Scream: A Cultural Discourse on the ’90s

Scream: A Cultural Discourse on the ’90s

With the current release of Scream 4 (2011) in theaters and the positive reviews it has received so far, I thought it would be important to discuss the cultural significance of the first Scream (1996). I assume that most of the readers here have already seen this film, so I will save you from a plot synopsis. The 1990’s were a weird and wonderfully ugly time in America. Everyone wore awful clothes, the music was terrible (well, after the grunge movement), and the TV shows were dreadful but there is still something endearing about the cultural explosion of bad taste. Regardless, we were (as a country, this is) coming out of the decadence of the 1980’s. The cocaine nights were filled with promiscuous sex and selfishness. The excess of 1980’s were the climax of the 60’s and 70’s combined, it was the fall of Babylon (for you Biblical and Fitzgerald savvy people). Reagan was in office trying to keep the lid on drugs and he had his “Star Wars” campaign against evil empires for our defense system. Politics were a joke and life was a joke because it was better to burn out than it was to rust. We can see this sort of lifestyle in the film, American Psycho, in which Patrick Bateman indulges in the madness of the 1980’s with his “friends” and it utterly leads to his insanity (or awakening?).

The great thing about Scream is that it fully encompasses what the 1990’s were about. It was about living in the suburb, the invention of the cordless telephone (or at least manageable cordless telephones), and the VHS tape. The 90’s brought us back to the family, shows like 7th Heaven promoted old school home values and more importantly (or in my case, annoyingly) brought back the idea of “god”. This was the decade of repentance (for most) against their crimes a decade earlier. Television shows like, The Real World and Road Rules came out at this time which put the focus on friends and the college life. Let us look now as to why Scream is the quintessential discourse of the 1990’s.

90’s Aesthetics

When you think of the 90’s in terms of fashion, we can all agree that it was a very ugly time for individuals everywhere. Big baggy clothes that didn’t fit, stripes running horizontally and vertically along sweaters, the use of putting cats and such on sweatshirts, and just the overuse of tasteless no-name brands. From the opening scene, Drew Barrymore wears a big frumpy yellow sweater that does nothing to help her look attractive and for the sake of me not sounding sexist, look at the sweater that Matthew Lillard wears in the movie, same sort of unisex baggy sweater. There seemed to be a big focus on solid color clothing that doesn’t present any flair or style. The absurdity of style and color of the 80’s (think Thriller) seemed to have disappeared, as if too much style the decade before made people want to relax in the 90’s.

The cordless telephone plays a HUGE role in the film. Sure, there have been slashers who have called the house before (i.e. Black Christmas and When A Stranger Calls) but none before Scream have used a cell phone to call their victims. When the character of Billy Loomis is being held as suspect to the murders, the Sheriff asks what he was doing with a cell phone and Billy coolly replies, “Everyone’s got one”. A new age of when kids were now having the capability to call anyone from anywhere, no more reliance on pay phones or multi-lines in the house. Yes, I understand that the fixation on the phones is due to the fact that the killer(s) use it to grab their victim’s attention. There is a huge “but” here though, due to the dawn of this technology it was now easy to exploit its uses, much like the video camera which I will discuss later. There were just so many advantages in this point of history to having a phone that was mobile and it easy to play it out in a number of scenarios (or abuse it).

The VHS tape was always bizarre to see on screen but this was the decade (and the 80’s as well) of the home cable box and the VHS tape. The character of Randy works in a video cassette store and there is one scene in which he is stacking tapes as he talks to his friend, Stu. If you watch behind them, all the customers are kids renting movies for the evening (at $3.00 a night…). You will rarely see groups of teenagers going into movie rental stores anymore (because they are all going out of business); most kids will either download films or use the wonderful service of Netflix. I wonder what it was like to live during at time when after classes you went with your friends to rent the new Chris Farley film or Arnold action flick, a world I will never experience. To create a point, people didn’t have to go to the movies anymore just to watch a film; their home was now the theater. People could sit and watch films from a huge library of genres and this was now the introduction of life being a movie. People watched so many movies that life itself became less real.

The houses are huge in this film; all three houses are suburban giants and reflect the economy of the time. After the money issues in the late 70’s, it took nearly two decades before many people were comfortable financially. Say what you want about Bill Clinton but when he was in office every house was being paid off and there were always two or more cars to a house. The financial comfy-ness is only part of the 90’s, the other part is that many families or people moved (escaped) the city after the 80’s. This was a settling down time for a many individuals because they now saved up enough money to afford a mortgage and raise kids of their own.

Self-Awareness: “Look Behind You!”

Of all the four films, this one is probably less aware than its counterparts. The idea is still there but Wes and company did not fully commercialize or capitalize on the notion yet. Self-Awareness is a very post-modern philosophy. With a film like Blade Runner (1982) that also played into the belief that existentialism could subsist in other forms of life, even androids. Scream is self-aware because it knows it’s a horror film and has to follow a set of rules before it can kill anyone. The movie is acting almost by itself (an android) and you get the feeling that it is alive. The commercial post-modern thinking came about in the 80’s and the 90’s, a way to forget our past and focus on the now. The generations of those decades were raised on the failure of the Vietnam War and the lack of trust in the government because lies and cover-ups were now the public’s business. Even though we had writers like Camus who wrote on existentialism notably in his 1942 novella, The Stranger, the post-modern movement did not make its debut in the commercial world some time later.

