Something sinister is coming. No, we’re not talking about that long-haired freak of the week, Bughuul from Sinister 2. We’re talking about the figures comprised of fire and brimstone, nightmares and hellscapes, and everything that you fear lurks in the shadows of your home, and your very heart. Forgive AE as we carve a pentagram into our digital foundation, all for the effort of delivering unto you the scariest demons in film history. Slip on a cross, whisper a couple Hail Marys, and protect your soul at any cost, because here we go:
Ladder Demons (Jacob’s Ladder)
Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder stands out as a truly great psychological horror film, one that provides enough instances of crippling fear and horrific images to leave you a little weak in the knees, even after the happyish ending. The demons, first assumed to be hallucinations by protagonist Jacob Singer, are given more credibility as the film progresses. While they act more so as metaphorical keys to help Jacob unlock his past, rather than instigators of evil, they are no less terrifying. The film, partly inspired by Dante’s Inferno, provides an imaginative and terrifying look at hell, one that’ll surely make you question your reality.
Louis Cyphre (Angel Heart)
Yes, his name is very on the nose, but Robert DeNiro’s depiction of the devil in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is chock full of surprises. Despite DeNiro’s unmistakable New York demeanor, his portrayal of Cyphre is convincingly regal in every way except his eerily long fingernails. There’s a cool, calm sense of mirth to Cyphre as he leads Harry Angel into a mystery that destroys him in every sense of the word. He’s a demon who takes pleasure in his work but never has to chew scenery to prove it. All of Angel Heart’s twists and turns ultimately serve to make Cyphre one of the most frighteningly calculated depictions of the devil.
Deadites (The Evil Dead)
While Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness may be the favorites of most fans of Sam Raimi’s franchise, there’s still something to be said for the first film and its reboot subsequently directed by Fede Alvarez. Whatever the first Evil Dead installment lacked in terms of budget it made up for in genuinely chilling moments. You can have your camp moments and cartoony Ash, but we’ll take a genuinely disturbing demonically possessed tree and the cackling Linda and Cheryl any day. That first film made the demonic entities loosed from The Book of the Dead into real threats instead of blood bags made to be tossed around and quickly dispatched. Ash with a chainsaw hand may be iconic, but when we think of Evil Dead, we think of that ghastly face peering out of the cellar door, not for the sake of a joke but with the promise of terror.
Toby (The Paranormal Activity Series)
After five films in the Paranormal Activity franchise, we still know very little about the demonic entity that has set its sights on Katie and Kristi’s family. While we’re bound to get the long-awaited answers in the final installment of the series in October, there’s a lot of satisfaction in the lack of clear cut answers. While some have bemoaned the series’ multi-installment nature, the films have successfully built up the mythology around this particular entity that’s been unmatched by any other modern horror franchise. The things that can’t be seen, and work through domestic acts of terror and possession are often far more frightening than physical manifestations. Scoff if you must, but flickering lights, levitating dishes, and shadowy figures pulling bed covers still gets the job done.
It (It Follows)
The most recent demon on this list comes from one of my favorite films of the year, It Follows. We’ve already discussed at length some theories behind this sexually-transmitted demon, but let’s reiterate a couple points. The titular “It” can be seen as a metaphorical representation for a fear of adulthood and subsequently death. The fact that the demon is so undefinable only serves to make it a more terrifying force. While so many of our horror movie threats, demon or otherwise, have become knowable through sequels, reveals, and satire, it’s refreshing to once again be vulnerable to something we can’t know, understand, or even describe. Give the film a few years to grow in esteem and gain further context and there’s no doubt that “It” will become one of the all-time great horror movie threats.
Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street)
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. While Freddy Krueger became increasingly cartoony with each installment, the original depiction of the groundskeeper turned dream-demon remains terrifying. The image of Freddy hidden in shadows, arms outstretched like a giant accordion, plagued the nightmares of my childhood for years. Freddy Krueger was the first horror villain who truly terrified me. Before Wes Craven was deconstructing the formula of horror movies, he was helping to shape it. But Freddy existed outside of that formula. While the set-up of young victims made to pay the price of their elders is familiar, Freddy deviated from the silent stalker archetype. His personality, most often defined by a perverse sense of humor, made him a cultural icon for ’80s horror. Not only did A Nightmare on Elm Street give us a demon who could enter the sacred space of our dreams but also one whose acts of violence were all one big joke. There are few things more frightening than pure evil with a sense of humor.
Pinhead and the Cenobites (Hellraiser)
They will tear your soul apart! But seriously, these guys will ruin your nice day. First, a word has to be said about Clive Barker’s incredible design work and the costume, makeup, and effects team. No demons have ever been so uniquely designed or so physically terrifying. Barker absolutely captures the fact that these demons are the physical manifestation of pain, so much so that it almost hurts to look at them. Pinhead and his Cenobites are a disturbing take on the sublime, gleeful in their torture methods, but somehow admirably honorable. While the later films stripped them of some of their mystique by adding in sympathetic elements, their original appearance finds a delicate balance between majestic power and primal savagery.
Pazuzu (The Exorcist)
You can’t beat pure hatred. Well you can, but it’s going to cause a lot of death, a lot of trauma, and a lot of green puke. It’s Pazuzu’s absolute hatred for Regan, his unquenchable desire to destroy innocence that earns him the top spot on this list. Mercedes McCambridge’s vocal performance as the demon is one of the most memorable elements of William Friedkin’s film. McCambrige provides the character with an angry arrogance, a sense of control and power that makes the very idea of faith seem weak. What makes Pazuzu so effective is how successfully it can jab at our beliefs, instill doubt, and turn ordinary people into a source of destruction for all humanity. There have been countless imitations over the years, but no demon possession has managed to instill the same magnitude of terror.
Whew, our palms are collectively sweating, and the only remedy may be John Travolta’s Michael or Nicholas Cage’s City of Angels. Now that’s terrifying.