"What's your favorite scary movie?" It's a game in which whether you win or lose the outcome is the same. Within the game, guessing correctly or incorrectly yields the same result just as identifying with either player yields both sadism and masochism. In the formula of the slasher film the pleasure is derived from the blurring and transcendence of binaries. Shifting loyalties between the killer and the victim/heroine, the spectator negotiates a fluid identity which is not hindered by race, sexuality or gender. Despite its neoconservative politics, the modern horror film expresses the repressed through queer bodies and subtexts. The formula of the slasher film as such makes almost any film a good candidate for a close analysis of gender and sexuality. However, I chose to focus on the postmodern horror of Scream specifically for its reflexive deconstruction of the conventions of earlier modern horror. As the narrative unfolds, the series' active intertextual comments create a different type of spectator. I argue that the way these films flow both with and against convention create a new critical spectator that is perhaps quite similar to the style of resistive spectatorship. This is one way
the horror film may be recouperated for feminine, feminist and queer forms of pleasure (Halberstam 138). In analyzing the modes of spectatorship within modern horror one may wonder what appeal it has to women, non-white and queer folks. The formal language that Scream crafts gives voice to these groups in such a way that they can engage and enjoy the genre that exploits/excludes them.
I've always been a fan of horror films, especially slasher and sci-fi horror films. My father will never forgive my mother for introducing them to me and taking me to see them as a child. I wonder now why the fascination, what is it about them? In my studies, I've been discovering terminologies for modes of identification and spectatorship that I have been experiencing for so many years now. Upon reading Carol Clover's groundbreaking essay, "Her Body, Himself," and interjecting my own expanding theories on critical/resistive spectatorship, I came up with an answer. Horror films are queer.
The queer tendency of horror films, in my opinion, lies in its ability to reconfigure gender not simply through inversion but literally creating new categories (Halberstam 139). They blur the boundaries of gender, sexuality and racial identity in the queered bodies of the killer and the victim/heroine who survives aka the Final Girl. Halberstam adds to Clover's arguments of gender that
improperly or inadequately gendered bodies represent the limits of the human and they present a monstrous arrangement of skin, flesh, social mores, pleasures, dangers and wounds. The bodies that splatter in horror films are interestingly enough properly gendered 'human' bodies, female bodies, in fact with the conventional markings of their femininity. Female bodies that do not splatter, then, are often sutured bodies, bodies that are in some way distanced from the gender constructions that would otherwise sentence them to messy and certain death. Carol Clover has named the improperly gendered, de-girled being as the 'final girl' (141).
The monster is queer. The final girl is queer. Victims, however, are the pictures of normalcy and hegemony. It is therefore imperative to explore the significance of identifications between the spectator and these queered bodies.
The horror genre is often seen as misogynist fare produced by and for men who revel in the depiction of the mutilation of the female body. With few exceptions, the killer is male and although there is an even mix between the sexes, the victims with the most scream time are female. The formula of the slasher film relies on a few simple rules which are laid out by Randy, Scream's own horror film expert:
There are certain rules one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. Number one: you can never have sex. Big no-no! Big no-no! Sex equals death, ok? Number two: You can never drink or do drugs. No, the sin factor...it's a sin, it's an extension of number one. And Number 3: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, 'I'll be right back,' cause you won't be back...You push the laws and you end up dead. See you in the kitchen with a knife.
Horror films are seemingly obsessed with teenagers, their hormones, vices and punishments. Is it any wonder the body counts are so high and that typically the only survivor is a female "virgin?" It is only this surviving virgin that
always outsmarted the killer in the big chase scene at the end. Randy is speaking specifically of pioneer Final Girl, Jaime Lee Curtis, whose strength and hormone-free wit enabled her to evade and subdue her demented brother Michael Myers. It is this ingredient, the Final Girl, which is the focus of Carol Clover's deconstruction of the horror spectator as a site for trans-gender identification.
The origins of the formula can be traced to some parts of classic horror but its main elements echo Hitchcock's Psycho quite clearly.
It's elements are familiar: the killer is the product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim's point of view and comes with shocking suddenness (Clover 24). In the case of motivation in Scream, the main killer Billy Loomis wants it clear that
movies don't create psychos; movies make psychos more creative! However, he does give in and eventually reveals that "maternal abandonment can cause serious deviant behavior," and cite both himself and Sidney as examples. At this point the masks have been removed and the humanity, while demented, has been revealed for all to see. The victims in neoclassic films such as Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the Thirteenth and Nightmare on Elm Street are terrified, hormonal teenagers who break the rules.
The great deviation in postmodern horror film Scream is that even while Randy is listing the rules, Sidney, our requisite Final Girl, is losing her virginity to killer boyfriend Billy. The filmmakers intended for the audience to now wonder "is she really going to die?" In the beginning of Scream, Drew Barrymore is brutally murdered in a lengthy sequence intentionally drawn out to force the question, "is she really going to die?" They can't kill Drew Barrymore right? Scream knows the rules as well as the viewer, but it's where the film breaks the rules that a kind of jarring of the audience occurs. The audience's reactions to modern horror are unique and complicated. While watching the movie
spectators tend to be silent during the stalking scenes (although they sometimes call out warnings to the stalked person), scream out at the first slash and make loud noises of revulsion at the sight of the bloody stump. The rapid alternation between registers-between something like 'real' horror on one hand and a camp, self-parodying horror on the other-is by now one of the most conspicuous characteristics of the tradition (Clover 41).
