Posted on May 6, 2015

The Generational Horror of Scream

Elizabeth Erwin

While the films within the franchise have been hit or miss, there is no denying that the original Scream film injected the horror genre with a much needed shot of self-awareness. From Drew Barrymore unexpectedly getting killed within the film’s opening moments to the script’s self-referential humor, Scream is the film that used the conventions of the slasher horror film against itself to create a new breed of terror.

Like most slasher films, the premise is simple. Sydney Prescott, a girl who is still reeling from her mother’s death one year prior, is being stalked by the same unknown killer who claimed the life of her mother. What follows is a fascinating blend of meta horror in which classic slasher tropes are openly mocked even as they are deployed successfully[i]

Gail, Randy and Syd survey the damage

Gail, Randy and Syd survey the damage

As the essential Final Girl[ii] of the franchise, Syd initially displays all the characteristics inherent to the trope. She has a gender neutral name, is relatively free from vice, has a shared history with the killer and is demonstrably intelligent and cunning. And yet, unlike other Final Girls who dispatch the threat alone, Syd is not saved by her individual ability to slay the killers but by a communal effort. Given the social and political context of the time, I don’t think this decision is accidental. From school shootings to the murder sprees inspired by Natural Born Killers, pundits were constantly asking what prompted this breakdown in society. Often, the answer would be a decreased lack of community. It takes Syd (representing free agency & responsibility), Randy (the voice of the horror tropes the film is dissecting and reflecting), Gail (representing the media) and Dewey, specifically his gun (representing the law) to take down the killers. The Scream franchise is unique because it is the Final Girl the audience follows through subsequent films and not the killer(s). This close identification with Syd makes us part of her inner circle and so when she is betrayed by someone she, and we by extension, has trusted, the impact is greater.  It is this disruption of the expected Final Girl trope that truly marks the film as generational horror.

Also, unlike previous films where the initial murder takes place in the “archaic past,” Scream’s first visible murder takes place entirely in the present. This disruption to our expectation of the horror is more jarring because we can’t look at this as something that happened in the past and is consequently removed from our individual responsibility. Casey’s murder happens on our generation’s watch. We are unable to blame the previous generation for setting the killing spree in motion which makes the disruption even more poignant and ultimately more frightening. The situating of the murders in real time is reinforced by repeated jump cuts back to the idyllic town setting in between murders. This is a departure from previous film in which the location becomes and stays ominous once the killings start. For example, Maniac (1980), Prom Night (1980), Sleepaway Camp (1983), The House on Sorority Row (1983) and others all showed a setting entrenched in fear and decay once the killings started. This intersection between the abject horror of the killings and the seemingly picturesque and safe town of Woodbury underscores Scream’s message that you’re never truly safe. It breeds and feeds a paranoia that was very much in the cultural zeitgeist when the film came out.


Randy waxes poetic about the rules of horror in front of a TV depicting a brutal murder

The depiction of media within the Scream narrative is interesting largely because it both creates and reflects the very real concern of the time that children were in danger of turning psychopathic due to the increase of violent media products being marketed to them. At the time Scream came out, a flurry of op-ed pieces were appearing regularly questioning the darker and more explicit aspects of teen popular culture. From films such as Natural Born Killers being decried as a how to manual to go on a killing spree, to parent groups trying to get explicit lyrics tags on controversial music, the debate over the connection between media and violence was raging. Scream takes this debate and gives it a voice in killer Billy:

Sidney Prescott: You sick fucks. You’ve seen one too many movies!

Billy: Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!

Interestingly, on some level, Stu, Billy’s co-killer, is aware of the repercussions of his actions as evidenced by his sobbing about how angry his parents are going to be when they find out. And yet, this scene also shows a disconnect in that he seems to think their reaction to mass murder would be similar to his putting a dent in the car.

School buses from Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (left) and Scream (right)

School buses from Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (left) and Scream (right)

The film also takes note of the often volatile nature of the debate over media violence and young people. One of the more subtle, yet effective horror film homage scenes was the image of the lone bus which was framed out the same way it was in Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Not only did the image serve to situate the film’s move to a new location, the school, but, for the 1990s teen audience, it also gives the move an ominous undertone. At the time, school shootings were happening all over the country. Even more problematic was the media saturation. In addition to the somewhat new experience of the 24 hour news cycle, there was countless analysis speaking to what clues were missed in the behavior of the killers. The end result was two-fold. First, there was a subconscious fear of our classmates, especially those who were outside the mainstream (trench coats, goth hair). Second, for those students outside of the mainstream, their actions suddenly became more suspect which marginalized even further teens who already may not have felt as if they fit in.

Teens engage at a party pre-cell phones

Teens engage at a party pre-cell phones

While the generation that came of age during the time of Scream’s initial release is often called the Media Generation, I believe that to be a misnomer. Computers and cell phones weren’t truly mainstreamed until the end of the decade which meant that the audience going to see Scream experienced a higher degree of personal interaction not mediated by technology. Subsequent generations have become more interpersonally isolated while more globally connected via their pronounced use of technology. For people already susceptible to a blurred reality, this isolation and exposure to a barrage of violent images could provide an almost perfect storm. The violence Scream was commenting on was shocking because it was so new, at least in terms of visibility via the media. Yet, today when even our “family viewing hour” shows routinely consist of images of grotesque murder (Criminal Minds, Law & Order) you have to wonder if today’s audience watching the original Scream will read its comment on media violence in the same way.

[i] Thornley, Davinia. “The ‘Scream’ Reflex: Meta Horror and Popular Culture.” Metro 2006: 140. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 1 May 2015.

[ii] Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.

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