How “Scream” Changed Horror Forever

Every decade or so, a new horror film comes along that has such an impact that it shifts the direction of the genre at least for a while.  While it’s usually the result of studios and creators trying to capture the magic of what worked by imitating it, there’s no denying its impact on the genre as a whole.

In 1978, Halloween created a slasher boom that lasted over a decade.  Many years later films in Saw and Paranormal Activity lead to booms in torture porn and found footage in the 2000s.  But the trend-setting horror film we’re analyzing today is 1996’s Scream.  It breathed new life into a subgenre that was dying, and its effects on horror are still very much seen today, and that comes with both pros and cons.

Resurrecting the Slasher
The slasher subgenre absolutely dominated the 1980’s, but by the time the 1990’s rolled around, they were a shell of what they used to be.  Heavy hitters like Jason Vorhees and Freddy Krueger were devolving into almost parody with Jason Goes to Hell and Freddy’s Dead respectively.

With slashers feeling played out and 1990’s grunge culture making people feel like they were too cool for everything, it seemed like the death of the slasher.  Until December of 1996 of course.  Everyone discusses the meta nature of Scream and how that led to its success (and we’ll get to that), but it was equally popular and influential because of the way it wrote and portrayed its teenage characters.

Much like the popular TV shows of the era, Scream’s casting was all about the ensemble of good looking people in their 20s playing teenagers.

A staple of the 1980’s slasher template was that the high school/college age characters were sex/drug/alcohol obsessed blank slates that had zero character development.  Along came screenwriter Kevin Williamson, who is now considered the king of teenage dialogue.  Not only did he create the Scream franchise, but he was also the showrunner of Dawson’s Creek and The Vampire Diaries, two teenage-centric TV shows.

It wasn’t that his dialogue sounded realistic to how teenagers actually spoke, but he made them sound how they liked to think they sounded.  Everyone was witty, everyone was quippy, everyone was dealing with some insane life or death situation.  And to young adult audiences, this seemed like a very appealing fantasy when compared to the mundane nature of high school or college.

Even before the wave of meta (which I promise we will get to), Scream’s immediate effect was a wave of new teen slashers with witty, better developed characters than their 1980’s counterparts.  We saw the likes of I Know What You Did Last Summer (which Kevin Williamson also wrote) and Urban Legend, as well as witty, teen-centric sequels to franchises that seemed dead like Bride of Chucky and H20: 20 Years Later.

While not directly credited as a screenwriter or producer, Kevin Williamson did uncredited rewrites of H20, at the request of the studio to make it more Scream-like.

In the immediate few years that followed, new teen screams were very much a new trend.  And while that didn’t last too long, another major feature of Scream did last and continues to last in the horror genre today.  Everything is meta now, and there’s no going back…

Meta Meta Meta
Right from Scream’s very first scene, we see Drew Barrymore on the phone with Ghostface, and they just casually name drop movies like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. While we the audience knew about all these previous horror films, it wasn’t common practice for characters in a horror film to know about all these movies and tropes, with the rare exception of an esoteric indie film like 1980’s Fade to Black.

But by making the characters horror fans themselves, who knew the formulas (particularly Randy), it made them all the more relatable to an audience of horror fans.  And as a result of this, horror (or more specifically slashers) hasn’t really been the same since.

We all took Randy’s words to hear and never forgot them.

If we look at some of the most popular slasher films in the last two decades (not counting sequels or remakes), they’ve been films like Cabin in the Woods, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and The Final Girls, all of which take extremely meta approaches as they attempt to deconstruct the genre itself.

Let’s be clear, we are in no way saying that these are bad movies, in fact all three of them are brilliantly written and made.  But for every Cabin in the Woods, there were countless low budget indie slashers that tried very hard to go meta but didn’t do it quite as well.

Obviously there are always going to be indie horror movies with varying degrees of quality, but what’s a bit frustrating is that no filmmaker seems to want to make an original slasher that isn’t meta in some way, shape, or form.

There’s even a brief joke about this in Scream 4, where Anna Paquin’s very short lived character comments on how annoying it is that everything these days has to be meta, post-modern, and subtextual.

Meta is a great way to explore a film’s ideas and when done right, it can be really fun.  But it’s not needed for every single original slasher film.  And aside from the Hatchet and Terrifier series, there really aren’t any original slasher movies or franchises that don’t feature something meta in the post-Scream era.

Ironically, it would be more “original” and “against the grain” for a new slasher film to go back to the basics and not feel the need to go meta.  Because it feels like ever since Scream, filmmakers have felt like they have to mimic its formula in some way to have a successful slasher.

Overall, we can all agree that Scream’s influence on horror has been a massive net positive.  But the takeaway from its success should have been to write a compelling slasher with interesting and relatable characters, instead of the actual takeaway which was, make it meta and people will like it.

What do you think Scream’s biggest contribution to horror is?  Do you think the genre is better off now or before Scream?  Let us know in the comments!

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