MTV’s Scream: The Kids’ Guide to Slasher Flicks

The TV reboot of Wes Craven’s classic horror franchise didn’t reinvent the genre, but pop-culture references and measured campiness made it fun to watch.


“#Mindblown”—pronounced “hashtag, mindblown”—is a hell of a line for a serial killer to deliver after revealing his or her true identity. It’s also an incredibly MTV-in-2015 way to unravel a mystery: ridiculous, meme-obsessed, self-mocking, and fun if you don’t think about it too much. Which basically sums up the first season of the network’s Scream, a TV reboot of Wes Craven’s 1996 film that follows Emma, a high-school student, and her friends as they’re targeted by a mask-wearing psycho murderer.

Tuesday’s finale ended with the unmasking of a killer, plenty of blood spatter, a long victim list, and an even longer roster of survivors. In other words, the show, which was renewed for a second season, didn’t stray much from convention. As with the original movie, kids and adults were picked off one by one in gleefully graphic fashion, the town’s blundering police force couldn’t keep anyone safe, there was a requisite film nerd who was constantly analyzing the story through the lens of cinema history, and mysterious phone calls from a killer with a voice changer. Only instead of “Hello, Sidney,” the taunt was, “Hello, Emma,” and the call was coming from an iPhone, not a landline with an antenna.

In many ways, Scream set itself an impossible task in trying to replicate the self-referential winkiness of its predecessor, given that audiences are more fluent in pop-cultural references these days than ever, and horror specifically is a genre that’s constantly adapting and manipulating other works in an effort to stay fresh. It was certainly buoyed by its connection to Craven, an executive producer who had little involvement in the show, and whose recent death has prompted multiple reflections on his uncanny ability to constantly reinvent horror. In that sense, Scream the show failed to offer any new insight into what’s changed in slasher stories over the past 20 years—its conclusion: not much—even if it was nevertheless pretty fun to watch.

If you could get over the smugness of the premise—and accept the dearth of diversity and improbable levels of attractiveness among the main characters—the soap-opera feel, gross-out deaths, and measured campiness made it work. In many ways, Scream was more enjoyable and cohesive than the second season of True Detective (an opinion that gained surprising traction on Twitter during TV’s summer doldrums) as well as the latest season of American Horror Story.

The show had some clunkier moments, mostly in its attempts to point to how much technology’s been updated since the original: There’s something weirdly un-threatening and un-cinematic about bargaining with a killer via text message. But on a more positive note, it attempted to follow through on how technology can turn people into predators and victims. Some girls were cyber-bullied and slut-shamed after videos of secretly filmed intimate encounters went viral (usually in the form of everyone at a single high school getting a text of the video at the exact same time). And in another modern touch, Emma agonized over the ethics of outing someone without their permission after a video of her bisexual friend kissing a girl went viral.

Like its predecessor, Scream was replete with nods to horror forebears (Saw, Halloween, The Faculty, and The Castle of Otranto) as well as contemporaries (Hannibal, American Horror Story, The Walking Dead). And it also constantly tried to spell out its relevance to viewers by liberally name-checking current pop-culture references: Daenerys Targaryen, Etsy, The Babadook, hybrid cars, Taco Tuesday, texting and driving PSAs, and Taylor Swift as a verb. (As in: “Maybe Audrey will Taylor Swift her anger into creative energy.”) But at times, the referentiality felt less like a tribute and more like a crutch. The curated, seen-it-all-before teenage hipness was perhaps the defining attitude of the show, but it also served to preempt any criticism for unoriginality (think of all the sequels, good and bad, that use self-awareness in this way too).

Indeed, there’s something hypocritical to the entire effort of satirical slasher-movie stories; this is something both Screams have in common. Their cynicism is mostly an act—it’s just a way to convince the audience that the creators are in the joke, and that they know the audience is in on the joke too. It’s a cover for their sincere and inherently optimistic belief that audiences can still be amused or scared by something they’ve seen so many times before.

It might be misguided to willfully trot out old tropes—where the police never call for backup, where a group stupidly splits up—until the end of time and expect people to be charmed by it as long as they’re reassured by filmmakers, “We know.” But combined with a mystery filled with red herrings, betrayals, the occasional HAIM song, and a Bechdel-Wallace Test-passing script, sometimes it works. When the killer was unveiled at the end of Scream, the show seemed to miss the fact that a lot of people had already pegged the culprit. But the surprise or the twist isn’t always what makes a story worth watching, and for those who saw the ending coming, Scream can simply, rightfully say: “Well, what else did you expect?”