A scream queen is an actress who has become associated with horror films, either through an appearance in a notable entry in the genre, as a frequent victim, or through constant appearances as the female protagonist. Fay Wray and Jamie Lee Curtis are often cited as the first or most prominent scream queens. Sarah Michelle Gellar is commonly referred to today's scream queen. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Scout Taylor-Compton are considered prominent scream queens of modern day.
Definition of "scream queen"
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." Ryan Stewart, of cinematical.com, has described a scream queen as someone who has "given an impactful, memorable performance in a horror film". 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."
The use 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". However, Fay Wray of King Kong (1933) is arguably the first notable scream queen. Wray had also appeared in a number of other horror films previous to King Kong, and eventually took her career to England to escape the title, stating "I don't like it at all...being called Scream Queen." Following Wray, in the 1930s, Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Gloria Stuart in The Invisible Man (1933) were also considered scream queens.
In the 1940s, filmmakers "wanted stories to take them out of reality and reveal an image far more in control", creating noir films and featuring such actresses as Hillary Brooke, who appeared in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942). Simone Simon and Joan Crawford were also notable actresses of the decade.
The 1960 film Psycho placed Janet Leigh as a prominent scream queen who had begun the change into the modern horror protagonist. In this film era, B movies remained popular at drive-in theaters, and Psycho had been a part of the larger exploitation boom in the genre.
In 1978 Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh, had her first film role in Halloween. Portraying Laurie Strode, Curtis established herself as the "ultimate 'scream queen'" and was even referenced as such in the horror parody Scream (1996). Curtis went on to star in several other horror films and Halloween sequels, and continues to act, broadening her range outside the specific genre.
The success of Halloween, as well as what could be considered the first slasher film, Black Christmas (1974), helped popularize the slasher film genre. Many of the scream queen actresses of these films were required to perform nude scenes. Monique Gabrielle in Chained Heat (1983), Michelle Bauer in Demonwarp (1987), and Brinke Stevens in Bad Girls from Mars (1989) are examples.
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 Scream (1996) and its sequels. Sarah Michelle Gellar, despite her start in television as the title character in the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, went on to appear in other horror films during the decade, including I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Scream 2 (1997). Both actresses are considered scream queens, and Gellar continues to star in horror films.
Ryan Stewart cited Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi as prime examples of modern scream queens for their roles in Wolf Creek (2005). 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 its opinion of who qualified as a modern scream queens; the list included Sheri Moon Zombie, Jaimie Alexander, Andrea Bogart, Mercedes McNab, Tiffany Shepis, and Cerina Vincent.
Other examples of scream queens include Linnea Quigley in Return of the Living Dead, Alexandra Delli Colli in Zombie Holocaust, Sandra Knight in Blood Bath, Beverly Garland in The Alligator People, Camille Keaton in I Spit On Your Grave, and Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.