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The Best Modern Day Scream Queens

In the world of horror, it's not uncommon for an actress to become a recurring fixture of the genre and find herself dubbed a "scream queen" by genre aficionados. Going back to the 1930s when Fay Wray first screamed her way through "King Kong," the term "scream queen" can apply to any actress who's found success in horror with one or more roles (via Slate). It can also refer to those who play the oft-recurring final girl that survives at the end or — in many cases — the film's main antagonist. That's not to say that all of these performers are solely defined by horror, but certainly, a number of them have seen great success through the genre.

Horror has long been a space that has showcased female characters not typically seen on screen, but in recent years, the door has been flung wide open as to what types of women are represented within the vast world of great horror cinema. From portraying evil doppelgängers to homicidal mothers to killer babysitters to ghostly apparitions, these women have cast a wide and twisted net of different horror creations and so, contributed to the long lineage of scream queens before them. These are the actresses who have cemented themselves as modern day scream queens.

Warning: spoilers below

Lupita Nyong'o

Ever since her breakthrough performance in "12 Years A Slave," Lupita Nyong'o has made quite the name for herself thanks to her ability to completely immerse herself in her roles, which makes her perfect for horror-tinted characters. For many, the first chance to see her put these skills to the test in the genre was in Jordan Peele's 2019 sophomore outing "Us" where she played not one, but two different roles. In the film, Nyong'o plays the protagonist Adelaide and the antagonist of her tethered doppelgänger Red.

Playing double roles is no small feat and Nyong'o handles both masterfully, imbuing both characters with unique traits. When acting as Red, she opts to play the character with a disturbingly raspy voice, which only adds to the level of unease when she's on screen. What adds to the impressive nature of the dual performances is the film's twist ending. 

It's revealed that Adelaide is actually a tethered person, who forcibly switched places with Red back when they were kids. This explains why, when enraged or in the midst of murder, Adelaide makes horrific animal-like sounds — it's her true tethered nature emerging. Little details like that make this performance a cut above the rest and it's a true tour de force of acting. Critics agreed that it's a top-notch performance and for critics and fans alike, it's one that has solidified Nyong'o as a fixture of the horror genre.

Samara Weaving

Samara Weaving's rise to prominence has been nothing short of meteoric, starting off as a cast member in the Australian soap opera "Home and Away." She left down under to make the jump to American productions and one of her first noteworthy ones was a recurring part in the first season of "Ash vs Evil Dead" in 2015 (via IMDb). 

In 2017, Weaving appeared in Joe Lynch's "Mayhem" and McG's "The Babysitter," two films that showcase her panache for the genre. While Weaving plays a protagonist in "Mayhem," she takes on an antagonist role in "The Babysitter." In each case, she shows an impressive command over dark humor, which is an essential element of horror. Dread Central called Weaving "your new favorite genre it girl" in their review of "The Babysitter," noting how effortlessly she "navigates emotions that range from final girl to black magic villain as a genre veteran."

Weaving followed this up with her lead performance in 2019's "Ready or Not," which snagged her more mainstream attention. From there, Weaving has become a staple of genre films — appearing in the likes of 2020's "The Babysitter: Killer Queen," where she reprises her role as Bee. Additionally, she got to play the hyper violent Nix in Jason Lei Howden's "Guns Akimbo" in 2019, yet another wild role Weaving devoured with gusto. 

Weaving has done an impressive amount of work in a short period of time that has shown her versatility and dark humor, all of which have earned her the moniker of a modern day scream queen.

Katharine Isabelle

Katharine Isabelle has been making waves in horror since the late '90s and early '00s. Most notably, Isabelle was co-lead alongside Emily Perkins in the 2000 Canadian werewolf classic "Ginger Snaps." 

"Ginger Snaps" introduces us to the death-obsessed Fitzgerald sisters — Ginger (Isabell) and Brigitte (Perkins) — who've made a pact to leave the suburbs or die together before hitting puberty. Things get complicated when on the night of her first period, Ginger is violently attacked by a bloodthirsty werewolf. Soon enough, Ginger begins transforming into a werewolf herself, piling up several bodies along the way and driving a wedge between her and Brigitte.

