10 Best Horror Movie Protagonists of All Time: The horror genre has long been synonymous with its most iconic villains. Masked killers, malicious monsters, and supernatural entities have overshadowed, for decades, some of the film’s greatest heroes; but that doesn’t necessarily mean those heroes are any less interesting or integral to horror history. Not every scary movie protagonist is memorable, in fact, the genre has been the subject of mockery for years, due to an underwhelming abundance of incompetent leads and unlikeable survivors, in weaker films. However, the true classics require a compelling moral foundation to give a horror story the desired impact of genuine investment from an audience. Every antagonist has its foil, whether it be a dream-invading boogeyman pitted against a boobytrap-loving teenager or a shapeshifting clown slain by a gang of oddball kids – the evil doesn’t just perish on its own: it needs to be extinguished. These characters confront the extraordinary, face the unthinkable, and come out clean on the other side…well, mostly. From ‘final girls’ to alien-annihilating mavericks, these are horror’s most remarkable heroes.
10. Helen Lyle, Candyman (1992)
Just as “Candyman” is one of the most underrated gems in all of the horror, its main protagonist, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), is one of the most unsung final girls in the genre, as well. The inquisitive grad student is often left out of the conversation of the best female leads in horror, and undeservedly so. Venturing out into the housing projects of Cabrini-Green to uncover the story of Candyman, the eager anthropologist finds herself face-to-face with the myth, as her curiosity leads her into a life-changing confrontation with Cabrini’s infamous hook-handed slasher.
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Virginia Madsen’s performance is top-notch, playing the courageous heroine with a distinctly dignified poise that we watch crumble in front of our eyes, as her exposure to the supernatural brings her closer and closer to the brink of insanity. Her delicate struggle and bold contrast with Tony Todd’s vengeful spirit makes for one of the most powerfully elegant heroes/villain clashes in horror cinema, sparking a tension that plays out as more of a gothic romance than the typical final girl routine. However, Helen more than holds her own as an individual piece of the story, too, with a final twist that solidifies the character as a force to be reckoned with.
9. The Losers’ Club, It (2017)
This may be cheating, but you can’t have one Loser without them all. Stephen King’s loveable band of misfits have stolen the hearts of fans through the pages of his cherished novel since the late 1980s, and though it wasn’t the first adaptation of the book, it was certainly Andy Muschietti’s Spielbergian take on the story in 2017 that truly captured the magical essence of the group. Perfectly cast and brilliantly portrayed all around, the Losers’ Club brings light to the town of Derry; fighting back against the cosmic entity of Pennywise, in a battle of childhood innocence versus unbridled fear.
They band together to face the everyday horrors of their small town, in addition to Bill Skarsgård’s intergalactic child-eater. Their natural chemistry and contagious charisma lead to some of the most heart-pounding, hilarious, and heartfelt moments of the film, giving the audience characters they genuinely care for throughout the entire exhilarating runtime. The Losers would reunite with an all-star adult cast for “It Chapter Two”, and while each actor gives a fantastic individual interpretation, as a whole, they couldn’t quite match the childish spark of the young outcasts. Universally relatable and endlessly entertaining, Stephen King’s fan-favorite clown killers are horror movie royalty.
8. Sidney Prescott, Scream (Franchise)
Not too many characters in horror films live to see the sequel. Even fewer become the face of a franchise for four films and counting. However, Neve Campbell’s turn as Sidney Prescott: the ultimate final girl, more than warrants multiple revisits. Established in the original “Scream” as an unassuming high schooler, turned reluctant hero against the enigmatic Ghostface, Sidney would grow into one of horror’s most relentless heroines throughout the course of the subsequent sequels; emerging into the fearless vanquisher of the series, that fans have come to know and love. She’s far from the first final girl, but Neve arguably perfected the archetype, with help from screenwriter Kevin Williamson, and director Wes Craven, of course.
Essentially a culmination of the greats before her, with a bit of an action-hero edge in the later films, Sidney is both a critique and simultaneous love letter to the idea of horror movie survivors, as she plays into the typical tropes while leaving her own mark on the genre. Cool, sharp, and more than capable of holding her own, the definitive horror hero of the ‘90s is a shining example of compelling character development spanning multiple films, and the narrative will only continue to grow with future installments of the meta slashers.
