Scream queens are as much a staple part of horror movies as horror movie monsters. However, unlike the invulnerable and grotesque monsters, scream queens are vulnerable and beautiful. From the surface they just might seem like perpetual victims who are tortured and tormented throughout the movie. However, if you take a closer look, scream queens are the ultimate survivors and usually the final person standing at the end of the horror movies. Hidden under the fear and blood curdling cries, is the heart of a survivor who refuses to give in. What’s a better time than Halloween to talk about them?
Here are the 20 best scream queens in the history of cinema (in no particular order):
Many of the best scream queens on this list rose to prominence with their first leading role, and the same holds true for our first entrant Marilyn Burns. 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre went on to establish her as a horror icon, as well as one of the most recognizable Final Girls in the genre for the film’s final scene. In the scene, Burns’ Sally Hardesty lets out a giddy and maniacal shriek, as she narrowly escapes with her life in the back of a truck. The film ends with the demonic Leatherface swinging his chainsaw away on the road. Two years later, Burns starred as Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson Family, in the 1976 television miniseries Helter Skelter. She re-united with Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper in 1977 for Eaten Alive. She also reprised her original role of Sally in 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. Marilyn Burns passed away in 2014 but her impact on horror can’t be understated. Her deafening screams will ring forever in every horror fan’s ears.
At the young age of 13, Blair managed to beat out 600 other actresses for the role of the possessed Regan in 1973’s The Exorcist. While the part led to her receiving a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and an Academy Award nomination in the same category (and a place on our best scream queens list), the film was heavily controversial at the time, with many criticizing it for its “blasphemous” and offensive elements. Blair was also subjected to extensive amounts of media scrutiny and unfounded rumors about her mental health. Blair went on to publicly state her belief that the film impacted the state of her career. She reprised her role in 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, which was panned by critics and tanked at the box office (though it has since experienced a resurgence of appreciation as a cult classic). After taking a brief break from acting, Blair starred in a series of low-budget horror and exploitation films, as well as a cameo in 1996’s Scream, and briefly hosted Fox Family’s Scariest Places on Earth.
The pivotal shower murder scene in 1960’s Psycho is legendary for several reasons — the screeching strings of composer Bernard Herrmann’s score, its 50 cuts and 77 unique camera angles to complete the final edit, as well as the doomed heroine Marion Crane, vulnerable both in her nakedness and her ignorance of what’s to come. It redefined the depiction of both violence and sexuality in film, and catapulted its lead Janet Leigh to new levels of stardom in her career (and on to our best scream queens list). She received both a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and an Academy Award nomination in the same category. Leigh took a hiatus from acting and returned on screen with her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in 1980’s The Fog and 1998’s Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. Who knew that being a scream queen could be passed down genetically.
Jamie Lee Curtis
The daughter of legendary actress Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, perhaps more than anyone else on this list, defined the term “scream queen” for both her generation and generations to follow. It all started when she made her feature-film debut in John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 as the young teenage babysitter Laurie Strode. Her breakout success led to further collaborative efforts with the director, including 1980’s The Fog (where she co-starred with her mother Janet Leigh). Curtis also starred in other horror movies like Prom Night, Terror Train, and Halloween II throughout the same decade, effectively solidifying her impact in the genre. However, Curtis had concerns about being typecast as a slasher lead and famously stepped away from horror for several years, returning to the Halloween franchise periodically in 1998’s Halloween H20 and 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, but her recent appearance in 2018’s reboot-quel Halloween signaled not just the homecoming of a horror legend but the evolution of a once-Final Girl to the Last Woman Standing. Calling Curtis the queen of the best scream queens won’t be an exaggeration.
Hedren’s acting career was actually jumpstarted by Alfred Hitchcock himself after the director saw her starring in a television commercial. Born Nathalie Kay Hedren in 1930, the former fashion model would experience her own career-redefining moments as the star of not just one but two Hitchcock films, 1963’s The Birds and 1964’s Marnie. Her relationship with the director was famously troubled, with Hedren herself vocally critical of Hitchcock’s reportedly domineering personality and possessive attitude towards her. Hedren refused to work with him again after Marnie. In light of the current industry shift regarding openness about harassment on film sets it can be difficult to reconcile her abusive experiences with the demanding, tragic performances Hedren gives on-screen. They are now regarded as some of the best in the history of film. No best scream queens list can be complete without her.
