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What Even Is a Scream Queen?

Seven Days of Scream Queens: Lurking in the shadows or center-stage, you know a scream queen when you see one. But what does the tossed-around term actually mean in the ever-mutating horror genre?

Elsa Lanchester in "The Bride of Frankenstein"

Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein”

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IndieWire's Seven Days of Scream Queens

Evoking the idiotic but undeniably iconic image of a shrieking woman and her bouncing boobs running for their lives, the term “scream queen” has shaped horror actresses’ careers ever since Fay Wray climbed the Empire State Building with King Kong in 1933. And yet, the half-funny play on words, nebulously defined and as outdated as the surface-level conceit it describes, doesn’t mean much of anything to the modern moviegoer anymore.

Unlike the “final girl” — a phrase coined and carefully considered in Carol J. Clover’s 1992 “Men, Women, and Chainsaws,” describing the scrappy last victim in your basic slasher — scream queens still don’t have a shared definition among contemporary critics. The term has been retrofitted to acknowledge undeniable legends of the genre like Elsa Lanchester, the “Bride of Frankenstein” herself, and applied to newer genre mainstay actresses from Toni Collette to Jenna Ortega.

But outside of a string of 2015 think-pieces written in the wake of Ryan Murphy’s “Scream Queens,” the phrase hasn’t enjoyed serious mainstream reassessment since Laurie Strode first bested Michael Myers in 1978. Are scream queens usually villains or victims? Are they constrained by gender expression or feminist philosophy? What to make of the filmmakers behind the scenes: Are they not scream queens in their own regal right?

Like concerned townspeople trying to box in The Blob, Kate Erbland and Alison Foreman kick off IndieWire’s Seven Days of Scream Queens series with a discussion of the ever-mutating trope.

What are scream queens historically? 

ALISON FOREMAN: After Wray’s dazzling damsel-in-distress act for “King Kong,” casting directors began to shorthand these centerpiece monster movie performances as scream queen roles: using the snappy description to draw talent and audiences toward projects anchored by leading ladies’ panic-stricken beauty and piercing pipes. Thanks to typecasting, “scream queen” soon doubled as a description for female performers frequent to the genre. Wray appeared in “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” and “The Vampire Bat” around the same time as “King Kong.”

In 1960, Janet Leigh made her famed appearance as shower stabbing victim Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful “Psycho.” The unforgettable black-and-white sequence — Leigh’s agonized face splashed with inky-black blood and silhouetted by a mysterious knife-wielding killer — best captures how scream queens were seen to that point: as striking, would-be pin cushions whose loveliness made the nightmares their characters endured that much more tragic and terrifying. (Yeah, the ‘60s weren’t kind to women.)

By 1978, however, Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis would be the champion of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as the cunning babysitter Laurie Strode. Her brilliant and brave faceoff with the notorious Michael Myers would spur six sequels across two timelines, permanently changing the trajectory for other franchise stars, including Neve Campbell in “Scream.” Considered among the most successful independent films ever made, “Halloween” was a surprise box office success that elevated scream queen from cutesy advertising label to genre honorific and box office asset.

(Left to right): Fay Wray promoting "King Kong," Janet Leigh in "Psycho," and Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" (1978)

(Left to right): Fay Wray promoting “King Kong,” Janet Leigh in “Psycho,” and Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” (1978)

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KATE ERBLAND: But while Curtis does feel like the most recognizable scream queen — at least of the last four decades — she is more often remembered as a “final girl” type. Look no further than this week’s big new release, “Halloween Kills,” in which she takes on the role for the seventh time (and, as you note, somehow also the second timeline, phew). But perhaps what so many people associate with being a final girl (like, well, living) actually applies to the way we’d like to think of scream queens: they have to rely on their own sheer force of will, they survive (in one form or another), and they are always at the heart of the horror and heart of what we’re seeing on the big screen.

Early on, that was not the case so much, and said queens were often at the mercy of instantly outdated tropes like “just screams a lot,” “wears tight T-shirts,” or “is gonna die while, uh, also screaming and wearing tight clothes.” Even within these confines, plenty of big stars broke out and proved that the moniker could be so, so much more.

Based on the enduring success of film franchises like “Halloween” (do we really think this thing is gonna “end” now? nah), “Scream” (which seems stronger than ever), and hell, even the new “Hellraiser” (lady Pinhead! lady Pinhead!), the scream queen tent is growing bigger and stronger than ever. Part of that is the constant evolution the genre enjoys, part of that is due to the wonderful talents who have gravitated toward these roles, and part of that is the ever-shifting nature of horror itself. In w0 years, “scream queen” is likely to be even more different, and to me, that’s only a good thing.

