Classic Hollywood’s Top Five Greatest Scream Queens

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes: Janet Leigh, Psycho (1960)

Where have all the Scream Queens gone?

I asked myself this question a few years ago, while watching a 2017 reboot of King Kong in which the main female character, unlike Fay Wray in the 1933 original, never screams. Not once. I’ve since noticed this “no-scream” trend with other recent action and horror films (a notable exception being Annabelle Wallis in the surprisingly campy 2021 release Malignant). Is it that today the Scream Queen is considered un-PC? Do filmmakers worry that showing a woman character screaming will render her weak and helpless? If so, this kind of thinking is nothing more than misogyny disguised as feminism.

What I lack in bodily strength, I make up for in lung power. My scream has frightened off would-be attackers. My scream saved me (once) from being raped. My scream is not shameful. My scream is a weapon. My scream is powerful.

So without further adieu, all hail The Soda Fountain’s Top Five Hollywood Scream Queens of all time. Distressed Dames, yes. Damsels in Distress? Never.

Original Scream Queen: the lovely and underrated Mae Clarke

Mae Clarke: Frankenstein (1931)

In Frankenstein, Mae Clarke’s Elizabeth rebuffs the advances of the handsome and attentive Victor in favor of distracted mad scientist Henry Frankenstein. Menaced by Mary Shelley’s tortured and misunderstood creature, Mae Clarke is the original Scream Queen. In the Universal Studios documentary The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (2002), film historian Gregory W. Mank recounts how, as an elderly woman, Mae would act out scenes from Frankenstein in her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. But rather than acting out her role as Elizabeth, Mae “relished playing the monster,” Mank said, adding that she was “quite good, she made a good monster.”

The Apple of King Kong’s Eye: Fay Wray

Fay Wray: King Kong (1933)

Was Kong the “eighth wonder of the world” or was it gorgeous Scream Queen Fay Wray? In true Depression-era fashion, it’s a stolen apple that leads Wray’s impoverished Ann Darrow to Skull Island where she becomes the unwitting love interest of the Island’s reigning monster. Wray appeared in over 85 films over the course of her career but to movie-goers, she’d always be Kong’s girl. “I loved your movie,” Hugh Hefner once told a then-elderly Wray. “Which one?” she replied.

Marge Simpson’s Beauty Inspiration: Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

In the sequel to the hugely popular Universal Pictures’ Frankenstein (1931), the monster demands that the mad scientist create him a mate. Only this Eve wants nothing to do with her Adam and her scream is more heartbreaking than blood curdling: a final and painful rejection of the desperate, lonely creature.

“The most memorable thing I did in that film, I believe, was my screaming,” Elsa Lanchester later said. Movie fans may disagree: Lanchester’s hair raising look and overall performance is one of the most iconic in all of horror film history. More memorable than her scream is her hiss, inspired by the swans in Regents Park in London. “They’re really very nasty creatures, always hissing at you,” Lanchester said. “So I used the memory of that hiss. The soundmen ran some of my hisses and screams backwards to add to the strangeness. I spent so much time screaming that I lost my voice and couldn’t speak for days.”

Self-Made Vampira: Maila Nurmi

Maila Nurmi: The Vampira Show (1954-1955, KABC-TV)

A vampire with an emphasis on the vamp, Vampira (Maila Nurmi) was the first TV horror host and original “Glamour Goul”. With her combination of sex and humor, Vampira was a goth Mae West; shaking (and spooking) up the imagination of strait-laced 1950’s America during the ephemeral early days of television. “Screaming relaxes me so,” was her famous catchphrase. In R.H. Greene’s excellent documentary Vampira and Me (2012), Nurmi said that her scream was meant to resemble an orgasm. “That was what I was trying to imply”, she explained. “In a lady-like manner.”

Janet Leigh: Psycho (1960)

Janet Leigh is most likely the actress that first comes to mind when you hear the term “Scream Queen”, which is why her photo is at the top of this post. Her infamous performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has incited a fear of motel shower stalls in generations of movie goers (there are many reasons to be afraid of motel bathrooms but Anthony Perkins probably isn’t one of them).

In Psycho: Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller (hardcover book, 1995, written by Janet Leigh and Christopher Nickens), Leigh debunked a popular misconception about the shower scene:

“By the way, contrary to what is said on the Psycho tour at Universal Studios, Mr. Hitchcock did not turn on the cold water to get a shocked reaction from me when Mother came in. I was able to do that all by myself, thank you very much. In fact, he was adamant about the water temperature being very comfortable.” (p. 72)

Long live the (Scream) Queen.

***

Written by Heather Babcock, 2021

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