Noël Carroll’s theory of art-horror has always seemed a particularly compelling one to me—that the genre is defined by a monster characterized by impurity, by the yoking together of contradictory categories (the living dead, for example), thus evoking fear and revulsion in the viewer.[i] His theory notoriously has difficulty, though, accounting for the very human “monsters” of some horror films.[ii] What do we make of Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) in Wes Craven’s groundbreaking 1996 film, Scream? Billy is human, isn’t he? In fact he’s the very normal boyfriend of the heroine, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), seemingly no different from any other high-school student.
But is Billy Loomis actually “human”? I would suggest that he isn’t—that he is in fact a “monster,” a posthuman hybrid, and that, through him, the film is saying something profound about the changing nature of reality in the 1990s. One of the most telling moments in the film is a remark by the (older) sheriff to Billy, after they’ve taken him into custody on suspicion of terrorizing Sidney and killing Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) and her boyfriend. “What are you doing with a cellular phone, son?” he asks, as if it’s unusual to have a “cellular phone.” This reference to the strangeness of Billy’s carrying a cell phone is itself a deeply estranging moment for viewers watching the film almost thirty years later, when cell phones have saturated the American market. (In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that 97% of those in the 18-24 age range owned a cell phone; indeed, their report notes that the cell phone is the “most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world”).[iii]
In the same scene, Dewey (David Arquette) asks the sheriff if he thinks Billy did, in fact, kill Casey Becker and Steve Orth, and he replies, “Twenty years ago, I would have said no. These kids today . . . I’ll be damned if I know.” The sheriff’s disillusionment with the younger generation is echoed by Principal Himbry (Henry Winkler), who calls two teens into his office to yell at them after they’ve been running around in Ghostface costumes: “You make me so sick,” he screams. “Your entire thieving, whoring generation disgusts me.” “Heartless, desensitized little shits,” he screams. So is Scream about a younger generation “desensitized” to “real” violence by the pervasiveness of media violence, and by the more generalized ubiquity of technology? In a way, yes. I think what Scream shows us is that the post-1990s generation—the media generation—lives in a world in which “reality” has profoundly changed, in which the boundaries between what happens in real life and what happens in the mediated world are increasingly blurred. The horror film has always been about crossing boundaries of various kinds (as Noël Carroll makes clear with his definition of the monster as embodying categorical impurity). In Scream, the boundary we see dissolving is the one that is supposed to separate reality and representation, the “real real” and the “mediated real”—the “mediated real” being made up of all the technologies that are omnipresent in Scream (TVs, cameras, films, phones).
Billy Loomis says very little that doesn’t involve a reference to a film. Early in the film, he climbs into Sidney’s bedroom and tells her: “I was watching TV. The Exorcist was on. Got me thinking of you. . . . It was edited for TV. You know. All the good stuff was cut out. It got me thinking of us. Our relationship got going . . .solid R rating—on the way to an NC-17. And now things have changed—and lately we’re just sort of edited for TV.” Later, Billy tells Sidney that she’s “like Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs—when she keeps having flashbacks of her dead father.” And when Sidney protests that “this is life. This isn’t a movie,” Billy replies, “Sure it is, Sid. It’s all a movie. It’s all one great big movie. You can’t pick your genre.” Billy embodies, I argue, the fear that the line between “reality” and “representation” has so thoroughly dissolved that not only can we not tell the difference, but that there may not be a difference. The mediated real has become real. In considering Billy as “monster,” it’s important to note that he is doubly motivated in his brutal killing spree. On the one hand, he has a very familiar (and “real,” human) motive: his father was having an affair with Maureen Prescott (Sidney’s mother), and when his mother found out, she left his father and “abandoned him.” But layered on top of this human motive is the new motive Scream brings to horror: the disappearing boundary between the “real real” and the “mediated real.” Just count the number of references to horror films Billy makes in the culminating scene of the film, as he and Stu confront Sidney: “We all go a little mad sometimes”; “Corn syrup—same stuff they used for pig’s blood in Carrie”; “I don’t really believe in motives, Sid. I mean, did Norman Bates have a motive. . . . Did they ever really decide why Hannibal Lecter liked to eat people? I don’t think so. See, it’s a lot scarier when there’s no motive, Sid”; “Don’t blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative.”
What we see in this final scene, in short, is the culmination of Billy as a posthuman hybrid, part human (driven by human motives) and part “machine” constituted by assemblages of media references/images. Billy is indeed a “monster,” and his “impurity” comes, as Carroll says it does, from transgressing the boundaries of things that should remain separate—in this case, reality and representation.
For better or for worse, since the 1990s, our reality has been slipping into (and out of) the world as represented by the media. Much of our knowledge of the world is gained through the media’s representation of the world. Our world is the TV, the computer, the tablet, the phone. Reality has irretrievably changed. The human has changed. Horror represents this change, marking it as a source of anxiety, in its monster who inhabits the border between media and reality, who can’t tell the difference, and who, more frighteningly, suggests that there no longer is much of a difference.
The “final girls” of Scream (to use Carol Clover’s term) are the ones who in some way recognize this fact and decide to control this new mediated reality.[iv] As Sidney shoots Billy, refusing the fate he had determined for her, she says, “Not in my movie.” And Gale (Courtney Cox), behind a camera at the very end of the film, tells us what happened, translates the “real” into her edited-for-TV version. The final girl must now struggle not only to survive but to enforce her version of the “real” against the film’s decidedly posthuman monster.
[i] Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990).
[ii] See, for instance, Matt Hills, “An Event-Based Definition of Art-Horror,” in Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, ed. Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw (Scarecrow Press, 2003).
[iii] “Cell Phone Ownerships Hits 91% of adults,” http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/06/cell-phone-ownership-hits-91-of-adults/.
[iv] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press, 1993).