Women play a huge part in horror films and once upon a time they were simply there to be pretty damsels in distress that needed saving. That quickly changed as women in horror became the heroines, the survivors, and usually the ones to defeat the villains in the end. No longer did they have to survive on waiting for a man to rescue them; they were the ones doing the rescuing and fighting. Being a Scream Queen in a horror movie is always a challenging role and there are so many women to choose from in the genre that this was a hard list to put together, so here is an unranked list of my favorites.
I’d seen Veronica in a number of things whilst growing up, but it was watching the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers during my teenage years that really made me take notice of her and have an active interest in following her career and revisiting things I’d previously seen but with a new perspective. I think it was Alien that really gave her a Scream Queen status (she did scream a lot in that movie), which resulted in her being a frequent horror movie actress. Not strictly a horror movie, but her portrayal of Felicia Alden in The Witches of Eastwick was absolutely superb. I find it fascinating that she often manages to put a comedic twang on to her characters even when it’s meant to be strictly horror.
I have a lot of time for Dee Wallace as she’s easily one of the best horror actresses of all time—she certainly knows how to deliver a scream. I remember the first time I ever watched the final scenes of The Howling and thinking to myself ‘where on earth did that earth-shattering scream come from? How does an actress manage that?’ One of my favorite performances of hers is in Cujo, as for the majority of the movie she gets to deliver an unreal performance due to there being such a little cast. She spends much of the movie locked in a car screaming with a screaming child whilst a dog headbutts the doors. Not many actresses could pull off those kinds of scenes, and not many others could give the performance that she did. It’s no wonder she was treated for emotional exhaustion for weeks after filming wrapped; it’s a performance that could probably never be repeated.
One other classic horror I need to talk about in this list is the original gore fest, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It has everything a horror movie should have: a classic deserted setting, a group of young (stupid) friends, and a terrifying villain in a nightmare-inspiring mask. The first time I saw this film, I was left genuinely shaken. And a lot of that was because of Marilyn Burns. Even though she escapes the Sawyer family in the end, escaping in the back of a pickup truck laughing and crying at the same time, the earlier scenes with her at the dinner table absolutely horrified me. I to this day think she didn’t know what was coming in that scene. Because she was screaming and crying in a way that is almost difficult to watch. It’s one of those scenes that make you feel like you shouldn’t be watching, recently replicated in movies like Hereditary and Ghost Story. You truly believed that she was screaming for her life, which adds volumes to the tension and horror of the scene. When she later runs through the woods, the sound of Leatherface’s chainsaw hot on her heels, your heart races with her, willing her on to escape. And the whole time she’s running, she still keeps on screaming. It’s bone-chilling. And for me, she is a true Queen of the scream.
Jamie Lee Curtis
It wouldn’t be a horror list without mentioning the behemoth that is John Carpenter’s Halloween. And you could argue that the original title wouldn’t have had the same effect on audiences if it wasn’t for 20-year-old Jamie Lee Curtis crying and screaming her way through that fateful night in Haddonfield. She became an instant horror icon, alongside Michael of course, and even watching it now, the way she portrays pure terror still gives me goosebumps. She was the perfect woman for the role in my opinion and she’s proved her worth in the horror world in numerous other roles too, such as The Fog, Prom Night, and who could forget Terror Train?! Curtis is a legendary Scream Queen who paved the way for young women in the horror industry. But where did she learn to scream like that you ask? Well, that could have something to do with her mother…
When I think of classic horror, my mind takes me back to a deserted Motel at night, a creepy house, and an even creepier motel manager. Psycho is the original and best horror movie of all time for me, which I watched when I was far too young to see just how messed up Mr. Bates actually was. And the iconic scene with Janet Leigh in the shower is arguably the most iconic horror scene ever filmed. It’s the first scene everybody thinks of as soon as the movie is mentioned, and will never be forgotten. Hitchcock was a genius, and Leigh was a casting dream for this role. She’s young, she’s beautiful, and man can she scream. It’s a style of filming that has heavily influenced horror over the years, and Leigh was an inspiration to aspiring young actors across the globe. She is the ultimate Scream Queen of the black and white old Hollywood classics, and she clearly passed on her skills to her daughter.
Obviously, there are far too many talented women to put on this list, but there are a few honorable mentions I wanted to dish out. Linda Blair for obvious reasons, Heather Langenkamp for her work in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Naomi Watts for incredible performances in The Ring & Funny Games, and Barbara Steele for her roles in horror classics such as The Pit and the Pendulum.
Those are my favorite Scream Queens; a topic that I’m sure will garner a wide variety of responses. Comment and let me know your choices!