Although superheroes came to dominate comic books with the arrivals of the Justice League and the Fantastic Four in the 1960s, horror comics were big business in the decade prior with publisher EC Comics leading the pack. Successful titles like The Vault of Horror also became a lightning rod in the decade’s juvenile delinquency scare. A Senate sub-committee was formed to determine of horror comics were poisoning the youth of America and rumblings of government intervention scared the comic book industry as a whole. DC Comics, Marvel, and Archie Comics (and a few other now-defunct publishers) forestalled any sort of regulation by agreeing to form their own self-censoring body, the Comics Code Authority. Though intended to ensure “wholesome” reading for youngsters, the CCA had a second, potentially more sinister purpose: preventing EC Comics from publishing horror comics. As EC publisher Bill Gaines put it in the documentary Comic Book Confidential, the CCA’s first act was to ban almost every word used in EC’s titles.
Of course, the code also meant DC, Marvel, and Archie would avoid horror elements in their comics as well. But this restriction became less of a concern for the CCA in the early 1970s (well after EC became known for Mad Magazine). Marvel quickly introduced Morbius this Living Vampire in the pages of Spider-Man and began publishing The Tomb of Dracula. The series introduced the prominent horror figure into its comic universe and marked the debut of the day-walking vampire hunter Blade. Soon, Ghost Rider and other horror-tinged characters appeared in the Marvel universe. Anticipating the code changes, DC revived House of Secrets as a horror title in 1969 and spun off its recurring Swamp Thing feature in 1972. These titles represented a marriage of horror and the superhero which continues to this day. They would also inspire the horror titles of the 1990s independent market which never faced the Comics Code Authority or its restrictions.
And as television continues to mine comics for inspiration, horror characters (and horror titles) are finally making their mark on networks and streaming services. Some lean into the graphic nastiness of horror conventions, while others go for more subtle terrors. But which are the most successful? Let’s take a look at the five scariest comic book characters to grace the screen so far and see how they bring elements of horror to the comic book show subgenre.
Burning an indelible impression into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s fourth season, Ghost Rider (Gabriel Luna) first appeared to Daisy (Chloe Bennet) as Robbie Reyes, a kid with car and a sense of justice. But when she pressed the issue of his apparent vigilantism, she met the Rider. Bursting forth from Robbie’s skull, the character had an aspect body horror about him. Later, viewers grasped the real terror as Robbie slowly let Daisy and Coulson (Clark Gregg) know the truth: the previous Rider – who may or may not have been Johnny Blaze – saved Robbie from a car wreck and passed the Rider onto him. Once bonded, the Spirit of Vengeance learned the accident was meant as a reprisal against Robbie’s uncle Eli (José Zuñiga), a would-be crime lord attempting to use the mystical Darkhold to further his plans. The Rider and Robbie formed an uneasy alliance as they became protectors of East L.A. Nonetheless, the Rider’s interest in serving vengeance on Eli meant their partnership was always uneasy.
Subsequent terrors included the Rider’s possession of Mack (Henry Simmons), the moment he finally dragged Eli to Hell, and his haunting deal with Coulson.
The basic horror element here is, of course, demonic possession. And while more gruesome and graphic scenes were downplayed (this is still ABC after all), the terror of the Rider comes not just from his look, but from the way people feel when he inhabits them and the last traumatic effects. The series played him properly as supernatural force even the seasoned S.H.I.E.L.D. agents found terrifying.
How can we have a list of the scariest comic book characters on television without mentioning the Walkers of AMC’s various Walking Dead programs. Even if none of the shows use the word, they still trade in the existential horror of zombies — the notion that your body will be absorbed into some mindless mass of flesh after you die. Beyond that, zombie fiction also comes with a healthy dose of claustrophobia and the absolute terror of potential killing your own loved-ones once they turned. Also, because everyone in The Walking Dead world is a bad day from becoming a Walker, death takes on a second, awful meaning.
But beyond the intellectual horrors of the zombie concept, the Walkers are incredible special effects. For the last decade, Greg Nicotero and his KNB EFX Group have done amazing things on television budgets and schedules to make Walkers ooze, crawl, drip, and gross out viewers. Sure, the Walkers are often just a mass of bodies swarming encampments – and, to be fair, that mass is terrifying – but the featured Walkers realized by KNB will remind viewers just how discussing and terrible zombification would be.
