Stephen King is synonymous with horror fiction–and for good reason. The maestro’s prolific storytelling and penchant for penning bone-chilling characters continue to rob fans of sleep worldwide. From otherworldly, supernatural entities to all-too-human monsters next door, King’s baddie-menagerie makes us think twice before turning out the light or venturing into that seemingly innocent small town.
Below, we’ve scoured the darkest corners of King’s universe to bring you the very best (and thus worst) of his characters. Proceed with caution.
8. Arthur Denker/Kurt Dussander – Apt Pupil
One of Stephen King’s lesser-mentioned but deeply disturbing characters is Kurt Dussander, or Arthur Denker (if you buy his alias), a former Nazi officer hiding in suburban America. First introduced in the novella Apt Pupil, the mass murderer’s unspeakably evil past is discovered (in typical King fashion) by a young boy, Todd Bowden.
Apt Pupil is a meditation on the enduring evil of the past and the corrosive effect of obsessing over such evil. Director Bryan Singer’s 1998 film adaptation thrilled audiences, in which Dussander, played brilliantly by Sir Ian McKellen, was nothing short of horrifying.
7. Kurt Barlow – Salem’s Lot
If Stephen King is the King of horror fiction, the King of modern vampirism in Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine–the vampire-plagued town in Salem’s Lot–is King-creation Kurt Barlow. Due to King’s brilliant, updated approach to the vampire mythos, Barlow constitutes a nightmarish figure you’d be loath to encounter after sundown.
Undoubtably, there is something unnervingly creepy about a vampire like Barlow arriving in a small, idyllic All-American town and setting up shop as an antique dealer, let alone “converting” the town’s populace into bloodthirsty monsters. It’s a small wonder Warner Bros. recently purchased the rights to the novel before shooting and completing a new theatrical film adaptation, slated for an upcoming (but as yet unspecified) release.
6. The Overlook Hotel – The Shining
The Overlook Hotel stands alone in the annals of horror; seldom does a setting develop vividly into a character in its own right. Tragedy, murder, and malevolence—to say the least—lurk behind the hotel’s luxurious facade and, over the course of Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s page-turner, apparitions and bone-chilling developments nudge the hotel’s inhabitants closer and closer to insanity.
Perhaps this is partially because the hotel’s haunted history harkens to the ghosts of America’s conflicted past. From the glitzy, ghostly ballroom parties from a bygone era, to the enigmatic and horrifying Room 237…to those twin little girls in the corridor…every aspect of the Overlook unsettles and terrorizes.
5. Randall Flagg – The Stand
Many would consider Randall Flagg—even the name is… disconcerting—the epitome of malevolence in Stephen King’s universe. While Flagg has made several appearances in the author’s books, and the multifaceted antagonist has many an alias (Richard Fannin, Walter o’Dim, the Walkin’ Dude), his most iconic incarnation is undoubtedly in The Stand, the 1994 miniseries.
In the post-apocalyptic epic (a working King compared to his own Lord of the Rings), Flag appears as a dark, magnetic force gathering survivors of a dystopian, weaponized virus to his cause in Las Vegas. A charismatic yet overwhelmingly sinister figure, fit with supernatural abilities including levitation and resurrection, Flagg is bent on rebuilding the world in his dark image. Even when he’s off-screen, his horrifying import is all too present.
4. Annie Wilkes (Misery)
Kathy Bates’ portrayal of Annie Wilkes in Misery still makes us shudder. Indeed, Annie, a super-fan obsessed with novelist Paul Sheldon, takes things perhaps a little too far when she imprisons and tortures her beloved author. Initially appearing as a savior to gravely injured Sheldon—who penned the romance novels around which Wilkes’s life revolves—her true, dark colors reveal themselves when she confines him, infuriated by the direction of his latest work.
Immortalizing Wilkes as a terrifyingly overzealous Stan before the term existed, Bates’ performance earned her an Academy Award. Stephen King imbued her with a horrific duality, on full display as she alternates between doting nurse and deranged captor, epitomizing the terror of captivity and the unpredictability of human nature.
3. Carrie White – Carrie
Who knew that a high school girl gifted–some would say cursed–with telekinetic powers would make such a tragic and chilling figure? Carrie White, imagined by Stephen King and portrayed unforgettably by Sissy Spacek in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, is an outcast. Blame her sheltered upbringing and religiously fanatic mother.
Carrie’s relentless subjection to bullying at school doesn’t help, either—and culminates in a sadistic prank triggering one of the horror genre’s most climactic, iconic, and beloved scenes. Our cultural psyche permanently reels from the vision of blood-soaked Carrie exacting steely revenge on her teenage tormenters, powers fully unleashed.
2. Jack Torrance – The Shining
When it comes to horrifying antagonists conjured by horror master Stephen King, few come close to Jack Torrance–you know, sticking his head through the axe-hacked door, exclaiming: “Here’s Johnny!”
Torrance’s descent into madness is even more terrifying than the haunted Overlook Hotel itself. Played unforgettably by icon of icons Jack Nicholson (also named Jack, like his character…creepy), Torrance’s transformation from a loving, if disquieting, father and husband to a demented murderer disturbs us as much today as it did in 1980, when the film premiered.
In the deft hands of peerless master Stanley Kubrick, Torrance seems to embody a little too convincingly both the fragility of the human mind and the possibility of evil harbored within it.
1. Pennywise – It
If recalling Jack Torrance furiously and repeatedly typing, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” keeps you up at night, better not dwell on Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Why? Hunting and haunting multiple generations of townsfolk in Derry, Maine, this cosmic, immortal, shape-shifting entity relentlessly preys on children, feeding off their deepest fears.
Because of its propensity for appearing as an outwardly innocent clown, which itself masks an ancient, otherworldly evil, Pennywise is an unbeatable Stephen King menace. Whether in the classic 1990 TV miniseries, 2017’s It, or the 2019 sequel It Chapter Two—there’s something incomparably, unrelentingly sinister about this killer clown. The least we can do is award…It…the top spot on our list.