My first date was to go see Scream at the Bridgewater Mall in lovely central New Jersey. I was fourteen years old and knew little to nothing about anything, let alone girls, date etiquette, and the like. All I knew is that I liked films where I could watch other people (or ghosts, or goblins, or what-have-you) murder other people and that this girl was down with that. Of course, Scream was an R-rated movie, and as a result, we were not allowed to view the film by ourselves: our virgin eyes and ears could not handle the expletives, blood, and what appeared to be Rose McGowan’s nipples peeking through her green top (or, at least, this is what was promised in the trailer). So therefore my date’s mother had to sit a few rows back and watch the film with us, although one could argue that instead of watching Neve Campbell avoid knife wounds, Mom was making sure that I wouldn’t try anything fishy with her daughter—my trembling hands, my teenage bravado.
Not that I had a chance to anyhow: this was partly because of the fact that I was chubby and acne-ridden. But it was mostly because of the fact that I was so nervous that I didn’t even sit next to her: I followed middle-school bro code and left a seat between. Her usher white marshmallow Tommy Hilfiger jacket rested on top of my Celtics Starter jacket; our jackets the only thing touching, and they weren’t even on our bodies, keeping us warm.
I realized the critical error I had made, but it was already too late—I had established my position and was now effectively too frightened to move one seat over: furthermore, the maneuver would certainly be viewed in a negative light by her mother, the eye in the sky a few rows behind us, presumably eating SnoCaps and shaking her head.
The movie ended, those who needed to be stabbed were stabbed, and we made our way out of the theatre, lingering long enough to forge a brief hug that was more jacket than body, and it isn’t until multiple retellings of this story that I understand the irony of that exchange. There was no second date, and with the whole separate schools thing, I never saw her again. (Jessica, I’m sorry. Are you?)
I like to think that I’ve gotten better at this whole dating thing since then. At the very least, I am able to acknowledge the fact that, by all accounts, I was a colossal failure, and when terrible date stories inevitably start being told after a few beers, I am always quick to offer this one up for the enjoyment of the group.
I bring this up because this past weekend I went to go see Scream 4 (stylized as Scre4m, which gets me excited for 5cream), the first Scream released since the tragically average third film in the trilogy back in 2000. Sadly, or not so sadly, I did not go on a date—instead I went with my friend and his wife, who had a more positive Scream tradition of watching the films with the same group of friends, and I was more than happy to stand in. For those who haven’t seen the new iteration, it is playfully calling itself a “reboot”, despite the fact that the base cast is still involved, although there is a whole new set of teenagers set for slaughter.
Part of the appeal of the original Scream is that it was delightfully self-aware of the genre with which it was affiliated—the characters in the film were horror-movie buffs; the killer an ultimate fan of the genre who quizzed his/her victims before slicing their throats. The newest film takes this level of self-awareness a step beyond: a reboot that knows it’s a reboot,a movie that knows its canon. The word ‘meta’ was used so many times that I thought it was an episode of Community (well, that and celebrity crush No. 1 Alison Brie as Sidney’s publicist). Scream 4 itself has two false beginnings, instead showing ‘Stab 6’ & ‘Stab 7’: the film franchise within the film franchise that is based off of the events of the first film, except highly dramatized and spectacularly absurd. It is reminiscent of “The Valley”, the show over which the characters of The O.C. obsessed. This rehashed old plotlines from earlier seasons of The O.C. and made fun of their melodrama (again, fitting that Adam Brody plays a cop—I kept waiting for Sandy Cohen to show up with bagels).
The perfect storm of all of this meta-commentary arrives in the third act of the film in which there is a giant party at a barn in the middle of the woods—the party a trope of the genre, which, of course, is pointed out by many of the characters. The reason for the party is ‘Stabfest’, a movie-watching ritual in which one would take in all seven ‘Stab’ films back to back, which includes shouting out classic lines of the film and even wearing Ghostface masks. Of course, this event could only occur in Woodsboro, the fictional town made even more fictional by the ‘Stab’ series. While celebrating morbidity is nothing new—the ghost tour/murder walk is a million-dollar business—the fact that students would still attend ‘Stabfest’ while the teen-targeting slasher is on the loose is a new concept altogether. It has long been stated that people desire to be scared in a way to feel mortality in a safe environment: we watch actresses get stabbed in the heart so we can feel their plight without feeling the knife. Furthermore, the dichotomy of fear and relief is such a large one that people wish to be frightened so that when they are no longer in harm’s way (or they snap out of the movie-watching experience) they feel a sense of euphoric reprieve. There’s even a sense of betting against cliché: there’s no way that someone would get killed while watching other people get killed! That would be way too much of a coincidence! In a way, thinking about (or witnessing) morbid and gruesome acts is very calming: when walking home through a rough neighborhood, we think of all of the potential possibilities of what could happen to us—that if we think of it, there’s no way it could occur. During the process we scare ourselves, half to death, but maybe it makes us walk a little bit faster: it’s our own built in panic button that both creates and suppresses the fear. So, of course one would attend a film festival based on a murderer that has suddenly resurfaced: what are the odds that they’ll strike here?
And yet when the first girl to take her top off signs her death warrant, I can’t help but think of my first-worst date story: the countless retellings of it to friends, strangers at parties, even my students, in hopes of demonstrating a small sense of pathos, to let them know that I am human and I am capable of being split open like a pepper; that if you stab me, I’ll bleed out. “Have I thought of the body as sanctuary?” Lia Purpura asks in her essay Autopsy Report. “A safe, closed place like the ark from which the Torah is taken and laid out on a table to be unscrolled. Two sides parted, opened like, soon I’d know, a rib cage, that a hand with a sharp-tipped pointer might lead the way over, reading towards depth.” That by telling this story of failed love, I am somehow saving myself from future heartbreak? That by summoning the story of the demon I keep the demon at bay? Or perhaps the “rules have changed”, as so often uttered in the movie: that these confessions of teenage love don’t work anymore—that we are tired of these things, that by expressing our failures we are becoming the cop ready to retire, the marine with the new baby, the man who just proposed. Or are we like my date’s mother—thrown into a situation we are not ready to unravel from ourselves—instead, we watch a narrative unfold while a narrative unfolds, horrified, no doubt, yet when asked our favorite scary movie, we reply with this one.