A dynasty of screams: Jamie Lee Curtis and the reinterpretation of the maternal voice in Scream Queens

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Critical Studies in Media Communication
ISSN: 1529-5036 (Print) 1479-5809 (Online) Journal homepage https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcsm20
A dynasty of screams Jamie Lee Curtis and the
reinterpretation of the maternal voice in Scream
Kyle Christensen
To cite this article:
Kyle Christensen (2019): A dynasty of screams Jamie Lee Curtis and the reinterpretation of the maternal voice in Scream�Queens, Critical Studies in Media Communication
To link to this article https://doi.org/10.1080/15295036.2019.1579918
Published online 27 Feb Submit your article to this journal View Crossmark data

A dynasty of screams Jamie Lee Curtis and the reinterpretation of the maternal voice in Scream Queens
Kyle Christensen
Department of Communication Studies and Psychology, Huntingdon College, Montgomery, AL, USA
This essay analyzes the FOX slasher horror series
Scream Queens, particularly the eighth episode of the series first season, entitled
“Mommie Dearest In this episode, star Jamie Lee
Curtis participates in a remake of the notorious shower scene from the classic horror
film Psycho (1960), which featured the bloodcurdling scream of Curtis mother, actress Janet Leigh.
Drawing upon feminist psychoanalytic theory, this essay argues that the nature of the scream, which has often signi
fied female vulnerability and the punishing of female sexuality in slasher horror, becomes revised in this scene. Speci
fically, as Curtis fights back against her assailant, her voice reimagines the scream as a
“scream-cry” that connotes female violent and sexual agency.
Relatedly, through Leigh and Curtis,
Scream Queens also conceives of the voice as part of a legacy that is passed down and reinterpreted between mother and daughter.
Received 23 July Accepted 21 December 2018
Horror; voice mother

daughter relationship;
feminism; psychoanalysis
In recent years, American media has seen the resurgence of the slasher horror genre, formalized in earlier
film series such as the Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and
Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises. Slasher horror has especially found a home in American television through programs such as MTV
’s Scream The TV Series (2015–present),
flix’s Slasher (present, and, most notably, the subversive FOX comedy horror series Scream Queens (

). Scream Queens stands out from other contemporary slasher series because of the cult following it has developed (despite only lasting two seasons, and because of the implications behind the names of both the series title and some of the performers comprising its cast. The
“scream queen is a moniker applied to actresses who have made careers starring as
“Final Girls – the lone, usually young female characters in slasher narratives who are hunted by a psychopathic killer but who are strong enough to thwart him and make it to the end of the
film alive (Clover. Their loud and frightened screams are one of the signature features that these actresses bring to each entry in their horror
In a brilliant example of deliberate stunt casting, Scream Queens includes a featured role from Jamie Lee Curtis, who originated the scream queen persona through her portrayal of 2019 National Communication Association
Kyle Christensen kchristensen@hawks.huntingdon.edu
Department of Communication Studies and
Psychology, Huntingdon College, 1500 E. Fairview Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36106, USA

Final Girl Laurie Strode in the 1978 slasher masterpiece Halloween.
However, the series is also linked to other horror cinema and icons of the past. In particular, Scream Queens displays strong ties to the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho, which Clover (
) claims is the
“appointed ancestor of the slasher (p. 23). While Psycho was crucial to the eventual emergence of slasher horror, it is also important to Curtis herself in that it starred Curtis

mother, the late actress Janet Leigh, in the lead role of Marion Crane. Many remember
Psycho for Marion
’s death, a shockingly violent, eroticized scene in which Marion is stabbed to death by a knife-wielding maniac while showering. One of the scenes most disquieting elements is Leigh
’s scream as she is murdered, which remains at high volume until the very last slice of the knife. The notorious scene has been the subject of documentary exposés (Roy & Philippe, has been examined by countless scholars (Creed Phillips Skerry,
), and is said to be
“the most analyzed, discussed, and alluded-to-scene in
film history (Skerry,
, p. 220, emphasis in original).
The eighth episode of Scream Queens first season, entitled “Mommie Dearest received much attention after it
first aired for showcasing its own version of the Psycho shower scene, with Curtis standing in for Leigh that is, for the daughter assuming the role originally played by her mother. This intergenerational connection in the Scream Queens shower scene is powerful because slasher horror has often told the stories of youth rebelling against their parents and the parental/adult social order (DeGra
) instead of establishing common ground with them. Furthermore, depictions of intergenerational tensions have been commonplace in popular culture, including horror, and especially in a slew of narratives centered on insurmountable con
flicts between mother and daughter characters (Karlyn,
Scholars have claimed that Scream Queens is also guilty of
“accentuating the divisions between generations of women, through its cast of feuding young and old female characters
, p. 171). The
“Mommie Dearest episode of Scream Queens, though, is exceptional in that, as it intertextually brings together Curtis and Leigh in the shower, it provides a productive and much needed representation of a united mother
–daughter relationship.
In this essay, I focus on the act of screaming, a mainstay of slasher horror, as a mechanism connecting generations of women in Scream Queens. I argue that Curtis scream as it is presented in Scream Queens “Mommie Dearest shower sequence creates a vocalic bond between mother and daughter, in which Curtis draws upon her mothers voice and also reinterprets it. Curtis translates Leigh
’s scream from a scream of futility, which denotes the slasher genres fondness for punishing and undermining female sexuality, into a battle cry that symbolizes and celebrates both the heroic violent strength of the Final Girl and the eroticism of the would-be slasher victim. I develop this argument through a series of three sections. First, Io era review of previous literature on the Final Girl and the censuring of female sexuality in slasher horror. Second, I address how I am employing feminist psychoanalytic theory in this study and using voice to question and evaluate women
’s familial inter- generational relationships. Third, and
finally, I analyze what I am calling the voice of the
“scream-cry” as it is heard in the first season of Scream Queens, with select episodes, including Mommie Dearest as the centerpieces of my analysis.
final girl and the silencing of female sexuality in slasher horror
In Scream Queens, Curtis plays the role of Cathy Munsch, the dean of students at
Wallace University. Cathy is trying to protect the student body
—including the

