Ghostfaces Gone Wild: A Second Look at the Scream Trilogy

In honor of the upcoming release of Scream 4, I decided to revisit the original Scream trilogy to get ready for what Wes Craven and company have in store for us next month. I've always thought that the Scream films were smarter than most horror films (and most other films in general). Still, it had been a while since I saw all three films, so I dusted off my Scream DVD box set to re-examine this trilogy as one continuous story (as opposed to three separate film releases separated by months and years). While I was watching these movies, I saw details that I hadn't noticed before, details that will probably ensure this franchise's appeal in the years and decades to come. Read on to see what I found that makes Scream a durable franchise and what we can expect in Scream 4.

Warning: This post is written with the understanding that the reader is familiar with the Scream franchise and it goes into spoiler-heavy details about each film. Thus, if you want to read this post but haven't seen any of the Scream films, go watch the Scream trilogy first and then come back here afterwords.

The first Scream can easily stand alone as a classic slasher flick. For all of its goofy, self-aware jabs at slasher films, Scream has its fair share of raw, terrifying scenes, the cast of characters don't feel interchangeable, and the plot slowly unfolds in such a way that kept your attention and dovetailed neatly with the final big reveal of the killer's identity. While the killer's intent in the beginning seems to stem from an unhealthy obsession with Westboro high school student Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the film gradually reveals that the death of Sidney's mother Maureen (Lynn McRee) the year before plays a much larger role in the killer's agenda. When I saw Scream for the first time, the Maureen Prescott subplot led me to think that the killer was older than Sidney (although not Sidney's dad); thus, I was very surprised that the masked killer was in fact two teenage killers, Sidney's boyfriend Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stuart "Stu" Macher (Matthew Lillard). That said, the scene where Billy and Stu stab each other as part of their final alibi is still an intense scene to watch after all these years.

Of course, the success of Scream made the success of its two sequels that much more uncertain. It's difficult to scare audiences the same way twice; horror sequels usually lack the fresh, visceral tension and shock of their originators, which is why they often resort to quantity over quality in terms of plotting and style. The Scream sequels don't abhor this trend--in fact, they openly celebrate it by clearly stating that it is one of the "rules" for horror sequels, and thus increase the body count accordingly--but that's not all that happens. Surprisingly, the sequels actually continue the story from the first film in significant ways that allowed Scream to mature from a single film into a complete three-part story. The two things I noticed that held the Scream movies together as a complete trilogy are parallel and overlapping arcs of character development and plot points, and a consistent, evolving theme.

Parallel/Overlapping Arcs: The Scream movies boast a glib, self-referential style of storytelling, but that self-reference goes beyond bits of snarky dialogue and into the parallel, overlapping characters and plots themselves. When taking all three films into consideration, the most obvious arcs of parallel and overlapping character development are between Maureen Prescott and her daughter Sidney:
  • Maureen wanted to be a movie star and while that never happened, her murder--which links back to her brief, traumatic time in Hollywood--results in her becoming a post-mortem celebrity of sorts through the Woodsboro Murders book written by Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and the subsequent Stab movies that are based on Weathers' book. In other words, Maureen's attempt at Hollywood stardom while she's alive by accepting bit parts in low budget horror movies fails, but she becomes a star of sorts in a series of low budget horror movies that are based on her own murder.
  • Sidney also becomes a celebrity, first in the aftermath of her mother's murder in Scream and then because of her survival of murderers' desire for revenge and the subsequent arrival of a copycat killer in Scream 2. Curiously, Sidney chooses theater arts as her college major in Scream 2 before she learns of her mother's past in Hollywood in Scream 3. Depending on how you look at it, Maureen's sexual assault in Hollywood and extramarital affairs in Woodsboro--as well as the psychotic campaigns of revenge they inspired--ultimately prevented Sidney from being from becoming an actress and possibly being exploited in the same way Maureen was. (Maureen Prescott: stage mother from beyond the grave?)

As the Scream movies progress, they evolve into a maze of mirrors. The killers become increasingly sophisticated in hiding their identity and using audio and video technology to confuse their victims. The Ghostface killer seems to appear everywhere in the first Scream, between Billy and Stu alternating the assumption of the Ghostface persona and the high school pranksters wearing Ghostface masks; this intimidating feeling of omnipresence escalates in Scream 2 and 3 as Ghostface becomes an icon through the Stab movies. As the trilogy emphasizes its connections to films with it "rules of the horror film/sequel/trilogy" plot points, each successive film climax takes place ever closer to the film industry itself: the first takes place in a house where teenagers are watching slasher films, the second takes place on a stage full of props for a Greek tragedy, and the third takes place in a vast, labyrinthine Hollywood mansion filled with horror movie memorabilia.

