Horror has always been a genre for women. In her seminal work "Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film," Carol J. Clover explores the female characters in horror films as well as their impact on traditionally accepted gender norms. Research from the Geena Davis Institute shows that watching strong female protagonists in horror films can help empower women in their own careers. The essay that opens Clover's book is known for coining the term "final girl," the last, usually female, protagonist left alive in a slasher film.
Another beloved genre trope is the "scream queen." An actress known for her lung capacity, the Cambridge Dictionary defines this archetype as "a female actor who plays a main character in a horror movie who gets frightened or attacked." Fay Wray is often named as the first scream queen with many noting her work in the 1933 film "King Kong," but the trope has shifted and evolved as depictions of female characters have changed over the years.
Women hardly have a monopoly on cinematic wails, though. In fact, the most famous sound effect in film history, the Wilhelm Scream, is the now iconic sound of a man screaming in pain that has been used in hundreds of films over the past six decades. While male characters are more likely to be villains in horror films, there are many men known for their roles as survivors. By embodying tropes traditionally held by female-identifying stars, these actors have helped to expand the cinematic understanding of masculinity on-screen and in the larger cultural landscape. The following 15 men are beloved in the genre and known as horror's favorite scream kings.
Mark Patton is known as the first male "final girl," though this hasn't always been a title associated with pride. At 21, Patton was cast as Jesse Walsh, the lead in "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge," the sequel to Wes Craven's imaginative 1984 slasher. Premiering in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, the film received mixed reviews and many criticized the plot's overtly gay themes. As a gay actor, Patton was aware of the problematic aspects of the script. In a 2019 interview with Little White Lies, he recounted that if he "was going to do this movie then it was important to at least show a different kind of masculinity."
Director David Chaskin has claimed he was unaware of the film's queer subtext and simply hoped to depict sexual confusion among teenagers, but Patton believes he was scapegoated by Chaskin and the film's producers who hoped to distance themselves from the negative stigma. Patton was all but blackballed in Hollywood and later became a target for online abuse. The film has since been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community with many queer fans claiming Jesse as their first memory of on-screen representation. After a 20-year absence from Hollywood, Patton told his story in the documentary "Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street," in which he confronts Chaskin and describes making peace with his most famous character. Patton now calls Jesse a "survivor" and believes, "He shows how young gay kids can overcome obstacles."
Rory Culkin's first on-screen appearance was in a horror film. At the age of four, he played the deceased younger brother to his real-life sibling in "The Good Son," Macaulay Culkin's only villainous role. He continued to make appearances as younger versions of his older brothers until breaking through in his own right in the 2002 sci-fi horror film "Signs." M. Night Shyamalan's third feature film follows Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a widower who finds his corn crops marked with mysterious signs of alien communication. As his young son Morgan, Culkin spends a horrifying night barricaded in a storm cellar suffering through an asthma attack without his inhaler.
In 2011, Culkin starred in the highly anticipated "Scream 4,' a sequel to Wes Craven's iconic slasher trilogy that revived the franchise for a new generation. Culkin is Charlie Walker, a self-proclaimed film geek and co-president of the school's Cinema Club who programs an annual "Stab" marathon to commemorate the infamous Woodsboro murders.
In addition to roles in the horror films "Intruders," "Mean Creek," and "The Last Thing Mary Saw," Culkin stars as Euronymous in the controversial horror film "Lords of Chaos." An adaptation of the true crime book "Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground" by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind, the film chronicles the violent legacy of Norwegian Black Metal and the deaths of Pelle "Dead" Ohlin and Øystein "Euronymous" Aarseth.
Thomas Jane is known in the horror community as a scream king who specializes in the work of Stephen King, though his origins in the genre are wildly different. Jane's early filmography includes appearances in "She-Wolf of London" and Fran Rubel Kuzui's original film "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," as well as a handful of dramas and action films. Jane's first leading role in a horror film came in 1999 with "Deep Blue Sea," Renny Harlin's aquatic adventure about great white sharks genetically engineered with superior intelligence. Jane is Carter Blake, a shark wrangler with a dubious past who must protect the lab from these massive predators.
