In the chilling new horror film The Witch, Satan is both everywhere and nowhere (as in our everyday lives). He’s in the unfocused, pitiless eyes of a black goat, hiding in the darker nooks of the unexplored mind, another elemental ingredient of the air the characters breathe. The devil has proven to be such a lasting, endlessly re-visitable villain in the world of horror due to his malleable presence — the devil may assume any form in the service of his dark trickery, assuming pleasing or repulsive shapes to suit his (or her, or its) purposes. Directors can take his demonic presence in any number of different directions, but the lion’s share of depictions tend to fall into one of the six following categories. The Judeo-Christian manifestation of evil has many names — Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, a certain real estate mogul/would-be politician — but the following classifications cover just about all the cinematic representations. Say your prayers, and read on as we rank them from the least-to-most frightening.
6. Unassuming Satan
Deception is central to Satan’s nefarious doings, sometimes driving him to render himself innocuous with seemingly harmless appearances. Eschewing the debonair vibe for a lower-key look can help the devil blend for incognito scenarios, or simply cast an even more unsettling juxtaposition by finding a harmless frame to house his evil consciousness. Innocent little Harvey Spencer Stephens made for a chilling vessel as Satan’s son, young Damien the Antichrist, in The Omen, the slightness of his stature only making the demonic powers brewing inside him more disturbing. The surprise success of the 1976 original spawned a wave of possessed-child imitators in the years that followed, to the point that creepy kids remain one of our most reliable sources of terror. Sometimes the pure evil just happens to take hold in regular-looking folks, like the weirdly inexhaustible Sheriff chasing down the wayward hooligans of O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Walter Huston’s grinning swell “Mr. Scratch” in The Devil And Daniel Webster. This subsection essentially encapsulates the various incarnations of Satan that don’t look especially intimidating, which even extends to include Rosalinda Celentano’s androgynous, otherworldly Satan in The Passion Of The Christ.
5. Conceptual Satan
This one is the most difficult to define, since it has more to do with absence than presence. The suggestion of the devil, that malevolent spirit not corporeal but still exerting influence over those susceptible, this Satan can be the trickiest to best. Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the colonial-era girl at the center of The Witch, encounters Satan only as a bloodcurdling voice whispering sour nothings in her ear. And as director Robert Eggers notes in his Uproxx interview, this approach can also be a boon unto production crew working on a tight budget; a Satan that’s heard and not seen won’t cost a dime. John Carpenter exercised some creative license with his 1987 film Prince Of Darkness, which envisioned the essence of Satan as swirling green ooze in a large tank. In this form, Satan often takes hold of the susceptible as a vaguely delineated rain of madness, driving otherwise moral folks out of their wits and their scruples. Not unlike that other guy, Satan moves in mysterious ways.
4. Smokin’ Foxy Satan
A sort of distaff counterpart to Super-Smooth Satan, Smokin’ Foxy Satan translates that same persuasive work through a sexual filter and expresses it as seduction. (For an allegedly all-powerful being, Satan always seems to want something from humans.) The most direct route to the soul starts in regions slightly south of the waistline, and temptation remains the most effective weapon in Satan’s arsenal. It’s worth noting that the gender dynamic on this rarely flips; sexy male incarnations of the devil seldom try to ensnare unsuspecting women, but that might just be because girls learn from a young age to be leery of sexual advances from creepy dudes. Either way, sex appeal has had a high success rate in the snatching of souls, with buxom Liz Hurley in Bedazzled as the most recent incarnation of this type. The 2000 remake swapped the 1967 original’s Peter Cook for a vision out of a crusty late-’90s copy of Hustler, assuring that Brendan Fraser would be swayed by her feminine wiles. (Note: instances of this trope do not appear in the films The Devil Is A Woman or She-Devil, so Satan fetishists may take their searches elsewhere.) Satan does not often assume this form, though using sexuality as a tactic is common amongst his underlings — the succubus demon appears to foolhardy men as a gorgeous woman, tricking them into surrendering their souls. This has been much more common in fiction, exemplified most recently with the comely monster in the first segment of horror anthology V/H/S and a demonic Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body.
3. Original Satan
Alternately known as Satan Classic, this is the picture-book fiend that children learn to fear in Sunday school. Red skin is de rigeur, horns, usually a pitchfork not far from reach — you know the drill. Though farther removed from reality than some of the already-listed types, Original Satan wields a primal sway over the childlike bits of the id, tapping directly into the same parts of the brain that irrationally cling to fear of the dark. One of The Twilight Zone‘s less-appreciated episodes, “The Howling Man” features a traveler locked in a monastery; his captors claim he is Satan, he claims they’re tormentors holding him against his will. He gets out, of course, and fades into his true form, complete with the bonus widow’s peak and cape. If we’ll abide another example from TV, Jason Sudeikis’ recurring appearances as “The Devil” on SNL‘s Weekend Update played on this usual perception, outfitting him with an all-red ensemble and cheap little toy horns. The claustrophobic close-up of Satan’s eyes is all the audience gets in Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s enough to communicate the disturbing uncanniness of this type, both humanoid and not. This take on the devil has crossed the most cultural boundaries, making frequent appearances in the Satanic-panic films of Europe and Southeast Asia. One of the best: the 1983 Filipino picture The Killing Of Satan, which features a devil gussied up with pomade and a red cape, though a little on the chubby side. Portly’s a good look for Satan, as it turns out.
2. Super-Smooth Satan
Persuasion is the devil’s No. 1 superpower after commanding the infinite hordes of Hell, and so in many instances, he’s assumed a slickster’s appearance to match. Slicked-back coiffure, finely tailored suit, shoes so well-polished they qualify as mirrors, and usually a little bit of well-manicured creative facial hair make up the look. Robert De Niro took this route in his demonic turn as Louis Cyphre (a forehead-smacker of a name, to be sure, but whatever) in Angel Heart, sporting a robust beard and respectable appearance, as did Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy. But in both instances, however, the sophisticated exterior belies a far more immediately frightening interior. The swindler calling himself Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees talks rubes out of their souls with his flashy style and silver tongue. “John Milton” in The Devil’s Advocate is a little more upfront about the roiling reserves of crazy behind his well-pressed shirts, and Al Pacino in full ’90s-madness mode can back up the bombast with room to spare. Once his unflappable cool gets even a little flapped, Super-Smooth Satan reveals his true self, usually by transforming into Monster Satan or Conceptual Satan (see below).
1. Monster Satan
There are people who know Tim Curry from Clue (loud, but fun at parties), there are people who know Tim Curry from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (sex deviants, lots of fun at parties), and then there are the people who know Tim Curry as the hulking mutated demonoid from Legend. These people are the most fun. The massive freak show of facial prostheses that Curry sported in Ridley Scott’s fantasy yarn typifies a more aggressive, fantastical slant on the devil. Old-school mythology promotes an interpretation of Satan as a hideous beast, often with animal body parts and looming several stories tall. The earliest cinematic depiction of Satan in any form took this tack, in the silent cult classic Haxan: Witchraft Through The Ages. To cite a more recent example, the final manifestation of evil on the raptured Earth in This Is The End took the form of a many-phallused behemoth with magma beneath a layer of rock. So, you know, there are plenty of directions in which this one can be taken.