At the 51-minute mark in Scream 3, our earth tone clad heroine Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) shares a tentative, smirking hug with noted future Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and fellow Ghostface survivor Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). It’s the transactional embrace you exchange with a sibling you’re angry at for something but still want to remind to drive home safe—and, although Gale’s churning out true crime pulp books glamorizing Sidney’s myriad miseries and Sid has punched Gale in the face on two separate occasions, that’s kind of what they are. The scene marks Sidney’s first dovetail into the main action, having spent the first half of the film doing remote work for a women’s crisis hotline from a secluded home in the sole company of a golden retriever. That it took another slew of murders to draw our girl out of hiding does little to dampen the affecting getting-the-gang-together sweetness of seeing Sidney, Gale, and Dewey—David Arquette’s bumbling small town sheriff’s deputy turned unlikely Hollywood “technical consultant”—all together again and relatively intact.
The logline for the Scream films is simple. They’re horror movies that self-reflexively acknowledge, and then upend, the established internal logic of horror movies. Even today, in a post-postmodern horror landscape where metatextuality is so commonplace as to be almost passé, the predictability of the genre is a common critical complaint. It turns out there are some people who just aren’t sold on the artistic merit of things like Paris Hilton getting impaled through the skull by a rusty pole thrown from across the room. Horror texts, particularly when given a cursory reading, repeat and rehash the same stories and patterns with little detectable shame, and these well-trod conventions make the genre fertile ground for the kind of loving deconstruction we see in Scream. But taken on a macro scale, a story that begins with Sidney being harassed and hunted by the boy who killed her mother and ends with her killing the surprise brother who—of course it turns out—was the needful masculine spark that lit her torment from the start, takes on an almost Odyssean quality. It is a journey not back to the childhood home we can see was irreparably broken even before her birth, but to a self-made adult life in the after, a place where she can look at her inherited traumas in the light of day without tensing in wait of that near obligatory one last jump scare.
I’ve loved Scream since before it was legal for me to do so; I hijacked many a preteen sleepover where everybody would have preferred to watch Miss Congeniality and tried to show them what I saw. Because I saw an epic. Sidney’s mother, Maureen Prescott, dead before the events of the films, exists in Scream and Scream 2 as an organizing force, her absence shaping Sidney’s presence. The original Ghostface killer, Sid’s boyfriend Billy Loomis (a transfixing, bloody-finger sucking Skeet Ulrich), blames his murder spree on Maureen, who was involved in an affair with his father, and in their climactic confrontation he inflicts upon Sidney not just physical wounds but a generational guilt for her mother’s perceived sexual misdeeds. Sidney, with an assist from Gale, defeats Billy, and thus lives to see her injuries heal. Her body goes on. It goes, actually, to Wes Craven’s native Ohio.
The specter of her mother continues to thread throughout Sidney’s universe in the taut first sequel, but only in Scream 3 does a more fixed portrait of Maureen Prescott arrive. Still dead, certainly, but in the third film Maureen appears not as a ghostly cloud of shame soaking into her daughter’s skin, but as a real person with a real body who, before she died, lived. Upon its release, Scream 3 was tepidly received by critics and audiences alike, probably on the grounds that, for a horror comedy, it often fails to be reliably scary or funny. Neither time nor revisits have compelled me to disagree with these original assessments. But when considered as a necessary part of a greater whole, Scream 3—a just-ok movie—does valuable work toward completing a story about what it means to survive, and survive, and keep surviving, that which a body should not.
Somewhere amidst the last dregs of winter, in early 2011, I spent a weekend in bed watching the first three Scream movies straight through almost without ceasing, or showering; once, then twice, and a third time on Sunday. A blonde had hurt my feelings without even trying, and in a way I could not yet articulate—because I was 19 years old and that’s what happens—that hurt spurred one of those coiling silver spells of loathing, of forgetting you’ve ever known anything about yourself for sure. I wanted to cocoon inside the bloody warmth of something I’d loved long before ever watching her ponytail swing down a narrow hallway.
What happened, though, a few hours in, with my heart already more or less anesthetized, was an awakening of something that had gone dormant somewhere amid all those years I’d been busy with growing up. I got hyped; I got weird. I emailed a folklore professor and requested to belatedly join a horror seminar for the coming semester, one I’d considered in passing months earlier, feeling pulled by something in my unreliable low belly. I spent most of every shift at my library job stockpiling books on horror theory—on the abject, on the history of the female body mutilated and mutilating on silver screens worldwide.