7. Shaun, Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Edgar Wright’s affinity for taking the average slacker and placing them into heroic roles has never been more flawlessly executed than with Shaun, the lazy electronics salesman, turned unlikely leader, in the cult-classic zom-com “Shaun of the Dead”. With an old cricket bat in hand and his best friend Ed by his side, the unmotivated Everyman rises to the occasion, to protect his loved ones, amidst London’s endless hordes of the undead. Simon Pegg simply thrives as the character, giving a performance that the actor has since become synonymous with, balancing the satirical nature of the film with some phenomenal British wit and a number of well-earned emotional moments that land and resonate, seamlessly.
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After his heart is broken following a painful breakup with his girlfriend Liz, the world around him crumbles both literally and figuratively by the ensuing apocalypse, but Shaun doesn’t admit defeat. For once in his life, he stands up and faces adversity, winning over a generation of moviegoers in the process, by leaving the audience with an uplifting message of perseverance and responsibility, in the bleakest of times. From his iconic (yet simple) attire to his unorthodox choice of weaponry, Shaun is easily the most endearing survivor to ever grace the screen of a zombie flick.
6. Nancy Thompson, A Nightmare on Elm Street (Franchise)
Wes Craven’s groundbreaking 1984 classic “A Nightmare on Elm Street” gave the world of horror many things. An imaginative concept for the ages, a franchise spanning nine features to date, and of course the iconic Freddy Krueger. It even introduced the film industry to one of its all-time greatest stars in Johnny Depp. However, often overlooked in its pop-cultural impact is the gift of one of horror’s most influential final girls, Nancy Thompson. Coming from a family composed of her estranged police officer father and raving alcoholic mother, Nancy’s situation is only made worse by the arrival of everyone’s favorite homicidal dream demon, Freddy.
To everyone’s delight, the proactive heroine flips the script and pushes back with serious force, triumphing over the sadistic boogeyman. Her return to the series in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” would further cement the character as an underrated legend of the genre, as she guides the titular gang of outsiders into battle against Krueger, in more of a mentoring role. She’s crafty and clever, but most of all, she’s the Springwood Slasher’s worst nightmare. Heather Langenkamp’s claim to fame will forever be one of the most under-appreciated accomplishments in all of ‘80s horror.
5. R.J. MacReady, The Thing (1982)
Kurt Russell has worn many different faces on the big screen over his career, but arguably none of his characters are more iconic and well-remembered than R.J. MacReady, in John Carpenter’s masterful sci-fi horror classic “The Thing”. Stationed to an eerily remote research station in chilly Antarctica, the stoic helicopter pilot wastes no time getting down to business when the base is swiftly infiltrated by an alien species that can assume the appearance of anyone, or anything. As people are killed, trust is challenged, and an increasing state of paranoia sets in, MacReady takes control of the situation and runs the show the only way he knows how: torching the infected and putting the suspicious to the test, like the no-nonsense anti-hero that he is.
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It takes a bold figure to exist in a film as incredible as this, with a score from the great Ennio Morricone, direction from John Carpenter, and the absolute peak of practical effects, to shine and stand out, but that is exactly what MacReady does. Dawning some dark shades, a distinct hat, and the burliest beard in horror cinema, Russell’s grouchy alien-executioner lights up the screen with his trusty flamethrower and a bundle of dynamite; leaving behind one of the most unforgettable pieces of both sci-fi and horror history.
4. Chris Washington, Get Out (2017)
The genius of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” certainly stems more from its compelling narrative and deep social critiques than its characterization, but it does, however, boast quite possibly the greatest hero of 2010s horror. Invited by his white girlfriend to meet her family over the weekend, the film’s suffocating layers are pulled back to reveal a haunting conspiracy of her rich liberal household kidnapping, hypnotizing, and selling the bodies of African Americans to old white people, in a deranged scheme of race-swapping brain-transplants. Peele’s story works on many levels, as a psychological thriller, a thought-provoking social commentary on classism and the black experience, as well as, at times, an awkward situational comedy.
