When I was asked for my thoughts on what constitutes a “Diva of Halloween,” I found myself both intrigued and intimidated by the notion.
Horror is, in many ways, a landscape shaped by powerful women who we often refer to as divas. And the genre is frequently cited as a space of otherness, allowing horror at its best to be used as a tool for social commentary, to fight oppression, and critique the often woefully misguided norm.
So, for those who make a living in the realm of the spooky, there’s an inherent subversion of establishment … a rallying cry to live louder, do more, and be more. And it's what helps us understand why women, queer folks, people of color, and all combinations therein often are drawn to horror, because, at its core, we get it.
With revolutionary actresses, game-changing filmmakers, and even drag performers who know the value of a queen of fright, horror and Halloween are strengthened by those who know and appreciate their power. The following is a list of the 25 individuals who I feel exemplify the ideals of the season and the genre.
While many may claim to be mavens of the macabre and others boldly declare themselves to be the queens of Halloween, there’s truly only one Mistress of the Dark.
Originally created by actress Cassandra Peterson as an answer to a casting call for a late-night horror host gig on Los Angeles’s KHJ TV, Elvira, with her punk rock Valley Girl persona, tight black dress, and penchant for slapstick humor, quickly captured the hearts of audiences and became a phenomenon forged in the midnight hour.
As KHJ’s Fright Night transitioned into Elvira’s Movie Macabre, so did the character’s reach and branding potential. As she grew from a cult figure to the veritable face of Halloween itself by the end of the 1980s, Elvira’s visage appeared on everything from comic books to calendars, making her as synonymous with all things spooky.
Furthermore, Elvira’s dominion over the airwaves would soon lead to a celebrated feature film, aptly titled Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, followed by another cinematic romp, Elvira’s Haunted Hills.
When considering model, actress, and pop icon Grace Jones, one could understand if the connection to Halloween doesn’t immediately come to mind. However, upon deeper examination of the career of this phenomenal artist, it also should seem wholly obvious.
In 1986’s Vamp, Jones took on the role of a surreal vampire dancer, crafting an instantly iconic performance. What’s more, Jones’s look as the undead Katrina was curated by famed queer icon and artist Keith Haring, who painted her entire body for the role.
It was not enough that Jones’s performance was art, but she also had to be the art itself. And even in a story where her sole motivation is to drink the blood of the innocent, Jones delivered a vision of a vampire unlike any we had seen before.
As an actress, Jones would appear in other genre fare, including 2011’s Wolf Girl and 2016’s surrealistic Gutterdammerung, but her role in Vamp and just living as her unapologetic self have forever sealed her place in the zeitgeist.
While there were certainly female protagonists in genre cinema before Jamie Lee Curtis, there’s little doubt that her arrival on the scene changed the course of horror history forever.
With the introduction of Laurie Strode in 1978’s Halloween, audiences were treated to a girl who was at once infinitely recognizable and someone on the outside looking in.
And if horror is the genre of otherness then Laurie was the kind of other with which we all could relate. Curtis’s ability to portray Laurie with a delicate balance of innocence, teenage pathos, and mounting courage made the character an instant fan favorite and the archetype for the modern “final girl.”
She wasn’t just fodder for the villain, she was someone we could root for … she was us.
Curtis is now an acclaimed and celebrated performer whose work has since impacted and graced many genres. However, her beginnings in horror are not only a significant part of her own history but also in the history of the genre itself, and that’s a distinction worth celebrating at Halloween.
During her time at Universal, Milicent Patrick crafted the makeup effects for such fright flicks as It Came From Outer Space, The Mole People, and This Island Earth. She is often cited as the first woman to work in the special effects department of a major studio, and her work on Creature From the Black Lagoon has left an indelible mark on the genre.
In 1953, Milicent Patrick designed the infamous Gill-Man Creature, creating an instantly iconic and still-referenced monster, and assuring her place in horror history. Except it wasn’t that easy. Due to stringent studio policies about on-screen credits, internal jealousy, and, let’s face it, operative misogyny, Milicent’s monumental contribution to horror went largely uncredited until recently.