In 2003 Jane starred in "Dreamcatcher," the star-studded adaptation of Stephen King's 2001 novel. He also starred as David Drayton in Frank Darabont's "The Mist" based on King's novella about Lovecraftian monsters. Jane is nearly unrecognizable as Wilfred James in Zak Hilditch's adaptation of King's "1922," and is also producing a big-screen adaptation of King's "From a Buick 8," though filming has yet to begin.
Far from a one-trick pony, Jane has appeared in a wide variety of horror fare, from the survival horror film "Into the Grizzly Maze," the big-budget franchise sequel "The Predator," and Mike Flanagan's supernatural tearjerker "Before I Wake." Jane's newest project is "Slayers," a stylish horror comedy about vampires taking over the world through social media influencers.
Kyle Gallner is perhaps best known for his role in the neo-noir series "Veronica Mars," but he's racked up an impressive resume in the horror genre as well. In 2009, Gallner starred as a teenage boy with terminal cancer in "A Haunting in Connecticut" and as one of Megan Fox's ill-fated paramours in the cult favorite, "Jennifer's Body." The next year, Gallner would star in the soulless studio remake of "A Nightmare on Elm Street." This new vision of Wes Craven's slasher classic is a dour mess, but Gallner gives a strong performance as Quentin Smith, one of Freddy Krueger's victims — the remake's failure can hardly be laid at his feet.
Gallner made a return to horror this year in two of the highest-grossing horror films of 2022. In the highly anticipated "Scream," he plays Vince Schneider, nephew of the original Ghostface killer Stu Macher and one of the new film's first victims. Gallner also has a starring role in the surprise hit "Smile" as Joel, a detective who helps his ex-girlfriend battle a shapeshifting monster that feeds on trauma and is recognizable only by a sinister grin. In an interview with CBR, Gallner explained why he keeps returning to horror saying, "I think the genre in and of itself is interesting because I think this genre has less rules than a lot of other ones. You can really play in any kind of space."
With his star on the rise following supporting roles in "Star Trek" and "Terminator Salvation," Anton Yelchin first made waves in the horror world in "Fright Night," a 3D remake of the classic 1985 vampire film. As Charley Brewster, Yelchin is a formerly nerdy teenager now dating the hottest girl in school who finds himself distracted by a new neighbor who might just be a vampire. Yelchin leads the all-star cast finding the perfect blend of leading man charisma and endearing geekiness. He plays a similarly likable character in the 2013 film "Odd Thomas," a quirky adaptation of the supernatural thriller from Dean Koontz.
In 2015, Yelchin starred in Jeremy Saulnier's devastating horror film "Green Room." As Pat, Yelchin is the leader of a young punk band on a bare-bones tour across the pacific midwest who stop at a rural club for a last-minute show. Once there, they realize they're playing for a bunch of neo-nazi skinheads and hope to leave as soon as possible, Unfortunately, they accidentally witness a brutal murder in the venue's green room and barricade themselves inside. The rest of the film is a blood-soaked nightmare as members of the band meet grisly fates while trying to escape. Yelchin was poised to become a major star in the horror genre and had signed on to star as the titular villain in a series adaptation of Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes" when he was killed in a tragic accident in 2016, robbing the world of a spectacular talent.
Josh Hartnett made his feature film debut alongside horror royalty. In "Halloween H20: 20 Years Later," he plays John, son of the legendary Laurie Strode (Jaime Lee Curtis) who is hiding from her serial killer brother Michael Myers under the assumed name of Keri Tate. Aware of his family's horrific history, John has grown tired of playing caretaker to his traumatized mother and wants to live a normal life when his uncle returns determined to attack another family member on his 17th Halloween. Quickly rising to heartthrob status, Hartnett followed this debut with a starring role in Robert Rodriguez's teen horror film "The Faculty." An updated "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Hartnett plays Zeke, an intelligent slacker who discovers a way to kill the invading species with his own blend of snortable caffeine pills.
