Fears Forgotten: A VH1 Scream Queens Retrospective

Growing up, I watched countless horror movies with my mom. My first was A Nightmare on Elm Street, which I watched almost daily at the age of about four. I loved the tension that I felt, I enjoyed the creepy music, and most of all, I liked rooting for the main characters. Because my mom and I bonded over watching horror-centric things, we often spent our nights watching Fear Factor and Survivor. We chose our favorites, and took bets on whom we thought would win. Naturally, my mom was so excited to watch Scream Queens with me when the commercials for it first came out. When I mention the show Scream Queens, people usually think I’m talking about the show from 2015 with Emma Roberts, when I’m actually referring to the reality show from 2008 that aired on VH1. It centered on a group of ten aspiring actresses, competing to get a “breakout role” in Saw VI. Sounds cool, right? More on that later.

Beginning at season one, the first episode starts with each woman being shortly introduced. We meet the judges – Shawnee Smith, who played Amanda, one of Jigsaw’s many proteges, in the Saw franchise. There’s also John Homa, an acting coach, and James Gunn. Yes, that James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy and the new The Suicide Squad. He has a whimsical sense of style in this show and I constantly giggled at his appearance. Before elimination comes, the competing women must complete three different challenges with one judge present in each. Their first acting challenge was to seductively eat a piece of fruit, to quickly shift between “being flirty” to “oh shit I’m going to die,” because the women were supposed to act as if their piece of fruit was poisoned and it starts to slowly kill them. This is where you really see who has potential and who doesn’t. If that sounds mean, please watch the episode. It has some of the worst acting I have ever seen, and I’ve worked in children’s theatre with seven year olds.

Scream Queens | VH1

There was a point in time I worried this show was going to be male-gazey, and it seemed with the first episode that it was trying to lead in that direction, but the director’s challenge threw me for a loop. The women were tasked with recreating Gunn’s scene from Slither, where they’re in a tub and a snake appears in the water, and they get scared. They have the option to do the scene completely naked, or they can wear modesty underwear, or nipple pasties. Side note, but if I were tasked with doing a nude scene it’s not my nips that I would want covered, it’s my whole vagina. It’s so wild to me that just nipple pasties are even an option. Anyway, I was worried the show would take the opportunity to be weird and linger on the women’s bodies, but that didn’t happen at all. Gunn never said any weird comments, the camera never zoomed in or stalled on some blurred titties, so I can give it some credit there.

Something that blew my whole mind was, during the elimination at the end of the first episode, Shawnee Smith told one of the women, Sarah, that she wasn’t that pretty, but she was good enough to win the week’s Leading Lady (meaning she did very good and they all liked her performances), and another girl, Kylah, gets told that she is super duper hot but painfully untalented, but her being hot makes up for it, so she’s safe for the week. That whole exchange nearly gave me whiplash, but in complete honesty that’s how a lot of women are treated in the realm of art. Especially, unfortunately, in the realm of horror films. In these women’s defense, horror is an incredibly hard genre to pull off in every aspect. Writing, acting, directing, you name it, it is difficult. I consider myself a pretty versatile actor and can tackle pretty much any genre, but horror is one that I don’t think I could pull off. I would love to try, but I am sure I’d be too awkward and, honestly, suck pretty hard. Horror is a genre where you really have to believe what you are seeing, and what the actor is seeing in front of them could be their costar Steve in a hockey mask, or a man in a green screen suit, or literally nothing that will get CGI’d in later. To convince is a motive that all actors should strive for regardless of your genre, but to convince in horror is another level. I could go on and on about acting conventions in different genres, but I’ll leave it there.

In episode three, there was a very heated argument that spiraled into blatant racism. Woohoo, 2008 reality television is so much fun! It started with Sarah, who I mentioned earlier, roasting contestant Michelle for terrible acting or something, and then contestant Lina chimes in out of nowhere to call Tanedra the “token black girl,” then Sarah calls Jessica fat (quite literally out of nowhere) which makes Jessica call Sarah ugly, and she notes how “Jewish she looks.” As you can see, these girls are best friends and there is no animosity anywhere.

