Scary Movies, by Paul Pescador
There is a moment when the summer heat finally calms and fall sneaks up on you. You feel it in the morning, cool and foggy. Different from other parts of the country, the shift in season is more subtle in LA. I notice it in the light as the harsh summer sun softens. I go to Target with Daniel and the back-to-school stuff has been put away and all the Halloween costumes and decorations are now front and center. Glittered bats, fake blood, plastic pumpkins. Fall is here. I hate when it gets dark early, I sit at my office, it’s only 5pm and the daylight is gone. As someone who grew up in Southern California, in the desert of the Coachella Valley, I recognize fall by the crispness in the air, and a wet mildewy smell that reminds me of pumpkins.
I grew up in the middle of nowhere; the closest house was a few miles away. My family lived alone on a one-acre plot surrounded by tumbleweeds. When I was a child, no one came to my house at Halloween, as it seemed too scary; and not Halloween scary but murder and rape-y scary. The house was pushed back on the property, and you would have walk up a long, low-lit drive away in order access it. This need for isolation came from my father, who felt that it was the only way for him to find peace and quiet. The rest of us were not as excited by this. In middle school my mom and I would spend weeks decorating the front yard with Halloween decorations, taking many trips to the local supermarket and barraging the front lawn with fake pumpkins, orange lights, and cobwebs to indicate that their was some life inside.
Growing up in the middle of nowhere lent itself to fear. My dad was a nurse and would work the night shift at the local hospital. When my brother and I were young, we would sleep in my parent’s bed with my mom; as we were too afraid to sleep alone. My mother would make us pray before going to sleep. She would tell us that we needed to appreciate these moments together, as we might die in our sleep. A lesson which was good in intention, but scared us to death. My mother was quite protective. The fear and guilt of Catholicism was ingrained in her. I remember her telling me not to leave her sight when we went to the store, as we could be taken away by strangers. She would read us stories from the newspaper about other children who were kidnapped and killed, in order to remind us of the bad people in this world. This fear was in her blood. She grew up in a predominantly Spanish-speaking border town in south Texas. She lived in a two-story, two bedroom house with her parents and eight siblings. She would tell us about the ghosts they would hear, crying kids, calling for them at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night. Whether these stories were true or imagined, two of her siblings did die in that house. One was an infant, who was only a few weeks old, and the second was five and died in her sleep. The cause of both deaths were unknown.
Growing up in a protective family, we couldn’t eat sugar or watch scary movies. I remember talking to other kids in elementary school whose parents let them watch horror movies, and they would describe to me the violent imagery they would see. I would recreate these gory images in my mind and freak myself out. I remember watching these films when I was older and thinking how fake those films looked, and that the images in my mind had been so much more terrifying.
I started to think about writing this essay a few months ago, while watching Scream 4 (2011). This is an embarrassing statement, as the film was quite bad. The original Scream (1996) was noted for invoking references to the horror genre as way to reveal the films’ construction. By the time Scream reached its fourth iteration, the series had already gone through multiple sequelizations and had been parodied in many forms. While it’s self-consciousness felt fresh in 1996, by the fourth film, the series was too self conscious. Watching this film did encourage me to think about the lineage of the Scream series and think about self-reflexivity in the horror genre.
In Scream, Craven used filmic references as plot devices, employing strategies from well-known horror films to advance the plot of his film and to quote films that his audience would be familiar with. This doubling allows his audience to be self-aware in the moment of their fear. The film’s most famous line, “What’s your favorite scary movie?”, indicates its acknowledgement of its own making. Throughout Scream, characters are constantly discussing the structural rules of a horror film, what one needs to do in order to stay alive: 1) Don’t have sex, virgins are the only ones who live. 2) Don’t go up the stairs. 3) Don’t say that you will be right back. Besides developing this set of logic, the characters themselves visually resemble characters from previous films. For example, Neve Campbell, the main protagonist, looks a lot like Jamie Lee Curtis, who in her youth, starred in multiple horror films. The most conceptually tied character to film history is Drew Barrymore, the first victim. At the time of Screams’ release Drew Barrymore was the film’s most famous actor, and between her blonde wig and early death, her presence alludes to Janet Leigh in the film Psycho (1960); whose character was killed a third of way into that film. Craven mentions Psycho often, in one instance, the character of Leigh’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (from Psycho), has the same last name as the character of Billy Loomis, Neve Campbell’s boyfriend. Scream constantly verbally quotes Psycho, too, including Craven’s use of Hitchcock’s phrase “We all go crazy sometimes.” This quoting becomes a way for the film to call attention to its history.
