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12 Public Domain Characters That Could Get Their Own Horror Movie Next

Dating back to the creation of the medium itself, movies have long sought to adapt popular books and comics, later television shows and video games, and even stranger source material. But filmmakers typically have to pay hefty licensing fees to acquire rights to such works. To solve this, filmmakers often turn to works that are in the public domain. Ever wonder why it feels like there's a new Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, or Ebenezer Scrooge project almost annually? Cheap, recognizable IP.  

Although modern copyright law can be complicated, and extensions and renewals come into play, generally speaking works enter the realm of public domain after a period of time neighboring 100 years, many determined by the date of death of the author. After something enters the public domain, there's no going back; anyone can use it, free of charge.

Sometimes, public domain material yields new hits, like Disney's 1973 "Robin Hood," 1993's "The Three Musketeers" or 2010's "Alice in Wonderland." Just as often, however, it yields uninspired clunkers like "Dracula 2000," "I, Frankenstein" or Roberto Benigni's "Pinocchio." While Disney has built a cottage industry of animated adaptations of public domain stories, what often makes public domain adaptations so compelling is that they don't have to be a faithful translation. Which led to 2021 headlines as A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh copyright expired at the end of 2021 (it had been 95 years since the publication of the first story), opening the floodgates for something like "Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey," as long as the filmmakers were careful to stay away from things like Tigger, Winnie's red shirt and other Disney hallmarks

So, now that the woodland friends of the Hundred Acre Wood have been turned into blood-crazed serial killers, you might be asking yourself, who's next? With more and more works soon to fall into the public domain (get ready for Superman and Batman, coming in about a decade), it's anyone's guess. Wherever there's an enterprising filmmaker and an aversion to licensing fees, your favorite character could be turned into a soulless slasher. Below, a few possibilities.

Moby Dick

The novel "Moby Dick," from Herman Melville, has long been considered 'the Great American Novel.' Firmly sitting in the public domain because of its 1851 publication date, the story introduced Captain Ahab, a grizzled sea captain obsessed with hunting a white whale who maimed him years before. The story is told through the eyes of Ishmael, a crew member of Ahab's ship the Pequod, whose innocence and awe brings the terror of their voyage — and Ahab's personal vendetta — to the reader.

Centered on the vile Captain Ahab and his thirst for revenge as he stalks a deadly, unseen beast beneath the waves, "Moby Dick" has all the ingredients you'd need for a captivating thriller and modern monster movie. From the frightening isolation of a sailing ship at sea in the 19th century, to a mighty white whale that repeatedly ravages the deck, bringing death and destruction in its wake, if done correctly it could be like "Master and Commander" meets "Jaws." Should it aim to be a true horror movie, the story could even be repositioned slightly, as the whale could be on its own quest for vengeance, out to take down the man who has hunted him for years.

So, perhaps keep an eye out for "Moby Dick: The Whale's Revenge," coming someday to a theater near you. You would never know under which wave lurks the vicious, ravenous beast, as the Pequod's journey endures whale attacks that raise the body count and pour buckets of blood into the sea.

Paul Bunyan

If "Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey" proved anything, it's that even the most innocent stories can be retold as sickening, twisted horror movies full of stomach-churning gore. In that tradition, consider the public domain tall tale of Paul Bunyan: A giant-sized frontiersman of old folklore whose adventures have him traveling with a blue ox and helping out local lumberjacks with incredible feats of physical fortitude. 

A symbol of the strength and willpower of man's labor, the story of Paul Bunyan lifted the spirits of many. But if there was a 100-foot tall man roaming the forests with a giant axe today, there's a good chance he'd be more horrifying than inspirational.

Disney has already staked some ground on this one; Bunyan was adapted into an animated feature in 1958. But while that story was predictably family friendly, a 21st century film entitled "Paul Bunyan: Axe Murderer" could be intriguing. 

Imagine Bunyan raised by a kind lumberjack, much like Superman's relationship to Pa Kent. After growing to giant size, he is exiled, forced to live in the mountains to avoid horrified townspeople. When Bunyan's father is killed in an accident at the lumber mill, he picks up a giant-sized axe and becomes determined to seek revenge on modern industrialization and all those who support it, going on a warpath across the frontier. Vowing vengeance, Bunyan carves a swath of devastation.


