When Wes Craven’s Scream appeared on the scene in 1996, horror was stuck in a rut. The fun, philosophical innovations that characterized the genre in the ’80s had been reduced to derivative, repetitive slasher flicks: stab, wipe, repeat. The cultural ascendence of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs kicked off an era in which stylish cat-and-mouse thrillers with horror elements had dominated mainstream cinema, while more traditional teen slasher fare languished.
That all changed when Scream debuted five days before Christmas in 1996. In one single, terrifying opening scene, and with one now-immortal line — “Do you like scary movies?” — Scream transformed ’90s horror and paved the way for generations of smart, genre-savvy filmmaking to come.
As this self-referential icon turns 25, horror is currently enjoying a renewed “golden age,” with modern horror films like Get Out (2017) and Hereditary (2018) being hailed as genre-elevating masterpieces. With so many of these cerebral horror films shaping cultural discourse, it’s important to recognize the role Scream played in the genre’s evolution.
For while it embodies the quirks of ’90s horror — including overaged teenagers, trope-filled plots, and enjoyably over-the-top deaths — Scream also completely up-ended trope-filled scary movies, arguably forever. The horror genre has since become so saturated with films following Scream’s self-aware horror-comedy model that it’s worth recognizing that all this metatextuality basically has a single point of origin. We wouldn’t have films like Get Out, The Cabin in the Woods (2011), or even 2020’s Promising Young Woman without Wes Craven’s hit meta franchise — and we can’t talk about modern horror without talking about Scream.
Scream’s knowing use of horror movie tropes was iconic, terrifying, and game-changing
This might sound like a bland observation from the vantage point of 2021, but in 1996, Scream’s use of other horror movies to navigate its own plot was unique. There’s a well-known idea that horror movies don’t exist in horror movies — that the characters often act as though they’ve never seen one. While the genre is usually extremely self-aware, that self-awareness typically exists offscreen, as a relationship between the filmmaker and the audience. The characters themselves don’t have a clue, and therefore make choices that viewers find to be extremely unwise or naive, because the characters don’t understand the concept of a horror movie.
Wes Craven had tried to explore this idea once before, in his clever, very meta 1994 film Wes Craven’s New Nightmare — but it didn’t quite work. Heather Langenkamp — who grew up starring in Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street series as the feisty teenager Nancy, opposite Robert Englund’s razor-handed Freddy Krueger — stars in a cheeky narrative that’s as much about Hollywood as it is about horror. Langenkamp plays a version of herself, the grown-up actress, realizing that Freddy Krueger (played once again by Englund, who also plays himself) actually exists and is hunting her in dreams. To stop him, Craven, also playing himself, decides they must make more Nightmare on Elm Street films, conveniently giving the movie an excuse to nostalgically revisit the earlier films as a nod to diehard fans.
Craven’s idea was possibly a bit too new in 1994 — we were still five years away from Being John Malkovich’s celebrity navel-gazing, after all — and the attempt at reviving the Nightmare franchise flopped at the box office. Nonetheless, critics found it fascinating. “This is the first horror movie that is actually about the question, ‘Don’t you people ever think about the effect your movies have on the people who watch them?’” Roger Ebert wrote.
Perhaps Craven realized that he had had the right idea with New Nightmare but stumbled in its execution. With Scream, he took a step back into the realm of the purely fictional, while still exploring the effect of horror movies as a phenomenon in a way that invited viewers to apply their understanding of the genre to what they were seeing.
“Scream mainstreamed metatextual storytelling and made that analytical understanding of the genre mainstream in a lot of ways,” says Sam Zimmerman, a curator at the horror streaming service Shudder and former managing editor of Fangoria magazine.
Scream accomplished all of this in its first scene. In case you need a refresher or haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the film, here’s what happens in Scream’s first 12 minutes: A teenager, home alone, is settling in for a relaxing evening in front of the TV. The phone rings. At first, she thinks it’s a wrong number — until the caller calls back. He engages her in a friendly chat, getting her to talk about her favorite scary movie. It’s Halloween, she tells him, absently fondling a giant carving knife similar to the one Michael Myers wielded in the famous 1978 slasher. The caller plays along — but then abruptly turns sinister, asking her to tell him her name “because I want to know who I’m looking at.”
From there, the caller proceeds to terrify her, making it clear he’s watching the house and then gutting her boyfriend right before her eyes — but not before making her play a macabre game of “guess the horror movie.”
Ultimately, the killer drives her out of the house and brutally murders her on her front lawn. The whole sequence is riveting, shocking filmmaking — and crucially, it referenced other horror movies as it kicked off a horror movie full of references to other horror movies.
