Whether you root unabashedly for villainous characters or just love to hate them, most of us admit that antagonists have fascinating back stories. Some of our most compelling villains got that way because of childhood trauma, abuse, crushing disappointment, or a perceived injustice they just couldn’t get over. Let’s face it—villains often have more interesting and sordid formative years than heroes do. That’s why we compiled a list of the greatest villains who went bad because of events they suffered early in life. This list will include characters who acted out, killed, tortured, or hurt others intentionally, joined (or founded) evil organizations, and otherwise went out of their way to be jerks to people who couldn’t defend themselves. Some were dealt hard blows as children, others as teens, and a few as young adults. What they all have in common, though, is that they did bad, bad things.
Here are The 20 Worst Villains Created By Childhood Trauma.
20. Jason Voorhees
Jason Voorhees is a character so vivid and iconic that he needs no real introduction. Voorhees began life with a facial deformity and probably some kind of mental retardation. In the 1960s, it was considered highly unfortunate for a child to have a working mother. Pamela Voorhees was the cook at Camp Crystal Lake, and little Jason hung out at the camp more often than not. A moment of inattention by two amorous counselors led to the drowning death of this poor, hideous child. Pamela, who was probably a little nuts already, went reverse-Psycho on a group of camp counselors only to get decapitated by the “final girl.”
But hold it, the death Pamela avenged was a fake, because somehow her son had been alive the whole time—just waiting to spring out and tip over unsuspecting canoes. Wait, what? The story doesn’t bear close examination, but the facts remain. His deformity, drowning death, time alone in the woods, and seeing his mother literally lose her head made Jason a lifelong killer. If you want to learn how he became practically immortal—you’ll have to watch the films.
19. Mickey and Mallory Knox
Oliver Stone’s modern classic, Natural Born Killers, is heady satire about the role media plays in our culture, and the way we mythologize people who do terrible things. Mickey and Mallory Knox both had abysmal childhoods and were damaged way before they met. Mickey endured violent, alcoholic parents—one or both of whom might have been killers themselves. Mallory was subjected to a violent rapist for a father, and a docile mother who did nothing to help her. With that in mind, it should surprise no one that Mallory’s parents were the first to die in the Knoxs’ rage-fuelled killing spree. One could argue that Mickey and Mallory never stood a chance at a decent, law-abiding life. But we could just as easily assert that, once they found each other, this pair could have found their own happiness while turning over a new leaf. Sure, we root for these anti-heroes against crooked cops, grabby detectives, or a plotting Tommy Lee Jones. But we can’t deny that these two made their own bed, and must eventually lie in it.
18. Mystique / Raven Darkholme
Raven Darkholme is one of the most iconic and fascinating women in all of comics. She’s been one of the X-Men, a member and leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, and is a world-class assassin. She can also change her appearance and voice to imitate anyone. Yes, anyone. So what made the woman eventually known as Mystique go bad? For starters, she was abandoned as a child because she was a mutant at a time when no one knew what mutants were. Growing up with Charles Xavier was probably fine… until he incessantly required her to hide her true self from the public eye. Who wouldn’t prefer to hang out with angry, brash, forthright Erik Lehnsherr (AKA Magneto) who encourages authenticity at all times? Raven’s hatred for those who would subdue or harm mutants is well-known, and well-earned. Is there any phrase more terrifying than “captured and experimented on”? Given everything Mystique endured, it makes perfect sense that she would vacillate between the righteous and the murderous.
Fans of Disney villains know Maleficent as one of the most evil and sadistic of the lot. Like many female Disney antagonists, Maleficent uses magic to force her evil will on anyone who dares slight her. She’s got some real hang-ups about her place in the community. That’s why she overreacts to overlooked invitations and the like. We learn in the film Maleficent that as a young fairy, the title character was robbed and mutilated by someone she trusted. When that horrible someone became King Stephan, Maleficent enacted a curse that would take from him the thing he loved best in the world. Who can blame her? Stephan was in serious need of an attitude adjustment. Maleficent also deserved to get her wings back. In many ways, Maleficent is to Sleeping Beauty what Ever After is to Cinderella. It’s not the story you’ve heard, but it makes a whole lot more sense than what those Brothers Grimm would have us believe.
16. The Penguin
In the world of superheroes and supervillains, being born with a disfigurement of any kind is a slippery slope. You run the risk of being abandoned by your parents, shunned by peers, rejected by society, and by potential romantic partners. All these things and more happened to young Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot as portrayed by Danny DeVito in Batman Returns. Growing up alone in the sewers put the future mayor in a rotten humor, and seems to have impacted his people skills to a terrifying degree. Constant rejection, especially by parents, has been shown to lead to anti-social behavior, a failure to develop empathy, and a propensity toward unrestrained anger. Yikes! But right on par for a Batman villain.
