Pop Culture

TV’s top 10 scariest characters

The scariest characters of fiction aren't limited to Stephen King novels or "Friday the 13th" sequels. They come out on the small screen as well, in both animated and human form, as children and the elderly, men and women.

Four MSNBC.com writers have compiled our list of the 10 scariest characters in TVland. We set some ground rules: They had to be fictional, so no reality TV villains. They had to be on a show that is still making new episodes, so no Archie Bunker or Schillinger from "Oz."

Here's our resulting list. You might want to read it with every light in the house blazing.

1. Charles Montgomery Burns, ‘The Simpsons’

His exact age is open for dispute. The wonderful notes that he is 81 in one episode and 104 in another. In another, it's mentioned that he graduated from Yale in 1914, which would make him ... just really darn old. (As if you couldn't tell from his preferred telephone greeting, "Ahoy hoy!")

Mr. Burns is the horrible boss we've all had at one time or another, times a billion. He cheats at games during the company picnic. He laughs when a window washer outside his office falls to his death. He dumps nuclear waste at a playground (but not anymore — "All those bald children are arousing suspicion.") Randomly looking to one-up the union, he eliminates the company dental plan. He even plans to block out the sun ("my greatest nemesis still provides our customers with free lights, heat and energy.") When he's shot, in a classic "Simpsons" cliffhanger that mimics "Who Shot J.R.?" on "Dallas," it's easy to believe that anyone could have done it.

Burns is terrifying because he will do absolutely anything, and since it's a cartoon, he just might. In the episode "Two Dozen and One Greyhounds," he gets his hands on the Simpsons' puppies, and a la Cruella DeVil, plans to make them into a tuxedo. ("See my loafers, former gophers, it was that, or skin my chauffeurs.")

It's easy to pretend he couldn't be real, but the very scariest part about Burns is that he almost could be. His sycophantic lackey, Smithers, is the yes-man to end all yes-men, yet we see similar relationships in our non-animated world every day. Just watch George and Carolyn falling all over themselves to congratulate Donald Trump on yet another inspired firing each week on Come to think of it, Trump's hair is looking a little greyhoundy lately.   —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

2. Eric Cartman, ‘South Park’

Comedy Central

He’s dressed up as a Klansman for Halloween, pretended to be the Tooth Fairy to steal teeth, and used a hand puppet to seduce Ben Affleck. Is he Satan? Karl Rove? Nope — he’s Eric Cartman, the demonic fourth-grader from “South Park,” a bundle of pure, unadulterated evil all wrapped up in a fat — er, big-boned — cartoony package.

South Park’s enfant terrible is terrifying not for what he’s done, but for what he is capable of. If there’s one kid who’s already purchased a one-way ticket to eternal damnation, it’s the plump little demon in the blue stocking cap. The boy simply ain’t right. And his two-dimensional existence allows creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to have Cartman act out whatever his demented little mind can dream up in a way that would have flesh-and-blood actors huddled in a corner, whimpering.

Cartman takes a feral delight in his evildoing. What happens when older student Scott Tenorman cons Cartman out of $20? Cartman sets up an elaborate scheme that ends with Tenorman happily eating chili — with his mother and father as the main ingredients. “Na na na na na na. I made you eat your parents,” Cartman excitedly taunts, then licks Scott’s face, cooing “Mmm...Your tears are so yummy and sweet."

“Dude, I think it might be best for us to never piss Cartman off again,” says a horrified Kyle. Good call.    —Brian Bellmont

3. Arvin Sloane, ‘Alias’

What do you call a guy who injects a serum into his daughter that turns her into a vessel for a long-dead prophet and almost kills her in the process? “Alias” viewers call him Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin), the duplicitous, murderous, nattily dressed villain whose heart rate never seems to blip above a soft hum.

Sloane’s single-minded pursuit of artifacts designed to unravel the prophecy of 15th-century seer Milo Rambaldi has been the thorn in the side of superspy Sydney Bristow since the show began. He’s her on-again, off-again boss, which makes for some chilly workplace banter. Oh, and there’s always the lingering suggestion that perhaps Sloane, her archenemy, is also her daddy. Eew.

Never was the character’s nefarious nature so apparent as when Joel Grey portrayed a man impersonating Sloane (dubbed, cleverly, “Arvin Clone”), playing the big baddie without the frustrating tease of humanity that Rifkin injects into the role. Without Rifkin’s confoundingly smooth, and yes, even likable persona, all that remained was 100 percent evil, reminding viewers of what lurked just beneath Sloane’s round glasses and closely-cropped hair.

Sloane’s worked for plenty of shady organizations over the years, from the we-say-we’re-a-part-of-the-CIA-but-we’re-secretly-working-against-it agency SD-6 to the terror-based Covenant to the now-we’re-really-a-part-of-the-CIA-we-swear agency APO.