Scream is by no means first film to quote Psycho, which has been taken apart often over the past 50 years, in remakes, sequels, and video art. For this essay, I am most interested in Gus Van Sant’s in 1998 remake, in which he recreated in the original Psycho shot by shot. Remaking a film so tightly that all expectations of narrative variation, or new content is gone; the viewer already knows what’s going to happen: A blonde woman will walk into a shower and be murdered by the caretaker of the hotel who thinks he is his mother, etc, etc. While Van Sant’s film is more update, more violent and sexually explicit, the film is mostly a structuralist exercise in repetition. Horror films are driven by fear and emotions, it is the fear that keeps us up at night after we leave the theater. By remaking a film, we are able to question that fear, the film becomes a set of instructions that can be done again and again. Van Sant’s rigorous adherence to the original avoids the schmaltz typical of a Hollywood remake, allowing the characters of Norman Bates and Marion Crane to be played by anyone. There is something comforting in this coldness, ideas are affirmed, similar to watching a sitcom.
I compare Scream with the Psycho remake as both films question and reinforce the way in which viewer’s consume violence. Both Scream (1996) and Psycho (1998), came out before the Columbine shooting in 1999. Scream is about a generation of apathy, we see teenagers who are jaded by the image of death; they are familiar and comfortable with death. They laugh at those who have died and kill one another as they have learned from the movies. In Psycho, we see small moments where Gus Van Sant inserts his own voice as director and adds stock imagery of clouds, animals or a naked woman as way to visually explain the psychology of his killer. Most of these images refer to television and they show us how Norman Bates’ mind absorbs media. There is a contradiction at play both of these films, both filmmakers want us to question the manner in which we emotionally react to violence by calling attention to film’s artifice, but they still use violence to do so. Neither film is capable of transcending the genre they are working in, and instead both films end up producing a subgenre of self-conscious horror which can be followed through the rest of Scream series as well as films like The Blair Witch Project (1999), Saw (2004), and Paranormal Activity (2007). I do want to say there is a moment in Scream 2 (1997), where Craven plays against apathy and the film, for me, transcends this trope. In the opening sequence of this film within a film, the first two victims, played by Omar Epps and Jada Pinkett-Smith, go to a midnight screening of the new “film” Stab (which is a based upon the first Scream movie) and are both killed off in the theater. Pinkett-Smith is stabbed in her seat and tries to get help, but the theater is filled with teenagers dressed up in costumes and no one helps her because they assume she is part of the show. Only when she pulls herself onto the stage does the audience realize that an actual person is dying, and they take off their masks and acknowledge her death. Gus Van Sant negotiates this transcending as well with Elephant (2001); a film about the Columbine massacre. The film takes place at a high school leading up a school shooting. The film is quiet and tries not to fetsishize the violence. Elephant is not a horror film. When the victims are killed, it mostly occurs offscreen and the sounds of gunshots are soft, popping noises. Van Sant avoids reducing the film to simple answers of why violence happens, and instead Elephant is a remembrance.
I rarely watch horror films anymore. Though I still enjoy the thrill of being terrified, it affects me more than it used when I was younger. Now it will take me a few days to separate myself from the experience. I will get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and think that there is someone in the shower waiting for me. More things scare you when you get older.
My parents’ house is still there. Its no longer in the middle of nowhere, a high school was built a block away and now it is surrounded by tract houses. I don’t go home often, but when I do I still don’t like staying there alone by myself. Even though everything feels smaller, the front yard still feels eerie and dark, and the house still feels tucked away, hidden from the street. Despite all the new properties around it, its still quiet. During the winter nights, you can hear the wind as it moves across the desert plane. I find this stillness unsettling.