A “scream queen” is defined as an actress who is closely associated with horror, traditionally as a frequent victim (damsel in distress) and later as portraying a heroine. The reason these women are called scream queens is because their signature screams are loud, intense, and captivating. Although in many instances scream queens are frail and defenseless, the most successful among them have inner strength that the audience can clasp onto during pivotal scenes of suspense, tension, or horror. It is this inner strength that give the audience hope that the scream queen may yet overcome the menace, be it an alien organism or a hideous monster.
There are literally hundreds of scream queens who have entertained people since the advent of film. Thus, it is very difficult to come up with a limited list of amazing scream queens through the decades. What this two-part list intends to do is capture the most influential scream queen during each decade of film production. Earlier decades were much easier to reduce to just one person, but from the 1960s onward, this task proved difficult, as more and more scream queens gained popularity in horror films. Thus, some decades have two top contenders for the title of supreme scream queen.
Born in 1887, Lil Dagover was a German actress who performed for six decades on the stage and in film and television. Lil lived through World War II in Germany and was said to have been a dinner guest of Adolf Hitler on several occasions, although she remained apolitical, particularly in her film career.
Lil made her cinematic debut in 1919, starring in Fritz Lang’s Harakiri. Lang of course would go on to make many amazing films, such as Metropolis (1927), By Rocket to the Moon (1929), and The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933).
Although she made many movies, such as Augustus the Strong (1936), The Great Longing (1930), and The Pedestrian (1973), her best-remembered role is arguably as Jane Olsen in 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. With her haunting eyes, long black hair, small but pronounced lips, and furtive movements, Lil would set the standard for the look of female vampires to come, even though her role in the silent and expressionist film had no menace in it.
Born in 1907, Vina Fay Wray appeared in her first film at the age of 16, playing a small role in a short historical film. During the 1920s, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers selected her as one of the “WAMPAS Baby Stars,” indicating that she was destined for movie stardom. Fay appeared in various movies, predominantly westerns, but it was in 1933 that she became a genuine icon by starring in King Kong.
Playing the “beauty” against the gigantic ape’s “beast,” Fay distinguished herself not only with her bold screaming but also in her genuine affection for the Big Guy. The stop-motion effects by Willis O’Brien have never been topped by either remake, and not one actress has come close to achieving the charisma exemplified by Fay Wray.
Fay would also cement a position in the world of horror by starring in various horror films. Fay’s horror films include Doctor X (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and Black Moon (1934).
Fay Wray passed away on August 8, 2004, in her New York apartment. In 2004, she had been approached by Peter Jackson to make a small cameo for his King Kong remake (2005). Fay declined the cameo, believing that the original move was the true “king.” She of course was correct.
Born on April 23, 1910, French actress (singer, model, and fashion designer) Simone Simon is best remembered by horror fans for her performance in Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), the latter also marking the debut of Robert Wise as a director.
Written by Jacques Tourneur from an original short story (“The Bagheeta”) by Val Lewton in 1930, Cat People stars Simone as Irena, a Serbian who believes that she is a descendant of a race of shapeshifters who turn into cats when aroused sexually. The film was remade in 1982 as an erotic horror film starring Natassja Kinski.
Simone’s later work did not take in Hollywood, so she returned to France, where she worked until the early 1970s. She passed away in France on February 22, 2005.
Born Betty May Adams on October 17, 1927, Julie Adams is perhaps best remembered by horror fans as Kay Lawrence in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. As cool as the titular creature was for many fans, equally enchanting was the white one-piece bathing suit sported by Adams.
Directed by Jack Arnold, Creature from the Black Lagoon was originally released as a 3D movie, with polarized 3D glasses made available to audiences. The monster was played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning for the underwater scenes.
In 2011, Adams (working with her son, Mitchell) authored The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections from the Black Lagoon. The book chronicles the life and career of Adams.
Born on July 6, 1927, Janet Leigh is best remembered for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, originally released in 1960. For her performance, Leigh received the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Twenty years later, Leigh starred with her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter’s The Fog. In 1998, she starred with Lee again, this time on Halloween H20: 20 Years Later. She also appeared in the bunny horror film Night of the Lepus (1972), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Touch of Evil (1958).
While Leigh was making waves with Psycho in the United States, in Italy the great Barbara Steele had begun her career in gothic films in Italy. Her breakthrough role was in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960), which was followed by films such as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock (1962), Terror-Creatures from Beyond the Grave (1965), Shivers (1975), and Piranha (1980). In 1992, she worked on the revival of the television series Dark Shadows.