The following article contains SPOILERS for Scream (1996), Scream 2, Scream 3, and Scream 4.
A real-life serial killer story was the inspiration for Scream. Back in 1990, a man known as Danny Rolling preyed on students in Gainesville, Florida, killing his victims with a knife and posing their bodies in provocative ways designed to shock. Screenwriter Kevin Williamson caught the story on the news and, seeing an open window in his living room, noted how easy it would be for someone to come in and do the same to him. And thus, the kernel of the idea for Scream – or Scary Movie as it was originally called – began to germinate, growing the one-act play he’d written in college which portrayed the events of that iconic first scene featuring Drew Barrymore into a full movie. A seminal movie that has generated four sequels to date and which revolutionized the horror genre.
But this is a story that many Scream fans will already know. What they may not know, however, is that Scream was also inspired by a Stephen Sondheim musical, and influenced by a dearly departed actor and writer who herself made a cameo in Scream 3.
Deconstruction of a Fairytale
“It was partially based on Into The Woods, influenced by that deconstruction of the fairytale,” says Williamson. Into the Woods is a self-referential amalgamation of several well-known fairytales, bringing together a handful of Brothers Grimm stories to explore the knock-on effects of the characters’ wishes and actions. Similarly, of course, Scream, references several horror films and brings the well-used tropes from slashers of the 1970s and 1980s to the fore as a comedic self-aware commentary on both horror and more widely, cinema, but also in order to utilize them to craft its own genuinely tense, scary, and shocking experience. On the one level, Scream, and its sequels, work as horror movies but they also explore the US film industry, youth and fan culture, and society at large.
Williamson is chatting with Fandom ahead of the release of the latest instalment in the Scream series, Scream, a ‘requel’ that takes typically self-reflexive aim with its title at other recent ‘requels’ such as Halloween (2018), and The Suicide Squad (2021). Both of which appropriate the name of the original film and offer up a kind of reboot/sequel hybrid.
“I was also so influenced by Carrie Fisher, and her postmodern sort of self-awareness that she wrote with that was just so fun and smart,” adds Williamson as he continues to explain why Scream ended up the movie it became. “And I’m a child of the 1980s and that self-help era. So, I come to the computer typing, I come to my Typepad, with this half-baked idea of this pseudo-psychologically… you know, mess of a human being, and I sit down and write. I wanted to write a horror film that I wanted to see, and I feel like all the tricks have been done and it’s all been told before. So, what better way to do it than with kids who know all the rules, and kids who have seen all the horror films?”
Agatha Christie and the Whodunit Formula
Scream isn’t just a meta horror franchise, or even comedy-horror series. It has a strong whodunit element, too. There are some that say this is the secret to its continued success – in each film, a new killer/killers inhabit the Ghostface costume and the plot sets off on the detective trail to discover Ghostface’s identity. When you look at the success and longevity of the likes of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, it’s not hard to see why we’d keep coming back for more. And the incredible success of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out in 2019 (with its follow-up currently slated for a 2022 release) suggests there’s still a huge appetite for whodunit-style mysteries. Which all bodes well for the future of the Scream franchise.
“I was a big fan of Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen when I was growing up,” says Williamson. “I read a lot of interviews with Agatha Christie and, and she was like, ‘I just reveal. I don’t worry about a mystery. I just go for the reveals, and if I just layer it and reveal one thing at a time and work backwards sometimes, then [I have my story].’ I thought, ‘Okay, let me try that’. When I started, I started writing a movie, and then when I went back on Scream 1, I got the idea of working backwards. I was like, ‘Wait a second — if I work backwards, one person couldn’t have done this’. So then I had to rewrite the whole thing. That’s how I came up with the two killers.”
For Williamson, the trick to Scream’s continued popularity and freshness is more specific than its whodunit element – and it’s certainly not the killer as is the case with films like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Motive, Motive, Motive
“I think that what’s beautiful, and also it’s a detriment to the franchise, is that there’s no Michael Myers; there’s no Freddy Krueger,” says Williamson. “We don’t have the same killer moving from film to film. It’s a new character [each time] who dons the ghost face. And so it’s of its moment. So, it all comes down to the motive, whatever the motive is, and that’s what keeps it timely.
“If you look at the first film, [the motive] was one thing [Billy Loomis’s revenge against Sidney for her mother’s affair with his father] and it evolved all the way to the fourth one. The fourth film was more about the celebrity ‘victim’. Emma Roberts’ character wanted to be the celebrity victim. She wanted to take the mantle away from Sidney Prescott, who she felt got all of the acclaim. Then, in the fifth film, the motive also I think is of this moment.”
