Practically since there were movies, there have been scream queens. One of the earliest film adaptations was 1910’s Frankenstein, which featured the requisite damsel in distress. Since then, scream queens have gone through many changes, often reflecting the times that produced them. We’ve certainly come a long way from women waiting for men to rescue them from the villains of the piece.
Nowadays, women are much more likely to take matters into their own hands, and, in some cases, actually actively pursue the bad guys. Indeed, horror is perhaps the only genre in which women are more often the victors over the aggressors than the men, which should be more acknowledged than it is by naysayers of the genre. Not all of the following women make it out alive – keep in mind these are “scream queens,” not necessarily “final girls” – but neither are they all pushovers waiting for their men to save the day.
In honor of Women in Horror Month, here are 12 of the top 25 scream queens of all time! (Be sure to click on names for more info and film titles for trailers!)
25. Marilyn Burns
Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, appropriately enough, the lovely Marilyn is notable on this list in that she is the one of the few whose entire resume is made up of fear films. Featured in such decent-if-trashy flicks as 1981’s Kiss Daddy Goodbye and 1985’s Future-Kill, her real reason for making the list is the terror trifecta that includes her role as real-life Manson driver Linda Kasabian (yes, it’s where the band got their name) in the original Helter Skelter (1976). It also includes her two gigs with horror specialist Tobe Hooper, 1976’s Eaten Alive (also featuring then-future “Freddy Kruger” Robert Englund) and the 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
The nerve-shredding hysteria in TCM alone is reason enough to include her. If there’s a more convincing portrayal of outright lunacy in the face of evil than hers, I’m not sure I want to see it. (Though Susan Lanier in the original The Hills Have Eyes comes pretty close.) She also crops up in a cameo in two of the TCM sequels, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation as- what else? – a mental patient. That about sums it up.
Look for her next in the horror flick, In a Madman’s World, the last film she completed before her untimely death in 2014, which is currently in post-production at the time of this article’s writing.
24. Sharni Vinson
Is one horror movie justification for inclusion on a list of the all-time greats? It is if it’s this role, truly one of the most epic final girls and scream queens ever: Erin from 2011’s You’re Next. A trained survivalist from the Australian outback, she gives the villains in this movie a little more than they bargained for in the cracker-jack home invasion thriller. It also features another all-time scream queen great that made my list, Barbara Crampton.
Erin is fierce, canny, intelligent, take-charge and pretty much single-handedly defeats her would-be killers, all the while doing her best to keep everyone safe. Vinson has since gone on to somewhat embrace her newly-acquired SQ status with roles in the shark attack flick Bait and the remake of the classic Aussie horror flick Patrick, though another part like Erin has eluded her thus far.
Perhaps it will arrive in her latest flick, From a House on Willow Street, which has yet to be released in the States as of this writing. Regardless, all it really takes is one classic role to cement one’s status in the horror, and You’re Next is a doozy, which is why Vinson makes the cut for me.
This Hungarian hottie may have made early appearances in Woody Allen’s Zelig and in Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy, but it was straight to the B’s for our girl soon afterwards, fortunately for horror and sci-fi fans. Her underrated resume runs the gamut from entries in the long-running holiday-themed fear franchises Friday the 13th (Part VII: The New Blood) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (the infamous Part 2) to cult curios like Nightwish, Silent Madness (originally in 3-D), Virtual Encounters, and the feminist Western/Johnny Guitar-homage Petticoat Planet (“I have nothing against men- I think every girl should own one,” says Liz in one memorable moment.)
She was usually the good girl, but occasionally she played tough, in the likes of such films as Necromancer, Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (with fellow 80’s screamer Brinke Stevens), and the immortally-titled Attack of the Killer Bimbos, which beat Thelma and Louise to the punch with its tale of two much-maligned women framed for murder who go on the run. The latter film is actually more forward-thinking than you might expect, given that title. (Naturally, it’s the guys who label them as “bimbos,” not the girls themselves.)