dysfunctional Kappa Kappa Tau sorority
—from an anonymous killer wearing a “Red
” costume like that of the school mascot. An outspoken and staunch feminist,
Cathy is also sexually liberated and has multiple sexual partners throughout the series.
’s sexual adventurousness contrasts greatly with the Final Girl archetype that
Curtis helped create. Clover writes that the Final Girl is by and large
“not sexually active and even virginal (pas sexual asceticism is one of the most consistent traits of Final Girls across multiple
films. Even in those rare occasions when Final Girls do have sex
—such as The Silent Scream (1979), Scream (1996), or I Know What You
Did Last Summer (they tend to do so only after careful thought and not by giving into lustful impulses. Along these lines, the Final Girl is distinct from her female peers, many of whom live with reckless abandon and are framed as interested in nothing more than sleeping with their boyfriends.
However, because of the conservative logic underlying the slasher genre, female sexuality becomes a bona
fide death sentence. As Williams (
) writes, the sexually active
“bad girls of slasher horror are punished for behaving outside of traditional moral bounds. For example, Marion Crane in Psycho has a steamy romance with a man out of wedlock and her sexual energy also arouses the interests of other men around her.
What female characters like Marion possess is asexual potency, which these
films find disturbing and which necessitates their demise.
’s shower death in Psycho is prototypical of the death of the usual female slasher horror victim, especially because of how voice is represented in this scene. The orality of the scene
—the black and white image of Marion’s open mouth, and her piercing, petrified scream as she is attacked
—magnifies the horror of this moment. Nonetheless, this vocal response is
fleeting; for all the screaming that audiences hear from Marion as she is being slashed, her
final moment in the shower scene is but a closeup shot of her lifeless face, her mouth slightly agape but without a sound coming from it. That is, the
“bad girl”
of slasher lore, who opens her body to the sexual penetration of others, also opens her oral body, wider and with louder reaction to each thrust of the killers knife. The sexual sating that follows the act of intercourse becomes mirrored in the conclusion to the murder sequence, as the body of the victim falls still, no longer caught in the stirring
of being prodded the killers phallic instrument, and is, above all, permanently silenced.
This punishing/silencing of sexually active women in the slasher genre is reinforced by the chastity of the Final Girl. Her sexual abstinence is framed as largely guaranteeing her survival. Consequently, the Final Girl focuses her energies not on sexual liaisons but on violently retaliating against the killer, often bringing him down on her own.
Mothers, daughters, and the scream-cry
As previously stated, Scream Queens exploits not only Curtis celebrity as slasher horror’s ultimate Final Girl,
but also, in the aforementioned
“Mommie Dearest episode, her well- known identity in the entertainment industry as Janet Leigh
’s daughter.
However, in an interview with Variety prior to the
first airing of the episode (Birnbaum,
), Curtis admitted to some uncertainty about recreating the Psycho shower scene that had been immortalized by Leigh (who passed away in 2004) more than half a century earlier.
Curtis commented,
“My entire life I have refused to step into the shower because it belongs to my mother. I have attempted to step out of the shadow of my parents fora CRITICAL STUDIES IN MEDIA COMMUNICATION