The most recent entry on the list takes some of its cues from the Walkers, but offers the classic image of the zombie a superhero upgrade thanks to dark matter and some occasionally dodgy CGI. Debuting in last week’s episode of The Flash, but getting a proper workout this week, the corpses controlled by Ramsey Rosso (Sendhil Ramamurthy) represent a dose of genuine horror movie tropes in the generally bright world of The Flash.
Now changed by his strange dark-matter-and-blood substance, Rosso needs to feed on the living to maintain his existence – shades of a vampire there – but must first generate intense fear in them for the blood infusion to be effective. And if those ideas weren’t terrifying enough, he can also control the bodies of his victims in a manner reminiscent of the Walkers before they eventually dissolve into more of that blood-like ooze.
The effects work may not be up to par with The Walking Dead, but the ideas are effective and the “blood brothers” oozy ends are particularly gross.
Rosso and his blood-kin also represent a new kind of horror – the sort which occurs when your work starts owning you. Rosso is so driven to cure his HLH that he is willing to sacrifice his own humanity – and the humanity of those he meets – to do it. Oh, and one supposes there is an element of egotism there, as well. Call it a critique of late-stage capitalism or the dangers of an out-of-whack work/life balance, but the results are pretty consistent with the sort of themes one finds under the decaying flesh of a zombie.
And considering how humdrum the last few Flash villains have been, a horror-tinged adversary like Rosso is a welcome change.
One of the great disappointments of DC Universe’s decision to cancel Swamp Thing after one year was that we only had one quick scene with Jason Woodrue (Kevin Durand) as the monstrous Floronic Man. It is a great scene in which Matt Cable (Henderson Wade) walks into the Marais Sherriff’s HQ and discovers all his coworkers dead. The power is out, the shadows are deep, and when Matt can make out distinct images, they are of persistent vegetation. Then he comes upon the Floronic Man, now seemingly driven mad from becoming a plant-based lifeform. The two exchange brief words, but the creature knows what it wants to do – kill anyone it encounters.
This post-credit scene is a marvel, but it represent the culmination of the work Durand put into the previous ten episodes of the series establishing Woodrue as one of its great slow-burn menaces. And considering the show’s titular hero is himself a body-slashing figure of horror himself, that is saying something.
Invited to Marais by local businessman Avery Sunderland (Will Patton) to investigate why the local swamp is having a bad reaction to his special “accelerant,” Woodrue appears as a man more invested in plants than people. The notable exception: his ailing wife Carolyn (Selena Anduze), who has a form of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Woodrue hopes to find a cure for her in the swamp and its reaction to his formula, but his offbeat personality changes into something menacing once he chances a look at Abby Arcane’s (Crystal Reed) sample of Swamp Thing’s (Derek Mears) plant matter. Soon it grows into an obsession and leads him to a place where he is willing to use his wife as a lab rat to prove he can save her.
The terror here is, of course, that of a spouse gone wrong. And while it might be on a more operatic scale, the final moments of Woodrue and Carolyn’s relationship could just as easily be a more naturalistic episode of domestic violence. But since this is Swamp Thing, the ideas are heightened and Durand’s performance, already on the edge from the moment he first appears on screen, explodes into something altogether horrifying.
While some of Barry Allen’s (Grant Gustin) other Speedster rogues may lean into more obvious horror clichés – Zoom, for one, would be at home in a film in which he slaughters camp counselors by the score – the original Reverse-Flash (Tom Cavanagh) consistently pulled off being the scariest character on comic book television in 2014 and 2015 while wearing a yellow suit.
Thanks to his blurred face, crackling red eyes, and his mastery of speed, the character exuded menace and generated terror whenever he zipped into the frame. And to that Cavanagh’s stellar performance (both with and without vocal distortion), he continues to be the benchmark of villainy on that show. Consider his appearance during the 100th episode, in which he generated a season’s worth of chills in just three short scenes and out of costume.
But in form of the Reverse-Flash, he is a sight to behold. A vision of terror fused with the generally heroic aspects of The Flash’s own design. The success of that vision made Barry’s own go at being a nightmare of himself — the time remnant known as Savitar — far less successful. Of course, it also proves more is less as the simple methods and motives of the Reverse-Flash still successful engage audiences when villains like The Thinker and Savitar fail to impress.
His form of terror may not be as universal as demons or zombies. Indeed, it is very personal to Barry and, oddly enough, Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes). But it nevertheless manages to inspire some nightmares for viewers of The Flash. He is that relentless thing looking to tear down your accomplishments and undermine everything you aspire to be and a form of depression personified — with violence, calculation, and Cavanagh’s voice.
Which characters do you think are the scariest that have jumped from comic books to television? Tell us in the comments!