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10 Scariest Actors Of All Time, Ranked


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Summary

  • Linda Blair’s role as Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist terrified viewers and left a lasting impact, even causing trauma for the young actress.
  • Peter Lorre’s portrayal of the child murderer Hans Beckert in M solidified his reputation as a scary actor and typecast him as a villain.
  • Jack Nicholson’s performance as Jack Torrence in The Shining showcased his ability to play deranged characters, cementing his scary reputation in the industry.

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There were certain performers whose mere appearance in a movie signaled that viewers were in for a spooky time and deserved to be ranked among the scariest actors of all time. From roles in traditional horror movies to more sinister performances across a variety of genres, being able to convincingly play for scares was no mean feat and to truly terrify viewers was something that only a select few could do on a consistent basis. The scariest roles have remained in the collective consciousness of audiences and are remembered for years to come.

There are some scary actors who got their start incredibly young, such as Linda Blair in The Exorcist, whose commitment to her role as the possessed child Regan MacNeil has stood the test of time and The Exorcist still holds up today. Other actors, like Anthony Hopkins, are not primarily known for scary roles but excelled so drastically in the spooky parts they played that they deserve to be ranked among the scariest ever seen on the big screen. The scariest actors of all time span the history of cinema and include both men and women and performers from many different countries.

10 Linda Blair

Scariest role: The Exorcist (1973)

A possessed Regan MacNeil glares at the camera in The Exorcist.

The Exorcist

Release Date
December 26, 1973

Director
William Friedkin

Cast
Max Von Sydow , Linda Blair , Lee J. Cobb , Ellen Burstyn , Jason Miller , Kitty Winn , Jack MacGowran

Runtime
122 minutes

Linda Blair was just 14 years old when she was cast as the possessed teenager Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. As one of the most terrifying roles in all of cinema, Blair showcased she had what it took to act alongside greats such as Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow all the while possessed by an ancient demon. As Blair reflected on her role in The Exorcist it seemed even she was affected by the sheer terror of her part and stated that it left her with “a lot of trauma” especially considering how religious groups deemed the film blasphemous.

9 Peter Lorre

Scariest role: M (1931)

Peter Lorre in M

Hungarian actor Peter Lorre played iconic film roles in movies like Casablanca but was mostly known for his sinister parts playing scary villains in horrors and thrillers. Lorre came to prominence for his starring role in German expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang’s M where he played the terrifying child murderer Hans Beckert, a role that typecast him as a villain for years to come. With a distinctive voice and unsettling aura, Lorre later played an ominous henchman in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and an obsessive surgeon Dr. Gogol in Mad Love which further solidified his spooky reputation.

8 Jack Nicholson

Scariest role: The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance stares out a window in The Shining

The Shining

Release Date
June 13, 1980

Runtime
146 minutes

Nobody can play deranged quite like Jack Nicholson. With a personal reputation that meant he always felt like a wildcard in every movie he was in, Nicholson’s manic acting style worked well in the psychological drama One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but was brought to its scary extreme in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. While playing Jack Torrence, a man who slowly lost his mind at the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Nicholson gave one of the scariest performances in all cinema as he hunted down and attempted to murder his own family. This role cemented Nicholson’s scary reputation.

7 Jackie Earle Haley

Scariest Role: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Jackie Earle Haley brought intensity and an eerie atmosphere to many of his roles but nowhere was his talent for terror more apparent than when he portrayed Freddy Kruger in the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. While A Nightmare on Elm Street ranked near the bottom of the list for the franchise, Haley delivered a much darker and sinister take on the character of Freddy Kruger and helped capture the essence of the character previously portrayed by Robert Englund. Haley had other dark turns in films like in Little Children and as Rorschach in Watchmen.

6 Brad Dourif

Scariest Role: Child’s Play (1988)

Chucky screams in rage in Child's Play

Child’s Play

Release Date
November 9, 1988

Cast
Catherine Hicks , Chris Sarandon , Brad Dourif , Alex Vincent , Dinah Manoff , Tommy Swerdlow , Jack Colvin , Raymond Oliver

Runtime
87 Minutes

As the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play series, Brad Dourif can do a sinister laugh like no other actor and has managed to imbue a simple child’s toy with a sense of terror that has haunted many viewers’ dreams. Across seven films, Dourif made the notorious serial killer come back to life as a doll feel real and his voice contributed significantly to the character’s malevolent nature. Dourif has also been spooky in front of the camera in movies like The Exorcist III and 2009’s Halloween II.

5 Kathy Bates

Scariest role: Misery (1990)

Kathy Bates as Annie with a sledgehammer in the movie Misery. 

Misery

Release Date
November 30, 1990

Director
Rob Reiner

Runtime
107 minutes

Iconic actress Kathy Bates has been known for her versatility and is just as comfortable in comedic roles as she is in drama, however, when the occasion calls for it, nobody can do scary like her. Bates received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her sinister role as Annie Wilkes in Misery, which was a petrifying performance that brought Stephen King’s story to frightening life. Bates has also tapped into her spooky side over five seasons of the anthology series American Horror Story where she excelled in a variety of scary roles.

4 Anthony Hopkins

Scariest role: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Split image of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs

Language
English

Studio
Universal

Run Time
118 Minutes

Through countless renowned performances, Anthony Hopkins stands as one of the greatest actors of all time, and in his almost 100 feature film roles showcased himself as a truly frightening performer. Despite heartfelt portrayals in films such as The Remains of the Day and The Father, Hopkins has also cemented his reputation in cinema as the terrifying cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins was just on the screen for 16 minutes as Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs but nonetheless won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his creepy, intense, and shocking performance.

3 Klaus Kinski

Scariest role: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

An intense and volatile performer, Klaus Kinski was best known for his work with director Werner Herzog and consistently delivered terrifyingly memorable portrayals in their five movies together. With an otherworldly determination, Kinski excelled in the epic adventure Fitzcarraldo, he embodied Count Dracula in Herzog’s dark remake of Nosferatu the Vampire, and perhaps Kinski’s scariest role was as Lope de Aguirre in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. As Aguirre, Kinski led a doomed expedition to find El Dorado in the Amazon and, in the process, descended into madness in a performance categorized by paranoia, megalomania, and unhinged terror.

2 Vincent Price

Scariest role: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Vincent Price stands next to a spooky candelabra from House on Haunted Hill

Upon hearing the name Vincent Price, one can’t help but conjure up images of the horrific history of cinema and his distinctive voice and presence. With chilling roles across a variety of horror films in the 1950s and 1960s, Price’s stand-out performance was Frederick Loren, a wealthy man inviting a group to spend a night in a haunted house, in House on Haunted Hill. With a chilling blend of charm and menace, Price created an eerie and tense atmosphere through simple body language and vocal inflection. Price was truly a master performer when it came to the art of terror.

1 Willem Dafoe

Scariest role: Antichrist (2009)

With a career full of challenging and unique roles, Willem Dafoe has always brought intensity to his often-menacing performances. Throughout his career, Dafoe has spooked superhero audiences as the deranged Green Goblin in Spider-Man, terrified as the bloodsucking Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire, and lost his mind Thomas Wake in The Lighthouse. However, it was in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist that all the menacing qualities of Dafoe really came to the forefront and he showcased himself as an actor capable of haunting audiences dreams and leaving them quacking in their boots.

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