A 2019 book on Milicent Patrick’s journey and struggles titled The Lady From the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara (A Halloween Diva in her own right) has helped aid in the rediscovery in this crucial figure in genre history, rightfully bringing Milicent up from the depths of history’s Black Lagoon and into the light.
A screenwriter, producer, and frequent collaborator of genre auteur John Carpenter, Debra Hill was front and center for the creation and cultivation of some of contemporary cinema’s most enduring fright classics.
She was the producer and cowriter of 1978’s instantly iconic Halloween and spent considerable time developing the female voices in the script, contributing elements that would eventually aid in the creation of the modern horror heroine.
Following on the heels of Halloween’s success, Hill would join Carpenter in writing and producing the second film in the franchise as well as participate in production of the third.
Beyond the Halloween series, Hill would further collaborate with Carpenter on The Fog, Escape From New York, and Escape From L.A., and pair with Canadian horror maestro David Cronenberg to produce his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone.
Long before the hockey mask existed or Jason Voorhees was even a fully formed adult, Adrienne King took a trip to Camp Crystal Lake that would change the course of horror history forever.
When the original Friday the 13th debuted in 1980, few could have predicted that it would help usher in an era of slasher movies that would shape the characteristics of the genre for more than a decade. Starring as the enthusiastic and artistic Alice Hardy, King became one of modern fright’s foundational “final girls” for not only being the first Friday the 13th survivor but by taking matters into her own hands and fighting back.
Through Alice, King helped set the course of a generation of horror protagonists that would follow, and she continues to star in modern horror fare like Tales of Poe and the forthcoming Killer Therapy.
Ingrid Pitt made her debut in the 1970s in The Vampire Lovers, an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla produced by Hammer Films.
Pitt played the titular role and preyed on maidens with a sense of sensual bloodlust, and in this role she helped infuse the '70s and vampire cinema with a sense of sexual fluidity. Her performance as Carmilla helped secure her place in genre history and made her work a fixture in the discussion of queer horror.
Subsequent to her role as horror’s sapphic vampire queen, Pitt would appear in Hammer’s Countess Dracula as well as star in other studios' films such as The House That Dripped Blood and The Wicker Man, and she even had a small run on Doctor Who.
The incomparable hosts, curators, and creators of the international hit series Dragula, the Boulet Brothers have committed their lives to the ideals of horror, filth, drag, and glamour.
Just finishing its third season, Dragula, a reality competition show where drag competitors compete for the title of “Supermonster," pushes audience perceptions of queer performance and showcases that there’s more than one kind of drag.
Utilizing challenges that pay homage to the goth underground and horror movies that shaped them, the Boulets and Dragula have made TV history not just in their approach to competition but in their community inclusion. The most recent season included one of the first drag kings to appear on a reality competition show (and win!) as well as an AFAB queen, furthering the Boulets’ mission to showcase everyone’s monstrous potential.
Beyond their work on Dragula, the Boulet Brothers, known individually as Swanthula and Dracmorda, are celebrated nightlife producers and hosts who have curated some of the queer underground’s most notorious events.
Inarguably, Scream changed everything. And at the center of it all was Neve Campbell, whose character of Sidney Prescott became the de facto leader of a new class of final girls, no longer blissfully unaware of the horror movie around them but actively working within its trappings.
Through Sidney and her journey across four films, audiences learned what surviving a horror movie might really be like and the emotional toll such experiences could take. Throughout it all, Campbell handled her portrayal of Sidney with utmost respect and nuance, creating a horror heroine for a generation that was fatigued by terrors both micro and macro that plague us on a daily basis.
She also has the distinction of being one of the famous witch coven in the cult classic The Craft. A horror vet and celebrated fan favorite, Campbell has more than proven she knows a thing or two about scary movies.
