How '90s slasher films shaped my horror fandom

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Aug 24, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

Growing up, I had a very active imagination. The first movie I can ever recall giving me nightmares was one I was definitely too young to be watching at the time. I was 5 years old and over at a friend’s house for a sleepover when her older sibling decided that the perfect Friday night pick to pop into the VHS would be Jurassic Park. I sat, fully engrossed, though I don’t actually remember being terrified until it was time to go to bed. When I woke up screaming about the T-rex, hysterical to the point where my dad had to come over and take me home in the middle of the night. I should’ve recognized the beginnings of a trend then that would carry into my early adolescence when it came to watching anything remotely thrilling.

Cut to high school, again hanging out at a friend’s house, when my host suggested that our movie of choice that evening should be the 2002 American remake of The Ring. At the time, it seemed like a perfectly valid choice, especially for a group of hormonal teens (read: nerds) whose only route of true independence came via these parentally monitored get-togethers. What better way to justify innocently cuddling up to your crush than by watching a scary movie, all the while mentally weighing whether or not to try holding their hand? I was naive to think that the film’s images wouldn’t get their terrifying hooks into my brain even as I tried to finagle a seat next to the boy I liked. Later that night, in my own bed, I was completely unable to sleep, petrified by the sight my mind’s eye conjured of Samara crawling out of the television in my room. I slept with every single light on and the sight of the TV screen soothingly playing the opening menu of one of my Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs on an endless loop.

There were other experiences that led to sleepless nights and plenty of nightmare fuel, but with those two chief among them, it meant that I had absolutely no interest in going anywhere near the horror genre for a long time, several years in fact. Sure, I dipped my toe in a few years after my Ring scare and headed to a movie theater when Sarah Michelle Gellar starred in the remake of The Grudge (a decision primarily made from my aforementioned Buffy love), but for the most part, I wasn’t a fan of engaging with anything that would exploit my anxious brain, those already-scary images twisting themselves into more terrifying things whenever I would close my eyes. It was a better move to retreat to the pages of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy novels instead, escaping in those worlds that were home to dragons, hobbits, and space rebels rather than ghosts, serial killers, and demons. Real life and the pressures that came from just being a teenager were stressful enough. I wasn’t about to add to that if I could help it.

Sometimes, however, it just takes the right movie to give you an entirely new appreciation for a genre you’d previously sworn off ever watching again. For me, that would turn out to be Scream, a film I watched many years after its original release date in 1996 but one that has become an everlasting favorite throughout my adult forays back into horror. At the time, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what made this movie so different from its predecessors, why I was able to settle in and enjoy the ride rather than hide behind a pillow or companionable shoulder. Revisiting Scream and its sequels since my initial viewing, however, reminds me of all the things I love about this franchise. There’s its progressive Final Girl in the character of Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott, who really ushered in a new era of female horror leads with her refusal to mold into the regressive, cookie-cutter tropes of films past; its witty and occasionally meta commentary on the genre as a whole, including the oft-referred-to “rules” that Scream’s predecessors seemed compelled to follow; the fact that its first-ever villain is a subversively smart look into the dangers of the male ego; and its overall willingness to sidestep predictable horror cliches while also poking fun at itself for occasionally falling prey to them. Watching the Scream movies as an adult also gave me a new appreciation for their casts, star-studded groups who I already knew from other media but who came to life in a new way in roles that would cement their contributions to the ‘90s slasher canon. 

The female characters of Scream, Final Girl included, are the best illustration of the evolution the franchise would go on to experience in subsequent films. Through Sidney, I got to see a young woman who endured countless threats to her own life as well as the lives of her friends, but a heroine who was also portrayed as struggling to cope with those past traumas in the years that followed before emerging out the other side smarter and stronger for her experiences. When an older Sidney reappeared in Scream 4, over a decade after the previous film, it was both vindicating and liberating to see her step out into the world again, a complete shift from the Sidney we’d seen initially hiding in seclusion in Scream 3. There’s perhaps no better scene that illustrates this transformation than the one where Sidney reads an excerpt from the memoir she’s written, aptly titled Out of the Darkness: “I sat down to write a new role for myself, as a woman who can put the fear behind themselves and get back out into the sunlight.” Viewed in the context of the films’ tendencies to embrace the meta, it could also be regarded as a statement from returning screenwriter Kevin Williamson about the impact of Sidney’s character arc and what happens when a Final Girl makes the decision to take back her own life. 

Gale Weathers Scream 4

But Sidney isn’t the only female character who persists throughout the horror of the Scream films. Courteney Cox’s intrepid reporter Gale Weathers, with her take-no-prisoners attitude and dedication to getting the story at any cost, is someone I didn’t fully appreciate until later rewatch. In any lesser horror flick, Gale probably would’ve been killed off in the first Scream, but it’s a testament to Williamson and director Wes Craven that that didn’t happen. While her journey over the first four films is somewhat different from Sidney’s, Gale still experiences the kind of character growth that leads her to become more sympathetic, and at times more identifiable, as the years pass. Initially a career-driven woman, she frequently juggles the realities of work and life and later prioritizes a romance and eventual marriage with Sidney’s friend Dewey Riley (David Arquette) over ascending the ladder in her professional career, a choice for which she is lambasted in Scream 4. If Sidney is the example of a survivor, then Gale represents the woman who is forced to weigh her priorities before coming to the conclusion that yes, she can have it all — and she’s going to accomplish it in her own time, at her own pace.

After watching (and loving) Scream and its sequels, I eventually fell down the horror rabbit hole to other slashers within or adjacent to the decade, including I Know What You Did Last Summer, Halloween H20, and Teaching Miss Tingle. In some ways, it’s no surprise that the common denominator among most of those films was, in fact, Williamson, a screenwriter whose work I had been a fan of outside the big screen on shows like Dawson’s Creek and the later TV adaptation of The Vampire Diaries. For a fledgling horror fan, Williamson managed to pair horror and comedy in a way that not only made the story entertaining but also breathed new life into the genre overall after it had stalled in recent years.

These ‘90s slashers were the perfect gateway into a world that I had frankly been too scared to visit before. Since then, I’ve been able to turn the clock back in order to experience several other iconic franchises for the very first time as an adult, from Halloween to Friday the 13th to Nightmare on Elm Street. In some ways, I'm even more grateful that I became a horror fan later in life, because I have an entirely new appreciation for the movies that cleverly managed to illustrate the very real fears I had growing up, from puberty to bullies in school to just getting plain murdered by a mask-wearing psycho wielding a big ol’ knife. These days, I can watch all the scary movies I want — with no fear of nightmares after the fact.

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