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“You Can’t Do a Slasher Movie as a TV Series” or Can You?: Investigating the Scream TV Series and its place within the Slasher Genre By Bonnie van den Bergh

In the first episode of the MTV series Scream, Noah Foster, the designated horror film geek and self-declared serial killer aficionado, insists that it is impossible to make a slasher TV series. As he states:

Think about it, girl and her friends arrive at the dance, the camp, the deserted town, whatever. Killer takes them out one by one. 90 minutes later the sun comes up as survivor girl’s sitting in the back of the ambulance watching her friends’ bodies being wheeled past. Slasher movies burn bright and fast. TV needs to stretch things out.[1]

Noah’s words are particularly ironic, as the Scream TV series is an adaptation of the original slasher movie franchise of the same name, which rose to popularity with the release of its first instalment in 1996. Anyone who has seen one or more of the original films will understand that the irony in Noah’s comments are actually a reference to these earlier cinematic pieces, which, like this new work, are distinctly metafictional, discussing the tropes of the slasher genre within it. Noah’s words are interesting, not only because it seems that through them, the series is telling viewers that it is adamant on taking on this challenge, it also provides food for thought: is the slasher really not suited for TV? And if so, why?

Defining the Slasher Genre

In order to answer this question it is important to first of all look at the slasher genre in more detail. Talking about slasher films, Kent Byron Armstrong argues that, as so many other genres, the slasher genre cannot be reduced to one straightforward formula.[2] Instead, he proposes a list of characteristics that he believes a film should adhere to in order to be deemed a slasher. He lists the following: a prototypical slasher film has “(1) an introductory murder or an event that evokes future murders; (2) a setting that does not inspire terror, but which may be confined; (3) visualized killings and killers; (4) a human or human-like killer; (5) the systematic killing of characters; (6) a theme that connects the murders; (7) an unhappy, often unresolved, ending.”[3]

Although most of these characteristics are rather straightforward, others require some additional explanation. When Armstrong talks about a setting that “does not inspire terror, but which may be confined,” he is alluding to the fact that in most slashers films, the murders take place in an environment which in normal circumstances would not inspire fear.[4] Unlike the classical horror settings of abandoned houses and haunted graveyards, the killings in slasher films can happen just about anywhere. For example, in the classic slasher Halloween (1978) the setting is an ordinary, quiet neighbourhood. Although not necessarily creepy or haunting, the setting might often be contained in the sense that the violence is restricted to a certain area. The fact that violence occurs in settings that are familiar or that people even feel ‘safe’ in adds to the effect of the horror. The size of this space can differ; it can be an entire neighbourhood or, as in Friday the 13th (1980) a summer camp, but also a hospital such as in Halloween II (1981).

When Armstrong speaks of a human or human-like killer, he is excluding supernatural beings, such as for example A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, who has the power to access his victim’s dreams.[5] Armstrong points out how sometimes the killers in slashers might seem indestructible, but they are always essentially human, and kill their victims along the lines of what is humanly possible.[6]

Tropes of the Slasher and the Scream Series

Comparing the Scream TV series to Armstrong’s list, it seems to have all of the characteristics that he mentions. First of all, the series starts with the murder of Nina Patterson, a high school student in the town of Lakewood and the local queen bee. Like most of the other murders in the series, it is graphically documented for the viewers, and the mask-wearing killer is also introduced. As such, the series also complies with Armstrong’s third characteristic. As an added element, the killings are not just seen by viewers but also by most of the characters within the series, as the killer documents his crimes and distributes the footage over the internet. Obviously very skilled when it comes to IT and social media, the killer sends the other characters in the series videos and GIFS to taunt or horrify them.

screamgif

                   A GIF sent by the killer.

The location of the killings has already been mentioned, namely the town of Lakewood. Murders take place in various places within the town, from the high school to the infamous Wren Lake. Lakewood is introduced as having a history of mass killings, as twenty years earlier a teenager named Brendan James wreaked havoc near this lake. Although at certain times the characters in the series find themselves in creepy, abandoned buildings, the killings do not necessarily occur there, but mostly within people’s own houses or other places they might feel comfortable and safe.