The film was only a modest box office hit upon its release, but it received ample praise for its two leads and its feminist themes, as publications like Morbidly Beautiful have noted it is one of the films that paved the way for modern feminist horror. Isabelle proved so popular that she reprised her role as Ginger in the "Ginger Snaps" sequel and prequel that were filmed back-to-back. 

In the years since, Isabelle's presence in horror and gonzo genre films has not wavered. Most notably, she plays the lead role of Mary Mason in "American Mary," directed by the Soska Sisters. Here, she is a med student-turned-underground-surgeon, who makes a living by specializing in unorthodox body alteration and augmentation. Despite hating blood in real life (via The Daily Record), Isabelle has been all too happy to embrace her status as a scream queen.

Florence Pugh

Through her natural charm, dry humor, and penchant for emotionally driven characters, Florence Pugh has emerged as a top-tier performer after building a name for herself in the 2010s in films like "The Falling" and "Lady Macbeth."

However, her true arrival as a star came in 2019 when Pugh hit it big thanks to three films: "Little Women," "Fighting With My Family," and "Midsommar." The latter of these was helmed by Ari Aster, who rose to prominence with his 2018 smash debut horror film "Hereditary."

"Midsommar" centers on Dani, who has recently lost her mother, father, and sister in a horrible tragedy. Dani is reeling from the loss and she isn't helped by her emotionally dismissive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). In an attempt to get her mind off things, she opts to travel to Sweden for a midsummer celebration at a commune frequented by Christian's friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). However, after some disturbing incidents occur, it soon becomes clear that the commune's intentions are quite sinister, and Dani must decide if she wants to stay in or leave this community.

Pugh's performance is awe-inspiring, as she injects the role with acute portrayals of both PTSD and exacerbated emotional bandwidth. Many critics agreed, with Bloody Disgusting declaring that the best moments of "Midsommar" are ones that highlight "the raw, soulful energy of Florence Pugh's performance."

Pugh continues to take roles in and outside the genre but luckily for horror fans, 2022 sees her lend her scream queen talents to another film with a disturbing premise: Olivia Wilde's thriller "Don't Worry Darling."

Mia Goth

If you want to talk about performers who have made a sizable splash in modern horror, look no further than Mia Goth. Goth's career began with a bang, as she made her film debut in Lars von Trier's hyper-sexual drama "Nymphomaniac." She followed this up with must-see roles in other thriller and horror projects, including "The Survivalist," "A Cure For Wellness" and the 2018 remake of "Suspiria." 

Her trek into the world of horror was fully cemented when she teamed up with director Ti West for his 2022 film "X." The film is a true proving ground for Goth as — much like Lupita Nyong'o — she pulls double duty in "X," where she plays both Maxine and Pearl. Goth plays both parts to perfection, aided by some solid old age makeup and vocal alterations. "X" was a hit with both critics and audiences and Peter Travers even noted for Rolling Stone that Goth "ups her game substantially here and demonstrates why the title of 'scream queen' should be considered an honor."

Fans didn't have to wait too long to see Goth back in action since "Pearl," the prequel to "X," came out just a few months later in September 2022. Much like "X," the film opened to stellar reviews and ample praise was once again bestowed on Goth for her disturbing performance. Goth and West will reunite one more time to close out the "X" trilogy with "MaXXXine" in 2023 (via Deadline).

Jenna Ortega

Despite her young age, Jenna Ortega has already carved out a successful niche for herself in the world of horror. Ortega, like many rising young actors, got her first big break through the Disney Channel, as she portrayed Harley Diaz on "Stuck in the Middle" (via IMDb). Following her run under the Disney banner, Ortega transitioned into more mature content, particularly in the horror and thriller spaces. 

Ortega's first forays into horror-related projects were as Ellie in Season 2 of Netflix's "You" and a starring turn alongside fellow scream queen Samara Weaving in 2020's "The Babysitter: Killer Queen." In both roles, Ortega showcases her often catty but charming delivery, and she easily stands shoulder to shoulder with more seasoned performers.

