Barbara Crampton: Don’t Call Me A Scream Queen

One of horror's best loved actresses on why we should ditch that ubiquitous label.

For many years now I have been telling the publicists of movies I’m in, "When you set up that interview with the journalist, please gently tell them I prefer not to be called a Scream Queen," and then I give a brief explanation with a version of the tweet I sent out on Tuesday.

The reaction I received to that public reveal of my disdain for the term was overwhelming, sparking agreement, illumination and, on occasion, outrage and disregard. My Twitter links to Facebook and even the following morning I woke up to hundreds of likes, opinions and remarks. I’m happy it sparked discussion. Like “Kevin,” this is clearly something we need to talk about. I felt this conversation needed a bigger forum, so here are some additional thoughts from me on the subject, along with comments from luminaries in the horror community. Many thanks to Meredith Borders who contacted me requesting a broader discourse.

The concept of shrieking damsels in distress has been around since the dawn of film, with The Perils of Pauline (1914) and Fay Wray clamoring at King Kong (1933), but it wasn’t until half a century later that the female protagonists of horror cinema were given the  moniker of Scream Queen. The Last House on the Left star Sandra Peabody was one of the first actresses to have the title officially bestowed upon her after appearing in Wes Craven's 1972 classic, but it wasn't until the early '80s, when then-ingenue Jamie Lee Curtis starred in an impressive five horror films over the course of two years, that the term hit the mainstream.

Scream Queen, which, almost overnight, became an intensely popular term, was later bestowed upon countless starlets throughout the 1980s (including myself). By the early 1990s, the term had veered into camp, with tongue-in-cheek films like 1991's Scream Queen Hot Tub Party dominating video store shelves. Craven, who, as stated, helped create modern horror's first Scream Queen, masterfully poked fun at the concept - and the tropes of slasher movies in general - with 1996's Scream, but did so without attempting to turn star Neve Campbell into anything other than a tough-as-nails heroine. And while Campbell would appear in The Craft the same year - and would return for all three of Scream's sequels - the strength and focus of the characters she portrayed (as well as the fact that she didn't spend the films howling her head off) didn’t really prove her to be what the title implies. Regardless, she was given the title of Scream Queen on countless lists and articles.

Why is that? It’s a catchy phrase and a titillating title but does little to make lucid the many nuances that an actor goes through in modern horror films. As my buddy Alan Cerny aptly stated, "It’s reductive." I could go on about the layered and deep performances of many of my peers young and old who worked very hard on their roles and left us horror fans with a profound cinematic experience that we return to again and again: Heather Langenkamp in Nightmare on Elm Street, Jessica Harper in Suspiria, Tippi Hedren in The Birds, Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Lin Shaye in Insidious, Essie Davis in The Babadook, Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes, Sharni Vinson in You’re Next and, of course, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween... the list is long.

This moniker of Scream Queen is limiting in description and also limiting in its ability to reveal that these actresses are more than the sum of the strain of their vocal cords. For many, like myself, it has cemented a career in a beloved genre, yet for some it has also reduced the roles they are offered in other genres, having pigeonholed them to one sort of film work. Let me share with you what I said to producer Travis Stevens while working on We Are Still Here: "A character doesn’t know they are in a horror movie. As the character, I am given a certain set of experiences to live through in a film and I try to do that with as much genuineness as possible." Anger, longing, love and fear are aspects of many situations in life and in all genres.

Moving on, it was the digital revolution of the early 2000s when the term took a new form. Suddenly, up-and-coming actresses were bestowing the title upon themselves after appearing in one or two horror films - with the occasional young talent going as far as using the title as a hook before appearing in anything! To be given the distinction, actresses once had to cut their teeth to make it in the horror community. Suddenly it was a title anyone could claim.

But much like actual royalty, you can't call yourself a king or queen and expect instant reverence. It is term that is bestowed upon you.

While the FOX television series of the same name continues to saturate the term, let's take a moment to break it down. Being a Scream Queen implies that you're good at two things: howling at the top of your lungs and being a woman. Simply being known as a decent actor who just happens to love genre films is far more satisfying, and far less condescending.

