The Frightful Pages

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHalloween is over, but here at my house we’re still working off our Snickers high while images of this year’s vivid costumes linger. (My son went as an evil jester, and not even I would want to meet up with anyone wearing that thing on a non-Halloween eve.)

Created characters can be whatever we want them to be: handsome, ugly, talented, deprived, good or evil. But are movie characters inherently more likely to be scary than characters we can only imagine in our mind’s eye? Guardian Unlimited has some musings on the subject here:

While film can body forth its frightening characters in alarmingly tangible ways – who didn’t flinch at the utter psychopathic conviction of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas – books just don’t operate in the same way.

Characters are embedded in the weave of a text in a way they aren’t in cinema, and while books can be terrifying, one doesn’t really get all jumpy about individual characters after the age of about 10. I know a lot of adults get all sappy about Harry Potter, but really, who has nightmares about Voldemort?

What do you think? Can we create frightful characters in our pages–or are we always going to take a second seat to cinematographers?

ABE Books has taken it upon themselves to unmask the “scariest characters in literature.” This, from their site:

Big Brother from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 has been voted the scariest character in literature in a worldwide poll conducted by AbeBooks.

With the increased use of closed circuit TV, phone tapping, GPS tracking from space and online monitoring, booklovers clearly believe Big Brother is more threatening than ever. Published in 1949, Orwell’s dystopian nightmare mirrored the totalitarianism of Hitler and Stalin. Big Brother is rated as scarier than classic evil creations like Bill Sykes, the vicious Victorian thug created by Charles Dickens, and Hannibal the Cannibal from the modern publishing era.

The 10 scariest characters in literature according to visitors to AbeBooks:

1. Big Brother from 1984 by George Orwell
2. Hannibal Lecter from the novels by Thomas Harris
3. Pennywise the clown from It by Stephen King
4. Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
5. Count Dracula from Bram Stoker’s novel
6. Annie Wilkes from Misery by Stephen King
7. The demon from The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty
8. Patrick Bateman from American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
9. Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
10. Voldemort from the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling

So how about you? How do movie characters and book characters stack up when you consider the fear factor? What characters have you found most frightful and what made them that way?

Write on, all!

Photo credit: Flickr’s BlueFace


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    In all the books I’ve read, I never found a specific character that was especially scary.

    I did feel fear, many times, while reading certain scenes. But in those cases usually the “bad character” was very general. Like when reading books set in Germany at the time of the genocide, a person can feel that fear deep inside them, but the “enemy” is what? The country? The nazis? Anyone from the Gestapo?

    – Some people read Gaston Leroux’s “Phantom of the Opera” and feel fear toward the Phantom character. In my case I felt pity for him.
    – In the book “Perfume”, by Patrick Suskind, the character of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is dark, scary and most of all… disgusting. He didn’t exactly scared me, but the things he did creeped me out.

    I don’t think Movies do a better job at showing those frightening characters than Books. In fact, I think that in a book you can find a much more detailed profile of that character and maybe even know their background, motivations, etc. By reading, you can get much more information AND set your own pace at absorbing it.

    By the way, when talking about frightening stories, the first thing that comes to my mind is Edgar Allan Poe. I read his stories when I was 9 and they gave me nightmares for a week.

    Greetings from Portugal! :)

  2. theamcginnis says

    well, stephen king’s ‘salem’s lot’ was probably one of the scariest books i have ever read. vampires just strike at the heart of my fears – although buffy and all the vampire romances/thrillers etc out today pretty much have diluted the fear of vampires for the masses. (IMO) king’s book was so darn scary but the movie, sorry to say, was not. that man can capture fear with the written word like no other. and that goes for carrie, the shining, christine, pet cemetary – but salem’s lot was for me – the scariest of all his books.

  3. says

    Welcome, Carina from Portugal! I agree with you about characters in books and the ability we as writers have to make them even scarier than in movies. After all, we can do what movies cannot – plumb the depths of depraved minds. (Though movies have a tool we don’t: scary music to create instant mood.)

    A character I thought frightening in book form was the dog Cujo from Stephen King’s book of the same name. Okay, not a human character, but a character nonetheless.

    Thanks, Thea. I have no idea what happened to the costume jpg today. I’m in NYC today and unable to access the template to figure it all out. It’ll have to wait until Thursday. :)