Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Decoding the Decoding: Scream

There aren't very many rules in art, but there is this one: art cannot decode itself. "Decoding" is what I try to do in this blog, reveal symbols and conventions, theories and structures, to get to the meaning of why this work of art (film, literature, the plastic arts, music, etc.) has been made at this particular point in time, at this particular point in a culture's development and why. Art acts as a mirror for ourselves, and we have to hold it up, now and then, so we know who we are. Wes Craven's 1996 thriller Scream held up a mirror to a culture no longer interested in horror films because it was no longer afraid of (what it thought) was its own unconscious and its own sins.
But it was wrong.
As I said, the only rule in art is that it can't decode itself. Scream sought to decode all the conventions and morality of horror films, in essence, to free the horror film from itself so that it could be reborn, but it really showed who the central character is that can't be slashed out of the horror film: sex. In this post, I am only going to focus on the opening sequence with Casey (Drew Barrymore) and then some of the conventions that the characters discuss and how, in trying to overcome them, Scream actually codifies them. (Below is the clip for the entire first sequence if you want to be refreshed on what happens, if not, just skip it).
The ringing phone in the background is a powerful symbol for Christians because it signifies "the call of God." We each have a "calling" in life, and in some really great films, when you see or hear a ringing phone, that's the importance of it. We know that the first character to be shown in the opening is going to be in trouble because there is the ringing phone but it's mixed in with a significant portion of background noise, meaning that there has been competing avenues in life which has distracted the character from being able to "answer the call" when the moment came. When Casey does answer the phone, it's a movie that has provided the background noise, and we can't underestimate that, because of all the noise the entertainment industry makes in our lives that keeps us from being able to "answer the call of God."
You are probably saying, but this isn't the call of God she's answering, there are killers on the other line: this is the power of art, what calls to us is actually what is already in us. For example, in the wild, a duck doesn't answer the call of a wolf, and a wolf isn't going to answer the call of a badger; because we know there are killers on the other line, that's what Casey is, too. How does she kill? With sex, and little things she does in this sequence slowly teases that out. If she had been heeding the call of God throughout her life, she wouldn't even be in this situation, but every little choice she has made has led up to this moment and the time has come for "the unmasking" of what Casey really is.
The conversing back and forth with "the wrong number" actually proves that the caller has the right number; while it seems that courtesy is being followed by Casey as a matter of basic phone etiquette, she's also flirting: "They've got 900 numbers for that," indicates that she knows what kind of person is on the other end but she's entertaining the caller because she herself wants to be entertained. Instead of just letting the phone ring and not answering, or taking it off the hook, she's allowing herself to be in a position to "answer the call" of a killer because her appetites (which is symbolized by the popcorn in the background) is as perfect for this situation as popcorn is for a movie. Note the glass in the doors and windows surrounding her: mirrors and glass always symbolize reflection, so this is the time for her to be "reflecting" but she's not,... until it's too late.
There is a brief moment of the camera moving outside: it's dark, there is a tree and a swing that is rocking back and forth, and we see her house in the background. The camera never moves away from the star for no reason, there is always a reason, and that's because this is loaded with symbolic importance: the tree represents the Cross, the darkness is both the darkness of sin and the darkness of ignorance (not knowing what to do) and the swing is a picture of Casey, she herself has been "swinging back and forth" throughout her life as to what she ought to do and what she wants to do and that's now caught up with her (of course, we see the swing in motion because the killer was sitting on that swing, but metaphorically, the killer can sit on the swing because that swing had been put there because she wasn't a solid Christian but literally, would swing back and forth).
The central cast of Scream: Ulrich, Campbell, Lillard, McGowan and Kennedy.
As she's making the popcorn, she goes around the counter and takes the salt shaker, then walks back around the counter and "stirs up the popcorn." Salt invokes that we are called to be "the salt of the earth" in preserving the teachings of Christ in all we say and do. Instead of being the salt, she "shakes up the popcorn" which symbolizes the appetites and she engages in conversation with the man on the other end of the line. In discussing her favorite scary movie, as she's talking about the slasher classic from 1978 Halloween, she takes the knife out of the knife block and then puts it back in. This clearly symbolizes the sexual act with the knife as a "deadly phallic symbol," which is carried over from all the great slasher films Scream invokes. As she's continuing to talk to this man that her better judgment tells her she shouldn't, the tell-tale sign of the popcorn getting ready to explode symbolizes, again, what her own appetites are doing.
