Whether they’re malevolent spirits, ancient monsters, or unthinkable abominations, monsters are an indispensable part of modern horror cinema. Effective creature design is such a coveted aspect of horror filmmaking that it even has a genre all of its own. The tragedy, though, is that horror films can often underutilize the tools at their disposal, something that applies to its monsters as well. It’s a peculiar puzzle inherent to horror filmmaking — to craft a delicate balance between the seen and the unseen, between definite form and the terror of formless ambiguity.
While technological advancement has allowed horror filmmakers to present many visually scary monsters, only a few of them have successfully navigated this puzzle to strike a definite core. Those that have managed to do so draw from fathomless creative depths to present a visual design that rings with otherworldliness and binds these creatures in compelling lore that further elevates this impact. These monsters encapsulate a deeper sense of terror than a traditional jump scare could ever elicit. From the eldritch to the uncanny, here are 15 monsters in horror movies that are simply unforgettable.
15 The Empty Man — The Empty Man
The Empty Man was a horror title with complex depths masquerading as an ordinary detective horror film. The movie starts off with a private detective investigating a string of disappearances connected with a Bloody Mary-like urban myth. The movie eventually unveils an elaborate backstory about an urban cult that worships an unexplained, unknowable entity known simply as the Empty Man. This entity is never given concrete shape, beyond a few instances when it appears as a shadowy figure. Rather, it is the way this entity is framed that creates a compelling sense of dread.
However, at the very beginning of the movie, viewers are treated to the visual of an ancient shrine located in an inaccessible part of Tibetan mountains. The scene takes place during a prologue to the movie’s main story, and the audience has zero context during this scene. The shrine appears as a real human skeleton, except that it is structured in a way that instantly sets alarm bells ringing in your head. Even while looking straight at the figure, one cannot make sense of the physics of this skeletal figure.
14 Moder — The Ritual
Although it didn’t earn the same mainstream appreciation as Midsommar or The Witch, The Ritual is still one of the best entries into the folk horror sub-genre in the past decade. The movie follows a group of close friends who go on a hike in Sweden, only to be pursued by a primitive supernatural creature in a strange forest. Despite having all the appearances of a run-of-the-mill monster chase movie, The Ritual aspired for something more, and successfully achieved that effect.
Much of the movie’s unique and eerie horror came from its conception and portrayal of the monster, a being from Norse mythology known as a Jotunn. The visual design of Moder is something that defies explanation, no matter how many times you watch it — it’s almost like a Lovecraftian concept given concrete shape. Early in the movie, a shrine dedicated to the abominable deity leaves all four friends shaken with its deeply inhuman look. When the characters finally come face-to-face with the actual creature, it somehow manages to look much, much worse. As you watch the strange equine-looking creature unfold, its head serially resembles a moose, and a headless, splayed-out human.
13 Mutated Bear — Annihilation
One of the most memorable cosmic horror movies of recent years, Annihilation doesn’t terrify so much as it makes you deeply unsettled. The movie follows a group of characters on a scientific exploration of a quarantined zone suffering from bizarre anomalies of nature. Every living thing in the region from plants to predatory animals seems to be undergoing a rapid, senseless mutation. These changes seem to be guided by some perverse, godless logic that seeks to mimic and make fun of nature’s laws with each one of its obscene creations. Annihilation doesn’t merely feed the viewer with visual shock-value to fulfill its goal; over the course of the movie, it gradually builds a sense of unease, a philosophical revulsion with its portrayal of these anomalies.
The mutated bear that appears mid-way through the movie is the worst of these effects. In its first appearance, it makes off with one of the team members and kills her. The bear poses a shocking visual from the get-go, with its skull half-exposed due to rot. However, it is the second appearance of this bear that is even more uncanny. In its second appearance, the bear’s growls mix in with the unmistakable voice of the character that it ate earlier. Despite cornering most of the remaining characters in a room, the bear appears to be unwilling to harm them, and moves in a deeply disturbing manner, as if trying to convey a message. One gets the sense that the dead character is somehow still «alive» inside this mutated creature, yet this implication is shrouded in ambiguity.