longtime (quoted in Birnbaum,
). For Curtis, the stardom of both of her parents
(including her mother and her father, actor Tony Curtis) seems to loom over her as a performer, but particularly that of Leigh. Curtis remarks about dissociating herself from her mother (i.e. stepping out of her shadow) for much of her career are reminiscent of a phenomenon that Rich (
) has famously dubbed
“matrophobia,” or women’s fears of
“becoming their mothers.”
Previous scholarship (Karlyn,
; Winch, Littler, & Keller) has analyzed how prevalent stymied mother
–daughter relationships have been in contemporary American media. The result, Karlyn (
) writes, is that
“[i]n popular culture, especially in the prestigious forms of
film and primetime television, women have rarely existed as interesting characters once they are mothers, especially mothers of daughters (p. 12). Nevertheless,
while representations of women
’s intergenerational relationships in media have been plagued by matrophobia and the misogyny/ageism it breeds, this essay is inspired by
Winch et al.
’s (
) insistence that
“the concept of generation does have critical purchase for feminist media scholars (pin examining how women of different generations can learn to relate to one another.
Consequently, audiences and critics can begin
“to hear the suppressed voices of mothers”
, p. 11, emphasis added) that are often discounted entirely in mass media. In this essay, I use feminist psychoanalytic theory to explore this theme of voice
—and more to the point, the scream
—particularly in terms of gender and the maternal voice/scream that comes to be relegated in patriarchal culture.
Silverman (
) claims that the maternal voice is often vili
fied as an unwelcome reminder of one’s repressed infantile past when mother and child were once inseparable. Though a
ffecting both male and female subjects alike, this antipathy toward, and the subsequent longing to distance oneself from, the maternal voice is a process seen as all the more necessary for women in a culture where matrophobia and the mere idea of even emulating the maternal voice ignites great distress and horror (encapsulated in statements such as
“Oh my God, I sound just like my mother!”).
The scream as one notable type of voice falls under the category of what Chion (calls the
“cry.” Chion (
) explicates the gendered implications of the cry, stating that
“we tend to call the woman’s cry a scream, and the man’s cry a shout (p. 78). The male shout is
“a shout of power, exercising a will (
, p. 78), while the female scream connotes vulnerability and futility. At the same time, there is also a power that abounds within the scream. Chion (
) speci
fically equates the female scream to the sounds of female sexual pleasure, writing,
“[F]or men, the woman’s scream poses the question of the
‘black hole of the female orgasm which cannot bespoken nor thought (p. 77). This orgasmic scream re
flects male fears of women’s insatiable sexual yearnings so immense that they cannot be satis
fied, so that to hear it is to not just hear and appreciate the female voice but also to hear the taboo of female sexual desire that resounds within it.
Feminist psychoanalytic scholars have also tapped into the sexualized aspects of the female voice, through their readings of the voice of the mother in relationship to her children. Silverman proposes that an earlier erotic connection of mother and daughter (before the daughter becomes socialized and detached from her mother) becomes possible through the daughters embrace of the maternal voice that had once enveloped and intimately cradled her in the womb. Similarly, in her essay on Marnie (1961), another Hitchcock classic, Knapp (
) writes that the
film hinges on its protagonist’s memories of her mother that she
“voices” during her sessions with her ultimately unsuccessful male

analyst. Knapp (
) concludes,
“The voice is, this time, shared by the mother and daughter and is a threat because it opens up the possibility fora desire that is not informed by,
or in harmony with, the masculine (p. 18). Thus, there seems to be something particularly erotic about the harmonious vocal union of not just mother and child but speci
fically mother and daughter.
A similar intergenerational encounter can occur through the scream, like that of
Marion/Janet Leigh in Psycho and Cathy/Jamie Lee Curtis in Scream Queens. Of course,
the feminine scream is customary in the horror genre, such as that of the Final Girl when the killer menaces her and threatens to silence her voice. However, whereas for
Chion the scream can be considered separate from the cry as its own unique variation of it, I yoke them together in what I herein refer to as the
“scream-cry.” Renaming it as such is more than just an exercise in semantics. Instead, it gives credence to Edgar
) claim that the linguistic framing of voice is critical in discussions of voice and gender, for the language used in representing voice
“constitutes its subject as a certain type of gendered body and in doing so reconstitutes her voice as well (p. 58). Although the scream has often stood for both abject vulnerability and the enactment of female sexuality that patriarchal culture wishes to condemn, the scream-cry o
ffers two amendments to what the scream represents:
first, alongside its being an expression of female sexuality, it also represents the enactment of violent female agency and, second, it represents the valuable, but long-repudiated, intergenerational alliance of mother and daughter.
While the female scream-cry elicits the sounds of orgasm, it can also simulate and appropriate a violent battle cry that is usually reserved for the male voice.
This interpretation complicates psychoanalytic scholar Searl
’s (
) claim that,
“The most primitive of human reactions to danger is not
flight but screaming (p. 194). While Searl means to suggest that screaming becomes a form of vocalizing tantamount to the fearful
flight response, the scream
—when reconstrued as the scream-cry—becomes the vocal equivalent of the instinctual
fight response. That is, the scream-cry signifies one’s ability and willingness to
fight back and defend oneself, on par with the Final Girl’s own eventual violent defense against the killer in slasher horror. For example, one maybe reminded of Laurie Strode crying out as she lunges at Michael Myers with knives, knitting needles, and axes in Halloween) and the sequels Halloween Hand Halloween (Additionally, when the scream is restated as also a cry, it recalls the cry of infant that is theorized as mediating the relationship between child and parent. LaBelle (
) often notes that the cry
“finds its primal manifestation in the baby’s cry … the first act of vocalization, one whose rending echoes break into the world in search of comfort, warmth, and assurance (p. 47). This comfort, warmth, and assurance that the baby seeks with her cry is a parental duty often culturally imposed on the maternal parent. That is, the infants preverbal scream is indicative of its crying for its mother, with the cry becoming imperative in bringing about the meeting of child and mother. Furthermore, as psychoanalytic scholars have claimed, one of the responsibilities expected of the maternal caretaker is to present her voice to her child, so that it can be a model from which the child can learn to fashion a voice of her own (Silverman,
). Thus, through voice, the relationship between mother and child is continuously rekindled.
Just as the mother of psychoanalytic literature is said to use her voice to guide her child in its vocal productions, the scream-cry can be seen as a legacy passed down from mother to daughter in a culture determined to keep these generations apart. In this regard, I