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We see all of these themes play out through the eyes of Chris; just as powerless as he is to the racist horrors around him, as Daniel Kaluuya sells the hell out of all of it, with a beautifully well-rounded performance that would garner him his first-ever Oscar nod. From the unforgettable visual of the protagonist’s tear-stricken face to the symbolic imagery of his vulnerable descent into the sunken place, Peele and Kaluuya truly gave the horror genre a timeless black icon with the character of Chris Washington. His paralyzing pain may make for some unbearable moments, but they only make his triumph that much sweeter.
3. Ellen Ripley, Alien (Franchise)
Introduced in Ridley Scott’s subtle, atmospheric blend of terror and science fiction, simply titled “Alien”, before being fully realized in James Cameron’s full-throttle, action-packed sequel “Aliens”, Sigourney Weaver’s resilient protagonist remains one of the most undying facets of sci-fi, as well as horror. Tough, resourceful, and engagingly human, Ellen Ripley goes from an ordinary warrant officer aboard a doomed, alien-infested ship, forced to rise up and save the day in the original, to a groundbreaking action star in the sequel. Her ability to morph and evolve along with the direction of the franchise has made Ripley a household name, as she kicks ass, takes names, and lays waste to Xenomorphs any way she can, no matter the tone of the film.
Sigourney Weaver’s controlled performance offers the role a distinctly relatable human quality that has made the character resonate for decades, inspiring generations of fans from across the globe. We watch as the people around her are picked off one by one by the alien threat at hand, but the queen of sci-fi stays composed, and dishes out unflinching retribution. An obvious choice for one of horror’s finest heroes, as a cinematic icon across several genres, Ellen Ripley was a valiant savior ahead of her time.
2. Ash Williams, Evil Dead (Franchise)
Few characters are as synonymous with their respective franchise, and really the horror genre as a whole, as Ash Williams; the deadite-slaying screwball with a chainsaw for a hand. It’s simply impossible to imagine Sam Raimi’s iconic “Evil Dead” trilogy without Bruce Campbell’s boomstick-wielding protagonist, and even harder to think of the state horror movies would be in without their most beloved, wildly incompetent hero. Originating in the first film as a pretty simple lead, before fully awakening into the zany bonehead with a knack for killing the undead, that fans know and love today, in the subsequent sequels; Ash quickly became the face of a beloved genre archetype: the bumbling, unlikely action-hero.
Injecting the series with a lively brand of slapstick comedy, cartoonish physical humor, and an unrelenting charisma, Bruce Campbell absolutely steals the show. Whether he’s being possessed, fending off the paranormal in a creepy cabin, or becoming trapped in medieval times as a loony fish-out-of-water, Ash Williams delivers all kinds of laughs and plenty of excitement; cranking the dial up to eleven and never looking back. He’s over-the-top, not entirely bright, and even a tad bit selfish, but above all else, the one-liner-spewing fool is unequivocally groovy.
1. Laurie Strode, Halloween (Franchise)
Similar to how John Carpenter’s “Halloween” would ignite the slasher genre without being the first of its kind, the hit film’s quick-witted protagonist would effectively establish the idea of the final girl in horror. Exuding all of the typical characteristics and embodying every trope in the lore of scary movie heroines, Jamie Lee Curtis’ career-making performance in 1978 would solidify what it means to be a sympathetic survivor in a horror flick. Going toe-to-toe with the eerily emotionless Michael Myers on one fateful Halloween night, Laurie looks pure evil in the eyes, fights back, and protects the children in her care, as the world’s most indestructible babysitter.
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It’s a truly indelible role that would cement Jamie Lee as horror’s most prominent ‘Scream Queen’. A role that she is still enjoying tremendous success with today; stepping into the shoes of an older, more case-hardened Laurie Strode, with a great resurgence for 2018’s reboot of the franchise. A powerfully uplifting hero that has stood the test of time for over forty years and going strong, horror’s definitive final girl remains the pinnacle of the fabled archetype. Surviving the boogeyman, as well as countless rewrites and confusing timelines, Laurie is as much an acclaimed staple of the genre as the immortal film she was born in.