It’s (Not) Just Film Studies: On Returning to “Scream”
By Kartik NairJune 1, 2023
“What’s your favorite scary movie?”
“Not that one.”
— “Reggie” and Laura’s phone conversation, opening scene, Scream VI (2023)
OUR FAVORITE MOVIES cannot be adduced from our histories. Favorites forge those histories: they give early identity to inchoate selves, cinematic encounters as constitutive as any event in our personal, familial, and social formation. The first time I first watched Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), I was a teenage boy, and it was a hot summer in Delhi. I still remember: borrowing the video compact disc from the neighborhood video shop, hearing the whirling noise of the desert cooler as I came home, placing the video compact disc on the tray, and watching the film’s opening sequence on my desktop computer. Teenager Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) is home alone in a large house. Casey is making popcorn as she gets ready to watch a video—“just some scary movie”—when she receives an anonymous phone call. “What’s your favorite scary movie?” is the first in a salvo of questions, climaxing with “What door am I at?”
One scare followed another as I watched Casey check locks, turn corners, and run and hide. All for nothing: Her body eventually slumps against the looming black shape of a killer in a Ghostface mask. He slits Casey’s throat and hangs her up from a tree in the lawn for her parents to discover. The opening makes Casey’s lonely death out in the middle of nowhere terrifying to behold, but I also remember the thrill I felt as I eavesdropped on her conversation with the killer. They talk about which Nightmare on Elm Street is the best, or who the killer really is in Friday the 13th (1980). It was not a conversation I understood much of.
Scream is a movie about movies I had never seen. We see savvy high schoolers hang out at the video store, or analyzing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) as they watch it at a house party. A fervent fanboy, Randy, instructs his friends on the “rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie.” Actor Jamie Kennedy plays the character with charming insouciance; his Randy is the nerd who survives. To me, the shock was as intellectual as it was visceral. Alongside its suddenly opening doors, bursts of strident sound, and a knife that could stab into view from anywhere, Scream had administered a different kind of jump scare. It brought not just a killer but a way of life into view: a life in which films could be studied.
Yet, Scream did not tell me about anything called “film studies”—at least not right away. Instead, the film champions a celebration of pop-culture authority outside the university. The fanboy’s objects of expertise, mode of delivery, and “insider” audience are positioned as a rebellious, resentful resistance to the oppressive posture of the intellectual. Scream was written by Kevin Williamson, who used his exhaustive familiarity with the horror films of the 1980s to write a new one. Williamson might have been aware of film studies as a discipline (he had transitioned to screenwriting while studying at UCLA) but Scream is notably silent on its existence. This ostensibly democratic politics was noted by the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote that the film “is self-deconstructing”; he explains that deconstruction “is an academic word. It means saying what everybody knows about the movies in words nobody can understand.” Ebert was being derisive, but he had delivered an item of importance to me: the “academic word.” Reading and rereading his review over a dial-up connection, I slowly understood that the study of films was not only for fanboys in the movies—maybe it was already happening.
Film studies happened to me in a tiny alcove off to the side of the library of my college in Delhi. I knew Scream was a “slasher film,” and it was here, using the library’s JSTOR subscription, that I downloaded Carol Clover’s book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992). The slasher film, in Clover’s indelible words, is the “immensely generative story of a psycho-killer who slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived.” Clover’s academic monograph predated Williamson’s screenplay for Scream by a few years, and I immediately heard its unacknowledged influence audible in the film, in the enumeration of “rules” by its fanboy.
So began my decades-long relationship with film studies via Scream, in which a knife-wielding killer in black robes and a white mask terrorizes the small fictional town of Woodsboro, California, until Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) uses a gun to end the cycle of violence. The formula repeats in every subsequent film—Scream 2 (1997), Scream 3 (2000), Scream 4 (2011), and the fifth Scream (2022), which shares the first’s simple title. The self-referential discourse has also shifted with each film to incorporate discussions of horror film sequels, trilogies, reboots, requels, and franchises. In the decades since, I have found my life intersecting with successive releases in the franchise, most recently with the release of Scream VI earlier this year.
