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Horror movie villains are something of an anomaly in the film world; more often than not, the less you know about them, the more frightening they are. Unlike characters in any other genre of film, they operate on pure dream logic, and – because of that – the best film villain protagonists don’t require a raison d’être beyond terrorizing the other characters. Unfortunately, thanks to the sequelization of literally every modern horror film, every terrifying horror villain has received some kind of terrible backstory.

In most instances, characters ruined by backstory are given three or more films before a writer doles out an unnecessary backstory for a creature that’s meant to exist as a pure metaphor, but some horror writers don’t even wait for a sequel to wreck a perfectly fine film and provide a sad-sack story for the creature handing out ironic punishments to sexy teens in the original property.

If you’re the kind of audience member who wants a backstory for the characters you’re watching onscreen, that’s totally fine. It’s human nature to be curious about why something is happening, but the horror genre is meant to create tension by asking questions, not answering them definitively.

Most of the backstories that are given to horror villains seeks to provide a reason as to why they’re cutting up strangers, but these are characters you don’t need sympathy for. They’re meant to act as sign posts that say “go the other way,” not “love me and my knife hands.” Continue reading to explore the worst origins of some of your favorite characters. And, to the writers who ruined a good thing, don’t quit your day job.

 

Photo: Paramount Pictures

The Women Of ‘Paranormal Activity’

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Over a series of six films, it’s revealed that the women of Paranormal Activity are actually members of a cult called The Midwives who are raising young girls to give birth to possessed sons in order to time travel around the late-20th and early-21st centuries murdering people.

Why It Ruins the Character: What are you doing, Paranormal Activity? The first film in this series is a pretty boring but uniquely filmed ghost story that takes its time frightening the audience without providing any rhyme or reason for the appearance of a demonic entity. By building a convoluted (and very dumb) backstory that features witches brainwashing young women to have possessed sons in order to hang out with a demon named Toby, the only thing you’re doing is confusing your audience. The reason the first film works is because nothing is explained; if the producers would have simply left it as is, they could have created a one-and-done film that forever contained an air of mystery.

Photo:  Phantasm IV: Oblivion

The Tall Man

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: The Tall Man began his life in the 19th century as a mortician named Jebediah Morningside who found a way to transport himself through time and space and then began using his inter-dimensional travel powers to put dead bodies on another planet, or something?

Why It Ruins the Character: The original Phantasm is a beautiful exploration of death through the eyes of a child who is just beginning to understand that the world is a very big, very scary place. The Tall Man represents the unknown, and his very presence is enough to inspire nighttime tingles. But the moment that it’s revealed that the Tall Man has a master plan involving sending dwarves to another planet to do something vague with cadavers, the jig is up, and there’s no more fear or mystery surrounding this character. He’s essentially a Bond villain with a hair-brained scheme.

Photo: AVCO Embassy Pictures

The Werewolves From ‘The Howling’

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: A group of werewolves live on a therapist’s nature reserve where they’re planning to take over the world and turn everyone into werewolves, or something like that. It might be the most convoluted backstory of them all.

Why It Ruins the Character: The Howling absolutely has one of the best beginnings of a horror movie in the ’80s, but the following hour and 10 minutes of backstory and furry silliness undoes all of that good will. The movie works when it’s about a woman being pursued by a werewolf (or werewolves) through a therapy retreat, but the moment it becomes about a wolfpack turning people into wolves in order to make more wolves (or whatever they’re trying to do), the whole movie turns into a joke. Compare The Howling to American Werewolf in London , where lyncanthropy is a personal problem akin to alcoholism that follows the wolf until death – now that’s how you do a werewolf backstory.

Photo: Halloween/Compass International Pictures

Michael Myers

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Myers has had the unfortunate fate of having his backstory written and rewritten by people who were not his creator. Depending on which storyline you follow, Myers was either a child psychopath who offed his family and later developed a love of masks while he was in a mental institution, or he’s a child that was infected by the “Thorn,” a druid curse that drives those infected to slay their next of kin each Halloween. And sometimes he has a psychic link with his cousin or sister or whatever.

