Horror movie villains are something of an anomaly in the film world; more often than not, the less you know about them, the more frightening they are. Unlike characters in any other genre of film, they operate on pure dream logic, and – because of that – they don’t require a raison d’être beyond terrorizing the characters in their films. Unfortunately, thanks to the sequelization of literally every modern horror film, every terrifying horror villain has received some kind of terrible backstory. In most instances, characters ruined by backstory are given three or more films before a writer doles out an unnecessary backstory for a creature that’s meant to exist as a pure metaphor, but some horror writers don’t even wait for a sequel to wreck a perfectly fine film and provide a sad-sack story for the creature handing out ironic punishments to sexy teens in the original property.
If you’re the kind of audience member who wants a backstory for the characters you’re watching onscreen, that’s totally fine. It’s human nature to be curious about why something is happening, but the horror genre is meant to create tension by asking questions, not answering them definitively. Most of the backstories that are given to horror villains seeks to provide a reason as to why they’re hacking up strangers, but these are characters you don't need sympathy for. They’re meant to act as sign posts that say “go the other way,” not “love me and my knife hands.” Continue reading to explore the worst origins of some of your favorite characters. And, to the writers who ruined a good thing, don't quit your day job.
The Women Of Paranormal Activity
The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Over a series of six films, it's revealed that the women of Paranormal Activity are actually members of a cult called The Midwives who are raising young girls to give birth to possessed sons in order to time travel around the late-20th and early-21st centuries murdering people.
Why It Ruins the Character: What are you doing, Paranormal Activity? The first film in this series is a pretty boring but uniquely filmed ghost story that takes its time frightening the audience without providing any rhyme or reason for the appearance of a demonic entity. By building a convoluted (and very dumb) backstory that features witches brainwashing young women to have possessed sons in order to hang out with a demon named Toby, the only thing you're doing is confusing your audience. The reason the first film works is because nothing is explained; if the producers would have simply left it as is, they could have created a one-and-done film that forever contained an air of mystery.
The Backstory, In a Nutshell: According to Hellraiser: Hell on Earth, Pinhead's real name is Elliott Spencer, a captain in the British Expeditionary Force suffering from PTSD and survivor guilt. After losing his faith in humanity, he wanders the Earth sleeping with anything that moves and doing all of the opium that the early 20th century has to offer. At some point, he stumbles upon the Lament Configuration, and then he's off to the races.
Why It Ruins the Character: In the first and only good (fight me) Hellraiser film, Pinhead is nothing more than an otherworldly entity that shows up and BDSMs people to death. Trying to piece together what the character of Pinhead is supposed to mean in a few sentences is futile (is he pro-sex? anti-sex? a Home Depot representative?), but the one thing that's immediately obvious is the visceral fear that the initial appearance of Pinhead creates. He's not just spooky; he's a legitimately frightening characterization of humanity when it grows bored of everyday life. He's you on a Pornhub binge; he's your late night shopping jags; he's Bukowski when he quit the post office. Learning that he's a soldier from the First World War removes all the bite from a character who should be nothing but.
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The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Myers has had the unfortunate fate of having his backstory written and rewritten by people who were not his creator. Depending on which storyline you follow, Myers was either a child psychopath who killed his family and later developed a love of paper-mâché masks while he was in a mental institution, or he's a child that was infected by the "Thorn," a druid curse that drives those infected to kill their next of kin each Halloween. And sometimes he has a psychic link with his cousin or sister or whatever.
Why It Ruins the Character: It should go without saying that adding a supernatural, druid, hocus-pocus backstory to Michael Myers is a waste of everyone's time and a complete betrayal of the original character. It doesn't make the character more frightening; it just makes the audience confused. So putting that aside, the lengthy backstory provided by Rob Zombie in his completely fine but unnecessary Halloween remake tells the story of a child born with preternaturally dark impulses who is raised by wolves. The fact that Zombie spends an hour plus telling this story is insane. John Carpenter accomplished the feat of telling the audience that Myers was a child psychopath in about five minutes and moved on to the meat of the story, but, for some reason, Zombie felt that he really needed to flesh out the story of a mute killer that still ends in the same way as the original film. As Tom Petty once said, "don't bore us, get to the chorus."
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The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Jason Voorhees was a mentally challenged child who was, for some reason, allowed to attend a summer camp for bullies. After he accidentally drowned, his mother lost her mind and began murdering campers. After she was killed at that same camp, Jason came back to life and began murdering campers. He was then killed, brought back to life via lightning, chained to the bottom of a lake, and then revealed to be a demonic worm that traveled from body to body, attempting to kill the sister no one knew he had.