Williamson credits the new creative team that worked on Scream (2022) as another reason the latest film keeps the franchise feeling fresh. Writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick were brought in alongside the filmmaking collective behind acclaimed 2019 comedy-horror Ready or Not, Radio Silence, which includes Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet on directing duties and Chad Villella as a producer. Williamson, who was responsible for the screenplays of the original Scream, as well as Scream 2, and Scream 4, took a backseat on this instalment but offered his input as a kind of consultant, and in his capacity as executive producer.
“I so didn’t want to be a part of it [initially],” he says. “I was so like, ‘Without Wes [Craven, who directed all prior Scream films], why are we doing this?’, although I kind of thought they would do this eventually. And then it turned out to be such a cool, fun experience for me. I get to be the ‘old dude’, you know? I just got to hang around, and they asked my opinion; I read the script. I gave them my thoughts and they were very grateful. I hung out on the set and I spoke up whenever I wanted to and they listened and were respectful.”
You Can’t Blame the Movies
It’s not just the motives of the killers that evolve throughout the films, it’s also the themes and issues tackled. The earlier Scream films particularly felt ahead of their time in how they depicted youth and fan culture and also in how we use the internet. Years before Facebook even existed – before even Myspace and Friends Reunited – and way before most of us knew anything about the Dark Web, Scream 2 was detailing how Mrs Loomis and Timothy Olyphant’s Mickey met and presumably planned their killing spree on the internet. In 1997.
But one theme that Williamson was most eager to tackle throughout all of the films is the link between violence and cinema.
“When I was first writing Scream 1, [former member of the US Senate] Bob Dole, if we can remember him, was always griping about violence and cinema,” he says. “And I was like, I don’t know if I agree with this idea. Because I watched every violent movie as a child, and I can’t stand the sight of blood. I have a heart; I’m a pacifist. But I love these movies. And I just wanted to speak out against that. I wrote that line of Billy Loomis’s — when he says movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative. And I stuck to that line; I taped it up on my wall, and I wrote towards it.
“That was what, for me, Scream 1 was about. It was saying you can’t blame the movies. And then, Scream 2 was more about ‘Who can you blame?’. Well, you can blame bad parenting. And that’s why the mom was the killer in the second one. Then, in the third one — even though I left it early on, I still think they stayed true to the idea — you can blame commerce too, and I think, if there’s an audience for it, you make it. So, commerce is to blame. In the fourth one, it went into the evolution of the celebrity victim, and reality TV and how the landscape had changed about fame; how anybody can be famous — and the internet change was a game-changer. [With] this new one, the motive takes a twist on that. It takes it to the next level, and it has its own unique perspective.”
The Legacy of Scream
Anchoring each film in real-life issues in this way is another way the franchise has maintained its freshness, says Williamson. “The best horror is a mirror to society, and I think Get Out proved that more than anything.”
Get Out is one of a batch of brilliant contemporary horror films that likely wouldn’t exist without Scream, which arrived at a time when interest in horror movies was on the wane and revitalized the genre. The Wes Craven-directed Scream influenced a batch of self-aware teen horror and inspiring countless others, as well as securing an injection of cash into horror movie-making. Indeed, the prolific Blumhouse Productions followed in its wake, going on to create not only Get Out but a series of popular horror movies both low-brow and high-brow.
Williamson is characteristically humble about the influence of Scream.
“I think there wouldn’t have been a Scream without a Halloween,” says the writer, giving master of horror John Carpenter his due credit. “I thought Halloween was just a strong, beautiful story of a young girl coming of age. She was smart; she was the smartest and she was the brightest and she was the most responsible. And she was the one who got challenged. [Laurie Strode] was the one who had to rise to the occasion to be the Final Girl and outdo this killer and survive. And I always respond to the Final Girl in that survival tale because I grew up in a small town, I was gay, and I always felt like I was trying to survive every day.
“That’s one of the reasons I fell into horror — the survival element. It spoke to me, it was emotional. With Sidney Prescott, I wanted to create that character, but my version of that character. So, that influenced me and if Scream has influenced anyone else or these future films, I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ I’m so proud. I’m happy that I got to put Scream up on the shelf somewhere in between Halloween and Get Out. And I love that we have this world with something like Blumhouse where we have this elevated idea of what horror can be. And we don’t call them ‘B’ horror films anymore, but we also have a lot of ‘A’ horror films and I love that.”
So the big question is: is there more mileage in the Scream franchise? Can Ghostface survive to slash another day?
“We have a plan,” says Williamson. “So hopefully. Let’s see if this movie does well.”
And let’s remember the importance of motive.
“I think it all comes down to the motive. That’s what keeps it fresh. As long as you can do that, then you can tell the story forever.”
Scream hits screens on January 14, 2022.
Read our definitive history of Scream’s in-universe Stab movies in the article below.