Postmodernist techniques in the horror films ‘Scream’ and ‘Halloween’

Here I will look at the postmodern techniques in Scream and Halloween; how they relate to each other, other horror films and the horror genre. 

The term ‘postmodern’ is generally taken to mean something that literally comes after ‘modern’; even newer, fresh or up to the minute. It normally challenges views or traditions of the ‘modern’ era, and proposes new ways of thinking.

Postmodernism is now a term most commonly used for films, television shows, art and literature that reference other works; they can be obvious parodies or very subtle similarities. They may be missed by those who don’t know what is being referred to. While it won’t take away from the audience’s joy, it produces a feeling of being ‘in the know’ for those who do understand the reference. Some postmodern shows include Family Guy, The Simpsons and South Park.

The films I will look at are the Halloween, and Scream. Halloween was released in 1978 and directed by John Carpenter. Scream came later, in 1996. It was directed by Wes Craven and makes many references to Halloween throughout. Both films are ‘slasher’ films, where the killers wear masks, carry knives andmainly target teenagers in high school.

In her essay ‘Recreational Terror: Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film’ (available through Jstor), Isabel Pinedo names five characteristics that are present in the postmodern horror genre; violence, violation of boundaries, irrationality, lack of narrative closure and a bounded experience of fear. I am going to use these as a formula for analyzing both Scream and Halloween.

Violence

Halloween is not a film centered on violence. Most of the film consists of Michael stalking his soon to be victims. At the start we see six year-old Michael stab his sister to death. But do we really see him killing her? Because of his mask, we never see the knife penetrating the skin; we are only given the impression of it. When Michael escapes fifteen years later, he stabs and chokes his victims in a variety of ways. We always see Michael killing the women in the film, but never see the men die. While there is violence in Halloween, it is not particularly overt; we never see any cut up bodies, and there is barely any blood shown.

In Scream, there are frequent, bloody deaths, which are far more gruesome than those in Halloween. The opening sequence is also a murder scene. Casey Becker and her boyfriend Steve are tortured before being killed. Steve has been heavily beaten, bound to a chairand placed on Casey’s back porch. It is here that he is violently slashed to death. His wounds are clear to the audience, and there is a lot of blood. When Casey tries to run away she gets stabbed several times, before being hung in a tree and cut open, exposing her insides. At this point, the film has already showed more blood, guts and gore than the whole of Halloween.

Violation of Boundaries

In Halloween, Michael Myers crosses the familial boundaries by killing his own sister. The fact that Michael is only six at the time is even more horrifying. Even though Judith should be in charge, it turns out she is the one who needs to be protected. He also breaks many physical boundaries; the injuries that become inflicted upon him would kill any normal man, but it cannot stop him. He is shot six times by Dr. Loomis but he survives. This is especially terrifying because it seems nobody can stop him.

The main boundary that Scream crosses is the boundary between film and reality. The obvious references to several popular culture films blur the lines between the characters being in our reality: aware of these films, with their own criticisms and opinions of them, and them being in their own horror film, separate from our world.

Both of the film’s murderers break violate the victims personal boundaries with their violent acts towards them. They also break moral boundaries and legal boundaries as they go on their killing sprees.

Irrationality

Irrationality is a key theme in Halloween. We all want to know why Michael acts the way he does. He has no clear motive, but we are able to link it back to his Judith; he wrote ‘sister’ on the back of his asylum door and returned to his family home after he escaped. He also steals Judith’s gravestone and places it over Annie’s dead body. The person with the most rationality is Dr. Loomis. He is only taken seriously by the audience. Dr. Loomis describes Michael by saying “this isn’t a man…” If Michael really is as “evil” as Dr. Loomis describes, we should be very scared that he is free.

In Scream, the irrationality takes the form of the killer. Throughout the film we wonder why all this is happening, and who could be behind it all, whereas we know exactly who it is in Halloween. This is enhanced by the police presence as they are trying to find out what we want to know. Motives and people are questioned throughout the film:

Everybody’s a suspect! – Randy

When we find out it is Billy we are surprised, even more so when it’s revealed that Stu is his accomplice. We find out Billy’s mother left because his father was having an affair with Sidney’s mother, and Billy has been struggling to cope since. However, this does nothing to excuse their actions. When questioned about his motives, Stu reacts almost-comically, saying “peer pressure”.

