If there’s anything us horror fans like, it’s our icons. Michael Myers, Pinhead, Freddy, Jason—we love characters with a staying power that will haunt our nightmares. The same is true of our favourite horror actresses. Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis, Linda Hamilton, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Neve Campbell—we love seeing them endure and become icons of the genre for their talent and badassery. However, in recent years, fewer and fewer actresses have had the staying power like the ones of old. What is the place of the scream queen in the history of the horror movie? And what is the role of women now in an ever-changing landscape of horror?
The Early Days
Once upon a time, the roles for women in horror movies was to wear a dress, scream and get saved by the hero. They weren’t really characters so much as things to be protected or to be carried by the monster on the poster. There were some prominent women behind the camera at this time, most notably Millicent Patrick, the artist who designed the iconic beast in Creature from the Black Lagoon. In front of the camera, however, the term “scream queen” for this time was a very literal one. The most prominent image that springs to mind from this era is Fay Wray being carried by Kong up the Empire State Building.
The Rise of the Final Girl
Crucial to the scream queen is the trope of the final girl. Coined by writer Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women and Chainsaws, the parameters of the final girl are fairly simple: A final girl is a young teen girl who is more morally pure than her peers (no sex, no drugs, presumably no rock and roll) and is able to survive to the end of the film. Clover also notes that they might also have a unisex name and occasionally, there is a shared history between the killer and the intended victim.
While there had been some slight precursors to the role, such as Vera Miles in Psycho and Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the first solid example of the final girl, and indeed considered to be one of the definitive scream queens, is Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in John Carpenter’s 1978 classic Halloween.
Laurie is an average small-town girl stuck babysitting on Halloween. This isn’t normally a big cause for concern; however, the addition of an escaped mental patient, Michael Myers, who seems to have a particular dislike for teens, causes the night to transform into one of terror. The key to Carpenter’s work in the film is one of mounting tension, letting the audience see through the eyes of the stalking killer. Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance is also one of a more low-key quality than that of her friend Annie (Nancy Loomis). Although Laurie does partake in recreational drug use, smoking a joint in Annie’s car early in the movie, she isn’t as sexually active or irresponsible. Annie, on the other hand, spends a portion of the movie wearing only her underwear and an oversized shirt, and will evade responsibility by having Laurie take care of her babysitting charge, Lindsey, in order to sneak off and have sex with her boyfriend—actions that lead to both of them being killed by Michael, as it also does with their friend Lynda and her boyfriend. Keeping in mind the model laid out by Clover in her book, it is through not only Laurie’s resourcefulness, but also her purity that she survives to the end of the film.
In the sequel, involving Laurie being taken to the hospital and Michael following her there, it is revealed that there is a familial connection between the two, although this was never a plan when John Carpenter and Debra Hill wrote the first film’s screenplay. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie would go on to survive until 2002’s Halloween: Resurrection, but by then the series was considered to have run out of creative steam.
Playing with the Rules
In the years since 1978 there have been many additions to the categories of both the final girl and the scream queen. Sigourney Weaver brought us a more action-oriented final girl in 1979 with Alien. Heather Langenkamp faced child-killer Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. We also had an example of the final boy in Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. In something of an unintentional flip of the idea of final girls having a unisex or vaguely masculine name, Bruce Campbell’s hero is named Ash, which is the shortened form of the typically female name Ashley. This aspect was played with once again when The Evil Dead was remade in 2013 and the central character Mia acts as a combination of both the character of Ash and the possessed sister character Cheryl.
Once a set of rules has been established, the next logical step is to twist and subvert those rules. In 1996, A Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven brought us a new level of genre-savviness in Scream. Here, not only did we have the key horror rules laid out by the character of Randy (Jamie Kennedy), but the film also goes against them as much as it adheres to them. In particular, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) survives the film despite not being a virgin and having sex with her boyfriend (who also turns out to be the killer, but hey, no relationship is perfect). This move is interesting because it essentially creates a status quo that reflects the time. By the 1990s, teen sex was less of a moral issue, so the final girl remaining virginal was less of a requirement. The series would continue to play with genre tropes right up until the final (for now) outing, Scream 4 in 2011, which played particularly with the nature of reboots and looks a bit more into the ongoing effects on Sidney of being a final girl many years later.
