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Effective horror hinges on the talents of actors who infuse humanity into the genre’s immense stakes, something that the best horror movie actors do incredibly well. Whether they’re the protagonist, through whose eyes the audience delves into the film, or the menacing, villainous figures who send shivers down their spines, phenomenal actors are the lifeblood of exceptional horror. Their ability to make viewers’ fears and anxieties palpable and real is the very essence of what makes the genre so gripping. The best actors of the genre bridge the gap between the supernatural and the everyday, allowing audiences to confront their deepest fears and see them in a different light.
Some, like Doug Jones, are masters of physicality, using their bodies to embody otherworldly beings and creatures in some of the best horror movies of all time. Others, like Neve Campbell, tap into their well of raw emotions to create characters that are truly haunting. What sets these actors apart isn’t just their ability to terrify or disturb but their dedication to their characters. Beyond their on-screen roles, many of these horror icons have become advocates for the motives and futures of their characters, becoming active participants in series’ fandoms and helping to nurture the horror community.
15 Doug Jones
Jones is known for his ability to bring life to otherworldly creatures through his brilliant physical performances. While his face may not be the most recognizable, Jones has had a hand in many high-profile films over the years, though he is best known for his work with Guillermo del Toro, having played the lead creature in the director’s Best Picture-winning The Shape of Water. He also acted in the director’s movies Hellboy and Crimson Peak, to name just a few.
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He currently stars in Star Trek: Discovery and had a recent stint on What We Do in The Shadows. Jones’s unparalleled talent for bringing characters to life through his physicality has allowed him to create numerous memorable characters in the realm of science fiction and horror. Jones has also appeared in Hocus Pocus and indie favorite John Dies At the End.
14 Robert Englund
Robert Englund’s fame soared with his iconic portrayal of Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, leaving an indelible mark on the horror genre. Englund’s performance as Freddy is chillingly charismatic. While the character’s signature glove and blades are hair-raising alone, it’s Englund’s portrayal that has terrified audiences since the franchise’s inception. Englund’s imposing silhouette and his uncanny ability to deliver Freddy’s taunts with the perfect blend of dark humor and unrelenting menace have made the character incredibly memorable. Thanks to Englund’s performance, both he and Krueger have rightfully earned a place among the most unforgettable names in the history of horror cinema.
13 Jamie Lee Curtis
Jamie Lee Curtis, following in the footsteps of her mother, Janet Leigh, who famously played the ill-fated faux-protagonist in Psycho, cemented her status as a quintessential scream queen with her role in the Halloween movie series. Beyond her iconic portrayal of Laurie Strode, Curtis has left an indelible mark on the horror genre through her work in cult classics like The Fog and the cat-and-mouse Australian road trip thriller Roadgames. What sets Curtis apart is her exceptional ability to seamlessly blend contradictory emotions within her characters. She possesses a unique talent for making the fear and anxiety of her roles palpable, adding depth and weight to her films.
12 Kane Hodder
Hodder is best known for playing the role of Jason Voorhees in 4 of the Friday the 13th films, and though he was looked over for the part in Freddy vs. Jason, Hodder still subtly made it into that movie as well. A stuntman and actor, Hodder’s journey to becoming the notorious killer began when a makeup artist he had previously collaborated with assumed the directorial reins of the franchise’s latest installment and subsequently cast him in the role in the franchise’s seventh installment. What distinguishes Hodder is not just his imposing physical presence but his gift for non-verbal acting.
11 Linda Blair
At the young age of 14, Blair catapulted to Hollywood stardom with her Oscar-nominated performance in The Exorcist. Blair’s portrayal of possessed daughter Regan showcased the actress’s rare natural talents as she seamlessly transitioned between the innocence of a typical teenage girl and the manic, otherworldly energy of her character once possessed. Blair recently returned for a cameo in The Exorcist: Believer. The film is a cornerstone of horror often hailed as one of the greatest, and most terrifying, horror films ever made. Blair’s incredible ability to embody the many starkly contrasting sides of her character throughout the film has left an enduring legacy on viewers.
10 Tobin Bell
Bell is known for portraying the methodical and sadistic Jigsaw, a part he has masterfully embodied in nine of the ten Saw movies, including in the franchise’s most recent release, 2023’s Saw X. His journey to horror icon, however, was a long one with over 20 years of small roles in theater, TV, and film before his breakthrough role as the “game” obsessed character. Bell’s authoritative presence and distinct voice help him exude a chilling power as Jigsaw. He manages to portray the character as powerful in his calm demeanor. Bell’s theatrical background is evident in the strangely captivating complexity he enriches the character.
9 Tony Todd
Having played leading roles in several major horror and fantasy franchises, Tony Todd is, without a doubt, a genre icon. The actor is best known for starring as the titular villain in all four of the Candyman films, and his embodiment of the menacing and enigmatic character is legendary. His portrayal of William Bludworth in the Final Destination franchise further solidifies Todd as a horror icon and showcases his immense versatility. With his emotional depth and talent, Todd adds layers of complexity to every one of his roles. Another actor committed to the fandom surrounding his work, Todd is known for his interactions with fans and the horror community.
