Scream queen  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A scream queen is an actress who has become associated with horror films, either through an appearance in a notable entry in the genre, as a frequent victim, or through constant appearances as the female protagonist. She belongs to the damsel in distress literary trope.

The term did not began to come into use until after John Carpenter's Halloween (1978 film) in 1978. Star Jamie Lee Curtis got some press notice as "the Queen of Scream," but "Scream Queen" was hardly a phrase on anyone's lips. Curtis' first films were all horror/suspense films (The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train and Road Games), and she did appear in Halloween II out of duty to fans and the makers of the original film, but she intentionally and successfully avoided further association with the "Scream Queen" typecasting label. The year 1978 also saw the publication of the book Scream Queens, by Calvin Beck, best known as the editor of Castle of Frankenstein magazine, a highly literate semi-pro publication. Beck's separate chapters covered a number of genre-releated actresses from the 1930s through the 1960s. However, the book was not widely published and the two-word title was not yet part of the public consciousness.

The term was popularized during the early '80s with the last gasp of theatrical "horror" films (often comedies at any rate), films like Nightmare Sisters and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. The three actresses primarily associated with those films-- Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer-- pretty much had the field to themselves, such as it was. Publisher/editor Frederick S. Clarke spun off a magazine from his Cinefantastique, Femme Fatales, which began as a periodical specifically about "scream queen" actresses who specialized in genre films, to include science-fiction, fantasy and mystery. Very quickly, Clarke and editor Bill George realized the field was too narrow, and broadened the scope of the magazine to include better-known actresses (such as Raquel Welch, Dee Wallace Stone, Linda Blair, etc.) who had appeared in one or more genre films but were better known for their mainstream work. In the wake of Femme Fatales came Scream Queens Illustrated, published by John Russo, which solidified the "legitimacy" of the phrase "Scream Queen," if not the accuracy. This magazine publicized many of the same actresses (Quigley, Stevens, etc.) with accompanying glamour photo layouts, but also promoted would-be "Scream Queens" who had scarcely appeared in more than a few backyard videos. Eventually even the pretense of cinema accomplishment was dropped, and Scream Queens Illustrated simply ran sexy girl photo features, proclaiming the model as a potential "scream queen."

Contrary to assumption, the term "scream queen" was never applied to actress Fay Wray during her acting career, though she had certainly done more than her share of screaming in King Kong, as well as Dr. X, Mystery in the Wax Museum, and The Vampire Bat, all within two years of each other (1932-34). But prior to Kong and then afterward, Wray's long career did not rely on her lung power, and her films were mostly mainstream dramas and comedies.However she can be said to have been one of the most famous examples of a scream queen within the movie King Kong although this film did not convey her typical acting style within the entirety of her career. Likewise, contemporary publicity on 1940s "Scream Queen" Evelyn Ankers never used the term, though Ankers made more than her share of horror films (The Wolf Man, Ghost of Frankenstein, etc.); nor did 1950s critics classify Beverly Garland with the obvious title, though she, too, did plenty of yelling in terror. The actress-mother of "Scream Queen" Jamie Lee Curtis' mother, Janet Leigh, was also never referred to in contemporary reviews or press releases as a "scream queen," however memorable her yowling in the Bates Motel shower in Psycho. Like Wray, Garland and most other actresses, Janet Leigh was better known for non-genre roles.

English actress Barbara Steele and Polish actress Ingrid Pitt are the two actresses most commonly tagged with the "scream queen" label. Steele appeared in numerous Italian gothic horror movies of the 1960s, working with directors like Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, and Roger Corman. She was famously displeased with the typecasting, stating "I never want to climb out of another freakin' coffin again!". Pitt, on the other hand, embraced her cult status. Having found fame in Hammer Horror films, often as scheming, evil characters, she established a fanclub, wrote an autobiography, and continues to write a regular column for Shivers magazine.

The rise of the slasher sub-genre in the early 1980's and its re-emergence in the mid-to-late 1990's led to overuse of the term in mainstream media as as convenient and lazy shorthand. The term is often misleading: Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Sarah Michelle Gellar is often considered the modern day "Scream Queen," because of the successful movies she has been, including The Grudge,The Grudge 2, Scream 2, I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Return (2006 film). Yet, since she is the female protagonist in most of her work, the term is also valid.

See also

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