Okay, so her output ain’t exactly Shakespeare, but her sweetness and naivety made even her frequent nude scenes seem rather innocent, a quality that sets her apart from the rest of the pack. Where someone like Barbara Crampton seems to be poking fun at herself, Liz doesn’t seem aware there is a joke. She’s just herself, and that’s good enough to earn her a spot on the list, even if it is a bit of a sentimental favorite. But seriously, is there anything cuter than her reaction to her impending death in Silent Night, Deadly Night 2? Gulp, indeed.
22. Jill Schoelen
With one of the more star-studded resumes on the list, Jill’s is a face that should be familiar to those who grew up in the 80’s, even if her name isn’t. Resembling a young Demi Moore with a similarly husky voice, she has worked with Nicholas Cage, Emilio Estevez, Drew Barrymore, Keanu Reeves, Laura Dern, Dick Van Dyke, Charles Durning, and Noah Wyle, among other famous names. She was also engaged to another co-star, Brad Pitt, long before anyone knew who he was.
And yet, her name rarely comes up in these sorts of lists, despite some pretty good genre credits, including Wes Craven’s Chiller, the cult-classic The Stepfather (with future Lost star Terry O’Quinn as the titular terror), Curse II: The Bite, Cutting Class (with Pitt), The Phantom of the Opera (with Robert Englund), When a Stranger Calls Back (the direct sequel to the original slasher classic) and one of my all-time fave slashers, the underrated Popcorn.
She dropped out of the biz in 1995 after getting married to a film composer (Anthony Marinelli, who also worked with Michael Jackson on “Thriller”) but she’s ripe for a comeback, as, say, the mom of another modern-day scream queen. Come back, Jill!
Canadian actress Isabelle became an instant horror favorite with an appearance in the cult classic Ginger Snaps, which went on to spawn two more films in the series. Since then, she’s done plenty of work within the genre, both on TV (Goosebumps, The X-Files,Supernatural, Hannibal) and the big screen alike. Her other credits include the likes of Disturbing Behavior, Bones (with Snoop Dogg!), Freddy Vs. Jason, the underrated TV-remake of Carrie, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days, Vampire, See No Evil 2 and The Girl in the Photographs.
However, the real reason for her inclusion here, Ginger Snaps notwithstanding, is her excellent turn in the Soska Sisters favorite American Mary, which is a tour de force of a performance that should have got her more noticed. Granted, she’s always worked steadily in the business, but nonetheless, she’s one of those actresses that should be a much bigger name than she is. Part of the reason I expanded this list with more entries was to include her, so hopefully, it will help that much more to put her on people’s radar. Regardless, she’s awesome and I love her. You should too.
20. Pamela Franklin
Pamela represents another interesting subcategory of scream queens, the former child star. She made a particularly memorable debut in one of the all-time great fear film classics, 1961’s The Innocents and was in the thriller The Nanny in ‘65 with Bette Davis, before resurfacing as an adult screamer in 1970’s And Soon the Darkness.
She also became a TV staple, appearing on such spooky shows as Strange Report, Ghost Story, and Thriller, as well as TV-movies like the camp classic Satan’s School for Girls (which was remade in 2000 with bad girl Shannen Doherty). It was her big screen flicks which solidified her reputation, however, including the haunted house classic, The Legend of Hell House, The Witching (aka Necromancy) and the underrated H.G. Wells’ adaptation The Food of the Gods, a nature-gone-amuck thriller with giant grub worms, rats, wasps and even a massive killer chicken! Hey, it’s better than it sounds…
19. Nancy Allen
As the wife of thriller auteur Brian DePalma, Nancy got a lot of flak for nepotism, but it was unfairly deserved. She appeared in some of horror and sci-fi’s greatest highlights, with or without her hubby. Check out this list: 1976’s Carrie, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out (all with DePalma at the helm); Strange Invaders, The Philadelphia Experiment, Robocop 1-3, and Poltergeist 3. (Okay, so that last one kind of blew, but nobody’s perfect).