Why It Ruins the Character: It should go without saying that adding a supernatural, druid, hocus-pocus backstory to Michael Myers is a waste of everyone’s time and a complete betrayal of the original character. It doesn’t make the character more frightening; it just makes the audience confused. So putting that aside, the lengthy backstory provided by Rob Zombie in his completely fine but unnecessary Halloween remake tells the story of a child born with preternaturally dark impulses who is raised by wolves. The fact that Zombie spends an hour plus telling this story is mind-boggling. John Carpenter accomplished the same feat in about five minutes.

 

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Jason Voorhees

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Jason Voorhees was horribly treated at summer camp. After he accidentally drowned, his mother lost her mind and began offing campers. After she was slain at that same camp, Jason came back to life and began taking out campers. He then met his end, was brought back to life via lightning, chained to the bottom of a lake, and then revealed to be a demonic worm that traveled from body to body, attempting to get rid of the sister no one knew he had.

Why It Ruins the Character: Jason Voorhees simply cannot exist without one of the not-so-great origins he’s been saddled with. The only versions of the Friday the 13th film that truly function as well-made slasher films without turning into a comedy of errors are the first two films, and if you want to argue that the first film in the series is the only one worth watching, you wouldn’t be wrong. Jason runs purely on revenge, so turning him into a supernatural creature with a predilection for offing campers (and that darn Tommy Jarvis) or a demonic thing that can only be taken care of by someone from his bloodline is just gilding the lily, and it does nothing for the character other than make him a copy of a copy of a copy of a bad universal monster.

Photo: DreamWorks Pictures

Sadako Yamamura

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: There are multiple variations of Sadako’s origin, but they all involve her being born with supernatural powers to a woman who was also psychic and who took her own life by jumping into a volcano. Sadako was later thrown in a well where she created a sinister VHS tape.

Why It Ruins the Character: Whether you’ve watched the Japanese or English versions of The Ring, you know that they each have one glaring flaw. Both films falter the moment they have to give the backstory of Sadako (or Samara), and they don’t recover until the final five minutes of the film. This is the worst thing that can happen to a horror film, and it’s why the monster in a film should never be explained. The moment a filmmaker has to stop their movie and fill the audience in on backstory that no one needed is the same moment that the spell is broken, and the viewer remembers that they’re in a movie. The idea of Sadako is absolutely terrifying on its own.

Photo: New World Pictures

Pinhead

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: According to Hellraiser: Hell on Earth, Pinhead’s real name is Elliott Spencer, a captain in the British Expeditionary Force suffering from PTSD and survivor guilt. After losing his faith in humanity, he wanders the Earth sleeping with anything that moves and doing all of the substances that the early 20th century has to offer. At some point, he stumbles upon the Lament Configuration, and then he’s off to the races.

Why It Ruins the Character: In the first Hellraiser film, Pinhead is nothing more than an otherworldly entity that shows up and dramatically ends people. The one thing that’s immediately obvious is the visceral fear that the initial appearance of Pinhead creates. He’s not just spooky, he’s a legitimately frightening characterization of humanity when it grows bored of everyday life. Learning his life story removes all the bite from a character who should be nothing but.

Photo: Texas Chainsaw Massacre via Bryanston Pictures

Leatherface

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Born to an unknown mother and abandoned in a dumpster, Leatherface gets a job at a slaughterhouse only to see it shut down. At some point on a spree, he cuts off a guy’s face and wears it as a mask.

Why It Ruins the Character: Leatherface is meant to be a manifestation of the changing masculine and feminine mores of the ’70s; he doesn’t need a reason to exist. He’s essentially the Minotaur in King Minos’s maze, and regardless of the fact that the characters are already doomed the moment they appear on screen, he’s the final signifier that no one will leave the film alive… or unscarred. Giving Leatherface such a maudlin backstory deflates the character to something more akin to Norman Bates with a subscription to 24 Hour Fitness and a penchant for chainsaws. The audience begins to pity Leatherface – and even side with him – rather than fear the destruction he wields at all times.