A fixture of San Francisco nightlife, Peaches Christ first garnered attention with her acclaimed Midnight Mass film series, taking horror and cult cinema and paying homage to them with elaborate drag.
Thanks to her mix of satire and reverence, Midnight Mass gathered a following and caught the attention of the likes of Elvira, Tura Satana, John Waters, and many more, all of whom eventually showed up to participate in the fun.
In recent years, the concept that began with Midnight Mass has further blossomed into large theatrical productions that tour the world. However, not merely content just to pay homage to movies, Peaches (as her alter ego Joshua Grannell) wrote and directed a film of her own: All About Evil, a blood-soaked love letter to cinema and the grindhouse era starring Natasha Lyonne and Thomas Dekker.
Even more recently, Peaches has taken her passion of bringing fright to life with the creation of Terror Vault, an immersive haunted experience she runs at the San Francisco Mint, now in its second year.
Sarah Michelle Gellar was already an Emmy award-winning actress by the time she accepted the role of Buffy Summers on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it was her turn as Sunnydale’s finest that forever solidified her legacy and won the hearts of millions in the process.
Bringing pathos and depth to a character who could have easily been played as a surface-level Valley Girl, Gellar’s transformation into the superhero who kept monsters up at night was a performance that transformed pop culture.
Gellar’s work on the show tapped into something both fantastic and relatable, and because of that, audiences are still celebrating the show nearly 16 years after it went off the air. And as if Gellar’s portrayal of the ultimate vampire slayer wasn’t enough, she further has earned her horror cred with incredible turns in films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, The Grudge, and more.
If Freddy Krueger is the ultimate nightmare, then it stands to reason that Heather Langenkamp is horror’s ultimate dream.
Freddy’s original nemesis, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson was, in many ways, the definitive final girl of the 1980s. Released almost smack-dab in the middle of the decade of excess, A Nightmare on Elm Street told the story of a small-town girl besieged by the most impossible and supernatural of foes.
Nancy taking matters into her own hands after the authority figures in her life fail to give merit to her concerns within the film’s plot felt like the encapsulation of the generational divide, highlighting the Reagan era’s conservative elite turning a blind eye to the wickedness of the day and those forced to survive in the wake.
As the Elm Street phenomenon took hold, Lagenkamp would return to play Nancy twice, in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and the meta-masterpiece Wes Craven’s New Nightmare.
As she's the author of Frankenstein, it goes without saying that Mary Shelley doesn’t need to prove her fright cred.
Shelley wrote the novel as part of a dare when she and the group she was summering with were each challenged to write a “ghost story” with which to amuse the others.
Initially, Shelley intended her piece to be a short story, but as she wrote, it became apparent there was much, much more to be told. Thus, Frankenstein was born, subsequently becoming one of the cornerstones of modern horror and considered by many to be the first “science fiction” novel.
A powerful voice, stalwart advocate, and iconic actress, Rachel True became a truly magical force for visibility when she was cast as the sole Black member of an otherwise white coven in 1990’s cult hit The Craft.
More than just playing a fierce witch (which she definitely did), True understood the significance of the character of Rochelle in a genre that often woefully underrepresented anyone in the minority, and has treated her character’s legacy with the utmost respect and importance it deserves.
“To a certain sect of alternative Black chicks or weirdos and oddballs, especially in our community, that meant a lot,” True has said of the role and its lasting impact. “I want to rep for them.”
A dynamic actress and advocate, Nicole Maines made headlines when she was cast as Nia Nal on the CW’s Supergirl, making her the first transgender superhero on television.
However, it’s for her role in the recent indie horror film Bit that Maines takes her place in the hallowed halls of Halloween. Described by columnist and queer horror advocate B.J. Colangelo as the “intersectional feminist vampire movie you didn’t know you needed,” Bit follows a young trans woman who gets brought into an undead coven that is committed to making sure men no longer wield vampiric powers.
