Family is everything, for better or worse. The blood of friendship might be thicker than the water of the womb, but for these horror families, blood is the fundamental tie that binds them. Horror has historically reflected the contemporaneous fears of society, with early New French Extremity reflecting extreme violence in an enduringly unstable world, while American horror of the 1950s reflected the United States' insecurity in an ever-changing geopolitical landscape. Family remains as consistent as ever, the principal factor that shapes someone into either the best or worst version of themselves.
Horror families especially prioritize the worst. There might well be an entire horror subgenre of messed up families, the kind that encourages each member's worst impulses. Here, we'll be looking at 12 of the most terrifying horror movie families. These are the gaggles of kin that should reasonably send any audience member running for the hills. Home is where you are loved, and home might also be where you are killed.
The Tethered Wilson Family
While Jordan Peele's "Us" might not have been quite as subversive as either its Oscar-winning predecessor, "Get Out," or the wickedly effective "Nope," it nonetheless retains Peele's distinct horror charm, a movie as brutally terrifying as it is outrageously funny. Here, Lupita Nyong'o's (in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance) Adelaide Wilson goes on vacation with her family to the beach. She remains scarred by a doppelgänger encounter in her youth, and resultantly spends most of the trip drowning in anxiety, unable to shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
And something terrible does happen. Adelaide's family is invaded by a family of doppelgängers, all of whom resemble her and her family. These doppelgängers are known as the tethered, underground doubles for every living person, persons with whom they share a soul. While their earthly counterparts have prospered, they have inequitably suffered underground, and they're finally looking to free themselves from their shackles. Outrageously sympathetic, the tethered — especially the tethered Wilsons — are nonetheless terrifying. They're primal in their commitment to one another and no-holds-barred in their exhibitions of violence. They're just as poised to break hearts as they are to inspire dreadful, deep existential fear.
The Voorhees Family
Just ask Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) in "Scream." Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) is the original killer in "Friday the 13th." While the Voorhees family might not be as prolific as some other horror families (at least until the family tree expands considerably in "Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday"), they don't need to be, especially since both mother and son are lean, mean, 1980s killing machines.
For the uninitiated, Pamela Voorhees inaugurated the killing spree after her son, Jason, drowned at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. 20 years later, she returns to slaughter the counselors responsible for reopening the camp after two decades of it being shuttered. Though Adrienne King's Alice ends Pamela's rampage, she's quickly offed in the sequel once the man himself, Jason Voorhees, returns to finish what his mother started. With considerably more thematic heft to its twisted mother/son relationship, "Friday the 13th" terrifies as both a straight slasher and a warning to be wary of mothers who are just a little too protective of their sons.
The Le Domas Family
Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, two members of the Radio Silence trio of filmmakers, cemented their names in horror history with the release of 2019's "Ready or Not." They'd later parlay that success into the long-gestating "Scream" reboot three years later, though nothing tops the inventive savagery of their wedding-from-hell shockers. An effervescent and indomitable Samara Weaving has just married Alex Le Domas (Mark O'Brien), the youngest son in the Le Domas family dynasty. Their fortune is predicated on games, and as per their tradition, Weaving's Grace is asked to randomly draw a game card for their puzzle box, something they do every time a new member is added to the family. The Le Domas family remarks it being core to the preservation of their wealth, though Grace simply thinks that some fun hocus pocus, at least until she draws hide-and-seek.
Alex reveals to Grace that their family is cursed, and should any new member draw that card, the Le Domas clan must hunt her down and sacrifice her, lest they all die in the morning. Resultantly, the family, alongside some overeager workers, seeks Grace out as she hides, fights, and tries to simply survive the night. Imagine marrying into a family as ridiculously wealthy as this one, only to find that their wealth is predicated on your death. At least Grace, by dint of Disney's acquisition of 20th Century Fox, technically counts as a Disney princess.
The Ayres Family
The Ayres family from Lenny Abrahamson's "The Little Stranger," adapted from the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, might at first appear to be the least terrifying family on this list. Make no mistake, though, their circumstances are grim. Once enviably wealthy, the family and estate — the gloriously named Hundreds Hall — have fallen considerably, literal ghosts of their former selves. Domhnall Gleeson's Dr. Faraday is first summoned to treat an ill nurse, one who feigns being sick to avoid the creeping, gothic terror of the hall. Recounting his time spent there in his youth, Dr. Faraday both covets and remains fascinated by the remnants of the Ayres family. Thus, he slowly begins to ingratiate himself into their lives.
