We were long overdue for a new Scream Queen. Once bestowed upon the stars of seminal horror movies, like Fay Wray and Jamie Lee Curtis, the title has been ghettoized lately as a label for young women in campy (or pornographic) B genre flicks. The term must have drifted from our collective conscience around the time Sarah Michelle Gellar (who had previously appeared in I Know What You Did Last Summer and, of course, Buffy The Vampire Slayer) finished her time on The Grudge series in 2006. For many of us, it expired even earlier than that—right around the new millennium, as the Scream franchise was about to take its 11-year hiatus. Either way, it’s been a long time since anyone has truly taken the throne.
One of the reasons the Scream Queen label has come to apply to trashier fare is that horror hit a critical and artistic low in the late ’90s and early 2000s. A lot of garbage came out of that era—though I confess I enjoyed a big chunk of it—and it didn’t help that comedies like Scary Movie and all its sequels mocked the genre even further. But in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a surge of critically acclaimed horrors, from the sharply self-aware Cabin In The Woods to last year’s The Babadook (which, if it were up to me, would have won all sorts of Oscars). Good news for those who root for this genre: Horror is at a high again. And that means it’s time for a new queen.
If anyone is rightfully heir to the throne, it’s the 21-year-old breakout actress Maika Monroe, who not only starred in last year’s already-cult-classic The Guest but now plays lead in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows—a festival favorite that’s being touted by many as the best horror movie in years.
If Maika Monroe’s name bears a resemblance to a famous Hollywood starlet of the past, then her blonde locks and natural beauty should really help to drive that point home. Play her cards a certain way and this newcomer could easily turn herself into a classic Tippi Hedren type. But Monroe’s not conventional, not by any means: Behind the doe eyes, she’s got the spunk and sex appeal of Linnea Quigley with the resilience of Neve Campbell, and a charisma all her own.
With The Guest and It Follows, Monroe has been blessed with the exceptional choices of her directors, writers, and producers, who have given her all the right ingredients for a Scream Queen in the making. Both movies are critically acclaimed enough to keep her far away from tackier side of the genre, while also bizarre and indie enough to maintain her underground cult status—a must for Scream Queens. Also, her appearance and style in both films are reminiscent of the ’80s—crimped hair, pink dress, chokers, and even a Twin Peaks-esque waitress costume in The Guest—when slasher movies were at the height of their popularity. That makes it easier to place her in the same league as the women of this genre’s past.
However, Monroe isn’t just a nostalgia-milking machine either. Coupled with the aesthetic and music of both films, she sits somewhere in the retro-futuristic spectrum between Suspiria and Drive. (The former will especially come to mind when you hear Disasterpeace’s It Follows score, eerily similar to Goblin’s soundtrack for the 1977 Dario Argento film.) Nor does Monroe fit neatly into the Final Girl trope. Coined by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women, And Chain Saws: Gender In The Modern Horror Film, the Final Girl, as one might guess, is the last girl standing in scary movies, usually left to defeat the villain in the climactic battle. As Jay in It Follows, Monroe plays more to the “only girl” trope—if such a thing were to exist—as she is the only girl who truly experiences this mysterious, titular “It.” (The other girls in the film only experience it tangentially.)
The other thing about this “final girl”: She is usually played by a virginal type (Cabin In The Woods humorously spoofs that concept). But Monroe’s characters aren’t, exactly… virginal. In The Guest, Anna is the first person to suspect something sinister about the antagonist, but her lust eventually clouds that judgment. It Follows goes further, completely throwing the virginal idea out the window, as the premise of the movie revolves around sex. “It” is like the demonic version of an STD—basically, you have sex with a carrier and “It” starts haunting you, and in order to rid of it, you must pass it onto someone else by having sex with them. Sex is the unshakeable, looming presence in the film, and Monroe stands in the center as its sex symbol. It should be noted that Jay is so attractive that even knowing full well the consequences, multiple boys still offer to sleep with her. While overtly sexual young woman are usually first to be killed off in a scary movie, Monroe’s characters are proven survivors. She’s giving the old archetype a facelift by combining the toughness of a final girl with the sex appeal of a Scream Queen.
Playing the main character in two back-to-back unconventional horror films has helped Monroe modernize the label for herself. Both movies are wary of clichéd horror flick ideas and successfully manage to escape the tried and true formula. I’ve described both of them as “like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” They’re shining examples in what is arguably a reputable comeback for the genre. And Monroe’s association with these cult films gives her just the right buzz to bring back the long-forgotten label.
The term “Scream Queen” is re-entering our vernacular in a major way, thanks in large part to Ryan Murphy (creator of American Horror Story and Glee), who will premiere his new horror-comedy TV show of that same name, Scream Queens, this fall. OG Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis stars in the series, along with Emma Roberts (who also has some horror background, with AHS and Scream 4), and a bunch of other famous faces.
While the show feels more like a parody than an earnest return, the concept of the “Scream Queen” is certainly coming back on our radars. Nevertheless, the term has always held more weight on the big screen than the small one. Maika Monroe feels like the real deal. She’s young, she’s beautiful, she plays her scared with sexy, and she embodies both victim and hero. She fits the archetype to a T while carving out a new space for herself that’s more attuned to the modern, 21st-century woman. We have yet to see how she lives up to that title—after all, she’s got enough talent to branch out into whatever genre she wants to—but her upcoming horror and thriller-adjacent projects may just keep her crowned for a while longer. All hail the Scream Queen. And while you’re at it, keep your eyes on Maika Monroe.