observe the intergenerational feminist politics of the scream-cry in Scream Queens, as it connects a mother and daughter pair (Leigh and Curtis) who are, within the universe of slasher horror, framed as disparate to one another. Sexuality especially drives a wedge between Leigh
’s Marion Crane and Curtis Final Girl figure. Whereas the Final
Girl is sexually reserved, Marion Crane is by comparison a vixen, and, according to the slasher conventions that Psycho helped to institute, Marion
’s sexuality becomes justifica- tion for her death. Still, even in spite of her earlier apprehensions, Curtis does embrace her mother and her mothers voice in Scream Queens, even tweeting images from the set of her mimicking her mothers famous scream (Figure Particularly in the shower scene of Scream Queens “Mommie Dearest episode, Curtis calls upon the voice (i.e. the scream) of her mother, Janet Leigh, but also revamps it as a scream-cry along three dimensions. First, it takes Leigh
’s scream of victimhood in Psycho and turns it into a scream-cry conveying agency, aggression, toughness, and a penchant for violence as Cathy goes toe-to-toe with Scream Queens Red Devil killer. Second, it takes the sexualized context of the scream in the original Psycho shower scene (Leigh
’s vocal release with each second of penetration into her naked body) but accentuates (indeed, basks in)
’s sexuality and resists reprimanding/silencing female sexuality with violence like what has been witnessed in Psycho and its many slasher derivatives. Third, and lastly,
the scream-cry in Scream Queens Psycho homage results in the representation of the voice of both mother and daughter, Leigh and Curtis, in which neither is elevated over the other but mutually co-exist.
The scream-cry in Scream Queens
Mothers, daughters, and
“young girls”
first season of Scream Queens follows the events of the 2015 fall semester at Wallace
University. At the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority house, a sociopathic coed named Chanel
Figure Jamie Lee Curtis (with Janet Leigh) screams on the set of
Scream Queens (image provided courtesy of

Oberlin (Emma Roberts) has come into power as the organizations new president. In one of her
first scenes, viewers watch Chanel disparage Kappa’s middle-aged housekeeper, Ms
Bean (Jan Hoag). Ms Bean is dubbed
“White Mammy a maternal moniker with racist and classist connotations, especially when delivered by the young, white, and a
Chanel. Chanel
’s first conversation with Ms Bean (an allusion to Gone With the Wind) is indicative of the belittling manner in which she speaks with many older authority gures, especially older women.
I have a question. And its just a hypothetical. If I asked you if you know some- thin bout birthin’ babies or if you “didn’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies which would you say?
Ms Bean
’d say I don’t know.
’t know–?
Ms Bean
I don
’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies.
Amazing. Thank you. (Murphy et al. & Murphy,
Chanel turns to the other Kappas and laughs. Not only is Chanel humiliating Ms Bean for her lack of formal education, but her use of the language of
“birthin’ babies only adds to the age differences between them, differences that are often framed (in the cisnormative family structure) through the identities of
“birthin’” parent and birthed child. Interestingly, Ms Beans scream will also be one of the first heard in the series. An enraged
Chanel dunks Ms Bean into the deep fryer of the sorority house kitchen, and the housekeeper screams out as she tears off the skin that has been burnt from the hot fryer oil.
Thus, from its
first utterance, the scream is associated with the maternal (albeit that of an enormously problematic
“mammy” character).
The inability for women of di
fferent generations to cooperate and facilitate an even remotely amicable relationship with each other is further underscored in the rivalry between Cathy Munsch and the Kappas. Cathy tells Chanel,
“I’m gonna be honest. I
hate sororities, and I hate you. For years, I
’ve seen the damage these so-called sisterhoods have had on young girls (Murphy et al. & Murphy. Later in this episode, Cathy lies in bed after making love with Chad, a dimwitted undergraduate student. Cathy delivers a monologue that drips with jadedness and derision toward the Kappas, stating:
How did my life turn into this I marched for the Equal Rights Amendment. I burned my brain the middle of this campus, and then left school to intern for Gloria Steinem at Ms Magazine. This generation, it could give a rats ass about any of it. Nothing’s changed. Have you seen the way girls dress on this campus These sorority bitches strutting around in basically just their underwear, screaming bloody murder about being objecti
fied, as if they haven’t objecti
fied themselves already. (Murphy et al. & Murphy,
When she does not receive a meaningful reply from Chad, Cathy insults him and orders him to take a psychology class
“to figure out who gave you such disgusting mommy issues By implying that their tryst is due to Chad’s mommy issues she also presents herself as
“mother” to him. Later, in another confrontation between Cathy and Chanel,
Cathy declares that she is going to discipline her and be
“the strong parental influence
[Chanel] never had (Brennan & Brown, thus further maternalizing herself.
That being said, Cathy
’s identity as mother figure in the series is overridden by Jamie
Lee Curtis identity as a daughter in real life. The source of much of Cathy’s consternation with the younger women at Wallace is initially presented as if stemming from Curtis own

