Horror is filled with unlucky characters. Ever since Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) innocently played with Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) on a peaceful lake shore and Count Orlok (Max Schreck) moved in across the street from Nosferatu’s Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) and Ellen (Greta Schröder), the genre has been filled with stories of regular people who happen to stumble into the clutches of monsters. Though overcoming random twists of fate is largely what makes horror so empowering, it’s hard not to feel pity for these unfortunate souls and wonder how their lives would have unfolded if they’d managed to avoid the tragedies that befall them.
The following is a collection of thirteen characters badly in need of a four leaf clover and a bit of wishful thinking about how their stories might have played out differently.
Marion Crane: Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic is known for many things. This groundbreaking film is a prototype for the Slasher subgenre, a boundary pusher for on screen violence and sexuality, and its infamous shower scene is a masterclass in editing and composition. But Psycho is also an example of spectacularly bad luck. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is on the run. Having quarreled with her non-commital boyfriend and stolen $40,000 in cash from her boss, she’s driving across the countryside in hopes of a better life. But a day into her stressful travel, she encounters a heavy thunderstorm. Distracted by the pouring rain, she takes a wrong turn off of the highway and winds up at the notorious Bates Motel. As it turns out, the soft-spoken man at the front desk is hiding more than just sandwiches in the creepy house at the top of the hill. Yes, Marion could avoid her fate by simply taking the money to the bank as planned, but that hardly warrants the watery grave she winds up in. To make matters worse, she begins toying with the idea of returning the money and making amends before washing off the stress of the day with a shower. Stopping to rest at any other motel along the highway would afford her the chance to do just that.
Sally, Franklin, and Friends: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece begins with John Larroquette’s dulcet description of an infamous case of bad luck. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns), her brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) and their three friends set out on a summer road trip to make sure their ancestor’s remains have not been disturbed by local grave robbers. However, due to a nationwide fuel shortage and poor planning, they find themselves out of gas in rural Texas. Hoping for a dip in a swimming hole to escape the brutal heat, Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail) inadvertently stumble into the home of Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his deranged family. Though none of the group fares well, Sally in particular suffers from extremely bad luck. Fleeing from the chainsaw toting giant, she seeks help in the butcher’s own home and is forced to jump out a second story window to escape. Even then she finds shelter in the nearby gas station, only to wind up in the clutches of the family patriarch. Though it’s often argued that the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) marks the van with his blood, if the group had thought to bring their own gas, they would have had the ability to just keep driving.
Burt and Vicky: Children of the Corn (1984)
Fritz Kiersch’s adaptation of a Stephen King short story features a traveling couple that doesn’t even need to leave the road to run into bad luck. Burt (Peter Horton) and Vicky (Linda Hamilton) are passing through Nebraska on their way to Burt’s new job in Seattle. Hoping for a bit more scenery, they’ve turned off the highway and find themselves driving through the endless cornfields of Gatlin. In a classic case of “wrong place at the wrong time,” they run over an injured boy who stumbles out from between the rows of corn lining the road. Seeing that his throat has been slashed, they quickly realize something more sinister is afoot. They put the body in the trunk of their car and drive to Gatlin in search of help. Unfortunately, the small town has been overrun by a cult of murderous children who worship an entity known as He Who Walks Behind The Rows. As adults, Burt and Vicki would be perfect sacrifices to their brutal god. Before the accident, Vicki’s biggest problem is wondering if Burt will ever propose. Though the conclusion to King’s story is much darker than that of Kiersch’s film, Vicki would likely prefer to worry about that rather than how to escape from a giant cross made of corn.
Charley Brewster: Fright Night (1985)
Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) is your average horror obsessed teenager trying to get lucky with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). One night while watching horror host Peter Vincent’s (Roddy McDowall) movie of the week, he notices two men moving a suspiciously large box into the house next door. After spying on an intimate moment from his bedroom window, Charlie discovers that his mysterious new neighbor, the devastatingly handsome Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), is a vampire. After rejecting Jerry’s offer to look the other way, Charley becomes the next target of the centuries-old monster who has also become fixated on Amy. Charley must enlist Vincent’s reluctant help to rid his street of the ancient blood-sucker. We never learn why Jerry chooses this specific house and it’s also possible that if Charley didn’t spend so much time with his binoculars, he would never learn Jerry’s true identity. Or maybe if Jerry would just close his blinds, he could avoid detection. But there’s no doubt that Charley spends much of the film wondering why out of all the neighborhoods in all the world, Jerry has to move into his.