Scream VI begins, like Scream, with a close-up of a ringing telephone, proven a misdirection when a hostess leaves it off the hook. The killer’s first call is to a woman seated at a bar in a crowded city restaurant, not to a girl alone in her suburban house. Laura Crane (Samara Weaving) is here for a date, but the man she matched with on Flirtr calls her cell to say he is lost and running late. “I’m so, so sorry,” he apologizes over the phone. “This is not the first impression I wanted to make on a college professor.” Instantly, Laura shrinks in her seat and blows a raspberry as she minimizes: “Oh, associate professor, and it’s just film studies.” (The location of the restaurant on Hudson Street in downtown Manhattan initially suggested to me that Laura works at New York University, possibly in its cinema studies department. It is later revealed that she worked at the fictional Blackmore University.) Her date responds with interest—“Film Studies! That’s cool!”—to which Laura retorts: “You say that, but try teaching a class on 20th-century slashers to a heap of hungover 19-year-olds.”
By shifting the age of the “first girl” between Scream and Scream VI—from a 19-year-old in Scream to a woman who is presumably decades older in the latest film—the franchise recognizes its original fanbase. But the shift is also more specific. Across the franchise’s many films, the interest in horror films is represented as increasingly institutionalized: what was teenage telephone chatter in Scream is now a professional identity in Scream VI. In this way, the franchise also very narrowly addresses many others for whom the original Scream shaped their trajectory, arranging the emotional and intellectual conditions in which teenagers grow up to be college professors. For these viewers, the codes of horror film fandom are compounded by a second social code: of academia, in which professors routinely minimize their professional rank, while film scholars denigrate their discipline. Watching Scream VI, I felt equally in on both codes.
“What’s your favorite scary movie?”—the first time I heard this question asked, I knew very little of scary movies, let alone that one could (and should) have a favorite among them. In the decades since, I have been asked that question dozens, if not hundreds of times: in graduate programs and classrooms, at parties and at immigration. My way into American academia—via the GRE, the F-1, the H-1B, the OPT, the TT—might have been different than Laura Crane’s. But our paths might have converged at NYU, where I got a PhD studying horror films, or later, at a conference or over social media, where we might have shared notes about studying and teaching the genre. While I was watching Scream VI, students in my undergraduate course, “The Horror Film,” were writing their midterm papers on the giallo film, the Italian crime thriller/proto-horror genre associated with the films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Laura, too, has just finished grading her midterms, doling out a C-minus to one student for his “giallo paper.” When she is lured out of the restaurant and into an alley, the voice over the phone remarks coolly: “You teach a class about slashers, and you still walked into a dark alley … alone.” The Ghostface killer leaps out of the darkness and stabs her to death, leaving her bleeding body near dumpsters and garbage cans. Laura’s killer, it is revealed, is the disgruntled student, mad about that grade (he’s wearing a giallo-themed jersey when he commits the act). Laura had traded the riotous culture of horror fandom—embodied by Williamson and the fanboy—for a different world, parlaying her passion for horror films into university employment. But Scream VI is ambivalent about this trade: it is this steady institutionalization, the film suggests, that has rendered Laura unable to correctly evaluate the fanboy’s knowledge of horror and so made her fit to be viciously dispatched.
Before she dies, Laura justifies her interest in slasher films with a tribute to Carol Clover, when she says, “You can really examine the culture of the moment by looking at the tropes of the time.” As she lay dying, I wanted to ask: what had changed in the culture that morphed the series’ opening from one focused on a young girl alone at home to one following a college professor out in the city? The brutal murder of a college professor renders palpable the intensified anxieties of an academic precariat as well as populist rage over college campuses in the moment of their self-avowed diversification. She may just be an “associate professor,” but in her minimization (and eventual elimination) amid so many dumpsters, I could read the dumpster fires of my profession: of publish or perish, the elimination of tenure, the shrinking of the job market, and the fragility of an academic discipline.
Franchises are careful, even fussy, about marking the passage of time between films. Scream and its sequels are unusual in that the year of each film’s release has also served as the year in which the film’s fictional events unfold. Hence, the events of Wes Craven’s Scream 4 (2011) take place in 2011, while those of the fifth Scream (2022), directed by Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, take place 11 years later. This has allowed the franchise to spin an elaborate mythology around generations of Woodsboro residents. But this synchronization of the real time of film production to the fictional universe also preserves each film as a time capsule of its historical era. Thus, when the lights go down and we hear the telephone ring at the start of Scream VI, the sound is also a call to connect this viewing with our first viewing of the original Scream, and to observe the interval in between.