Hartnett also appeared in crime horror thrillers "Sin City" and "The Black Dahlia" before starring in a gory adaptation of the graphic novel "30 Days of Night." The blood-soaked film follows Hartnett as Alaskan police chief Eben Oleson as he tries to defend his remote town from a horde of vicious vampires taking advantage of the 30 days during which the town is plunged into darkness. After retreating from Hollywood in order to protect his mental health, Hartnett returned to the horror genre in the Showtime series "Penny Dreadful." Set in 19th-century London, Hartnett is Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger who may be hiding a dark secret.
Patrick Wilson's first appearance in the horror genre was in one of the most famous genre titles of all time. Wilson plays Raoul, Christine's would-be lover, in the 2004 film version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's "The Phantom of the Opera." He followed this with a starring role in the indie film "Hard Candy," the shocking story of a teenage girl who targets and mutilates pedophiles to keep them from harming future victims.
In 2010, Wilson starred as Josh Lambert in James Wan's terrifying "Insidious," which gave him the distinct honor of appearing in one of cinema history's greatest jump scares. This collaboration with Wan kicked off a new phase in the actor's career. He has now appeared as real-life paranormal investigator Ed Warren in five films in "The Conjuring" universe, along with reprising his role as a father cursed with the gift of astral projection in "Insidious: Chapter 2" and "Insidious: The Last Key."
In addition to roles in action films like "Midway" and "Moonfall," and in series such as the acclaimed crime drama "Fargo," Wilson has continued to work on projects in the horror genre ranging from the western horror film "Bone Tomahawk," classic franchise entry "Prometheus," and an unhinged performance as Ross in Netflix's adaptation of "In the Tall Grass," a disturbing novella from Joe Hill and Stephen King. This wide-ranging resume makes him one of the busiest and most well-rounded scream kings in the business.
Justin Long is known for roles in rom-coms and irreverent comedies — as well as his charming personification of a Mac computer in the Apple ad series — but he is also one of horror's favorite scream kings. The young actor's first leading role was the ill-fated Darry in the original "Jeepers Creepers," a film now more known for its association with convicted pedophile Victor Salva.
After years of focusing on more comedic films, Long reentered the horror genre along with director Sam Raimi in "Drag Me to Hell," the story of a woman cursed with a demon sent to carry her into the underworld in three days. Long also starred in the bizarre horror comedy "Tusk" as a true crime podcaster who suffers a horrific transformation. Writer and director Kevin Williamson was inspired by British prankster Chris Parkinson and talked about the idea of a man befriending a walrus on a real-life podcast before turning the outlandish premise into a film that must be seen to be believed.
In 2021, Long made a heartwarming appearance in the Shudder anthology series "Creepshow" and rounded out 2022 with a surprise appearance in one of the most exciting horror films of the year. The first act of "Barbarian" plays out like a romantic comedy and Long remembers having to double-check that he hadn't been tapped to play the more romantic character Keith. As the lecherous AJ, Long appears midway through the jaw-dropping film and systematically deconstructs the nice guy image we've come to know.
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Devon Sawa began his horror career in the mid-'90s as the human persona of "Casper the Friendly Ghost" before starring in two of the decade's favorite horror films. In 1999, Sawa led the horror comedy "Idle Hands," a film about a young stoner who finds one of his hands possessed by a demonic entity. Premiering just 10 days after the devastating Columbine school shooting shocked the world, "Idle Hands" was a box office bomb but has since gone on to become a cult favorite. Sawa followed this performance with "Final Destination," playing a high school senior who cheats death with a prophetic vision of a devastating plane explosion. Though he only appears in the 2000 original, the film has become a wildly popular franchise spawning four additional sequels.