A scene from 1978 Halloween, when Michael has pinned Bob to the door and watches his death agony with no emotion. The door symbolizes destiny, so by all his decisions that he has made in his life, this was Bob's destiny to die this way.
This is really the point of Scream: we in the audience know that she should hang up the phone but she keeps talking anyway, and in all great horror films, as Scream repeatedly points out, this is what happens. But like all the other horror films, the character can't because they are morally paralyzed from the accumulation of bad choices they have made throughout their lives, and that makes them paralyzed from being able to escape danger. Horror films, Scream included, shows us the consequences of our immoral lifestyles and how the tallying up of our sins is, indeed, death.
Asked what she thinks his favorite scary movie is, Casey replies, "A Nightmare on Elm Street." The reason she names this film is because Freddy Kreuger is a projection of how she's imagining this guy on the phone with her to be... but she still doesn't hang up. When she gets "the call," Sidney (Neve Campbell) talks about how dumb the girls are that they are running upstairs instead of out the door. But the stairs symbolize "a higher plane of thought," an act of reflection, going in-between what is happening and getting that bird's eye view, and that's why they run up the stairs; the front door would symbolize destiny, and entering into something, and because they have already entered into the situation of their appetites coming to get them, metaphorically speaking, they can't do that again, so the only escape for them is to run upstairs, and reflect on how they got into this position, but the killer is always smart and chooses the moment when there is no way out.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.
It's the moment when Casey is asked if she has a boyfriend and she lies and says no, and then the killer wants to know her name. What's ironic is, the name "Casey" means vigilant, and Casey hasn't been vigilant in this conversation at all, and that's why she hasn't given out her name, since she's not living up to it, she doesn't have a name. When she realizes that she's being watched, literally, the lights come on and she understands that this "harmless flirting" now has consequences. But because she wasn't vigilant in the past moments, she can't be vigilant now. Looking outside, there is both fog and a swimming pool. Water can symbolize either the life of grace, or that which kills grace: sex. The swimming pool, in this situation, symbolizes sex because Casey hasn't been living the life of grace, rather, filling the appetites, and the fog symbolize the blur and confusion that has invaded her actions and understanding all her life. She locks a door that has been left unlocked, but it's too late to do anything about it now, as the popcorn is ready to explode. What has happened is the semblance of control has been removed from Casey, but throughout her life, she has willingly given up that control and is now going to try and make a feeble effort to take it back.
One of the many films Scream sites.
The ironic thing is, he says that he wants to "see what your insides look like," but as the killer that she has nurtured and abetted all her life by making this moment possible, he already knows: she doesn't have any guts. It takes guts to live out the life we are called to live, so we should already know that "Casey" the un-vigilant is hollow and empty. She says she is going to call the police, but the killer informs her (and the audience) they are miles away from anyone, out in the middle of nowhere: she has been led astray on the path of life for so long, that she is nowhere near a place where she can call out for help. When the door rings, it's literally her "destiny knocking on the door" and she replies, "Who's there?" the same way that Ichabod Crane asks, "Who's there?" when the Headless Horseman makes his appearance: both Casey and Ichabod are so far gone that they don't even recognize their own self when they see it (please see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Battle For America for more on Ichabod Crane "loosing his head" to superstition). When the killer calls back and informs Casey that "Who's there?" is a "codified device" in scary movies, that it's a death-wish, he's supporting that when she realizes that it's her own self that is there, she'll die from the fright.
The famous shower scene from Psycho that introduced the knife as a phallic symbol of brutal sex and upon which all the "slasher films" of the 70s and 80s depended for the missionary endeavor to keep kids from having sex.
