VHS Horror Culture: Scream as the Ultimate Millennial Hangout Movie

Drew Barrymore in SCREAM (1996) | Miramax
Miramax

You’re drawn into the familiarity of the house’s layout: It looks just like the house of the girl who always hosted slumber parties, down to that hideous mid-‘90s gray-blue plaid living room set and wooden television cabinet. As she clicks on the gas burner, slides the aluminum foil Jiffy Pop pan over a humming flame, you can feel the scraping sound of it, smell the synthetic butter. They probably have a kitchen television, you think; three telephones to choose from once the line rings again, and again, and again. 

A modern embrace of the American ideal: large home, beautiful teenage girl, multiple electronics. It was never your home—one phone with an extra-long cord that could reach anywhere in the 950-square-foot house your family of six shared—but it was the home you were told you deserved. And then, just like that: your heroine, your teenage idol, the perfection of ‘90s suburbia as a whole is gutted before your eyes with an 8-inch buck knife in slow-roll voyeuristic terror. 

Wait—aren’t hangout movies supposed to make us feel good? How does watching Drew Barrymore stalked, stabbed, and hanged within the first 12 minutes of Scream make us feel good

Hear me out. 

Hangout movies are classified by their comforting nature and feel-good simplicity. By no means are hangout movies simplistic, cardboard-bubble-pop-films, however. Thoughtful, ensemble-driven casts, nearly plotless meandering and soundbite quotable dialogue lead you through a hangout movie as if you are a background character in that particular cinematic world. Watching, you find yourself lost somewhere in the nostalgic blur between the year the movie is set, and the year you first saw the movie itself, flinging you into a safe web of memory. 

For elder millennials—those of us born in the early to mid ‘80s—these silk threads are woven by a coming of age that existed before the world seemed to fall apart, just as technology and the internet promised to bring us together. The lack of technology, in retrospect, was a sort of protective bubble of experience. Instead of social media, texting, or FaceTime, we stayed connected with one another and the world through pop culture, specifically, by frequenting our local video store every Friday night.

We grew up in VHS culture, and the hangout movie was invented by us literally wanting to just hang out and watch rented tapes as a general weekend pastime. It’s how we chilled out while socially interacting (remember that?). When I think of those go-to VHS tapes of my teenage years, a few distinct films rise to the surface: Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, Giovanni Ribisi as the lead in Suburbia, the all but plotless Clerks that essentialized how to pretend to be cool in high school by name-dropping directors’ names. And then, there was Scream.

Before Scream, slumber parties and sleepovers were made up of a mix of ‘80s movies selected by our parents: an odd combo of John Hughes and Jason Voorhees, depending on whether mom or dad drove us to Blockbuster. These movies were definitive of our parents, and we laughed and screamed and danced through each cheesy scene, but the experiences were not our own. Right in time for us to hit puberty, finally allowed to meander through the aisles of VHS tapes unchaperoned, Scream materialized on the New Release shelves. It was a new era of slasher film, and Wes Craven would eventually be known as the guy who revived the horror-genre-gone-stale. We didn’t know anything about that, of course. We were simply excited to permanently shelve the entire Puppet Master franchise for Clueless-relevant coolness with a group of friends on a stupid plaid recliner loveseat in someone’s parent’s den chugging Surge.   

Because of the placement of Scream on the grand timeline of American history, as adults, most of us revisit these movies no longer as part of the horror genre, but instead as nostalgic indulgence. As the last group of teenagers who came of age by VHS, the ‘90s teen horror cycle that was resurrected by Scream in 1996 definitively symbolizes our collective coming of age experience. After VHS phased out permanently before some of us even graduated college, Scream marks the moment of conception for nostalgia-porn, allowing Scream to overlap the genres of horror, teen film, and the hangout movie as the center point of one euphoric Venn diagram.  

The horror fan on their own is complex: psychologically thriving on suspense and violence, horror can act as a means of visual therapy. The viewer may envision oneself as a lone survivor—or, as the killer, exploring rage and sadism with a safe emotional outlet. The psychology of horror movies can be argued as less-than positive at the onset of the torture-porn genre, leaving critics wondering what sadists get off watching disturbing close-ups of human-inflicted injury by other humans. Overall, however, we understand that horror is an artform used as a lens by which to view social anxieties and fears of the time the art is created—torture-porn post 9/11 is no different. Zombies reflect social fears of The Other; nuclear fallout and space invaders brought to you by fears during the Cold War; and, even now, psychological thrillers are navigated by horror frontrunners like Jordan Peele who explore the horror of human psychology in a post-truth Trump era. 

Nostalgia-porn however, was not conceptualized at the time Scream was released, as the nature of nostalgia requires us to look backwards at a specific time of innocence, right before we knew what was to come. For elder millennials in 1996, we weren’t just normal innocent teens or pre-teens. We were raised to be inexplicably naïve in believing our future was promising. 