A German fairy tale popularized by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, "Rumpelstiltskin" tells the story of a young girl who makes a deal with a devilish elf-like creature. After her father promises the king that she can spin straw into gold, the elf offers to do it for her – as long as she'll hand over her first born child once she becomes the queen. Years later, the girl is terrified of holding up her end of the bargain, but the little elf says he will forget their deal as long as she can guess his name. Thanks to the testimony of a helpful messenger, she does just that, and Rumpelstiltskin vanishes.

Ostensibly, it's a tale meant to teach children to always tell the truth. But when it comes to modern-day horror, this comical, pernicious imp feels like the protagonist of the "Leprechaun" films, perhaps with a dash of Chucky mixed in for good measure. When it comes to horror, there are few things more terrifying than threats to a child — and with an other-worldly creature, an innocent young woman, and a sinister bargain, a modern "Rumpelstiltskin" offers all the trappings of a horror hit. Mix in a subplot about her abusive father, make the messenger a long-lost love, maybe toss in a blood-soaked dream sequence, and you have all the necessary ingredients for the next Blumhouse classic.


Yup, movies have been around for so long now that they are also beginning to age out into public domain territory. But it's hard to imagine much interest in updating anything before 1927's "Metropolis," arguably the first modern science fiction film and inarguably a groundbreaking vision of the future from director Fritz Lang. 

Set in a dystopian world, the film is focused on a wealthy, powerful industrialist named Joh Fredersen, the ruler of the city of Metropolis. Frederson lives a life of material excess off the back of the hardship and poverty of those beneath him (a message that, unfortunately, still feels extremely relevant today), and when his son Freder discovers that his life has come at the expense of the people, he joins them in a revolution. Meanwhile, a mad scientist working for Frederson creates a robotic woman who appears human and is sent to stop the uprising from within.

An all-time classic that entered the public domain as of 2023, "Metropolis" boasted a social message that warned of the dangers of social inequality, and predicted the attempted suppression of the masses through technology and artificial intelligence. A sci-fi horror movie with a message, a modern day remake could fit right in alongside "Ex Machina," "The Matrix" and other such films.

Imagine, if you will, a modern-day version about a robotic infiltrator disguised as a beautiful woman who becomes an agent of chaos; the film's iconic imagery was also decades ahead of its time, providing an invaluable blueprint for a modern filmmaker.  

Though nobody has dared remake the masterpiece that is "Metropolis" on the big screen, a TV series from "Mr. Robot" mastermind Sam Esmail is headed to Apple TV+ in 2023. Whether this "Metropolis" series leans into any of the original film's scarier elements remains to be seen.


One of the most terrifying, scarring moments in the lives of generations of children was the murder of Bambi's mom. Isn't it time she got some revenge?

Imagine "John Wick" meets "Cocaine Bear" and perhaps you're in the right neighborhood for "Bambi: The Revenge," a wonderfully ridiculous horror movie if it was in the right hands. As told by Disney in 1942, Bambi is the story of a fawn haunted by the death of his mother, who grows up in the forest surrounded by woodland friends. But make no mistake, barring a few of its more light-hearted elements, even the Disney version of "Bambi" was a darker story than you might remember, even making Time Magazine's Top 25 Horror Movies of All Time in 2007.

While the Disney classic has its disturbing moments, the 1923 children's book on which it's based is even more unsettling; to turn it into a horror movie it has to go back to that original, ghastly source material. Written as an allegory for the persecution of the Jewish people during the rise of Nazi Germany, "Bambi" is essentially a murder story, so it wouldn't take much sprucing up to become a chilling horror film. In this new interpretation, the hunter could be portrayed as a looming threat that's nearly other-worldly, stalking Bambi through the woods with gleeful, deadly intent.

Unfortunately, if you want to make this film, you'd better hurry. IndieWire reports that a film called "Bambi: The Reckoning" is currently in development from the folks behind "Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey." Could a "Godzilla vs Kong"-type crossover featuring Bambi and Pooh be far behind? One can only hope.

A Christmas Carol

Forget for a moment that every holiday season seems to bring with it a new Ebenezer Scrooge movie (hello, "Spirited") and that nobody will ever do it better than Bill Murray's "Scrooged." If someone set out to make, truly, the most terrifying Scrooge tale ever filmed, it could be a horror movie worth watching.