A new sense of status quo was also established in Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. This film showcases the various clichés and, in a way, how they are forced for our gruesome entertainment. By having all of creation wiped out, Whedon is also wiping out the entire horror genre of the past, essentially giving new filmmakers the chance to remake the genre as they wish.
You’re Next (2011)
You’re Next is an interesting case, being an example of Scream-inflected twisting of the final girl, but done in a style more in line with recent indie dramas. Erin (Sharni Vinson) is looking forward to meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time during his parent’s anniversary celebrations. They’re your typical yuppie, self-involved types, but while they might be jerks, they’re mostly harmless. Things take an unexpected turn when a trio of masked mercenaries start killing them off, and an even more unexpected turn when Erin starts to show extreme survival skills with a capability to kill to match.
Typically the final girl survives through a combination of sheer luck and common sense. Erin is markedly different, as her survival skills have actually been learned and earned. Her story, having grown up in a survivalist compound in Australia, is only referred to in passing, but it’s enough to both give the audience context and also establish that Erin has something that most final girls don’t have: a killer instinct. She is afraid, but where other characters fall apart screaming, she fights back with a level of brutality and efficiency that would be expected of an 80s macho action star.
What makes You’re Next a standout in examples of the final girl is that ultimately, it remakes the role to be something more than an intended victim who gets away; it makes the final girl an active survivor, capable of giving back as good as she gets and coming out of her experiences as something possibly scarier than the monsters she’s defeated.
There is also the passing of the torch to consider. Along with You’re Next’s Sharni Vinson, Maika Monroe from Adam Wingard’s next film The Guest, and more recently It Follows, feel like ideal templates for the modern final girl. However, there are some other young actresses whose work in the horror genre is important to note, such as Chloë Grace Moretz with her starring roles in Let Me In and the Carrie remake, and Abigail Breslin who, as well as co-starring in Zombieland, has a new film called Final Girl about a group of rich boys who make a sport out of tormenting young girls and seem to have their hands full with their latest target. This directly follows You’re Next’s Erin as an example of the agency final girls are now capable of having.
Behind the Camera
There’s more to any movie than just the performances, no matter how much we love them. The women working behind the camera in horror are just as worthy of the name “scream queens” as anyone. Debra Hill, who co-wrote Halloween, Halloween II, The Fog and Escape from L.A. with John Carpenter and produced several films until her death in 2005, remembers working in horror in the 70s: “Back when I started in 1974, there were very few women in the industry, and everybody called me ‘Honey.’ I was assumed to be the makeup and hair person, or the script person. I was never assumed to be the writer or producer.”
Nowadays, we have figures like the Soska sisters, whose work includes American Mary and who have set up their own production company, Twisted Twins Productions. Heather Langenkamp, known for playing Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street, now works in practical and makeup effects, and has worked on such films as Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and The Cabin in the Woods.
One of the most successful horror films of recent memory, and certainly one of my favourites, was last year’s The Babadook. It not only contained one of the most intense, complex, and emotional female performances from Essie Davis, but it was also wonderfully written and directed by Jennifer Kent, for whom it was her first feature film. Her approach to the film, not just to make a horror film but also to offer an examination of one woman’s grief and her emotional breakdown, is what gives it an undercurrent of sinister reality that makes it all the more scary.
One of the things that I love most of all about the horror genre is that it is never one thing. It’s a shape-shifter, constantly changing and redefining itself. The same is very true of the role of women in horror cinema. From the screaming Fay Wray in 1933 to Jamie Lee Curtis being the final girl in 1978 and now the psychological complexity of Essie Davis in The Babadook, the roles for horror actresses have become more and more interesting and diverse. While the onscreen role of the scream queen might not be as prominent as it used to be, we will always love the badass ladies who, for many, helped us fall in love with horror. However, now we also have the fantastic female talent behind the camera who are just as worthy of the name. Where have all the scream queens gone? They’re still here; they’re just doing a lot more than screaming.