In the year 2000, Sawa also starred as the titular stalker in the iconic music video for Eminem's "Stan," playing an increasingly deranged fan who goes to horrific lengths to get his favorite rapper's attention. The video was a pop culture phenomenon and created the term "stan," now a part of our everyday vernacular. Not content to leave his horror legacy in the '90s, Sawa recently made a resurgence in the genre with the grisly "Hunter, Hunter," the Thanksgiving horror comedy, "Black Friday," and multiple roles in the SYFY series "Chucky." When asked about his return to the genre, Sawa told Men's Health, "I always like going back to horror. It's what I watch, so I want to be in it."
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In addition to his newfound Oscar clout, Daniel Kaluuya is also one of the horror genre's favorite scream kings. In his first collaboration with Jordan Peele, the British actor starred in "Get Out," the revolutionary horror film that is at once a terrifying story about a family of malevolent surgeons and a scathing indictment of racism in America. Kaluuya was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Chris, a Black photographer who goes home to meet his white girlfriend's family for the first time. The film was a massive hit, earning Peele an Oscar for his original screenplay and cementing Kaluuya's status as the new face of horror.
After several high-profile projects including "Black Panther" and an Academy Award-winning performance as real-life Black Panther Fred Hampton in "Judas and the Black Messiah," Kaluuya again collaborated with Peele in the blockbuster horror film "Nope." As OJ Haywood, Kaluuya is a Hollywood horse trainer who struggles to hold onto the family business when his father is killed in a freak accident. When describing his "all-time favorite actor," Peele told The Hollywood Reporter, "I utilized the fact that Daniel is just so immensely watchable, and he has this powerful stillness to him." "Nope" would go on to become the highest-grossing horror film of 2022 thanks in large part to a fist-pumping conclusion in which OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) attempt to capture photographic evidence of the extraterrestrial entity stalking their quiet fields.
Ethan Hawke spent two decades establishing himself as a traditional leading man before venturing into the world of horror. Hawke's first starring role in a horror film came in 2009 as a vampire hematologist searching for a sustainable blood supply with the genre-busting film "Daybreakers." Three years later, he appeared in two Blumhouse films that would cement his status as one of Hollywood's favorite scream kings. In Scott Derrickson's terrifying "Sinister," he plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime author who moves his family into the scene of a horrific mass murder. The sequence in which Hawke watches shocking home video footage simply labeled "Lawn Work '86" is routinely listed as one of the scariest movie scenes of all time.
Hawke followed this now iconic performance with a leading role in the dystopian horror film "The Purge." As James Sandin, Hawke is a wealthy father who leans on his privilege to protect himself from a 12-hour period in which all crimes are legal in a nightmarish future version of the United States. In 2022, Hawke again collaborated with Derrickson, this time as the villain in "The Black Phone," a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Joe Hill's short story. Donning a mask designed by horror legend Tom Savini, Hawke stepped outside of his comfort zone as a child murderer known as The Grabber. He was initially hesitant to play such a vile character but decided to embrace the challenge and turned in one of the most unsettling performances of the year.
Bill Skarsgård is not only one of the new faces of horror, but one of the most successful scream kings in recent memory. The fourth son of a family known for their villainous roles, Skarsgård first broke into the genre with Eli Roth's gory Netflix series adaptation of the 2012 novel "Hemlock Grove." Two years later, he blew audiences away with his terrifying portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in Andy Muschietti's adaptation of the classic Stephen King novel "It." Many were skeptical that anyone could convincingly follow Tim Curry's iconic performance as the shapeshifting monster in the 1990 miniseries, but Skarsgård took a different approach to the character based heavily on his natural talent for facial contortion.
Not content to simply play the villain, Skarsgård has appeared in a variety of horror fare including Sam Levinson's terrifying "Assassination Nation," the sprawling gothic horror film "The Devil All the Time," and a mysterious performance as The Kid in the Hulu series "Castle Rock," inspired by Stephen King's iconic town. In 2022, Skarsgård headlined the surprise hit "Barbarian" along with fellow scream king Justin Long. Playing against type, Skarsgård is Keith, an ill-fated traveler who unsettles audiences with the innocent question: "Do I look like some kind of monster?" Describing this unintentional joke, director Zach Cregger told CinemaBlend, "Bill was perfect casting for this because he has such a history with the audience, horror audiences know him, you know, and they expect something from him."