He’s spent the last several episodes behind bars, ruminating about Rambaldi and accounting for his unconscionable misdeeds. But now he’s found a way to slither free by selling his soul to some mysterious benefactors with a shadowy agenda. That can’t be good for Sydney and the gang. But for viewers waiting for Sloane to get back to the business of being evil, it’s absolutely perfect.   —B.B.

4. John Locke, ‘Lost’

Mario Perez / ABC, INC.
In this undated publicity photo released by ABC, actor Terry O'Quinn appears in his role as Locke in the network's adventure drama "Lost." (AP Photo/ABC, Mario Perez) 2005 ABC, INC.

Everything and everyone on "Lost" is a little off-kilter, from the island's security system to Hurley's lucky/cursed numbers.  Heck, even the kids have strange powers to inspire a bit of fear. But ask any of the island's involuntary guests who they're the most afraid of, and John Locke's the one most likely to be named.

Not many would take him in a fight over Sawyer, or in a leadership competition with Jack, but he's the one who inspires fear because he's the one who seems best able to manipulate the island's strangeness to his advantage. Wheelchair-bound before the accident, the island has allowed him to walk freely again. He discovered the hatch, sees visions of the island's properties and possibilities, and probably caused Boone's death while exploring the wreckage of another plane.

Locke believes that all the passengers were brought to the island for a reason, that something about them made the island reel them in. But his mysterious persona leaves everyone wondering who can manipulate them more — the island itself, or the man who seems the most in tune with it.    —Craig Berman

5. T-Bag, ‘Prison Break’

More than a few of the "Prison Break" prisoners inside Fox River State Penitentiary have turned out to be nice guys, albeit ones with a rap sheet and abrasive personalities. At least, they come across as sympathetic on some level. But that's not the case with Theodore Bagwell, also known as T-Bag. (Yes, that's really his nickname.)

Fox
PRISON BREAK: Robert Knepper as T-Bag in PRISON BREAK, which has its special two-hour premiere Monday, Aug. 29 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) and will air in its regular time period beginning Monday, Sept. 5 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

He's in prison for rape, kidnapping, and first-degree murder, and during just eight episodes, he's managed to rape, kidnap, and kill inside the prison, so it's no surprise that he's in prison for life. T-Bag controls one of the prison gangs, and commands irretractable loyalty from his followers. He's also the one character who would not need to be rewritten if he was to transfer to HBO's "Oz," the gritty prison series that set a standard FOX will never be able to match as a broadcast network.

Ever since T-Bag's prison boyfriend was killed during a mini-riot, he's been out for Michael Scofield's blood. But now that he's discovered Michael's escape plan, he'll be an ally, or as close to an ally as one gets in prison. So far, their alliance isn't working well; despite the Scofield brothers' insistence that a prison guard hostage not be harmed, T-Bag tortured the man and then later stabbed him to death before throwing him over a railing.

Even the gentle, soulless way T-Bag talks is frightening. As he held a picture of the guard's teenage daughter, rubbed it against his face, and spoke of what he'd do to her, he established himself as one of the most horrifying, scary villains on television today.    —A.D.

6. Emily Gilmore, ‘Gilmore Girls’

On a recent episode of “Gilmore Girls,” Lorelai referred to her mother Emily (Kelly Bishop) as a scorpion who, even though she promised to refrain from stinging the frog carrying her across the river, skewered it anyway and they both drowned. Why? Because it was her nature. It’s tough to find a Mother’s Day card with that kind of sentiment on it, but it sums up with succinct melancholy the complex and emotionally wrenching relationship between two of the three Gilmore Girls. The sheer force of Emily’s Cruella DeVil-in-a-Chanel-pantsuit persona forced Lorelai out of the house when she got pregnant at 16, and the mother-daughter relationship has grown more fragile with age. And now Rory is getting a taste of grandma’s sharp-tongued wrath.

To say society dame Emily interferes in her daughter and granddaughter’s lives is akin to saying Hitler “interfered” with Poland. The elder Gilmore’s sins range from the relatively tiny — throwing her financial weight around to force the girls into a strict regimen of Friday-night dinners, to the extreme — scheming (successfully, in at least one case) to break up both Rory and Lorelai’s relationships. She is frightening not for the malevolence she so often exudes, but for the times when she softens her steely exterior and transforms into a legitimately likable woman. She soothes before she strikes. Smiling from ear to ear, Emily Gilmore will gut you from stem to sternum, and know exactly which Waterford shrimp fork to use in the process.     —B.B.

