Images: DreamWorks Pictures / 20th Television / Dimension Films / Dimension Films / 20th Television. Art Design: Erik Shute
There was no way of knowing that a small independent film would change the course of the horror genre, but that’s exactly what Halloween did upon its release in 1978, ushering in the modern horror era and providing a template still used by filmmakers 40 years later.
In addition, Halloween -- featuring the film debut of Jamie Lee Curtis -- also helped create a new archetype in film: the scream queen. Sure, there had been female horror standouts before, dating all the way back to Fay Wray in 1933’s King Kong, but the triumvirate of Curtis’ mother, Janet Leigh, in Psycho, Linda Blair in The Exorcist and Sissy Spacek in Carrie were the biggest names pre-1978. The wave of horror films post- Halloween would change that dramatically.
Horror movies are often the first step for young actresses building a career, and a glut of films after the success of John Carpenter’s film put plenty of them onscreen and in major roles. Over the years, the scream queen has morphed from simple eye candy and cannon fodder into a clever, tough, often victorious foe who earns the audience’s respect -- which, once again, can be directly traced back to Halloween.
Not all scream queens are created equal, but we’re celebrating them all, from A-listers who’ve made brief horror forays to B-movie legends who carved out a career in the genre and embodied what it means to be the ultimate final girl. Get your lungs ready and celebrate the top 40 scream queens of the last 40 years.
40. Toni Collette
The Aussie actress isn’t primarily known for horror, but if you’ve seen her in Fright Night, Krampus, The Sixth Sense or her terrifying turn in the surprise hit Hereditary, you know she belongs on this list -- especially thanks to her unnerving performance (and, spoiler alert, that wall crawl) in the latter. “I swear to god, there was not one easy scene in this film,” Collette told ET about making Hereditary. “I knew it was going to be heavy, but there just was no let up.”
39. Naomi Watts
Watts became a household name by appearing in the blockbuster remake of The Ring and its sequel, but she first established her horror bona fides by starring in The Shaft and Children of the Corn IV.
38. Jessica Biel
Stepping into one of horror’s most iconic roles would be a tough task for anyone, but Biel acquitted herself well as the eventual heroine in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, despite it being her first major movie role. She has since compared the filming experience to that of her Emmy-nominated role on The Sinner, explaining to Gold Derby, “you had to keep that level of fear and confusion and energy so high and it had to continue” throughout the entire process.
37. Carmen Ejogo
Unlike most actresses, Ejogo entered the horror field after her career had already been established, with her first genre appearance coming in 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy. Since then, she’s appeared in the critical favorite It Comes at Night and the most recent Alien film, Covenant.
36. Debbie Rochon
If you’ve skipped Tromeo and Juliet or Slime City Massacre, you’ve missed out on one of horror’s most underrated performers, who has appeared in hundreds of movies and was inducted into the B-Movie Hall of Fame in 2004.
35. Elisha Cuthbert
The Canadian actress got an early start in horror, appearing on Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a child. She made notable appearances in House of Wax and Captivity, which was embroiled in controversy due to questionable billboards that appeared in L.A. and New York.
34. Bella Thorne
An actress as busy as Thorne is bound to appear in a few horror projects, and she’s got several on her resume, including a memorable turn in season one of MTV’s adaptation of Scream, playing a role akin to Drew Barrymore’s in the first film, and the lead in the much-delayed Amityville: The Awakening.
33. Marley Shelton
Shelton was the star of the one of the most-ridiculous post-Scream films of the 2000s, the wildly misguided slasher Valentine, and she appeared in both halves of the Grindhouse double bill, Planet Terror and Death Proof.
32. Kiele Sanchez
Primarily known for her infamous Lost arc as the ill-fated Nikki, Sanchez has carved out a niche in horror, starring in the surprisingly decent DTV sequel 30 Days of Night: Dark Days, The Purge: Anarchy alongside Ejogo and the gooey, gory Insanitarium.
31. Ashley Laurence
One of the biggest scream queens of the slasher era, Laurence became a household name as Kirsty, fighting the nefarious Pinhead over the course of the first three installments of the Hellraiser series. She returned to the never-ending franchise with 2002’s Hellraiser: Hellseeker.
