I don’t remember how many horror movies I’d seen when Scream first came out in theaters, but I’d probably watched at least Kubrick’s The Shining and Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the first two horror movies I recall seeing – in the tiny t.v. room of my family’s old house on East Gore Road before settling down in the theater to see Wes Craven’s post-modern masterpiece. The original Scream came out in 1996, when I was twelve years old. I don’t remember the “build-up” to the film the way I remember the anticipation preceding, say, the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project (and my concomitant let-down when I was less than scared by the film), but I definitely remember the general reaction to the shockingly grotesque introduction that the film provides.
I write, today, about my childhood relationship with Scream for a few reasons. First, because after about nine months of writing nothing on my blog, I finally finished and published a piece last night, and it was so exciting that I just had to start another piece today. Second, because I love any type of horror writing that somehow combines itself with memoir; I am, indelibly, a self-centered person, and I revel in opportunities to talk about myself and my life (past or present), especially when those musings relate to the genre I’m passionate about and that I’ve chosen to specialize in. Lastly, because the new Scream is out in theaters, and although I’ve yet to see it, it seems only right and appropriate, if I’m going to sit down and write another blog piece, to celebrate (mostly) the first installment of the Scream series, the movie that captivated my imagination so many years ago, but also (possibly) to honor the entire universe that sprang from the film and has mesmerized fans for 25+ years.
But part of that “honoring” will take the form of inquiring, for, after all, how strange it seems that at the age of twelve I was so fascinated by a movie that was so gory, so grotesque, so objectionable in so many ways – and a movie that, specifically, dealt in a very real way with an intense, unmitigated level of mutilation directed at the body, and especially the female body. Anyone who’s seen Scream, after all, recalls its rather unnerving beginning. I am writing about the film’s beginning, in fact, in the introduction to the first chapter of my dissertation, in part because it’s the cinematic horror introduction of my childhood that I recall most, and that, perhaps, had the most immediate consequences for me in terms of my general interests and how I chose to spend my time shortly after viewing it, a point worth explaining later in this piece. But first, let’s dive into a little background about the film, with a focus on the film’s canonical introduction.
The opening scene of Scream foregrounds Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) who’s spending a quiet night at home, about to watch a horror movie. The “meta” component of a film that’s unabashedly self-referential and “meta” throughout, of course, is that we’re sitting down with her, about to be spectators of a horror movie. And because it’s a film that demonstrates, early on, that it knows and understands its origins (a fact that is emphasized later in the film, when one of the quirky high school students, Randy, presents his “rules for surviving a horror movie”), Casey dies early in the film, much like (but even earlier than) Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who shocked audiences in 1960 when she died 45 minutes into the film Psycho. Of course, before Casey dies, there’s a lot of to-do about her death: a sadistic phone-stalker in a gravelly voice who wants to play a trivia “game” about horror movies with her, the vicious slashing-open of her boyfriend Steve’s stomach which reveals a gruesome chunk of large intestine spilling out of his body, and finally, Casey’s uncomfortably intimate, painful death, a death in which she’s stabbed once above the heart, once through the throat, and then multiple times elsewhere while trying to communicate with her mom on the phone before she’s hung ominously from the tree outside her house, her organs quickly but visibly showcased for the audience to see.
My father is a horror film connoisseur, and I remember him commenting on the intense, gruesome nature of the introduction after we saw Scream in the theaters. As for myself and my childhood best friend, well, I think we were both fascinated. There was some way the film combined quirk, wit, levity, death, and brutality that absolutely mesmerized me. To me, that seems like the easy answer: the easy answer to the question, “Why was I so titillated by this disturbing film?” In The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart, philosopher Noel Carroll asks why we’re so drawn to the horror genre when, first, we know that the horror on the screen isn’t real, and, second, we tend to find the spectacle in front of us so grotesque, so objectionable, so, well…horrific. My dissertation, and, to a smaller extent, this blog post, explores a similar question: Horror isn’t as self-evidently appealing (especially in an aesthetic sense) as other genres; quite the opposite, it’s grotesque, frightening, and uncomfortable, so then, well, why are we drawn to it? I ask this question when I think of my childhood reaction to the movie Scream, a reaction that included not just multiple viewings and re-viewings of the film, but enough enthusiasm to fuel days of writing uncomfortable stories, with my best friend, that explored the violent kidnapping and murder of young females – stories that I wrote at the age of twelve, about the vicious killings of girls who were hardly older than myself. Given that, I think there’s more of an explanation to Scream’s appeal than just the fact that unlikely cinematic elements combine to form a unique post-modern piece. Why was I so drawn to the film that I was writing my own violent fan-fiction about it at the age of twelve on hot summer days when I could have been doing anything else?
