“What’s your favorite scary movie?”
That’s one of the most memorable lines from the Scream movies, home to one of slashers’ hottest Final Girls, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). The film follows a series of murders in the fictional California town of Woodsboro. The killer is a slasher-obsessed psycho, who’s trying to make a real life horror movie.
Any victim who doesn’t know the right horror trivia…gets slashed. Except for Sidney–she’s tough enough to subvert the rules. I’d definitely put her on my zombie apocalypse response team. Sidney is one badass chick and Neve Campbell plays her well in all four Screams.
Decades ago, Neve Campbell (Party of Five) was a fairly big celebrity when Scream premiered in 1996. Campbell joined a star-studded cast including Courtney Cox, Drew Barrymore and David Arquette. This move tricked a lot of viewers into thinking it would be just another teen slasher. But when Scream was released, it turned the horror genre on its head with witty, meta commentary on the rules of horror.
In Scream, this highly intellectual wit is brought to life by Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven. And it’s this meta quality, that allows Sidney Prescott to have agency as a victim, viewer and possible killer.
That meta quality is thanks to the screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, known for dramas Dawson’s Creek and Vampire Diaries. This writer knows teens, which is integral to the slasher genre. He even worked as an editor on Seventeen magazine in the 90’s. In all of his work, Williamson is extremely meta.
Think of meta as hyper-awareness–thinking about thinking. For example, metafiction is a genre where the characters themselves can be writers. Think David Duchovny in Californication or Johnny Depp in The Rum Diaries. When films have characters who are writers and creators, it opens up a world of intellectual possibility.
In Scream, it allows the killer to taunt his victims with horror movie trivia. Near the beginning on the film, the killer asks Sidney that famous question, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” Sidney’s response illustrates the concept of meta:
“What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big breasted girl, who can’t act, who always runs up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”
Here Sidney distances herself from the movie, by transforming herself from a character to a viewer. She sounds more like a rowdy teen in the front row of a slasher screaming, “He’s behind you! Run bitch!” Declaring your role to the killer? That’s meta. And in doing so, she also removes herself from the girls-who-get-killed list.
The meta-quality of Scream allows Sidney to be the Final Girl, and write her very own character. Much like Carrie, the Final Girl from the paranormal thriller Carrie, Sidney is not afraid to kill. But unlike many Final Girls, Sidney gets to break the rules. Sidney Prescott is considered one of the top Final Girls for many reasons. She’s gained her title by following the rules of horror–she goes through painful trials and ultimately annihilates her attacker. In short, she saves herself.
And saving herself is important for Sidney, since her parents aren’t around to help. The fact that her mother was heartlessly murdered doesn’t stop Sidney from fighting the killer. She remains strong while her weaker friends get savagely murdered. Sidney is a hero in every way, saving herself and others. However, what makes Sidney so unique is that she gets to break all of the rules.
So what are the rules?
Final Girls survive by following the rules: abstain from promiscuous sex, drugs, alcohol and stupidity. Slashers are said to have originated from cautionary tales against female promiscuity. Girls who open their legs in slashers, get slashed. However, pure virgins like Carrie and Laurie Strode (Halloween) ended up as badass Final Girls by following the rules. The trope of villainizing sex is also common the films of Wes Craven, Scream’s director.
Wes Craven is most famous for A Nightmare on Elm Street, a slasher where a supernatural serial killer haunts the dreams of the children he molested. The killer, Freddy Krueger, molested children at a preschool and was burned alive by their parents. He then came back to life (sort of) in order to kill all of his victims–in their dreams. If that doesn’t scare teen girls from having sex, I don’t know what would.
In Nightmare, the Final Girl, Nancy Thompson, was also chaste. Much like Sidney, she let her boyfriend (played by Johnny Depp) through her window but remained smart enough to survive the film. What’s even cooler is the actress who played Nancy, Heather Langenkamp, also sees this movie as a feminist film.
Smart critics of Nightmare have called it a feminist film because Nancy is the epitome of the last girl standing. In an interview, Heather stated, “Nightmare is a feminist film, but I look at it more as a youth power film.” Which I think is an important nuance. Yes, this film empowers women, but it also empowers teens in general. To me, that’s one of the most refreshing things about slashers, how much gender equality there is.
Gender is irrelevant when trying to survive a horror film. What matters more than anything is character–the choices people make, the way they treat others, what their values are. As long as you are smart, brave and strong, you can make it through a horror movie.
Unless you’re facing Jason, because well, he kills everyone (Friday the 13th).
So when we look at Nightmare’s Nancy or Scream’s Sidney, we can see beyond gender to pure badassery. And that’s what makes a Final Girl so tough; she is not constricted by her gender in any way. For example, Sidney Prescott is quite comfortable grabbing a loaded gun from a cop’s cadaver.
And since this is horror, we don’t have to say, “she manned up” or was overtly masculine. We get to say, she is a badass person. Instead of using her sexuality as bait, she uses her brain to survive. And not like a man, but like a person.
So who is exactly is Sidney Prescott?
When we first meet Sidney, she’s a typical 17-year-old girl, who wears nightgowns like a 95-year-old grandma. Remember girls, if you want to survive a horror film, wear granny panties. Don’t forget, those slutty Victoria Secret models never make it out alive. The reason my bra and panties never match, is because I’m worried I’ll get hacked to pieces in the woods.
Unlike those unfortunate skanks, Sidney is defined by her plain clothes and reserved attitude. In the screenplay, Williamson describes Sidney as “sharp and clever with deep lonely eyes.” Her character comes to life when we meet her boyfriend, Billy Loomis. Styled after the Johnny Depp-played boyfriend in Nightmare, Billy is dreamy, greasy and a little dumb.