The series fully represents the masked killer as human, as the main characters embark on a quest to find out who is terrorising them. As the series goes on, several different characters are suspect, emphasising the killer’s humanity even more. Although the killer might not appear indestructible, he or she is presented as possessing an astounding amount of stealth, as well as some impressive hacking skills and physical strength.

Like the original Scream franchise, the series includes the systematic killing of characters. Although most of the victims are in some way connected to the main protagonist Emma, there are some murders which have less to do with her, and just occur because the victims were in the way of the killer. Similar to the original cinematic instalments, the killings share a thematic similarity as they are all carried out by a killer wearing the so-called Brendan James mask—this mask which was originally worn by Brendan James to hide his face, which was heavily deformed due to an affliction he was born with. Over the two seasons the killer changes identity, but the mask stays the same. Moreover, the reason why the killer is targeting Lakewood does not change, seeing as Emma and her family lay at the heart of the intentions behind the recurring killing sprees.

Finally, the series does not present an unproblematic ending. In both of the season finales there is a face-off with the killers in which their identity is revealed, but the series also hints at the fact that it ‘might not be over yet.’ Furthermore, the two season murder rampage inflicts a lot of trauma upon the characters in the series, as well as ripping apart families and friendships. For that reason alone, no ending can ever truly be happy.

A Paced Slasher?

In terms of Armstrong’s characteristics, the Scream TV series thus certainly delivers. As such, it seems in its rightful place within the slasher genre. However, Noah’s remarks should not just be swept under the carpet, as he flags up an interesting aspect of the slasher movies: their pace. Burning “bright and fast,” slasher movies present viewers with a killing spree which, once the first victim is claimed, does not relent until the end of the film where the killer often disappears or dies.[7] There is hardly time for the characters in these films to fully grasp what is happening to them, and even less time for them to mourn any fallen friends or family. All in all, slasher movies shock viewers with a thrilling, bloody ride.

As pointed out by Noah, television needs to drag things out, simply because it spans so much more time than a feature film. We can perhaps imagine a series which sticks to the high velocity slaying of the slasher films, but this would probably make for a very repetitive, and frankly a quite tedious viewing experience. The only option then is to take a slower pace, which the Scream TV series does as well. This does not mean that there are less bodies being “wheeled past,” just that these occurrences are further apart.[8] In Scream, it is what fills the gaps between these events that indicates the series’ difference from its cinematic predecessors.

Figuring out Who Is Behind the Mask

In the original Scream film franchise the the question of ‘who is behind the mask,’ or ‘who is behind it this time’ is definitely apparent. This question is repeated in the Scream TV series, but to a larger extent. While the identity of the killer in the films is of less importance than the fact that somehow he or she is killing everyone, this question runs deeper in the TV series. As the leading lady, Emma is targeted again and again, and she takes it upon herself to find out who this killer is, and what connection he or she has to her life. In a sense then, there are moments where the hunter becomes the hunted as they become the object in not just Emma’s but also her friends’ quest to figure out their identity. Furthermore, the elaborate games which the killer plays with his victims take up most of the screen time in between the killings, which leads to the slow untangling of a web of underlying back stories. The slasher film’s quick reveal of its killer—which is usually combined with them providing a straightforward, often unsatisfying reason for the murders—is thus dragged out into a whodunit-style plotline, which substitutes the thrills of high velocity slashings with the evocation of paced, anxious suspicions.

ScreamNoahmurderboard

Noah’s so-called murder board, on which he pins his number one suspects.

Dealing with Trauma

Another element added to the Scream TV series is that, in the second season in particular, it zooms in on those issues anyone would rightly have after having been subjected to a real-life slasher film killing spree. Commenting on the show’s focus on issues of mental health, Hannah J Davies calls the series a “psychological slow-burner.”[9] One of the topics that is explored most prevalently is grief. This is already briefly dealt with in the first season, but is fleshed out in the second one, as more and more of the remaining Lakewood Six—Noah’s chosen name for the group of survivors of season one’s rampage, which also includes him—have to deal with the violent deaths of those closest to them. The season starts with Emma coming back from her stay at mental health facility. Over the course of the season, her post-traumatic stress disorder is dealt with to a great extent. When a new killer seemingly comes forward, the series shows Emma questioning her sanity, asking herself whether her encounter with the Brendon James mask-wearing killer was just a fragment of her imagination or not.