8 Bill Skarsgård
Since starring as Pennywise the Dancing Clown in the 2017 remake of It, Skarsgård has made a name for himself in the horror genre. He starred in Zach Cregger’s creepy, campy Barbarian and black comedy horror Villains and is set to appear in 2024’s Nosferatu, further cementing himself as a modern genre staple. As Pennywise, Skarsgård undergoes a remarkable transformation well beyond the incredible makeup. The actor renders himself unrecognizable with his bulging eyes seeming to pop out of his skull and his fixed, evil smile. Pennywise’s scratchy and menacingly cartoonish voice, a potential source of ridicule in the wrong hands, feels natural and perfect for the part with Skarsgård’s commitment.
7 Brad Dourif
The Child’s Play film series owes much of its effectively terrifying results to the unique and spine-chilling voice of Brad Dourif. Dourif is the mastermind behind the character of Chucky’s iconic voice and his rendition remains unparalleled, evidenced by the fact he is still playing the role to this day. Before achieving recognition for voicing the possessed doll, Dourif had earned an Academy Award nomination for his exceptional performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The Child’s Play series, and the menacing toy at their center, succeeded in bringing palpable fear into the homes of viewers, with Dourif’s portrayal of Chucky helping to bolster the franchise’s success. Dourif is able to evoke terror with only his voice. His contribution to the series has made him an integral part of horror history.
6 Mia Goth
With her fully felt performance and phenomenal 10-minute monologue in Ti West’s indie hit Pearl, some even predicted Goth to receive an Oscar nomination. As the titular character, Goth runs the gamut of the emotional spectrum, bringing to life someone completely singular and bizarrely human. Her remarkable range and captivating presence have earned her acclaim despite a relatively short career. Goth has further solidified herself in the genre with work starring in body horror films Suspiria and Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool.
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5 Anthony Perkins
Perkins’s portrayal of the dissociated Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho remains an iconic achievement in the genre. With his ability to bring depth and complexity to the part, Perkins effectively conveyed Bates’s mind and inner conflict. One of the most striking aspects of Perkins’s performance was his control over his physicality. His nervous demeanor, wide-eyed gaze, and sudden shifts in mood added an intense layer of suspense to the film. These subtle yet powerful nuances made Bates all the more unsettling and enigmatic. His role and many of the film’s scenes have been widely parodied and referenced, underscoring the enduring legacy of Perkins in horror history.
4 Toni Collette
An immensely versatile character actress, Toni Collette has consistently demonstrated her remarkable capacity to evoke palpable emotions within the high-stakes realm of the horror genre. Her illustrious career spans from her acclaimed and Oscar-nominated performance in The Sixth Sense to her exceptional work in Ari Aster’s unsettling masterpiece Hereditary, one of the greatest horror films about grief. Collette’s unique talent lies in her ability to seamlessly adapt her vocal and physical mannerisms to embody diverse characters. Her performances are characterized by her detailed layered thoughts and emotions, and her ability to maintain subtlety and nuance which make her characters, for all their quirks, feel deeply human.
3 Neve Campbell
Neve Campbell rose to prominence as a ’90s femme fatale icon through her portrayal of Sidney Prescott in the Scream franchise. Campbell expertly treads the delicate line between the film’s satirical elements and her character’s harrowing circumstances. Her ability to blend vulnerability with unwavering courage helped the film successfully balance its horror and comedy sensibilities. Sidney Prescott stands out as a unique final girl, defying the traditional role of a passive victim. Scream and Campbell’s unforgettable performance are enduring symbols of 1990s nostalgia, and her portrayal of Sidney has solidified her status as an iconic figure within the horror community.
2 Doug Bradley
For 18 years, Doug Bradley embodied the enigmatic character Pinhead in the Hellraiser franchise, clad in the character’s iconic makeup and tight leather attire. Bradley’s portrayal seamlessly blended the character’s intellectual depth with a menacing aura, creating a truly memorable figure in the horror genre. Notably, much of the character’s emotions and subtleties were conveyed through Bradley’s mesmerizing use of his eyes, one of the few visible elements of his head. The character’s distinctive costuming and makeup, coupled with Bradley’s skillful interpretation, have left an enduring legacy, solidifying Pinhead as an iconic and enduring figure in horror cinema.
1 Bruce Campbell
Bruce Campbell catapulted to fame for his portrayal of Ash Williams in the Evil Dead franchise. His depiction of Ash was so iconic that Empire Magazine once hailed Ash as the greatest horror movie character of all time. Campbell’s exceptional talent lies in his ability to humanize Ash Williams, revealing depth beneath the character’s quick-witted humor, while bringing physical comedy chops to the series. He masterfully strikes a balance between the character’s initially unwarranted cockiness and a genuine, evolving courage. As the franchise unfolds, Campbell convincingly portrays Ash’s transformation from a somewhat bumbling individual to a self-assured hero. Campbell has also become a fixture of many low-budget cult classics.