A scream queen (a wordplay on screen queen) is an actress associated with horror films, either through an appearance in a notable entry in the genre or recurring roles in the genre. Jamie Lee Curtis is noted as a seminal example for her performances in the popular slasher films of the Halloween franchise.
The term "scream queen" is more specifically used to refer to the "attractive young damsels-in-distress" characters that have appeared in a number of films in the horror genre. Lloyd Kaufman, co-founder of Troma Entertainment, noted that being a scream queen is "more than just crying and having ketchup thrown on you. You not only have to be attractive, but you also have to have a big brain. You have to be frightened, you have to be sad, you have to be romantic."
Debbie Rochon, often described as a scream queen herself, wrote in an article originally published in GC Magazine that "a true Scream Queen isn't The Perfect Woman. She's sexy, seductive, but most importantly 'attainable' to the average guy. Or so it would seem." And although the earlier scream queens might be women that "just had to look pretty and shriek a lot until the hero of the film got around to save (them)", the later scream queens "showcase women worrying about something other than a guy...unless said guy is the one trying to kill them", with some of them "wreaking vengeance" by defeating the villain.
The prominence of women in horror films dates back to the silent film era, with films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). George Feltenstein, film historian and senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing at Warner Home Video, states, "Women screaming in terror has been a Hollywood mainstay — even when films were silent". One of the first scream queens in the talkies was Fay Wray, as her character in King Kong (1933) spent a good part of her interactions with the ape shrieking in terror. Barbara Steele, who is best remembered as Mario Bava's muse in the Italian gothic horror masterpiece, Black Sunday (1960), can also be considered as one of the greatest scream queens in horror history due to her constant appearances as the female protagonist in Italian horror films. She was adept at playing the damsel in distress or the monster, and her exotic looks separated her from the stereotypical blonde starlets featured in countless horror films.
Four actresses in the 1970s became seminal examples of a "scream queen" for the decade: Sandra Peabody, who portrayed Mari Collingwood in The Last House on the Left (1972), Marilyn Burns, who portrayed Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Olivia Hussey, who portrayed Jess Bradford in Black Christmas (1974), and Jamie Lee Curtis, who portrayed Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).
After The Last House on the Left, Peabody went on to appear in the horror films Voices of Desire (1972), Massage Parlor Murders (1973), Case of the Full Moon Murders (1973), and Legacy of Satan (1974). Burns followed her performance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with roles in Helter Skelter (1976) and Eaten Alive (1977). In Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Psycho actress Janet Leigh, had her first film role. Portraying Laurie Strode in Halloween, Curtis established herself as the "ultimate 'scream queen'" and was even referenced as such in the horror film Scream (1996) by Randy Meeks. Curtis went on to star in several other horror films after that, two of them being The Fog and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, in both of which she appears with Leigh.
Dee Wallace appeared in Wes Craven's 1977 horror film The Hills Have Eyes before going onto establish herself as a scream queen in the 80s by appearing in The Howling (1981), Cujo (1983) and Critters (1986).
Daria Nicolodi played the role of the scream queen in most of her films (Deep Red, Inferno, Phenomena, Terror at the Opera). Also Mario Bava called on Nicolodi for Shock (1977). In 1982, Nicolodi played Anne in Dario Argento's Tenebrae.
The success of Halloween made slasher films known again, and so that type of film saw a revival during the late 1970s and entire 1980s. A few such films worth mentioning include Terror Train and Prom Night, in which Jamie Lee Curtis would again essay this type of role; Friday the 13th, the first entry to have both a female antagonist (Betsy Palmer) and protagonist (Adrienne King); and A Nightmare on Elm Street, now considered a slasher-classic, which introduced supernatural serial killer Freddy Krueger, and whose leading actress, Heather Langenkamp, was dubbed a scream queen, and went on to become one of the most influential. Linnea Quigley also became a scream queen during the 1980s, appearing specifically in low-budget and cult-classic films such as Silent Night, Deadly Night and Return of the Living Dead. Mark Patton, star of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), has in recent years been touted at horror conventions as mainstream horror's first "male scream queen". Bruce Campbell, lead actor of the Evil Dead franchise, has been branded as "the definitive scream king."
British actress Catriona MacColl became a scream queen after appearing in three Italian horror films directed by Lucio Fulci. City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and House by the Cemetery (1981) have all gone on to gain a cult following.