With such an emphasis on recurring and deceptive sounds and images, it's only fitting for the Scream trilogy to conclude with a killer like Roman Bridger (Scott Foley). For as impressive as some of his kills are in Scream 3, the character of Roman is ultimately a tragic one: Because of the events he set in motion with Billy in revenge for the idyllic family life he thought he was being denied in Woodsboro by being rejected by Maureen, he ends up having to build a fake Woodsboro for Stab 3 at the behest of Hollywood. Since he's denied the revenge he wanted when Sidney became the hero in the eyes of the public, he expresses his rage--in a rather emasculated way, no less--by killing the fake Sidney and her fake friends.

Evolving Theme: Even though the Scream movies give plenty of time to Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) to explain the rules of the horror film/sequel/trilogy, the overarching theme of the Scream movies isn't slasher movies at all. (Sorry, Randy.) It's actually media’s exploitation of “true crime” stories as part of "infotainment", the stuff that has grown in frequency and popularity since the beginning of the Scream franchise, with the rise of 24 hour cable news outlets, the explosion of specialty channels on TV, "reality" television shows, and the Internet. After all, what better genre is there to explore the exploitative nature of the media than by using the slasher film, which is often considered to be part of exploitation cinema?

To be fair, sensationalized true crime coverage has always been part of the media in one form of another. Yet as far as I know, Scream is the only horror franchise to make it a recurring theme. From the Woodsboro Murders book and the Stab movies to the characters who profit from them, such as Gale and John Milton (Lance Henriksen), the Scream movies feature the media's coverage of Ghostface's killings and Sidney's involvement with them as a recurring background presence. The parallel character arcs also reflect the media's coverage of the murders. In addition to the arcs of Maureen and Sidney, there are also the characters arcs in Scream 2 of the killer Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) and Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), the man who was originally convicted of killing Maureen. Mickey sees his accomplishments as a Ghostface killer as a way to become a true crime celebrity, with his trial becoming a media circus akin to the 1995 murder trial of OJ Simpson (who is the punch line of one of Scream 2's jokes, no less). On the other hand, Cotton stalks Sidney as part of his plan get the media attention he feels he deserves to prove his innocence after being wrongfully incarcerated. While Mickey dies at the end of the movie and fails to achieve his plan of serial killer stardom, Cotton survives and parlays his connection to the Ghostface killings to become the host of his own talk show, 100 Percent Cotton.

While it's clear that the makers of the Scream films don't believe that horror movies cause real life violence, their portrayal of the general public's reaction to violence isn't very flattering. The teenagers in Scream seem more amused than horrified by the Ghostface killings; when the killings are re-created on the silver screen in the first Stab movie in Scream 2, the audience is treated to a gimmick-heavy screening more worthy of a William Castle B-grade horror movie release than a serious dramatic account of murder. Then again, this is not without precedence in the real world: The fictional killers in Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs--each slasher classics--were inspired by the all-too-real ghoulish crimes committed by the notorious killer and grave robber Ed Gein, and Scream's Ghostface killer was partly based on the Florida serial killer Danny Rolling, a.k.a. the Gainesville Ripper.

In my opinion, the Scream movies do a better job of examining the media's sensationalism of true crime than Oliver Stone's controversial 1994 film Natural Born Killers. Stone tried to summarize the media's glorification of real-life violence in a single, absurd, spectacle-heavy film, whereas the Scream films take the same issue but explore it at different levels and between generations during the course of three movies. Likewise, while the success of Scream rejuvenated the slasher subgenre of horror by inspiring a new wave of 90s slasher films that included I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend, the most fitting Scream successor is Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the 2006 horror mockumentary that mashes together slasher film conventions with true crime journalism.

With all that the first three films have accomplished, what can we expect from Scream 4? Judging from the preview trailers, it appears that the media exploitation of true crime theme is still present. Not only is Sidney referred to as a "celebrity victim" by one of the reporters, but Woodsboro itself has hopped on the true crime bandwagon by celebrating the tenth anniversary of the first Ghostface killings and lining its streets with dummies dressed as Ghostface lined along the streets as part of the festivities. Another clip in the trailer pokes fun at the recent wave of horror remakes that have flooded movie theaters. On the other hand, I don’t know if this new Scream story will involve some unique aspect of modern exploitation media, such as a sleazy tell-all Web site or a reality TV show. It's also unknown just how many more people are still angry enough at the late Maureen Prescott and her family to assume the Ghostface mantle. I guess we'll just have to wait and see when Scream 4 arrives on April 15.


  1. Really insightful. Enjoyed it very much!

  2. Gavin,

    Glad you liked the Scream trilogy essay--thanks for commenting! For a franchise so rare to have sequels as good as Scream 2 and 3, it would be a shame not to recognize this accomplishment outside of the context of the first movie.


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