Ortega kicked off 2022 with a scream, as she played the lead in "Scream," and she furthered her ascent as a horror queen later in the year with an appearance alongside Mia Goth in Ti West's "X." Ortega's streak of horror-related roles continues with her taking on the titular role of Wednesday Addams in Tim Burton's Netflix series "Wednesday," set to be released in November 2022 (via Variety). It'll take a lot to surpass Christina Ricci's iconic portrayal but judging by the trailer and her already established scream queen status, Ortega looks to be more than up to the task.

Sadie Sink

From Finn Wolfhart to Millie Bobby Brown, the series "Stranger Things" has helped launch many new faces into the pop cultural stratosphere, including Sadie Sink. Beginning her career in theater, Sink gradually transitioned into on-screen roles of increasing importance, including NBC's "American Odyssey" and the film "Chuck."

However, her major claim to fame arrived in 2016, when she was cast as Max Mayfield in "Stranger Things" Season 2. Max has quickly become a fan favorite, especially following Season 4, which contains some of Sink's best work to date. While the editing and effects work during the "Running Up That Hill" sequence is truly stellar, the sequence is boosted significantly by her impressive performance. 

Sink's presence in Netflix-helmed horror increased via her appearance in the "Fear Street" trilogy in 2021. Sink has a tremendous grasp on handling both comedy and legitimately emotional scenes, especially when it comes to the world of horror, which makes her one an exciting modern scream queen to watch.

Vera Farmiga

The horror genre is far from Vera Farmiga's only claim to fame, as she's truly done some stellar work outside of it as well. Her roles in "Down to the Bone" and "Up in the Air" helped to launch her into the mainstream while garnering ample critical acclaim along the way. Farmiga's horror debut arrived in 2009, when she took on the role of Kate Coleman in "Orphan." Playing opposite a child who's playing an adult playing a child is no small feat, but Farmiga capably rises to the challenge.

In 2013, Farmiga further cemented her status as a major force in horror with two roles: Norma Bates in "Bates Motel" and Lorraine Warren in "The Conjuring." The smash box office success and critical acclaim of "The Conjuring" spawned a franchise that has become a staple of the modern horror genre and Farmiga's chemistry with her co-lead Patrick Wilson is a big reason that people have latched onto this film series with such ferocity.

Additionally, throughout its five-season run, "Bates Motel" earned Farmiga ample praise for her portrayal of Norman Bates' mother, with publications like The Daily Beast singling out the actress' talent in delivering a "fully thought-through, utterly distinctive performance" from the jump. You can always count on Farmiga to bring her A-game when on-screen and her skill at adding depth and surprising layers to characters makes her one of the best scream queens around.

Victoria Pedretti

Oftentimes, screen queens find themselves playing either the victim or the antagonist, which are both essential roles in any horror story, but some actresses like Victoria Pedretti can move between the two with ease. Pedretti's first major stop on her rise to horror queendom came through Mike Flanagan's critically acclaimed Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House." 

Playing the role of Eleanor "Nell" Crain Vance in the miniseries, Pedretti gives a performance that's nothing short of utterly heartbreaking, as her character is the lynchpin of the present day events in the show. In particular, Pedretti stands out in the fifth episode, which centers around Nell, and many — like The A.V. Club and Strange Harbors — agreed that it's the best episode of the series, in large part because of Pedretti's work.

Pedretti proceeded to one-up this breakout performance with her portrayal of Love Quinn on Seasons 2 and 3 of Netflix's "You." According to an interview with Byrdie, Pedretti originally auditioned for the role of Guinevere Beck and although she didn't get the part, she left enough of an impression for the directors to call her back. 

Luckily, Pedretti can showcase her talents as both sympathetic protagonist and violent antagonist in this role, as Love is revealed to be as psychotic and murderous as violent stalker Joe (Penn Badgley). Considering her stellar talents, it's no surprise that horror fans have embraced Pedretti with open arms as a scream queen who can do it all.

Anya Taylor-Joy

It's inevitable that you become a scream queen when your breakout role arrives with an acclaimed horror release, such is the case with Anya Taylor-Joy. Joy received her big break with Robert Eggers' debut film "The Witch." Set in the 1600s, a banished Puritan family find themselves in the crosshairs of a witches' coven lurking in the nearby woods. After the family's infant son is taken by the witches, teenage daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) finds herself an unexpected target of her parents' grief and anger and by the end, is enticed by the promise of "living deliciously." Joy's performance was a grand debut that rightfully earned near-universal praise from critics with David Sims of The Atlantic calling Taylor-Joy "a revelation as Thomasin."