During the 1990s, Debbie Rochon starred in dozens of Troma Production horror films, and was voted by Draculina magazine as its "Scream Queen of the Decade". Neve Campbell also began her career in horror with The Craft (1996), and later went on to star as Sidney Prescott in the Scream film series. Jennifer Love Hewitt was reckoned a scream queen after her I Know What You Did Last Summer films. The first film of that trilogy also had a starring role for Sarah Michelle Gellar, who is best known for her television role as the title character in the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and went on to appear in other horror films made during the 1990s and new millennium, including Scream 2 and The Grudge film series.
In 2005, Shauna Macdonald starred in The Descent, for which established her as a scream queen and for which she was nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Actress. Elisha Cuthbert starred in the horror film House of Wax (2005) and Captivity (2007), gaining the status by from films. 2006 saw Kate Beckinsale earn the award for "Best Scream Queen" at the Scream Awards for her role in Underworld: Evolution (2006). In 2007, USA Today published an article listing on modern scream queens interviewing actresses Sheri Moon Zombie, Jaimie Alexander, Andrea Bogart, Mercedes McNab, Tiffany Shepis and Cerina Vincent. Since 2007 and her appearance in Halloween, Danielle Harris has increased her genre work, being subsequently called "horror's reigning scream queen" by the NY Daily News.
Several actresses, such as Chloë Grace Moretz, sisters Vera and Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, and Maika Monroe have built careers in the horror genre. Moretz is known for her roles in remakes such as Let Me In (2010), Dark Shadows (2012), Carrie (2013), and Suspiria (2018), and also appeared in The Amityville Horror (2005), Room 6 (2006), Wicked Little Things (2006), Hallowed Ground (2007), and The Eye (2008). Vera Farmiga had lead roles in Joshua (2007), Orphan (2009), The Conjuring (2013), The Conjuring 2 (2016), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2020). Vera Farmiga also starred in the series Bates Motel, a contemporary prequel to Psycho. Taissa Farmiga starred in multiple seasons of the series American Horror Story, and had lead roles in Mindscape (2013), The Final Girls (2015) and the fifth film in The Conjuring Universe franchise, The Nun (2018). Roberts co-starred in Scream 4 (2011) and The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015), and appeared in the series Scream Queens with Abigail Breslin and American Horror Story with Taissa Farmiga. Monroe is best known for her starring roles in It Follows (2014) and The Guest (2014). Internationally, Bipasha Basu has been referred as "Bollywood's Scream Queen" due to her contributions towards horror in India with her blockbuster horror movies like Raaz (2002) and Raaz 3D (2012). Most recently, Lulu Wilson and Anya Taylor-Joy have been labeled scream queens for their performances in Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017) and The Haunting of Hill House (2018) for Wilson, and The Witch (2015), Split (2016), Marrowbone (2017), Glass (2019) and The New Mutants (2020) for Taylor-Joy. Mckenna Grace also has been labeled a scream queen after having a lead role in Annabelle Comes Home (2019) and also after her performances in The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Amityville: The Awakening (2017) and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018).
In 2016, Screen Rant listed the "15 Greatest Scream Queens in Horror History", which includes Linda Blair, Danielle Harris, Lisa Wilcox, Vera Farmiga, Janet Leigh, Marilyn Burns, Veronica Cartwright, Neve Campbell, Naomi Watts, Heather Langenkamp, Eva Green, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Barbara Steele and Jamie Lee Curtis.
More recently, the term "scream king" has been used to refer to male leading actors who have made their name through taking on leading roles in horror movies as a “final guy" character. Rachel Roth defines the rise of the "scream kings" as a result of moving away from formulas where men are typically cast as monsters for a female character to fight off and female actresses being cast less as victims and sometimes as the monster or villain themselves. Roth cites Bruce Campbell as an early example of a scream king for his role in the Evil Dead franchise. Notable actors who have earned reputations as scream kings include Patrick Wilson who has appeared Annabelle Comes Home, Insidious and The Conjuring, Evan Peters for being the only male actor to appear in every season of American Horror Story, and Shawn Roberts.
- Final girl
- Horror icon
- Invasion of the Scream Queens, a 1992 documentary
- Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, a 2019 documentary
- Fay Wray
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