I saw Scream 4 in theaters and wrote a 3,000-word review for the school paper that I still cannot believe was allowed to go to print at its full length. And I remembered, as suddenly as if it had been stabbed into my middle, something I’d known back when I was 8 and feasting, wide-eyed, on classic gore under a favorite uncle’s pop culture tutelage, but hadn’t then the language nor life experience to name: that horror offers a theater through which the viewer can externalize the terror of everyday life by watching evil play out within defined constructs. I remembered how horror lets one address, inside candy colors and clunking allegories, the inescapable human frailty that managing everyday life demands we ignore—and then, more often than not, laughs at it. Under the glow of a horror movie on the big screen (or on somebody’s basement TV) a girl, a woman, can stare headlong at a world that means them harm and piece together, however corn syrup soaked, a map of ways to keep living anyway.
The moment was exactly, cinematically right for my return to actively gobbling up the monstrous. I was born behind the real heyday of the slasher subgenre I’d come to love, and gorge on, and write endless weird poems and multiple academic papers about. I was raised up in the onslaught of the metahorror moment, then came of age in a writhing sea of torture porn. Somewhere in the middle of that was The Ring. In recognizing I wanted to make movies someday, I developed the type of baseless superiority complex only a 16-year-old can truly nurture to its full potential. I cut my hair and applied to colleges and didn’t talk about horror anymore.
It was the perfect moment to remember horror because I was older than most Final Girls ever get to be on screen, but still coltish enough in most ways to relate. It was the perfect moment because I was pursuing a media studies degree without any hope of benefiting financially from its seizure, a fact with which came, after the despair began to feel natural, a sporting freedom to do whatever I pleased. Horror discourse blossomed in the ‘90s, while the movies themselves floundered. When I dove headlong into theory, I was mesmerized by works like Carol Clover’s prickly, reductive, absolutely essential Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992) and the shining gesture toward the mythic possibility of an eager, but still eagle-eyed, woman’s horror viewing in Isabel Cristina Pinedo’s Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasure of Horror Film Viewing (1997).
I read a lot, and I wrote a lot, and all the soft muscles that animate me recalled something. I crossed my arms inside a tower of rhetoric about movies I’d once shouted and jumped and laughed at years before, and at some point along the way, I learned how magnificently tender a Wes Craven picture can be. Raised firmly Christian and trained in the classics, the tweed-clad grandfather of fright seemed—per legend, and by his own accounts—to have mostly fallen into making people gasp. A Wes Craven horror film feels populated by real people, with not just entrails, but anxieties and plans and favorite kinds of pasta; these rightly plushy figments.
1984’s A Nightmare On Elm Street, the inventive film that introduced the world to Freddy Krueger—an undead, fire-scarred child killer who murders teenagers in their dreams, and the only respectable new boogeyman of the decade, though his glory made way for endless copycats— reigns as Craven’s masterwork. New Line Cinema is the house that Freddy built, after all. As the Elm Street saga and its attached branding, bubble gum and lunchboxes spiraled its way, swollen and swaying, to the 10th anniversary mark, Craven got the greenlight to try something new.
In 1994, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was released. It was the seventh Freddy movie; Wes hadn’t been involved in any since the third. New Nightmare, a movie about the making of a movie, and about the blurred, soupy edges between real and dreamt up, sees Craven and original Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp portray themselves as figures antagonized by a self-actualized Mr. Krueger who has escaped his fictional bounds to terrorize his creator, and to demand another film, another chance to scare. This wild and weird and under-seen foray into meta gave Craven a home gym on which to swing his arms around and stomp and test his own muster, kick out the kinks. If the slasher was dead, then what next?
The ringing phone. The exact right pitch. That’s what came next. The logo crashes on screen and then that ringing. Welcome to the postmodern horror era, kids! Scream, the unimpeachably delightful 1996 smash, gave us genre-savvy teenage boys, using a guidebook laid out for them in iconic slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th to butcher their peers, operating all the while under the misguided assumption that they had the star power to survive into the sequel. If Sidney begins that film as an amalgam of the “Final Girl” tropes, she ends it, having chosen to have sex with her boyfriend (forbidden in slasher films, of course, if you want to survive) because she wanted to. And then she chooses to shoot him, too, when the moment arrived, because she wanted to survive, as the obvious heir to the figure’s crown.
