By Kole Phelps
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” is a question that can mean two things to a horror fan. For some, it’s just a straightforward question, but for others, it brings to mind the image of Drew Barrymore dissolving into terror as a masked killer on the phone asks her the same question. Scream (1996) is remembered today for its iconic kills and the twist that happens in the opening scene. However, Scream can also be remembered as presenting us with a new way of thinking about horror. Analyzing Scream can show us how postmodernism can blend with horror to create a terrifyingly accurate depiction of pop culture and society.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states “that postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” (Aylesworth). Postmodernist themes run throughout all sorts of different mediums. They often involve self-aware, post-industrial, and post-soviet messages and ideas. While what really counts as postmodern is debated amongst philosophers today, in art–– especially cinema––it can be said that, “Postmodernism brought with it darker kinds of films that viewed the world with a hint of detached irony. Postmodern movies aim to subvert highly-regarded expectations, which can be in the form of blending genres or messing with the narrative nature of a film.” (Bedard). Postmodern cinema found some major popularity in the 1990’s, with films such as Pulp Fiction (1994); around this same time, postmodernism was working its way into the genre of horror.
The 1990’s were a strange time for culture. With the Reagan era coming to a close, the United States was ready for a cultural shift that would shape the next millennium. The historical events of the 20th century were some of the most important in all of world history. The world had seen itself at war with each other twice, and communism had risen in the east, offering a new way of shaping society. Man landed on the moon, showing the world that our voyage of discovery was far from over, just as we were beginning a journey into the final frontier. Technology began advancing faster than it ever had before, and new societies were being forged from the ashes of the old world. The world seemed to be investing itself in the future. In opposition with the rise of anti-capitalist governments, the west started to double down on its capitalist nature, bringing a world of hyper-capitalist sentiments to the 1980’s. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, it seemed that the world had decided capitalism was the winner. Some deemed this the end of history, especially with fears of a Y2K event. However, with the decision to hold capitalism as the world economic system, many parts of the system revealed themselves to have major flaws. This opened the door for a new era of post- modernism, which then opened the door for films like Scream to find its audience.
Scream is one of the most influential films in the horror genre, and its director, Wes Craven, is arguably one of the most influential people within the genre. In order to fully understand Scream, it’s important to understand some of its director’s background. Wes Craven was an American Director who became known in the underground world of horror for his first film The Last House on the Left (1972). However, his breakthrough into mainstream horror, as well as pop culture, was A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); the success of this movie allowed Wes Craven to create a character that became instilled in the minds of young Americans as its own mythos, similar to the likes of Dracula or Frankenstein. Unfortunately, Craven became disillusioned with the franchise, and would “openly discuss the fact his own creation was stuffed into a glossy corporate box until it suffocated.” (Mancuso)
After Craven took a break from A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, he returned to the series with one of the strangest slasher films of the genre. This film being Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. C raven threw the genre for a loop with this film, bringing familiar faces and monsters, but with a very meta twist. The plot revolves around a demon that has presumed the form of fictional monster, Freddy Kruger, in order to terrorize the cast and crew of the famous film A Nightmare on Elm Street. This means that the actors from the original film play themselves as characters in a fictional film about their own lives. This created a refreshing twist to the series, despite some of its critical reception, as well as a new form of meta-horror that blurs the lines between fiction and reality. “New Nightmare is essentially the filmmaker’s dissection of his own work, putting the horror genre under a microscope and questioning the effects its blood, guts, and gore have on the world” (Mancuso). While Craven explored meta-horror in New Nightmare, his next film would push these extremes even further, resulting in a full self-aware slasher experience known as Scream.
