America should be afraid of itself. That’s the lasting message of 1996’s Scream, and one that is even more relevant on the slasher film’s 20th anniversary. For decades, horror has mined fears of small American towns, the ones that are cut off from urban evolution, where monsters lurk in the shadows. Take Halloween’s Michael Myers hacking up babysitters in small-town Illinois; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface and his chainsaw on the outskirts of Texas; the aliens, satanists, and inbred murderers of The X-Files; and, of course, Scream’s teenage psychopaths Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu Macher’s (Matthew Lillard) reign of terror in the small California town of Woodsboro.
Fear of American towns has long been a theme of horror movies. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho, Janet Leigh pulls over to the side of the road in a California town and takes refuge from the rain at the Bates Motel. Just a short time before motel owner Anthony Perkins murders Leigh in her motel room shower, he tells her, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” It’s a reminder that while we think danger lurks in America’s big cities with their higher crime rates and dense populations, it’s the quaint, picturesque small towns that often have madness lurking within them. And whether in wayward protest of Hillary Clinton or an impulse to wreck the “establishment” and plunge America into an abyss of chaos, a voter in some rural, rust-belt small town uttering Perkins’s quote wouldn’t have been too surprising to hear this year.
In Scream’s climax, just before Billy reveals himself as one of the murderers, he too says, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” He even name-checks Perkins and Psycho after he says it, reminding his victims that nothing has changed in American small towns in nearly four decades. On election night, when it became clear that Donald Trump was going to become the next president of the United States, that Psycho-cum-Scream quote echoed in my skull. America should’ve seen this coming. Its black citizens certainly did. A deluge of articles that appeared in the wake of Trump’s victory said just that, and Dave Chappelle even joked about his awareness on Saturday Night Live. I grew up in Milwaukee in the early ’90s and no matter how safe the city looked on Happy Days, I knew that Jeffrey Dahmer murdered gay men of color in my city during my youth. I knew that my family reminded me it wasn’t “safe” for me to leave the Milwaukee city limits and venture into its surrounding small towns. To us, small towns in America have always held horrors like open racism, unsympathetic cops, and, well, serial murderers; it was simply something my family came to understand after migrating from a 2,000-person town in Tennessee to Milwaukee in the late ’60s. Since then, television and film depictions of small towns have certainly added fuel to the fear. And what else is Scream if not a “dumb-ass white movie, about some dumb-ass white girls getting they white asses cut the fuck up,” as Jada Pinkett’s character comments in the opening of Scream 2 (set to D’Angelo’s cover of Prince’s “She’s Always in My Hair,” because negroes), a line which parodies the fact that Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven’s 1996 film, masterpiece that it is, is completely devoid of black characters. But if “the horror genre is historical for excluding the African-American element,” as Pinkett’s character also states, where did the stereotype of black women loudly shouting at white characters in horror movies come from?
It’s because even when we’re excluded from the narrative, as many liberals have done post-Trump’s election in their need to erase “identity politics” from the conversation and foster hand-holding for racists, we can still see the narrative. Viewing Scream through the lens of a person of color, you see how a small, close-knit white community can unravel from the dangerous behaviours of young white men who murder a woman, Maureen Prescott, then enact a series of killings as vengeance for one of their fathers being cuckolded. Much like a D.W. Griffith film, horror relies on its audience fearing for the safety of a blonde, white, American woman in distress: The opening of Scream depicts Drew Barrymore, in her home in the middle of nowhere, terrorized by a killer in a Ghostface mask before she’s brutally stabbed to death and strung up on a tree.
White protagonists often learn the enemy is themselves, as a myriad of Rod Serling–narrated stories have told us, but an audience of outsiders already knows the monsters are on Maple Street. The residents of the Maple Streets of America feel a false sense of security and they leave their doors unlocked; a black audience sees white characters who haven’t learned how to protect themselves from the ills of world. The final girl in a horror movie is usually a virgin who avoids sex, liquor, and drugs till the climax, the kind of girl who seems to supernaturally learn how to defend herself by film’s end when she bests the killer and lives to see the sequel. It’s that girl who learns that the bubble she’s lived in is full of angry, petty men who don masks to hide their identities as they try to kill her and her friends. It’s not much different from the angry, hateful Americans who spew racism behind the anonymity of a keyboard.
But there’s something truly remarkable about Scream. It bends the slasher genre’s conventions by smartly commenting on its clichés. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), our final girl, mocks the “big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door.” She has sex with her boyfriend and breaks the virgin rule. Even the cinematography, bright and vibrant, is only to lull you into a false sense of security and to make the frequent spillage of blood that much brighter. Watching Scream, you don’t need to shout at the screen because the characters end up doing it for you by breaking the fourth wall and ridiculing their fates before they occur. The awareness mirrors Pinkett’s awareness in Scream 2 where she watches a film called Stab, based on the fictional events of Scream, only to be murdered herself while watching. Scream is always one step ahead of the audience.
Furthermore, Billy is broadcast as the killer immediately and there’s never a moment in the film when you’re supposed to trust him. When he reveals himself as Ghostface, the actual surprise is that there have been two killers all along; he had an accomplice. It feels a little bit like watching horrors unfold in America’s small towns as an outsider, knowing that racist, fear-mongering people will cast a vote against you, all while remaining unprepared for the city-dwelling white people who cast their votes for Trump and truly swayed the election. You know, the likable white person, the comic relief like Stu—people who still end up complicit in the bloodbath.
Scream’s prescient message is still haunting: Your friends and the people you know are out to get you and even if you think you’re safe, even if you kill the bad guy, there’s always going to be another one leaping out at you from just outside of the frame. Watching it, you might think that if the white teenagers in a slasher film would listen to the black person telling them what to do (“Bitch, hang the phone up and *69 his ass, damn!”), then maybe they could save themselves. But the beauty of Scream is that it reminds us nobody is safe. Twenty years later, the small towns of America that we want to make great again are still filled with violence and madness. During a stop on his “thank you” tour last week in Florida, Trump said to his supporters: “But now, you’re mellow and you’re cool and you’re not nearly as vicious or violent, right? Because we won, right? Now you’re sort of laying back … you’re basking in the glory of victory.” He might as well have quoted Perkins’s entire line from Psycho that Billy neglects to finish in Scream: “We all go a little mad sometimes … haven’t you?”