Plenty of actors have their moment in the sun. Some become bonafide stars, others still become legends. Yet very few can hold the distinction of royalty among genre fans. In a way, that beloved, iconic status holds even more prestige than box office totals, length of filmography, or Oscar wins.
The fine ladies on this list fall into that distinction, having conquered horror films, sometimes with just one or two performances. They’ve taken the world by storm with their screams, and for many, they’ve taken on beloved heroine status as proto-feminist icons. And they managed to do it all while bleeding and screaming for their lives!
Scream queens hold an unfairly dubious distinction. Though popular and often very talented, Hollywood tends to pigeonhole them into horror films and not take their performances—or their fans—seriously. That’s a shame, because acting in horror movies poses its own set of challenges. Roles often demand extreme emotional vulnerability, not to mention physical strain. Hey, running from axe wielding maniacs gets tiring!
Submitted here, find the greatest of the great—the women who sit atop thrones of bone and will scare the bejesus out of audiences for generations to come. Check out our list of the 15 Greatest Scream Queens Ever.
15 Linda Blair
Otherwise known as the woman who launched a thousand head spins—or something—Blair first won major acclaim playing the possessed child Regan MacNeil in the seminal screamfest The Exorcist. Blair nabbed an Oscar nomination for her performance, easily one of the most shocking ever. In a pre-computer special effects age, the young actress delivered the goods, flopping about in harnesses, vomiting pea soup everywhere, and spouting untold profanities.
Though her later career didn’t prove quite as shocking—or as high quality—Blair none the less left an indelible mark on the horror genre. Hell Night, Born Innocent, Savage Streets and the crypto-lesbian prison drama Chained Heat cemented Blair as one of the great horror actresses, even if some of her later films are less than great to watch. She spends most of her time working as an animal rights activist these days, though given her talent, perhaps a comeback remains within reach.
14 Danielle Harris
Harris started early, working as a child model and actress in TV commercials. After a stint on soap opera One Life to Live, she landed her first major role in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Her performance as Jamie Lloyd earned her acclaim from horror fans, and she would go on to reprise it in Halloween 5:The Revenge of Michael Myers.
Following her horror success, Harris branched out into more varied roles. Throughout her teen years, she further developed her range by taking parts in dramas like Don’t Touch My Daughter and comedies like Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. After a series of guest roles on television, Harris lobbied to return to the role of Jamie in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers. The producers had wanted to cast an older actress. Despite her interest in the part, Harris had objections to the script, which ultimately made her abandon the project. After years of television and voice over work, Harris returned to horror with a role in the Halloween reboot, and in the acclaimed Hatchet series. She has since embraced her status as a scream queen, starring in a series of low-budget horror films to great acclaim.
13 Lisa Wilcox
Wilcox began her career acting in guest roles in television shows before she landed her signature role of Alice in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. One of the most commercially successful films in the series, it helped cement Wilcox’s reputation as a talented, name actress. She would later reprise her role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, before returning to television, often working in genre series like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Fear Clinic. Wilcox’s sparkling blue eyes and blond hair make her a natural in front of the camera, and she’s continued to work consistently since her break out in the Elm Street films.
The inclusion of Lisa Wilcox here might raise a few eyebrows, given that apart from her Elm Street roles, she’s mostly played guest or supporting parts throughout her career. Still—spoiler alert—she’s earned her place by playing the only woman to do battle with Freddy Kreuger twice, and survive! While no doubt indebeted to the writers for her character’s survival, Wilcox deserves credit too—she and her character are beloved by horror audiences.
12 Vera Farmiga
Farmiga has had an unusual career, to say the least. After studying at Syracuse University, Farmiga began landing stage roles to strong critical notice. After appearing on Broadway in Taking Sides, she began working in television roles. After a series of unremarkable turns as a guest star or on forgettable series, she nabbed a series of plumb roles in indie films like Down to the Bone, and in high-profile releases like The Manchurian Candidate and The Departed. After scoring an Oscar nomination for Up in the Air, Farmiga gravitated toward high-profile thrillers and horror films. Orphan and The Conjuring earned her a reputation as a horror staple, as did her lead role on the popular TV series Bates Motel. Her work on Bates Motel would score Farmiga several major awards, including an Emmy nomination.
Farmiga continues to act in varied genres, though to horror fans, she’s become an icon. She continues to act and direct to wide acclaim and at only age 43, shows no signs of slowing down.
11 Janet Leigh
Can a single film earn an actress status as a scream queen?
If the film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the answer is a yes! Actress Janet Leigh had a prolific career in Hollywood that spanned several decades. She began as a contract player for studio MGM in the 1940s, appearing in popular films like Little Women and Holiday Affair. Leigh’s bombshell looks helped earn her a reputation as a glamour queen, and her romance with Tony Curtis captured the hearts of Hollywood onlookers. The two would star in a series of successful films together throughout the 1950s, and another collaboration—daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, herself a scream queen—helped cement her legacy.