When I try to answer this question, one theory I think about is Kendall Phillip’s theory of “resonant violation,” which he espouses in his book Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Phillips chooses nine films that were significantly popular, influential, and lasting in the horror genre, starting with Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula and ending with M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film The Sixth Sense. Each film, he contends, contains elements of “resonance” and elements of “violation.” Specifically, the films he chooses resonate with the audience and with culture in a given historical moment, because they encapsulate or represent anxieties that are unique to the time period in which they are produced. At the same time, they are shocking enough to “violate” our expectations and our sense of normalcy, creating a sort of paradoxical feeling within us: Ahhh yes, I get it, I’ve felt or seen something like this before but…holy shit…nothing quite like this. (That last bit is my interpretation of his theory, mind you). He expands his theory of resonant violation to explain why the films he chooses to study were so popular in their historical moments, and I plan to do the same not only with the popularity of Scream in general, but in relation to my childhood fascination with the film. And so I ask, how did Scream resonate with my anxieties and violate my expectations when I watched it, and might not this resonant violation explain the fascination I developed with the murdering maniac preying on and mutilating the female body?
Before I go on, it’s important to note that Phillips himself chooses Scream as one of the nine films to write about when analyzing how “resonant violation” works in the film to make it so lasting. I’ve started reading his analysis of the movie, and he seems to focus mostly on the movie’s post-modern features: it violated expectations by being so self-referential but resonated largely with our general post-modern sensibilities and the assiduous erasure of the spotty boundary line between reality and fantasy, or reality and spectacle. It’s a fascinating argument and one worth reading in full, but I found myself too eager to finish this piece to finish Phillips’ chapter on Scream before writing more, and anyway, I’m lifting his theory and applying it not just to Scream, but to my own relationship with the film, and to what I retrospectively view as a sort of bizarre fascination with the mutilated female body – a level of intrigue that sparked my first foray into quasi-fan fiction.
When Scream came out in December of 1996, I was 12-years-old and was a moderately enthusiastic, unassuming student at J. S. Wilson middle school in Millcreek Township, Erie Pennsylvania. I do not recall being unhappy in seventh grade, and I suppose not much that exists outside of the normal pre-teen experience happened to me during that year. I hadn’t had a boyfriend yet (that came in eighth grade) but I started to become interested in boys. I also started to become more aware of my surroundings; I no longer just read magazines like “Tiger Beat,” and “Teen Beat,” – magazines I’d read in 5th grade that were full of pictures of handsome young movie stars – but magazines like YM and Seventeen—magazines that, both through their advertisements, their photo-shoots, and their columns’ content, focused far more on female beauty and the ideal female body. I was probably in fifth grade when I realized, after looking at a picture of myself on the class trip to Pittsburgh, that I was a bit shorter and stockier than my two best friends at the time, and while body image issues didn’t permeate my life at this point, I know I was overly self-critical, one of many recipients of the cultural pressure that faced (and still faces) most pre-teen girls in America to look and dress a certain way.
While at this time, I didn’t consciously register how emotionally violent that pressure could be toward women, a realization of its effects would come in high school, when I struggled more with body image and eating disorders. In a classic psychological/sociological text called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Mary Pipher analyzes how often insidious cultural forces that focus on the female exterior at the expense of the interior erode the self-hood of young girls growing up in American society. Ever since I’ve read her book it’s resonated with me, and it points toward the violence that our media-saturated culture does – perhaps to a lot of people, but certainly to young women. If I had, by the age of twelve, already been consistently confronted with images and messages that had the power to (and perhaps were) slowly effacing my self-hood, then is it very surprising that the image of a movie character who was supposed to be but a few years older than me hanging from a tree, her inside vitals (an apt if grotesque metaphor for the inner self), slashed relentlessly and on display, vulnerable and open for everyone to see and exploit, mesmerized me so? According to Phillips’ theory, it’s not surprising at all. The metaphorical message resonated with me in a way that made the film more meaningful to me.
