2016 Film Essays

Cult Vault, Part Two: Deconstructing the Horror Machine in ‘Scream’ and ‘The Cabin in the Woods’


“Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!” – Billy, Scream

 There’s a certain blissful hubris that comes with being a teenager. The omnipotence, power or a generally lackadaisical regard for the rules are so heady that it risks becoming all-consuming. But what if that sort of hubris was just as much your weapon as it was your Achilles heel? For the teenagers of Scream and The Cabin in the Woods, their youthful vigor fades quickly, replaced by the need to outwit the forces that terrorize them. This is done through the overt metatextual dialogue that filters through their actions. In this way, the teens seemingly weaponize the horror genre in a way that would normally seek to terrify them. Rather than act as ignorant victims, their familiarity with the narrative tropes of horror help to keep them on step ahead of the ominous forces at work. This metatextuality serves to deconstruct the horror machine that they are a part of; we viewers can gleefully watch because, well, they’re still teenagers. Teenagers are foolish — and foolishness can get you killed.

Scream creatively capitalized on running horror genre in-jokes like the frantically pronounced score, obvious baddies (with names like Cotton Weary and Ghostface), the squad of suburban protagonists (with names like Sidney, Billy, Tatum, Stuart and Dewey) and plenty bloody kills — all woven seamlessly into the plot. These devices, which a decade earlier were self-serious but perceptively campy, are now repackaged. This tendency towards pastiche, rooted in horror, is why we can cozy up to it so quickly.

1996, SCREAM

Now, 20 years later, Scream has become a catch-all reference for films that are gleefully self-aware. The flippant metatextuality the teens of Woodsboro employ (echoing the disillusionment often tacked onto the Gen X crowd) becomes a survival tool and the way Craven keeps the blinders on them. They’re wrapped in a false sense of security, but who’s really safe when there’s a masked killer on the loose? Scream is bookended by two major metatextual moments. In the opening sequence, Casey (Drew Barrymore) is home alone when she receives a call. “Let’s play a game,” the mystery caller says. The ensuing quiz on classic horror films serves a showcase of how repetitive slasher films can get while reminding us that Scream is an uncanny valley in this lineup. The eternally ominous “phone call from inside the house” moment gets reinterpreted here, with Casey somehow already understanding her fate while being thoroughly unprepared for how to avoid it. On the other end, Scream’s climax is signaled by Randy’s (Jamie Kennedy’s) full breakdown of the rules of horror movies:

“You don’t know the rules? There are certain rules one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. Sex equals death. Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. The sin factor. It’s an extension of number one. And number three: never ever, ever, ever under any circumstances say, ‘I’ll be right back,’ because you won’t be back. You see? You push the laws and you end up dead.”

The rules of the game then get reshaped so that Sidney is no longer a virgin and Stuart can swig beer before going on a murderous rampage. Oddly, the rules somehow do and do not apply. Of course the murderers die. Of course Sidney comes out of the other side a bit worse for the wear. But Gale Weathers and Randy shouldn’t have survived if this were a classic horror film. Sidney should be the lone survivor, the pure girl who had just enough strength to vanquish her attacker. This is where Scream gets it so right, by rewiring the horror machine.


Cut to The Cabin in the Woods. It shares a spiritual kinship with Scream in regards to its metatextual methodology. While Cabin doesn’t have the same overt campiness that Scream has, there is a clever re-tooling once again of the horror genre. It’s a common plot: a group of teenagers retreating to a secluded cabin in the woods. Once at the cabin, things go — to put it mildly — very wrong for the fivesome (two well matched couples and the comic relief, as we’ve come to expect). What Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard do with their script is, like Craven, brilliant in re-wiring and further commenting on horror genre tropes with the madness that ensues. Everyone in the cabin is a pawn at the will of those in the control room, who have seemingly stored up every horror villain that been shown on film since the genre began. Now, the cabin serves the dual purpose of familiar set-up and reinterpreted plot device. The control room is a stand-in for viewers, those who believe they can crack the code or somehow control the action themselves at a distance.

The original quintet devolve from well-rounded characters into their designated archetypes: the Athlete, the Whore, the Scholar, the Fool and the Virgin. Genius moments like tampering with Jules’s hair dye to induce ditziness and misting Curt to induce ideas of splitting the group up are classic Whedon winks that making the set-up feel renewed. Again, genre in-jokes like the Virgin being the only one to survive or die last and the Fool actually being the unbelievable voice of reason are put into play in Cabin. Where Scream comments on how to play the game, Cabin comments on who actually gets to play. And if by game you mean being an unwitting participant in a bloodbath at the hands of a gruesome horror villain, then sure, it’s definitely a game.


Does a playful knowledge of how horror functions mean that either of these films are the lesser for it? Absolutely not. If anything, the metatextuality adds a texture to them that makes them more palatable. It’s a thrill to watch, unlike the zombie canon of film, where every new addition still fails to acknowledge, in some way, that the culture of the undead exists. Here, the slasher and supernatural canons get reinterpreted and fed back to us. Nearly everyone still meets an untimely end, regardless of structure, because horror likes to showcase the destruction of things. What’s left in the wake of destruction is hardly as interesting in the horror film as opposed to how it is destroyed. In the case of Scream and The Cabin in the Woods, metatextuality is the flashy chink in the armor that happily filters the expected ensuing gore-fest. These films demand repeat watches to fully enjoy their mechanics; we won’t object to doing so any time soon.

Allie Gemmill is a film writer from Tampa, FL. Her previous bylines can be found at Broadly, Bitch Flicks and Little White Lies. She is also the founder and creative director of The Filmme Guild, a feminist film salon dedicated to examining how women shape film and film shapes women. Follow her on Twitter @alliegem.


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