Scream VI opens with the logo of Paramount Studios, with stars gathering around alpine peaks. But fans of the original Scream may sense something repressed returning in the shot of the New York skyline that soon follows. As the title card reading “Scream VI” appears on-screen, a view of New York City’s nighttime skyline fades into view at the bottom of the screen. This is effective storytelling, immediately establishing the much-hyped (re)location of the franchise outside Woodsboro for the first time (“New York. New Rules,” promised one poster). But with it, the franchise in fact returns to where it all began.
The original Scream never left Woodsboro, but it began, one might say, in New York. The film opens with the logo for Miramax studios, which pictured a New York City skyline by night. Indeed, no other studio was as associated with New York as Miramax. It was in Buffalo that Bob and Harvey Weinstein founded the studio in the late 1970s, before relocating it soon after to Manhattan. Around the time Disney purchased Miramax in 1993, Bob Weinstein created Dimension Films, a subsidiary label for the production and distribution of commercial genre films. Williamson’s spec script for Scream was first faxed to Dimension’s New York office, then delivered to Weinstein’s apartment from there. The Weinstein brothers left Disney in 2005 and took Dimension Films with them to their next venture, The Weinstein Company (TWC). How is it that, instead of the low rumble of Dimension Films, Paramount Pictures’ logo opens Scream VI?
For many viewers who stream Scream VI on Paramount+, there will be nary a hint of the disgrace from which this bargain was wrought. In 2017, Rose McGowan, one of the stars of the original film, alleged that Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted her in 1997—mere weeks after the release of Scream, and as the film was growing at the box office—at the Sundance Film Festival. McGowan’s voice was one in a chorus of women who came forward with horrific stories of rape, abuse, and intimidation by Harvey Weinstein, leading to his eventual conviction as well as the bankruptcy and closure of TWC and Dimension Films. In 2019, 40 years after the founding of Miramax, Dimension Films folded and its library was purchased by Paramount Pictures.
Going into Scream VI, many viewers will be aware that it is the first film not to feature the franchise’s iconic heroine Sidney. Neve Campbell revealed that she would not be in the film because “the offer that was presented to [her] did not equate to the value [she has] brought to the franchise”; we would do well to remember that Campbell’s position has its roots in an earlier moment, when Harvey Weinstein had attempted to strong-arm her into signing Scream 3 with a “lowball” offer, threatening to cut her off from any other film roles if she declined. Campbell recalled that, after she filmed discernibly reluctant performances in Scream 3—a film that trenchantly explores the depraved humiliations visited on Hollywood actresses—and Scream 4, Weinstein told her: “Neve, you and Gwyn[eth Paltrow] are the only people who’ve ever stood up to me.” She added, “And then [they] never gave me a job again.”
“[I]t’s like she wasn’t human anymore, just an animal. And every time it went in, she was less and less human … then, she was … just meat,” exults Laura Crane’s killer. Before she dies, Laura defends slasher films as a kind of “outsider art,” providing a “voice for the voiceless.” She’s wearing a bright yellow, high-neck dress that evokes the memory of McGowan’s character, Tatum Riley, from the first film. McGowan would not return for any subsequent Scream films—Tatum dies in the original—but this is the first film in which her ghost can be said to have returned. By moving to New York City—the setting where Harvey Weinstein conducted his campaigns of abuse and self-promotion—Scream VI revives the specter of the franchise’s forgotten final girls.
The “final girl” is the one who survives by stopping the killer dead in his tracks. For genre scholars, she elucidates the cross-gendered dynamics of horror film viewing. By arguing that (especially male) audiences of horror films identified with the final girl and her experience of vulnerability (and eventual mastery), the final girl broke the moralistic discourse that slasher films were essentially misogynistic. The final girl has also been essential to queer readings of horror films, linking the appeal of the genre’s transgressions with nonnormative states of gender and sexual expression.
The final girls of Scream VI (and the previous film) are Tara and Sam Carpenter, sisters played by Mexican American actress Jenna Ortega and Mexican actress Melissa Barrera, respectively. The “fanboy,” previously incarnated as white and heterosexual, is now a queer woman essayed by the biracial Jasmin Savoy Brown, returning from the fifth Scream. With such casting, the franchise embraces its racially and globally diverse fandom, following through on a promise made at the start of Scream 2, when Jada Pinkett Smith complained about horror’s history of “excluding the African American element.” But at the opening of Scream VI—when a not-white hand reaches into the frame to pick up a ringing telephone—I felt closing other, more fluid modes of identification that operated in my initial viewing of Scream.