12 The Socialites — Society
The 1989 movie Society is a mostly forgotten entry into the body horror genre that holds one of its most ghastly monsters. It follows the life of a teenage boy from Beverly Hills who begins to suspect that his parents are part of a secretive cult for the wealthy elite. He eventually discovers that his suspicions are true, but it’s a discovery he wishes not to have made. The cult, as it turns out, is filled with an altogether different species of human that can morph and merge their bodies at will.
The ending of the movie sees a disturbing ritual performed by the cult, where the entire lot of them come together in a bizarre body horror orgy where they eventually merge into one extended mass that is writhing in sensual entertainment.
11 The Behemoths — The Mist
A classic entry into the Lovecraftian horror subgenre, The Mist takes place in the supermarket of a quiet town after a mysterious mist enshrouds its entire boundaries. Dangerous and unseen forces seem to be approaching from the far reaches of this mist, killing everything in its path. A few remaining survivors retreat to a local supermarket, where most of the movie takes place. The creatures from the mist make semi-appearances as gigantic, clawed tentacles threaten to snatch away the survivors at every opportunity.
For the most part, the behemoth creatures of The Mist terrify with their utter unknowability. In almost all cases, seeing them means certain death. As a result, the characters who have survived know only a few attributes of the creatures. In the last few moments of the movie, we get to know that the behemoths are extremely tall, six-legged creatures with countless tentacles dangling from their torso. By not revealing their full nature for most of the movie, The Mist frames them in a very effective light.
10 Sarah — The Void
The 2016 indie horror movie The Void was lauded by cosmic horror fans for its enjoyable mix of the Lovecraftian tropes. The movie takes place in a remote hospital, where a small group of individuals finds themselves trapped as supernatural events begin to take place, with the hospital at dead center. Among these unexplainable events include the appearance of mysterious hooded cult members, ample instances of body horror, and strange resurrections, all of which create the impression of an unnamed horror that seems to infect every scene with an implied presence.
The instigator of all these events is revealed near the end as someone who hopes to resurrect his dead daughter through another woman’s womb. He is finally successful in this perverse endeavor, but the creature that is birthed is not a normal human, but a hulking creature with features that are difficult to describe. Covered with tentacles and necrotic flesh, the creature nevertheless possesses a human skull, but that is its only human feature. Nevertheless, the villain insists on referring to this creature with her daughter’s name, Sarah.
9 The Marionette — Possum
Primarily a comedy actor, Matthew Holness wrote and directed the 2018 psychological horror movie Possum based on his own short story of the same name. The original story took direct inspiration from Sigmund Freud’s theory about the Uncanny, which describes a peculiar human instinct that drives us to feel repelled or terrified by objects that, while appearing somewhat familiar, has a strange tinge of alienness and unfamiliarity.
The movie imposed this feeling onto an extremely disturbing marionette that was a cross between a human and a grotesque spider. The marionette acts as the penultimate representation of the repressed guilt and traumas of a children’s puppeteer, played marvelously by Sean Harris. While the contents of the character’s traumas are never fully revealed, they are certainly magnified in Possum, which takes more and more disturbing forms as the movie goes on, lingering in the uncanny valley every single time.
8 The Doppleganger — Possession
A movie so disturbing that it was banned for a period of time, Possession is a maddening take on marital conflict that will surely give you nightmares. Starring Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani as the film’s leading characters, Possession doesn’t hold back in giving its nightmarish portrayal of jealousy, madness, and trauma. The movie eventually reveals a grotesque creature that the wife is hiding in a secret apartment. She treats this creature as a secret she wishes to hide from her husband, and the viewers soon find out why in a disturbing and unforgettable scene.
Similar to Possum, this creature is posed as an allegorical representation of all her repressed emotions. As the movie progresses, this formless blob soon takes the form of the husband himself, but at no point in the movie is its existence ever explained. It makes a sudden and rather shocking appearance in a movie that poses itself as a psychological horror till that point, making it all the more disconcerting.
7 Zygote — Xygote
Zygote isn’t a feature-length film but a short film by well-known filmmaker Neill Blomkamp. This 20-minute short film is set in the Arctic Circle, deep within the caverns of a mining operation, where two surviving crew members are being pursued by an unexplained monster. Blomkamp is known, among other things, for his fascination with photorealistic CGI, and this interest pays off well in Zygote.
