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 – the best film villain protagonists don’t require a raison d’être beyond terrorizing the other characters. 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 cutting 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 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: The Tall Man began his life in the 19th century as a mortician named Jebediah Morningside who found a way to transport himself through time and space and then began using his inter-dimensional travel powers to put dead bodies on another planet, or something?
Why It Ruins the Character: The original Phantasm is a beautiful exploration of death through the eyes of a child who is just beginning to understand that the world is a very big, very scary place. The Tall Man represents the unknown, and his very presence is enough to inspire nighttime tingles. But the moment that it's revealed that the Tall Man has a master plan involving sending dwarves to another planet to do something vague with dead bodies, the jig is up, and there's no more fear or mystery surrounding this character. He's essentially a Bond villain with a hair-brained scheme.
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."
The Backstory, In a Nutshell: A group of werewolves live on a therapist's nature reserve where they're planning to take over the world and turn everyone into werewolves, or something like that. It might be the most convoluted backstory of them all.
Why It Ruins the Character: The Howling absolutely has one of the best beginnings of a horror movie in the '80s, but the following hour and 10 minutes of backstory and furry silliness undoes all of that good will. The movie works when it's about a woman being stalked by a werewolf (or werewolves) through a therapy retreat, but the moment it becomes about a wolfpack turning people into wolves in order to make more wolves (or whatever they're trying to do), the whole movie turns into a joke. Compare The Howling to American Werewolf in London, where lyncanthropy is a personal problem akin to alcoholism that follows the wolf until death - now that's how you do a werewolf backstory.