Not only was Scream telling on itself — this is a horror movie whose characters know about horror movies! — it was also subverting a major horror trope right from the start. The key to Scream’s unforgettable opening scene is that it’s not supposed to happen.
Audiences familiar with countless slasher flicks would have instantly read the perky, innocent blonde as Scream’s main character and been primed to relate to her. Craven’s decision to cast Drew Barrymore in the role furthermore signaled that here was our lead. Barrymore was a child star from her role in Spielberg’s blockbuster 1982 film E.T., and a celebrity member of a royal Hollywood family, the Barrymores. Scream’s opening scene presented her as prime fodder for a Final Girl — the typically virginal, sweater-wearing blonde who survives the movie.
But Scream, overturning all assumptions, slaughters Barrymore, audaciously, right in front of our eyes. Once those first 12 minutes are over, it’s clear that all bets are off.
If Scream had stopped there and gone on to tell a more conventional horror tale, it would still be influential because it acknowledged the existence of horror movies and their tropes, while subverting audience expectations. But the film keeps going: The entire movie is jammed with self-referential storytelling.
The plot picks up with a set of high school friends learning about the death of Barrymore’s character, Casey. One of them, Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, is especially disturbed because her mother was recently murdered; although the man convicted of the crime is in prison, Casey’s killer seems to be targeting her. While she tries to evade him, her friends discuss both murders as though they were late-night horror fare, all while cutthroat reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) pursues Sidney in search of a story.
At every turn, the film’s script, written by Kevin Williamson, dissects well-known horror clichés. Even as one character outlines the “rules” of surviving a horror movie, Scream is breaking each one as it goes — often with the characters cheekily drawing attention to them while they’re being broken. As Roger Ebert put it in 1996, “Scream is self-deconstructing. Instead of leaving it to the audience to anticipate the horror clichés, the characters talk about them openly.”
Prior to Scream, horror movie characters usually didn’t know what story they were in until it was too late — and when they did manage to wake up and seek agency against the narrative, à la Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, their efforts usually ended badly for them. The notable exceptions to this pattern were the scream queens. These were female characters who fronted long-running franchises: Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie in Halloween, Ashley Laurence’s Kirsty in Hellraiser, and Langenkamp’s Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street, for example. Nearly all of these characters started out vulnerable and helpless but over the course of their franchises, they steadily gained the power to manipulate their stories.
Sidney, however, starts her narrative arc at the end of another horror story entirely — she’s been a witness to the murder of her mother. She’s not only self-aware because she’s aware of horror movies; she’s primed to survive this killer because she’s already survived her mother’s killer. Over the course of the Scream franchise’s four films (a fifth film is now slated to arrive in 2022), Sidney’s survival skills ramp up, as does her ability to fight back against the genre she’s in, and by the fourth film, she’s effortlessly turning horror tropes against her would-be killers. And the killings are all inspired by a litany of famous horror villains.
By making the characters be part of a knowing horror audience, Scream single-handedly opened up a new procedural dimension for horror films — and it wasn’t just about meta references and tongue-in-cheek satire. Plenty of genre-savvy films (including Final Destination, Shaun of the Dead, The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, The Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, and Get Out) would follow in Scream’s wake. Each one explored the idea that it’s possible to know what story you’re in, and to not only be aware of the tropes, but also use your understanding of them to manipulate the situation and survive (or whatever your objective might be).
For that narrative tension to be effective, the viewers must bring their own sophisticated knowledge of genre to a given film — and that’s another thing Scream furthered: the audience’s genre awareness.
“These days, anyone knows what a Final Girl is,” Zimmerman tells me. “In Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, even though the movie’s really funny, the way they talk about genre is straight-up academic. They’re talking straight-up Carol Clover stuff” — referring to famed academics like Clover who’ve dissected horror films for their larger sociocultural implications, from their themes of gendered violence to their use of allegory.
Zimmerman points out that even cerebral, thematically ambiguous indie horror films like 2015’s It Follows or 2016’s The Witch can break through into the mainstream these days, mainly because audiences seem to have embraced layered storytelling. “People are willing to give things a chance more,” Zimmerman says, crediting the rise of on-demand and streaming services for allowing audiences to pay attention to riskier, smaller-budget films. “I think there’s a generally more cinematically savvy audience happening right now.”
This knowing genre-referencing is only one element of what Scream gave us. Perhaps the more permanent way Scream altered the horror landscape was by providing a template for stories in which the characters’ pre-awareness of the existence of horror deepened the layers of tension and meaning in a story.