mommy issues One week prior to the “Mommie Dearest episode, the series seventh episode,
“Beware of Young Girls aired, in which audiences learn more about Cathy’s backstory. Speci
fically, viewers are introduced to Feather McCarthy (Tavi Gevinson), a former Kappa sister who has seduced and moved in with Cathy
’s now ex-husband,
Steven. When Feather is interviewed by reporters with the school newspaper who falsely suspect that Cathy is the Red Devil, Feather divulges that, after her husband abandoned her, Cathy would routinely stalk Feather and even began wearing identical clothing as her. Feather states,
“Everywhere I’d go, she’d just be there dressed exactly like me”
(Murphy & Brown, provoking screams from Feather in those moments when she would catch Cathy standing right behind her in the bathroom mirror. Cathy also attempts, with no luck, to kill Feather by dropping a transistor radio into Feathers bathtub one night. By the end of the episode, Steven is murdered by Cathy, and she implicates Feather for his death by planting her DNA on a half-eaten sandwich found at the crime scene.
In several ways, Feather is arguably a reimagining of Leigh
’s Marion Crane from
Psycho. Not only does Feather have a short, blonde haircut vaguely reminiscent of
’s hairstyle in Psycho, but her name has the same birdlike associations as
’s Crane surname.
When the detective investigating Stevens death comments on the sandwich with the evidence that incriminates Feather, he states,
“If only she had a bigger appetite, she might have gotten away with it (Murphy & Brown. This scene recalls Psycho and the character Norman Bates remark to Marion, You eat like a bird when Marion slowly eats and fails to finish a sandwich Norman makes for her after she checks into his motel. Cathy dressing up like Feather is also analogous to
Norman, who wears the same clothes as his oppressive mother, but with Curtis dressing up as the character that is most closely related to her own mother. Feathers scream in the bathroom set piece and her near electrocution while bathing are also uncannily similar to
’s death in Psycho.
Furthermore, Feather is, like Marion, a
“young girl who is sexually self-assured,
although her and Marion
’s sexuality occurs outside the traditional marital contract,
with Feathers sexuality even being an affront to the institution of marriage (seemingly causing Cathy and Stevens divorce. In the final scenes of Beware of Young Girls,”
Feather is shown being locked away in an asylum, hollering,
“No! Please, I’m innocent I loved him, while elsewhere, Cathy twirls around her apartment as she sips a glass of wine and relishes having pulled o the perfect crime. The intercutting between these two scenes insinuates that it is not just the incarceration of Feather that brings Cathy joy, but also the veritable sound of her helpless scream. If one grants legitimacy to the claim that Feather is a substitute for Marion Crane, then
Feather (like Marion) is a
“bad girl being punished and the price she must pay
(once the door to her room in the asylum permanently closes) is to have her voice silenced forever.
However, if Feather is a stand-in Marion Crane, she is therefore also a representation of
Janet Leigh. The scene implies that, as Cathy delights in the silencing of Feathers voice,
Curtis also matrophobically distances herself from her mother and delights in her mother being punished for her (characters) sexual transgressions. Nevertheless, in the immediate followup to
“Beware of Young Girls”—the “Mommie Dearest episode with its remake of the Psycho shower scene
—the voice is used to achieve the opposite.

Curtis scream-cry revalorizes the maternal (Leigh, honors female sexuality, and performs the identities of mother and daughter by bringing them together in one voice.
The violence/eroticism of the scream-cry
In her psychoanalytic inquiry into the function of voice in early infanthood, Searl explains that the scream of the infant proceeds through three states of transformation. First, there is a scream of love or a
“desire for that which the child loves (p. 203), such as the mother and her body (for instance, when screaming to be breastfed. It is followed by a scream of rage/hatred and then a scream of love once more. When her
first scream does not unite the infant with the object of love to which she is calling out, the subsequent scream of rage expresses her hatred at the inability of herself and her mother to bring about the satisfaction she demands. However, the scream of love eventually returns once grati
fication is achieved. Nonetheless, Searl notes that this
final scream of love is often a highly sexua- lized love (p. 203), suggesting an eroticized underpinning to the delayed meeting of mother and child. In Scream Queens “Mommie Dearest episode, Curtis reroutes the scream of rage away from the mother and toward Scream Queens patriarchal oppressors.
Moreover, because of the familial and intertextual casting ties that tether Curtis in the
“Mommie Dearest shower scene to Leigh in Psycho, Curtis also unlocks the erotic love scream and restores the a
ffectionate bond between mother and daughter in this episode. This bond is armed through Curtis’s appropriating the persecuted scream of
Leigh in Psycho and adapting it into an aggressively sexually empowered scream-cry.
Scream Queens mother–daughter themes are first made apparent through the
“Mommie Dearest menu screen on the Scream Queens season one DVD release.
In addition to a description of the episode that states,
“Dean Munsch goes psycho when she becomes the latest target of the campus killing spree, the menu screen foregrounds the image of one of Chanel
’s sorority sisters, played by actress Billie Lourde. Lourde dons the signature pair of ear mus that her character wears throughout the series to protect her ears from an ex-boyfriend who has threatened to cut them o. However,
the ear mus also have an additional meaning in that they remind audiences of
’s mother, actress Carrie Fisher, and the unusual hair buns that covered her ears in her de
finitive role as Princess Leia in George Lucas Star Wars (1977). Hence, the episode, including the shower scene contained within it, becomes immediately foreshadowed in terms of its Hollywood mother
–daughter duos.
’s shower scene in “Mommie Dearest begins as an almost shot-by-shot duplication of the one from Psycho (with a black and white preview of the scene even released to YouTube before the episode was broadcast. Cathy enters her bathroom and closes the door behind her. She walks across the room while untying her robe, and the camera cuts to a shot of Cathy
’s feet as the robe lands on the tile. Cathy enters the shower and, in ahead- on shot, turns on the water. In another shot from the side, Cathy smiles and lathers her arms and neck, exuding a sensuality as she bathes herself that is comparable to Leigh blissfully caressing herself during her time in the shower.
Suddenly, through the shower curtain, a silhouette in the familiar shape of the Red
Devil can be seen. The Red Devil pulls open the curtain and raises his knife, but, in the
first of many major and increasingly absurd deviations from the surprise attack on
Marion in Psycho, the killer is shocked to
find that Cathy is no longer inside the

