Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, and the legacy of the scream queen

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Nov 22, 2017

It all started with the ear-piercing screech of rings of a shower curtain being flung across a rusty rod. Then came the swift and deliberate raise of a blade, followed by an abrupt swivel of a naked female body. Her eyes widened and she let out a blood-curdling scream, just before the knife made contact and she was drowned out by the shrill and repetitive sound of the haunting film score—in perfect unison with each slash through her wet skin. In many ways, the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho set the precedent for every scream queen who came after.

From her crippling fear to her instinctual need to protect herself come hell or high water, the scream queen has arguably the most unique and impactful journey of any horror archetype. Because there’s only a split moment between when she is a victim and when she becomes her own hero (if she survives). It’s also the moment when she becomes the film’s barometer for the audience—and a scintillating obsession of the camera’s roving lens.   

As 78/52, the new documentary on the iconic horror movie, further explores, Janet Leigh’s iconic Bates Motel death scene in the 1960 horror film shifted the way audiences viewed death and female bodies on screen, and how they consumed cinema. It was no longer just about quickly and casually watching her succumb to death and be discarded. It was about seeing a flawed yet sexy woman at her most vulnerable, desensitizing female brutality, and gazing as each breath seeped out of her body for good. It’s a truly voyeuristic moment in a film filled with them, which not only challenges audiences’ relationship with blood but also introduced the very concept of a scream queen and opened the door for a variety of interpretations of what we expect her to be.

In fact, the next scream queen we saw, Sally (Marilyn Burns) from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, spends most of the film fighting for her life—continually screaming for help in the middle of Nowhere Town U.S.A., to no avail. Unlike Leigh’s gorgeous and perfectly prim-yet-doomed Marion Crane frantically fleeing town alone, Sally’s casual look is very indicative of the era and conveys an easygoing presence: minimal makeup, tousled beach hair, flared white pants, and a sleeveless top.

But 14 years had passed since Hitchcock’s remarkably sanitized yet terrifying film, and six since The Night of The Living Dead upped the special effects ante in the genre, when director Tobe Hooper brought audiences even closer to gore by showing both the gruesome slaughter of human bodies with its female protagonist drenched in their blood. With only the sight of her friend’s murders to prepare her, Sally is forced to use anything she can grab to shield her from the family of psychopathic cannibals. She’s obviously frenzied and horrified, but she manages to keep it together to narrowly escape with her life.

It was just four years after that when we saw the next significant scream queen. And she couldn’t have been further away from Hitchock’s prototypical American beauty and cinematic seductress. In fact, it was Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis who helped reimagine her in the form of Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Strode was the virginal suburban teen whose only flaw was not locking the doors at night. She went above and beyond, taking on extra babysitting duties by covering for a friend who abandoned a little girl in favor of hanging with a guy on the creepiest night of the year.

While her friends were busy getting booty calls, Laurie subverted all sexual tropes. We saw her walking home from school with a stack of books in her hands, wearing a turtleneck, additional sweater, long skirt, and thick white tights; she was similarly dressed at home, innocently twirling her hair around her finger. As her scantily clad friends succumbed to villain Michael Myers’ knife, Laurie was protected by her own purity.

Michael, as frightening as he was, would always just miss her. And though she would cower in a dark corner, she clutched a knife almost the whole time, ready to defend herself. Her immortality was as if to say, "Laurie is a good, pure person. She doesn’t deserve to die." So she never did. Years and several sequels later (including a brand new one coming out next year), she reigns supreme as one of the most prevailing scream queens ever.

The '80s distanced itself from the aesthetics of prior scream queens and focused on their relationships with the villains. Two very different teen scream queens emerged from the era, both haunted by faceless male villains. Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in Nightmare on Elm Street couldn’t get a good night’s rest due to the looming threat of Freddy Krueger in her dreams. And yet, however terrified she felt, like Laurie she would always somehow be protected from death by the monster. Though she was taunted by him each night, her life was always spared. So rather than being the legendary series’ perennial victim, she becomes a protector for other potential victims—trying to prevent their fate.

Meanwhile, Alice from Friday the 13th (Adrienne King) was one of the first times we saw a female protagonist use savvy to trick her villain into letting her go. Just when serial killer Jason Voorhees had her cornered, and all hope (and nearly her life) had drained out of her, she negates weapons and instead permeates what she realizes to be his very fragile mind and tricks him into thinking she is his doting mother.

Scream queen Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream would later become the face of the new horror icons for millennials, a group that included Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt) in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Rachel (Naomi Watts) in The Ring. Both help introduce a more intentionally heroic female protagonist who would deliberately put herself in danger in order to stop the villain. In order to save her own life (and the lives of others), she—not law enforcement—is the one to bring the killer to justice. Pushing fears aside, Sidney returns for every subsequent installment in the series and ultimately becomes a nemesis for the villain.

Though their title alludes to a more delicate figure, the concept of scream queens remains a defining quality of the genre. Whether they’re sexy, demure, young, old, terrified, or heroic, their legacy will forever be cemented.