The horror genre gets a bad reputation for not welcoming women or just straight up hating them. As a horror fan, I must admit that this can sometimes be the case. However, the genre is also a hub of iconic female characters.
Scream queens and final girls
From innocent and fragile, to strong and brave, or a mix of both, these female characters are not only iconic but also tend to be the central characters of the respective plot.
If don’t know yet, I am obviously talking about the girls and women known as the scream queens. This nickname comes from the fact that, well, they scream a lot! After all, it’s not unusual that a scream queen is also a final girl.
What is a final girl, you ask? These girls are usually the final character standing against the villain in a horror movie. A very common trope in the slasher subgenre (think Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees), but they can be found in almost every type of horror narrative.
Initially, these characters were used as moral compasses for the films. They would be surrounded by morally reprehensive teen friends that would, most definitely, be punished for their bad and promiscuous behaviour, except for our final girl that is. They were righteous and pure and were the only ones capable to defeat the monsters and killers.
Fortunately, the character evolved and the scream queens started to take up more interesting shapes and colours. They no longer were the pure innocent babysitters. They could also be complicated and not the most likeable characters out there. However, one characteristic remained in every single version that the scream queens went through: they were smart, resourceful, and ready to kick some ass!
So now, without further ado, let’s talk about the top ten greatest scream queens to bless our screen with their beautiful squeaks and shouts!
N#10 – Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960)
We could not have this list without our very first scream queen. Marion Crane (played by the incredible Janet Leigh) establishes some of the rules to what the archetype of a scream queen would become, but at the same type breaks most of them!
We have a resourceful woman who has made a bad decision but questions if she should stick to her actions or turn back and repent. She is also not unaware of Norman Bates being a, let’s say, unsafe person, to be around. She even takes measures to lock the doors and protect herself. However, she has walked into the lion’s lair and there is no way out.
In many ways, Marion mirrors more accurately the immoral friends who get punished for their misdeeds. It is her sister Lila Crane (played by Vera Miles) who better follows the final girl rule book.
However, it is impossible to deny Marion her deserved space in the canon. After all, is not everyone who manages to give us such iconic screams while being murdered in a shower?
N#9 – Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas (1974)
On Christmas Eve, a sorority house is terrorized by strange phone calls and soon sisters start to disappear. The premise of Black Christmas could belong to any slasher-type film: young women being threatened and attacked by a vicious murderer. However, the film is much more than a body count flick and a lot of that is due to the incredible characters that populate this world.
Jess Bradford (played by the talented Olivia Hussey) is our guide to understanding this group of women, even though the film almost feels like an assembly piece at times. Jess spends most of the film trying to help her friends find a middle ground amongst themselves, dealing with her boyfriend who does not want to accept her breaking up the relationship, and all the while trying to save her friends and herself from getting killed.
Black Christmas is truly a beautiful piece of storytelling with an almost all-female cast. The film gives all of them a sense of humanity that really makes our hearts break when they are in peril. And obviously, it also gives us one of the most terrifying endings in horror history. Poor Jess!
N#8 – Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Apparently, 1974 was a big year for scream queens! How could we not talk about the iconic Sally Hardesty (played by Marilyn Burns)?
If you are unfamiliar with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, stop reading this now and go watch it. Considered to be one of the grimiest, sweatiest, and most violent movies ever, there is an incredibly small amount of blood and gore shown on screen. Tobe Hooper, the director, declared that was always his intention. He wanted to make a movie that implied horror without actually showing too much.
The way he found to create the atmosphere of fear that he wanted without having to show too much was through cinematic language and, of course, the acting. This is where Marilyn Burns comes in. From the moment Leather Face and Sally first encounter onwards, Marilyn projects so much terror that we feel compelled to keep our eyes on her in fear of something happening to Sally if we look away.
From start to finish, Sally is determined not to give up as she jumps out of a window twice in order to escape this deranged family. When she is captured and made to dine with them, we are put through one of the most agonizing scenes in cinematic horror history all because of Sally’s constant screams and cries for freedom. That is exactly what she gets at the end of the film; running from Leather Face and jumping in the back of the car all bloodied howling crying laughter that will haunt your dreams.