The most famous Christmas story ever written, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" introduced Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old codger who seems to hate everything and everyone. Bitter at the world, Scrooge has no spirit left when the holidays roll around, and forces everyone to be as miserable as he is. But on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, who share with him visions of the past, present, and future that teach him sorely-needed lessons that help him become a better person.

Set in a cold, eerie old mansion and centered on an angry old man who is visited by supernatural apparitions, "A Christmas Carol" is ripe for being adapted into a truly terrifying horror movie. In the vein of "Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey," the story could be repositioned as a demonic revenge film where Scrooge — a greedy magnate with no concern for his employees — causes the death of three men in his employ through his cost-cutting measures. When their spirits return from beyond the grave to extract a bloody penance, it opens a gate to hell that will unleash the forces of darkness upon the world. 

Maybe you want one more twist? Sure, Scrooge could get help from the town's teenaged ghostbuster Tiny Tim — a young man with his own axe to grind. Honestly, a horror version of "A Christmas Carol" doesn't really need much heavy lifting; it feels ripe for an over-the-top, blood-soaked adaptation, and the recent "Violent Night" showed audiences are eager to mix some carnage with their Christmas.

Hercule Poirot

Created by mystery writer Agatha Christie, Poirot is one of fiction's greatest detectives, right alongside Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and Columbo. Though not all of Poirot's literary adventures have entered the public domain, the first few have, including "The Murder of Roger Aykroyd," published in 1923. The story begins with the mysterious suicide of wealthy widow Mrs. Ferrara, who had been the subject of a blackmail scheme. But soon after her friend Aykroyd reads her suicide note, he too turns up dead, and detective Poirot comes out of retirement to tackle the case.

In the original book, a complicated plot by an unknown assassin is revealed, with the killer being responsible for both the blackmail and the titular murder. But like any good mystery, a few twists on the formula could easily turn a taut murder story into a blood-spurting kill-fest, with a deranged lunatic on a seemingly endless murder spree to cover his crimes. 

It sometimes seems like every whodunit requires the perpetrator to be a mannered, courteous, calculated killer. What if, for once, Poirot was in a bone-rattling game of cat-and-mouse against an unstoppable Michael Myers-esque madman, hidden behind a mask and determined to kill the detective before his crime spree can be stopped?

The magic of the whodunit is timeless, something Hollywood has recently rediscovered with the release of both Poirot vehicles ("Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile") and those inspired by them (the "Knives Out" movies, "Poker Face"). Should they want to try something new, turning a Poirot public domain story into a panic-inducing slasher seems perfectly plausible.

Alice in Wonderland

If you're looking for a fairy tale ripe for the horror treatment, there might not be any better-suited than the story most commonly known as "Alice in Wonderland." Written by Lewis Carroll and first published in 1865, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" is the Victorian era story of a young girl who finds herself swept away into a wondrous fantasy land filled with now-iconic characters like the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Dormouse, and the Cheshire Cat. Equal parts awe-inspiring, whimsical, and downright spooky, the story has been adapted by Disney more than once.

In addition to the animated original from 1951, director Tim Burton produced a pair of live-action adaptations in the 2000s, and both could have been horror movies with just a few tweaks. Many of the creatures encountered by Alice in Wonderland are truly terrifying, both visually and even in regards to their sinister goals. If the story were to lean into the more atmospheric and scary elements, a horrifically nightmarish movie would be the result. 

In a world where hideous, vile creatures lurk around every corner (many of whom want Alice dead) "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" could be a truly spine-chilling event. While several adaptations of the story have tried pushing it from fantasy to horror somewhat — including the 1988 Czech film "Alice" — a more violent, fear-inducing version deserves to be next up on the chopping block.

Mickey Mouse

This one would undoubtedly be the hardest to pull off, as you can bet a formidable Disney legal team would be watching closely if someone tried to make a horror film out of their beloved corporate icon. But copyright law is copyright law — and as of 2024, Walt Disney's 1928 black and white musical short "Steamboat Willie" is slated to enter the public domain. 