Photo: Metaweb (FB)

Jigsaw Killer

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Jigsaw is actually John Kramer, a man with an inoperable brain tumor who tried to take his own life. When that didn’t work, he turned to offing other people who he felt didn’t appreciate life. But he also has, like, a thousand different people helping him, and he’s apparently set up traps across the world to continue testing people after his demise.

Why It Ruins the Character: Look, Saw should not have become the annual splatter-fest that it became. It’s not a good series of movies, and the Rube Goldberg machine that is the plot of these films grows more headache-inducing with each piece of the series. But that first film is a very tight horror film that totally works and perfectly tells the story of what Jigsaw is trying to do. Turning Jigsaw into this super smart crusader for making people connect to their lives is asking for a suspension of disbelief in the audience that’s bordering on stupidity.

Photo: TriStar Pictures

Candyman

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: It turns out that Candyman isn’t just some hookhanded version of Bloody Mary. Oh no, he was actually a prosperous painter who lived in the Jim Crow-era American South and was beaten before having his hand cut off, replaced with a hook (for some reason), and covered in honey before he was beset by bees. Before he passed, people chanted “Candyman” at him, and then he saw himself in a mirror, and… you get it.

Why It Ruins the Character: There’s no way to discuss the backstory of Candyman without shedding light on the atrocities that African Americans faced throughout history and the systematic oppression that they still face today. This criticism is in no way meant to minimize the struggle that they face on a day-to-day basis, but the Candyman backstory is, at best, something that confuses the character, and, at worst, something that removes all of the horror from the character.

By making Candyman a guy that’s stuck in a mirror via racism and torture rather than an opaque spirit that’s out to get misbehaving children, the writers are muddling the character’s intentions. When the audience first meets Candyman, he’s offing children in inner-city Detroit, not in the affluent white suburbs where the descendants of his slayers would conceivably live. This isn’t to say that creatures in a horror film shouldn’t make you think, but if writers are going to make a point about something as serious as the brutality that minorities face both historically and on a contemporary basis, they better not mess it up.

Photo: Orion Pictures

The Phantom Killer

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: While the origin of the original Phantom Killer is never discovered, when a series of copy-cat slayings begin in Texarkana, it’s revealed that there are actually two people working together in order to make people remember the sixth, and unknown, target of the Phantom Killer, Hank McCreedy.

Why It Ruins the Character: The remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown is one of the rare remakes that manages to take a film’s original mythology and tone and improve on both. Not only does the film up the gruesome horror of the original film, but it also provides commentary on what it means to be a remake, acting as a sequel that recreates scenes from the original film. While accomplishing that almost impossible feat, the film also manages to be completely gorgeous. But the reveal that there were two culprits trying to make sure people remembered their grandparents turns a genuinely creepy film into a Scream wannabe.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Xenomorph

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Created by a group of mysterious aliens who introduced space spores to the universe, the Xenomorph combines everything that it comes in contact with to make a perfect killing machine.

Why It Ruins the Character: Alien might be a perfect horror film. The only reason it’s considered to be science fiction is because it takes place in space, but everything else about the movie – from a shadowy creature that stalks its prey to a room filled with mucus-covered chains – is straight out of a nightmare. The Xenomorph doesn’t need a reason to exist; it doesn’t need an origin story; it’s a metaphor for the unknown, and the moment you put a name on the unknown, you immediately reduce its power.

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Cannibals From ‘The Hills Have Eyes’

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: When the government tries to move a family of hard-working Nevada gold miners off of their land, a few of them stay and slowly devolve into a clan of cannibals.

Why It Ruins the Character: If there were ever a character (or in this case a group of characters) that didn’t need a backstory, it’s the cannibals from The Hills Have Eyes. Thanks to the comic The Hills Have Eyes: The Beginning, the audience now knows just how many generations it took for the gold miners of Nevada to turn into flesh-eaters, all thanks to a 50/50 combination of nuclear testing and pure stupidity. The cannibals of Wes Craven’s original film are meant to be nothing more than a metaphor for the literal fallout of America’s nuclear program and the arms race that followed. It’s already a bonk bonk on the head message that doesn’t need to be fleshed out in any more detail. Doing so turns an already tedious franchise into homework that no one asked for.