When I first stepped into the genre world with 1985's Re-Animator, I had no intention of becoming a mainstay in the scene. But after two more horror films the following year, I found myself branded as a Scream Queen. Sure, Megan Halsey spends a fair amount of time screaming at Dan Cain, Herbert West and “Daddy" after he became a zombie pawn of mad Dr. West. And I did groan and quake quite a bit in From Beyond and shriek in Chopping Mall. Sure, I was fighting a headless zombie, a phallic creature from the beyond and laser-equipped robots, but I was an actor. And it hurt to diminish me, to restrict me with a title like this, simply because I embraced horror or my own sexuality.

When Ted Geoghegan approached me about starring in his 2015 directorial debut We Are Still Here, he did so as a fan - as someone who openly admitted to having grown up shocked by "that scene" from Re-Animator. "Seeing Castle Freak as a wide-eyed 16-year-old," he admitted to me, "helped me more fully comprehend that actors are more than their roles. Sure, you'd played a screaming co-ed a decade earlier, but your role in Castle Freak, as a strong, focused mother, incapable of breaking down, made me see the confinement of cinematic labels. I didn't want a Scream Queen to play Anne in We Are Still Here. I wanted an actor.”

I’ve been offered some fantastic roles in this second round of my career since coming back with You’re Next in 2011. A heavy-hearted mother mourning the loss of a son, a sadistic and non-self-reflective caretaker, an American woman hiding a deadly secret living in France, a VCR board game host, a Reverend Mother…and more to come. I’d like to believe that I am more than a “bubble-headed co-ed," as Herbert West called me, and I know that my current friends and actresses in the business are doing fine contemporary work in this new wave of genre films, films that are more naturalistic yet still evocative of deep feelings and revealing of real passion, fear and love combined.

They have skills that have taken years to develop and hone.

Since there are some who don’t mind this title or wear it proudly, I say go ahead and refer to yourself as you wish. For me, I prefer not to be labeled, boxed, pigeonholed or reduced to a term that I consider passé and antiquated, limiting and, yes, crass. So please...

Don’t call me a Scream Queen.

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I reached out to some of my friends and colleagues for their thoughts on the label. Read their insights below.

"Incessant screaming in horror films is something that mars even some of my favorites in the genre. It’s an especially irritating addition to many '80s movies. There’s one beloved cult film - that I won’t defame - that I don’t really care for as it devolves into the leads screaming for most of the second half. As such, when I made Shaun of the Dead, we decided to have no screaming from women or men. Expressions of shock and fear, yes, but no extended yelling as it felt forced and not natural. I think the term 'Scream Queen' does a disservice mostly because, if anything, some of the great horror films with strong female characters - Laurie Strode, Carrie White, Ellen Ripley, Nancy Thompson - are defined by their resolve and strength rather than their lung capacity." - Edgar Wright, director, Shaun of the Dead

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"Women have a hard enough time dealing with the inherent misogyny of the movie industry and, loath as I am to say it, the horror genre has done (and continues to do) more than its fair share to hinder the cause. Be it the Scream Queen label or the Girls and Corpses mentality, woman have a history of being treated as sexually objectified, hysterical and ineffectual pieces of meat, just waiting to be hounded, humiliated, tortured, raped, butchered and, in some cases, all of the above. So yeah, I certainly object to the term Scream Queen and all the baggage it carries with it. That said, as much harm as horror movies might have done, they’ve also often been known to lead the way in more progressive thinking where women are concerned. And certainly in the case of my own work, I have striven to treat my female characters with the respect they deserve." Neil Marshall, director, The Descent

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"There is nothing worse than working your butt off in a film, enduring all sorts of long hours, intense working conditions and very difficult emotional gymnastics only to have it all reduced to a cliche like Scream Queen. As a younger woman, I was hurt and even offended when this term was used about me and my role in A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, after 30 years, I realize that in the horror world it's a term of endearment and that no better term has been invented for the very interesting and difficult work we horror actresses (and a few actors) do. So now, I will call myself a Scream Queen affectionately and with some sense of pride. It still shocks many of my friends when I say that I am a Scream Queen - there is, to this day, a schlocky retro connotation to the term that still clings to it like a bloody piece of sinew. But even so, being a Scream Queen beats being a 'bimbo' or 'eye candy' any day. It seems there is no equivalent in the male acting world and men generally don’t reduce whole performers into categories like that except maybe for those who are called 'beefcake' or 'himbo,' which is also a very demeaning term for describing actors who are performing legitimate roles." - Heather Langenkamp, actress, A Nightmare on Elm Street