His "invitation" to play a game is that: a game, and there is no chance of play because the odds are stacked against Casey (for more on the differences between "play" and "game" please see Game Theory in How To Eat Art). The reason Casey is susceptible to "playing the game," is because life has been a game, not the battle between good and evil in her soul that horror films try to remind us about; to Casey and her generation, movies are entertaining, like A Nightmare on Elm Street, when she says, "The first one was good but the rest of them sucked," because she was only looking for gratification, not meaning, and now that her life is on the line, she can't find any meaning in her actions so she doesn't know what the consequences are of "turning off the lights" (Christ is the light of the world, so she's agreeing to enter into a state of sin in hopes of bringing something good from it, which is impossible).
Michael Myers, Halloween.
The question he asks her is, "What is the name of the killer from Halloween?" and she can only barely remember because the name Micheal means, "Who can compare to God?" so not knowing the name of Michael means that she doesn't remember the point of Micheal, either; Michael Myers, in effect, can be seen as one of the angels of the Apocalypse reminding people that worship is due to God and God alone. Again, the killer wants to know the name of a killer from a scary movie...
Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, Note the Cross in the background.
Why does she get the answer wrong?
She saw the film 20 times, and never learned what it meant. She was literally wasting her time watching the film because if she had been willing to learn, she would have, but she turned to the entertainment industry to be entertained, not educated, so she didn't learn the valuable lessons that were within the movies; using the movies for only pleasure instead of educational value is exactly like her boyfriend Steve: she was willing to say she didn't have a boyfriend when there was pleasure with the unknown guy to be had, but she used Steve as a scare tactic when she was in trouble, now, she's being used for the sadistic pleasure of the killer as he drags out her suffering.
Jason's mother, Pamela Voorhees, Friday the 13th.
Note that Casey keeps backing into the corner with the television. She's literally in a corner spiritually, and the only thing she has is the "boob tube" that is now the instrument of her destruction because she abused its use. The trick question she's been set up for, "Which door am I at, the front door or the back door?" isn't a trick spritiual question: the enemy always surrounds us, but the enemy can be at both the back and front door at the same time because one important person wasn't knocking at the front door: "Behold! I stand at the door and knock, if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come into him and he with me." Above all else, the makers of Scream knew the Bible, and set up the scary movie that would have a killer, instead of the Bread of Life at the door.
Some of the effects used in the opening of Scream.
That her dead body is hung from a tree only validates that, like Christ, she too should have crucified herself to the world instead of enjoying its pleasures that turned deadly all too quickly; her body being treated like an animal is because she indulged her animal passions. As in all things, it's not because she enjoyed scary movies, it's because she enjoyed them for the wrong reasons that led to her death.
The Ghostface mask of Scream 1-4.
The last important note to make is about the masks: they always completely block out the "murderer's" identity and that's important, because it's a graphic illustration for us of what sin does to our own identity. When a person in a horror film is about to get murdered, the killer they are seeing is a reflection of their very self, and when they are wearing a mask that obliterates their features, their identity, it's because that's what sin has already done to their soul and the reason they are in that situation.
The two killers from Scream.
How does Scream codify what it seemingly attempts to debunk?
The film intentionally states that you should never, ever have sex in a horror film, that only virgins have power to get around the bed and elude the killer, and then it shows Sydney having sex and then after wards, she's able to still get away from the killer. But we also know that the reason she's being stalked is because her mother Maureen was having sex with Billy's father Hank which drove Billy's mother away... so in revenge, they brutally raped and murdered Maureen.... so sex is still a killer after all. Scream couldn't decode sex as the main star of horror films without putting a "new star" in its place, but they decided to keep the same old star and just use a different profile shot. It does, however, add a new dimension by implicating "adult sexual behavior" and not just teenagers' sexual behavior, but any sexual activity outside of marriage is going to bring its own deadly consequences (for example, if she hadn't had sex with Billy, she wouldn't have been blinded to giving him the gun).
All horror films need a great house for the setting.
In conclusion, I have only just started examining this great film that truly changed the landscape of the horror genre. It's on Netflix instant play this month, so if you have time, watch it again and see what you can find in the film that it debunks or codifies. Meanwhile, here is the Urban Dictionary List of Rules For Horror Films that I am sure you will enjoy reading!