For queer fans of horror who too long were tired of wading through subtext, a horror icon has arrived to brush that aside and stand tall. An advocate in the real world and a champion on-screen, Maines is a sensation with serious bite.
Making her mark early as Michael Myers’s young niece Jamie Lloyd in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Harris took the reins as the protagonist of one of fright’s most celebrated franchises at just 10 years old (she celebrated her 11th birthday on set), immediately becoming a fan favorite in the process.
Harris would return in Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers as well as star in Rob Zombie’s two subsequent Halloween remakes in the mid-00s, but while her career was formed in Haddonfield, it most certainly was not defined by it.
Also a filmmaker, Harris made her feature directorial debut with the 2012 horror comedy Among Friends, going behind the camera to delve into the genre to expose and celebrate it in new ways.
Once referred to by the New York Daily News as “horror’s reigning scream queen,” Harris has made horror better with her many, many contributions, and it’s a superlative with which we fully agree.
Canadian twin titans of terror, filmmaking duo the Soska Sisters made an impact right out of the gate with their absurdist satire Dead Hooker in a Trunk. Initially met with resistance due to its subversive title, the film found traction at festivals after it debuted as part of the inaugural Women in Horror Recognition Month.
Fiercely outspoken advocates for female visibility in genre, the Soskas seeks to challenge and buck perceptions of gender and society with a fantastically ferocious flair. Their blood-soaked cult opus American Mary tackled issues of body image and modification, leading to a slew of awards and forever assuring the Soskas’ place in the zeitgeist.
Outside of their work as filmmakers, the Soska Sisters also have a strong presence in front of the camera, having served as hosts of Blumhouse’s horror game show Hellevator and offered insightful commentary on Eli Roth’s History of Horror.
2002’s The Ring, in which Naomi Watts went to battle with a VHS tape and the wicked little girl that haunted its spools, was followed by a flood of similarly styled films hoping to adapt popular Asian horror cinema for a Western market and capitalize on its success.
While this must’ve seemed like a new wave of fright for American audiences of the time, for the likes of acclaimed Japanese actress Miki Nakatani, it was just business as usual.
Well before Watts came along, Nakatani made her mark as an icon of Japanese genre cinema as the star of Ring (the film on which the 2002 movie is based), investigating the mystery of Sadako and a haunted tape, and changing the course of horror history.
The American remake notwithstanding, Ring’s impact was immediate, ushering in a new, often emulated aesthetic and leaving audiences yearning for more. Nakatani would return to the franchise twice more (Rasen and Ring 2) to reprise her role of Mai Takano, the reluctant student who eventually takes on the cause of investigating the supernatural.
A popular actress with a long career in theater, film, and television, the English-born Elsa Lanchester will forever be secured in pop culture history as the iconic bride of Frankenstein.
Though her time as the titular character in the universal monster classic Bride of Frankenstein is relatively brief, Lanchester’s otherworldly presence created an indelible image that has persisted as one of the most recognizable faces not just in horror history but all of cinema.
If anything, the gothic grandeur of her most famous role has somewhat unfairly caused modern audiences to largely ignore the actress’s considerable body of work. With over 99 credits to her name, Lanchester’s forays into genre extended far past the reach of Frankenstein’s betrothed, counting roles in The Spiral Staircase, Willard, and Bell, Book, and Candle among some of her spooky best.
The mighty Queen of the Vampires, best-selling novelist Anne Rice has been enchanting and bewitching readers across the world with her work for over four decades.
With her first novel, 1976’s Interview With the Vampire, Rice would lay the groundwork for a sprawling saga of the undead, spanning the ages and presenting a startling new and sympathetic vision of literary vampirism in the process.
Through Lestat, Louis, and their cohorts, Rice’s nuanced storytelling painted an elegant and tragic portrait of immortality and gave depth to characters that historically had been treated as one-dimensional monsters. Though the saga took a few years to catch on, by the late 1980s Rice’s vampiric opus had ingrained itself into the cultural zeitgeist and helped forever change how we view the denizens of the dark.