(Left to right): Neve Campbell in "Scream" (2022), Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" (2018), and Jamie Clayton in "Hellraiser" (2022)

(Left to right): Neve Campbell in “Scream” (2022), Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” (2018), and Jamie Clayton in “Hellraiser” (2022)

Everett Collection

What is a scream queen in the contemporary sense? 

ERBLAND: OK, so what is a scream queen now then? One thing we discussed early on when putting together this package was the idea that filmmakers can be scream queens, an idea you put forth and that we both instantly made us say,“yes, YES, YESSS!!” So many of the best, brightest, and boldest horror films in recent years have been delivered to us from female filmmakers with a distinctly female edge, scream queen stories for the next generation that so very clearly love and respect what came before.

With that in mind: my current reign of scream queens are stacked to the gills with female filmmakers who bring that spirit to their work. Off the top of my head: Karyn Kusama, Leigh Janiak, Jennifer Kent, Nia DaCosta, Issa Lopez, Julia Ducournau, Sophia Takal, Mariama Diallo, Prano Bailey-Bond, Rose Glass, and Alice Lowe. And that’s just the start. 

And yes, many of them work with actresses who have also turned being on-screen scream queens into their bread and butter. Who is of those ranks for you?

FOREMAN: Among the more steadily busy talents working in Hollywood today, Toni Collette was tearing roles apart years before “Hereditary” actualized the scream queen greatness prophesied to her in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” She’s the best part of numerous lesser-known horror titles (including the criminally under-appreciated holiday romp “Krampus” and Dan Gilroy’s horror comedy “Velvet Buzzsaw”). Still, her performance in “Hereditary” as Annie Graham — “I am your MOTHER!” — left an indelible impression on the horror landscape that’s permanently raised the bar for scream queens who embody both predator and prey in a single performance.

Toni Collette in "Hereditary" and Jenna Ortega in "Scream" (2022)

(Left to right): Toni Collette in “Hereditary” and Jenna Ortega in “Scream” (2022)

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From “Scream” to “X,” Jenna Ortega has captured a similar mischievous duality in her recent slew of scream queen parts. She’ll take that act to the small screen next in Netflix’s “The Addams Family,” which is fitting not only because Wednesday is a classic case of atypical-but-undeniable scream queen but also because Christina Ricci feels an apt comparison to Ortega’s knack for appearing both appropriately terrified and somehow at ease in horror settings. Fellow Ti West player Mia Goth feels similarly in on the joke, vying against Collette for best villain monologue in recent horror memory with “Pearl” while spectacularly doubling as final girl and villain in its predecessor “X.”

A Janet Leigh for the contemporary horror renaissance, Maika Monroe played the bone-chilling scares of “It Follows” straight but to tremendous effect. Florence Pugh did the same with Ari Aster’s triumphant sophomore outing “Midsommar,” saving that knife-twist smirk for a final shot few who saw it could ever forget. Samara Weaving in “Ready or Not,” Anya-Taylor Joy in “The Witch” and “Last Night in Soho,” the entire cast of “Bodies, Bodies, Bodies”: the wealth of tremendous terrifying performances from women in recent years borders on embarrassingly rich.

Mia Goth in "Pearl" and Keke Palmer in "Nope"

(Left to right): Mia Goth in “Pearl” and Keke Palmer in “Nope”

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It’s enough to make me consider recency bias when offering up an answer like Keke Palmer in “Nope,” if only to cull the pool to something manageable. But then I re-watch that movie — and consider Palmer’s deeply funny performances in both Ryan Murphy “Scream Queens” and various “American Horror Story” seasons — and there’s no denying that she fits the moniker. From pitch-perfect line deliveries (“How am a liability?”) to reactions so big they nearly dwarfed the aliens in the sky, Palmer rode her role in “Nope” for all it was worth: adding not just to the growing legacy of Monkeypaw Productions but cementing the character of Emerald Haywood as a woman worth remembering in the horror hall of fame. Even without a laundry list of titles like Collette’s, Palmer’s impact feels worth mentioning.

What — if anything — is a scream queen not

FOREMAN: That said — and I’m not one for gate-keeping much — but there is a bit of Syndrome from “The Incredibles” (“When everyone’s super, no one will be…”) in the approach we’re taking with this label. If you broaden the definition of scream queen to include any performer in any kind of horror role — as well as influential horror filmmakers — you’re left with a bit of a participation trophy-type title.

Are there are real constraints to this honorific? Do you think it matters how it’s applied?

ERBLAND: One thing I think we’re dancing around here is a real toughie: are final girls and scream queens the same thing? I still think no, but it’s a little bit of a case of “well, you know it when you see it.” But can you also know when you don’t see it? I think so, too, and I sure hope I can get to the heart of that. (Pauses to tie self into word-knots.)