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"I've always said that good acting is the best special effect. And imagining oneself in some of the horrific and outrageous circumstances in our films takes an especially gifted actor. Someone like you, Barbara. But as our founding fathers embraced the British insult of Yankee Doodle and made them eat their words, you should do the same with the term Scream Queen." - Stuart Gordon, director, Re-Animator

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"'Scream Queen' is another lazy label, like 'horror icon.' In today's media's crank-em-out deadline consciousness, writers often don't take the time to personalize their depictions, find the right words to describe their subjects. C'mon, you guys, find some new, non-sexist monikers that entertain and enlighten us!" - Bill Moseley, actor, The Devil's Rejects

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"Being a Scream Queen used to be a badge of honor awarded to a female horror icon. It reflected the fact that that lady had not only survived (or not) in enough films to make their name synonymous with horror, but had also somehow survived in a male-dominated industry and kept going in an era when it was more difficult than ever. It was a term awarded to a trail blazer. A role model. A final girl and survivor. Now it's lost almost all of its value from overuse and misuse, like the term 'torture porn.' The only requirement these days to be dubbed a Scream Queen is to be female which, in my humble opinion, is not enough. We live in an era of 'participation awards.' No one wants to put the work in and everyone wants the title." - Jen Soska, director, American Mary

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"In a time where it is difficult to have the horror genre treated with the same respect and knowledge as other genres, we find the term Scream Queen being used and abused by those without the proper education as to where that term originated or its proper usage. A loving term for the final girls that teach us that you can defeat obstacles that seem impossible, that you have so much more strength than you know, that these women can overcome impossible, terrifying evil. Now we see the term handed out without the work, without the history and without the respect. It muddies the understanding of this genre which is the life blood of the film industry. The horror genre historically always makes money and hence is the industry's backbone. Other genres may win all the awards, but horror keeps the lights on and the bills paid." - Sylvia Soska, director, American Mary

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"I don't love the term. Particularly because there's a long history of actresses being demeaned, underestimated, and manipulated by male directors. There are serious, fiercely intelligent actresses working in genre films and I would never want to trivialize their contributions." - Sarah Adina Smith, director, The Midnight Swim

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"Because as a filmmaker I prefer to work in a variety of genres and would hate to be restricted to just one, I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the term 'scream queen' as one that inherently typecasts an actress into a specific genre. Which makes no sense - there's obviously no reason an actor who's good in a horror film wouldn't be as good in a drama or comedy. To me, the term is symbolic of horror movies in the 1980s, when directors who were successful in the horror genre rarely would be given the opportunity to work outside of it. Exceptions abound, of course, but I think in general that was true, and it applied to performers as well. Horror was seen as less legitimate than other genres, and the people who worked in it were therefore not always given opportunities outside of it. 

Happily, I think that's changing, both for actors and filmmakers. No one would label Essie Davis a scream queen, for example, even if her best known role so far is in a horror film. Journalists love labels like 'scream queen' because it makes their jobs easier, but usually when I see it in articles now, it's being applied to younger actresses in a consciously anachronistic way: actors like Maika Monroe, Taissa Farmiga or Anya Taylor-Joy might be labeled 'indie scream queens,' and I've seen them referenced as such, but I think there's an implicit understanding that they're all incredibly talented performers who could do whatever they want and just happen to have made a couple of horror films. I hope so, anyway, because that seems fairly manifest." - Simon Barrett, writer, You're Next

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"I hate the term Scream Queens and always found it trivial and degrading. I can never think of any great performances with manic screaming - just as held back tears are more moving than witnessing crying, the fight AGAINST the emotion is more powerful. One does not scream in the anticipation of horror, people are very focused. One can scream at witnessing a horrific act, or at the the moment of contact as a release of terror and rage. The classical Greek actors never screamed on stage, nor did they even die on stage. Instead, the audience had to project its own personal dread." - Barbara Steele, actress, Black Sunday

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"I prefer to be called a smart actress." - Lin Shaye, Insidious

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- Axelle Carolyn, writer/director, Soulmate