Thanks to film adaptations and a rumored TV series on the horizon, the world’s love of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles only continues to grow.
In his book Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film, author David Hogan referred to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as “the most affecting gore thriller of all,” and it’s a point that’s very hard to argue.
And at the center of it all was Marilyn Burns, whose character of Sally Hardesty, a hippie sort of girl, is traveling with her paraplegic brother across Texas to investigate rumors that her grandfather’s grave might have been vandalized.
In many ways, the film serves as a representation of the hopeful culture the world had failed during that moment, as Sally endures unimaginable and grotesque trials at the hands of Leatherface and his family. In being pit against the deranged traditions of a family unit of cannibals, Sally is literally railing against an establishment that would see her undone as a matter of course.
Often cited as one of the first examples of the modern final girl, Marilyn Burns’s portrayal of Sally is a portrait of survival as a matter of endurance. Unlike some of the final girls that would follow, Sally is never truly afforded the opportunity to strike back, and her ability to merely hold it all together (for a time, anyway) in the face of a waking nightmare is her greatest asset.
Instantly iconic, Weaver’s portrayal of warrant officer Ellen Ripley in 1979’s Alien was a pivotal moment in pop culture.
In an era when female protagonists were virtually nonexistent in science fiction/action films , it should come as little surprise that the initial plan was for the character of Ripley to be played by a man. However, filmmaker Ridley Scott made the switch before production was under way, recognizing that Ripley’s plight was not one of gender but a base story of survival.
Though the switch may seem simple, it changed the conversation, and Ripley has come to be considered one of the most significant protagonists in cinema history. Not defined by the men around her or by her relationships with them, Ripley is a character with agency, there to do a job, and when things take a turn ... make it out alive.
Having been left nearly penniless in the early 1960s following the death of her fourth and last husband, Alfred Steele, Joan Crawford was looking to get back in front of the camera and redefine herself for a new generation. But little did she know when taking on 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane that it would change the course of her life.
Pairing her with known nemesis Bette Davis, Baby Jane not only revitalized Crawford’s career but led the way for the creation of a new subgenre of horror (problematically often referred to as “hagsploitation” or “psycho biddy”) focused on older women with a penchant for mayhem.
In the years that followed, Crawford would pivot heavily into tales of the macabre, pairing twice with legendary horror director William Castle for 1964’s Strait-Jacket and 1965’s I Saw What You Did. From there, Crawford would continue to work within genre until the end of her career, including roles in Berserk! and the infamous Trog, and the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, directed by a then-unknown Steven Spielberg.
Almost immediately heralded as one of the scariest films of all time upon its release in 1973, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has seen its reputation continue to grow over the decades.
A grueling tale of a child held in the thrall of demonic possession, the movie set the standard for many supernatural films to follow and reaffirmed for many their fear of eternal damnation in the world beyond. At the center of the piece was child actor Linda Blair, who had the responsibility of partially carrying the film’s narrative on her young shoulders.
While some film trickery and the talents of voice actor Mercedes McCambridge were utilized to help fully sell the possession of Blair’s character Regan MacNeil, it was the young actress’s deft balance of innocence and the slow descent into darkness that ultimately drew the audience’s sympathy.
Through Blair’s performance, the viewer was confronted with the dawning terror of what it would mean to no longer be in control of oneself, both body and soul, and the inevitable horrors that would come with that.
Hollywood’s golden era had never seen a renaissance woman quite like the great Ida Lupino, a prominent actress, singer, director, and producer.
Lupino eventually formed an independent production company with her husband, Collier Young, after turning down a role with Ronald Reagan.
Clearly significant for making strides for women behind the camera in Hollywood, Lupino also made a crucial contribution to horror history as the director of The Hitch-Hiker, a film noir that many historians consider the first mainstream horror film to be directed by a woman.
Lupino would direct a total of nine films and hundreds of episodes of television, including having the distinction of being the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone. And became the only director to ever appear in an episode of the show.