While the modern horror is self-parodying, the postmodern horror as parody speaks differently to its audience motivating them in turn to recognize and (de)construct the genre. This is a critical moment for the spectator and in that moment awareness is either formed or lost. Switching from inactive, or slightly interactive (yelling warnings at the screen) the spectator is brought into an active and critical awareness.
The opening sequence of Scream 2 offers an interesting take on violence and its reality for the spectator. A young, attractive, straight black couple has two free tickets to a special one-night only preview of Stab, the diegetic film adaptation of the events of the original Scream. Maureen, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, wants to see the new Sandra Bullock movie instead but her boyfriend, played by Omar Epps, insists Stab will be
great foreplay. She deflects his hormones and argues that she has little interest in
some dumbass white movie, about some dumbass white girls, gettin' they dumb white asses cut the fuck up, ok? Once they finally get inside the theatre, they realize what a spectacle is laid out before them complete with Father Death costumes and glow in the dark knives. The audience is a swarm of flying popcorn, stabbing green knives and faux chases worthy of its own circle in cinematic hell.
As the spectator is settling into the apparatus, so the onscreen characters are preparing themselves for their own cinematic escape. The boyfriend gets picked off easily enough in the bathroom as the killer mumbles something about his mommy. The killer returns to Maureen's side dressed in her boyfriend's jacket which effectively throws her off. Maureen has had very precise and well aimed remarks, up until this point, but now they begin to take on a bitter irony as says,
you came back just in time, looks like she's about to get it. The onscreen audience is reveling in the gorrific kill happening on the diegetic screen before them. In the next moment the killer takes a stab at Maureen who falls victim to her own "dumbass" criticism. While the onscreen audience cheers the killer both onscreen and off, the spectator is fully aware of the situation and the reality of what is unfolding. In one of the most memorable movie moments of the series, Jada Pinkett Smith cries out in front of the onscreen audience (the realities behind the onscreen violence now evident) with an extreme closeup of the Ghostface killer onscreen behind her.
The theater falls silent. As do the members of the real audience, the opening to Wes Craven's Scream 2, is one of the most disturbing that I have seen in a while. While the typically postmodern sequel is, for the most part, a romp of unapologetic, darkly humorous, gleefully self-conscious, reflexive, gory fun, this scene manages to hone in on the (logical) social fear of violence as entertainment, and its potential consequences. From this point on, though, the movie dives shamelessly headfirst into a deliciously slick, lip-lined and glittery-eyed rehash or the amusingly grotesquely postmodern horror prototype. And I loved every minute of it (Ostow 21.)
Perhaps this is not as memorable as the shower scene in Psycho, but remains all the more powerful as a mode of resistance and activation of the spectator.
This opening sequence, in the words of director Wes Craven,
sets the tone for the whole movie and also drops the gauntlet challenging the audience to engage in its game. This game is rife with intertextual movie trivia (did you get that reference?), the story's whodunit mystery (who is/are the killer(s)?) and challenges to the dominant paradigm (what is it about white supremacist capitalist patriarchy anyway?). Scream is asking for it; wants to be ripped to shreds at the level of form, content and message. Halberstam claims that Final Girl Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street should serve as an example of
active and aggressive spectatorship when she forces herself to take control of her dreams and wakefulness in order to evade and subdue Freddy Krueger.
Nancy is as participant/spectator-'it's only a dream'-and pulls herself out of it by physically hurting herself. In other words, she attempts to remain embodied, to be aware of what is mean to have a body, and to understand how that body can be hurt by unconscious drifting. This film suggests that it is dangerous to leave your body in the theater, watching must be self-alert and self-conscious process as opposed to the conventional notions of spectatorship as a kind of passive inertia. It is when you cease to watch yourself watching that you become the victim (145-146).
If this is the case for modern horror, Scream and its postmodern offspring put these ideas to the test hoping to engage, according to Wes Craven, the
hard-edged cynical attitude that children have today.
For the novice critic, characters like Ghostface and Randy lay out the ground rules while self-aware comments fill in the historical and critical ammunition. These tools employed by postmodern horror
set preceding styles and representational tropes against one another in a dialogic counterpoint, and allow for (and/or actively create) a deconstructive reading stance, one that calls into question the formal paradigms and ideological assumptions of the previous era's cinematic expressions (Benshoff 234). Through the creation of an active and deconstructive spectatorship the film can cause the audience to accept awareness and responsibility to come to the conclusions on their own. This form of aware spectator is not entirely new, but it is most likely new to those who do not have to actively fight for pleasure from the screen. Scream is complicating the lines of traditional identification in order to awaken the sleeping ideal/dominant spectator and bring them into the light of critical resistance that so many women, queers and people of color have been employing for some time.
Even more exciting is the validation of resistive forms of spectatorship and the establishment of the postmodern cinema as a training ground for critical thinking. It not only invites the female, the queer and the non-white gaze, the film attempts to affix the gaze into a mode of active participation from anyone willing. In turn all of this power stems from an alignment and identification with the queers, the monsters, the geeks those whose difference is what keeps them from "messy and certain death." Once activated the spectator can actively engage the "Other"-ed perspective in order to address the concerns the film aggressively raises.
As usual in Gothic, the chainsaw cuts both ways and the splattering of bodies simultaneously pulverizes otherness and sutures it to new and increasingly odd subject positions (Halberstam 160). The blurring of boundaries traditional to horror combined with a cheeky, postmodern self-awareness and critique create great possibilities for new, more inclusive and responsible formulas. I only hope that some day Jada Pinkett Smith will get her shot at being Final Girl.