shower. An impossible feat, Cathy has not only somehow escaped the shower but also pops up behind the killer. Cathy slams the killers head into the wall, and declares, I saw that movie
fifty times confirming that it is Cathy’s (Curtis) repeated viewings of what became of Marion (Leigh) in Psycho that has prepared her to be hyper-alert and ready to outwit the killer at a moments notice.
Although she does not scream in the face of the maniacs blade, Cathy’s vocalizations as she dukes it outwith the killer are still signi
ficant precisely because of how they contrast with those emitted by the screaming Marion Crane. Likewise, there is also signi
ficance to other ways in which voice comes to be represented in
“Mommie Dearest such as through the inclusion of English-language subtitles on the Scream Queens DVD. Chion (
) notes that
“subtitling is not an integral part of the work of a media text, particularly in regard to the language that is used to describe mediated sounds, as the terms used in these descriptions can be replaced by other texts in other translations, including other sets of subtitles in the same language (p. 139). Nonetheless, even though the decision of what language to use in subtitling can be arbitrary, it can still have an impact on how audiences read (quite literally) sonic entitles like the voice. Therefore, the mediation of language and voice through subtitling is necessary to consider in this analysis of the female voice of horror.
While the linguistic label of the
“scream,” as Chion (
) argues above, denotes vocalic female victimhood in
film and media, the term “scream-cry” better describes Cathy/Curtis’
voice in
“Mommie Dearest because of three important qualities pertaining to the voice that it introduces. The
first quality of the “scream-cry” is its suggestion of aggression,
“battle cry toward off enemies and signal a preparedness to engage in combat if necessary. The subtitles that correspond with Curtis voice in the Scream Queens shower scene seem most aligned with this aspect of the scream-cry. To incapacitate the killer so that she has enough time to getaway from him, Cathy delivers a forceful punch to his head. The subtitle reads
“grunts” to characterize Cathy’s voice as she swings. Cathy keeps
“grunting” over and over, according to the DVD subtitles, when the killer follows her into her living room and she strikes him with a
fireplace poker. Eventually, when two more killers enter the room and it is revealed that the Red Devil killer is actually a diabolical trio, Cathy
finds herself outnumbered. She is compelled to intensify both her
fight and her voice, the subtitles alleging that Cathy yells as she runs toward the gang of masked psychopaths with all of her might (Figure 2
). Thus, while not branding
’s voice as a scream or a cry the linguistic markers employed by the DVD subtitles do imply that hers is a voice that, like the scream-cry, promises uninhibited violence.
A second quality of the scream-cry, though, that perhaps cannot be conveyed through subtitles but is nonetheless a vital aspect of this form of vocalization, is its evoking states of female eroticism. The erotic elements of Cathy
’s voice manifest once the three killers enter her home, with two of them disguised as the Red Devil, and one of them, rather inexplicably, wearing a mask resembling then Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.
Backed into a corner, Cathy momentarily pauses the showdown and shares an out-of- the-blue confession:
When I was a junior, I spent a year abroad. I had an a
ffair with a beautiful Eurasian man named Chon Wi Ha. He was a grand champion in the illegal Hong Kong
fighting pits.
Blood sport, they called it. I taught him everything I knew about making love. And in return, he taught me how to
fight. (Brennan & Uppendahl,

At this point, it is when Cathy stops her speech and
“yells,” announcing her readiness to wage all-out war. Cathy advances toward the three intruders, delivering hit and hit, and blow after blow, all of which she presumably learned from her former lover. Unlike the
“bad girls of the slasher genre, Cathy’s sexual history does not mean her demise, but rather, is advantageous to her and ensures her survival. Thus, what is heard as Cathy
“grunts” and yells is not the scream of a violated victim, but the scream-cry that conveys both her anger and the orgasmic reverberations of her sexual awakening.
After subduing the two Red Devil killers, Cathy turns her attention to the individual in the Scalia mask. She punches the accomplice over and over, and delivers, as her volume swells, an over-the-top diatribe that reeks of liberal sentiments:
“The homosexual lifestyle is not disruptive to THE FABRIC OF AMERICAN SOCIETY The Voting Rights Act should be authorized in EVERY state And the A
ffordable Care Act does not require people TO EAT BROCCOLI (Brennan & Uppendahl,
). Inventing her rage at the highly conservative
“Scalia” through both her voice and her fists, Curtis is able to lash out at a repressive conservative morality that constructs sexually con
fident women,
like her mother as Marion in Psycho, as deserving of punishment and having their bodies brutalized before the camera. Furthermore, as she unleashes her scream-cry,
Cathy bears her teeth as if tapping into her basest, ferocious animal drives, and giving into her violent impulses. In other words, Cathy is not turned into another victim of violent castigation for her sexuality and her rebuking of traditional codes of femininity.
Rather, in her vocal theatrics, Cathy combines sexuality and violence so as to grant herself some semblance of power in this situation.
Its political commentary aside, the crux of this sequence in
“Mommie Dearest and the third and
final quality of the scream-cry, is its valuable message about the child’s embrace of the maternal. Curtis is saved speci
fically because of her connection to her mother. While the character Cathy savored the destruction and silencing of (the Marion Crane-esque)
Feather in the previous episode, Curtis in
“Mommie Dearest actually models herself
Figure 2.
“yells” at her assailants in Scream Queens (image captured by author).