Comic books have shown Penguin being raised by his mother, getting an ornithology degree, and eventually joining a local mafia gang. This is more similar to The Penguin as portrayed by the excellent Robin Lord Taylor on Gotham. Regardless of whether your fave Penguin is Danny DeVito, Robin Lord Taylor, or Burgess Meredith, The Penguin is always deeply damaged and highly deadly.
15. Blanche Hudson
The film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is a beloved classic thriller and has been touted as one of Bette Davis’s finest performances. She and Joan Crawford tear up the screen as Jane and Blanche Hudson. Jane, a vaudeville star as a child, and Blanche, a legit movie star as an adult, are now old and running out of money. Blanche’s injury in a car accident leaves her at the mercy of her mentally unstable sister. Jane’s tormenting of Blanche makes this film a terrifying classic. But it turns out that the real villain is actually wheelchair-bound Blanche. Blanche never got over her childhood jealousies of Jane, and spend her entire career making sure Jane was never taken seriously as an adult.
In the final scenes of the film (spoiler alert: but c’mon, you’ve had 50+ years to see it) we learn that Blanche caused the car accident that crippled her, and let everyone think it was Jane. Some sister, right? Blanche’s inability to let go of childhood hurts leads to her early death.
14. Severus Snape
Many fans of the Harry Potter series consider Severus Snape to be a hero. Sure, he works as a spy for the Order of the Phoenix and died to save that little jerk Draco Malfoy. We finally learn that he was in love with Lily Evans (Harry’s mom) and that’s why he hated Harry’s father so much. Though in fairness, both James and Sirius were awful to young Sev. Snape never got over his childhood crush, and it made him a serious jerk as an adult. He spent his life moping around about the girl who didn’t want him, later making it a point to torture and humiliate any children remotely connected to the events that took Lily’s life. Good story, until you remember that Snape didn’t care at all if James and Harry died so long as Lily was safe. Gross. Is Snape a hero for not taking “No” for an answer? Should we pity the guy who lost a friend because he called her a racial slur? No and hells no! Yeah, Snape had a tough life, and it turned him bad.
13. Grant Ward
Another guy who was probably doomed from the start, Grant Ward suffered at the hands of disinterested parents and a sadistic older brother. After years of torment, Grant was sent to kid-jail for trying to burn down his parent’s house. It’s possible that juvenile hall might have straightened him out, but not likely. Instead, Grant was recruited by SHIELD Agent John Garrett. Unfortunately, Garrett was also an Agent of HYDRA. Ward went from abused kid, to junior criminal, to being trained for use as a weapon by Garrett—who turns out to be a pretty terrible person in his own right. Does a terrible childhood negate responsibility for betraying Coulson and the team? Or killing Eric Koenig? Or for what he did to FitzSimmons? No, but if not for Garrett’s influence, Coulson might have made an honest man of Ward. As portrayed on Agents of SHIELD, Ward was often conflicted about his villainy, his loyalties, and his feelings for different members of the team. In the end though, he chose the safest option. For him, that was evil.
12. Carrie White
Is Carrietta White actually a villain? Or is she just a victim who ended up doing terrible things that may have been outside her control? We know that the protagonist from the novel & movie Carrie was born in the midst of a meteor shower. Her father ran away with a woman, and her mother thought everything from the color red, to having breasts, to sex within the confines of marriage was terribly sinful. Ditto talking to boys, getting your period, and generally doing anything that isn’t praying, sleeping, or preparing to pray. Carrie was subjected to religious abuse at home and severe bullying at school until she finally just lost it. This is a familiar story, except in this case the trod-upon anti-heroine happens to have telekinetic powers. And that’s how John Travolta and the Greatest American Hero himself ended up dead on prom night. Okay, Carrie probably did kill a few people who didn’t directly deserve it. But can we really blame her?
11. Darth Vader / Anakin Skywalker
Nerds of a certain age saw the first Star Wars trilogy as young kids. Most watched it a zillion or so times before the second trilogy dropped. We spent decades of knowing Darth Vader was an evil, hand-chopping villain ruined by his embrace of the Dark Side of The Force. Imagine our surprise when we learned that little Ani was a cute kid who we all wanted to see win the pod race. His mother was a slave, so technically he was born a slave too. Anakin Starkiller—excuse us, Skywalker—was an undisciplined, impatient whiner. Sadly, that’s exactly the kind of person who tends to go over to the Dark Side. How does a cute little child-mechanic go from being crazy adorable to plain old crazy? I mean, murdering-Padawans-crazy? Seeing the future, as Anakin does, is bound to take a toll. Knowing your beloved will die long before she does? That’s got to be worse. Vader was responsible for thousands and thousands of deaths, but he also built C-3PO. That’s something at least.