Jim Halsey: The Hitcher (1986)
One might argue that picking up hitchhikers is always a risk, but Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) happens to stumble on the textbook answer as to why. On a cross-country trip to deliver a car, Jim finds himself dozing off and picks up a hitchhiker hoping to distract himself with a bit of conversation. Unfortunately, the man he lets into his car, John Ryder (Rutger Hauer), is the epitome of a land shark. This psychopathic murderer is in the midst of a killing spree, hitching rides with unsuspecting motorists then killing and mutilating everyone in the car. Offering John a ride kicks off a deadly game of cat and mouse over the mostly deserted rural highways. Though he survives the initial encounter, Jim finds himself not only hunted by John, but suspected of his crimes by local law enforcement and the subject of a massive manhunt. The weathered and beaten-down man Jim becomes at the end of the film is a far cry from the happy if slightly aimless one who sets out on the trip. In the film’s opening scenes, Jim tells his passenger that his mother warned him never to pick up hitchhikers. It takes him mere minutes to realize the veracity of this advice and Jim will spend the rest of the film wishing he had just kept on driving.
Paul Sheldon: Misery (1990)
Paul Sheldon (James Caan) might just be the world’s most unlucky author. Having finally finished his newest novel at a luxurious mountain lodge, he downs a bottle of champagne and drives the icy roads down the mountain into a raging blizzard. Not surprisingly he veers off the road and crashes, breaking both his legs and sustaining numerous other injuries in the process. Though Paul does cause the crash by drinking while intoxicated and choosing not to wait out the storm, he’s found by the worst possible rescuer. It’s a stroke of incredible luck for unhinged former nurse and #1 fan Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates), who stumbles across her favorite author in his demolished car. After installing Paul in her guest room rather than a hospital, Annie’s plans begin to form and the unlucky writer learns the true meaning of the word misery. In addition to this coincidence, Paul also has the astonishingly bad luck of having just killed off Annie’s favorite character, prompting a literary hostage situation that would go on to win Bates an Academy Award. He also only has a single copy of his new novel, of which Annie is decidedly not a fan. Though King’s story does allow Paul to write his best novel yet as a result of the situation, there’s no doubt he, and his feet, frequently wish he had chosen to spend another night in the hotel.
Georg, Anna, Georgie, and Rolfi: Funny Games (1997)
Michael Haneke’s Austrian film about the worst vacation ever is a hard one to stomach. Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar) have a quiet trip planned to their vacation home with son Georgie (Stefan Clapczynski) and dog Rolfi, but their idyllic trip is cut short when two unassuming young men knock on the door. At first asking for eggs, they put the family through a series of horrific “games” and ask them to bet whether they’ll be alive by 9:00 the next morning. What makes this film so devastating is that despite working as hard as they possibly can to survive, the family keeps running into bad luck. Anna seeks help in the wrong place and time. Georgie happens to find a gun that isn’t loaded. Anna does manage to save herself but … well if you know, you know. Heneke tips the scales in favor of his villains and makes a controversial point about cinematic violence by depriving the family of any way out. Naming the family’s dog Lucky in his 2007 American remake just adds insult to injury. Had Georg and Anna chosen any other weekend for their trip, they would likely be enjoying a breakfast of omelets and toast right now.
Frank: 28 Days Later (2002)
Perhaps the most improbable example of bad luck befalls Frank (Brendan Gleeson) in Danny Boyle’s game-changing apocalyptic contagion film. After surviving more than (wink) 28 days of a zombie outbreak and escaping a London overrun with a deadly virus, Frank meets his tragic end simply by looking up at the wrong moment. Accidentally unleashed by animal rights activists, the Rage virus turns anyone infected into a bloodthirsty monster within ten to twenty seconds and can only be spread by infected saliva and blood. But that’s precisely what falls in Frank’s eye. A single drop of infected blood from a corpse resting above him transforms the kindhearted father into a raging zombie-like monster in a matter of seconds. There’s no guarantee that Frank would fare any better with the soldiers the group encounters moments after his death. But simply not looking up would certainly spare his daughter Hannah (Megan Burns) the trauma of watching Frank go from loving father to life threatening beast in less than a minute. The only consolation is that the virus’s miniscule incubation period does give him the chance to say goodbye. It’s a heartbreaking moment that reminds us how precious life is and how quickly it can be taken away.