7. The monkey in Chris Griffin's closet, ‘Family Guy’

Children often spend sleepless nights staring at the abyss that is their darkened closet. What lurks behind that menacing closed door? For 13-year-old Chris Griffin, it's an evil monkey.

Behind his closet door, an actual monkey lives and repeatedly threatens to hurt Chris. Chris is "Family Guy"'s biggest moron, quite an accomplishment considering that his father, Peter, seems to have intelligence and common sense that's inversely proportionate to his mammoth size. Thus, when Chris tells his family, "There's an evil monkey in my closet!", no one believes him.

But the monkey is there. With a menacing glare and his mouth clenched to reveal sharp, pointed teeth, the monkey viciously points at Chris. It's perhaps the most threatening gesture in all of televised animation.

"Family Guy" has given us the monkey's backstory: He came home one day, excited about a promotion at work, only to find his wife in bed with another monkey, and at that moment, he became evil. But even our empathy can't dampen the horror that is just waiting to be unleashed.    —A.D.

8. Silvio Dante, ‘The Sopranos’

Hbo

The cliché would be to name Tony Soprano as the scariest character on the HBO series that bears his name, but let’s be honest — it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see danger ahead when you cross the guy who heads one of New Jersey’s leading fictional mob families. Tony's definitely a hands-on boss, so much so that anyone having something to hide would probably avoid getting into a car with him.

But Silvio? The guy from the Bada Bing who usually serves as the calming force to Tony and Christofuh’s anger-management issues? The guy played by Springsteen’s running mate in the E-Street Band?

Silvio is as dangerous as they come, because when his anger flames, it is swift, unexpected and terrible. Even when a potential victim wises up enough to be wary, Silvio steps forward and gets it done. Just ask Christopher’s fiancé who tattled to the FBI. Who did the Sopranos turn to in order to take her on that long, lonely one-way car ride? Good ol’ Silvio. And rest assured, anyone who saw the “Long-Term Parking” episode won’t ever view him as the calm guy from the Bada Bing again.    —C.B.

9. Mandy, ‘24’

During his stint at CTU, a counter-terrorism unit in Los Angeles, Jack Bauer has seen more than his share of villains. Many of them wind up dead or disarmed before each day ends on "24," but as Bauer himself would know, sometimes the really scary threats are the hardest to spot and the slipperiest to catch. Such as Mandy, the single-named threat to the United States that somehow manages to do her damage and slip away at the end of the day.

She might not be the one in charge of the nuclear football, or the woman who assassinated Jack's wife and daughter, but the damage she does in her casual manner is enough to cause any federal official some sleepless nights.

Pretty without being intimidating, she looks like she'd be carded at an R-rated movie. Yet she tormented CTU in season one, then offered a plague-infested handshake that nearly cost then-President Palmer his life in a did-you-see-THAT! moment that ended the show's second season.

Fox

As if that wasn't enough, she slipped into last season's nuclear-filled day of despair to wreak even more havoc. After casually shooting one of her friends in a nearby apartment, and blowing up two others in a decoy meant to throw off CTU's scent, she took Tony Almeida hostage and nearly killed him. Yet, once again, she managed to slip away, trading the vital information she possessed about the pending nuclear attack in exchange for her escape.

Other threats to Bauer may have been more intimidating, but as we approach the fifth season of the hit show, it's a safe bet that one of the biggest threats he'll face is the one who looks the least dangerous.    —C.B.

10. The entire supporting cast of ‘Desperate Housewives’

The housewives on often find themselves in desperate situations that lead them to react frantically or act irrationally. Each steps onto Wisteria Lane every morning with her own individual problems and issues. But what really makes them insane are the people in their lives. From their next-door neighbors to the PTA mothers, Susan, Bree, Lynette, and Gabrielle live with a bunch of psychopaths.

Consider the evidence: Lynette's children are little tornados, ripping through her house and her life (or at least they did until Tom took over their care). Bree's pharmacist-turned-fling-turned-love interest George Williams most likely poisoned her S&M-loving husband, and has managed to evade detection by preying on Bree with never-ending empathy.

Gabrielle's former love interest John can't seem to decide whose lawn he wants to mow — or destroy, as when he pointlessly revealed their affair to Gabrielle's husband Carlos. And Carlos' infantile selfishness led him to tamper with Gabrielle's birth control so she'd get pregnant.

There's also Zach Young, whose tortured childhood reached its apex when he held Susan hostage and pushed Felicia Tilman down the stairs after beating her up. And let's not forget that our narrator, Mary Alice, whose kind voice explains what's happening each week, stabbed the mother of her child in the stomach and chopped her into little pieces. If these were your neighbors, wouldn't you act just a little bit crazy?    —A.D.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor. Brian Bellmont is a writer in Minneapolis. Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C. Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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