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The greatest scream queens of all time

Contributed by
Jan 24, 2019

January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. The way we kick off a new year informs the months that follow, and that's why we're living our best Capricorn-season lives and declaring it the Month of the GOAT, celebrating the Greatests of All Time in genre. From the best Star Trek captains to our favorite strong female characters, we're honoring the greats all month long.

The horror genre is home to a vast number of faces — from the tragically gorgeous to the terrifyingly monstrous, each of them equally recognizable, all of them iconic in their own right. For every Leatherface there's a Sally Hardesty; for every Michael Myers a Laurie Strode.

We've written before about the legendary Final Girl, the trope that sees a battered and beleaguered young woman gather her remaining reserves to take down the evil that pursues her — or, at least, to gain the upper hand long enough to make her escape. But now it's time to highlight some of the most quintessential names in horror history, those actresses who, throughout the years, have helped shape some of the most famous franchises around via their convincingly devastating performances. Tragic, beautiful, beaten down but ultimately not broken, these are, in no ranking order, the greatest scream queens of all time.

Rear Window

Grace Kelly

Perhaps the most glamorous addition to this list, the late, great Grace Kelly had an acting career that only spanned a grand total of six years before she retired to marry Rainier, Prince of Monaco, but in the time prior she managed to carve out a name for herself in Hollywood as a rising star, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1953's Mogambo. It would be her frequent collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, however, that earned her even more critical notice and acclaim. She starred in three of the director's projects — Dial M for MurderRear Window, and To Catch a Thief — and is arguably one of the most recognizable of the "icy blondes" Hitchcock cast in his thrillers.

Psycho

Janet Leigh

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. She received both a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and an Academy Award nomination in the same category. After taking a brief hiatus from acting, Leigh would go on to star with her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in 1980's The Fog and 1998's Halloween H20: 20 Years Later — proof that being a scream queen can run in the family.

The Birds gas station

Tippi Hedren

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, and 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 — now regarded as some of the best in the history of film.

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Linda Blair

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, 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, and she would later 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.

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Marilyn Burns

Many of the scream queens on this list rose to prominence with their first leading role, and the same holds true for the late Marilyn Burns. 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would make her a horror icon, as well as one of the most recognizable Final Girls in the genre for the film's final scene especially, in which Burns' Sally Hardesty shrieks, giddy and maniacal, as she narrowly escapes with her life in the back of a truck speeding away from the horrifying Leatherface. Two years later, Burns would star as Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson Family, in the 1976 television miniseries Helter Skelter, and she would reunite with Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper for 1977's Eaten Alive. She also reprised the role of Sally in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, released in 1994. In the later years leading up to her death in 2014, Burns lived a relatively reticent life, but her impact on horror can't be understated.

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Jamie Lee Curtis

Curtis, perhaps more than anyone else on this list, defined the term "scream queen" for both her generation and generations to follow 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. Curtis also starred in other horror movies like Prom NightTerror 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.

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Heather Langenkamp

Langenkamp was still studying at Stanford University when she was cast as Nancy Thompson in Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, reportedly because the director was looking for someone "non-Hollywood" to play the female protagonist who battles the murderous Freddy Krueger in both her reality and her dreamscape. She reprised the role for 1987's A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, but would maintain 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. Her acting career recently saw her return to to the genre when she gave a cameo appearance in 2014's American Horror Story: Freak Show and portrayed the adult "Final Girl" Donna Boone in SYFY's Truth or Dare in 2017.

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Neve Campbell

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 an undeniable "scream queen" who would define one of the most successful franchises in horror history, starring in all of the film's three sequels with the last, Scream 4, released in 2011. Campbell has since publicly admitted that she moved from California to London to enjoy anonymity after an overwhelming rise to fame.

Julie from I Know What You Did Last Summer

Julie from I Know What You Did Last Summer

So, your boyfriend drives into a guy on accident. There are three witnesses, all of them completely on your side. Should you tell the cops? Yes! Should you call an ambulance? Yes! What you should not do is take the body hide and it, while failing to notice that it's still breathing.

Somehow, Julie decides that hiding the body is the best course of action, setting in motion the events of the entire film series. Yet this moron of a lady manages to survive numerous attacks throughout the film (usually by running around and screaming). This is supposed to be set around a college, but we're confused as to how Julie managed to get through the whole film without dying from, say, forgetting to inhale.

Jennifer Love Hewitt

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 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.

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Sarah Michelle Gellar

Although Gellar is unquestionably 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, her film career is rife with 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.

The Conjuring

Credit: Warner Bros.

Vera Farmiga

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 a modern-day scream queen.

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Anya Taylor-Joy

British-Argentine actress Anya Taylor-Joy is a fairly new name to the annals of scream queen 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, and followed up that period horror with two films offering a slightly more contemporary flair: 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.

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