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  • Elizabeth Phillips

How Scream Changed the Narrative of Horror

As mayhem and gore quickly flood the streets of Woodsboro, the audience is reminded that there is a standard of conduct each character can follow in order to survive. “There are certain rules one must abide by in order to survive a horror movie…you stretch the rules and you end up dead” (Craven). In a singular line, the film demonstrates an understanding of classic film tropes amongst the characters and the audience. These tropes are then utilized and challenged throughout the entirety of the movie. Wes Craven’s 1996 hit, Scream, is unique because the characters are aware of the horror genre, and what they should or shouldn’t do within it. Scream obeys several of these tropes such as big breasted victims, sinful teenagers, slaughter-like murders, and sharp phallic objects utilized by the killer (Benchoff, 320). However it is through the purified Final Girl and “perverse playfulness” that we see Scream defy the laws of a typical slasher film.

Finding humor in disgusting and graphic images has always had a draw for filmmakers. To make something both horrifying and hilarious is a difficult balancing act, due to its sensitive nature. The film is essentially making some of the most gruesome human experiences, funny (Benchoff, 313). Craven uses this playfulness frequently throughout Scream. During the first meeting of ghost face and Sidney, she jokes about dumb characters running from their killer by going up the stairs rather than exiting through the front door (Craven). Moments later as she runs for her life, her immediate reaction is to run up the stairs, causing a humorous reaction out of the audience during a suspenseful scene.Philip Brophy describes this form of dark humor as, “‘mostly perverse and/or tasteless, so much so that often the humor might be horrific while the horror might be humorous’” (Benchoff, 313). It’s brutal to watch ghostface come up with new ways to hunt and slaughter these kids, however the humor is impossible not to appreciate. An example of this is when Scream has the self-proclaimed movie expert, Randy, find himself oblivious to the chaos around him. The audience is met with images of savage murders, whilst Randy is watching a horror movie, blissfully unaware that he’s in his own. It’s hard not to laugh while Randy yells at the screen insisting the character looks behind her, as ghostface stands directly behind him wielding a knife (Craven).

Final Girls are a reminder of the standards women are to uphold in our patriarchal society. If they no longer follow these rules, they are no longer worthy of survival. Final Girls are to be sexually repressed and avoid the same objectification their female peers receive (Benchoff, 321). They are not to indulge in alcohol or drugs, nor can they show too much emotional turmoil (321). Although Sidney, our final girl in Scream, fits that mold for the first bit of the movie, overall she doesn’t play into the “final girl stereotype”. The most prominent way Sidney bends the gender norms of what a final girl should be is by gaining a masculine interest in sex. To understand why this is taboo, one must look back at the rules laid out by Woodsboro’s local horror expert. As Randy so eloquently put it, “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex” (Craven). The Final Girl is supposed to be a virgin, she is to be pure and bear no sins (Benchoff, 318). Essentially, if you have sex within a horror movie you die. Yet, Sidney didn’t die. Not only did she have sex and live, but it was the murderer she slept with. Sidney redefined the Final Girl in a way no movie had. She turned the 1990’s Final Girl into a more empowering and resilient figure for women..


“The Final Girls of the late 1970s and 1980s weren’t useless by comparison, but rather it was clear they’d never seen a horror movie: They split from the group, followed the weird noise, and, as Laurie Strode did, stabbed the killer with a knitting needle and assumed they were dead. For these girls, survival was something of a miracle, but Sidney Prescott earned her survival…Yes, Sidney still made mistakes; in Scream, she runs upstairs, away from any exits, while a killer is in her house. But the difference is that her missteps don’t fly in the face of logic like her predecessors’ do. Sidney’s effectiveness as a character is heavily based upon the fact that she does make wrong calls just as anyone else would in a horrifying situation, and still manages to persevere and survive” (Burnette)


The disobeyed rules only get more intense as the film comes to a close. The movie manipulates you into thinking you outsmarted it and gaslights you into disbelieving your own instincts. When in reality, “the red herring [was] not actually a red herring” (Ryan). Billy was both the distraction and ghost face all along (Ryan). Not only that but it’s one of the first splatter movies to not only have two killers, but to also have them both killed (Ryan). This and other subversions to normal horror rules is what makes Scream stand out amongst other splatter movies of the 1970’s (Benchoff, 319). The use of manipulation on the audience and the rules creates its own horrifying effect on the viewer. No longer can that viewer watch a horror movie without second guessing themselves. The film even ties everything up and ensures there are no loose ends before the credits roll. This manipulation of the rules is what makes Scream so entertaining and relevant. It was the first movie of its kind, and no movie has been able to do it in the same manner since.



















Works Cited

Benshoff, Harry M. A Companion to The Horror Film. Wiley Blackwell, 2017.

Burnett, Kadin. “How Sidney Prescott Redefined the ‘Final Girl’ Trope.” Women's Media Center, WMC, 9 Feb. 2022, https://womensmediacenter.com/fbomb/how-sidney-prescott-redefined-the-final-girl-trope.

Clover, Sarah J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film .” JSTOR, 1987, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2928507.

Craven, Wes. Scream. Dimension Films, 1996.

Ryan, Taylor. “Film Analysis: Scream (1996).” Borrowing Tape, https://borrowingtape.com/the-cine-files/feature/film-analysis-scream-1996#:~:text=It%20is%20a%20masterfully%20crafted,suspenseful%20from%20beginning%20to%20end. .


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