Soap operas and horror films have a lot in common, so when Long Island-born Barbara Crampton made the jump from Days Of Our Lives to Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, it seemed pretty natural. The blonde Crampton found she had an affinity for the gory stuff and went on to hold down parts in Chopping Mall and Gordon’s underrated From Beyond. She continues to work in the genre, most recently as part of an ensemble cast of horror icons in Death House and SyFy’s exceptional creepypasta anthology Channel Zero. She was one of the definitive best scream queens who starred in the campy horror cult classics of the 80s.
Canadian actress Neve Campbell initially achieved recognition in the US after starring on FOX television series Party of Five as one of the orphaned Salinger children, but her turn in the horror genre defined the early years of her film career — first in 1996’s The Craft, as shy outcast witch Bonnie, and then as the protagonist in Wes Craven’s Scream that same year. Campbell received critical praise in the role of Final Girl Sidney Prescott, and became a legitimate “scream queen” who went on to define one of the most successful horror franchises in history. One of the most famous best scream queens of all time, Campbell starred in all of the film’s three sequels. Campbell has since publicly admitted that she moved from California to London to enjoy anonymity after an overwhelming rise to fame.
Jennifer Love Hewitt
Best scream queens were frequently defined by the subgenre they starred in, and once the ’90s rolled around, slasher films dominated the horror landscape, with studios eager to capitalize on the success of a recently revitalized interest in a genre that had stalled out in years prior. Jennifer Love Hewitt had also achieved early recognition on Party of Five, similar to her co-star Neve Campbell, but it was her starring role as Julie James in 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and its 1998 follow-up that made her both a young star in the sphere of horror as well as one of the definable best scream queens of the decade. Unfortunately, I Know What You Did Last Summer 2 failed to live up to the success of its predecessor, though Hewitt would later return to the realm of the supernatural when she starred on the CBS drama Ghost Whisperer from 2005 to 2010.
Sarah Michelle Gellar
Sarah Michelle Gellar is best known for her portrayal of Buffy Summers on the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which lasted for a total of seven seasons and gave rise to one of the most kickass female characters in television history. However, her film career is filled with significant contributions to the horror genre, having made several appearances in some of the most popular franchises over the years. She co-starred alongside fellow scream queen Jennifer Love Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer and had a brief albeit memorable role in Scream 2 before starring in the American remake of Ju-on: The Grudge in 2004. The film itself received a mixed critical reception, but Gellar’s performance was among the singled-out strengths, landing her a spot on every imaginable best scream queens list.
Langenkamp was still studying at Stanford University when she was cast as Nancy Thompson in legendary horror filmmaker Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. This scream queen’s casting was a result of Craven searching for a “non-Hollywood” actress to play the role of the female protagonist who battles the murderous Freddy Krueger in both her reality and dreams. She reprised the role for 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, and maintained a working relationship with Craven to appear in two more of his projects, 1989’s Shocker and 1994 Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. As co-owner of special effects makeup company AFX Studio, Langenkamp has also worked behind the scenes as makeup coordinator on many horror films, from Dawn of the Dead to The Cabin in the Woods.
Anya Taylor Joy
British-Argentine actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a fairly new name to the howling annals of best scream queens history, but she’s already off to a great start. She rose most notably to audience and critical attention with her wide-eyed performance as Thomasin in 2015’s The Witch. She followed that critically acclaimed role by appearing in the second and third movie of M. Night Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy, 2016’s Split and 2019’s Glass. On the yet to be released front, she’ll be playing Magik in The New Mutants, a X-Men horror flick, and she is currently attached to star in a remake of Nosferatu which will reunite her with her director from The Witch, Robert Eggers.
Vera Farmiga’s career has spanned a number of genres, but in recent years she’s made a name for herself starring in the popular Conjuring franchise as the paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren, starting with its first installment in 2013. That same year, she also showcased her talents on the small screen by portraying one of the most famous mothers in horror, Norma Bates, in A&E’s Bates Motel, a prequel series occurring prior to the well-known events of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the famous appearance of another scream queen on this list. Between those two characters and her prior roles in 2007’s psychological horror movie Joshua and 2009’s Orphan, Farmiga has created her own niche as one of the definitive modern-day’s best scream queens.
Britain’s Hammer Studios was the epicenter of horror in the 1970s, churning out Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that cranked up the violence and sexuality with stylish visuals and excellent actors. Ingrid Pitt, born in Warsaw, survived the concentration camps of World War II and relocated to California after marrying an American soldier. She started pursuing an acting career and appeared in a few Doctor Who episodes before her horror debut in 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, a gloriously sleazy movie that would establish Pitt’s presence as a voraciously sexual creature of the night. A string of similar roles followed throughout the decade, and although acting roles dried up she kept one toe in horror by doing badass stuff like contributing narration to British symphonic black metal band Cradle of Filth’s Cruelty and the Beast album. One of the most legendary best scream queens in history, narrating a symphonic black metal album, it can’t get much more ‘metal’ than that.