There’s more where that comes from, but you get the idea. Nancy excels at playing mean girls (she’s the one who dumps the pig’s blood on Carrie), tough girls (the Robocop films), and trampy ones (she’s a hooker in both Dressed to Kill and Blow Out – thanks, Brian!). Whatever the case, she may well be the most underrated actress on this list. Any one of the aforementioned films is well worth your time, but start with her ex-hubby’s flicks and work your way from there.
18. Julie Strain
With the possible exceptions of Linnea Quigley and Debbie Rochon, this may be the most self-aware of all the girls on this list. She’s not just in on the joke; she realizes she’s part of the joke. Few scream queens are as ready-for-anything as Jules, the “Queen of the B-Movies,” who got into the game relatively late, making her debut at nearly 30 in the “Exorcist” spoof Repossessed, shortly thereafter landing a spot as Penthouse Pet of the Year in 1993.
She started out doing Shannon Tweed-style erotic thrillers (think sub-par Basic Instincts) before switching gears to horror with Evil Lives. Other genre efforts include Witchcraft IV: The Virgin Heart, The Unnamable 2, Psycho Cop 2, Zombiegeddon, Blood Gnome, and Troma’s Tales from the Crapper. Her career includes a jaw-dropping 100+ genre films in all, and though retired, she still looks pretty smokin’ hot in her 50’s, I might add.
She has a recurring super-heroine in “Heavy Metal” magazine (named Julie, of course) that spawned a feature-length animated film, HM2000 and her own action figure. She was also married to that magazine’s editor-in-chief, Kevin Eastman – perhaps better known as the co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – for a time. She’s also been painted by renown fantasy artists Royo, Olivia, and Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell. Not too shabby! As her autobiography puts it, she’s “Six Foot One and Worth the Climb.”
I have a long-standing crush on the original J-Lo – or, as her friends call her, “Love” – that goes way back to Party of Five. Imagine my surprise when she made the jump into horror movies with the I Know What You Did Last Summer series, which remain among my fave slashers. (Well, the ones with J-Love, at least – the less said about the third one, the better.)
She parlayed that success into a five-season run as the, um, titular (stop that snickering) Ghost Whisperer,for which she won two consecutive Saturn Awards, aka the Oscars for Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy. More recently, she co-starred on the serial killer thriller CBS show Criminal Minds for a season, before dropping out to raise her first child. She also starred as the Devil herself, in Shortcut to Happiness, a sort of Bedazzled-lite.
Though she’s been inactive for a few years, due to her marriage and the birth of a second child, hopefully Hewitt will be back to form before too long. Can I get a I Still Know What You Did the Summer Before the Last One? Or whatever? “What are you waiting for?!!!!” Regardless, she remains one of the more likable and charming scream queens of all time in my book.
16. Emma Roberts
One of the most recent additions to my list, the daughter of Eric and niece of Julia, has admittedly divided a lot of horror fans on her worthiness as a viable scream queen. Though, some of it might be related to her oft-fiery, on-again-off-again relationship to the much-drooled over Evan Peters. However, there’s no denying her credentials, which include starring roles on not one-but-two horror-themed TV series, as well as a “killer” role in one of horror’s most successful franchises, the Scream movies.
It all began with her turn as the Neve Campbell character Sidney Prescott’s cousin in 2011’s Scream 4,which marked the beginning of Robert’s transition from kid stuff like Nickelodeon’s Unfabulous, a decent turn as Nancy Drew in 2007, and the likes of Aquamarine and Hotel for Dogs, to a more serious actress in a host of indie films designed to make people take notice.
The gambit worked, and Roberts soon found her break-out role in a scene-stealing turn on American Horror Story: Coven, which was so good that show creator Ryan Murphy contemplated spinning off her, and some of the other characters, onto their own show. Though that ultimately fell through – which may partially account for the somewhat rushed ending of that season – Murphy went on to craft the indelible character of Chanel Oberlin for her in – what else? – Scream Queens.