Certainly my childhood fascination with the mutilated female body is not surprising in the context of the physical violence toward women that was and continues to be aired on the news on a nightly basis; Phillips even mentions, in his chapter on Scream, the infamous O.J. Simpson trial of 1994 that turned into a media circus, and as for myself, I remember watching the police chase the white Bronco down a California highway after swimming in my aunt’s pool and watching the news in her bedroom one night when my family spent the night at her house because her family was in Las Vegas. I was ten the night I watched the Bronco being chased by the cops, and while the O.J. Simpson trial had far more complex implications than just a reminder that violence toward women is a near-ubiquitous Americana phenomenon, certainly it, and related stories, had made me, by this age, keenly aware that my body might be in literal peril, as a young woman. It becomes, then, easy to see how Scream –and especially its introduction and the notion of the mutilation of the young female body—achieved “resonance” with me, or resonated with often latent anxieties that I carried at that point in my life, on a metaphoric and a literal level. As I felt, on a sub-conscious level, at least some level of violence done toward my body and my self-hood by cultural expectations, I became aware, at the same time, of the physical violence that so many women face daily in American culture.
The “violation” element of the film – the second necessary component to achieve Phillips’ notion of “resonant violation”—is probably easier to pinpoint, still, and requires less reading between the lines. At its most basic level, the film violated my expectations for a horror film. As I insinuated earlier, I don’t remember exactly how much horror I’d seen before I’d watched Scream, but certainly none of it was as gruesome and focused on bodily mutilation as this film was. It probably also violated my expectations because it was so relatable; if I had been watching movies like The Shining and Dracula for such a long time, perhaps it violated my expectations of horror to see my own vulnerable surrogates getting mercilessly slashed on screen – a violation that I must have reveled in, for when I wrote fan fiction that summer, the characters in my stories became akin to my literary avatars, and I seemed to delight in killing my own avatar when I wrote. Perhaps the violation also came from my relatively sheltered existence; on the one hand, my parents did not shelter me from violent cinema, and I was indeed aware that society could be dangerous to the female body, as explored earlier, in more ways than one. Conversely, I grew up in suburbia, I walked around the neighborhood at night, I didn’t move through life with a direct, immediate fear of violence, and on a conscious, literal level, I think I felt relatively safe, most of the time. In this context, Phillips’ theory of “resonant violation” makes sense to me and applies well to my own experience: the mutilated female body (in Scream, and in the fiction I wrote that summer) resonated with me because of the violence that American culture often does to the female self in adolescence, and because I was aware that physical violence toward women was a very real problem, in our culture and others. At the same time, I had never seen anything quite like Scream, and the level of bloodshed it featured violated my own expectations of the horror movie, and my life experience up to that point. It is this “resonant violation” that, for me, answers Carroll’s perplexing paradox, or explains why I was so drawn to something that was so horrific, that wasn’t appealing at all in a self-evident way.
Life gets funny when we get older, and I admit that despite the memories I have tied to this one very specific movie – and, to a lesser extent, the universe that surrounds it and spawned from its sequels and the discourse around the film – on a typical day, I forget that the new Scream is out in theaters now. As I study different elements of horror in more depth to (hopefully, eventually) finish this dissertation and this PhD in Literature & Criticism, the unexpected side-effect is that I become more detached from the media-world surrounding me, and my knowledge of what horror is coming out and how different horror films are received has waned lately. (I don’t think “specialization,” so called, is supposed to work this way, but right now that’s how it’s affecting me). Nevertheless, I plan to see it soon, and I plan to watch it in the context of what I’ve written about today, and what Phillips has written about the movie. I will, furthermore, continue to ask the question: Why do horror movies attract so many fans? Why does “slasher cinema” thrill us so? Indeed, I remain convinced that what scares us the most, what we find most objectionable and titillating at once, may tell us the most about ourselves—in both an individual, and a collective sense of the word.