In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Scream, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- Sidney Prescott – Neve Campbell
- Billy Loomis – Skeet Ulrich
- Stu Macher – Matthew Lillard
- Gale Weathers – Courteney Cox
- Dewey Riley – David Arquete
- Randy Meeks – Jamie Kennedy
- Tatum Riley – Rose McGowan
- Casey Becker – Drew Barrymore
- Ghostface (voice) – Roger Jackson
- Principal Himbry – Henry Winkler
- Written by – Kevin Williamson
- Directed by – Wes Craven
The themes and meaning of Scream
Scream is known for its self-awareness, as the characters frequently discuss the conventions of slasher films and horror movies in general. This meta commentary pays homage to and subverts the genre’s tropes, offering a fresh take on familiar concepts. It originated with screenwriter Kevin Williamson’s own love of the genre and disappointment with its state in the 90s. But Wes Craven had also grown disillusioned with horror, so Scream allowed him to critique a medium he had once truly loved.
What makes this theme even more dynamic is that it’s not just the movie being aware of the genre’s tropes but the characters themselves. Knowledge of a subject causes them to reframe the world around them. It’s hyperbolized in Scream, of course, but this is something we do every single day. What we know shapes our entire worldview. Watch a lot of movies, and you compare real world events to what happens in movies. Play a lot of sports as a kid—the tropes of that world affect how you react to the birth of your child, a cross-country drive, not getting a promotion at work. Social media. Politics. Your career. Your hobbies. These all have a massive influence on who we are, what we expect, and how we interact.
Media and pop culture
The 90s saw politicians make a big fuss about violent media. They feared a game like Mortal Kombat or a movie like Natural Born Killers would inspire violent behavior. Many people did not agree that Mortal Kombat would bring about the end of civilized society. In fact, they found the very idea to be a joke.
I would imagine Kevin Williamson was aware of these conversations. Scream places significant emphasis on the role that media and pop culture play in shaping the characters’ actions and motivations, particularly those of the killers. Billy even says, “Movies don’t create psychos’ movies make psychos more creative!”
According to Williamson, the ire shouldn’t be with creative mediums but with the news media. Gale Weathers isn’t a dignified journalist. She’s a headline chaser. And her coverage of Sidney’s mom’s murder caused Sidney’s family a ton of grief. She even fuels the fame of Ghostface. Her attempt to cover the murders results in the death of her cameraman. She even becomes part of the story, influencing its outcome then benefiting from it. We find out in Scream 2 that Gale writes a book that inspires the movie Stab which then inspires every future occurrence of Ghostface.
What came first: fiction or reality?
Scream plays with the concept that the boundary between reality and fiction can be porous and easily crossed. For example, during the party scene, the audience witnesses Ghostface attack Tatum in the garage while the rest of the party guests are inside, watching a horror film. This blending of the cinematic world with the events taking place in the film opens up questions of the relationship between reality and fiction. Is what’s happening in the garage a byproduct of movies? Or are the movies a byproduct of what’s happened in the world?
This gets back at the political discussion about whether violent artistic works encourage brutality or if they’re simply a reaction to what people already experience.
Perception and deception
Billy and Stu are friends with most of the people they kill. For most of the movie, they’re sympathetic, commiserating, caring. But that’s all deception. Billy never loved Sidney. He only dated her as part of this giant plan to kill her. Through Scream, we have these perceptions and misperceptions of people. Sidney thinks Cotton Weary was guilty of murder, only to find out it was Billy. She initially hates Gale, only for Gale to be a somewhat decent person. The police suspect Sidney’s father might be Ghostface. Multiple characters suspect Randy might be Ghostface.
One reason for all of this is simply that it heightens the sense of mystery and makes the film entertaining. But such a dramatic sense of mistrust and misinformation dovetails well with the subplot regarding media and media coverage of such events. The people involved barely know what’s happening. How could Gale and others ever do justice to the story?
When we read about some big media story, we should remember that the truth is probably far more complicated and nuanced than the narrative formed by the media.
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