So the self-awareness factor comes from a late 80’s and 90’s context. How Scream is able to capitalize on this idea is to discuss and educate viewers on horror films of the last 20 years or so. Throughout the film, there are nods here and there, one scene has Randy saying, “Where did Leatherface go?” and at another point he gets up in front of his cohorts and recites the rules of horror films. Audiences who are unaware of the rules in horror films can immediately now get what they are supposed to be looking for in the movie. Sydney is a virgin for most of the film until the end in which she finally gives in to her psychotic boyfriend Billy. At that point, after they finish sex, she became fair game for Ghostface to plunge his knife into her (you do understand that stabbing in films is very phallic and sexual, right?).

I don’t want to delve too much into this topic yet of commercialization but there is that one scene in which the camera guy is watching Randy from inside the van. Randy meanwhile, is yelling at the TV for Jamie Lee Curtis to “Look behind you” and Ghostface is simultaneously approaching Randy from behind. Cut to the camera guy and he is yelling at Randy to “Look behind you”, this sort of situation makes you smile because it’s a film imitating a film and it knows it’s doing it.

Psychology: The Freudian/Ricki Lake Pathology

The 90’s was the decade to look inward, to become introspective and understand that even men were allowed to be sensitive. The country was done with full blown masculinity, it was now ok to have talk shows that talked about “feelings” and explore why we do the things that we do. Now, I know that psychological analysis has been around LONG before the 90’s but it’s not about that, it’s about the mainstream success of these ideas. You get me right? People on TV being diagnosed by actors who don’t even have a fucking degree and we still see that today.

In the scene in which Sydney is hiding in one of the stalls in the bathroom, she overhears two girls badmouthing her and her mother. The one cheerleader character diagnoses Sydney as the killer because she lost her mother and is sexually frustrated. The other girl says she is impressed with her analysis and ask where she heard such information, the cheerleader goes, “Ricki Lake”. Gone are the days when you could sit in a room with a person educated in the field of psychology, now you could catch Ricki Lake before class and be able to pigeonhole every one of your classmates. Mental disorders and mental issues is an American ideal, as if we all have something terribly wrong with us and be assured that someone is making money off of it (Drug companies and Television networks).

The rise of the post-nuclear family was huge during this time as well, meaning that there were a lot of divorces. A nuclear family consisted of a mother, father, and child (ren). The post-nuclear was divorce and the splitting of the already small family into a tiny mess. Once again, Scream exploits this by giving the one killer (Billy) a great post-nuclear family back story. Sydney’s mother had an affair with Billy’s father and caused Billy’s mother to abandon the family when she found out. Billy was fueled by maternal abandonment, so much so that he chose to kill a massive amount of individuals all because he lost his mother (Freud would love this film). Very similar Norman Bates in Psycho but more defined and explained for the time period.

Full Commercialization: Smile for the Camera Bitches

The last argument I have to prove that this film is a cultural discourse on the 90’s, is the creation of our lives becoming fully commercialized. Like I stated before in the area of self-awareness, the movie knows it’s a movie and the characters try to obey the rules because if they don’t, they will die. As if in real life, following those rules could really keep you alive from a psychopath. The characters think they are in a movie, even Billy proclaims in the end that movies make you a clever killer. Both killers are convinced that life is not really real, it’s just a movie and you pick the ending. This kind of thinking can be attributed to the rise of the “reality” shows at the start of the decade. Road Rules and The Real World dominated the MTV circuit and now people’s lives were being constantly watched. It was now the thought that “Everyone can see me! I’m on TV!” people’s lives and more importantly their sex lives were put in between commercials and infomercials.

Gale Weathers represented a lot of this, constantly filming the lives of the teens at school and at the party. She even planted a camera by the TV to watch them from a monitor inside the network van. This was REAL “reality” television; the teens were being watched unbeknownst to them. Like when the camera guy shouts for Randy to look out, the viewer feels as if the camera man is watching a movie and not a real situation. Gale in this movie is the media and the constant feeding of information to viewers at home, this is a time when people caught the 10’oclock news in their beds before going to sleep. This was the time of cable television.

This is History

With all of these arguments that I have presented, I think it is safe to say that Scream not only is a great and entertaining film but that it is also a historical document of sorts. This movie can be viewed twenty years down the road by a teenager and they will go “Oh, that’s what the 90’s were like”. Though many of the techniques in the film are dated, it is not a film to forget about. It represented not only a time in America but it represented horror films as a whole. Not taking itself seriously but also not giving in to cheap tricks. Scream will forever be one of the more important horror works for decades to come, right alongside Psycho and The Exorcist.


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My name is Jesse Lee Alan Bartel and I love being a critic on things you don't care about. I love films, horror, writing, and violent video games. Hope to hear from you and happy stabbings. I am also a regular contributor to The Liberal Dead.

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