30. Riley Keough
The granddaughter of Elvis Presley has proved to be a formidable rising star thanks to Steven Soderbergh's seal of approval (The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike). But it's her work in a string of horror films -- It Comes at Night, Jack & Diane and the upcoming The House That Jack Built, The Lodge -- that landed her on the list. “I feel like the scripts that I’ve been reading -- that happen to be horror, thriller, psychological thriller, or whatever -- the roles are really interesting to me,” she told ET of her recent work, while proclaiming she's gets “called all kinds of queens.”
29. Betty Gabriel
One of the most memorable debuts of 2017 was Gabriel’s creepy performance as the “reprogrammed” maid in the breakout horror hit Get Out. She’s been a key member of Blumhouse’s roster of actors, also appearing in The Purge: Anarchy and Unfriended: Dark Web.
28. Barbara Crampton
From the 1980s to today, Crampton has crafted a long and storied career as a scream queen, making her breakthrough in the over-the-top Re-Animator. After a long break from the genre, Crampton returned in You’re Next and has several upcoming horror projects lined up.
27. Tiffany Shepis
Another queen of B-movie cinema, Shepis is a fan favorite in the horror community and a frequent screamer in Syfy and straight-to-DVD classics like Scarecrow, The Toxic Avenger IV and Bloody Murder 2. She was once engaged to the late Corey Haim.
26. Milla Jovovich
There might not be one actress more associated with a franchise than Jovovich and the Resident Evil series, which has put the actress through a seemingly endless clash against the Umbrella Corp. and its various zombies over six films. After 15 years of kicking ass, Jovovich brought along her then 9-year-old daughter Ever for a turn in The Final Chapter, putting her through two years of training before appearing in the film.
25. Lili Taylor
While Taylor is often thought of as a character actress, she’s been a staple in horror films over the years, with memorable turns in The Addiction, The Haunting, The Conjuring and Leatherface, as the matriarch of the cannibalistic chainsaw family.
There’s a long tradition of creepy kids in horror movies, but no one is currently doing it better than Wilson, who was excellent in the way-better-than-it-should-have-been Ouija: Origin of Evil and has continued to shine in Annabelle: Origins and Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House.
22. Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Not only was Winstead in arguably the best Final Destination flick -- the amusement park–themed third film -- but she was also a complete badass in the completely underrated and overlooked The Thing remake, and she owned the horror-adjacent 10 Cloverfield Lane. And let’s not forget her contributions to Death Proof and the Black Christmas remake.
21. Emma Roberts
Perhaps no one does the mix of camp and horror better than Roberts, who stole the show as Chanel Oberlin in the gone-too-soon Scream Queens and has become an integral part of Ryan Murphy’s troupe in American Horror Story. She even shined in the uneven final chapter of the Scream franchise, which saw her flip the final girl trope by turning out to be the unsuspected villain.
20. Drew Barrymore
Even though it was little more than a cameo, Barrymore’s appearance in Scream was a game-changer (just watch any of the Scream sequels). Harkening back to Leigh in Psycho, the shock of seeing what appeared to be the star of the movie killed in the opening act left audiences stunned and kickstarted a new era in the slasher genre. “It was amazing for me because when I watched the film, I was actually scared,” Barrymore told ET. Originally asked to play Sidney Prescott (a role that went to Neve Campbell), the actress opted for the now-iconic opening scene. “I mean, it is so scary that even though I was in it -- I was there, I knew everything that was going on, the mechanics and everything -- it was still just a flat-out scary scene.”
19. Katie Cassidy
Cassidy is no stranger to horror remakes, having starred in revamped versions of When a Stranger Calls, Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but her best scream queen work came in CBS’ underrated horror TV show Harper’s Island, a delightfully gory mystery that saw members of a wedding party offed each week.
18. Adrienne Barbeau
Barbeau was already a household name when she gained scream queen fame by appearing in her then-husband John Carpenter’s The Fog. She would continue to cement herself as a horror icon with roles in the camp classics Swamp Thing and Creepshow. Like most actresses of the ’80s, her work has slowed down in recent years, but she did have a cameo appearance in Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake.
