I was in middle school when Wes Craven’s Scream premiered in 1996, and I wouldn’t see the film until after its home video release, some time well into 1998. I was, for sure, not allowed to watch it (one of the rare times I remember my parents specifically restricting my viewing), but I eventually came upon it illicitly at a friend’s house one night. It was terrifying. Plenty of films had scared me before, of course (Poltergeist, with which my childhood best friend loved to torture me, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, my fear having been inspired by a life-size Freddy standee in my grandfather’s video store), but this was different. Scream wasn’t gaudy or supernatural. It wasn’t about a haunted house or a snarling creature. It wasn’t about the heaps of latex or corn syrup. For me, it was about the cool kids. High school. Adulthood. It was about sex and friends and jobs and growing up. It’s often said that slasher films target teenage audiences because they’re the most susceptible to the terrors of new freedom and responsibility, and it’s those terrors that were the most haunting. For me, Scream was all about the next step.
Scream frightened me, but it also excited me. It made me feel like the power to define my own destiny was right around the corner, that I needed only to reach out for it when it approached. Life would be risky and dangerous; I knew that, but I saw realistic kids who could deal with it on their own. They were intelligent and independent. Though they fought on different sides, that core cast always felt like a team. Hell, Billy and Stu (Matthew Lillard) made more sense to me than Jason, Michael, or Leatherface ever would. I saw in them my own tendency to deal with my frustrations in inappropriate and often self-destructive ways. I saw in Sidney my instinct to blame myself for my family’s various misfortunes. It all made sense to me — in a twisted way, I belonged in Woodsboro. My favorite films are all about a certain degree of wish fulfillment (Back to the Future fixes my parents divorce, Jaws brings my grandfather back to life, The Princess Bride gives me the murder dungeon I’ve always dreamed of), but Scream is the only one that makes me feel genuine, youthful optimism.
Last Action Hero’s Danny Madigan will always be my post-modern movie fanboy avatar hero, Randy was older, funnier, and more sincere. He had half a shot with Sidney (or at least he thought he did — at thirteen, that was enough for me) and an awesome job at the video store. Most importantly, he made it to the end because he knew all the rules. He did the reading. I did the reading. Hell, I assign the reading now, and Randy’s unapologetically obsessive media literacy always made me feel powerful. He made it cool to be smart, and not just with the outcast, Stand By Me, Goonies-Never Say-Die crowd. Tatum thought Randy was cool, and Tatum was sexy as hell. Anyway. I know Scream didn’t invent these characters. These archetypes have existed for a long time, but you have to remember that slashers were dead when I was growing up, and I was mostly denied their indulgent fun until Kevin Williamson revitalized the tropes for a new generation. They finally belonged to me.
Wes Craven put all the male characters in the same black boots to throw careful viewers off the scent. I get to prove — without a trace of rose glasses and with the full force of academia at my back — that something absolutely essential to my youth is objectively, undeniably awesome. I get to stand on that thrilling edge of adulthood for all time, and Scream stands there with me.