The short film found its audience among avid film buffs, and mostly avoided mainstream attention. The monster featured in the short, however, is freakishly imaginative and stands out as one of the creepiest and most creative horror creatures of all time. Made of the combined body parts of slain crew members, Zygote treats audiences to an eldritch abomination that is all eyes, all hands, and all feet, sprawling and towering over the screen like a maelstrom of flesh.
6 The Invisible Entity — The Endless
Another well-regarded film in the cosmic horror genre, The Endless had an interesting take on the invisible object of horror. The movie is led by two orphaned brothers who spent much of their earlier years in an enigmatic cult. After one too many arguments about their differing memories of the cult, they decide to go back for a visit and sort out what the cult is really like once and for all. They discover that, while the cult itself is quite welcoming and convivial, there definitely is an unseen presence that is keeping the members in line as worshippers.
The portrayal of this invisible entity is strange and unusual. From the very beginning, members of the cult are quite open and willing to talk about the entity, including playing a bizarre game of tug-of-war with this being, using a rope that extends up to the heavens. Interactions such as this one make for a truly unique and unforgettable horror experience, one that is rarely found elsewhere.
5 The Cloverfield Monster — Cloverfield
The Cloverfield movies gave the west its very own kaiju, and went on to become classic entries in the horror genre. The creature in itself, though, had definite dimensions that wouldn’t terrify too much with their design. Called Clover by the movie’s crew members, it was a lanky, four-legged creature with a head that strongly resembled that of a bat. Rather than the creature’s design, it was the movie’s framing of the creature that made it so terrifying. The first Cloverfield movie was shot in the found-footage style, and captured the devastation caused by the creature from the miniscule human perspective, while the monster itself was 300 feet tall. Few other monster movies have managed to communicate the creature’s abject size and scale to such devastating effect.
4 The Blair Witch — The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is the original found footage film, the one that single-handedly spawned an entire genre. It built a massive hype for itself even before release, being promoted as a true found footage and implied that the actors were real victims who were missing. Moviegoers found a truly terrifying experience that gradually built up the fear and unease. However, the titular creature is never seen throughout the movie. The Blair Witch masterfully imbued every scene with a feeling of malevolent presence, utilizing its authentic-looking found footage style, creepy sound design, and its realistic performances.
3 The Pale Lady — Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Appearing in the 2019 anthology film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, the Pale Lady is the very embodiment of the uncanny in cinema. With a dull yet terrifying appearance, the Pale Lady can appear at the end of every corridor and simply corner you without much physical hijinks. In this way, she is like a nightmare made into flesh — suspiciously familiar yet terrifyingly alien, she mines her horrors through unknowability and abject helplessness. The background and portrayal of this creature is confident and unexplained, and the Pale Lady demonstrates some of the best ways in which horror can be crafted on the screen.
2 The Wendigo — Antlers
The 2021 horror movie Antlers presented one of the most horrific and memorable imaginations of the American folklore creature known as the Wendigo. Often pictured as a part man, part elk-type creature, the wendigo is a creature from Native American folklore, and is said to be what humans turn into when they are possessed by a kind of evil spirit and engage in cannibalism. Antlers posed this folklore creature as the main antagonist, framing the horror elements in a compelling story about parenthood and child neglect. The wendigo in the movie is in fact a loving father who is trying his best to protect his children while going through this transformation unwillingly. With amazing CGI work and careful visual framing, the makers of Antlers ensure that the horrific nature of the creature never wears off, despite the creature appearing plenty of times on-screen.
1 The Thing — The Thing
One of the formative movies in the body horror genre, The Thing is a movie that is still lauded to this day for its groundbreaking practical effects. Set in a research station in Antarctica, a group of scientists discovers an alien life form that begins to hunt them one by one, utilizing its ability to mimic and imitate other life forms. Across many grotesque and unimaginable transformations, the Thing comes to embody a sudden loss of humanity and certainty that grips the team of scientists over the course of the movie. The creature never reveals its true form, yet it communicates a feeling of hostile malice. Meanwhile, its ability to change shapes gradually erodes the characters’ trust in each other, impacting not just its physical environment but also the psychological recesses of its victims.