When Scream hit theaters, it was met with much success; “The $14 million film opened on 1,413 screens on December 20, 1996, making nearly $6 million in its opening weekend. As word of mouth and critical praise spread, the film wound up being the highest grossing slasher film of all time, earning over $170 million worldwide” (Alexander). This was very successful for a horror film at this time, as the genre had faded into the background of the new groundbreaking directors of the early 1990’s. What is strange about this is that Scream is a horror film that was unlike any other. The plot revolves around a group of high school students faced against a masked killer, who is hellbent on slashing their way through an entire high school class; what’s odd is that the characters are self-aware of the fiction-like nature of their situation. These characters have seen horror films, including ones that Wes Craven himself directed. In fact, when the killer known as “ghost face” is trying to scare their victim before killing them, they ask their victims horror trivia. “The dialogue also acknowledges the countless slasher films to have come before Scream. When Sidney calls attention to the slasher clichés, it might appear that Craven is mocking the genre, until Sidney is attacked by Ghostface a few moments later and she comically runs up the stairs to find safety in her bedroom” (Alexander). These characters are well aware of the cliches of horror films, and this gives them some insight into stopping the murders. “The self-reflexivity of Scream (1996) highlights the media saturated world of these teenagers, with one character accusing Sidney of sounding ‘like some Wes Carpenter flick’, in a deliberate blending of Wes Craven and John Carpenter” (McCormack).
Craven doesn’t just take shots at himself and the horror cliches, but also offers critiques of things such as commodities, art and pop culture. While Craven created a one of a kind look for his most famous slasher, Freddy Kruger, in Scream, Craven chose a generic, store-bought halloween costume with a rather minimalist mask to be dawned by his new killer. “The Ghostface mask has become a mass-produced commodity, as it is sold in toy stores all around the country and worn by children and teenagers on Halloween. We find Craven breaking down the cultural divide between high and low art as he reimagines Munch’s avant-garde expressionist painting in a mainstream slasher film” (Alexander). This divide between the reproduction of higher art into that of mass produced, commodified lower art is a great commentary on capitalist societies, similar to the critiques presented by the Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School. “To further demonstrate its postmodern sensibility, Scream contains allusions to other works of visual culture. For example, the white mask Ghostface wears pays homage to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” an expressionist horror painting from 1893” (Alexander). Here, we can see that Craven has chosen to adorn his killer in a mass reproduced copy of what once was a beautiful work of art. This plays perfectly into what he is critiquing in the horror industry: the mass reproduction of unoriginal terror.
Craven once again expands his scope of critique to that of the media and of fandom culture. Though by now it’s obvious that Craven was making a film that is highly self-aware of its genre, he was also aware of the audience that his film would have. The film is like a horror lover’s dream, filled with references galore. But Craven takes this a step further by connecting us with characters who themselves are fans of the horror genre. With the commodification of his most popular film, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven was already far too aware of how fandoms can become toxic, to the point of missing the entire message of a film. “Rather than representing fandom in a favorable light, however, Craven shows how it can be taken to the extreme, and the ways an obsessive love of cinema can lead to hyper-reality” (Alexander). Craven also comments on the nature of the American mainstream news media; In Scream, the media is always present and even plays a large role in the film; however rather than helping the characters, the media finds a way to add to the trouble and make the situations all the more tense. “The prominence of the media elite throughout Scream finds Craven capturing the milieu of 1990s news sensationalism after the intense coverage of the OJ Simpson trial from 1994 to 1995” (Alexander).
As a consequence of all this nuance that Scream has to offer, it can become easy to forget the main function of the film, and that is to be a horror film. It serves quite well as a horror film, filled with tense action scenes and a plethora of blood and guts; yet it never loses its uniqueness. We are able to view terror from an up-close view because of how well the world of the film translates to our own. “In Scream, although we are able to separate the characters’ world from our own, the lines between the two are blurred. They like the same movies as us, they dress like us, eat and drink like us, and are subject to the same advertising as us” (O’Callaghan). Scream offers the viewer a world so familiar that it becomes very easy to immerse yourself in it. This allows for all the nuance to shine through, as we can view the postmodern aspects more clearly when we are not distracted by over complicated world building. “And that’s what makes Scream such an ironic dose of satire. Craven mocks the rulebook while simultaneously following its every word, as if fulfilling some morbid curiosity of just how far clichés can be bent. Characters relate situations to scary movies they’ve seen, yet they don’t do much better when it comes to acknowledging their own bad decisions” (Castro).
Wes Craven’s Scream is not the first film to find its brilliance in postmodern or metahorror, and it will certainly not be the last; but rest assured, Scream set the bar and pushed boundaries for not only the horror genre, but for cinema as a whole as well. Its use of self-awareness and satire of popular culture makes it one of the most interesting and pivotal slasher films of all time. This is why Scream stands in the history of horror as one of the most influential and unconventional horror films of all time.
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