We assumed we’d go to college, get a job, buy a house with a den and hideous furnishings—even poor kids like me assumed as such. Who could have predicted our generation instead would be defined by the wars on terror, two economic recessions, a global pandemic? 

We are Drew Barrymore in that infamous opening scene, the phone endlessly ringing with another threat. Of her character, Casey Becker, Wes Craven told Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, “let’s just think of her as a Catholic school girl. She does everything right, and she’s a perfect little girl, and she’s about to be eviscerated, and that’s it.”

Scream then, specifically, is a grandiose metaphor for many elder millennials’ identities. We held hands in our first, lamest romantic relationships at the start of America’s mass shooting epidemic, celebrated our sweet 16s before weapons of mass destruction shaped the world’s interactions, took out heaps of student loans just before the Great Recession. And just as political and social progress began to filter through mainstream culture, glimmering a small, dandelion’s seed floating on a light breeze, COVID-19 destroyed that hope like a child ripping the weed to shreds before we could even utter a wish. 

Scream (1996) | Miramax

We are a generation whose residual trauma of living through the ensuing chaos as adults still permeates each of life’s benchmarks. When we revisit Scream, this concept of shattered expectations at each cultural touchstone is manifested onscreen. From Ghostface’s brutal on-campus killing of Principal Himbry—which rings a different bell now that we average a school shooting every 11.8 days—to Billy and Stu covered in blood and riddled with stab wounds, yet still managing to deliver a side smile as they tell Sidney they are the killers. The film reveals what we all suspected—that the worst terrors hide in our safest, most “normal” of spaces. However, I don’t just want to revisit the trauma of that terrorI want to go back to the moment just before. To the last words uttered before I got punched in the face, the split-second before the car crash, the infinite moment felt before the asteroid plummeted into Earth. I just want to hang out there for another moment longer, in the still-safe space before Ghostface arrives for a massacre.  

Scream’s mid-‘90s release offers that exact travel destination. I remember the first time I popped Scream into my white TV/VCR combo and watched it with my best friend, our eyes painted black and eyebrows plucked pencil-thin, knees turned inward in awkward, early-adolescent chastity. It is that very visual allusion to adolescence and the loss of innocence as the heroines—and the audience’s proverbial selves—are slashed to bits, that makes Scream so meaningful as a nostalgia film. As adults, our indulgence in nostalgia is purposeful: a means to cope with a trauma. We desire the spike of dopamine, crave it, have become addicted to it—but more than that, we long to experience the feeling communally. That draw of how we communally experienced Scream is what illuminates the subgenre of nostalgia-porn horror with the same measured tropes of the hangout movie. Hang out is not a noun, but a verb. 

It is not so much that we long for a horror movie, but rather, a visual narrative that brings us back: to popcorn on couches huddled together with our friends under a big blanket on a Saturday night, to feeling out our own training bras and wondering when our boobs would grow in like Rose McGowan’s, to wondering why we were so attracted to the sexy bad boy. Though Neve Campbell was cast as the up-and-coming starlet of the ‘90s, Scream’s entire ensemble sets it apart from earlier horror films, remarking another required element for a hangout movie. This cast personifies the requirement that it must be made up of actors before they reach peak-fame: Drew Barrymore, whose face is memorialized on every marketing poster, was intentionally killed off for that reason. Campbell and Ulrich are double-dipping just months after The Craft, Matthew Lillard hadn’t even dyed his hair SLC Punk!-blue yet, Rose McGowan isn’t owning the red carpet in chain mail beside Marilyn Manson, and who the fuck is Jamie Kennedy? This fame-caveat can also be applied to Courteney Cox and David Arquette. 

What matters most is that the group of friends whose world we enter must be approachable and ordinary—we must be able to see ourselves dialing one of their house numbers on our own portable phones from our fantasy track-mansion balconies. Okay, so I never said Scream was diverse—are we trying to say there are literally zero non-white, non-rich, non-hetero people in Sonoma County? Despite this obvious flaw, the necessity remains fulfilled: you, too, have a chance with Billy Loomis in all his chiseled-cheekbones, slow-motion hair tendrils, sociopathy-sexiness. You can even be a less-annoying final girl than Sidney Prescott. Nostalgia has a way of warping the edges and blurring reality just enough

It is that hovering over reality that makes it all so appealing: walking through this dreamscape represents our surreal yearning for escapism in all forms. When we focus on the pleasure-principle half of nostalgia-porn, there is a more obvious correlation. I remember looking to my best friend during our first viewing of Scream together; I asked her why a boy licking blood from his fingers on-screen could make my stomach drop with desire, I asked her if there was something wrong with me—of course, she was busy collapsing under the weight of her own hormone geyser. Never mind the fact that Ulrich was 25 at the time, and I was just one year past wearing Lion King bicycle shorts and reading Nancy Drew books. He may not have been the first actor to drip pure lust down the edges of the television screen, but it was the first time it wasn’t a boy my own age. Despite being a homicidal maniac and would-be future incel, Ulrich’s Billy seductively flaunts a mid-‘90s center-parted haircut, releasing tendrils across his soft brown eyes, revealing an unsettling crawlspace of mystery behind it all—embodying ‘90s aesthetic perfection, he invites us into this dreamscape where anything is possible. But, it wasn’t just Ulrich who oozed teen sex—we saw ourselves as beautiful and sexy, too. We existed as a possibility in this fantasy. Even when we go back to watch that bloody scene as adults, our knees still shake with the memory of the first time we heard Loomis utter, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” 