Screamemma

                   Emma experiencing a mental breakdown.

By flagging up the main characters’ emotional instabilities and problems, the series is bringing viewers closer to their struggle. As Davies states in her article, the series invites its viewers to feel empathy towards the main characters, and the things they go through whether these are related to the murders or not.[10] This sentiment is also introduced by Noah at the end of the first episode, as he tells his friend Riley:

You need to forget it’s a horror story, that someone might die at every turn. […] You have to care if the team wins the big game. You have to care if the smart pretty girl forgives the dumb jock. You root for them, you love them. So when they are brutally   murdered, it hurts.[11]

Noah’s statement flags up some interesting points. First of all, he refers to how in the series, the main characters all have a set role to play: the good girl, the bad girl, the jock, and the nerd. Within the show these pre-set stereotypes are only minimally challenged, making it hard to understand who these characters really are. That being said, these characters share a similar trauma, and, as mentioned before, the show does explore this in more detail, making these figures ‘more human’. By inviting the audience to care for these characters another dimension is added to the slasher side of the story, which, in turn, makes the events in the series feel more real. After all, although being targeted by a mask-wearing, knife-wielding, social media savvy killer might seem surreal, the feelings of trauma that result from them have a realistic pungency to them.

Conclusion

All in all, the Scream TV series can be seen as a diluted slasher. It has all the characteristics of a slasher film, but it’s much slower in pace, giving it a large amount of time to explore additional sides of the story, away from the bloodshed. Of course, the ‘dilution’ of the slasher genre can be interpreted in a number of ways. For Davies the changes are positive, as she contends that “the slasher flick works better on TV.”[12] She sees the series as “a necessary part of a new saga,” as opposed to the latest Scream film, number 4, which she believes has become “overly self-referential, with horror tropes running about like screaming teenagers”: “Scream had effectively become Scary Movie.[13] However, for others the added elements might be seen as distractions which take away from the thrill of the high pace slasher.

If anything, Scream the TV series shows what the use of a different medium can do to transform a specific genre. The show does not just prove that the slasher can escape the realm of movies, it also shows how it has the power to become a more intricate, psychologically charged version of itself. Combining the madness of a rampant killer with the very real consequences of experiencing trauma, Scream the TV series is like a grown-up, more self-conscious version of its cinematic predecessors—which nonetheless still does not take itself 100% seriously, in true Scream fashion.

 

Works Cited:

[1]“Pilot.” Scream. Dir. Jamie Travis. MTV.

[2] Armstrong, Kent Byron. Slasher Films: An International Filmography, 1960 through 2001. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2003. Print.

[3] Armstrong, Kent Byron. Slasher Films: An International Filmography, 1960 through 2001. P. 1

[4] Armstrong, Kent Byron. Slasher Films: An International Filmography, 1960 through 2001. P. 2-3

[5] Armstrong, Kent Byron. Slasher Films: An International Filmography, 1960 through 2001. P. 8

[6] Armstrong, Kent Byron. Slasher Films: An International Filmography, 1960 through 2001. P. 9

[7] “Pilot.” Scream.

[8] “Pilot.” Scream.

[9] Davies, Hannah J. Scream if you want to go slower: why the slasher flick works better on TV.” The Guardian. The Guardian, 4 Aug. 2016. Web. 14 Sep. 2016.

[10] Davies, Hannah J. Scream if you want to go slower: why the slasher flick works better on TV.” Idem.

[11] “Pilot.” Scream.

[12] Davies, Hannah J. Scream if you want to go slower: why the slasher flick works better on TV.” Idem.

[13] Davies, Hannah J. Scream if you want to go slower: why the slasher flick works better on TV.” Idem.