N#7 – Lupita Nyong’o in Us (2019)
Let’s jump forward in time to talk about a different kind of scream queen. All the other names in this list are very much the clear hero of the story, their movies never making you question whether to trust them or not. Except for Red.
If you still haven’t watched Us, stop reading right now, spoilers are ahead!
Unlike most scream queens, Red is initially set up as our villain. She shows up at Adelaide’s doorstep with the clear intention to kill her and take up her place. However, as the story unfolds we discover that Adelaide is the actual “monster” of the story and Red is our actual hero who was captured and tortured by Adelaide when she was a kid.
This role reversal creates an interesting question: who is deserving of freedom and who is not? Who gets to decide that? Lupita Nyong’o is capable of creating a sense of both empathy and fear towards Red that, with a raspy scream, makes us question everything that we thought we knew about what a scream queen was.
N#6 – Drew Barrymore in Scream (1996)
With one single scene in the whole film, Casey Becker became one of the most iconic scream queens in history.
When Drew Barrymore read the script for the movie, she knew instantly that she had to play Casey. She understood that people would expect that she, a young, beautiful, blonde, well-established star would be playing the leading role, the final girl. So, together with the horror genius Wes Craven, they decided she should be killed off in the first 12 minutes of the story.
With a single scene where she is challenged by the killer to a horror movie trivia quiz in order to save her life, Barrymore pulls the rug from under the audience and in one single move makes us question what we know about horror movies whilst paying homage to the original scream queen: Marion Crane!
N#5 – Toni Collete in Hereditary (2018)
Annie is a troubled woman with troubled family life. Her mother just died but she doesn’t really feel sad. Actually, she is relieved. Her son doesn’t really like her, her daughter is always distracted and distant, and her husband is just trying to keep the family together.
Ari Aster’s feature debut is a true masterpiece, a film that travels between devastating and terrifying, a showcase of what the horror genre can achieve when created by people who understand the power that fear has over people’s lives.
Toni Collete as Annie is a truly mesmerizing performance. She takes us on a journey of grief, not spearing the audience a single moment of comfort. Ari Aster explained that he asked Collete to give a “kamikaze” performance and, oh boy, didn’t she give one!
N#4 – Neve Campbell in Scream (1996)
Another entry from the 90’s classic, we could not have this list without the incredible Sidney Prescott.
Scream is a movie with clear metalinguistic intentions. In the world of Scream, the characters are familiar with horror movies – something rarer in the genre – and are constantly referencing or deliberately recreating the tropes of the genre. However, since they are aware of what happens in a horror movie they are also able to break the stereotypes.
This is what Sidney Prescott is here for and we love to see her fighting teeth and nails against her and her friend’s life’s when she was, according to horror tropes, to just run and scream.
N#3 – Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019)
You will never be the same after you hear Dani’s cries. Another incredible film from Ari Aster, Midsommar is another piece about grief and its devastating yet formative effects on someone’s life.
After Dani loses her family, she goes on a trip with her distant boyfriend and his friends to a summer festival in an isolated community. Florence Pugh completely dominates the film, gripping us by the feelings and taking us on an emotional roller coaster only to give a twistedly cathartic ending.
N#2 – Maika Monroe in It Follows (2014)
So, do you remember all the rules about being a final girl or a scream queen? You can throw the rule book in the bin because in It Follows, Jay pretty much ignores all of them.
Haunted by a monster that follows whoever last had sex with the person who was previously haunted, Jay finds herself in a paradox: she is in danger because she had sex but her only way out of it is to have sex again. This movie is a masterful example of how to create the feel and atmosphere of a genre while breaking all of the rules in the playbook.
Jay is a complex and mysterious character that will keep you on your toes throughout the story.
N#1 – Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978)
It would be unfair to have anyone else in this position. Laurie Strode, performed by the incredibly talented Jamie Lee Curtis was the first true scream queen in the horror genre.
She was the one to set the rules and make us retrospectively assign them to characters from films before her arrival. If it wasn’t for Laurie and her nice but no shenanigans personality, is fair to say we would not have the final girls – dare I say – horror movies of today.
Thank you, Laurie Strode, for sticking up for yourself and giving us such iconic screams on screen.
What do you think of this list? Did I miss any important scream queen? Let us know who are your favorites in the comments!