A ghost story without any actual ghosts, the haunting quality of "The Little Stranger" exists on the periphery. It happens in locked rooms, quiet corridors, and fog-ridden woodlands. The Ayres, the movie soon reveals, consider themselves cursed, and one by one, they fall victim to terrible deaths. While it is never definitively confirmed whether these deaths are mere accidents or the result of something supernatural, there's something deeply sinister rooted in their lineage. Beyond the immediate family, the Ayres are simply cursed, hurting any and all who they come across. It's a more internal kind of terror, though it remains wickedly, chillingly effective.
The Firefly Family
Led by the distinctly not-huggable Captain Spaulding, the Firefly clan is arguably Rob Zombie's single most important contribution to the horror genre. Love or hate him and his film output, there's no denying Zombie possesses a singular vision for horror. That kind of backwoods, begrimed horror is certainly polarizing, but it remains representative of Zombie's vision through and through. The Firefly family best conceptualizes Zombie's distinct brand of horror, a clan of violent serial killers who terrorized Texas in the 1970s.
Adopting their names from characters portrayed by Groucho Marx, the clan principally includes Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding, Bill Moseley's Otis Driftwood, and the omnipresent Sheri Moon Zombie as Baby. In "The Devil's Rejects," it's suggested the family is responsible for over 75 different killings, likely more, and as the core trio outruns the law, they rack up more bodies along the way. While they were ostensibly killed at the conclusion of that film, they returned years later in "3 From Hell," a lesser outing that, at the very least, solidifies the terrifying savagery of Zombie's creation.
The Jupiter Family
The Jupiters are distinct, like the tethered, insofar as they're as monstrous as they are heartbreaking. In Wes Craven's original, the genesis of the Jupiter family is more conventional, though, with his savage 2006 remake, Alexandre Aja added considerable political gravitas, suggesting the family's origins as the result of nuclear tests in the desert. Papa Jupiter (Billy Drago) has been living there for years, cannibalizing any unfortunate passerby who stumbles into his domain. Here, it's the Carter family, traveling from Cleveland to San Diego as they take a terribly misguided shortcut through the desert. When they stumble upon the Jupiter clan, it's no-holds-barred mayhem.
Popular among fans for amping up the gore quotient considerably, "The Hills Have Eyes" is nonetheless more than just buckets of blood. There is genuine pathos on display, a compelling dramatic tension as two disparate families fight for their survival, neither quite recognizing that, in truth, they're one in the same. They're protecting kin, property, and livelihood, and while audience identification is always going to lean toward the Carters, it's hard not to see the desert-dwelling mutants as victims in their own right. Mostly. That climactic RV scene does make any sympathy a little hard to bear.
The Stewart Family
Alejandro Amenábar's "The Others" has one of the most effective plot twists in horror history. While it certainly followed the thematic success of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" two years earlier — and has since been aped to death in the genre — there's no denying just how heartbreaking it was to see the full breadth of Amenábar's horror opus unfurl more than two decades ago. As Nicole Kidman's Grace Stewart is assailed by ghosts in her rural Jersey manor, the audience soon discovers that she and her photosensitive kids are themselves the ghosts, lingering in the halls of the house long after their deaths.
Kidman especially is brilliant, striking the perfect balance between maternal devotion and frightening ferocity. That she and her children are dead on account of her, as grief compelled her to take their lives, makes it all the more terrifying. Worse still, after all is said and done and the current inhabitants are driven away, Grace and her family are forced to stick around, simply waiting for others to purchase the property. Like the Ayres family, it's a distinct kind of terror, one imbued with tragedy, heartbreak, and existential, enduring suffering.
The Sawyer Family
Arguably one of the most famous families in horror history, the Sawyers of Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" are notable for standing neck and neck with franchise stalwart Leatherface. While Leatherface himself is obviously the face of the ongoing slasher franchise, even getting a self-titled prequel from directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, his family has remained no less omnipresent, with both Marcus Nispel's remake and Jonathan Liebesman's prequel amounting to Sawyer family fright fests.