10. Petunia Dursley
There are so many unsavory characters in the world of Harry Potter. In addition to Voldemort himself, there’s Snape, Karkarov, the Malfoys, Delores Umbridge, Barty Crouch Jr, Bellatrix We meet an adult Petunia, the older sister of Lily Potter, who gives every indication of hating magic and all who practice it. But readers know that as a child, Petunia wrote to Albus Dumbledore asking if she could please, please come to Hogwarts with her sister. Petunia being a magicless muggle, Dumbledore had no choice but to politely refuse her. So when her sister died and Petunia and her terrible husband took Harry in, they had no choice but to treat him like a servant and make him live in a closet. Right? C’mon. Petunia was a grown woman raising two children, but still angry and pouting about something she was denied when she was twelve. Petunia is a ghastly woman who never got over being told “no”, which is probably why she never bothered to say it to her son.
9. Magneto / Erik Lehnsherr
According to X-Men: First Class, young Erik Lehnsherr was a Jewish lad (played by one of the most German-looking actors in Hollywood) whose family was captured by the Nazis. That’s already terrible. But when we see his mother murdered in front of him, we know that Erik is destined to grow up angry. Even after avenging his mother and making friends with Charles Xavier, Lehnsherr is consistently disgusted with the prejudice and fear-based hate he sees in the world. Slowly, Erik and Charles become polarized and polarizing—and it’s impossible not to notice that they’re modeled after Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Magneto isn’t wrong when he says mutants need to stand together against the humans that would catalog, experiment on, and devalue them. If only he could do it without causing so damn much destruction. Magneto could become one of the good guys if he wants to. Sometimes, he almost does.
8. Cersei Lannister
How awful could a childhood in the wealthiest family in Westeros possibly have been? If you ask Cersei, it was sheer misery. Born as one half of a set of twins, nearly identical despite being different genders, Cersei fumed as her brother was taught to read and fight while she was taught music and sewing. Have we ever heard Cersei sing or seen her sew? When Tyrion was born and their mother died, hate began to build in the female Lannister child. As her life became more difficult and seemingly unfair, Cersei got angrier and she clung tighter to her children. As each of her offspring died, Cersei became unpredictable, more ruthless, and more power hungry. If you’re caught up on Game of Thrones, you know that anything could happen now. Is Cersei really the product of a traumatic childhood? Or is she angry because her sense of entitlement is just that overblown?
7. Elijah Price / Mister Glass
Few would deny that Unbreakable is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best films. Indeed, it’s one of the best superhero movies ever. One reason for this is the antagonist, a man named Elijah Price. He grew up with brittle bone disease, which is like a supercharged osteoporosis. Elijah was born with broken arms and legs. He couldn’t play sports, run fast, even a stubbed toe was cause for alarm. The deleted scene where 8-year-old Elijah tries to ride the carnival ride is intensely terrifying. Living a life of exclusion and pain, Elijah’s main sources of happiness were his mother and his comic books. Price’s illness and love of comic heroes and villains led him to an interesting conclusion, one that he spends most of Unbreakable trying to confirm. In the process, he kills hundreds of people. Hundreds. Does Mister Glass, the man with the brittle bones, eventually prove his hypothesis? You’ll have to watch the movie to see. And you should, because Samuel L Jackson is amazing. Would Price have still been a villain had he had a “normal” childhood? Probably not.
6. The Master
In its more than 50 years on the air, Doctor Who has showed us aliens and bad guys from all over time and space. Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels, the Silents, even benevolent species like the Ood can be a tad off-putting if you don’t know anything about them. But the one that strikes fear and wonderment into every fan’s heart is the other Gallifreyan: The Master. Like The Doctor, he has no name that we know of. Well, for a while he’s Harold Saxon, Prime Minister of Great Britain. Mostly though, he’s a megalomaniacal despot who would be happier if everyone in the world was… him. Why, though? Why would someone with as much power as a Time Lord want to devote his life to destruction and pain?
Probably because as a child, he was left to stare into the vortex within the “untempered schism,” which you’re totally not supposed to do. The Master went a bit mad and, instead of helping him, the elder Time Lords sent a signal back that became a drum beat that drove The Master insane. The Master is one of those rare villains who really is bad through no fault of his own. His sanity was stolen from him before he was old enough to have anything like a choice.