The original film was nothing short of a momentous achievement; it was one of the earliest appearances of Mickey Mouse, a seven minute lark with Mickey piloting a steamboat before being harangued by Captain Pete. Later, the ship takes on some livestock, Mickey uses a crane to pick up Minnie, and lots of happy-go-lucky tunes are played in between.

Co-opting Disney's "Steamboat Willie" into a horror movie might take some delicate maneuvering, but it could be done. In "Steamboat Willie: Rage on the River," one could imagine Mickey and Minnie enjoying a quiet steamboat ride when they learn that Captain Pete is actually an escaped serial killer, with plans to do them both in. Punctuated by blood-curdling screams and the screeching stings of a horror movie's musical score, this once innocent early animated romp could quickly turn into a nightmare — especially if the killer kept doing that kinda-creepy whistle.


The epic poem "Beowulf" tells the story of a mighty warrior, setting out to vanquish a beast called Grendel that has been victimizing his village. But after the creature is slain, its mother returns looking for revenge, and Beowulf must face down this greater menace as well. Perhaps the most malleable facet about this epic poem is that Grendel and his mother are only vaguely given a physical description, leaving the nature of their threat up to the imagination of the reader.

Though written and set in the 6th century, "Beowulf" in some ways feels like a horror movie premise, with an unknown danger that sends shivers down spines. Likewise, an adaptation of "Beowulf," with a hero stepping up to save a town from an unseen monstrosity, could up the scare factor and spooky atmosphere to make a great horror movie and a faithful adaptation at the same time. The downside? "Beowulf" has already inspired multiple films (perhaps most famously, a 2007 Robert Zemeckis "Polar Express"-like CG movie starring the likes of Angelina Jolie), and none of them have done particularly good box-office.

But a horror remake of "Beowulf" need not be a medieval tale, and instead could be a complete reimagining. Perhaps set in the modern day, a remote town is attacked by an unseen creature, and a reclusive military veteran named James Beowulf is called upon to save the day. After killing the beast, he learns it is just one of a horde of creatures threatening to invade from another realm, hungry for human flesh.

King Kong

"King Kong" was introduced in a 1933 classic film about a giant ape captured and brought to the United States for exhibition, where it breaks free and runs amok. But because the novelization of the movie had been published first, and copyright was never renewed, rights to the character have been complicated, to say the least. While the current Kong cinematic universe seems to be focusing on the sci-fi, fantasy, and action-adventure aspects of the story, somebody else could lean into the horror elements inherent in the character.

The simple fact is, horror is engrained in the DNA of "King Kong," with its monstrous giant beast and a mysterious jungle locale called Skull Island. It wouldn't be hard to envision a story about the giant ape, this time with an appetite for human victims. Instead of being hunted by curious explorers though, Kong is doing the hunting and picking them off one by one. But with an unquenchable thirst for human blood, the gargantuan gorilla finds its way to Manhattan, where he rips off the top of the Empire State Building to find a Hometown Buffet-like feast awaiting him, as men, women, and children run for cover.

For "King Kong," it's just a matter of turning up the creep factor and introducing some gut-bursting gore. With a little work, it could have even the most die-hard monster movie on board; with word that horror helmer James Wan is working on a TV adaptation for Disney+, it may be in the cards.

The Wizard of Oz

Should you be seeking a story to put you in a cold sweat, "The Wizard of Oz" could probably do it in the right hands. Its origins as a series of books first published in 1900 means that it sits in the public domain, and any filmmaker can twist it into a grizzly horror film should they desire.

Written by L. Frank Baum, the series was adapted into the now-classic 1939 fantasy film starring Judy Garland. Sending a little girl into a bizarre fantasy realm of untold imagination, the story has plenty of material to turn your hair white, like the sneering, menacing Wicked Witch and her army of deadly flying monkeys. In fact, many fans have already been haunted by the stories of L. Frank Baum, with users on Reddit describing both the 1939 film and its belated sequel, the 1988 film "Return to Oz" as traumatizing them in childhood. 

But a spine-tingling horror movie centered on Dorothy's trip to Oz, and her adventures with the axe-wielding metal man, a creepy scarecrow, and a flesh-eating lion? That could be something worth buying a ticket to watch. Reimagined by someone like David Gordon Greene or Jordan Peele, there could be some considerable dread awaiting the denizens of Emerald City.