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. Jamie Lee Curtis is noted as a seminal example for her performances in the popular slasher films of the Halloween franchise. In recent years, the male counterpart has been labeled a scream king.
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 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". 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.
Sandra Peabody became known as a 'scream queen' after appearing in the horror films, The Last House on the Left (1972), Voices of Desire (1972) and Massage Parlor Murders (1973). Marilyn Burns became known as one after appearing in the film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Daria Nicolodi, who used to be Dario Argento’s partner, himself master of Italian horror cinema, played the role of the scream queen in most of his films (Deep Red, Inferno, Phenomena, Terror at the Opera). Also Mario Bava called on Nicolodi for his Shock (1977). In 1982, Nicolodi played Anne in Argento’s Tenebrae. Daria’s hysterics at the end of the picture remain memorable. 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, in both of which she appears together with Janet Leigh.
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 films worth mentioning include, but are not limited to, 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), A Nightmare on Elm Street, now considered a slasher-classic, with the introduction of supernatural serial killer Freddy Krueger, had its leading actress, Heather Langenkamp, dubbed a scream queen. Langenkamp went on to become one of the most influential scream queens. Linnea Quigley also became a scream queen during the 1980s, appearing specifically in low budget and cult classic films like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Return of the Living Dead among others. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985) star Mark Patton, has in recent years been touted at horror conventions as mainstream horror's first "male scream queen".
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 started her career on television as the title character in the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and went on to appear in other horror films made during the 1990s and new millennium. These include the second part of the aforementioned Scream series and The Grudge franchise.
In 2005, Elisha Cuthbert starred in the horror film House of Wax and Captivity in 2007, gained the status by those 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 its opinion of who qualified as a modern scream queens; the list included Sheri Moon Zombie, Jaimie Alexander, Andrea Bogart, Mercedes McNab, Tiffany Shepis, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Katie Cassidy, Naomi Watts, Katharine Isabelle, Briana Evigan, 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.
Not only have Danielle Harris and Katharine Isabelle had increased horror credits into the 2010s, but other actresses such as Chloë Grace Moretz, Olivia Cooke, sisters Vera Farmiga and Taissa Farmiga, Abigail Breslin, Emma Roberts, and Maika Monroe have also built careers in the horror genre. Moretz is known for her roles in remakes such as Let Me In (2010), Dark Shadows (2012), and Carrie (2013), and also appeared in The Amityville Horror (2005), Room 6 (2006), Wicked Little Things (2006), Hallowed Ground (2007), and The Eye (2008). Cooke appeared in The Quiet Ones (2014) and Ouija (2014), while Vera Farmiga had lead roles in Joshua (2007), Orphan (2009), The Conjuring (2013), and The Conjuring 2 (2016). Cooke and Vera Farmiga also star 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) and The Final Girls (2015). Breslin first appeared in the film Signs (2002) and went on to appear in Zombieland (2010), The Call (2013), Haunter (2013), Maggie (2015), and Final Girl (2015). Roberts co-starred in Scream 4 (2011) and The Blackcoat's Daughter (2015), and appeared in the series Scream Queens with Breslin. 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.