After appearing in Orson Welles Touch of Evil to great acclaim, Alfred Hitchcock cast Leigh in his low-budget thriller Psycho. The film would become a seminal horror classic, and the murder of Leigh’s character in a bathroom shower would gain status as a masterpiece of film editing. Leigh nabbed an Oscar nomination for her work, and followed up with the creepy thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
Leigh continued to work the rest of her life, until her death in 2004. In addition to her extensive television work, she appeared with daughter Jamie Lee in The Fog in 1980, renewing her status as a scream queen.
10 Marilyn Burns
Texan Marilyn Burns studied drama at the University of Texas though found only limited success as an actress, at least at first. After taking extra roles in a series of films, she auditioned for an independent horror film and won the lead. The film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, would become a sensation, and remains a seminal horror classic to this day. Burns played a young girl stalked by the chainsaw-wielding maniac Leatherface, and the visceral honesty of her performance earned her strong critical notice.
Burns then followed up with another horror film of sorts, the TV movie Helter Skelter about the Manson family. After appearing in a series of forgettable horror titles throughout the 1980s, she began to work in theatre both as a playwright and director. She punctuated her theatrical work with occasional horror film appearances, including in two Texas Chainsaw sequels, and the low-budget Butcher Boys. Never shy about her scream queen status, Burns appeared at horror conventions throughout her career. She died in 2014, a screen legend for her work in horror.
9 Veronica Cartwright
A lifelong actress, Cartwright began working as a child, appearing in small TV roles—including an appearance on The Twilight Zone—before making her film debut in The Children’s Hour. A high-profile hit, it helped her land her first horror role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The success of that film would foreshadow some of Cartwright’s biggest career triumphs.
Cartwright continued to act throughout the 1960s, transitioning to adult roles in the 1970s. She gained positive notice in the acclaimed remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, though it was her performance in Alien that earned her true scream queen status. Cast as the hysterical navigator Lambert, Cartwright gave a memorable performance which would forever land her horror film roles. She followed up with turns in Nightmares, The Witches of Eastwick and Candyman: Farwell to the Flesh, giving noted performances in each film. She continues to work in horror today, both in films like Straight-Jacket and The Invasion, and in acclaimed TV roles on The X-Files and Eastwick, a television reboot of her film The Witches of Eastwick.
8 Neve Campbell
Campbell’s rise as a scream queen seemed almost unintentional. After winning a role on the Fox drama Party of Five, Campbell became a sullen sex symbol. Her popularity catapulted her into movies, where she landed a role as a witch in The Craft opposite Fairuza Balk. The movie became a sleeper hit, winning strong reviews and box office revenue, and spurring a generation of teen girls to don the “sexy goth” fashion. Campbell then followed up with another hit, Wes Craven’s Scream. That film became nothing short of a phenomenon and Campbell would go on to reprise her role in three subsequent sequels.
Following the demise of Party of Five, Campbell lowered her profile to hone in her acting skills. She appeared in a series of acclaimed indie films before regaining star status in Scream 4. She continues to curdle blood today on the Netflix political thriller House of Cards.
7 Naomi Watts
Talk about an unorthodox career! Aussie babe Watts came to Hollywood at the suggestion of best friend Nicole Kidman, and began getting parts in middling-to-godawful fare. A featured role in Tank Girl introduced her to American audiences, though the film bombed and did little to help her career. She made her first foray into horror with the direct to video Children of the Corn: The Gathering before laboring in little-seen TV and film projects. Director David Lynch then cast her in a TV pilot, only to see it shelved by network ABC.
Then the impossible happened: Lynch reedited the pilot into a film, and Mulholland Drive took the world by storm. An odd mix of horror, mystery and surrealism, it catapulted Watts to the top of the A-list. She’s played a series of varied roles since, with returns to horror in The Ring and its sequel, Funny Games and the high-profile King Kong remake, earning raves throughout. As vibrant and talented as any woman to ever hold the distinction of ‘Scream Queen,” Watts gives the title high class.
6 Heather Langenkamp
For an actress who hasn’t made many high-profile films, Langenkamp’s name casts a long shadow over Hollywood, and in particular, the horror genre. After bit parts in a series of films, horror icon Wes Craven cast her in the lead in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film—and Langenkamp—won rave reviews and became a latter-day horror classic. She then gravitated to television, appearing in a series of TV movies and the sit-com Just the Ten of Us. She would later return to horror, appearing in the Elm Street sequels A Nighmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors and the post-modern take on the series, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
In recent years, Langenkamp has only taken occasional roles, preferring instead to focus on her life as a mother and wife. Ironically, she also works as a special effects make up artist, providing effects for the horror TV series American Horror Story and Scream Queens. Despite her semi-retirement from acting, Langenkamp still holds the distinction of horror icon thanks to her Elm Street tenure, and may one day return to the screen to thrill audiences once again.
