The best thrillers always have compelling antagonists. The conflict they generate is an integral part of creating suspense in a story. But there are enemies, and then there are villains—the god-awful characters that either scare the hell out of you or make you fantasize about strangling them to save the hero from more tragedy.
These characters are the twisted mirrors to the heroes. And while some heroes don’t exactly need to be heroic, villains take it up a notch by representing evil in its many forms. Everything the heroes are, they’re not; and everything the heroes fear, they are.
Best Thriller Villains in Literature
While villains come in various shapes and forms, there are those that simply stick in your mind because of their sheer intensity. They’re physical and mental juggernauts that seem to crush everything that’s thrown at them. Over the years, literature has collected an assortment of such villains. Below are just a few of them.
Do note that all of these have been adapted into succesful films and TV series that deserve their own recognition. While there are small differences, these adaptations still largely follow the original plots.
1. Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Hannibal Lecter is known as the purest form of a sociopath, and that’s not a hard claim to believe. But the books go way beyond that, labeling him as a sociopath only because “they don’t know what else to call him.”
He is highly intelligent, with impeccable manners and refined taste, which runs counter to his inner nature as a devious and remorseless serial killer. This juxtaposition often lulls his victims to a false sense of security. He’s also into gourmet dining—only, his favorite kind of meat is human.
2. Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
Anton Chigurh is a robot born as a human. Entirely devoid of conscience and compassion, he is a methodical killer who considers the act of killing as normal as breathing.
His signature weapon, a cattle gun, is a testament to how he views other people—nothing more than livestock that he occasionally has to put down.
But he’s not just your ordinary psychopath, because he does have a moral code he strictly follows. Admittedly, it’s an extremely twisted one that is against everything society considers moral.
3. Carrie White from Carrie by Stephen King
There’s a lot of debate over whether Carrie is a hero, villain, or victim. The one thing that’s sure is that when she finally lashes out, she’s a terrifying force to confront. In the book and film adaptations, she’s always depicted as unstoppable, and only dies from a lucky stab by her deranged mother.
What makes her truly frightening is that deep down we all know how close to reality her story is. We’ve seen it on the news countless times—those who are bullied and finally snap can take their retaliation to the highest levels, and often in the most catastrophic way.
4. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Nurse Ratched is the perfect example of the corrupting influence of power. As the head administrative nurse in a mental hospital, she wields her authority like a sword over her patients and peers.
As a tyrant, she controls almost every aspect of a patient’s care, whether it’s their medication, basic necessities, or privileges. And while her superiors know about her draconian methods, they turn a blind eye because of her efficiency.
As someone whose job is to care for others, her conscious decision to be cruel is what makes her a true monster—especially when you consider that her patients are helpless, mentally-compromised people.
5. Professor Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Moriarty sits comfortably at the top of the criminal foodchain. Like a spider at the center of an intricate web, he’s responsible for at least half of the evil being done in London. As such, Holmes calls him the “Napoleon of Crime”.
Despite that though, he never does the dirty work. As a consulting criminal, he provides criminals with the necessary support to commit their crimes—in exchange for a fee or cut of the profit, of course.
As Holmes’s match in virtually any aspect, Moriarty is a formidable opponent who heads a dangerous organization. Many of the cases that he and Watson have solved are heavily implied to have been Moriarty’s doing.
6. Sadako from Ring by Koji Suzuki
A ghost who haunts through videotape may seem ridiculous, but Sadako is the stuff of your nightmares. Her curse is inevitable, and the only way to be free of it is to copy the videotape and show it someone else, letting them die in your place.
So the choice is to either die a decent human or commit murder by haunting. The decision is made harder by the manner of death—after only a week, victims die an excruciating death.
The books go for a scientific approach, with the cause of death being a supernaturally induced heart attack caused by the merging of Sadako’s powers and the smallpox virus.
Meanwhile, the movies depict her emerging from the television and apparently scaring her victims to death, leaving them with grotesque expressions.
Best Thriller Villains in Movies
Many iconic villains were made for the screen. Some of them become so popular that they earn a permanent place in pop culture, staying relevant through sequels, revivals, related media, and spin-offs. Check some of them out below.
