Johnny Donaldson’s Best New Horror Icons of the Decade

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Freddy. Jason. Michael. Leatherface. Names that instill fear—or at least nostalgic fondness—in the hearts of horror fans the world over, figures of horror that have become comforting icons for those who grew up on the genre. From the Universal Monsters of the ‘30s through the slasher villains of the ‘80s, every generation has its own monstrous modern myths to follow through film after film, appearance after appearance and, well, merchandising opportunity after merchandising opportunity. But who are the icons of the next generation? Who are the villains (and heroes too) of the most recent decade? Who would one want to cosplay as, own toys of them, or watch their further adventures? With the 2010s over, here’s who I think are the newest icons that horror has to offer…

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1)Pennywise (IT, 2017 and 2019)

Yes, yes, Pennywise, as a character, isn’t exactly new to the ‘10s, having appeared first in Stephen King’s classic 1986 novel It and in its first film incarnation, where he was expertly played by the legendary Tim Curry. But the version played by Bill Skarsgård in Andy Muschietti’s 2017 big screen adaptation is the one that became the Freddy Krueger of the new millennium, the defining boogeyman of the modern horror era, the one whose face is plastered on all the lunchboxes, backpacks, and toys collected by young and burgeoning genre fans the world over. It takes a lot to show up someone on the order of Tim Curry, yet Skarsgård did it, imbuing his version of Pennywise—bulbous white head, red greasepaint like blood-streaked tears, those …eyes that just drift off like floating balloons—with a disturbing otherworldly offness that truly made Pennywise into a horrifying demon clown nightmare. IT is a funhouse spookshow rollercoaster of a movie, more full of delightfully in-your-face “boo!” moments than real unnerving frights, and Skarsgård’s Pennywise, with his crickety chirp of holly-jolly seductive friendliness, is the perfect ringmaster for a modern day ’80s throwback horror circus.

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2)The Babadook (THE BABADOOK, 2014)

It’s not just that the Internet, in all its funky, dreamy fancasting glory, decided to unite The Babadook, the Australian demon of storybook grief, and Pennywise as a cutesy-poo couple speaking to queer outsiderness that earns him a spot here (though that helps)—it’s that the Babadook, both in movie and character, is a compelling figure of dread-soaked malevolent sadness. With his long black cloak, top hat, and thin, snatching fingers, he looks, in his brief glimpses, like a spindlier version of Brazilian horror auteur Jose Mojica Marins’s iconoclastic figure of doom, Coffin Joe, except he acts as an all-consuming emblem for the aching grief of loss, not monstrous sexual tyranny. Born out of a haunted pop up book, he shows up, like a spooky children’s drawing, to torment our widowed heroine, whose husband recently died. He’s there to scare her not just with his gaunt dandy ghoulishness, but with the breakdown of her own emotions. And, that’s what makes the Babadook a horror icon for a decade where we’ve had to confront our own distress.


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3) Black Phillip (THE WITCH, 2016)

Who could have  thought that a farm animal could be so…spooky? Black Phillip is nothing more than a goat — an all-black ram owned by a 17th-century family that out-Puritans even the Puritans. But he’s also a symbol of the (metaphorical?) Satanic spirit lurking just outside the edges of the frame. Robert Egger’s bedevilled period insta-classic, shot all through slate grays, shadowy blacks and muddy browns, is already thrumming with malevolence even before Phillip rears up on his hind legs with alpha-of-the-farm ferocity. Anya Taylor-Joy’s almond-eyed innocent Thomasin lives in the shadow of harsh woodland conditions and a patriarchal father sodden with resentful righteousness, and when a baby sibling disappears right from under her nose (quite literally) she becomes the focus of furious paranoid religious anger. So it makes sense when the devil comes a-callin’ with his offers of butter and “living deliciously.” And given that goats have often been associated with Lucifer, it only makes sense that Egger’s would embody him with a charismatic coal-black figure of terrifying barnyard madness.

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4)Annabelle (ANNABELLE, 2014)

Annabelle, the antique porcelain doll with a shivery thousand yard stare that bores into your very soul, was first introduced in the opening act of James Wan’s haunted house neo-classic THE CONJURING. She made such an impression in her one brief scene–her blonde hair and blue eyes meant to represent a cherubic little girl sprite, but one whose pallid skin and sharp cheekbones and death-grip gaze made her seem like an unholy parody of innocence– that she got her own set of spinoff movies, where she acts as a totem for demonic manifestation — a Victorian lightning rod of evil (the scary thing about her is that she doesn’t do anything except as a conduit for any number of hellbound spirits.) Forget that the real Annabelle doll was a Raggedy Ann doll (how benign) or that the first ANNABELLE was downright awful—a reductive imitation of its originating story (thank the gods that the sequels were better jump-scare machines) because Annabelle, as a figure, is an unnerving addition to the pantheon of creepy doll stories.


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5) Art The Clown (TERRIFIER, 2018)

Slasher baddies, after a while, tend to turn into cuddly nightmare teddy bears, comforting you more than scaring you. Sequel after sequel tends to familiarize you to the likes of Jason and Freddy, blunting their edges, making them seem like old friends you’re excited to see, even as they are hacking their way through hordes of generic teenaged victims. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a slasher villain that’s genuinely, disturbingly under-the-skin scary. So give it a hand to David Howard Thornton, who gives the chiaroscuro harlequin jester Art, first introduced in the indie anthology ALL HALLOW’S EVE before getting his own gnarly splat-tastic spinoff in TERRIFIER, a feral demonic viciousness that’s something to behold. Art never speaks, but he does wink and smile and prance and stretch his mouth into a ghoulish pantomime of cheeriness, yet there’s nothing soft or cute or morbidly reassuring about his villainy. As presented by Thornton and director Damian Leone, he’s a mean bugger– a calculating madman whose main pleasure in life seems to be rending flesh in the most unpleasant manner possible. He’s something that hasn’t been seen on screen for a while– a genuinely threatening monster icon.