Though Elijah Wood is perhaps most recognizable as Frodo Baggins in Peter Jackson's ambitious trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," he's known to horror audiences as a game-changing scream king. A fan of the genre himself, Wood first appeared alongside Macaulay Culkin in "The Good Son," a horror film about a boy whose charming smile hides a murderous dark side. He also starred as the nerdy Casey in the 1998 teen horror film "The Faculty" before immersing himself in the fantastical world of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Wood also played against his innocent persona as a cannibal named Kevin in the highly stylized crime thriller "Sin City" and continued to shock audiences as the titular killer in Franck Khalfoun's gruesome remake of the classic horror film "Maniac." However, it's Wood's work behind the camera that has arguably made him more impactful in the genre than any of his varied performances. Wood is one-third of the team behind SpectreVision, a production company dedicated to seeing a horror film take home the Best Picture Oscar.
Specializing in unique and outlandish projects, Wood told Forbes he wanted to, "create a space for horror films that push the boundaries of what horror can be" and zeroes in on films "that aren't being done. That are slightly risky, or out-the-box." SpectreVision has indeed pushed horror forward with his support of genre-bending hits including "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," "Mandy," "Daniel Isn't Real," and "The Color Out of Space."
Tony Todd is best known for playing the hook-handed Candyman, but his status as the king of Black horror and his nuanced portrayal of one of the genre's most sympathetic villains warrants him an important place on this list as well. In 1992, Todd starred as the titular killer in Bernard Rose's "Candyman," a reimagining of Clive Barker's novella "The Forbidden." Set in the U.S., Candyman is a sinister figure who haunts Chicago's notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, though many have noted that the true villain of the film is the oblivious white savior Helen Lyle. Todd starred in two additional sequels before making a cameo in Nia DaCosta's legacy sequel "Candyman." Revisiting the legend for a new generation, DaCosta's film reclaims the Candyman mythology for an oppressed community and explores the ongoing trauma of systemic racism.
Todd would also become the face of another popular horror franchise as a gravel-voiced mortician called Bludworth in the "Final Destination" series. As Alex Browning (fellow scream king Devon Sawa) is searching for the reason survivors of a doomed flight keep dying in outlandish ways, he stumbles upon Bludworth preparing his best friend's body for burial. In a chilling monologue, Todd explains Death's design laying out the framework for a series of nail-biting cinematic deaths that would spin the story into a wildly popular five-film franchise. Todd has appeared in three additional sequels personifying the looming fate that will someday come to claim us all.
Of all the scream kings on this list, Bruce Campbell may be the most endearing. Campbell stars as Ash in Sam Raimi's experimental 1981 horror "The Evil Dead," a micro-budget film about a group of friends who inadvertently unleash demonic entities known as the Deadites by reading from the Necronomicon, an unholy tome bound in human flesh. Campbell anchors the film with his deft blend of vulnerability, self-deprecating charm, dashing good looks, and fearless commitment to the role. Campbell would go on to star in two more sequels, including the fan-favorite "Army of Darkness" and the 2015 sequel series "Ash vs Evil Dead." He's also provided the voice for his most famous character in numerous video game adaptations among more than 150 additional voice credits across the gaming genre.
Though most recognizable as Ash, Campbell has appeared in many horror films including "Maniac Cop," "Alien Apocalypse," and a memorable portrayal of Elvis Presley in the horror comedy "Bubba Ho-Tep." His lifelong friendship with director Sam Raimi has led to hilarious cameos in Marvel films including Raimi's "Spider-Man" trilogy and "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." Lee Cronin's sequel "Evil Dead Rise" is set to release in 2023 and there's no word yet whether Campbell will reprise his role as the charming Ash. Were his iconic chin to make another appearance in the beloved franchise, well that would be just groovy.
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