Why It Ruins the Character: Jason Voorhees is a victim of his own backstory. He simply cannot exist without one of the not-so-great origins he's been saddled with. The only versions of the Friday the 13th film that truly function as well-made slasher films without turning into a comedy of errors are the first two films, and if you want to argue that the first film in the series is the only one worth watching, you wouldn't be wrong. Jason runs purely on revenge, so turning him into a supernatural creature with a predilection for killing campers (and that darn Tommy Jarvis) or a demonic thing that can only be killed by someone from his bloodline is just gilding the lily, and it does nothing for the character other than make him a copy of a copy of a copy of a bad universal monster.
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The Backstory, In a Nutshell: In order to defeat the Ottoman Empire, Vlad the Impaler makes friends with a vampire living in a cave, drinks his blood, and becomes a butt-kicking machine.
Why It Ruins the Character: There may not be a horror villain that's been so stripped of his terror by superfluous backstory than Dracula. The wonderful thing about the myth of the vampire is that it can be used as a metaphor and a language to talk about the problems of the world. Like zombies, the context of a vampire narrative depends on the era when it was created. For instance, The Hunger can be seen as simultaneously discussing the AIDS epidemic while also diving into the hedonism-fueled excess of the '80s, while Nosferatu contains heavily implied anti-Semitism. So what does a movie like Dracula Untold say about 2014? Is it saying anything? And why give Dracula such a convoluted, albeit slightly more historically accurate, backstory? Dracula is at his best when he rises from the mist, followed by the baying of hounds.
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The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Born to an unknown mother and left for dead in a dumpster, Leatherface gets a job at a slaughterhouse only to see it shut down. At some point on a murder spree, he cuts off a guy's face and wears it as a mask.
Why It Ruins the Character: Leatherface is meant to be a manifestation of the changing masculine and feminine mores of the '70s; he doesn't need a reason to exist. He's essentially the Minotaur in King Minos's maze, and regardless of the fact that the characters are already doomed the moment they appear on screen, he's the final signifier that no one will leave the film alive... or unscarred. Giving Leatherface such a maudlin backstory deflates the character to something more akin to Norman Bates with a subscription to 24 Hour Fitness and a penchant for chainsaws. The audience begins to pity Leatherface – and even side with him – rather than fear the destruction he wields at all times.
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The Backstory, In a Nutshell: The backstory of Hannibal Lecter has become its own cottage industry, with a series of books, films, and even a television series that tells and retells the life of Lecter as a psychiatrist who is also a cannibal that's trying to turn cops into killers while also being a killer himself. OR SOMETHING?
Why It Ruins the Character: Here's why Hannibal Lecter's character in The Silence of the Lambs works: there's no deep exploration of Lecter's past, what his family was like, or why he's playing a mental chess game with Clarice. In this film and Manhunter (albeit to a lesser degree), Lecter is nothing more than an apex predator being held in a zoo and waiting to strike. That's infinitely more interesting and frightening than a guy who had issues with his mom.
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The Backstory, In a Nutshell: The son of a nun was accidentally locked inside a mental institution over a Christmas holiday and gang-raped by a group of inmates. Fred, as the child was named, would later go on to be adopted by a creep who taught him to torture animals and inflict self harm. In his adult life, he would get married, have a kid, and also molest and kill a group of children who all lived on Elm Street. After he was released from prison on a technicality, Mr. Krueger would be burned alive in his home by the Elm Street parents.
Why It Ruins the Character: There are only two Nightmare on Elm Street movies where Freddy Krueger is legitimately frightening: the original film and Wes Craven's New Nightmare. In each film, he's presented in the context of a monster that comes to you in your dreams and kills you. The only hint of a backstory comes late in the original film when it's mentioned that Krueger was a child killer, and Nancy's parents might have had something to do with getting retribution against him. You honestly don't even need that much backstory to make Krueger frightening. He's a guy with knife fingers who comes to you in your dreams. What more do you need? By giving Krueger this prologue, the writers are telling the audience to subconsciously feel remorse for Krueger, the child murderer. Does making him the "bastard son of 100 maniacs" make him a worse person? Is the audience meant to believe that children born from rape are worse than people who were conceived by a loving husband and wife? Krueger was less problematic when he was just the ghost of a child killer.
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