Photo: Universal

Dracula

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: In order to defeat the Ottoman Empire, Vlad the Impaler makes friends with a vampire living in a cave, drinks his blood, and becomes a butt-kicking machine.

Why It Ruins the Character: There may not be a horror villain that’s been so stripped of his terror by superfluous backstory than Dracula. The wonderful thing about the myth of the vampire is that it can be used as a metaphor and a language to talk about the problems of the world. Like zombies, the context of a vampire narrative depends on the era when it was created. For instance, The Hunger can be seen as simultaneously discussing the AIDS epidemic while also diving into the hedonism-fueled excess of the ’80s, while Nosferatu contains heavily implied anti-Semitism. So what does a movie like Dracula Untold say about 2014? Is it saying anything? And why give Dracula such a convoluted, albeit slightly more historically accurate, backstory? Dracula is at his best when he rises from the mist, followed by the baying of hounds.

Photo: Metaweb (FB)/Public domain

Freddy Krueger

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: The son of a nun was accidentally locked inside a mental institution over a Christmas holiday and assaulted by a group of inmates. Fred, as the child was named, would later go on to be adopted by a creep who taught him to torture animals and inflict self harm. In his adult life, he would get married, have a kid, and also molest and end a group of children who all lived on Elm Street. After he was released from prison on a technicality, Mr. Krueger would be burned alive in his home by the Elm Street parents.

Why It Ruins the Character: There are only two Nightmare on Elm Street movies where Freddy Krueger is legitimately frightening: the original film and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. In each film, he’s presented in the context of a monster that comes to you in your dreams. The only hint of a backstory comes late in the original film when it’s mentioned that Krueger was a child slayer, and Nancy’s parents might have had something to do with getting retribution against him. You honestly don’t even need that much backstory to make Krueger frightening. By giving Krueger this prologue, the writers are telling the audience to subconsciously feel remorse for Krueger. Does making him the “b*stard son of 100 maniacs” make him a worse person? Is the audience meant to believe that children born from assault are worse than people who were conceived by loving parents?

Photo: Silence of the Lambs/Orion Pictures

Hannibal Lecter

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: The backstory of Hannibal Lecter has become its own cottage industry, with a series of books, films, and even a television series that tells and retells the life of Lecter as a psychiatrist who is also a cannibal that’s trying to turn cops into slayers while also being one himself. OR SOMETHING?

Why It Ruins the Character: Here’s why Lecter’s character in The Silence of the Lambs works: there’s no deep exploration of Lecter’s past, what his family was like, or why he’s playing a mental chess game with Clarice. In this film and Manhunter (albeit to a lesser degree), Lecter is nothing more than an apex predator being held in a zoo and waiting to strike. That’s infinitely more interesting and frightening than a guy who had issues with his mom.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Chucky

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: Charles Lee “Chucky” Ray is a serial slayer/voodoo practitioner who transfers his soul into a doll and then has to transfer his soul into a human before he’s stuck as a doll forever.

Why It Ruins the Character: A movie about a monstrous doll doesn’t need a backstory to make it spookier. It’s always scarier when the audience is never informed why something terrible is happening. When a vengeful doll appears onscreen, of course you want to know why, but, without a clear answer, the film becomes intriguing. With the addition of a voodoo subplot, the film becomes nothing more than a joke.

Photo: United Film Distribution Company
Zombies

The Backstory, In a Nutshell: How much time do you have? Depending on which series you’re dealing with, zombies were either created by toxic waste, there being no room left in Hell, or some form of a virus. In the punk rock classic Return of the Living Dead, it’s military-grade waste, and, in Resident Evil, it’s a super virus created by a secret government/corporation.

Why It Ruins the Character: Why do we need to know where zombies came from? The whole point of this specific creature is for there to be no explanation so it can take on whatever metaphor it needs to at a specific time. George Romero, with Night of the Living Dead, gave audiences the perfect zombie film by just having them show up and not answer any questions. At their best, zombie movies are meant to be about the people trapped in the situation, not the cause of the problem.

 

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