after her mother and willingly
“steps into the shower where Janet Leigh once stood. Most fundamental to the
“scream queen Curtis, though, is her voice and its propensity to both scream and cry. Through the scream-cry, her voice maneuvers between the toughness of the Final Girl daughter (Curtis) and the sexual agency of her mother (Leigh
’s Marion
Crane), giving Curtis (as Cathy) the power to resist further victimization.
Still, despite this loving tribute between Curtis and Leigh, the trajectory of Scream
’ season one narrative following “Mommie Dearest falls short in presenting a vision of intergenerational female solidarity. Cathy
’s continues to display loathing toward Chanel and the other Kappas, and e
fforts to collaborate and join forces are repeatedly undermined. This fact is all the more unfortunate in light of the shower scene in which Cathy scream-cried her way through her altercation with the killers and forged a profound vocalic bond with her own mother.
’s detachment from the younger women around her is reiterated in Scream
’ season one finale episode —fittingly titled The Final Girl(s)”—when Cathy’s scream-cry makes one last return. Months after the commotion at Wallace University has settled down, Cathy has been heralded as a modern-day feminist heroine and has hired a ghostwriter to pen a book in her name. At a book signing for the
fictional bestseller
New New Feminism, Cathy sits at a table in a roomful of women, all of whom are excited to meet Cathy and appear to be in approximately the same middle-aged demographic as her.
One of Cathy
’s enthusiastic readers approaches and asks her to summarize the philosophy of her book. Emboldened by the question, Cathy rises from her seat, and answers,
If feminism was about demanding equal treatment for women, and new feminism was saying that men and women are integral complements to one another, then I guess we could sum up
“new new feminism really in three simple words women are better. […] I mean, the proof is right in front of us. If you think about all of human history, add up the wars and the genocide,
all the oppression, the violence, the exploitation, the degradation of the human spirit, what do all those things have in common Dudes. (Murphy, et al. & Falchuk,
The women form a circle around Cathy, captivated by her remarks. They clutch their chests and nod insincere agreement, as if listening to a moving sermon at church. Meanwhile, like a preacher trying to stir the people in the pews, Cathy continues with her oration, but in a highly dramatic tone and with amounting crescendo.
So maybe, just maybe, its not just places like Wallace University that are better o with a woman in charge. Maybe we’d be better o if a woman was in charge Cathy and the women
EXACTLY! (Murphy, et al. & Falchuk,
This pooling of women
’s voices speaking (loudly) in unison is its own variant of the scream-cry, yet in this context the
“crying” is less strictly a battle cry and more of a feminist rallying cry. But that it is delivered exclusively to women of her own generation only makes it clearer the tragedy of how Cathy
’s voice could be just as capable of rallying together Feather, Chanel, and the women of Kappa and creating that same much needed coalition with these younger women, if only Cathy would make the effort. To be sure, this
flaw on Cathy’s part does not invalidate the mother–daughter vocalic allegiance between Curtis and Leigh that was achieved in the
“Mommie Dearest episode.
However, it does indicate that the value placed on women
’s intergenerational relationships

by one of the voices of Scream Queens does not echo throughout the remainder of the series itself.
After its
first airing, the “Mommie Dearest episode of Scream Queens seemed to resonate with some contemporary feminist critics. Writing on the episodes take on
’s doomed Psycho shower scene for the feminist pop culture website Jezebel,
Davies (
) states,
“In a nice way, it’s giving Marion the ending she deserved—not hunched in the shower, terri
fied and screaming, but on her feet fighting—completely
flattening—any foe who’s dumb enough to come at her (emphasis added. While I
ultimately agree with Davies that Scream Queens o
ffers Marion her long overdue redemption, this essay has demonstrated that the act of screaming rather than conveying nothing more than fear and futility
—can also utilize the female voice so as to signal empowerment. By putting greater attention on the actresses involved in this scene
—Janet Leigh in Psycho and her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, in Scream Queens
—I used feminist psychoanalytic theory to argue that this empowered scream is best understood as a
“scream-cry.” This reinterpreted scream-cry represents the symbolic uniting of mother and daughter, signifying and honoring the sexual agency of
’s Marion Crane and the violent agency of Curtis Final Girl persona. Such a representation is crucial in that it challenges a genre (slasher horror) and overall cultural/
media landscapes that have, as I explained above, often placed mothers and daughters in opposition toward one another.
Future studies might advance my initial
findings on three fronts. First, although outside the bounds of both psychoanalysis and this study
’s exclusive focus on Curtis and Leigh,
how race explicitly informs some of the intergenerational con
flicts amongst women of color in Scream Queens
—particularly given the casual racism that is already rampant in the series (Ryalls,
—is worthy of its own analysis.
Second, given the growing scholarly interest in contemporary horror television (Belau & Jackson, critics might become more mindful of how gender and age interact and in
fluence the relationships of characters, especially female characters, in other television narratives outside of
Scream Queens.
Third, and lastly, how gender, age, and voice have a
ffected feminist intergenerational politicizing more broadly should also be examined. For example, two common explanations for the failed presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton in 2016 were voters aversions to the literal sound of her voice (Lambert) as well as, just as problematically,
her undue dismissal by
“millennial feminists several generations removed from her
). Furthermore, with the rise of the #MeToo movement, it has been noted that some
“older” and younger feminists have expressed disagreements over how to de
fine sexual assault and what proper course of action should betaken in response to it. As Donegan (
), writing for the Guardian, explains,
“The #MeToo moment and its backlash made it clear that there really was a divide among feminists, but analysis of that divide cast it as a mere cat
fight, or a screaming match between weary mothers and teenage daughters However, as this essay has shown, once feminists can move past the intergenerational tensions and the
“screaming match that may ensue, there is the prospect of having productive conversations in which the
“mothers and daughters of the

