15 of the Scariest Villainesses in Literature

In the world of horror, there's nothing quite as eerie as a really good female villain. She may masquerade as the subservient wife, the selfless mother, or the well-behaved daughter, but there are cracks in her facade, and when the clock strikes midnight, she strikes, too. Often, the creepiest villainesses in literature embody some sort of twisted femininity, like the child bride gone dark, the virginal girl turned ghost, or the mother who kills her own child. Sometimes, she's a man's worst nightmare — a seductive force who's out for blood. Sometimes she's just a cold-blooded killer, or a freak who's clinging to the past, or someone whose obsessions have simply run away from her.

It's hard to say exactly what makes the best characters scary, because it varies so wildly. Some are terrifying because of their utter heartlessness, while others are terrifying because they pretend to care. It's always creepy when little girls or sweet-faced brides show off their dark side, but on the other end of the spectrum, the woman who lives alone in the woods and reads too many romance novels can also be awfully disturbing, too. These characters are dark, nuanced, and eternally creepy. Thank your lucky stars they only show up in books...

Worst wife: Cathy Ames, East of Eden

Cathy Ames is the sociopathic embodiment of everything you hope your children will stay far, far away from. She's an emotionless manipulation machine, and does everything with cold calculation, including killing her parents, abandoning her children, and shooting her husband. She's beautiful, except for her eyes, which are "not human eyes."

Worst professor: Professor Umbridge, Harry Potter

This sadistic teacher disguises her cruelty under oily smiles, fake cheerfulness, and a wardrobe saturated in pink. She's especially terrifying because she has the power of bureaucracy behind her; she's obsessed with creating and enforcing rules, even when it involves physical violence to students. In one of her most memorable scenes, she forces Harry Potter to write lines in his own blood.

Worst housekeeper: Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca

This horrifying housekeeper is faithful to her first mistress unto death — and beyond. When her master brings a new wife home, Mrs. Danvers can't stand this seeming betrayal of the first wife, and plays evil tricks on the new woman, eventually burning the house down in an attempt to consummate the new marriage by fire.

Worst wannabe queen: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth

She pushes her weaker husband to kill the king, and when he won't do it, she does it herself, mocking him all the way to the bloodbath. She's a terrifying force of female power, praying to the gods to turn the milk from her breasts into poison, so she can better enact her horrifying deeds. She eventually goes mad, and her final days are spent scrubbing the imaginary blood of the king off her hands.

Worst superfan: Annie Wilkes, Misery

Every author wants a fan like Annie Wilkes, who reads every book and hangs on every word and imprisons the writer in her creepy home and begins to torture him beyond all reason, right?

Worst nurse: Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Like Professor Umbridge, this character is particularly terrifying and infuriating because she's backed by the Establishment, and there's nothing you can do about her power. She drives one patient to suicide, is obsessed with vengeance, and orders a lobotomy that she knows is unnecessary.

Worst witch-hunter: Abigail, The Crucible

17-year-old Abigail is a prime example of using power and hysteria and misinformation for evil. She takes advantage of a paranoid town to accuse multiple innocent people of witchcraft, all in a sick attempt to win one man's love — resulting in that man's death.

Worst femme fatale: Cora, The Postman Always Rings Twice

Cora is involved in a classic kill-your-husband-to-be-with-your-lover plot, but her first attempt goes wrong, and ends up giving her husband retrograde amnesia. The second time she tries to kill him, she succeeds, but it's messy, and the whole lover thing doesn't quite work out for her, either.

Worst mom: Norma Bates, Psycho

For a character who never actually appears on the pages of a the novel, Norma Bates sure gets her point across. After a lifetime spent abusing and manipulating her son into believing all women are evil sluts except for her, her son murders her — but Norma's not done with him yet. In fact, she'll be with him forever and ever.

Worst stepmother: The evil queen, Snow White

Grimm's fairytales are sprinkled with awful stepmothers, but it's hard to compete against this queen, who hired a huntsman to cut out her stepdaughter's heart — and that's only the first murder attempt.

Worst religious fanatic: Margaret White, Carrie

In a prime example of religion gone wrong, Carrie's mother, Margaret White, was both physically and psychologically abusive of her young daughter, locking her in a closet to force her to pray, telling her that her period was a sign of sexual impurity, and generally driving Carrie, to, well, murder everyone.

Worst overall creeper: Corrinne Dollanganger, Flowers in the Attic

Where to start? Creepy Ms. Corrine marries her half-uncle, and when he dies, forces their four children to live in an attic for years, so that her father — her husband's brother — doesn't find out about their existence. While the children are stuck in the attic, Corrine allows their grandmother to abuse them, visits them less and less, poisons them with arsenic-laced doughnuts, and ends up leaving them altogether, as the children grow weak, malnourished, and incestuous.

Worst daughter: Veda Pierce, Mildred Pierce

Veda is a rude, pretentious, ungrateful daughter who profits from her mother's money while mocking anyone who has to work for a living. When Veda becomes famous and successful, she ends up seducing her stepfather, which sends her mother into a murderous rage.

Worst principal: The Trunchbull, Matilda

This nightmare teacher despises little kids and takes out her rage by using them for shot-put practice, force-feeding them cake, locking them up, and plenty of other atrocities. “I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting,” she muses. “They are the bane of my life. They are like insects. They should be got rid of as early as possible.”

Worst little kid: Rhoda, The Bad Seed

Well, she's the granddaughter of a serial killer and murders her classmate, her dog, a neighbor, and a maintenance man. Any questions?

Images: Universal Pictures (3); Warner Bros (3); United Artists (2); Columbia (2); 20th Century Fox; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Paramount Pictures; Lifetime; HBO; TriStar Pictures