While their mythology shifts with distinct canonical timelines — in "Texas Chainsaw 3D," they're all but wiped out — a few key characteristics remain across the franchise. They're homicidal, they're cannibals, and they used to butcher cows. When the plant dried up, they shifted toward human meat. Marilyn Burns' Sally Hardesty first encounters them during a terrifying dinner scene at the Sawyer family house, and though she successfully managed to escape, the Sawyers, and their home, remain a staple of horror iconography. It's a decaying, rural abode, a gothic structure signifying one of the genre's scariest families.
The White Family
If you're a student at Bates High School in Bryan De Palma's 1976 Stephen King adaptation "Carrie," you'd probably think Carrie White is the scariest student of all. A social outcast with burgeoning telekinetic abilities, it's probably best not to mess with her. As a foundational piece of horror literature, one that remains ever-so-shocking to this day, it's principally a cautionary tale. Don't let religious extremism take root, and most definitely don't pick on the quiet girl.
Among the Whites, it's Piper Laurie's Margaret (in an Oscar-nominated turn) who remains the most terrifying. Convinced that Carrie's (Sissy Spacek, also nominated) young womanhood is sin incarnate, she tortures and abuses Carrie, convincing her that no one could ever love her lest she atones for all her nonexistent sins. The capstone, of course, is Carrie's prom massacre. After a prank, she slaughters several of her classmates, only to return home and kill her own mother as the house collapses in around them. It's one of the genre's bleakest endings, fitting for a movie that spent so much time with one of the most miserable and heartbreaking families the genre has ever seen.
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The Koffin Family
Both Charles Kaufman's "Mother's Day" and Darren Lynn Bousman's reboot have the exact same thing to say: don't mess with this particular family. While the Koffin surname is only introduced in the remake, both roughly follow the same core idea. Some young men and their deranged mother target a hapless group of people. In Kaufman's original, the conceit is much grimier, incorporating exploitative elements of sexual violence and extreme gore. Bousman's remake adds some narrative spice about a lost home and stolen money, though it retains the cruel savagery of the original (though with a glossy, modern veneer).
Both are worthwhile in their own rights, with the original being a stellar template of the burgeoning slasher genre, and the remake being exactly what a remake should be — an improvement on an unsung gem. Additionally, both prove that this particular family isn't one to mess with. While sweet on the surface (especially Rebecca De Mornay's rendition of the titular mother), they're a sinister bunch, terrorizing anyone unfortunate to get in the way of their twisted, violent family.
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The Markos Dance Academy
It wouldn't be a proper list of horror families if it didn't include a little found family inclusion. While the women of the Markos Dance Academy aren't bound by blood, they are bound by their commitment to the Three Mothers (one of the few holdovers from Dario Argento's original). Here, Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum reign supreme, though especially Mother Suspiriorum, for whom Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton in one of several roles) is allegedly the most devoted of followers.
The coven at the academy kills errant students, performs rituals, and even democratically elects new leaders. Of course, there is dissension among the ranks, and for as dangerous as they are to the students (especially Elena Fokina's Olga Ivanova), they're no less dangerous to one another. As the dense running time comes to a close, director Luca Guadagnino unleashes a tempest of betrayal and geysers of blood. It's as perfect a horror ending as any, proof positive that even witches have petty grievances to iron out. It just takes a little communication, that's all.
The Bates Family
And, of course, no list would be complete without horror's premier family — the Bates. Immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" and adapted from Robert Bloch's novel of the same name (for a fun bit of Hollywood trivia, check out Bloch's experience with "Psycho II"), the saga of Norman Bates and his deceased mother has proved ample ground for slasher films in general. Hitchcock — alongside Michael Powel ("Peeping Tom") — all but invented the slasher subgenre. Janet Leigh's Marion Crane absconded with some cash, arrived at the Bates Motel, and, well, the rest is truly history.
Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates, despite some troubling psychology, remains one of the genre's finest villains, with Perkins himself reprising the role in several long-delayed sequels, including the excellent aforementioned "Psycho II." Even Norma Bates got her due in A&E's "Bates Motel." Portrayed by Vera Farmiga, the contemporary origins of Norman and his mother are explored to fantastic, terrifying effect. Long live the Bates. With "Psycho," Hitchcock truly proved "a boy's best friend is his mother."
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