Time was, a pretty young thing could land a role in a horror flick just by checking a few boxes: Can you shatter glass with your shrieks? Mind being doused in red corn syrup? Does that blouse come off? After nabbing such parts, starlets usually emerged with two potential paths: Overcome the inauspicious beginning and hope no one ever brings it up (Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun) or embrace the role of scream queen (Adrienne Barbeau of The Fog, Swamp Thing, and similar fare).
Lately, though, up-and-comers have begun flocking to the genre. Why? Increasingly, horror auteurs have discovered that visceral thrills and original storytelling aren't mutually exclusive, creating opportunities for ambitious actresses. "I went to NYU to study theater and to play emotionally and physically demanding characters," says Ashley Bell, 26, who reprises her role as the demon-possessed Nell Sweetzer in The Last Exorcism Part II. "These films have been a tremendous platform to do that." Horror has also become hospitable to experimentation, with the found-footage conceit of the Paranormal Activity franchise leading to last year's Sundance hit Silent House, which spends its 86 minutes following star Elizabeth Olsen in real time as she's terrorized by mysterious forces in her family's vacation home.
Both films give their female stars a chance to do more than cower and scream, as does April's Evil Dead, a remake of the 1981 classic in which the protagonist, originally portrayed by the square-jawed Bruce Campbell, is played by the 23-year-old Jane Levy. "Aside from being a great, versatile actress," says Campbell, a coproducer of the new version, "she can hold her own with anyone physically."
It helps that horror movies are increasingly crafted by women. Screenwriter Diablo Cody came in to polish the script of the new Evil Dead, putting clever banter into the mouths of the undead and their prey. "Will I look back and be embarrassed?" Levy asks. "I already am—but only because of some of the wild things that came out of my mouth. I'm so sorry to my grandmother!" Silent House was written by a woman, Laura Lau, and Kimberly Peirce of Boys Don't Cry fame directed this October's remake of Stephen King's feminist horror classic Carrie, with 16-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz in the role made famous by Sissy Spacek.
It's a sign of horror's enhanced prestige that A-list stars are vying for a piece of the action. In January, Jessica Chastain followed her Oscar-nominated turn in Zero Dark Thirty with the frightener Mama. But the benefits are greater for fresher faces. "There's finally more to horror than being covered in blood," says Bell, who says she booked five projects on the strength of her performances in the Last Exorcism movies. "The characters, the writing—it's grown into an art." Levy's even more emphatic: "I was put in a coffin, buried alive, and dug my way out. I'm showing the world—and future directors—that I can be a crazy motherfucker."