Billy is constantly trying to get Sidney to break her no sex rule, and her response speaks to her character. Remember back in Carrie when a girl blew her boyfriend to stop him from beating her? This is not that. Sidney explains to her boyfriend that she can only have a PG-13 relationship, as she’s still dealing with one small demon.
About a year before the start of the film, Sidney’s mother was brutally killed. And much like many horror flicks, Sidney gets her revenge on the attacker. But before Sidney becomes a true FG, she is just a clever girl with lonely eyes. Only she’s no Carrie White–as we later find out, she’s already hooked up with Billy. Sidney is not abstinent–she just struggles with sexual intimacy at the film’s genesis due her mother’s brutal attack.
Thankfully I don’t have to get into the definition of sex vs hooking up here, because Sidney ends up having full on sex with Billy later on. Once Sidney has broken one the biggest rules of horror, she should get killed. But the characters in Scream have a lot of a freedom because this is a satirical horror film. Slashers are, by definition, pure satire. Satire can be defined as a work that mocks or derides immorality, vice and folly for the betterment of society. And there is no greater form of derision than flat out killing someone.
So we already have a morality tale with Scream, and on top of that, we have hyper-aware teens who know they are in a horror movie. The characters in Scream can choose to be the killer, the victim, or in Sid’s case, the girl who breaks the rules and survives. Sidney is such a badass that she survives sex with her boyfriend at a party full of underage drinking… in a horror movie.
That’s like surviving after saying, “I’ll be right back” because you won’t.
That sex-at-a-party situation has gotten countless slasher chicks killed over the years. Yet Sidney can sleep with greasy, cool Billy and not get hacked to fish bait. Because Sidney isn’t pressured into having sex with Billy, it doesn’t have the same sin factor.
Usually a slasher chick will drunkenly have sex with some random guy when she’s supposed to be babysitting. With Sidney though, she’s is a strong, empowered woman who just wanted to sleep with her boyfriend. She had given it great consideration and made sure she was completely sober. And it seemed like she really loved Billy–like sex actually meant something to her.
Looking at slashers in black and white, one might argue that a frequent message is, “sex is bad–it will get you killed.” However, in many slashers, it’s not sex that gets a girl killed–it’s the context of that sex. Sidney loved her boyfriend and wanted to feel like a normal teenage girl.
Also, it has been scientifically proven that sex helps with loss, so if anything Sidney’s sexual choice doesn’t make her slutty, it makes her smart. Because for those few awkward, sweaty moments with Billy, she gets to transcend. She gets to be in a rom-com instead of a slasher. Yet that honeymoon ends quickly when Sidney begins to realize her mistake. She’s not sure, but she might have just fucked the killer.
And that’s what feminism is all about right? The freedom to have sex like a man? No, in all seriousness, Sidney’s free sexuality adheres to the tenets of Final Girl philosophy. She does break some rules, but she follows what’s important. What’s most important to the FG, is the ability to outrun, outthink and outfight the killer.
She’s so smart she manages to call 911 from her computer … in 1996. It’s 2015 and I’m not sure I could do that, especially not with a killer in the house.
Sidney doesn’t know horror movie trivia, doesn’t run track, and she just slept with her boyfriend. All signs point to death for Sidney, so how did she fare in the final showdown with the killer?
The final fight scene in Scream exemplifies the pure force and determination a victim must have to survive. If someone’s trying to kill you, there’s no time to think. Survival is about basic human instinct, something that overrides gender. Biologically, some people are just better equipped to survive an attack on their life. However, a great deal of that survival comes from mental determination.
Sidney is strong smart and agile but if she lacked determination, she would’ve crumbled into a pile of tears. However, it’s that determination, that inner strength athletes are always talking about. It’s that extra, Fuck you! Not today! That gets Sidney through the final scene.
At the film’s end, we are left questioning whether Sidney can escape her boyfriend/killer, Billy Loomis. Instead of running up the stairs or trying to start a dead car, Sidney has a better plan. She jumps out of a closet, stabbing Billy in his chest. And that’s when reinforcements arrive.
With a little help from local reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) Sidney becomes the killer. She becomes Ghostface, voice-changer and all. Randy warns,
“Careful. This is the moment where the supposedly dead killer comes back to life.”
“Not in my movie” Sidney says definitively, shooting her mother’s killer in the head. And that’s what’s up with the Final Girl–it is her fucking movie.
And not only is Sidney alive–she can’t be killed. Seriously.
This summer, MTV gained exclusive rights which means Scream (2015) the television series will replace any talks of Scream 5. So unless Sidney makes an MTV cameo, she’s safe for now.
Check out the next post to see how MTV’s doing with Scream. They’ve got originals Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, so don’t worry, Scream fans–it’s good.
And now, for your Random Horror Geekdom:
# 1. Could you answer the killer’s trivia correctly? Or would you get slashed?
Name the killer in HALLOWEEN
Name the killer in FRIDAY THE 13th
# 2. The killer’s black robe was initially white, but he looked too much like a KKK member.
# 3. Wes Craven, the director, has a cameo in the film dressed as Freddy Krueger, the killer from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) which was based on his high school bully, Fred Krueger. Payback’s a bitch.
# 4. Sidney’s BFF, Tatum Riley, dons the same jersey worn by Nightmare star, Johnny Depp. The girls of the 90’s mocking the 80’s–those were the times.
#5. This shot of a brutally gutted Drew Barrymore initially got Scream an NC-17 rating. In order to get the rating dropped to “R,” the first death could only be shown for one second. So stare at it for two seconds, just to piss off the MPAA.