In the swiftly produced follow-up, the bond between the film’s plot and the horror landscape in which it exists gets ever tighter. Scream 2 focuses on a murder spree that kicks off at the premiere of “Stab,” the film-within-a-film based on the events that transpired at that house party in Woodsboro, California, where Sidney refused to die. The film features a villainous pair made up of the metatextual double-whammy of a vengeful mother (a role in which Laurie Metcalf turns in a performance so deeply resplendent that its failure to garner accolades leaves me twice as indignant as her Oscar loss for Lady Bird ever could), and a young Tarantino-obsessed Timothy Olyphant planning a “movie violence made me do it” defense.
The final film pushes this intertextuality to its logical conclusion. In a way, Scream 3 inverts the same The Call Is Coming From Inside The House school of terror that was used to perfect effect in the opening of the original movie. In Scream, marquee-star Drew Barrymore’s Casey Becker is harassed over the phone by a caller who has already accessed her home, and will shortly slaughter her for a gruesome, iconic first kill. In Scream 3, the call is coming from inside the studio lot. The plot centers on the Hollywood set of Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro, where actors portraying the Scream characters in a film about their torment by a killer in a goofy mask begin to die at the hands of a killer in a goofy mask.
Sidney’s hard-fought triumph over evil is the theoretical A-plot of these films, but the third chapter has more than just that to tie-up; Sid’s killing in order to live comes to involve more than just shooting a gun. Scream 3 serves as a grand finale in the escalating dance of winks and nods that is the franchise’s increasingly intimate relationship to the film industry. Craven opens with a panning shot across the Hollywood sign, then proceeds to half-heartedly skewer the movie industry for an hour. In time, it is revealed that Scream 3’s killer is the son Maureen Prescott birthed after being gang raped at a party full of industry big shots during her brief stint as an aspiring actress.
Roman Bridger (Scott Foley), Sid’s now-grown brother, behaves with the caustic impulsivity of a spoiled toddler. Having internalized his mother’s rejection using the least possible compassion toward her as a human being, and proceeded greedily down a path to destruction, the simpering young director becomes the central figure in a broken parable about the toxic culture of imbalanced power and sexual violence endemic to the film business. He had Sidney’s mother—his mother—killed by a child as punishment for getting raped, then began making a film about how this shattered his half-sister’s life.
Eighteen years after its theatrical run, Scream 3 reads as surprisingly progressive. In this moment of unprecedented openness about systemic sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse of power throughout our society—and specifically in the film industry—with a demand from survivor and allies for change, as well as for meaningful accountability and consequences for abusers, the film is more timely than ever. Scream 3 skillfully reframes the long shadow of sexual violence that shrouds the slasher film into a stage for outing the sexual violence endemic to the movie business, and to Hollywood. The young woman slated to play Sid in Stab 3 admits in a flurry of desperate fear that she had to sleep with a producer for the part, and then she’s dead. Earlier, when Roman complains about having been sequestered by police for questioning about the murders that have happened on the set of his film, that producer, with decades of success behind him, offers these words of comfort: “Hollywood is full of criminals whose careers are flourishing.” Scream 3, distributed by Dimension Films, a subsidiary of The Weinstein Company, made $161.8 million.
The film plays out neatly. Roman kills off the cast of his own movie, and then the people the movie was based on kill him. Nobody with half-rim glasses was ever going to beat Sidney. When a bullet to the head finally puts him down for good, the relief is less about how our Woodsboro three have prevailed again, and more about that protracted last showdown finally being over. Outside of his utility as the spark of a familial conflict that even the laziest Freudian could dine out on for weeks, Roman Bridger is a real dud. With the product of her mother’s assault dead at her feet, Sidney has moved not over or around but through the violence coded into her DNA, has won the war her mother lost. She has done battle against the insidious fact that being a human person with a right to exist unmolested is not enough if you happen to be a woman and, because this is a sequel to a massively popular scary movie and not real life, that’s all there is. She’s survived.
