A scream queen is an actress who does a great deal of work in the horror genre. Scream queens often become closely associated with this genre of film and television, sometimes despite a desire to break out and work in other aspects of the industry. Some examples of notable scream queens include: Far Wray, Scout Taylor-Compton, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Depending on the film and the actress, a scream queen may be a victim, or a female protagonist. Many start out as victims, taking bit parts as characters who will be killed partway through the story, and slowly work their way up to roles as protagonists. Whatever type of role she plays, a scream queen is classically young and beautiful, though her beauty may be more “girl next door” than supermodel, with an emphasis on the idea that a scream queen could be a real woman.
As the slang term for these actresses suggests, scream queens do a fair amount of screaming on film, but they also play romantic roles, and some are required to develop a range of acting skills, portraying an assortment of characters from intelligent, strong protagonists to wilting lilies. The performance of a scream queen can have a huge influence on the overall tone of the production, as it is easy for horror to cross the line into camp with the wrong actress or setting.
Women have been used in horror films for about as long as horror films have been made. Fetching female victims playing the role of damsel in distress were a key part of films in the silent era, when basic visual images were needed to propel the story. In addition to acting as victims and protagonists, of course, actresses also played villains, with some female villains being particularly notable for the amount of terror they were able to evoke in the audience, with or without sound.
Work as a scream queen can be quite varied. Some women find themselves working exclusively in the B movie genre, while others manage to make it into major motion pictures. Once a woman has appeared in horror a few times, she may also find herself locked into that genre and typecast as a scream queen for the rest of her career, which can be very frustrating. Rates of compensation vary: some scream queens are among the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, while others struggle to make do with work on low-budget films which cannot provide very notable salaries.