5 Eva Green
Leggy French actress Green first charmed American audiences with her role as a femme fatale in Casino Royale. Acclaimed for her performance, Green’s sultry presence and dark features made her a natural for supernatural horror. She played a witch in The Golden Compass, and later, in the TV series Camelot to some acclaim. She then landed a dream collaboration, working with one of her favorite directors, Tim Burton. Green landed the lead in the big-budget Dark Shadows film opposite respected thesps Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michelle Pfeiffer, again playing a witch! Though the film underperformed, it did land Green the notice to land her best project to date.
Penny Dreadful, written by acclaimed writer John Logan, cast Green as a Victorian woman haunted by demons. A clever mix of horror mythology, drawing room drama and Grand Guignol schlock, Green won some of the best reviews of her career over the course of the show’s there seasons. She’ll next appear in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, in another supernatural role.
4 Chloe Grace Moretz
Moretz earned her scream queen status at only age seven, playing one of the lead children in the remake of The Amityville Horror. Her performance earned her immediate attention, and Moretz became one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood. After appearing in Kick-Ass to wide acclaim, Moretz took the lead in the horror-drama Let Me In, playing a child vampire. She gravitated to horror again in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, and the following year, nabbed her best part to date. Director Kimberly Pierce’s remake of Stephen King’s Carrie cast Moretz in the titular lead, opposite Oscar winner Julianne Moore. Pierce’s feminist take on the material made the film into a commercial and critical hit, with Moretz’s performance earning wide acclaim.
As an adult, Moretz supplements her busy acting schedule with activism, both as a feminist and advocate for gay rights. In 2016, she was featured as a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. Not shy about her popularity among horror fans, look for Moretz to renew her status as a scream queen in her later career.
3 Sarah Michelle Gellar
Gellar began acting as a child, nabbing an Emmy for her performance on the daytime soap All My Children. Following her success on All My Children, Gellar landed the lead in a low-profile TV adaptation of a cult film: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show became an enormous hit—bigger even than the film that spawned it—and catapulted Gellar to superstardom. She transitioned to film, somewhat predictably, as a horror siren. I Know What You Did Last Summer, a thriller produced in the same vein as the popular Scream, garnered mixed reviews but strong box office returns. Gellar would then actually star in the Scream sequel Scream 2 the following year.
After the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gellar returned to horror films with the horror-comedy Scooby Doo and Japanese-style thriller The Grudge. She would reprise her role in sequels to both films. An active actress, she continues to work in television and film, often in genre pieces. Most recently, she played a sinister Jedi hunter on Star Wars Rebels.
2 Barbara Steele
A career scream queen if ever there was one, British-born Steele first rose to prominence in Italian horror films. Raven haired, curvaceous and very buxom, Steele had her breakout playing a satanic witch in Black Sunday. The movie made her an instant horror icon and sex symbol, and lead to further roles on both sides of the Atlantic. Pigeonholed into horror roles in America, Steele played a series of roles for low-budget horror master Roger Corman, including a lead in The Pit and the Pendulum opposite Vincent Price. In Europe, she enjoyed a more varied career, including an acclaimed performance in Fredrico Fellini’s 8 ½.
Increasingly frustrated by her typecasting in horror films throughout the 1960s, Steele never the less did have the opportunity to work with acclaimed directors, including Jonathan Demme, Volker Schlöndorff, and David Cronenberg. In the early 1990s, she nabbed the plumb role of Dr. Julia Hoffman in Dan Curtis’ Dark Shadows reboot. Despite strong ratings and critical acclaim, an ever-changing timeslot and preemption due to the Gulf War led to early cancellation. Since then, Steele’s output has been only sporadic, though she cherishes her status as a scream queen.
1 Jamie Lee Curtis
The spawn of showbiz stock, Curtis hit screens with a scream in 1978, starring in the seminal horror classic Halloween directed by John Carpenter. The movie popularized the “slasher” genre, and Curtis’ performance as an all-American teen stalked by a murderous psychopath won wide acclaim. She returned to star in the sequel Halloween II before collaborating again with Carpenter on cult film The Fog. She’s since graduated on to a broader range of roles to critical and audience praise, tackling comedy in A Fish Called Wanda, drama in My Girl and even action in True Lies.
In 1998, Curtis made a much-anticipated return to horror, reprising her role of Laurie Strode in Halloween H2O. Though the movie received mixed notices, Curtis again won strong reviews, stealing the movie from her younger, teen-idol co-stars. Curtis has also gained acclaim as an author of children’s books, and as an outspoken activist for LGBT rights. She continues to act today, appropriately enough playing Dean Munsch on the aptly-titled Scream Queens.
Did we miss your favorite scream queen? Tell us in the comments!