Note: Be sure to read Gwen’s argument why Scream Queens is horror!
Routinely criticized for a camp aesthetic that would make Divine blush, Ryan Murphy’s foray into horror has been mixed at best. While American Horror Story has had its share of viral moments, its consistently uneven storytelling has prevented it from picking up the mantle from its most obvious predecessor, Twin Peaks. And so it was with more than a little apprehension that I sat down to take in Scream Queens.
Gwen’s review highlights the many reasons there are to love Murphy’s latest television outing. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy every moment, mainly because it isn’t often that a show makes me laugh out loud. And ultimately that is the main problem with Scream Queens. By elevating humor above dread, the show is squandering its horror potential.
At first, it is easy to mistake the deliberate nod to horror fans as an example of the self-reflexivity found in films such as Scream (1996) or The Cabin in the Woods (2012). But a closer look at the initial episodes reveals that the show is not offering a meta-commentary of the genre but is instead a parody of the genre. In fact, the show contains a number of similarities to the Scary Movie franchise. For example, Scary Movie 1-4 has at its heart a wholesome white female who, along with her street-wise sassy, black sidekick, is driven to investigate the strange happenings in their town. It’s essentially the same relationship we see between Grace (Skyler Samuels) and Zayday (Keke Palmer) down to the questionable trope of the black (not white) woman espousing street lingo.[i] And then there is the death of Chanel #2 (Arianna Grande) as she frantically tries to tweet her imminent demise. It is a scene so absurd as to rival any Scary Movie death. The pastiche of horror certainly lends itself to send-up, but in the case of Scream Queens there is no broader point to these tropes other than humor.
Without a doubt, the show’s kill scenes are memorable for both their ingenuity and their visual aesthetic. From the head of Deaf Taylor Swift (Whitney Meyer) getting run over by a riding lawn mower to Ms. Bean’s, aka White Mammy’s (Jan Hoag), face being melted off via chicken grease, death on Scream Queens is both brutal and hysterical. And while it is possible to craft horror scenes that operate as both humor and horror, Scream Queens deliberately errs on the side of funny. Every death is couched between moments of sarcasm and humor and the end result is a distinct lack of dread. We laugh at these deaths but we are in no way repulsed by them.
From its exaggerated horror tropes designed to illicit laughter to over-the-top background music, Scream Queens is less horror homage and more horror mockery. Ultimately though, it is the show’s failure to inspire the emotional response evoked by horror that places the show squarely in the category of comedy. At the risk of stating the obvious, horror fans are drawn to the genre because we enjoy experiencing fear. Much has been made of the studies that equate the physiological experience of watching horror with the physiological experience of sex.[ii] But I think it bears exploring, especially in light of Scream Queens.
These studies argue that while watching horror, viewers experience a buildup of emotional/physical stimuli (for example a sense of tension that results from ominous, foreshadowing music) that results in a feeling of release (for instance shrieking as the murderer strikes). It is this very physiological response that is absent from Scream Queens. The jokes never stop long enough for viewers to experience any real state of dread. Even scenes that have the potential to be scary are rendered impotent by sight gags for the admittedly bangin’ soundtrack. I mean was anyone truly afraid of Chad (Glen Powell) and company’s bat wielding showdown with The Red Devil set to the strains of The Backstreet Boys?
Without a doubt, Scream Queens is one of the most ridiculously enjoyable shows that I’ve watched in a long time. With a comically gifted cast and a true sense of the absurd, this is a show whose dialogue I’ve already started repeating with friends. It’s sly, campy and a whole lot of fun but, ultimately, it isn’t horror.
[i] I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention something that has been bothering me since the premiere. The trope of the sassy black sidekick is one that is utilized well on Scream Queens and actually makes sense given that the show is clearly playing with horror tropes. And yet, taken as a whole with Murphy’s other works which also feature such characterizations, is deeply problematic. For more on this topic I suggest reading Sonia Saraiya’s article on hipster racism: http://www.salon.com/2015/09/23/muppet_fedoras_and_hipster_racism_on_scream_queens_what_last_nights_premieres_say_about_the_perils_of_pushing_the_envelope/ and Greg Braxton’s piece for the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-scream-queens-jokes-slavery-white-mammy-offend-20150922-story.html
[ii] Works of interest include:
Oliver, Mary Beth. “Contributions of Sexual Portrayals to Viewers’ Responses to Graphic Horror.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 38.1 (1994): 1.
Gaut, Berys. “The Enjoyment Theory of Horror: A Response to Carroll.” British Journal of Aesthetics 35.3 (1995): 284.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.