Julie Adams Blazed the Trail for Badass Sci-Fi Ladies

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Mallory O’Meara
Photo: Allan Amato

Yesterday, the film community received some heartbreaking news. Beloved actress Julie Adams passed away at 92 years old. Over the course of her long career, Adams appeared in 50 feature films and more than 90 television series, including Bonanza and Murder, She Wrote. But she was best known for her iconic role as the heroine from the classic Universal monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon.

In the film, Adams stars as Kay Lawrence, the only female member of an expedition sent down to South America to investigate a mysterious fossil that seems to prove the existence of a fish-man hybrid living in the Amazon. Her scenes with the Creature are some of the most famous in monster movie history, notably the fantastic moment where Kay Lawrence swims on the surface of the murky lagoon while the Creature lurks underneath her, mirroring her movements. It is the epitome of a balance of horror and beauty.

While Adams was renown for her beauty (she reportedly had her legs insured!), the role of Kay Lawrence allowed her to show off more than her looks. It let her show off her smarts.

See, Kay is unique among Universal monster heroines. Up until this point in cinema history, all the major monster movies in the Universal canon had female leads that featured incredible actresses as the love interests. There was a lot of screaming and not a lot of agency. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love some of these characters, particularly Zita Johann’s snarky portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the apple of reincarnated Imhotep’s withered eye in The Mummy. But these female characters don’t really get to be badasses. Julie Adams was different. Her role as Kay Lawrence stands out. She got to Do Stuff.

The 1950s were an interesting turning point for the American horror film. This was a time when studios were moving from films about monsters inspired by old world legends to science fiction films where the terror was coming from outer space. Along with ushering in a new age of alien antagonists, it also ushered in a new type of character: the lady scientist. Movies like Them! and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms featured female leads that were not just extensions of male characters in the form of wives or girlfriends. These characters got to be something special for the time period. They were intelligent, they were making decisions, they had agency. They got to Do Stuff. 

I mean, this was the 1950s. Feminism was still far away. But these female characters were blazing a trail for the badass strong protagonists of modern cinema. Chief among them was Julie Adams in Creature From the Black Lagoon. Her character doesn’t get sent down to the Amazon because she was kidnapped or because she’s someone’s wife. She goes because she is an important part of the scientific team. Yes, she’s the only woman and she’s the only one who isn’t a doctor (again, feminism was still a light in the distance), but she is still a scientist. She gets to use her expertise. Julie Adams is the only classic Universal monster heroine who does.

Adams’ role in Creature From the Black Lagoon, along with the other 1950s female sci-fi scientist characters, laid the groundwork for such important and inspiring roles as Ripley from Aliens, Dr. Ellie Sattler from Jurassic Park, and the women of Annihilation. Most notable of these is Dr. Dana Scully from the television show The X-Files. Gillian Anderson’s brilliant portrayal of this character launched something known as The Scully Effect, where many young women were inspired to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement so they could be like Scully. Let’s be real, who doesn’t want to be more like Dr. Dana Scully?

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I will always be grateful to Julie Adams for her pivotal role in horror movie history. As much as I love the monster design in Creature From the Black Lagoon, that is not the only factor that made the film stand out for me. I was a teenager, giving myself a monster movie education, when I first saw it. Having eagerly devoured all the other classic black and white Universal monster movies, it was time to turn to the final part of the canon – Creature From the Black Lagoon. Seeing such an incredible monster matched with an incrediblestrong female lead blew me away. Afterwards, finding out that the Creature was designed by artist Milicent Patrick, I fell in love. Of all the Universal monster films, Creature From the Black Lagoon packs the most badass female power. I was hooked. Consider me a Creature lover for life.

Julie Adams will be forever remembered for her stellar dramatic talent, but she should also be remembered for her integral part in the history of strong female protagonists. Badass science fiction ladies in all mediums owe her so much.

Mallory O’Meara is the author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon, a biography of Milicent Patrick, forthcoming from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins on March 5. She tweets @malloryomeara and you can visit her website

Written by Mallory O'Meara

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