When was my first scream? Was it when I was born? During my first hide and seek, when my father hid between the coats in the coat rack? When I (1) fell in love and (2) discovered that the object of my affection didn’t share this feeling?
These all seem justified reasons to produce a high-pitched sound.
Screaming is probably one of the most basic ways to respond to something out of the ordinary, be it pleasant or painful. We scream when we peak sexually and when we endure physical pain, when we are ecstatically drunk at parties (or is that just me?) and when we can’t hold back anger, sadness and fear. The genuine scream though, the one we don’t anticipate, don’t decide on, the short and sudden one before a proper assessment, comes from a place of surprise.
Surprise in cinema comes in many shapes and colors: plot twists, surprise endings, character evolutions, genre shifts… But we don’t scream when these happen because it tickles the brain, not the body.
The body plays a central role in the horror genre: it is teased, hunted and fed on. And we ain’t talkin’ fiction here. Horror films target our bodies in the screening room. There are horror films with a focus on dread and discomfort (Rosemary’s Baby), gore (The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence anyone?) and jump scares (The Descent). Of course, many films within the genre make a balanced mix (e.g. The Babadook’s clever way of connecting character to classic horror tropes).
Anticipating the jump scare is like seeing someone hold a balloon in one hand and a needle in the other: we know it’s going to happen, but we don’t know exactly when.
So it goes a bit like this: the protagonist (our female story companion) hears a strange noise from within the house, looks up from her book and yells ‘Who’s there?’, only to be answered by dead silence. She gets up slowly and looks around suspiciously. But everything seems fine. She starts to walk slowly through the house, anticipating the worst when she opens her closet and looks under the bed. But nothing. She sighs in relief. ONLY TO BE ATTACKED FROM THE BACK.
We jolt as she jolts.
We scream as she screams.
It’s the ultimate scream-scene-cliché. And it is seen in multiple variations in the Scream franchise.
American director Wes Craven had (past tense sadly) a thing for horror clichés. He knew what they were and he used what worked, but when overuse became a risk, dared to skew the rules. After five sequels to his breakout hit A Nightmare on Elm Street, he decided to revive the franchise with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994), using the actors playing themselves as meta-characters for a new horror story. Two years after this experiment of mixed quality, he combined horror with meta-horror in a more subtle and successful way.
Scream (1996) was adapted from Kevin Williamson’s script and was built around the clichés of the slasher genre, in the sense that the characters are very much aware of them: they joke around, saying that they shouldn’t have sex if they want to survive, that the black guy dies first, that the killers always come back. But the thing is, jokes aside, they are trapped in a genuine horror story. Wes Craven doesn’t let them leave the genre, making Scream a different kind of parody than we are used to. Knowing the rules doesn’t exactly protect the characters. It’s just a playful story layer. This explains the weird fact that it was possible to make, in turn, a parody of Scream, which had a more traditional mock-angle and carried the title of original script of Scream: Scary Movie.
When I saw Scream as a 14-year old (snuck in the movie theatre, accompanied by my older brother and wearing boots to seem bigger), the idea of ‘parody’ didn’t cross my mind once, explained by the simple fact I didn’t know what the characters were referring to. But I jolted and screamed, because Scream is genuinely scary.
And I got hooked.
And I still don’t know if that was a good thing.
I checked my closet every night and looked under the bed. I might even have said ‘Anyone there?’ on a few occasions.
After Scream 2 (1998), I got hooked in a different way.
And I still don’t know if that was a good thing neither.
By the time the sequel hit home entertainment-stores, we owned a VHS-player. So after school, I watched Scream and on other nights, I watched Scream 2. Was it the scarcity of options in our VHS collection? Was it a way of dealing with the fears the movies evoked? Did I deliberately want to make my parents think I was autistic or psychopathic? My mother didn’t get it. But once, when I was sick, she watched the film with me. Even though afterwards she still didn’t get it, I’m still thankful for those 111 minutes of shared screams.
After Scream 2, the Internet existed too. I had to go to the library to go online and checked everything there was to know about the upcoming sequel. I dreamed Scream-variations (of which some were quite film-worthy) once a week until the Scream 3premiere (2000).
I was allowed to go and see the closing chapter of the trilogy in the cinema once. I went four times (even though it was bad) and told my parents. I got punished (not because the movie was bad), which was quite new for me. Underage, autistic psychopaths try to keep a low profile, you see.
And even though I was all grown up and surprisingly un-serial-killer-y, I went to see Scream 4 (2011) only once (even though it was good). In the meantime I had learnt what Lacan said about fear: that it is the only emotion that doesn’t lie.
Nowadays, I still honestly jolt and scream during horror films, even though more than half of them are caused by sudden Dolby surround sound effects.
But somehow, nothing can beat the moment I saw Scream for the first time, when everything in it surprised me and when I screamed for the very first time in a cinema.