The Evolution of the Scream Queen: From Janet Leigh to Katherine Isabelle

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Ever since there have been horror movies there have been the women who rule them.  These women are known as Scream Queens, and perhaps the most notable woman to claim this title on the silver screen is Jamie Lee Curtis.  However, the leading ladies of this sub genre have not always followed the same path as Curtis’ characters.  In fact, there seem to be three major movements for this trope during the past century: the helpless victim, the newly empowered hero, and the justified/vengeance seeker.

Beginning in the silent era of film, the original role of this female stereotype was quite literally a weak female character who screamed and fainted in the face of horror in a time when you couldn’t hear their screams. In the 1920s damsels in distress did not face their adversaries head on.  Instead, leading ladies in movies such as 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1922’s Nosferatu surrendered to their villains, cowering before them.

For decades movies kept this idea of a weak leading lady.  Perhaps most notable is Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho. The actress captured the silver screen as beautiful and vulnerable Marion Crane.  The slender beauty became easy prey for the movie’s monster, Norman Bates, in the most vulnerable of states: nude in the shower.   Unable to fight back, Leigh’s character meets her early demise, and it was this movie that sealed the first definition of the Scream Queen.  However, unbeknownst to the actress at the time, she had given birth to the next generation of Scream Queens, literally.

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In the late 1970’s the definition of the Scream Queen began to evolve.  From the helpless female victim surrendering to a male perpetrator emerged a new kind of female character; a woman who begins her journey timid and weak but finds strength and empowerment after being subjected to torture by the movie’s perpetrator.  It is only after she has survived the trials and tribulations put forth by the assailant that she can find the strength within herself to defeat him.

The new era of the Scream Queen came with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween featuring newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh.  In the 1978 classic, Laurie Strode transforms from sheepish bookworm to empowered survivor as she is relentlessly stalked by boogeyman Michael Myers.  It was here Carpenter displayed the characteristics that made for an easy victim in horror movies for years to come; participation in premarital sex as well as alcohol and drug use.  Each of Laurie’s friends are picked off by the movie’s boogeyman, forcing the level headed and reliable babysitter to step up and prevail.  It was this movie that changed the face of the Scream Queen from the vulnerable victim to the tortured and empowered survivor.

Embracing her newly found career, Jamie Lee dominated the genre her mother helped create.  Following successful roles in Prom Night, Terror Train, and The Fog Jamie Lee Curtis had been crowned as the undisputed Scream Queen of the silver screen by horror fans.

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In the subsequent years horror films have followed this model for their leading ladies.  In classic 80’s and 90’s slashers such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Scream all of the female stars began as unsuspecting victims only to rise and prevail as survivors, stronger and wiser in the end than they were in the beginning.

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However, in the last decade we have seen a sudden departure from the subgenre dubbed as the “slasher” where these Final Girls have outsmarted their assailants.  Once again the women of the genre are changing, and instead of being unsuspecting victims taking a hero’s journey to their final transformation at the end of the movie, the new Scream Queen is evolving into something quite different.

While there are still modern day slashers that follow the tested and true model of a female victim’s rise to hero such as 2016’s Hush starring Kate Siegel, as well as Jane Levy in the unexpected hit Don’t Breathe, the last ten years the new leading ladies have evolved into vengeance fueled bad asses.  Instead of being transformed into the heroine after 90 minutes of hell bestowed upon them by the movie’s boogeyman, these ladies often face their adversaries early on in the story only to become the image of strength and vengeance we see throughout the remainder of the film.

An example of this new generation of Scream Queen is Danielle Harris.  Beginning her career as a child actress in Halloween 4 & 5, Harris became an instant success in the genre.  With a long resume of horror movies some of her most recent roles have shaped the way we newly define the archetype.  In the latter two Hatchet  films by director Adam Green, Harris’ character Marybeth Dunston quickly escalates from victim to revenge fueled hero as the franchise’s killer disposes of her entirely family and leaves her as the sole survivor.

Another leading lady assisting the creation of a new mold for the Scream Queen is Katherine Isabelle.  Isabelle first caught the eye of fans with her role in the Canadian trilogy Ginger Snaps.  While not your typical hero, Isabelle’s character Ginger Fitzgerald became an instant icon of empowerment for female fans of the genre.  Keeping her name relevant in the field she returned to Scream Queen fame with her role of Mary Mason in 2012’s American Mary.  After being taken advantage of by those she trusted most, Isabelle’s character utilizes her skills as a gifted medical student to not only seek vengeance on those who wronged her.

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The new Scream Queen is a female we cheer and support as they regain control of their lives and take justice into their own hands, no matter how bloody that path may be.  As an audience we no longer want to see female characters become just another notch on a killer’s bedpost, but instead become a strong woman with purpose and empowerment.

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