Chloe Grace Moretz
For a young actress to devote so much of her career to horror is a bold and daring move in image-obsessed Hollywood. Chloe Grace Moretz however, has a reputation for not really giving a damn about what other people think. After being raised in a very Christian, very wealthy Atlanta family, she first gained attention for her performance as Chelsea Lutz in the 2005 Amityville Horror remake at the age of 5. When you taste blood that early, it’s hard to let it go, and over the next 15 years she would return to the genre again and again, playing a young vampire in Let Me In, the titular character in Carrie, and most recently Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake. Moretz has announced she’s taking a step back from working so hard, but even though she is in her 20s, she has established herself as one of the definitive best scream queens in history.
One of the most influential best scream queens of the 1980s, the Iowa-born Quigley got her first horror break as a mean track-team girl who gets decapitated by a serial killer in Graduation Day. Her most iconic role is as teen punk bombshell Trash in The Return of the Living Dead, which established her typical character: a smoking hot babe with a bad attitude to match. Her filmography through the rest of the decade was jam-packed with trash classics like Night of the Demons and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. Horror was such a part of her life that her boyfriend, special effects designer Steve Johnson, proposed to her on the set of Nightmare On Elm Street 4 immediately after she filmed a scene where she burst from Freddy Krueger’s chest.
English actress Caroline Munro found showbiz completely by accident when her mother sent some pictures of her in to a newspaper contest. After the striking brunette won the “Face of the Year” prize, she was soon modeling for Vogue in London and cast opposite Vincent Price in 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes. That was the start of the series of events which landed Munro on the best scream queens list. Munro continued to work in the horror genre throughout her career, signing a long-term contract with Hammer productions through the decade and then relocating to the United States. Over there, she featured in William Lustig’s sleaze slasher classic Maniac and Jess Franco’s Faceless.
This entrant on the best scream queens list is the first lady of classic British Hammer horror films. During the 1960s, the place to go for Gothic horror was Italy, as progressive directors pushed the boundaries of the genre in many different ways. Most of those movies also featured a striking female lead, and few were more striking than Barbara Steele. The British actress first came to the attention of horror fans with her dual role in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, where she played both a woman put to death for witchcraft and her descendant 200 years later. Steele went on to feature in flicks like Castle of Blood and David Croenenberg’s Shivers. Her expressive, wide-eyed face and curvaceous body gave her the prime combination of sex appeal and vulnerability that embodies a scream queen. Steele became a fan favourite really fast.
The golden age of cinematic horror was obviously the 80s, but as the direct-to-video market started to boom in the next decade there were new openings for the next generation of best scream queens. Debbie Rochon grew up on the streets of Vancouver, Canada. As a homeless youth at 17, she answered a casting call for cult punk movie Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Rochon was bitten by the acting bug as a result of that. She soon moved to New York and started booking roles in hundreds of low-budget flicks. She formed a fruitful partnership with Times Square sleaze studio Troma, appearing in Tromeo and Juliet and Terror Firmer, among others. This scream queen’s unstoppable work ethic and willingness to work with new directors have made her a fixture of the genre.
The path to becoming one of the best scream queens of all time can be an unusual one, but Brinke Stevens’ origin story is weirder than most. As a kid, she wanted to be a marine biologist and got her Master’s degree at Scripps. She was later kicked out of that university for conducting some “forbidden research” on dolphin communication. Soon, Stevens ventured into the world of acting, appearing in over 100 horror and sci-fi flicks including 1982’s Slumber Party Massacre, Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, and Jim Wynorski’s 1989 Transylvania Twist. Brinke Stevens didn’t just contribute to the horror genre as a scream queen, she also co-wrote a number of screenplays, produced documentaries and wrote short stories for horror anthologies.
Rounding off the best scream queens list is the former wife of director John Carpenter, Adrienne Barbeau. A prominent sex symbol during the 70s, Barbeau has appeared in a wide variety of films directed by Carpenter and others. The California-born Barbeau moved to New York in the late 1960s to pursue stage stardom but had to start her career working as a go-go dancer for the Mafia. Barbeau got her big break with the stage production of Grease. Soon, she transitioned to TV and film. Her image on a 1978 cheesecake poster made her a sex symbol and it wasn’t long before she was the female lead in movies like Carpenter’s The Fog, Creepshow, and Wes Craven’s cult classic featuring the eponymous DC comics character, Swamp Thing.