Susan and Daniel: Open Water (2003)
Every swimmer’s worst nightmare comes to harrowing life in Chris Kentis’s low-budget aquatic horror hit. Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis) are hoping to rekindle their relationship and take a much needed break from their hectic work schedules with an island getaway and snorkeling excursion. In a near perfect example of dumb luck, they happen to book a pass with a careless crew and an obnoxious fellow diver who diverts everyone’s attention. Having swam off for a bit of privacy, Susan and Daniel reemerge to find the boat gone. This small error leads to devastating results as the couple is now stranded in the middle of the ocean and forced to fight off stinging jellyfish, snacking fish, and hungry sharks. Any number of small actions – the captain taking an accurate headcount, storing their gear more prominently, staying closer to the group – could lead to their rescue. But by the time the search party is launched the next morning, they’ve already drifted far away from the original dive site. Though the trip does end up bringing the couple closer together, they likely spend the last day of their lives wishing they had followed Susan’s suggestion and gone skiing instead.
Chris: Wrong Turn (2003)
Rob Schmidt’s hillbilly horror film and the ensuing franchise is practically defined (and titled) by bad luck. Chris (Desmond Harrington) is headed to an out of town job interview when a chemical spill causes him to take a deadly detour through the West Virginia hills. Years before the ubiquity of GPS, he’s forced to pull over at a gas station for directions that will lead to the worst luck of his life. Chris runs into another car full of detoured travelers also stuck on the dirt road. Jessie (Eliza Dushku) and her friends are stranded after suspiciously placed barbed wire snags the tires of their Range Rover. They quickly become the targets of sadistic mountain cannibals and one by one meet grisly ends. Ordinarily sticking to the original route would be enough to save their lives, but the ill timed road blockage is what sends the unlucky travelers into the hungry clutches of monsters. With better chemical containment systems in place, Chris might be happily working at his new job and Jessie would be tolerating her lovingly obnoxious friends at another campsite.
Juno: The Descent (2005)
Juno (Natalie Mendoza) probably doesn’t believe in luck. The headstrong leader of Neil Marshall’s nightmarish cave horror is used to pushing herself past her limits. She leads a group of her adventurer friends to Borum Cave in the Appalachian mountains for a spelunking trip. Or at least that’s what they think. Unbeknownst to her friends, Juno has led them to a new cave system with hopes that charting and naming it themselves will mend their fractured relationships. She’s also hoping to give Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), still grieving over the deaths of her husband and daughter, a much needed boost of positivity. And likely hoping to assuage her own guilt of sleeping with Sarah’s husband. Though she is admittedly leading her friends into danger, Juno runs into some spectacularly bad luck. Of all the caves she could have chosen to trick her friends into discovering, she happens to find the one with the subhuman monsters. Of course one could argue that the reason the cave is as yet undiscovered is that previous explorers have all been eaten by the creatures lurking within.
James and Kristen: The Strangers (2008)
Perhaps the most unlucky of all, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) become the target of murderous psychopaths simply because they happen to be home. The young couple has planned a romantic weekend at a remote vacation home after their friend’s wedding reception, but the evening gets off to a rocky start before they even reach the doomed house. While still dressed in her bridesmaid’s dress, Kristen rejects James’s own proposal, leaving the couple on the outs at the worst possible time. Later that night a strange girl knocks on the door asking for Tamara, unleashing a night of hell as three masked killers torment the couple for the sole purpose of their own entertainment. Who knows how many doors the masked killers knock on before someone finally answers, but James and Kristen pick a supremely unlucky time and location for a romantic getaway. Doubly unlucky is their friend Mike (Glenn Howerton) who happens to check on the couple at the worst possible moment.
Joe, Parker, and Dan: Frozen (2010)
In Adam Green’s snowy horror film, Dan (Kevin Zegers), his childhood friend Joe (Shawn Ashmore), and his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) wind up in a perfect storm of bad luck, literally. Simply hoping for a cheap day on the slopes, the three bribe their way onto a ski lift. Unfortunately, there’s a blizzard moving in and the resort closes down early to avoid the deadly weather. The three find themselves stuck on a chair high above the snowy mountain with a pack of hungry wolves waiting below. When a snowplow does check the slope, the driver happens to turn around at the exact moment at which Joe throws his helmet. Any number of things could save them from this icy hell. Had they chosen to ski on Saturday instead of Sunday, they would be saved when the lift reopened. Had the attendant they bribed not been distracted by his lost vacation time, he could have given his replacement more specific instruction. Had they stopped on a section of the lift closer to the ground, or at least over powder, Dan’s jump to the ground might be easier on his legs. Hell, had the wolves already found a meal, maybe they wouldn’t be so interested in the skiers dangling above. But their fates align in the worst possible way, leading to a deadly and devastating trip down the mountain.