Horror cinema has never shied away from violence, gore, and sex, frequently depicting the genre’s female leads in a misogynistic fashion. Nudity is synonymous with fright flicks, but the women of horror have played a pivotal role in making these movies a success. The scream queen can simply be a victim or a shrieking damsel in distress waiting to be saved by her male co-star, but the role of the scream queen has evolved into something far more complex. In the spirit of the spookiest season of the year, we’ve highlighted 15 of the greatest scream queens of all time — those who fearlessly fought monsters and others whose blood-curdling vocals left a lasting impression.
Leigh took the most famous shower in history when she starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. The director shocked audiences when Leigh’s character died in the first act of the film, sending the message to viewers that no one was safe from the Bates Motel’s looming menace. Fun fact: the actress co-starred with daughter and fellow scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis in The Fog and Halloween H20.
Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother was a famous scream queen, so the genre was essentially in her blood. She got her first big break in 1978 when she battled murderer Michael Myers in Halloween. Curtis became the most famous horror film female lead of the time, helping John Carpenter’s slasher take home the title of highest-grossing independent movie ever made at that time. Curtis went on to star in other cult classics, such as The Fog and Prom Night, but she’ll always be remembered as influential final girl Laurie Strode in Carpenter’s movie.
Most famous for her role as Nancy Thompson in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Heather Langenkamp looked like the typical girl next door. Director Wes Craven considered her the heart and soul of the suburban nightmare tale. While most scream queens of the 1980s exuded sex, Langenkamp played against type as the virginal, resourceful, intelligent young women — and she was believable. Nancy was a worthy adversary for child killer Freddy Krueger. She didn’t wait around for any man to save her and dove right into Freddy’s dream world to face him head-on.
King set the standard for Friday the 13th final girls. She played the typical camp counselor character (in her case, Alice) who didn’t take drugs, booze it up, or have sex — and therefore, lived to beat F13 baddie Jason Voorhees. But like most final girls in the summer camp slasher, she eventually met her maker in the next film.
The Canadian-born actress won the part of King Kong captive Ann Darrow over Dorothy Jordan, Jean Harlow, and Ginger Rogers. It was the role of a lifetime, but the scream queen had parts in other genre pictures during her contract for RKO Radio Pictures. When director Merian C. Cooper pitched her the role, he told her: “You’ll have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” She thought he was referring to Cary Grant.
Harris is the youngest scream queen in horror history, thanks to starring roles in Halloween 4 and 5. She grew up and returned to the genre, becoming the only horror actress to star in an original series and its remake (Rob Zombie’s reimagining of the series). “It was freaking exhausting fighting these giant guys and kind of having to carry the movie physically as well as emotionally, because the Final Girl has to do both of those things, and has to carry the audience through the journey of survival,” Harris told BuzzFeed. “It’s an interesting challenge.”
Neve Campbell is often viewed as a modern Heather Langenkamp — another resourceful girl-next-door type — but her Sidney Prescott in the Scream series understood the rules of slasher cinema (in a set of films that understood the rules) and used them (mostly) to her advantage. Campbell was a natural when it came to co-creator Kevin Williamson’s stylized, post-modern dialogue and became a leading icon of ’90s horror.
Opposite from the Heathers and Neves on our list is Barbara Crampton — a scream queen who was not afraid to shed her clothes (she’s frequently remembered for “the head scene” in Re-Animator), but the actress has acting chops to boot. One of the greatest scream queens of the 1980s, Crampton continues to star in genre movies and can be seen in Adam Wingard’s home invasion film, You’re Next.
Steele is best remembered as Mario Bava’s muse in the Italian gothic horror masterpiece, Black Sunday. She was adept at playing the final girl or the monster, and her exotic looks separated her from the stereotypical blonde starlets featured in countless horror films.
If you want to know about Linnea Quigley, look no further than the “lipstick nipple scene” in Night of the Demons or Return of the Living Dead, where the actress dances naked in a cemetery. Quigley was frequently seen in the flesh, and she met a lot of terrible ends, making her the female John Morghen (Cannibal Ferox).
The actress starred as the love interest of the vampire in Blacula in the blaxploitation parody and remains one of the few African-American scream queens featured in a prominent role. She helped paved the way for contemporaries like Saw V‘s Meagan Good.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not nearly as gory as most audiences think, so the onus was on Burns to heighten the chills through her emotional reaction to the gruesome scenes and grotesque characters. She earned her scream queen title by spending the last thirty minutes of TCM by doing nothing but screaming. One of the film’s final frames, featuring a bloody Burns escaping the maniacal Leatherface in the back of a pick-up truck, is burned into the memory of horror fans. Burns’ style was natural and believable, putting audiences further on the edge of their seats.
Hellraiser‘s Pinhead is one of the most terrifying horror villains on film, but Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty went toe-to-toe with the Cenobite in two different movies. In the first film, Kirsty is innocent and depicted as a fairy tale-esque character, making her more of a victim. By Hellraiser II, she’s more savvy and unafraid to venture into hell to fight Pinhead and face her wicked stepmother.
Adrienne Barbeau was a scream queen sex symbol during the 1980s and was even married to genre director John Carpenter (and starred in his film The Fog). Her appearance in Swamp Thing and Creepshow are other fan favorites. She returned to the creepy stories of her past when she played the snake dancer Ruthie in HBO’s Carnivàle.
Nicknamed the “Queen of the Screamers,” Ankers is sometimes considered the original scream queen due to her early roles for Universal Studios, including The Wolfman, Son of Dracula, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. Even though she appeared opposite horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. in almost ten films, the two stars reportedly hated each other.