Within another petal of our teen horror hangout movie Venn diagram, is the essence of the hangout movie: the monologue. Embodied as our spiritual guide through the film, Jamie Kennedy plays Randy, without whom we’d have been killed off quicker than a football player in a letterman’s jacket on a giant back patio. In the hangout movie, there is always the character who is granted permission to go off on those long-winded monologues—in some ways, this is totally unrealistic, as no one actually talks like that and if they did, they wouldn’t have more than one other friend. Yet this trope is necessary for several reasons. The monologue pushes us through each scene that individual one-liners cannot, and that a lack of big-drama plot and camera work cannot express emotionally. 

Aside from the functionality of the monologue in general (In Scream, Randy’s famous meta breakdown of “How to Survive a Horror Movie” is a perfect example), the dialogue of a hangout movie is its own essentialism. If you can’t sit side-by-side with your friends and deliver the lines of your favorite characters in every scene, do you even matter? It is the essence of cool to know your lines, a requirement. Like still knowing all the lyrics Tragic Kingdom decades later, you must prove you lived through that time period. In a world without internet, or viral memes, going to school on Monday in the ‘90s and quoting a few lines was our best evidence of proof we had been included, that we were cool enough to be in-the-know. 

And if it’s not quoting lines like the most irritating guy in the movie theater, it’s closing your eyes and taking a full-body inhale as a perfectly curated song transitions you into the next scene. One of the pillars of the hangout movie genre is, for that very reason, the killer soundtrack: music definitive of the film’s era that displaces your sense of present. This is why I still grin ear to ear as each scene of American Pie rolls into frame by a familiar late ‘90s chord progression, despite how fundamentally terrible and ethically problematic that movie is. In some hangout movies, the soundtrack acts as much as a character as gothic literature casts setting; Empire Records is a perfect example of soundtrack-as-character. In the ‘90s, the art of the soundtrack was arguably one of the most marketable assets of a successful film. Scream is no different, as a ‘90s-appropriate melancholy acoustic cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” shifts us from Barrymore’s vicious murder to the bedroom of the protagonist, the teen horror genre revealed with a heavy-handed audiovisual metaphor. 

While Scream’s soundtrack certainly fits the ideal construct, it’s not its main character trait as a hangout movie. In all hangout movies, there are nuggets of time implanted in each scene to remind you of those moments within the landscape of time you’ve escaped into. For some, it may be wardrobe of Clueless, for others, the cars in Dazed and Confused. In Scream, it’s that big, white portable phone. The movie could literally not exist in the same way without a lack of technology—the entire plot is based on prank calling. In this sense, Scream provides the same sort of alternate crisis-reality as an apocalypse movie: the freedom from technology. A chance to start fresh, disconnect, naively answer the phone without knowing who it is. 

The essential role of nostalgia is to bring us back to a better time; by definition, it’s a sentimental, deep longing for the past. The hangout movie genre is lucid—a subjective definition based on the viewer’s feelings. Good feelings. Dopamine-feelings. Make-you-feel-a-certain-way feelings. Nothing provides that more successfully than a trip down memory lane: a noncommittal re-watch of a movie in which you aren’t entangled by a dramatic, winding plot, or overwhelmed by groundbreaking CGI effects, or wowed by death-defying explosion and action, but instead, a simpler experience: just you, your chosen pantry snack, and the characters you’ve chosen to call on and hang out with when you need a little comfort. 

As we’ve become desensitized to catastrophic death—to the point that reactions to tens of thousands of people dying of a contagious disease feels like “hype”—we long to revisit Sid, Billy, Stu, Tatum, and Randy lounging across the base of the California-sunned water fountain. As the camera pans in, we see crowds of 20-something-year-old high school students aimlessly circling; everyone is looking forward, at each other, at the sky as they speak, their hands devoid of a tiny cellular device, their necks elongated and spry. Our pack of friends casually talk about how to gut someone in a time where that was a legitimate fear, but we are focused on the brazen mid-‘90s feminism of Rose McGowan (in all her pale skin, sweater-plaid skirt combo, peak McGowan-ness). We giggle at the innocent argument between her and a pre-Shaggy Matthew Lillard briefly have over his romantic past, as Jamie Kennedy’s monologue introduces himself as our horror-sage, and our eyes center on how Skeet Ulrich mouths the word tact. We revel in how utterly teenage boy they are in that conversation, how utterly naïve they all are, not knowing what’s really coming. And we too, want to be there with them just hanging out, rolling our eyes and sitting in the laps of our old friends with nowhere better to go, not knowing what’s coming.