17. Ali Larter
One of the cornerstones of both the Final Destination and Resident Evil franchises, appearing in five movies between them, Larter brought a toughness to her characters that elevated what could have been standard parts. “I’m totally damaged forever by Resident Evil,” she joked with ET about the minor injuries sustained on set during the movie’s stunt work. The actress also appeared in 1999's House on Haunted Hill and recently returned to the subgenre as a mother battling supernatural forces in her home in 2015's The Diabolical. “
16. Shawnee Smith
Trying to keep track of how everything fits in the Saw franchise may require use of this handy gif, but one key element was Smith, who appeared in seven of the eight films, eventually being revealed as one of Jigsaw’s main acolytes. She also hosted the first season of the VH1 reality series Scream Queens, which saw aspiring actresses competing for a role in the Saw franchise.
15. Jennifer Love Hewitt
One of the modern era’s biggest hits, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and its sequel put Hewitt -- already a teen star thanks to Party of Five -- on the horror map. “I think being a singer, the lungs were just trained already for the screaming thing so I just kind of let it all loose,” she told ET at the film’s premiere in 1997 about managing to land one of genre's most iconic screams.
14. Anna Paquin
Paquin spent seven seasons as telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood, where she was chased down by all sorts of scream-worthy creatures (including more than a few hunky ones) in Bon Temps, Louisiana. “I am totally comfortable with a sexy role,” she told ET in 2008 about the HBO series’ notorious skin-filled scenes. Before that, she starred in the cult classic Trick ‘r Treat, a horror anthology film that went unreleased for two years despite critical acclaim, and the Spanish-American horror film Darkness.
13. Katharine Isabelle
You can stack Isabelle’s horror resume up against anyone’s, as she’s continued to work steadily in the genre, even if she might not be a household name. Breaking through at an early age in the clever Ginger Snaps franchise, Isabelle has shown up in Freddy vs. Jason, See No Evil 2 and the ultra-creepy TV show Hannibal.
12. Linnea Quigley
If you grew up in the 1980s, then you knew all about the “Queen of the Bs,” as Quigley showed up in nearly every major (and minor) horror film of the era. Her most iconic role might be Trash in Return of the Living Dead, but she also appeared in Silent Night, Deadly Night and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.
11. Courteney Cox
Often overshadowed by another member of the Scream ensemble, Cox’s Gale Weathers seemed like a clear victim in the first movie but wound up becoming an integral part of the four-film franchise, providing both comic relief and a survivor’s grit as she battled various iterations of the masked killer. In between Scream films, Cox famously put her vocal chops to use on an episode of Friends.
10. Heather Langkenkamp
Not many people took on Freddy Krueger and survived, but Nancy Thompson had his number in the original A Nightmare on Elm Street. Nancy returned in Dream Warriors, becoming a fan favorite in the process. Langenkamp’s haunted work in the meta New Nightmare added another layer to her relationship with fame and Freddy.
9. Anya Taylor-Joy
Taylor-Joy’s career has started with a bang (or a jump scare), as she’s become a big name in the horror world due to her top-flight work in a series of spooky favorites, including the arthouse hit The Witch, the M. Night Shamalayan thriller Split, the futuristic Morgan and her upcoming roles in The New Mutants and Glass.
8. Taissa Farmiga
One of two Farmiga sisters on this list, Taissa is a key player in the American Horror Story franchise, having appeared in four seasons thus far. While she most recently starred in The Nun -- part of The Conjuring universe, which Vera helped originate -- her best horror work came in The Final Girls, a loving riff on ’80s slashers. “I didn’t grow up watching horror films,” Taissa recently admitted to ET, despite the growing collection of scary work amassed between her and Vera, but she did spill on the secret to portraying a scream queen. “As an actress, were just approaching it as real life. I have to play the fear … so naturally your body starts feeling that anxiety, that tension.”
7. Chloe Grace Moretz
After making her big-screen debut in The Amityville Horror and appearing in Wicked Little Things, Moretz quickly became a rising scream queen. She later excelled in two high-profile, difficult horror remakes: the slow-burn vampire tale Let Me In and the big-budget Carrie, where she ably filled the shoes of Sissy Spacek and delivered her own interpretation of an iconic role. “It's the most vulnerable, it's the most broken-down, it's the most tortured, sad, dark character I've ever done,” Moretz told ET in 2013. While she continues to shine outside the genre, Moretz recently returned to her roots in the 2018 Suspiria remake.