Not having any reasoning capabilities creates a terrifying monster because without rationality, they cannot see what they are doing is wrong, and it’s very unlikely the monster will stop.

Lack of Narrative Closure

In Halloween, we are left with no closure. After being shot and falling from a balcony, Michael has managed to survive and escape. He is still out there and able to carry on hurting people. This film is one of the best to apply this technique. At the end of the movie the theme music returns as we are shown several shots of the films locations. Over the top of all this, we can hear Michael’s breathing. He could be anywhere, in any of these locations. Michael is anywhere he wants to be.

This does not apply to Scream so much. Our questions are resolved when Billy and Stu confess to Sidney that are responsible for the killing but are going to frame Sidney’s father. They are overheard by Gail Weathers, who creates a tell-all news story once they have been killed. Everybody will know what happened. Billy and Stu are both dead which satisfies the audience because they were so anxious to be the only ones left alive.

Bounded experience of fear

Isabel Pinedo likens watching a horror movie to a rollercoaster, saying that in horror films “fear and pleasure commingle.” We use our rational minds to distinguish the movie from our everyday lives, and keep the two separate. Both Carpenter and Craven ask us to suspend these rational thoughts for the duration of the movie. However, when we leave the cinema, we aren’t looking around for a crazed killer in a mask.

In Halloween, we like to think that the authorities would never allow Michael Myers to escape, they would listen to people like Dr. Loomis and crisis would be averted. We trust those in charge to keep us safe from such people.

In Scream, although we are able to separate the characters world from our own, the lines between the two are blurred. They like the same movies as us, they dress like us, eat and drink like us, and are subject to the same advertising as us. If they were in a horror film, how are they aware of other horror films such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street? These hazy and unclear boundaries aim to set the film in our world, rather than in the realm of the horror movie.

How Scream references other horror films

I will point out the numerous references that Scream makes to other pop culture films. All these allusions make Scream truly postmodern.

  • The character Billy Loomis was named after Dr. Loomis in Halloween, who was named after Sam Loomis in Psycho. Also, the girl who plays Annie in Halloween is called Nancy Loomis. There is multiple inter-textual referencing between Scream, Halloween and Psycho. Jamie Lee Curtis was chosen for her role in Halloween precisely because her mother played the lead female role in Psycho.
  • At the start of Scream, Casey Becker, played by Drew Barrymore, is asked to name the killers in Halloween and Friday the 13th.
  • Billy’s line “We all go a little mad sometimes” is a direct quote from Norman Bates in Psycho. 
  • In a comical reference to A Nightmare on Elm Street, the janitor of the school is shown wearing a fedora and striped jumper similar to Freddy Krueger’s. The principal even refers to him as ‘Fred’. This acts as comic relief.
  • When the principle is killed, there is a close up of his eye in which we can see the mask of the killer. This is an obvious allusion to Psycho and the famous shower scene.
  • In both films, characters are sent to the ‘McKenzie’s’ house for help.
  • Randy mentions ‘Leatherface’ at one point, a direct reference to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
  • Tatum tells Sidney she is starting to soundlike something out of a “Wes Carpenter” film: a blending of Wes Craven and John Carpenter.
  • There are other minimal references made to The HowlingThe Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs as well as the characters of ‘Norman Bates’ and ‘Hannibal Lecter’.
  • During the party at Stu’s house, they all decide to watch Halloween. Randy explains the
    rules of horror films. Randy seems to be narrating Halloween and his own life, his own horror movie. Randy screams “he’s behind you!” at the screen, while the killer of his own movie is right behind him. When Dewey enters the house to investigate, the soundtrack to Halloween also acts as the soundtrack for Scream.

Both of the films are postmodern and both reference the horror films that have come before them. Both have had a huge effect of the horror movie genre and have created a new tradition in the horror genre. John Carpenter and Wes Craven have subverted and adapted the conventions to fit each of their films.

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