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"I feel like 'Scream Queen' is a term from a specific, gonzo and gory era in horror that began in the '80s and hit its peak in the early '90s. More often than not, it was linked to hard-working actresses I grew up watching, respected and read about in Fangoria like Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Julie Strain. And these women were not just victims in the roles they played. Let's make that clear. They were sometimes blood-thirsty villains and even survivors in the films they starred in. In the late '90s, however, the term was dying off and there was this effort to sort of attach the 'scream queen' label to newcomers like Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar, but it didn't quite feel right. You could feel the change in the air then - for many good reasons - and, today, I feel like the term 'scream queen' is a bit antiquated. Horror has evolved and the audience has (hopefully) evolved." - Ryan Turek, Director of Development, Blumhouse Productions 

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"I'd say being a Scream Queen is something that is put upon you when you do a lot of horror films and Jamie Lee Curtis, who went on to do big films, is actually called one, too. But just being able to scream and run or scream and kill is only one of the attributes of a Scream Queen. I think the reason the term doesn't bother me as much is that I've done comedy, drama, suspense, so I'm not just doing horror. But I still feel privileged to be, as Playboy said, 'Hollywood's sexiest Scream Queen.' Being a girl from a small town and loving watching horror, that's a big thing to me." - Linnea Quigley, actress, The Return of the Living Dead

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"In my opinion, Scream Queen is a diminutive pet title that relegates an otherwise multi-talented actress to a manageable, nonthreatening box. Misogyny is not always blatant. Sometimes it's cloaked in a seemingly innocuous label. A label that is pronouncing the actress a QUEEN. It's packaged as an honor to be selected and anointed with the title. But it's a limiting, discrediting title all the same. We see the relegation of women to a 'label' played out in movies all of the time, not only horror, because it's a reflection of our culture and our society. The Scream Queen, the Bitch, the Mother, the Vixen. We label men, as well. It's all fear. If one doesn't believe in their own potential and power, it's too threatening to allow others to live in theirs." Amanda Wyss, actress, A Nightmare on Elm Street

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"Not every horror film is high art.  And not every actress or actor who appears in one is Meryl Streep or Laurence Olivier.  

That being said, it does seem like "Scream Queen" is yet another dated way to marginalize, sexualize and objectify an actor who should be getting notice for their ability to bring a character to life - not because they happen to work within a particular genre. It probably moved magazines in the '70s and '80s, likely put some short-term money in their pockets on the convention circuit and was perhaps embraced because being known for something is better than not being known at all. But in the long run I'm sure most would have preferred being considered actors with the opportunity to play a variety of roles other than the ones featuring cleavage and karo syrup." Travis Stevens, producer, XX

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"The term Scream Queen has been a very handy label used for decades now to describe a horror movie actress. While I understand it from a writer's perspective, it's not a term I would use in a biography. It's an antiquated handle that is now used to describe women who have a slew of raunchy photos that have a flavor of horror to them. The term is readily embraced by some women who usually are just doing a version of what they think a Scream Queen should do and it more often than not ends up being rather not unique and like a second or third generation rip-off of someone else's idea. It really doesn't speak to any serious level of acting, even though there are many great actresses who are referred to as Scream Queens." - Debbie Rochon, actress, Troma Studios

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"Getting dubbed as horror royalty used to be a badge of honor, and in recent years it's been co-opted by a handful of actors involved in Z-grade projects as an attempt to brand themselves as a known quantity. That title is earned and has unfortunately been tainted by a handful of fame-seeking sad sacks. Is it worthy of outrage? Probably not but it's become a bit of a pejorative." - Jackson Stewart, writer/director, Beyond the Gates

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"Scream Queen is a dated but persistent remnant of a sexist tradition of gender stereotyping in horror - one that overgeneralizes and fails to communicate an accurate description of a person's contributions and capabilities. It's a close cousin to the equally antiquated 'femme fatale.' You can tell me I'm wrong about that if you can name the household phrase for men who act in horror films. You can't, because there isn't one. A person who acts in a horror film — in ANY film for that matter — is quite simply, an actor. In the same vein, I don't appreciate being called a 'woman in horror' or a 'woman director.' I am simply a director." - Jovanka Vuckovic, director, XX

 

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