movement can try to
find some common ground (difficult as that process can be) and can speak out, or maybe even scream out, in one collective voice against oppression.
1. Curtis would appear as the Final Girl in later slasher titles such as Prom Night (1980) and
Terror Train (1980).
2. Homages to the Psycho shower scene have been found in episodes of Murder, She Wrote and
The Simpsons, and in comic lampoons like High Anxiety (1977) and The Silence of the Hams. The shower scene has also been reimagined in texts such as Gus Van Sant
’s stylish Psycho remake and in the
final season of the A&E’s Psycho-inspired series Bates
Motel (2013
3. John Fiske (
) observes that the actors populating television sets are
“media people who
“bring with them … residues of the meanings of other roles that they have played … ” (p. Accordingly, Bussolini (
) and Jowett (
) note that horror and fantasy television series have been especially prone to casting horror
film actors because of the familiarity that genre audiences already have with them. These insights help to extend the
field of star studies,
which has often been unnecessarily conned to the medium of film (Dyer Gled- hill Stacey, into the realm of (horror) television. That being said, my essay aims to augment Fiske
’s definition of television stars as media people by accounting for how these stars not only carry the
“residue” of their former roles but also the public record of their biographical history. Nowell (
) notes that much of Curtis early fame in horror was due to her association with her mother, as it was Curtis unique Hollywood pedigree that made her especially appealing to both the independent producers and the distributors of horror
films” (p. 137).
5. Feminist critics (Mitchell Wright) have argued that, despite its tendency to essentialize the family and the mother
–child relationship, it is possible to see psychoanalysis as a theory able to explain the process whereby woman and men came to internalize an oppressive ideology defined by gender (Wright, p. xiii. Although many feminist and sound studies scholars have argued that women
’s voices should be analyzed as acoustic phenomena (Cavarero,
; Edgar, I
ffer from this approach by focusing on the voice as a rhetorical-representational device. This framing of the mother
–daughter dyad as a unified, erotic partnership is a valuable contribution that di
ffers from how other scholars have discussed this relationship in the Hitchcock oeuvre. For instance, in her famous feminist psychoanalytic critique, Modleski (argues that
“in films from Rebecca on it is the mother/daughter relationship that evokes threat to identity and constitutes the main problem of the films” (p. 5), with these
films symbolizing the daughter’s attempt to detach herself from the mother in order to attach herself to a manor rather, to find an appropriate heterosexual partner that can replace the mother (p. 50, emphasis in original. Moreover, along with his minimizing the prospective erotic union of the mother and daughter pair, Hitchcock has also been accused of denying the maternal parent of her own sexual identity. Using the characters of
Psycho to make this case, Walker (
) states,
The relationship between Norman and his
“mother” has been discussed at length in the Hitchcock literature, although there is one feature that is usually overlooked the fact that Norman has desexualized his mother by turning her into an old woman.
(p. Thus, the possibility for the mother to function as an erotic agent is underexplored by
8. For the purposes of this essay, I am less concerned with the
“gender-bending” nature of the
Final Girls scream-cry, although I am aware that the Final Girl has been interpreted as an

figure who amalgamates the traits of both traditional femininity and masculinity (Clover Halberstam,
9. For more on the symbolism of birds in Hitchcock
’s Psycho, see Durgnat (
); Rothberg
10. I analyze this type of
“extra-textual” material accompanying the Scream Queens season one
DVD set in light of Brookey and Westerfelhaus
’s (
) astute argument that these materials have the rhetorical potential to exert in
fluence on how a text is interpreted when consumed through home media technology. Other scholars have also used extra-textual material to examine messages regarding gender and sexuality in slasher horror (King. Emma Roberts, who plays Chanel Oberlin on Scream Queens, is also a member of a famed
Hollywood family, as the daughter of actor Eric Roberts and the niece of actress Julia Roberts. For example, Scream Queens follows the contentious relationship of Zayday Williams (Keke
Palmer), an African-American member of the Kappa Kappa Tau sorority who eventually rises to the rank of its president, and Denise Hemphill (Niecy Nash, an older former
Wallace University student who resents Zayday
’s involvement in Kappa after she was rejected by the sorority because of her race.
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Document Outline

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • The final girl and the silencing of female sexuality in slasher horror
  • Mothers, daughters, and the scream-cry
  • The scream-cry in Scream Queens
    • Mothers, daughters, and young girls”
    • The violence/eroticism of the scream-cry
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References

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