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6)Ed and Lorraine Warren (THE CONJURING, 2013)

Forget the real world version of the Warrens, problematized due to their conservative Catholic beliefs and their potential association with fraudulent claims of supernatural phenomena (Amityville, anyone?). The version seen in James Wan’s CONJURING universe films, played with forthright conviction by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, is a warmly welcoming married couple whose sweetly fuddy-duddy squareness acts as a balm to the troubled families at these films’ cores. Ed and Lorraine, at least in the films, aren’t presented as patronizingly traditional Christian scolds, and their steadfast heroic earnestness has a compellingly corny core of sheer honest goodness. It’s rare that horror franchises ground their bases on their heroes — the villains are always way more fun– but there’s a few that have good guys as compelling and watchable as their wise-cracking demon baddies. THE EVIL DEAD, with the groovy-doofus himbo Deadite-fighter Ash, is a prime example, and, in the second decade of the new millennium, we got that with horror’s answer to Mr. and Mrs Rogers.


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7)Rose The Hat (DOCTOR SLEEP, 2019)

Rebecca Ferguson, as the boho-monster leader of a squad of communal-hippie energy vampires, struts and preens and coos and seethes her way through DOCTOR SLEEP with an alluring rock star seductiveness that instantly puts you under her spell. Rose The Hat is the main villain of Stephen King’s SHINING sequel –she and her merry band of nomadic sycophants feed off “steam”, aka the kind of psychic powers that gave Danny Torrance his shining– but in Mike Flanagan’s moving adaptation, she is presented as a sort of “influencer-from-hell” hipster hellion, psychically prowling for victims while doing yoga and hunting gifted young children in a jaunty, bohemian tophat. Ferguson bites into the role with a laser-focused alluring relish. When she looks at you, with those ice-blue eyes and an eerily friendly smile that barely conceals its psychic-junkie hunger, you don’t just feel threatened — you feel invited into her supernatural orbit. 

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8)The Nun (THE NUN, 2018)

The most interesting thing about the CONJURING franchise has been how its corporeal ghost beastie side monsters have always been more compelling than the generic invisible poltergeists that make up their main threats. It became clear, sometime around ANNABELLE COMES HOME, that these characters, in their Marvel-gone-horror way, have become less grabby side stories and more mercenary, let’s-keep-this-franchise-going boilerplate hooks, but that hasn’t stopped the monsters themselves from being, well, you know, cool. THE NUN, like ANNABELLE before it, is a pretty dismal movie — all camp-gothic that tries to force post-Fulci Euroschlock madness into the more mundane form of 21st century jump-scare mechanics — but it does have a great creature in its titular malevolent abbess. Introduced in THE CONJURING 2 — where she gets one of that film’s best scares — she’s played by Bonnie Aarons with a regal, stern-faced ghoulishness. She’s like a female Pinhead done up in a habit instead of as an S&M leather-daddy pin-cushion. I wish the film that bore her name used Aarons’s devilish imperiousness more, or that it gave her a better back story than making her just a generic demon with the visage of a nun, but here’s to seeing what future installments can do with her.


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9) Elise Rainier (INSIDIOUS, 2011)

It’s not many franchises that are built around a septuagenarian star—especially a septuagenarian female star—which is what makes the INSIDIOUS franchise all the more special. Lin Shaye, who’s been around the genre scene for decades, sprinkling her soothingly  inviting “here’s some cookies, dear” grandmotherly warmth into genre fare even when playing psycho baddie roles, may have started off James Wan’s spook-blast haunted house tale (it was a dry run for his bigger CONJURING success) as the modern era’s Zelda Rubinstein, but the filmmakers smartly allowed her matronly psychic do-gooder to increasingly take center stage as the films progressed, and it’s easy to see why. As a woman who’s spent decades both embracing and running from the pall of being able to speak to the dead, Elise is the beating heart of the INSIDIOUS franchise, even more so then the families she is ostensibly helping. Elise has spent her whole life living with the dead, which is why, under Shaye’s comforting and heartfelt performance, she feels so alive.


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10) The Tethered (US, 2019)

The Tethered are Us, or at least scissor-wielding extensions of our ids—our pet peeves, our jealousies and envies, our seething resentful shadow selves—in Jordan Peele’s doppelgänger nightmare US. Peele’s film was never going to live up to the mountains of hype that got placed on it—as it is, it’s a solidly watchable but thematically scattershot bad dream monster movie—but it does have a central conceit that grabs you: what if, right under our feet, there’s a labyrinthine world of clones ready to rise up and take over? It’s not clear where the Tethered, exactly, came from (are they the results of a science experiment gone wrong? Or something else?) but Peele makes them a ferocious personal threat. Each member of the Tethered looks like their above ground counterparts, except they have each been given a feral, grunting, neanderthal make-under, all bug-eyed smiling ferocity and knit-brow brutish murderous rage. Having lived their lives literally under our feet, eating nothing but raw rabbit and communicating in non-verbal twisted sneers, they want what we have—a life unencumbered. And they are willing to kill to get it. They are led by Red (Lupita Nyong’o, in a masterful and tricky dual role performance) the only one who can speak, in a hoarse, choked croak of bitter homicidal contemptuousness, who wields a pair of gold-plated shears like a totemic dagger of sacrificial protection, and who has declared war on those above ground. Peele is commenting on how all that benefits us comes at the expense of others, but with the The Tethered he hasn’t just created an allegory—he’s created a shuddery new family of monster as well.


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