Scream Queens | VH1

My favorite episode of season one was episode four. Shawnee leads a challenge that is centered around campy horror. The girls have to act as if they are a decapitated head, and yes, they do stick their heads out of a hole that’s cut into the table. Their scene partner is just some dude with abs, and they cannot act to save their life. Pretty sure it’s purposeful, because as an actor you’re going to experience some shitty scene partners. But it’s your job to work your way through it and not let the atrocity of your other half distract you. Most did well with their campy acting, others did bad, but Jessica decided to go the route of offensive. She portrayed herself as a mentally disabled person, using a very offensive voice to top it off. Woohoo, late 2000s reality television! The directing challenge for the episode pissed me off to the extreme. Gunn wrote a trailer for a fake movie called Reform School Zombie Squad, where girls go and are trained to kill zombies. There are two characters that have a brief make-out scene, and Lina and Michelle have a problem with that. When Gunn calls in the girls one by one to audition them, he also asks if there’s anything they are uncomfortable doing. Michelle is honest and says she would not want to kiss another girl. Easy peasy, no problemo. But then Lina says, and I quote, “I didn’t want to cause an issue before there was an issue” and tells Gunn that she is comfortable with whatever. Well, guess what? She gets cast as one of the make-out-with-another-girl girls. Lina brings up her discomfort with Gunn way too late, he is reasonably upset, and she gets eliminated at the end of the episode. 

Episode six. Oh boy. During Homa’s acting class, he has the girls act as their scene partners and invoke emotions by singling out things that they are sensitive about. Michelle and Tanedra are paired together, and Michelle says Tanedra wants to be seen as a strong black woman from the projects. This takes Tanedra aback, and she becomes very upset. Tanedra says that that is exactly the perception she is trying to beat, and that she’s not trying to act as if she deserves to be there because of her being black. She says, “It’s my talent and not my color that got me here.”

The final two are the duo mentioned above, Tanedra and Michelle. Their final challenge is to reenact the scene from Saw III where the doctor tells John Cramer about her marriage and begs to be let go. The girls practice their scenes, and go in front of the cameras. In the end Tanedra wins, rightfully so, and gets that “breakout role” in the beloved Saw VI.

Tanedra Howard in Saw VI | Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate

Season two! This season is far less entertaining than the first. First off, Shawnee and James get replaced by Jaime King and Tim Sullivan. John Homa stuck around, though. The contestants are not as interesting this season, but there is one that went on to do some pretty awesome shit. Rosanna Pansino, a popular baking YouTuber and host of a super fun baking show Baketopia, was a contestant. She got eliminated on episode two, but it’s so cool to see that she found a different talent that got her success somewhere else.

Episode four of this season focused on sexuality a lot. I am confused as to why. Tim Sullivan said that the building blocks to a good scream queen are fear, rage, and sexiness. While that is definitely not true, especially not this day and age, I don’t understand why they are focused so much on sex appeal during some challenges. This is essentially a long-winded audition for a fucking Saw movie. Saw is, arguably, the least sexy horror film franchise. If they were auditioning for the part of Horny Camp Counselor #5 in the next Friday the 13th installment then maybe I would be a little more understanding. But everyone in Saw looks like a bank teller.

The final episode of season two is very similar to the final episode in season one. It’s down to contestants Gabby West and Jessica Ortiz as the final two. Their challenge is to perform a scene similar to the one from the first Saw film where Cary Elwes is trapped. In my opinion, Jessica was the much stronger actress. People went after Gabby for being young and inexperienced, but that didn’t matter to me. Tanedra was also inexperienced, never had the chance to do acting classes or have any training, and she was the best season one contestant by far. So Gabby being inexperienced was not the reason I didn’t like her. She was a horrific actress. And that’s fine. A lot of these contestants in both seasons could not act well, and they did amazing things. Sure, Jessica had her rough moments, but ultimately she blew Gabby out of the water and it was both shocking and sad to see her lose.

