Don’t let the lyrics to unofficial Ghostface theme song “Red Right Hand” fool you: The killer in the Scream movies is neither god nor ghost. While the original 1996 film is rightfully credited with reviving the slasher genre for a new generation, Kevin Williamson’s script for the Wes Craven–helmed horror classic distinguished itself from the movies that inspired it by keeping the identity of its villain a secret until the third act. Ghostface was not a supernatural demon like Freddy Krueger or an unkillable bogeyman like Michael Myers — he was just a guy (or really, two guys) in a costume. Scream was a slasher, but it was also a whodunit.
Rather than having Billy and Stu rise from the dead to continue the Ghostface murders in subsequent sequels, the Scream franchise wisely opted to make the climactic unmasking of the killer(s) its most consistent feature. Ghostface can never really be defeated, because anyone can pick up a knife and be Ghostface, which grounds the movies in a reality often missing from the genre. It also turns the audience into amateur detectives, hooked not only by the thrill of watching Sidney Prescott evade Ghostface once again, but also by the challenge of guessing who’s behind the mask this time.
Of course, not all Scream killers are created equal. With the latest installment of the franchise — confusingly also titled Scream — now in theaters, here’s a look back at all the psychopaths who have donned the Ghostface mask over the last 26 years, ranked from worst to best. (WARNING: Major spoilers for every Scream movie, including the 2022 Scream, ahead.)
Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin) — Scream 4 (2011)
One of the clever conceits that the original Scream introduced — in large part because it answered a lot of logistical questions — was the reveal of two killers behind the Ghostface mask, which has held true in all but one of the sequels. The only downside is that both killers can’t get equal footing: There is always an also-ran. And when it comes to superfluous secondary stabbers, Charlie is at the bottom of the pack.
While he was quite literally dying to be the Stu to Jill’s Billy, Charlie is more of a second-rate Randy — and ultimately, just an obstacle for Jill to overcome in her quest for stardom. As Ghostface, Charlie is a brutal killer: His evisceration of Olivia is arguably the most graphic kill since Casey Becker. Once he’s unmasked, though, he’s an afterthought. Yes, his reveal is great — he stabs Kirby after she “rescues” him — but if Scream 4 wanted to tackle the horror of incel violence, it should have leaned in.
Roman Bridger (Scott Foley) — Scream 3 (2000)
The lone single killer on the list, you’d think Roman would stand out just by virtue of pulling the whole thing off solo. But Roman has a lot working against him, most damningly that he’s Ghostface in Scream 3, the worst movie in the series. Even if Roman did have the advantage of slicing and dicing in a better film, however, he’d have a hard time overcoming the fact that he’s got no meaningful connection to any of the characters and isn’t all that likable. He’s a cutthroat director who literally cuts throats. Okay, and?
But wait, he does have a connection to Sidney: It turns out he’s her secret half-brother, the kind of eye-rolling franchise twist that the 2022 Scream skewers. In a deeply irritating retcon, Roman reveals that he’s actually the person responsible for the events of the original trilogy, filming secret footage of Maureen Prescott and Mr. Loomis and nudging Billy into a killing rampage. Sorry, Roman, that’s showing up late and taking all the credit for the group project — you do not get a pass.
Mickey Altieri (Timothy Olyphant) — Scream 2 (1997)
Another of the secondary killers, Mickey exists primarily because there’s only so much one middle-age woman could do on her own. It’s hard to contend with any character played by Timothy Olyphant being forgettable, but the climax of Scream 2 is so centered on Mrs. Loomis that you don’t notice Mickey is even there. (To be fair, he’s “dead” for most of it.) Even his great performance (Timothy Olyphant!) gets overshadowed by everything Laurie Metcalf does immediately after.
The other problem with Mickey: There’s never really any doubt that he’s a serial killer. Yes, the Scream series repeatedly relies on the misdirect of an Occam’s razor killer: the creepy guy who you think can’t possibly be Ghostface because it would be too obvious? Surprise, he did it! But Mickey is so heavily hinted at — including casually revealing knowledge that only the killer would have midway through the movie — that his unmasking doesn’t provoke any response. Beyond that, he’s not someone the characters seem to have much emotional attachment to, making his predictable betrayal more of a shrug.
Amber Freeman (Mikey Madison) — Scream (2022)
Let’s be clear: Guns are bad (for drama and in general), and should only be used sparingly in these movies. They are slashers, not shooters. That having been said, Amber casually taking out a gun and shooting Liv before welcoming everyone to the third act of the movie is perhaps the best killer reveal in the franchise. Is it surprising? Not particularly. Based on process of elimination and some undeniably sinister vibes, Amber felt like a reasonably safe bet. But the sudden brutality of it is certainly shocking and resonates long after the unmasking.
Mikey Madison does a stellar job of switching back and forth between homicidal malevolence and victimhood, going straight for pity whenever Amber is cornered. (Her attempt to blame Reddit for radicalizing her is a particular high point.) Amber ends up feeling secondary only because she’s the first and more obvious reveal, but she gets to brutally murder a legacy character (RIP, Dewey) and goes out in a blaze of glory. What more could she ask for?
Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard) — Scream (1996)
It may feel like sacrilege to have one of the OG killers smack-dab in the middle of a Ghostface ranking, but the competition is stiff! And Stu lays the groundwork for the legacy of second-tier killers that characterizes the bottom half of this list. When 2022 Scream’s Tara is naming the killer in Scream 2’s film-within-a-film Stab, she correctly identifies Billy but forgets Stu entirely. It doesn’t help that Stu’s motivation is nebulous. There is, of course, an undercurrent of homoeroticism in his relationship with Billy, and perhaps if Scream had embraced that, Stu could have been a little more memorable. Alas, it was 1996.
But the bloody finale of Scream works so well in part because it’s darkly hilarious, and that’s largely a credit to Stu (and Matthew Lillard). “My mom and dad are gonna be so mad at me” is a line reading for the ages. (Frankly, so is “liver alone.”) And while we can blame slippery fake blood for the happy accident of Billy hitting Stu in the head with a phone, Lillard’s improvised reaction is perfection.
Mrs. Loomis (Laurie Metcalf) — Scream 2 (1997)
Yes, it’s a surprise that “local woman” reporter Debbie Salt is actually Billy Loomis’s mother. Yes, Mrs. Loomis is a smart reference to Mrs. Voorhees, the killer in the first Friday the 13th. (Casey not knowing this factoid is what gets Steve killed in Scream.) But of all the Ghostface reveals in the Scream movies, Mrs. Loomis is the biggest cop-out. The killer is essentially a background character who turns out to be another character you didn’t even know existed. “Didn’t see that coming,” Mickey says — which, sure, because there was literally no way anyone could have.
Unfortunately, Laurie Metcalf is so instantly iconic in the role that Mrs. Loomis has become the fan-favorite Scream killer. On paper, it’s a cheat of an ending; onscreen, it’s edge-of-your-seat thrilling. The frantic energy, the emotional volatility, the crazy eyes — Metcalf uses every tool in her acting arsenal to turn a cheap plot twist into the most terrifying adversary Sidney faces. How dare she.
Richie Kirsch (Jack Quaid) — Scream (2022)
As an outsider and the love interest of the new lead, Richie is an obvious suspect — Dewey suggests as much the first time they meet. But Richie is no Billy Loomis. Played with ample sincerity by Jack Quaid, Richie seems like a good dude in a bad situation. He’s also a perfect surrogate for the audience: appropriately concerned about getting killed, willing to flee Woodsboro before any final showdown, and just savvy enough to make pointed horror references.
It’s all an act, of course, but no Ghostface before Richie did a better job of convincing everyone (including the audience) that they were one of the good guys. His betrayal cuts that much deeper because it’s unexpected — but also in the way it reflects the way toxic online behavior can mask itself in the real world. Richie manages to be both a good boyfriend and a bad fan, slaughtering innocent victims because he’s angry about a movie. It may be the series’s bleakest motive yet. As social commentary, it’s not exactly subtle, but it’s perfectly timely and just pointed enough to piss off the right people.
Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) — Scream (1996)
You never forget your first. With a look heavily influenced by Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, Billy is a dreamy ’90s boyfriend with just a hint of bad-boy edge. Skeet Ulrich embodies the character with the kind of relentless intensity that makes you simultaneously understand why Sidney would fall for him, and also wish she would keep her distance — well before you know he’s actually a murderer.
In retrospect, of course, Billy is behind the Ghostface mask (half the time, at least). But for those watching Scream for the first time, he’s easily dismissed as a red herring. Audiences had internalized the belief that it’s always the person you least suspect. In reality, the opposite is true, and Scream offers an uncomfortable reminder that sometimes people seem dangerous because they are dangerous. Billy lures Sidney into a false sense of security by making it seem like he’s just misunderstood, but bad vibes exist for a reason, and no one has worse vibes than Billy.
Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts) — Scream 4 (2011)
There is a tantalizing notion to the idea of the Final Girl as the killer — the Scream series has flirted with Sidney behind the Ghostface mask, but never followed through. In Jill, a Sidney for a new generation, we get the next best thing. Jill’s motive was also both prescient and of its time: She wanted to be famous and recognized that it’s easier to make fans than friends. It’s a chilling indictment of 2011-era millennial self-obsession that’s also over-the-top enough to be very funny — though not quite as funny as Jill beating herself up in a solo reenactment of Billy and Stu’s climactic scene.
It’s actually Jill’s other motivation that’s more interesting: her hatred of Sidney after a lifetime of living in her famous cousin’s shadow. Scream 4’s greatest coup is in casting Emma Roberts, niece of one of the most famous actors of all time, which gives Jill’s resentment toward being born into her family a thrilling subtext. (In case you missed the connection, the character’s last name is also Roberts.) Perhaps it’s by channeling her anger at years of nepotism allegations that Roberts — Emma, not Jill — delivers the most electric performance of her career.