In the years since her surreal on-screen debut, Taylor-Joy has lent her talents out to a slew of different horror films like M. Night Shyamalan's "Split" and Sergio G. Sánchez's "Marrowbone." Her status as a genre regular was furthered with her role as Sandie in Edgar Wright's 2021 horror release "Last Night in Soho." Taylor-Joy brings her now-established charm and humor to the role with an added dash of menace for good measure. With projects like "The Queen's Gambit" under her belt as well, it's fair to say the future looks bright for scream queen Anya Taylor-Joy.

Jessica Rothe

First coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 seminal text Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the trope of the "final girl" has been retooled and reconfigured since its emergence in the '70s with movies like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (via Horror Obsessive). From Ellen Ripley to Laurie Strode, horror films have frequently been a space for tenacious and resourceful female protagonists. Horror can be a frequently misogynistic genre, so there's been a great effort to fix it for several decades and the modern era has seen an uptick in pro-feminine and feminist narratives.

One performer who's joined the pantheon of great final girls is Jessica Rothe thanks to her work in the "Happy Death Day" franchise. The film centers around Theresa "Tree" Gelbman (Rothe), a vain college student who's stuck on a loop of reliving the same day — her birthday — over and over. Every time she wakes up, an assailant in a baby mask kills her in a new way and place.

Given this "Groundhog Day" setup, the film boasts as much comedy as it does horror, which Rothe provides in spades. From her various reactions to her day resetting to some tender emotional moments, much of the film's charm rests on her shoulders. Rothe reprises the role in "Happy Death Day 2U" and leans way more into the comedy, which results in some morbid yet effective laughs and proves why she's a scream (comedy) queen.

Maika Monroe

If you're going to make a splash, you might as well do it in a film that'll have everyone talking upon its release. David Robert Mitchell's 2014 critically loved "It Follows" has one of the strangest setups for a horror film around. An evil shapeshifting entity can take the form of any person and it perpetually stalks people until it causes their death. The entity is passed from person to person by sexual intercourse, once you get it, no one else can see it, and yes, it's as weird as you think it is. Effective allegories about sexually transmitted infections and sexual vulnerability aside, the film is genuinely frightening, as it boasts solid suspense and several impressive scares.

A big reason for the movie's success is Maika Monroe in the lead role as Jaime "Jay" Height. Jay is the latest target of this mysterious entity, who struggles to survive its relentless pursuit. Her performance in "It Follows" was so effective that it garnered her award recognition, including an Empire Award nomination (via IMDb).

That same year, Monroe appeared in another horror outing with a role in Adam Wingard's "The Guest." Monroe possesses a healthy mix of vulnerability and snide charm that makes for well-rounded characters. Monroe's position as a scream queen continues to grow, as she can be seen in Chloe Okuno's 2022 psychological thriller "Watcher," which has gotten critical acclaim, with the Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus noting that the film is elevated by "Maika Monroe's terrific work in the leading role."

Sarah Paulson

While people may know Sarah Paulson for her more dramatic work in movies like "Carol" and "12 Years a Slave," Paulson has made some serious strides in the world of horror. From the big screen to television, Paulson has never been a stranger to tales of madmen, monsters and mental psychosis. Her biggest foothold in the world of horror came from several roles on Ryan Murphy's acclaimed television series "American Horror Story." 

Since each season of the show revolves around a different theme and setting, Paulson has had ample time to showcase her range. Be it as a witch in Season 3 a.k.a. "Coven" or as a two-headed woman in Season 4 a.k.a. "Freakshow," she never once phones it in. Alongside Evan Peters and Jessica Lange, Paulson has become one of the "American Horror Story" franchise's defining performers and a certifiable scream queen.

In films, Paulson brings a healthy dose of mental psychosis to her role as Diane Sherman in Aneesh Chaganty's "Run." Diane is an overprotective and unstable mother, who goes to extreme lengths to keep her physically disabled daughter Chloe cut off from the world. Paulson received solid praise from critics for her portrayal of the character, with Zoe Rose Bryant writing for Loud and Clear Reviews that "Paulson is a terrifically terrifying treat" in the film.