Scream Queens | VH1

Let’s get into what the lucky lady gets if she wins the competition. As I mentioned previously, whoever is the best scream queen gets bestowed a breakout role in the next Saw film. But what is the “breakout role”? For season one winner Tanedra Howard, she got the role of Simone Bethson in Saw VI. I wouldn’t call Simone a “breakout role,” but Tanedra performed a scene in which she cuts her own arm off and makes appearances in other scenes throughout the film. The role is small, but it showcases Tanedra’s talents and the things she learned from her time on Scream Queens. As for season two winner Gabby West, her breakout role was in Saw 3D as Kara, a Nazi that gets her face destroyed by a car tire. She doesn’t get to shine at all in this scene. Sure, she’s screaming, but since she’s tied down she doesn’t get to show any physical acting, little to no line delivery, and she gets outshone by Chester Bennington of Linkin Park fame. It feels like she was cheated. Was Gabby the best actress in season two? No. But she did win. Tanedra Howard even makes an appearance in Saw 3D for a short scene, driving home the point that perhaps Gabby deserved something just a little more substantial. 

I found an old article dating back to 2009 about Scream Queens auditions for season two. It had links to an application, audition tape information, and the audition scene they had to film. Unfortunately, when I clicked on them, it took me to VH1’s website where RuPaul’s face stared at me and told me to sashay away. No, RuPaul. I’m not going to sashay away. I put the links into the WayBack Machine – thank God for that website – and acquired the PDFs of the aforementioned items. The PDFs are attached to this article if you’re interested in taking a look*.

Many Scream Queens contestants aren’t doing much in terms of acting now. But, a small chunk are doing some pretty great things. Second runner-up of season two, Jessica Ortiz, who now goes by Jaina Lee Ortiz, is doing pretty great. She was the lead in the police procedural show Rosewood, and the lead in Station 19, a spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy. Lindsay from season one always talked about how she was a young Nickelodeon star for being Caitlin in Caitlin’s Way, but after she was on Scream Queens her career pretty much halted, but she was in a movie with her fellow contestant Jessica Palette, called Raymond Did It, in 2011. Marissa was in an episode of Dexter back in 2010. Karlie Redd has been in numerous reality TV shows. We already talked about Rosanna Pansino. A couple have gotten married and started families, not having anything new on their acting resume. Gabby West became an astrologer with her own blog called The Saturn Girl, and being featured on FabFitFun. She has a whole article about what gifts people want according to their star signs (apparently I really want the Elaphe 2021 13-month planner). There’s hardly anything new for Tanedra Howard, which is really a shame. She is, however, active on her Twitter account.

Scream Queens | VH1

If you are into old, cheesy reality TV shows, I would highly recommend watching – or rewatching – Scream Queens. It’s awful sometimes, but more often than not it is an enjoyable and trashy lens into the early 2000s. I recommend just the first season, because James Gunn looks like a 90s frat douchebag, and Shawnee Smith is mean, and both of those things cause some pretty fun entertainment. The contestants are also interesting and vary in talents, making you cringe throughout nearly the whole season while also keeping your interest. It’s fun to sit there and wonder if you could successfully do the challenges. Could you face your fears head on for the sake of being featured in a movie? How loud and realistic could you scream if there were a masked figure with a machete following after you? Do you think you have what it takes to be a scream queen?

“One thing I don’t want you to think – you don’t have to have high self-esteem to do this work. You don’t need to. Most actresses do not. Most artists do not. You need to be able to act professionally despite what your feelings are.

– James Gunn, Scream Queens, ep. 6.

* Scream Queens Casting Application, Scream Queens Audition Scene, Scream Queens Home Tape Submission

Lizzy Santana


Lizzy Santana (She/They) is currently studying theatre performance but that doesn't mean she doesn't love working her fingers up and down a good QWERTY keyboard. She has enjoyed writing since she was very young and is a lover of most writing mediums. Follow her on Twitter: @Elozerbethh

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