It’s official: Scream 5 is on the way, and we couldn’t be happier about it. Why? Because this horror movie franchise – starring Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and Rose McGowan – has always been a Very Big Deal for women.
“Do you like scary movies?”
The iconic opening to 1996’s Scream has been cited so many times by this point that even non-horror fans will know it by heart. An unsuspecting Casey Beckett (Drew Barrymore) is home alone, preparing popcorn for a night-in watching scary movies with her boyfriend – her boyfriend who is, as it just so happens, running very late indeed. Then, the phone rings.
And, because a ringing phone demands to be answered, Casey does just that.
You may also like
Scream movie: Courteney Cox is bringing back the 90s slasher film
“Don’t hang up, I wanna talk to you for a second,” wheedles the charming voice at the other end of the phone. A wrong number, he claims, and a persistent one, too: he calls three times in a row in a bid to get Casey to chat to him. But it’s not until the subject of horror films comes up that he manages to hook our heroine into a conversation.
“Halloween,” she responds distractedly, shaking her popcorn kernels, when he asks for her favourite. “You know, the one with the guy in the white mask that walks around and stalks babysitters?”
He knows, of course. And we all know what happens next, too: that mysterious voice on the end of the phone reveals that he’s watching Casey from afar, prompting her to hang up once again in terror.
“You hang up again and I’ll gut you like a fish, you understand?” he bellows down the phone, when she tearfully answers once again.
Casey does, sadly, wind up gutted like a fish. Her death, in fact, marks the first of a slew of killings in Woodsboro, California, as a mysterious killer in a Halloween costume (known as Ghostface) begins stalking and murdering as many teens as he can.
Her death, naturally, caught contemporary audiences by surprise: Barrymore was a megawatt Hollywood star, and she took up the most prominent position on the OG movie poster. Nobody, and we mean nobody, could ever have suspected that Casey would be bumped off within the first 10 minutes.
And, more importantly, nobody could ever have suspected that Casey’s death would signify the end of countless sexist horror tropes, too.
Death by slut-shaming
For a very long time, in the bad old days before Scream, women in horror films were forced to adhere to a series of strict rules if they wanted to make it to “Final Girl” status – or, to put it more bluntly, survive to the very end.
These rules were:
- Do not drink alcohol.
- Do not do drugs.
- Do not have sex. Ever.
Good girls who followed the rules were kept alive. Those who didn’t, though, were degraded, tortured, and murdered. Horribly.
In Friday The 13th, basically every single woman who so much as thinks about sex is killed by Jason Voorhees. Nightmare On Elm Street, too, sees Tina (Amanda Wyss) fall foul of Freddy Krueger mere moments after sleeping with her boyfriend, Rod (Nick Corri).
And even the ill-fated Casey’s favourite movie, Halloween – which has long been praised for its strong female heroine – falls foul of the sexist trope.
On one side, we have our “final girl” in the form of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the virginal babysitter who does everything within her power to protect her young charges. On the other, we have Laurie’s best friends, Annie (Nancy Kyes) and Lynda (P.J. Soles).
The first abandons her babysitting duties to visit her boyfriend, and winds up getting her throat slit by Michael Myers (Nick Castle) as a result. The latter has sex with her boyfriend, and is strangled with a telephone cord within minutes of doing the deed.
Laurie, of course, survives the entire ordeal.
Rewriting the “final girl” formula
The Scream franchise, though, makes a point of rewriting the narrative for its female characters. Because, as Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott tells the killer early in the film, she’s sick of sexism in horror movies.
“They’re all the same,” she says. “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door? It’s insulting.”
You may also like
Candyman: everything we know about Nia DaCosta’s horror film sequel
This final girl, unlike those who came before her, isn’t here to play by the rules. She has sex with her boyfriend, sure, but she survives all four Scream movies. In fact, she gets stronger, and tougher, and more adept at doing battle with psychotic serial killers throughout.
Best of all, though? Sidney doesn’t survive Ghostface’s multiple attacks because she’s a “good girl”. She survives because she’s fucking smart. Because she fights back. Because, yeah, she fights dirty, too. And because, when most horror movies would have the supposedly eliminated killer come back for “one last scare”, she shoots that motherfucker right between the eyes.
“Not in my movie,” Sidney says, making it all too clear that – in Scream, at least – women have some control over their own destiny.
The OG squad
Of course, Sidney is not the only strong woman in the Scream franchise: far from it, actually.