6. Sarah Paulson
One of the last people you might imagine becoming a horror icon, Paulson went from little-known Broadway and TV actress -- appearing on the little-seen American Gothic -- to the linchpin of American Horror Story, appearing in all eight seasons of the FX anthology series as a menagerie of colorful characters, which have earned her five Emmy nominations over the years. Speaking to ET about filming a season of AHS, Paulson said that as an actor, “when you are doing something emotionally draining 12 hours a day, where I was being held captive, you have to stay in a certain place mentally. I don't fancy myself a Method actress at all, but with this character, I did find myself more removed than I normally am.” In 2019, she’s extending her horror cred to film with the post-apocalyptic horror story Bird Box and Shyamalan’s Glass.
5. Danielle Harris
A prolific child actress, Harris cemented her legacy as a screen queen at 11 when she made her movie debut as Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4 and 5 and proved to be the best part of the two mediocre sequels. Her Halloween legacy was further cemented when she appeared in the two Rob Zombie films, which (confusingly) don’t tie into the previous movies. Since then, Harris has almost exclusively acted in the horror genre, including starring in three of the four Hatchet movies. She was inducted into the Fangoria Hall of Fame in 2012.
4. Vera Farmiga
The Conjuring and its sequels would not work without an actress the audience believes in, and Farmiga channels the right amount of fear, skepticism and faith in her portrayal of paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren to have made what appeared to be a small horror film into a huge international franchise. Farmiga also stepped into the shoes of one of entertainment’s most notorious mothers, starring for five seasons as Norma in Bates Motel, where she unleashed her pipes on some memorable screams. Revealing what she enjoyed most about playing Norma, she told ET, “she's very flawed, but I think that's what makes a multi-faceted person and I'm hungry for those fascinating complex portraits of women.”
3. Sarah Michelle Gellar
No one expected much from a TV series based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- after all, the movie of the same name was a misguided dud, and the lead actress of the new version was a former soap star. But Gellar proved the naysayers wrong over the course of seven successful seasons, developing Buffy into one of television’s greatest characters, a kick-ass heroine capable of battling monsters and navigating the horrors of high school. Gellar also found success outside of Sunnydale, starring in I Know What You Did Last Summer, the Grudge franchise and Scream 2. Of the latter, Gellar told ET in 1997 that despite being “incredibly honored to be apart of it,” she’s quite scared to watch the film. “I’m a sucker, even knowing what happens, it completely scares me.”
2. Neve Campbell
On the surface, Campbell seemed like an unlikely choice to star in a horror movie. And it appeared that Barrymore was the star of Scream, anyway. But the film was unlike any horror movie released to that point, and tapping Campbell, still a relative unknown aside from her role on teen soap Party of Five, for the character of Sidney Prescott was a move that helped cement Scream’s place as a game-changer. “She’s strong and holds her own and fights back and wins in the end and it’s a good message for young women,” Campbell told ET on the first installment's 20th anniversary about Sidney’s place in horror history.
1. Jamie Lee Curtis
Who else could it be? As we’ve already noted, Curtis is the ultimate scream queen because she helped create a character (in her film debut, by the way) that seemed so real, so honest that everyone who saw Halloween became instantly invested in the well-being of Laurie Strode. “I owe everything I have today, on a material career level, to the movie Halloween,” Curtis once told ET. After Halloween, she became the face of horror, appearing in The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train and Halloween II before stepping away from the genre. But she proudly returned in Halloween H20 and will face off against Michael Myers in the new Halloween for what appears to be one final battle. And when asked if Curtis, who returned for the 20th anniversary and is now back again for the 40th, would be back for another milestone year in the franchise, she remained steadfast. “Let’s just enjoy the idea that we’re going to rejoin Laurie Strode in Haddonfield on Halloween night 40 years later and see where we go from there.”
--Additional writing and reporting by Rande Iaboni and Stacy Lambe; artwork by Erik Shute; GIFs curated by Giphy's Tiffany Vazquez, Senior Content Manager -- Film.