Everybody “SCREAM!” Reflexive Parody as a Means of Genre Study
Author: Bryan S. Ghingold
Parody is an overlooked and oft misunderstood device in the study of film spectatorship. Not only is it a tool of comedy, but when executed properly, it is also a designation of expert knowledge of the genre or genres being spoofed. For this to be successful, the spectator must be aware of many things going on simultaneously; such as the genre being spoofed, the film as a standalone member of the genre being spoofed, and the film as a standalone spoof. It requires a harmony between elements that on the surface seem conflicting and confusing. Of the examples of parody and comedy we viewed this semester in class, Wes Craven’s 1996 horror film Scream is perhaps the best example. In this paper, I will argue that Scream utilizes parody and reflexivity as effective tools for discussing the horror genre by assuming a spectatorial familiarity with the horror genre, demonstrating conventions of the horror genre, and demonstrating conventions of the parody film.
In his essay “Film Parody and the Resuscitation of Genre,” Dan Harries states of the film parody
These films are not merely comedies and parodies; they are are also directly connected to (and constituents of) the genre being spoofed…In this manor, film parody relies on the associated spectatorial activity that accompanies the watching of film genre (Harries 282).
In the opening sequence of Scream, Craven masterfully tells us that the film will be both a horror film and a send-up of the horror genre with the murder of Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) He does this simultaneously through the mise-en-scene and the diegesis. The film opens with the combination of an ominous non-diegetic soundtrack and ever growing heartbeat, punctuated with violent loud screaming. This nondiagetic sound is added to the diegetic ringing of a phone. This entire series of sounds occurs over the film’s title sequence, before any narrative images unfold. The multi-faceted soundtrack tells us that it is a horror movie, but it is so over the top and audibly “busy” compared to the minimalist soundtrack of other horror movies such as Jaws (1975) and Halloween (1978) that it suggests something more. It is the first hint that the film is a parody of the horror genre, and it occurs before we get our first narrative image.
The screaming and the heartbeat abruptly end as Casey picks up the phone, and begins a dialogue exchange with a disembodied voice we the spectator know (from our understanding of the horror genre) to be “the killer.” We know this because the voice is eerily calm and deliberate each time it calls. The third time it calls, Casey is making popcorn, and she tells the voice she is about to watch a “scary movie.” This very deliberate line of dialogue serves two purposes the filmmakers were aware of, and a third purpose they were unaware of. The two purposes the filmmakers were aware of are a narrative moment of allegiance with Casey; because we the audience are most likely eating popcorn and preparing to watch a scary movie, and a reflexive moment of parody, because we are aware that Casey’s actions and dialogue refer specifically to us. The third purpose this line of dialogue serves which I believe the filmmakers could not have been aware of is a level of “meta-parody,” since we are aware of a specific parody film called Scary Movie (2000), which came after, and parodies Scream and the horror genre.
Returning to the narrative, as Casey moves from the stove to the island discussing horror movies with the voice, a very prominently placed knife block draws our eye, reinforcing the notion we already know that this scene will end with a stabbing and Casey’s murder (Casey even plays with one of the knives as she talks on the phone). The next shot is a cutaway to the popcorn as it heats over the stove; the aluminum bag slowly rising and giving off pressurized steam, like the tension created by our knowledge (and Casey’s ignorance) of the danger she is in.
The scene has other moments of reflexivity that reinforce Scream as a parody text, such as Casey’s dialogue that Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was the only good “Freddy” movie, and the rest “sucked.” This subtle moment of humor is only relevant to those who know that Wes Craven, director of both Scream and the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie, had no part in the remaining “Freddy” films. It can then be inferred that Craven is either not fond of the direction his “Freddy” franchise has gone in, or he is just having a laugh at the expense of his protégés. This type of knowledge is most likely to be known by fans of the horror genre; the people, Harries asserts, that are most likely to play spectator to a horror parody: “Spectators that go to see Galaxy Quest are more likely than not to be fans of the science-fiction genre, just as viewers of Scary Movie are likely to be fans of horror (Harries 282).”
In his essay “From Paranoia to Postmodernism? The Horror Movie in Late Modern Society,” Andrew Tudor explains his understanding of the role the horror genre plays in our culture:
There is no doubt that the modern horror movie, like all popular culture, tells us something about the society in which we live. That it is a society in which we have become more aware of risks; a society in which we are less convinced by the systems of expertise that surround us and the institutions that seek to regulate our lives; a society in which our concept of the self is unreliable; and a society in which anxiety and fear have become ubiquitous (Tudor 116).