After Scream, movies were free to examine the role horror plays in the real, post-9/11 world
As cinema entered the late ’90s, we began to see more explorations of postmodernism and metatextuality in horror. 1997’s Funny Games shockingly broke the fourth wall to make points about narrative control. 1999’s Blair Witch Project toyed with the line between reality and fiction and kicked off a decade-long craze for the “found footage” subgenre, with its multiple points of view and layered storytelling. 1999’s The Sixth Sense used unreliable narration and careful cinematic technique to deliver one of the most famous twists in movie history. Even horror franchise reboots delved into meta storytelling: At one point in 1998’s Halloween H20, the film’s ensemble of teen characters watches Scream 2.
This use of narrative rule-breaking wasn’t just superficial or stylistic. Films like Blair Witch and Funny Games were successful not just because they subverted the “rules” of horror, but because they did so in ways that shocked and disoriented audiences. The question of whether the characters were able to navigate, control, or manipulate their narratives became a major source of tension and conflict that added to the films’ feeling of horror.
As a storytelling approach, metatextuality evolved and became especially prominent throughout the aughts, when post-9/11 horror cinema injected an often bleak, chaotic nihilism into its themes and subjects. The unpredictability of post-Scream horror storytelling aligned with the overwhelming post-9/11 sense that whatever was happening onscreen was completely out of anyone’s control — sometimes even the film’s production team.
If, for example, a character could break the fourth wall completely — like Sadako breaking through the TV screen to pursue her victims in 2000’s Ring and its 2002 American remake The Ring — then how can the audience ever be safe? What if you think you’re in one story but wind up in a different one, like the hapless victims of 1999’s Audition, 2009’s The House of the Devil, or 2011’s Kill List? What if the cinematic tricks of a movie itself ultimately manipulate you, as with 2003’s High Tension, 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters, or 2005’s The Descent?
Alongside narrative subversion, the genre also delved into trope deconstructions, often reminding us that the horror on display was a mask for a different, larger kind of horror. Films by Spanish directors like The Others (2000), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and The Orphanage (2007) deployed horror tropes to explore the long-term impact of grief and violence. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006) used the classic monster movie formula to explore classism and climate crisis, while Swedish hit Let the Right One In (2008) made its monster the heroine instead of the villain, and turned typical horror fare into a coming-of-age love story that examined bullying and social ostracism.
Much of this exploration involved giving agency to women in horror who had long been denied it, often relegated to the role of helpless victim. In American horror, a glorious glut of women-centered films took the self-awareness of Scream’s Sidney Prescott and made it a narrative starting point, so that the Final Girl trope (The Descent, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Rise of Leslie Vernon) as well as the monstrous feminine (Ginger Snaps, May, Teeth, Jennifer’s Body) has continually been interrogated, reexamined, and reconfigured.
Women in horror emerged from the first decade of the 21st century with more autonomy, and proceeded to put it to good use: Films like American Mary, Lovely Molly, and Jug Face explored the way women navigate systems of oppression while still maintaining their agency. 2014’s Housebound allowed its heroine to be surly and unlikeable in the face of major gaslighting; 2011’s You’re Next gave a girl a crossbow and let her tear shit up. More recent films of feminine destruction and vengeance like 2016’s Raw and Revenge arguably paved the way for genre-bending, subversive hits like 2020’s Promising Young Woman, and all share a lineage to Scream.
Then there’s the influence Scream had on Jordan Peele, who included it in his list of films that directly influenced Get Out. Another game-changing horror hit, Get Out followed Scream’s example in that it, too, explicitly used its audiences’ understanding of the genre to further its narrative goals. Where Scream’s aim was to use the horror genre against itself, Get Out used horror to illustrate and explain aspects of modern racism. Peele also cited Scream’s fourth-wall-breaking, genre-savvy characters as influencing his own, noting that the film’s “postmodern reference,” and its characters who’ve watched horror movies, were more realistic than in the typical horror film.
Films like Get Out and Promising Young Woman may spearhead a generation of socially conscious films that use genre tropes to comment on the times we’re living in. This probably wasn’t what Craven and Williamson anticipated when they set out to terrorize Sidney Prescott and her friends — but it seems like a fitting evolution of the journey that Scream began.
Correction, October 26, 10:30 am: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Freddy Krueger as the villain of Friday the 13th rather than the Wes Craven franchise Nightmare on Elm Street. Ghostface would be very disappointed, since every good horror fan knows the villain of Friday the 13th is Jason’s mom.