Up top, I pointed out a scream queen’s ability to survive (whatever meaning you ascribe to that) as one of the key elements to the honorific, and I think that also means in terms of their cultural legacy as much as what we see on-screen. The scream queens we’ve mentioned before are all iconic in their own ways, and have managed to remain lodged in our cultural consciousness — and their literal films and franchises! — for years, even decades to come. Maybe they don’t survive, but they do endure.

(Left to right): Director Jennifer Kent and "The Babadook" stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman

(Left to right): Director Jennifer Kent and “The Babadook” stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman

So the only real constraint to me is, are these scream queens the most enduring part of their respective films? Every single queen we’ve mentioned fits that to a tee. These films aren’t the same without them, and you can’t picture them without said queens. They are baked into the very fabric (and blood and guts and gore) of these stories. Don’t pass that (admittedly, personal) metric, and it’s time to remove your crown ASAP. It is indeed an honor, and you have to be up to snuff for it.

But, of course, all these semantic squabbles still obscure another important idea: can a man be a scream queen (king!)? Earlier this week, I was perusing the Wikipedia page for the “Insidious” series to get me caught up before star Patrick Wilson returns for the franchise’s fifth film (and even directs it!). As his own Wiki reminds us, Wilson is something of a scream king, and as soon as I read those very words, lo and behold, I knew them to be true. Where do you fall on the scream king debate?

FOREMAN: I like your narrowing (or is it broadening?) of the scream queen definition to encompass any artist whose point of view is the most enduring aspect of the elite horror title with which they’re associated: “Are these scream queens the most enduring part of their respective films?” That feels sharp enough to seriously consider.

It’s worth noting that more than one talent associated with a film might deserve the title. Famous scream queen package deals include the Wayans brothers’ “Scary Movie” with Anna Faris and Regina Hall; iconic “Scream” duo Courteney Cox and Neve Campbell; the orbiting supernovas that are Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried in “Jennifer’s Body”; or in the case of a film like “The Babadook,” star Essie Davis and writer-director Jennifer Kent, who feel equally responsible for the nightmarish impression their film leaves. Crowns for them both!

(Left to right): Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox in "Jennifer's Body"

(Left to right): Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox in “Jennifer’s Body”

Everett Collection

That logic stabs at the heart of your other question, though. By that “Babadook” logic, one could take a film like “Us” — iconic scream queen worthy performance from Lupita Nyong’o, bringing to life a character written, directed, and designed by Jordan Peele that’s rooted in themes of motherhood and societal othering — and ask if gender should delineate if one is instantly regarded a queen and the other a king. I’d argue no.

Horror (as you and I have discussed thanks to some recent too-homophobic-to-be-linked “Child’s Play” discourse) is a genre rooted in defying the norms and bending arbitrary constructs like gender. Shudder’s recent “Queer for Fear: The History of Gay Horror” digs into the LGBTQ underpinnings that have long kept terrifying tales taut and dazzling, from coded character sexuality to more explicit social criticism. Like the art of drag — where the king vs. queen debate rages too — many of the most impactful horror movies acknowledge the inherent role gender expression plays in what scares us, from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to “Hellraiser.”

(Left to right): Bill Skarsgård in "Barbarian," Daniel Kaluuya in "Get Out," and Justin Long in "Tusk"

(Left to right): Bill Skarsgård in “Barbarian,” Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out,” and Justin Long in “Tusk”

Everett Collection

Unfortunately, certain moviegoers haven’t accepted — and, in some cases, still don’t accept — the validity of queer horror. “Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street” is another documentary worth checking out that chronicles the experience of Mark Patton: the star of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” who was closeted at the time of the film and has since come to be honored as one of the first male scream queens. To me, if the title is worth awarding it should be received however the honoree sees fit: king, queen, genderless god, however.

Does any other genre boast its own version of a scream queen?

ERBLAND: Here’s a final thought worth pondering: is the scream queen moniker so special because it doesn’t have much competition when it come to corollaries in other genre spaces? The only potential contender I could cook up is “Action Dude,” think Tom Cruise or The Rock or Liam Neeson in one of their many, many action outings. But even that doesn’t quite stack up, because here’s the rub: maybe we can all be scream queens. No, no, stay with me here. Maybe we can all survive (perhaps even thrive) and make even the most horrible stories into, if not our own triumphs, ones we still fully own.

I am not going to be able to, like, motorcycle jump the Grand Canyon or whatever Tom & co. are getting up to next, but I can at least attempt to hold my own against the slings, arrows, and masked murderers of my own life. Is being a scream queen aspirational? No, but it is possible.

What do you think, Ali? Is the scream queen also special because she has no equal elsewhere?

FOREMAN:

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