5. Norman Bates
There are lots of places to learn the story of Norman Bates. Bloch’s Psycho novel is a great place to start. There’s the classic Hitchcock film, its sequels, a remake, and the wonderful series Bates Motel. In the TV series, Norman Bates’s issues stem primarily from organic mental illness. In the film series though, he is much more a product of his environment. Psycho teaches us that Norman murdered his mother and her lover, and came to develop a split personality—sometimes Norman, sometimes Mother. As the Anthony Perkins movies go on and the story is expanded, we learn that the Bates/Spool family has a history of mental illness and murder. Norma Bates was a mean, probably bi-polar woman prone to fits of rage, violence, and all manner of inappropriate behavior toward her son. She was also hysterical about all things related to sex. Finding an underwear catalog was enough to send her into a frothy rage (Psycho IV). And nothing creates a killer quite like telling them all sex is evil. Given everything Norman Bates went through, it’s almost surprising he didn’t off more people than he did.
Some tasks are best left to professionals— like fighting crime. Try telling that to Incrediboy, the invention-building scamp who once longed to be the sidekick to Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles. Buddy Pine (his real name) is heartbroken when Mr. Incredible tells him to go home and stop pretending to be super. While Incredible’s point is a valid one, he could have been a whole lot kinder about it. It’s not really surprising that Buddy never let go of that hurt, and channeled it into the building of an impressive array of weapons he uses as the villainous Syndrome. Yeah, Buddy became a villain because, like most villains, he was sad. To cheer himself up, he built and sold weapons for the highest bidder. His ultimate plan was to make everyone seem super through his inventions, so that no one would seem super anymore. Syndrome practiced on other, ostensibly less talented superpowered people while training his equipment to defeat Mr. Incredible. It’s a sad story, and sadder still that Syndrome didn’t have Edna Mode to warn him about the perils of capes.
3. Petyr Baelish
“He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.” That’s what Lord Varys says about Littlefinger, and he’s not far off. In the show, it’s not until season 3 of Game of Thrones that we learn that it was Baelish who set Ned Stark up to go to King’s Landing to become Robert’s hand — the trip that eventually killed him. See, Baelish had a crush on one of the Tully sisters. He developed it while being raised as a ward at Riverrun. Sadly, Catelyn Tully didn’t love Littlefinger (though Lysa totally did), though she pitied him enough to beg her then fiancé to spare him in a duel. This humiliation sent Littlefinger into a shame spiral that ended up getting much of Catelyn’s family killed, tortured, or otherwise mangled. The treachery of the Lannisters, the backstabbery of the Dornish women, all of it is child’s play compared to the sinister machinations of Lord Petyr Baelish. What does he want now? The Iron Throne, with Sansa next to him. Seems unlikely.
2. Wilson Fisk / Kingpin
Even if you’ve never picked up a comic book, there’s still plenty to know about Daredevil nemesis and Hell’s Kitchen’s own Kingpin: Wilson Fisk. He grew up a fat kid, bullied and slow. His father was a violent, ruthless drunk constantly trying to make a name for himself. Little Wilson has to kill his father to protect his mother, and the two end up hiding the body little by little. Eeeeew. While Fisk is certain he never wants to become like his father, he does end up ruthless, violent, and intent on making his name well-known. Fisk is a fan of brutal beat downs, threats, and intimidation. He also isn’t above bribery or murder to keep things running smoothly. Apparently, that’s just how it is when you’re running all the crime in New York. It’s clear that Fisk’s horrible father instilled a taste for violence in young Kingpin. But Wilson certainly had the money, skills, and temperament to choose another path. Ultimately, he didn’t want to.
1. Hannibal Lecter
Few villains have the complexity and interpersonal skills of Hannibal Lecter. Film and TV adaptations present him as a learned, extremely intelligent person who is skilled in a variety of disciplines and has masterful control over his own body. In literature, Hannibal has six fingers on his left hand—often taken as a sign of both intelligence and evil. We all know that Lecter enjoys killing and eating rude people, torturing and gas lighting patients, and quoting from famous literature. What we don’t find out until much later is why. When Hannibal Lecter was a boy, his parents were murdered by “Hiwi.” In this case that means Lithuanians who volunteered to serve the Nazis. They kidnapped Hannibal and his younger sister Mischa. When they got hungry, Mischa was made into stew that Hannibal ate without knowing. There’s a whole book dedicated to him hunting those men down—but we all know that Hannibal never got over his sisters murder or… the rest. Maybe that’s not an excuse for Hannibal’s lifetime of bad behavior, but it certainly puts it into perspective.
Did we forget your favorite villain? We wanna hear all about it.
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