Although reactions to the show have been mixed, one thing is for sure: Roberts is killing it. You try memorizing the scads of dialogue Murphy and his writers come up for Roberts every episode, much less delivering it at the fast-talking rate she does, and then get back to me. Personally, I think she’s a hoot and a half, and though the show could stand with a few more bona fide scream queens in the mix- no disrespect to Jamie Lee Curtis, who is obviously awesome. It’s a lot of fun, if a bit on the slight side at times.
Roberts is a big reason for that, and I look forward to seeing what she does next, which includes the forthcoming horror flick The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the thriller Spinning Man, and the true-crime drama Billionaire Boys Club, co-starring her Scream Queens pal Billie Lourd, aka Carrie Fisher’s daughter. Even if Scream Queens doesn’t get renewed, it seems a safe bet that she’ll return to American Horror Story at the very least, what with it having already been announced that there will be a return to the “Coven” witches soon. Love her or hate her, she’s a spitfire and I dig what she’s putting out.
Another actress on the list that made her bones mostly off the back of a single franchise. What Langenkamp lacks in horror-centric roles, she more than makes up for in being one of the all-time great final girls in one of its most-beloved franchises, the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
Though, to be fair, she has cropped up in a few more fear films, including Wes Craven’s underrated Shocker, an episode of the horror anthology series Perversions of Science, a few episodes of American Horror Story (during the Freak Show season), and the films The Butterfly Room (featuring a host of other fellow scream queens), Home and the forthcoming Hellraiser: Judgment..
Still, when people think of Langenkamp, it’s undeniably because of her association with Nightmare on Elm Street. After all, hers was a new breed of slasher heroine: one that not only took charge of her fate, but proactively sought to change it by taking on her fears head on – as well as the formidable foe that was Freddy Kruger. Her methods of doing so were creative, clever, and made her a true force to be reckoned with – who can forget all those booby traps she set up to defeat Kruger in the first NOES?
Factor in her triumphant return to the series in Part 3, The Dream Warriors and an ahead-of-its-time turn in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in which “reality” collided with fantasy, and you have three movies that any scream queen would be proud to have on their resume.
What she lacks in horror credits, she more than makes up for in formidable screen presence and bona fide growth as both an actress and within the character she helped create. That’s why she makes the list for me, and why I suspect her following endures. To paraphrase the title of her documentary, “She Is Nancy.”
A fellow Southerner like myself, the Atlanta, Georgia native Moretz, like Pamela Franklin before her, started in the business at a very young age, making her big screen debut at all of 8 in the Amityville Horror remake in 2005. Though she’s dabbled in all manner of genres, she’s returned to horror time and again, which is why I consider one of the more formidable legendary scream queens in the making.
At the ripe old age of 20, her resume – nearly 40 movies strong, and that’s not counting voiceover work and TV show appearances – rivals a lot of women twice her age, especially within the horror genre. Check out this list: Room 6, Wicked Little Things, Hallowed Ground, the remakes of The Eye, Carrie and Let the Right One In. Plus the adaptations of TV’s Dark Shadows (she was aptly cast as the daughter of Michelle Pfeiffer, being a dead ringer for the actress at around that age), Dark Places and the Y/A sci-fi actioner The Fifth Wave.
Her non-horror stuff is also impressive, including, of course, her star-making turn in the Kick Ass movies, as well as solid turns in the likes of Texas Killing Fields, Hick (her mirror-aided take on Taxi Driver is priceless), Scorsese’s Hugo, Clouds of Sils Maria, the Y/A adaptations If I Stay and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the TV-show movie reboot The Equalizer, and a fun role in the underappreciated comedy sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.
Indeed, her choices in roles are pretty impeccable for someone her age, while still allowing for the occasional “fun” part, which bodes well for her future, which includes a remake of Dario Argento’s classic Suspiria on the horizon. Though why they chose acting train wreck Dakota Johnson for the lead instead of Moretz is anyone’s guess. This is one actress to keep an eye on, moving forward, that’s for sure.
That about does it for part one of my list. Keep an eye out for the top 13 scream queens in part two soon. Be sure to let me know if your favorite scream queen made the list so far!