7. T-800 from The Terminator
Part of a villain’s terrorizing aspect is their unstoppability. And what’s more unstoppable than an intelligent, self-learning machine that doesn’t feel pain and can perform superhuman feats?
As a cyborg from the future, the T-800 is equipped with technology that’s far more superior to those found in 1980s era it is sent back to. It is outwardly indistinguishable from a regular human, going as far as mimicking bodily functions such as sweating and bleeding to better blend in.
Conventional weapons barely hurt it, merely stripping away the layer of tissue that covers its robotic endoskeleton. In the end, only the accumulated damage from a series of desperate attacks is able to destroy it.
8. The Shark from Jaws
Duuun dun. Duuun dun. Everyone who’s seen the film knows that when this song starts playing, death and destruction come shortly after.
When a great white shark develops a taste for human flesh, a small band of concerned citizens set out to hunt it down. The problem is, the shark holds all of the cards: it’s larger, stronger, and better-armed.
It’s terrifying to know that something intent on killing you is lurking beneath the waters. To have a slim chance of stopping it, you’ll need to enter its natural hunting grounds, knowing full well that you’re at a disadvantage.
9. The Xenomorph from Alien
The Xenomorph’s entire being is driven only by the spread and preservation of its species. It lacks any form of civilization, and it’s only social interactions are with its queen and the rest of its brood.
Its entire life cycle is a terror in four stages. To propagate, an egg is laid by the xenomorph queen, which stays dormant until it detects the presence of a potential host. When it does, a facehugger erupts from the egg, wraps itself around its victim, and deposits an embryo down the victim’s throat.
After a brief incubation period, a chestburster violently rips open the host’s chest and undergoes a dramatic growth spurt, reaching its final adult form in a matter of hours.
10. Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds
Many of the greatest villains are those that don’t care about their sinister nature, and SS Colonel Hans Landa gleefully revels in his. He’s earned a reputation as a ruthless officer who’s especially skilled in hunting down Jews.
While being a Nazi automatically puts him on the evil list, it’s his behavior that truly makes him a villain. He makes no effort in hiding what he is—a power tripper who loves playing with other people’s lives.
He’s also unfamiliar with the concept of loyalty and responsibility. He easily betrays the Nazis and, after committing many crimes, thinks he can get away without any repercussions.
11. Alonzo Harris from Training Day
Alonzo Harris is the worst kind of cop there is: competent, skilled, but dirty to the core. He’s a perversion of the policeman’s creed to serve and protect.
Harris uses his authority to exploit his peers, the people he’s sworn to protect, and the criminals he is duty-bound to arrest. All that matters is that he comes out on top, with no regard to those around him.
His “do as the Romans do” approach inevitably corrupts him. He’s hardcore because his opponents are, uses drugs to better understand the gangs, and employs force because he knows it’s the only effective way to control criminals.
12. John Doe from Se7en
Unseen villains are typically some of the most suspenseful ones as well. They lurk in the shadows, pulling strings until everything is at the point of collapse. That’s exactly what John Doe did in this film.
While barely seen in the movie, his murders, based on the seven deadly sins, cause widespread turmoil throughout society. His deviousness is such that he’s always in control, even when he turns himself in to the police after causing five deaths.
In the end, the detectives assigned to his case fail to realize his end goal. And when he finally drops his ace in the hole, the two remaining sins are found and he happily dies knowing that his plan is a success.
Thrillers are often villain-driven, with the “bad guy” representing the ultimate obstacle that the hero must overcome. So in building this list, I opted for villains who can keep the audience at the edge of their seats as the plot races to an explosive climax.
They keep a story’s sense of suspense, anxiety, and anticipation at a high level to make the pay-off more tantalizing. As the stakes go higher and the heroes become more desperate, readers and viewers are drawn further into the story.
Aside from creating conflict and pushing the plot forward, villains are there to elicit a reaction from you. They make you hyper-aware of your surroundings and emotions, making you more susceptible to jumpscares and your doubts.
It’s not uncommon for them to linger in your mind long after you’ve finished their stories. And the longer they affect you, the more intense their villainy becomes.