Tudor believes the horror movie, which is often dismissed as a spectacle devoid of social commentary, is instead a highly reflexive and self-aware critique of our own society. His argument for what Scream reflects is almost as confusing as my earlier description of parody’s synergy with the source text. Tudor asserts that the film reflects the trend for consumption of reflexive texts. He explains,
What Scream has done is find a highly commercial (and therefore influential) form of expression of the kind of knowing reflexivity that its director, Wes Craven, achieved with rather less commercial success in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare… Scream… keeps its reflexivity and self-consciousness firmly within the confines of the diegesis, its characters explicitly articulating genre conventions (in both dialogue and action) in such a way as to ensure that their self-consciousness remains a verisimilitudinous component of the narrative and does not therefore question the ‘reality’ of the film’s world (Tudor 110).
I agree whole-heartedly with Tudor’s assertion, but I feel he is missing a major point of reflexivity the horror genre serves to remind us of: our proclivity to consume filmic violence. Horror films often compete with each other over who can depict the most gore. Some horror films do this for shock value or spectacle, but others, including Michael Haneke’s 1997 horror film Funny Games, serve to comment on our penchant for consuming violence. Scream’s self-awareness makes it incredibly obvious it is commenting on this obsession with gore. In the final reveal, when Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stuart Macher (Matthew Lillard) reveal themselves as the killers and tell their plan and motives to protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), Billy references his own fake death by licking his “bloody” fingers and says (as much to the audience as to Sidney) “Mmm, corn syrup. Same stuff they used for pig’s blood in Carrie.” However, the film does not deny its spectators gore. Rather, it delivers copious amounts of corn syrup, animal intestines, and dummy body doubles to be contorted in all sorts of horrific ways (Such as Tatum Riley’s [Rose McGowan] death at the hands of a garage door). In this way, Scream fulfils its position as a straight representation of the horror film.
The line between straight representation and reflexive parody is very thin and tenuous. Watching the film, it is difficult to say if it is strictly one or the other, but that is the nature of a good parody. Perhaps the best tool of reflexivity (and, for my sake of argument, parody) is the character of Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy). Through the entire film, Randy serves as a liaison between the diegesis and the spectator; reminding both the film’s audience and the characters of the narrative of the conventions of the horror genre. The iconic scene comes to mind where the group of teens (who serve as an audience surrogate) is watching Halloween at Tatum’s party, and Randy pauses the movie, declaring “Jesus Christ! You don’t know the rules!?” He gets up in front of his “audience” and bluntly explains the conventions of the horror genre or, as he puts it, “There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie!” he lays out the rules as follows:
Number one: you can never have sex. Sex equals death. Number two: you cannot drink or do drugs, it’s a sin, it’s an extension of number one, and number three: never ever, ever under any circumstances say ‘I’ll be right back’ because you won’t be back (Scream).
While Randy (and more accurately, the film’s writer Kevin Williamson) are 100% correct in their observations about the horror genre, Scream uses this reflexivity to define itself as a parody. While this soapbox scene is occurring in the living room, Sidney is upstairs losing her virginity to Billy, unaware that he is one of the killers. Sidney survives the film despite having had sex (and more importantly, losing her virginity within the diegesis of the narrative), Randy survives despite the fact that he has been drinking beer all night at the party, and Deputy Riley (David Arquette) survives, despite being what Tudor calls an “unreliable authority.”
Another element Scream uses to blur the line between parody and genre film is the dichotomy between fulfillment of expectation and violation of expectation. One thing that makes a genre film a genre film is its adherence to certain conventions. In the case of the horror film, the conventions Randy laid out are relatively comprehensive. The film plays with the expectations of the spectator by fulfilling and violating certain expectations we may have. The first expectation we as spectators have is that big name celebrities will live past the first five minutes of the film. This is an expectation Craven felt was important to violate, which is why he cast Drew Barrymore as Casey, so when she died in the opening sequence of the film, our expectations were shattered and we did not know what to expect for the duration of the film. Based on our understanding of the horror genre, when Sidney’s father says he is going out of town, and then disappears for the duration of the narrative, we assume (and have our assumption reinforced by Randy) that he has been killed and that his body will fall out of a closet in the third act of the film. This is partially true. His body does “fall out of a closet,” but violating our expectation, he is very much alive; bound and gagged by Stuart and Billy. Perhaps the biggest horror-movie “kiss of death” is when Sidney and Billy are having sex, juxtaposed with Randy’s diatribe about how having sex in horror movies leads to your death. We assume (and have our assumption reinforced by the parallel editing), that Sidney will not survive the film. This is, as any horror movie buff can tell you, the golden rule of horror films. Craven violates our expectations however, and not only does Sidney survive the film, but it is hinted that she and Randy will start up a relationship (and live “happily ever after”). The film even subverts the infamous “one last scare” moment most horror film antagonists have. At the end of the film when Billy and Stuart have been killed, Randy leans in and warns, “Be careful. This is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare!” at that exact moment, Billy lurches forward and grunts “bluh!” Before he has the chance to shock us or scare us, he is shot in the head by Sidney, effectively cancelling the “last scare.”
