of magic to happen. Child's Play falls firmly in the latter category. In the first movie, serial killer Charles Lee Ray (Dourif) is wounded and cornered by police in a toy store. He performs a voodoo ritual to transfer his soul into the now-familiar Good Guy doll. The result is Chucky, the foul-mouthed, murderous pest with the soul of a monster that refuses to die.
The series has gotten a lot of mileage out of that origin, which all takes place as the credits are still rolling. The voodoo has mercifully fallen by the wayside, for the most part. (Looking at you, Bride of Chucky. That movie resurrects Chucky through a book titled Voodoo for Dummies and later transfers the soul of Ray's girlfriend, Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly), into her own doll.) Still, the origin remains intact even after seven movies and a TV show.
Everett Collection Tobin Bell in 'Saw VI'
Played by: Tobin Bell
Appearances: Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI, Saw 3D, Jigsaw, Saw X
Origin story: The Saw franchise expanded to 10 films in 2023, returning to the life of John Kramer (Bell), a.k.a. Jigsaw. He's the heartbeat of the series, even if he isn't exactly the central villain in each of the films following his Saw IV death.
Kramer's backstory is most fully revealed in Saw II and Saw IV. In the series' second film, Kramer gains a new appreciation for life after a cancer diagnosis pushes him into a failed attempt to take his own life by driving his car off a cliff. His second chance was earned through a whole lot of pain after he survived the fall. He doesn't write a memoir or start a lecture circuit to share what he sees as hard-earned revelation about the preciousness of life. Instead, he traps people in life-threatening puzzles to make them earn a little revelation for themselves.
In Saw IV, the series adds insult to injury, revealing through flashback that Kramer lost an unborn child when his wife was attacked at the clinic where she worked. The drug addict who broke into the clinic became Kramer's first victim. (In that same scene, the pig mask is shown to just be an act of happenstance that stuck with the puzzle-loving killer, which feels a bit un-Kramer-like.) These aren't necessarily the kind of things that turn most people into sadistic murderers — investigators in Saw IV don't buy it either. Nonetheless, it provides a basis for who Kramer becomes and his obsession with making people appreciate their lives.
Everett Collection Doug Bradley in 'Hellraiser'
Played by: Doug Bradley, Stephan Smith Collins, and Fred Tatasciore (Hellraiser: Revelations), Paul T. Taylor (Hellraiser: Judgement)
Appearances: Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Hellraiser: Inferno, Hellraiser: Hellseeker, Hellraiser: Deader, Hellraiser: Hellworld, Hellraiser: Revelations, Hellraiser: Judgement
Origin story: To say Clive Barker created a horror icon in Pinhead (Bradley) is an understatement. We glimpse Pinhead's origin in the series' second movie, Hellbound: Hellraiser II. It's brief but serves a key purpose as Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) shows Pinhead a sepia-toned image of himself as a human. That moment reveals that all the Cenobites were once humans.
The notion of Pinhead as a noble World War I British soldier is... something. But his origin as a human does give viewers a reason to sympathize with him and provides a basis for the sort of vague leniency the Cenobites show toward Kirsty. After all, what happened to Pinhead is basically happening to Kirsty. Plus, the second Hellraiser is a great movie that is nearly as creepy as the original. It's a nice twist for the interdimensional Cenobites to be human, but it is arguably the last time the series will have you sympathizing with Pinhead.
Everett Collection Robert Englund in 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'
Appearances: A Nightmare on Elm Street, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Freddy vs. Jason, A Nightmare on Elm Street (reboot)
Origin story: Freddy Krueger's origin is, aptly, horrific. It's teased throughout the first movies but gets fleshed out in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors. While institutionalized, Krueger's mother was repeatedly sexually abused. As a result, she had Freddy and didn't know who his father was. Krueger endured an abusive childhood at the hands of a foster parent played by Alice Cooper in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare. Ol' Fred didn't endure that trauma and grow up to be a swell guy. He turned the violence of his life onto others and murdered some children. He also murdered his wife in front of his daughter. After he was arrested, he got off on a technicality and was set free in a community that was not stoked to have him back. The parents of his victims burned Krueger alive, ending his reign of terror (or so they thought).
No amount of trauma or nightmarish villainy was too much to heap onto Krueger's backstory. All that horror ended with Krueger reborn as the nightmare-inhabiting, knife-fingered monster of nine films.
Everett Collection Godzilla
Played by: A variety of actors in a suit originally designed by Eizo Kaimai, Teizo Toshimitsu, and the Yagi Brothers
Appearances: 38 total films, including 33 Japanese films from ToHo
Origin story: Horror film origin stories come in a whole lot of forms. Some are the basis of the first (or only) film. Frequently, a series backtracks to an origin to keep the franchise alive. Godzilla — which was absolutely a horror film upon its 1954 release — was such a potent origin story that it resulted in a wildly expansive world of films that has survived for almost 75 years and encompasses 38 films (including the soon-to-be-released Godzilla Minus One and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire), TV series, spinoffs, comic books, and animated series.
The origin is well-known at this point. Godzilla was created by nuclear testing in the ocean and rose to terrorize Japan. The allegory is so richly conceived that it managed to embody the era's nuclear fears while also providing a versatile tale that can be reimagined to suit subsequent eras. Godzilla has been reconfigured as a comedy (if not in the late Showa era, then look to Chibi Godzilla). Godzilla has been reconfigured as an action blockbuster (1998's Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Kong, or Godzilla: Final Wars are great examples). And it has returned to the horror-infused social commentary of the original (Shin Godzilla, for instance).
Justin Lubin/Warner Bros. Annabelle in 'Annabelle Comes Home'
Played by: A doll
Appearances: The Conjuring, Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, Annabelle Comes Home
Origin story: The Conjuring universe may vie with Saw as one of the most prolific universes in modern horror. The series doesn't have just one antagonist to explore, but the best origin story goes to the creepy, creepy doll Annabelle. (With apologies to the series' horrific nun, who is quite a creep herself.) Annabelle: Creation is the fourth Conjuring movie, but technically it is the second film chronologically, serving as a prequel to Annabelle.
Toymaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is mourning the death of his daughter Annabelle and, years later, welcomes orphaned children into his home. One of them defies his edict to stay out of Annabelle's bedroom. She enters, finds the porcelain doll, and releases a horror into the world that will terrorize the innocent through a handful of films. It turns out that the parents offered prayers to any entity that could give them a chance to be reunited with their Annabelle. What answered their prayers wasn't a benevolent entity. The parents, at the demon's request, transferred the demon into the doll, and, well, now you've got a whole new Annabelle in the house.
Annabelle's backstory is an interesting case of whether it's better to know the origin story or not. The Conjuring, the first movie in the series, provides only a fragment of the story but is arguably the best film in the series. However, Annabelle's origin in Annabelle: Creation does provide an improvement on the first Annabelle.
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