Alongside the gendered dynamics of slasher moviegoing—in which viewers masochistically identify with and sadistically disidentify with the film’s girls—is a racialized dynamic, a viewing experience in which we are invited to identify with whiteness while also rejoicing in its lethal evisceration. When I first watched Scream, I perhaps wanted to be like Casey, an impossibly cool, rich, white girl living in a large suburban house, speaking with self-possession and irony about filmic conventions, genres, and histories (before getting picked off by a slinking killer).
My formative encounter with Scream and horror film studies was also, in a sense, cross-racial: both the film and the discipline appeared to me to be white. As played by Drew Barrymore, Casey calls up the archetypal white-woman-in-peril who has driven the development of American cinematic storytelling and sensation since a hapless woman picked up the phone in D. W. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909). But in hindsight, Casey is also nearly a parody of whiteness conjured from production design, costuming, and hair and makeup: her pale, pink skin draped in an off-white cashmere sweater from J.Crew, and a terrible blond wig, framed by the white pillars, walls, and doors of her house. “What do you want?” Casey desperately asks the killer. “To see what your insides look like,” he replies. The “insides” of Casey are not-white: disemboweled and hung up from a tree, her corpse offers the spectacle of whiteness as an emptied signifier. What did the insides of horror film studies look like?
Previous entries become historical references that guide the production of new films in a franchise. When one heroine in Scream VI recalls vanquishing a killer by stabbing him “22 times,” one senses that the film’s writers (James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick) had arrived at that count by reexamining the ending of the fifth Scream. Even so, the production of Scream VI pushed this archival impulse to its logical extreme.
A central conceit of Scream VI is that its killers have amassed a shrine to the many killers who have rampaged through Woodsboro across the decades. The film’s climax unfolds in this shrine, one filled with evocative objects, accessories, and clothing fans will recognize from the preceding films in the cycle. A tracking shot browses the collection: a chunky television set, blood-soaked white T-shirt, Tatum Riley’s outfit from the first film, and so on. “[A]s a fan of the films,” Scream VI’s producer noted to The Hollywood Reporter, “it was just really nice to be able to have that all there.” The auratic pull of these objects brought to mind my stroll last year through the Dario Argento exhibit at the National Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy, where iconic things from his films—shiny daggers, black gloves, and killer’s masks—were on display.
But this obsessive resurrection of the past via so many mnemonic things rubs up against the essential, irrevocable fact that the past itself is past, and whatever remains of it is only the present. Excited by the contents of display cases at the Argento exhibit, I would lean closer to read the curatorial text. Invariably, I was told that the thing I was looking at was not “the thing” itself, but a faithful reconstruction. Likewise, in Scream VI, the objects in the shrine are not real objects left over from the making of the previous films. As the film’s production design team learned, nothing seemed to have been preserved—“[n]ot even the graphics files from the posters and book covers,” according to production designer Michèle Laliberté. “Everything was recreated. […] [A]ll the original things were recreated,” the film’s producer confirmed in the Hollywood Reporter interview. “Some were made from the same material or the same spool of cloth from the original costumes, but the art department and the costume department worked hand in hand to make sure everything was painstakingly detail oriented and very true to form.”
This was not what I expected. Scream was a studio-owned blockbuster franchise in Hollywood, to which I attributed a kind of proprietary obsession with preservation, curation, and commodification. I came to this (false) sense while conducting research into the making of horror films in 1980s India, whose documentary records, props, costumes, and other material traces I had struggled to secure against the ravages of time, indifference, and industrial amnesia. Eventually, I learned to treat the films as my primary archives, using specific scenes and shots to reconstruct what may have transpired “behind the scenes” of films like Mohan Bhakri’s Cheekh (“Scream,” 1985). Learning that the production team on Scream VI did the same (“We went through the films and made a list of all the murders and all the victims,” using the films as a guide for the most approximate reconstruction of the look of objects, as Laliberté reports) helped concretize something. Scream VI begins with a university professor describing her difficulty in bringing the films of the “20th century” into the present. Those films may have forged our histories, but we can only forage for theirs.
Kartik Nair is a horror film aficionado who teaches film studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. His first book, about horror films made in 1980s Bombay, will be out early next year.
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