The biggest thing that parody and reflexivity rely on in order to be effective is cultural awareness. Why was Henry Winkler cast as the ill-fated high school principal Arthur Himbry, if not for his cultural recognition as Arthur Fonzarelli? Why is it Skeet Ulrich’s hair and makeup make him look unnaturally like Jonny Depp, an actor who worked with Craven on the original Nightmare on Elm Street, and who can emote an eerie “creepy-factor?” Why does Wes Craven himself have a cameo as a janitor named
Fred, and why does Fred just happen to wear the same sweater and hat as Craven’s famously recognizable horror icon Freddy Krueger? Is it not also worthy of note that the director of this send-up, of this self-reflection on the horror genre is Wes Craven; a man whose career has been defined by, and may even be synonymous with, the horror film? If the spectator were to miss all these cultural references, Scream would lose the very elements that make it a parody, and it would become just another horror film. Perhaps even worse, stripped of its message, it would become another empty horror film meant to serve up a hefty platter of consumable violence and fulfillment of horror film expectations, rather than comment on consumable violence and creatively violate expectations.
It is difficult to anticipate counter arguments, considering Scream is so delicately balanced between genre film and parody film. I cannot imagine that someone would attempt to argue that Scream is a genre film alone, devoid of parody, or vice versa. However, I can see the argument being formed that rather than using reflexivity as a device to examine the horror genre, Scream simply uses comedy and humor as most modern horror films do. Harries argues that parody is the natural evolution of genre, and that given enough time, all genres will end in parody (Harries 286). The Childs Play series of films serves as an excellent example of this. The films started in 1988 as a horror story about a serial killer whose disembodied spirit found its way into a child’s doll, and continued its murderous rampage. Serious in tone, the film was successful enough to generate several sequels, each adding more humor; the killer doll’s dialogue became more quippy, the situations became more outlandish, and ultimately, the series ended in a parody of itself. The last two films, Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004) were more comedy than horror; playing with the concept of plastic doll sex as humorous (with Chucky’s doll girlfriend, Tiffany [Jennifer Tilly] making quips about how small and inadequate his plastic penis is) and featuring celebrity cameos (scandalous director, self-declared lover of kitsch and gore-hobbyist John Waters) and celebrity mockery (a Britney Spears look-alike… perhaps a precursor to the “Scary Movie/Epic Movie/Meet the Spartans spoof movie trend of celebrity and topical humor lampooning?).
While Scream did generate two sequels and inspired the four spoof movies in the Scary Movie series (though only the first Scary Movie is a direct parody of Scream), it has not fallen into the realm of lampoon like the Childs Play series. My counter argument would be that it has become the subject of lampoon, but has not degraded into lampoon itself. Speaking particularly of the first movie, it does not allow for such “gags” as direct address, innuendo, one-liners, or slapstick. The film demonstrates a mastery of parody and reflexivity by not allowing itself to turn to kitsch. In this essay, I have demonstrated how Scream utilizes parody and reflexivity as effective tools for discussing the horror genre by assuming a spectatorial familiarity with the horror genre, demonstrating conventions of the horror genre, and demonstrating conventions of the parody film.
1.Harries, Dan. “Film Parody and the Resuscitation of Genre.” Genre and
Contemporary Hollywood. Ed. Steve Neale. London: British Film Institute, 2002.
2.Tudor, Andrew. “From Paranoia to Postmodernism? The Horror Movie in Late
Modern Society.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. Ed. Steve Neale. London: British Film Institute, 2002.
3.Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Perf. Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich.
Dimension Films, 1996.
Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit