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The Characters That Terrified Horror Fans In Each Decade Of The 20th Century To Now

Since the dawn of cinema, movie monsters and horror villains have given form to the nightmares that haunt us all. Inspired by gothic tales and fantastical literature, the earliest silent era filmmakers generated scares through spooky imagery and nail-biting storytelling, setting a standard for generations to come. Think the classic creatures of Hollywood's Golden Age, the boogeymen of the '50s, the everyday evil of the '70s, the serial slashers of the '80s, or the postmodern maniacs of the '90s and beyond. Every decade is graced by a unique cast of horror movie ghouls, supernatural entities, and creeps that fuel our fears of what's lurking around the corner. The evolution of these monsters parallels the development of horror itself, which has branched off into multiple subgenres, styles, and tropes.

This list brings together each decade's most innovative horror movie monster from the 20th century onward. Whether found in the swamps, from within dreams, or around the corner, these villains exemplify terror.

  • 1900s: Bluebeard

    One of the first cinematic innovators, Frenchman Georges Méliès, dug into his homeland's trove of dark fantasy lore for this silent short. Bluebeard is an adaption of Charles Perrault's 17th-century folktale of the same name, which focuses on a wealthy nobleman who has a habit of slaying his wives. As a monster, Bluebeard is a manifestation of the violent misogyny that runs rampant in horror and science fiction - a thread that still exists to this day in films like Ex Machina and Crimson Peak.

    Méliès, known for hundreds of science fiction and fantasy films of varying lengths, makes a surrealistic, bombastic movie out of this macabre fable. Bluebeard is a large, oafish character whose theatrical gestures established the norm for villainous behavior. This massive, bearded serial slayer - while garish - haunts the screen and terrified audiences at the time.

  • 1910s: Frankenstein

    Mary Shelley's 1818 monster masterpiece Frankenstein is viewed as a literary forerunner to horror films, and long before Boris Karloff's interpretation of Frankenstein's monster became the archetype, Thomas Edison's film company brought the creature to life in what many consider the first narrative horror film.

    Shelley's book describes the creature as a handsome and intelligent being, one pieced together with the finest body parts. This 1910 short recasts Shelley's monster as a freakish, hideous brute - a trend that has informed almost every subsequent cinematic version of Frankenstein's monster. When Universal introduced Karloff as the reanimated creature in 1931, his neck bolts, flat-top head, sunken features, and bestial shuffle were all inspired by his filmic predecessor.

  • The expressionistic qualities of movie monsters are put on full display in German director F.W. Murnau's famous feature-length adaptation of another literary giant of the genre: Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula. Murnau's Count Orlok, portrayed by Max Schreck, displays prominent features that play up the bloodsucker's repulsive unnaturalness. From his long, sharp fingers, to his bald head, to his pointed ears, the Count is more savage than dreamy, less human than animal.

    Eerie and atmospheric, a consistent moodiness follows the Count wherever he goes - from Transylvania to Wisborg, from coffin to coffin, and ultimately to Mina's bedside, where he perishes with the dawn. The vampire story here is a sad one: a gothic tale about a lonely creature whose existence is controlled by a compulsory need for blood.

  • 1930s: Dracula

    "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make." Inspired by the melancholy ethereality of Murnau's masterpiece, Universal Pictures cast Hungarian genre auteur Bela Lugosi as the title character in its 1931 Dracula directed by Tod Browning. Cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked with Murnau on The Last Laugh, transformed the gothic tale into a sound film enhanced by creepy visual queues.

    Lugosi, as a suave seducer with a flowing cape, has proven to be the most influential Dracula to date. Less a desolate outcast than an iconoclastic entity, Dracula in this film is a confident, mysterious character who offers up eternal life. His charming foreignness distracts his potential victims from a major caveat: Immortality is only available to those willing to feast on blood. The bewitching nature of this classic monster has been reworked time and time again, from the British Hammer productions of the '50s and '60s starring Christopher Lee to the 2020 Netflix miniseries featuring Danish actor Claes Bang.