There’s Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox), the tenacious and driven journalist who’s willing to do pretty much anything to get that scoop and further her career. She asks difficult questions of the cops and Ghostface’s victims alike. She harangues her cameraman. She employs all of her feminine wiles on young police officer Dwight “Dewey” Riley in a bid to find out more about the case – and, come Scream 2, she’s not afraid to show her emotional side when she realises Dewey means more to her than just another news hook.
Gale doesn’t just survive the franchise: she thrives. Her ability to adapt to and analyse each dangerous situation helps her stay out of harm’s way, and sees her career go from strength to strength, too.
Then there’s Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan), a clear stand-in for the popular and “big-breasted” teen of schlocky horrors past. Tatum is no two-dimensional airhead or throwaway character, though: she’s integral to the story.
Sensitive to Sidney’s emotions, Tatum works hard to protect her best friend from invasive press questions and insensitive comments from their peers. She urges Sidney, too, to consider her late mother’s infidelities not as symptoms of her own immoral behaviour, but as clear signifiers that she was unhappy. And she’s at her BFF’s side when Sidney gets a call from Ghostface, urging her pal to put the phone down and stop engaging with the killer.
Yes, Tatum dies at Ghostface’s hand, but she doesn’t go easily. Like Sidney and Gale before her, she fights, and she fights hard.
Unfortunately for Tatum, though, the serial killer fights harder on this occasion. But, whereas an old horror might have killed her off without much thought, the shockwaves of Tatum’s death are felt enormously by those characters she’s closest to.
And let’s not forget the likes of Mrs. Loomis (Laurie Metcalf) and Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), the unexpected killers of Scream 2 and Scream 4, either. Both were meticulous when it came to planning their murder sprees, both had believable motives for tipping over the edge. Both were the sort of deranged mastermind villains you love to see on screen. And both challenged Sidney to up her game, to work harder, to confront all of her preconceptions about Ghostface.
Scream’s enduring legacy
It’s been a long time since Scream first hit cinemas. And, while it was by far from a perfect film – there’s a lot to be said for its lack of diversity – the impact of its feminist rewrite of the horror genre is all too clear to see.
Consider Emily Blunt’s unnamed character in A Quiet Place, for example, and the plan she strictly adheres to in order to ensure the survival of herself and her unborn baby – despite being thrown a curveball in the form of a very sharp nail.
And, despite losing her virginity in season one of Stranger Things, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) ignores her slut-shaming schoolmates to become a fierce ally in the fight against the Demogorgon. She survives, too, which is more than can be said for Shannon Purser’s virginal Barbara “Barb” Holland.
Elsewhere, we have Elisabeth Moss’ Cecelia, who takes her destiny into her own hands in The Invisible Man and point-blank refuses to let anyone tell her she’s wrong about her presumed dead ex-boyfriend.
And in It Follows, death truly does lead to sex but not as we know it when Jay (Maika Monroe) learns she’s the latest recipient of a sexually transmitted curse in which death inches closer and closer to you.
You may also like
How Jordan Peele’s Us centres black women in horror
That’s not where our well-written female characters of horror end, of course. Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) really leans into cult life in Midsommar, much to the misfortune of her boyfriend. And, sure, Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is murdered on her birthday in Happy Death Day, but, when she begins reliving the day repeatedly, she sets out to find the killer and stop her death.
The Babadook’s Amelia (Essie Davis) is a multi-faceted feminine woman, whose haunting is inseparable from the inner turmoil she suffers trying to look after her troubled son by herself. Ready Or Not’s Grace (Samara Weaving) is hunted through a Gothic mansion, weighed down by her wedding gown, but soon turns her bridal attire into a first aid kit and a weapon. The Invitation’s Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) gives every bit as good as she gets when she attends a dinner party hosted by her boyfriend’s ex-wife. Naomie Harris’ Selena kicks some serious zombie butt in 28 Days Later.
And don’t even get us started on Halloween 2018, which sees OG “final girl” Laurie team up with her daughter and her granddaughter to take Michael Myers down once and for all.
Yes, some horror films remain as sexist AF – but there’s no denying that the Scream movies shifted the narrative overwhelmingly towards smart, capable, well written female characters.
Fingers crossed, then, that the recently-announced Scream 5 keeps this momentum going.
Main image: Scream/Dimension Films/Paramount Pictures/Rex Feature
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.