Betty Gabriel

In terms of frequency, Betty Gabriel has racked up an impressive amount of horror roles in a short time frame. Following a musical theater career and a role in the 2011 short film "In Memoriam," Gabriel scored recurring roles on shows like "Westworld" (via IMDb). In 2016, Gabriel accrued more attention thanks to her role as Laney Rucker a.k.a. La Pequeña Muerte in the Blumhouse-produced "The Purge: Election Year."

Following this, Gabriel landed her biggest role yet as Georgina in Jordan Peele's debut film "Get Out." Her performance as a woman with another person's brain in the driver's seat is effectively disturbing, and it's bolstered by the research Gabriel did for the role like watching "The Bride of Frankenstein" and TED Talks about the feeling of being trapped in your own body (via IndieWire).

The horror genre has been a frequent venue for Gabriel to showcase her acting prowess. She's appeared in a number of films by Blumhouse, the horror production powerhouse, and can be seen in their movies "Unfriended: Dark Web" and "Upgrade." Gabriel spoke to IndieWire about her attraction to working in horror, saying, "I guess I have an affinity towards darkness, the dark side." Luckily, this scream queen brings that affinity and her quality performances to horror films, even if some of them are subpar.

Toni Collette

Australian native Toni Collette found success across the ocean thanks to in the likes of "Muriel's Wedding" and "Lilian's Story." However, it wasn't until 1999 when she snagged her true breakout role in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense."

Colette plays Lynn Sear, the mother of Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a little boy who possesses the ability to communicate with the dead. Her performance was so well received that it even garnered her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (via IMDb). This catapulted Collette into widespread success and garnered her increasingly bigger film and television roles in different genres, but it was another horror film in 2018 that gave Collette one of the most memorable roles of her career to date.

When it comes to modern horror classics, one title that's made quite a few lists is Ari Aster's "Hereditary." At the center of everything is Collete's character Annie, a mother dealing with some intense childhood baggage courtesy of her own controlling mother. With a premise heavily built around the concept of grief, Collette delivers several powerhouse moments, including one of cinema's most intense dinner scenes. With her stamp on now two classics of the genre, we can only imagine what this scream queen will take on next in horror.

Jessie Buckley

Starting off her career in the world of television, it didn't take too long for Jessie Buckley to transition to movies as well. Her first major film role was in Michael Pearce's psychological thriller "Beast," where Buckley plays Moll, a girl who ends up dating an alleged murderer. Much like the film itself, her performance is multilayered, leaving the viewer to question her stability just as much as you do that of her love interest Pascal (Johnny Flynn).

Buckley continued this trend of throwing herself into films with bizarre themes and disturbing visuals with Alex Garland's 2022 feature "Men." Harper Marlowe (Buckley) is still reeling from her husband's recent suicide and takes a much needed vacation in a small English village. She soon finds, however, that she is being stalked by what appears to be a disheveled naked man. With its bizarre mix of themes and surreal visuals, the film provides Buckley a chance to run a wide gamut of impressively displayed emotions.

Additionally, her work in projects such as Charlie Kaufman's "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" has solidified her affinity for roles in surreal films. Time can only tell what's next for Jessie Buckley, but if her resume so far is any indication, it just might melt our brains.

Naomi Watts

Australian actress Naomi Watts is no stranger to the horror genre, with several of her most memorable roles resulting from disturbing films. Following her arrival in the United States, a young Watts landed her first major international role in David Lynch's 2001 classic mystery/thriller "Mulholland Drive." Watts plays the film's protagonist, aspiring actress Betty Elms, but unlike her on-screen counterpart, she met a less destructive ending since "Mulholland Drive" helped thrust Watts into the limelight. 

Just a year later, Watts got to showcase her scream queen skills in the role that most horror fans know her for: Rachel in the 2002 American remake of "The Ring." Rachel is a Seattle journalist, who embarks on a journey to break the story on a cursed videotape that kills you in seven days. Following this, Watts appeared in more horror and psychological thrillers like "Funny Games" and "Dream House." Most recently, Watts stepped into the role of the titular mother in the English-language remake of "Goodnight Mommy," which was released in 2022.