Every October I binge watch scary movies. I’d never describe myself as a horror movie “fan,” but you can bet that when the autumn colors are in full bloom and pumpkins begin popping up around the neighborhood, I’m watching Silver Bullet, The Shining, The Exorcist, and maybe even some hokey slasher films like Friday the 13th. I don’t remember when this tradition started, or why.
A perennial favorite is Scream and its three sequels (and an MTV series that ran between 2015 and 2019 that was actually pretty good).
Now, when the original movies dropped in the late 1990s, I thought they were dreadful. (It was hard to get past the killer walking around in a cape in broad daylight.) I don’t feel this way today, which is why I fully intend to go see the latest installment: Scream 5, which is slated for a January release. The trailer for the newest film just dropped, and it will give horror fans goosebumps.
The movie looks amazing and appears to feature many of the same characters, plot elements, and themes as its predecessors. This is encouraging, because the themes found in the original films tell an important story about good and evil, strength and weakness.
Empowerment vs. Victimhood
A few nights ago I once again found myself watching the Scream movies into the wee hours and noticed a theme I hadn’t noticed before. Two themes, actually: self-empowerment and the toxicity of victimhood. The killers in these movies …. SPOILER ALERT
…. Billy Loomis, “Debbie Salt,” Roman Bridger, and Jill Roberts all suffer from what we’d today call a victim mentality. The world took something from them, and they plan to extract their due in return—by slicing and dicing innocent people.
Throughout the films we see characters toy with a question: who is to blame for the carnage we witness on screen? What made the killers what they are and do what they do? During the big reveal in Scream, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), the hero of the films, raises this issue with Loomis and his annoying, drooling accomplice, Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard).
Sidney Prescott: You sick f***s. You’ve seen one too many movies!
Billy Loomis: Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!
The topic comes up again in Scream 2 when Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character, Cici, challenges the idea that a murder in a movie theater was the result of a horror movie that depicted the Woodsboro slayings.
Film Teacher: You could say that what happened in that theatre was a direct result of the movie itself.
Cici: That is so Moral Majority. You can’t blame real life violence on entertainment.
Film Class Guy #1: Yes you can. Don’t you ever watch the news?
Film Class Guy #2: Hello? The murderer was wearing a ghost mask just like in the movie. It’s directly responsible.
Cici : No, it’s not. Movies are not responsible for our actions.
It’s a surprisingly philosophical question for a horror movie: who is responsible for our actions (in this case, murder)? To what extent are people who were not involved culpable for an act? The second film doesn’t quite give us the answer to these questions. Not until Scream 3 do we get to see in no uncertain terms who is to blame.
In this film, we hear the sad story of killer number three. Roman Bridger, the director of the latest Stab movie (fictional movies based on the fictional slayings), was abandoned by his mother, Maureen Prescott (née Roberts)—Sidney’s mother. After tracking Mrs. Prescott down, Bridger was told by his mother that she wanted nothing to do with him. She had a new life, and her old life was history. In retaliation, we learn, Bridger got Billy Loomis (the killer in Scream) to kill Maureen Prescott by revealing that she was having an affair with Billy’s father, precipitating the subsequent carnage.
This plot might sound like a bad soap opera, but that’s not the point. The point is that Bridger believes he is a victim and blames Sidney Prescott for his pain.
Bridger: You’re going to pay for the life you stole from me, Sid. For the mother, and the family, and the stardom, and g***ammit for having everything that should have been mine!
Sidney: Oh, why don’t you get on with it and stop your whining. I’ve heard all of this s**t before. Do you know why you kill Roman? Do you? Because you choose to. There is no one else to blame!
Because you choose to.
The idea that people are responsible for their actions is hardly novel. Yet it’s one that today is falling out of fashion, as people increasingly seek to blame external forces for their circumstances.
This is something Sidney has clearly learned, and the antagonists of the films have not.
In Scream 4, Sidney, now a successful self-help author promoting a book, confesses that for years she blamed others for her pain and saw herself as a victim.
“That was unacceptable to me,” she tells a small bookstore crowd. “So I sat down and began to write a new role that would be my own. A role for a woman who leaves the walls of fear behind and steps outside of darkness.”
It’s a clear message of self-empowerment. This is not to deny that Sidney was wronged. She was. Her mother was murdered. Then her best friend. And her boyfriend tried to kill her (the first of several people to attempt this). But she refuses to let these things define her, which is the key to empowerment.
“Adversity can create resilience, and trauma often inspires personal growth,” writes Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
Sidney’s publicist takes a different view of things. Encouraged by a new rash of slayings in Woodsboro, she tells Sidney her book sales will go through the roof if she can just play her role: the victim.
“Sidney, accept your situation. You’re a victim, for life. Embrace it. Use it,” the publicist says.
Sidney is incredulous. “Did you read my book?”
She fires the publicist, who moments later receives her comeuppance: an ill-fated end in a dark parking garage at the hands of a masked killer.
‘Of Course I Have a Gun’
The next time you watch the Scream movies, keep an eye out for how the characters—heroes and killers alike—confront adversity and approach personal responsibility. In addition to a high body count, you’ll find a lesson in how self-reliance empowers and how victimhood consumes.
We don’t know for certain if Scream 5 will maintain this message of personal empowerment, but judging from the trailer, it’s a pretty safe bet.
At one point in the trailer, Dewey (David Arquette) tells Sidney “it’s happening” again.
“Three attacks so far,” Dewey tells her. “Do you have a gun?”
“I’m Sidney Prescott,” she responds. “Of course I have a gun.”