“I’m the Thing Monsters Have Nightmares About” – Making the Case for Sarah Michelle Gellar as a Horror Icon

Jamie Lee Curtis was not the first horror heroine to make an impact, but she’s largely considered the quintessential scream queen. Following the success of her 1978 debut in John Carpenter’s Halloween, she starred in an unparalleled run of horror cult classics between 1980 and 1981: The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train, Road Games, and Halloween II. Not wanting to be typecast, she moved onto other genres (until Michael Myers pulled her back in 1998’s Halloween H20) and found great success, but her horror legacy was sealed.

With the validity of the term “scream queen” up for debate – some actresses embrace it as a badge of honor, while others believe it diminishes the merits of their work – it’s easy to adopt the gender-neutral “horror icon” for Curtis and her ilk. From Fay Wray and Elvira to Barbara Crampton and Danielle Harris, plenty of actresses are just as deserving of the title as Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Tony Todd, et al.

In revisiting the Scream franchise ahead of the new entry, I couldn’t help but notice a worthy contender who is rarely brought up in the horror conversation. Certainly Neve Campbell and even Courteney Cox fit the bill, but Sarah Michelle Gellar deserves recognition as well.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer alone should be enough to cement her horror icon status. For seven seasons between 1997 and 2003, Gellar slayed in her breakthrough role as Buffy Summers, a high school cheerleader who discovers she’s a chosen one gifted with the skills to fight the forces of darkness. As the character puts it, “I’m the thing that monsters have nightmares about.”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Not unlike Curtis’ 1980-81 run, 1997 saw Gellar appear in three iconic horror properties. In addition to Buffy‘s premiere in March, she received second billing in I Know What You Did Last Summer for her role as beauty queen Helen Shivers in October, and she played sorority sister Cici Cooper in the highly-anticipated Scream 2 to cap off the banner year in December.

Perhaps the reluctance to classify Gellar as a horror icon stems from the fact that she was not the final girl in either of those films, as their respective villains added her to their ever-growing body count. But she was more than mere slasher fodder; her chase scene in IKWYDLS was arguably the highlight of the movie, and her demise in Scream 2 echoed Drew Barrymore’s shocking death from its predecessor. Regardless of whether they made it to the end credits, her characters were intelligent, resourceful, and empowering.

After Buffy wrapped, Gellar starred in 2004’s The Grudge, which had the highest grossing opening weekend for a horror remake at the time, and returned (albeit to get unceremoniously dispatched early on) in its 2006 sequel, The Grudge 2. While not strictly horror, she also donned Daphne’s purple dress in 2002’s live-action Scooby-Doo movie and its 2004 followup, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. She went on to star in 2006’s The Return and 2009’s Possession, neither of which were particularly well received but still furthered her genre ties.

Horror Queers I Know What You Did Last Summer

‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’

In a 2004 interview promoting The Grudge, Gellar spoke about her connection to horror. “In TV women are the stars, but in films we’re still struggling to play the leads. This particular genre is where women seem to get the best roles and can really shine. And I like films that are challenging – I couldn’t just be the girlfriend or the wife in a film. So I’ll be wherever the good female roles are. I like horror.”

Gellar later voiced herself in the 2011 Call of Duty: Black Ops video game zombie expansion “Call of the Dead” alongside fellow genre veterans Robert Englund, Danny Trejo, Michael Rooker, and George A. Romero. On the subject of voice acting, among her numerous guest spots on Adult Swim’s stop-motion sketch comedy show Robot Chicken were Ellen Ripley from the Alien franchise, Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies, Samara from The Ring, and tongue-in-cheek reprisals of her Buffy and Scooby-Doo parts.

More recently, Gellar revisited her horror roots in an Olay commercial that aired during the 2019 Super Bowl in which she’s chased by a masked killer, played by her husband (and IKWYDLS/Scooby-Doo co-star) Freddie Prinze Jr. It’s a fun send-up to her past, but I would love to see Gellar make a cinematic return to the genre that made her a household name.

When reflecting on Buffy‘s legacy with W in 2019, Gellar was hesitant to be labeled as a ’90s icon. “I think that the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show is iconic. I can say that,” she explained. “I don’t know where I fall.” Respectfully, I say she falls among the genre royalty that have earned the title of horror icon.

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