Scream: How the film broke its own rules for surviving a horror movie

Scream is one of the best horror franchises of all time for many reasons—not the least of which is that it gave its own rules for survival but wasn’t afraid to break them.

A lot can be said about the original Scream trilogy’s place in pop culture, particularly for a certain generation. Upon director Wes Craven’s death in August of 2015, Flavorwire noted that the first film “was a game-changer for the horror genre.”

But even that strong wording doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the issue. Somehow, Kevin Williamson’s simultaneous satire of, and homage to, horror—slashers in particular—created its own subgenre, one that became so popular, it quickly earned its own series of parodies (see also: Scary Movie).

With a film that’s been around for over 20 years, and that doubtlessly gets watched and re-watched by old fans and new, rehashing everything that made it work would be incredibly easy. Scream somehow managed to be deliciously scary, while still managing to poke fun at the very film elements that gave it—and those films it was spoofing—the type of suspense that kept viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next big scare, to begin with. “There’s a formula to it—a very simple formula,” raved resident film expert Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy) in one Scream’s most famous scenes, and he was right…but only to a point.

The killer turned out to be the boyfriend, just like Randy (somewhat pettily, considering he clearly had a thing for Neve Campbell’s Sidney) predicted; but this time, the usually solo slasher flick villain had help from a friend who was seemingly in it just for the ride.

Going outside to investigate a strange noise never exactly ended well, just as Scream viewers who thought they already knew how horror worked might expect. But at the same time, the added comedic twist of Sidney Prescott, stepping outside while receiving a call from the killer to shove a finger up her nose and ask what she was doing, wasn’t exactly part of Randy’s “simple formula,” either.

Perhaps that’s what made the scene one of the four-film series’ most memorable moments—the element of surprise in a style of storytelling that had ceased to be surprising. Or maybe it was Neve Campbell’s hilarious, yet defiant, delivery. Quite possibly, the lasting effect of the nose-picking scene just boils down to the way in which Scream made a mockery of its hero. Not only was she outside in the middle of the night, openly daring a guy who’d just gutted two of her classmates to show himself, but she was also picking her nose while doing it.

And when Ghostface, as he’d later become known, called Sid’s bluff, what did she do? She became exactly the type of horror victim she had, just moments before, disparaged:

It’s just, what’s the point? They’re all the same: some stupid killer, stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who’s always running up the steps when she should be going out the front door. It’s insulting.

For the record, Campbell could act…But her character ran up those stairs anyway. Scream viewers knew to laugh along with it while simultaneously being terrified for the character’s life: Sidney did, after all, know better, and so did we—it was all part of the gag.

Looking back (or re-watching for at least the 200th time—whichever), that’s one of the things Scream did best: It created nearly all of its lasting images by reminding audiences of the rules, then breaking them. And, of course, hearing “rules” mentioned in the same piece as Scream automatically brings to mind one iconic scene.

So, let’s look at how Scream broke every single one of its own rules.

“You can never have sex.” While Randy was busy telling his peers they had to remain virgins if they had any hope of surviving the bloodbath that was sure to come, Sidney and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) were moving their “PG-13 relationship,” as Sid had promised her boyfriend earlier in the film, to X-rated territory. Even though she was Scream’s version of the Jamie Lee Curtis “sole survivor” (with a little help from her friends), Sidney didn’t need to remain a virgin in order to stay alive.

During the big reveal and final fight in the Macher kitchen, a delighted Stu (Matthew Lillard) even reminded Sidney that she had to die for the transgression of being sexually active. But despite pointing a gun at his supposed friend’s head and seemingly having her cornered, Stu never managed to kill her.

Maybe Sidney’s mom, Maureen Prescott, got enough slut-shaming in the franchise for the sex rule to no longer apply to the Prescott family; or perhaps Campbell’s character managed to survive because she’d essentially been pressured into believing that she was “selfish and self-absorbed” for taking the time to grieve her mother’s death.

Maybe, by the 90s, it was finally time to let antiquated, meaningless ideas of purity go—and Scream gave viewers a nod to that by allowing its leading lady to live to fight another day. Regardless, even the first rule of the horror genre was null and void in Woodsboro.

“You can never drink or do drugs.” The entire party at Stu Macher’s house was filled with underage kids, chugging beers and having a good time against the town’s mandatory curfew. When Randy laid down the rules, there were 11 teenagers in the room, all drinking. Out of that group, Stu was the only character, major or otherwise, in the “rules” scene who didn’t survive Scream—and he was one of the killers, not one of the killers’ victims!

Randy even had a drink himself; but despite breaking his own rule for survival, he was one of the four main characters left standing. Now, Scream 2 was another story; but even almost 22 years after the fact, we’d still like to live in denial with that one.

Besides, we’re pretty sure sex with “Creepy Karen” caused Randy’s untimely demise, not booze. This would imply that Rule Number One is more important than anything else; but if that’s the case, does that mean every other kid with a beer in his or her hand (or, say, the guy chugging out of the beer bong) was a virgin?

Doubtful.

“Never, ever, ever—under any circumstances—say, ‘I’ll be right back.’” Scream broke this rule before Randy even had the chance to tell us it existed. Long before the house party, when Billy was in the precinct as a suspect, Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) uttered one of horror’s most cursed lines. He survived every single pair of Ghostface slashers, through all four films.

Immediately after being told to never say he’d be right back, Stu sarcastically threw the line back in Randy’s face; it wasn’t until after he’d used the phrase a second time—in the middle of bragging about the perfect plan to commit murder—that he was finally put to death. But even then, he was back after saying he would be. And as mentioned above, the villain didn’t kill Stu—the heroes did.

That brings us to Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox). She told Kenny the camera guy she’d “be right back” before running off with Dewey to investigate an abandoned car. She, like Dewey, lived to hunt three more pairs of killers. Evidently, the horror movie gods got their wires crossed with this one because Kenny, who left exactly zero scenes with an empty promise of return, was the one to have his blood splattered all over the ground and pouring down the van’s windshield.

Bonus: “Careful: This is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare.” We all know how this one ended, and it’s yet another case of Scream telling viewers one thing, then immediately doing another: “Not in my movie.”

That’s how Scream wound up “saving a genre that had been long confined to straight-to-video bargain bins and endless Michael Myers sequels,” as Adam White of The Telegraph wrote in 2016: This film, which was followed by two equally strong (I refuse to hear otherwise, even about Scream 3) sequels and then revamped with a fourth film over a decade after the original trilogy ended, seamlessly blended elements of two otherwise at-odds film types.

Above all, it challenged us all to go out there and break our own rules.

Get your Screamathon in before Halloween! The original Scream trilogy is currently streaming on Netflix.