To explain the pleasure I experience while watching horror movies without sounding like I’m trying to defend my dissertation at the karaoke bar is a skill I’ve yet to master. It’s a feeling not unlike the contained thrill of riding a roller coaster, that simulation of danger, the illusion of flying too close to a sun that you could never really reach—or that maybe isn’t there at all—but it’s also a version of what happens sometimes when I’m running. When I can hear my sneakers slapping on the pavement and the cars whipping by a foot away. The adrenaline rush of a small, self-selected fear can be a balm when it extends all throughout your limbs. There is not always the right group of words, or any right order to arrange them in, to say that feeling good and feeling bad can be the same thing, sister sensations. I’ve found the why doesn’t really matter. Wes Craven himself once said, when asked why people go to see horror films, “I don’t think people like to be scared. I think people are scared, or have been scared.” Shining a light on the bad is a relief, that’s the bottom line. But light is unruly. It catches the good, too. It catches the tomorrows, and then, even when it seems least likely, they keep coming.
These movies are supposed to scare you. That’s a major point of the whole arrangement, the elaborate waltz, the money spent on the low and lilting music and the shaking starlets, the sitting together in the dark and staying quiet until somebody can’t and they shout LOOK OUT! For a certain person, of a certain mind, with a certain chemistry in their skin or cocktail in their bloodstream or vibration some place inside the two, there is nothing that better eases the sometime-nightmare of existing inside of a body, pliable and strange, than to choose to be afraid. The major players in the Scream films talk a lot about “the rules” of a horror movie in relation to how to survive the one they are in, but living through one from the sunken corner of a couch isn’t so different. There is a release in elective dread, in the easy rhythm of a jacked-up heart, in the stable rules of a staged disaster. The concept applies most directly to the slasher, and that’s why when I am looking to put my brain in a jar for a while and think only about problems that can never reach me, I’m as likely to turn on Halloween as I am Vanderpump Rules. (That’s actually a very bad comparison, as the enthralling Bravo reality show about waiters and bartenders turned—by the power vested in Andy Cohen—Instagram influencers now in their mid-30s and still feasting on amphetamines and screaming at each other in public places is, if anything, more explicitly horrifying than the ballad of ol’ Mike Myers.)
Recently, I put Scream 3 through the extremely complex Scare Test that I have developed, i.e. I focused on it solely in a dark room with my phone out of reach and waited to be scared. It failed pretty badly. It’s just not that sharp. Besides the dearth of any truly winning kills or palpable suspense, original screenwriter Kevin Williamson was, by that point, too busy supplying pop culture references to the Capeside kids over at Dawson’s Creek to pen this film, and its dialogue consequently lacks the zip of the first two.
There are moments. The soft-spoken sturdiness Campbell imbues Sidney with, wary but warm, holds up well to time. She projects a reserved confidence that’s refreshing to see reflected on screen. She’s still the same Sidney with the Indigo Girls poster on her wall that announced that there would be no killing her: “Not in my movie.” I like all of the Gale and Dewey bickering content, particularly the cheerfully out of place turn when they nearly kiss immediately after surviving both another casual Ghostface attack and a literal explosion that forced them to jump off a cliff—but to be fair, I spend huge chunks of most days proselytizing about how the romantic comedy will have another renaissance. The very early dispensing with of Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) works, considering that nothing else about that subplot ever did. Parker Posey, as Jennifer Jolie, the actor playing Gale in the Stab movies, is the standout among the new characters and, teamed with Cox as a caustic sleuthing duo with a pair of uniquely questionable hairstyles, provides most of the film’s humor. Scream 3 is oddly soft, and sometimes distracted by its own pseudo-high concept aspirations. But softness doesn’t have to mean failure.
The waning seconds of Scream 3 see Sidney back in the country, beyond Hollywood’s reach. Her mother is still dead, she’s just killed her own brother, and her father’s never been much help at all, but the gold light is gorgeous out there, and when Dewey cuts out a chunk of Gale’s own book to hide a ring in it and propose marriage, she’s not nearly as mad as you’d think. She says yes as they stand together on Sid’s porch, and the symbolic order of the universe settles, however crookedly. This chosen family, even as it reifies heteronormative, patriarchal ideas about the moral value of restoring at least a facsimile of the nuclear family unit, provides a more comforting image than horror audiences can generally expect. The small miracle of survival is so well rendered here that I don’t even begrudge the superfluous inclusion of Patrick Dempsey’s fresh-scrubbed LAPD detective in that final scene, with the implication that the viewing audience will intuit his relationship to Sidney as romantic. It doesn’t get me down. I’m just so glad she’s alive.