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What is a Scream Queen?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A scream queen is an actress who does a great deal of work in the horror genre. Scream queens often become closely associated with this genre of film and television, sometimes despite a desire to break out and work in other aspects of the industry. Some examples of notable scream queens include: Far Wray, Scout Taylor-Compton, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Depending on the film and the actress, a scream queen may be a victim, or a female protagonist. Many start out as victims, taking bit parts as characters who will be killed partway through the story, and slowly work their way up to roles as protagonists. Whatever type of role she plays, a scream queen is classically young and beautiful, though her beauty may be more “girl next door” than supermodel, with an emphasis on the idea that a scream queen could be a real woman.

As the slang term for these actresses suggests, scream queens do a fair amount of screaming on film, but they also play romantic roles, and some are required to develop a range of acting skills, portraying an assortment of characters from intelligent, strong protagonists to wilting lilies. The performance of a scream queen can have a huge influence on the overall tone of the production, as it is easy for horror to cross the line into camp with the wrong actress or setting.

Women have been used in horror films for about as long as horror films have been made. Fetching female victims playing the role of damsel in distress were a key part of films in the silent era, when basic visual images were needed to propel the story. In addition to acting as victims and protagonists, of course, actresses also played villains, with some female villains being particularly notable for the amount of terror they were able to evoke in the audience, with or without sound.

Work as a scream queen can be quite varied. Some women find themselves working exclusively in the B movie genre, while others manage to make it into major motion pictures. Once a woman has appeared in horror a few times, she may also find herself locked into that genre and typecast as a scream queen for the rest of her career, which can be very frustrating. Rates of compensation vary: some scream queens are among the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, while others struggle to make do with work on low-budget films which cannot provide very notable salaries.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseTour researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By aLFredo — On Nov 20, 2011

I absolutely do not like anything that is purposefully scary, like horror films. In my opinion, I just don't find being scared entertaining.

When I was younger, I did find horror films entertaining, because they seemed so fake and silly.

Now, I guess since I know more about what people are capable of, the same horror movies that used to make me laugh, make me cry now or freak out now, so I try to avoid watching horror films at most costs.

It makes sense why so many actresses start their career as a scream queen, as sometimes the characters of horror films seems less developed than any other genres of film.

It is pretty easy for most women to scream, or at least it is for me. I can easily scream at the top of my lungs.

Also, since the scream queen roles are usually cliche, they seem easier to play than a complex role of a different genre of film.

By JimmyT — On Nov 20, 2011

@Izzy78 - You are absolutely right, having a woman in a horror film, filling the Scream Queen type of role absolutely is done to blur gender roles. I even believe I have heard Sarah Michelle Geller comment on this in an interview asking why she did Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Also, horror films are usually the sage way for people to make their way into the movie business and for some of the popular horror films, like Halloween for example, the Scream Queens in them go on to greater and bigger things, but they are always remembered for their role in that film and some even stay in that genre because they may have found their niche. Shawnee Smith is this way and Sarah Michelle Geller did it for quite a while.

By Izzy78 — On Nov 19, 2011

I have always seen the Scream Queen role as consisting of a woman that is consistently in horror films and not exactly following the damsel in distress type formula.

A Scream Queen that I can think of off hand definitely was not a damsel in distress was Shawnee Smith, who was in the Saw films and was actually one of the main antagonists. She was in several of the Saw films and was not at all a protagonist in the films. Yet, she is consistently referred to as a Scream Queen.

There is a certain something about having women in horror films and I think that it probably has something to do with the blurring of gender roles in this particular type of genre and trying to play off of the audience's assumption of women being weak and delicate people.

By kentuckycat — On Nov 18, 2011

@TreeMan - Some feel like horror films just have damsels in distress, however many people feel like it is the complete opposite. A Scream Queen is usually the main character and they are eventually the only one that can overcome the evil presence in the film. This actually empowers the female role in the film and has the complete opposite effect.

I agree that they continually use women to fill this role because it seems like more of an uphill climb to defeat evil. If it were a man trying to defeat something seemingly indestructible, then it would not have the exact same effect on the audience.

Most of the time a horror film follows the formula of overcoming the odds to defeat the evil in the film and having a female in the lead only allows the odds to be greater and this is done on purpose to further entice the audience.

By TreeMan — On Nov 18, 2011

The whole point of having a woman in a movie is to add additional stress on the audience and try to captivate them more in the film.

The usual model for a any movie that has some sort of villain or killer in it usually follows the same formula as having a masculine type of killer. There are some rare exceptions for this, but for the most part this is true and that is where the female comes into play.

Continually having females or damsels in distress in horror films gives the film more of a feeling of a person trying to overcome odds to defeat the villain or just survive against the masculine type of killer that cannot be defeated.

By lonelygod — On Nov 18, 2011

I would argue that Jamie Lee Curtis in the original Halloween movie was the the woman who really helped the scream queen role come back into the mainstream horror genre. Before that, the only truly iconic image I have of a scream queen is Fay Wray in the grasp of King Kong.

If you check out scream queen on Wikipedia you'll notice that women have been used in horror films since as far back as the silent film era. I wonder though, that if the role is past its prime yet. Do we really need a damsal in distress in every horror movie? Do you think it might be getting a bit cliche? I suppose it could be argued that most of what goes on in horror movies is a bit repetitive.

By manykitties2 — On Nov 17, 2011

Wow, I never really thought of Sarah Michelle Geller as a scream queen, as her early career had her mostly in daytime soaps, with her main roll being Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I always found Buffy to be one of the best female heroines on television, so I don't really see her as having the sort of horror ties that other scream queens do.

I suppose that if you were to go by Geller's work in movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Grudge that she would be a real scream queen show stopper, but I just don't think of her like that. I suppose the role of the scream queen is really open to opinion.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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