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In the horror genre, there’s little that can hold a candle to Scream. Directed by Wes Craven and written by Kevin Williamson, Scream tells the story of Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) as she’s stalked by a masked serial killer named Ghostface on the anniversary of her mother’s murder. While Scream may seem like your typical slasher movie from the outside, it is so much more on the inside. The iconic movie went on to become a four movie franchise and inspire an MTV TV show. With Scream, Craven and Williamson reinvigorated this particular horror subgenre in multiple ways, subverting tropes and horror sexism all over the place with the movie’s use of new technology, its meta treatment of horror and their choice in following the heroes rather than the villains from movie to movie.
Spoilers abound for all four Scream movies below.
There’s nothing more terrifying than the unknown, especially to horror audiences–a fact that Scream uses to its full advantage. The idea that someone would torment and kill people is scary enough, but not knowing where the danger is coming from makes it ten times worse. The audience watches in horror as someone in a black robe and Ghostface mask murders a decent number of people, seemingly at random. To make matters worse, Scream introduced a new variable: technology. The use of cell phones and voice changers allowed the killers to be wherever they wanted and whoever they wanted. It’s even worse in Scream 4, where that Ghostface takes to streaming the murders.
This fear is alleviated for the audience once the killer(s) is unmasked at the end of a Scream movie, but the terror turns to sheer horror for Sidney, Dewey, and Gale. A disguised killer is scary, but the knowledge that someone close to you could commit such atrocities apologetically is scarier. Most of the murders that occur during the Scream franchise are intensely personal–Billy and Stu kill Casey for breaking up with Stu, and Tatum for talking shit about Billy; Mrs. Loomis kills Randy (R.I.P., boo) for insulting Billy (sensing a theme yet?); and Jill kills Trevor for cheating on her. The vendettas against Sidney and her deceased mother are at the center of each movie, making each one a deeply personal story.
Which leads to the next point: the Scream franchise follows the protagonists rather than the antagonists. Every Ghostface might don the same mask and have a ridiculous obsession with Sidney, but they’re each different people with their own agenda. They don’t last past their one movie. As Scott Kessinger points out in Scream Deconstructed, it is Sidney, Gale, and Dewey who we see dealing with the horrors of the previous movie in the next. He says, “For Sidney, Gale, Dewey, Randy, and Cotton, though, we see how the real-life horror movies the killers have wrought have affected their lives. This is a reversal of the standard slasher movie trope in which the killer is the real star of the show: this time it’s the heroes that “just won’t stay dead” while the killer is interchangeable.” Keeping the heroes makes the movies more compelling and more human than your average slasher flick.
What makes Scream truly unique is how aware the film is of itself and the genre. The meta commentary is usually made by Randy, Sidney’s horror movie-obsessed friend who constantly makes movie references and explores the rules of the genre while in conversation with other characters. Randy’s exploration of the genre is what distracts the audience enough to skew expectations about what is going to happen, especially when it comes to the three rules of horror Randy sets forth at Stu’s party halfway through the movie.
“There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instant, number one: you can never have sex. Big no no! Big no no! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor! It’s a sin. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back.’ Because you won’t be back.”
Scream addresses these rules directly and then throws them out the window. Even Randy goes against his own rules, getting trashed at Stu’s party and managing to survive, even though he gets shot in the process.
Nothing makes Scream’s attitude towards the rules more blatant than its treatment of women. The stereotypical horror movie had the tendency to blatantly punish girls who were sexually active and reward those who remained virginal and pure. In Scream, not only is this not the case, but several characters openly comment on this trope. For instance, when Sidney is on the phone with Ghostface, she says, “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.” Through this, we see that Sidney is also aware of the rules and she’s not here for them. Later in the movie, she loses her virginity to Billy (who is, in fact, one of the killers) and goes on to survive not one, but four of these movies. She is even the one to ultimately kill Billy and Stu (as well as most of the other Ghostfaces), who banked on her loss of virginity as a guarantee that she would die. These plot twists are for the audience and the killers, who tend to believe so heavily in the construct of their own story that they forget that it’s real life.
Another important point about sexism comes from an event that we don’t actually see happen. Rather than place any blame on Mr. Loomis, Billy and Stu rape and kill Sidney’s mother for having an affair with him, leading to his mother leaving town. Billy seemingly places no blame on his father or mother in this instance. “Your slut mother was fucking my father, and she’s the reason my mother moved out and abandoned me,” he says, providing his motive for his and Stu’s reign of terror over Woodsboro. It’s an extreme example of how the difference in how the world views men and women when it comes to cheating, but the essence is very true to life. Thankfully Scream’s world won’t let this injustice slide; Billy and Stu ultimately fail in their ultimate revenge plan of killing Sidney and are ultimately killed themselves.
All of these elements make the Scream franchise one of the most important in modern horror. Its self awareness and feminism create a world that isn’t eyeroll-inducing with heroes you want to see come back–and killers who can’t, despite the attempts of others to carry on their legacy.