It's a Scream

Playful Murder and the Ideology of Yuppie Horror

How to Cite

King, B. (1998). It’s a Scream: Playful Murder and the Ideology of Yuppie Horror. M/C Journal, 1(5).
Vol. 1 No. 5 (1998): Play
Published 1998-12-01

Why do so many horror films feature the young, pretty and prosperous at the business end of a carving knife? A few examples include Scream 2 (1998), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream (1997), and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992). In fact, the propensity for Hollywood to portray the narcissistic bourgeoisie being deprived of their pretensions has been around since Murnau sent a real estate agent to a vampire's house in 1922. But there are fundamental differences between horror films like Nosferatu (1922) or Psycho (1961) and the films mentioned above. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that in recent years Hollywood horror narratives have moved away from the tradition of legitimising violence for the viewer who wishes to participate in a world of aggression without feelings of remorse or guilt (Tudor), in favour of attending to the fears associated with a struggling middle class and dwindling American Puritanism. This feature of the modern horror narrative involves identical characterisation of both the victims and the stalkers: they are young, affluent, attractive, and completely desensitised to trauma though hyper-sensitive to materialism and mass media flippancy.

In a modern sub-genre of the horror film, defined by Barry Keith Grant as 'yuppie horror' (288), we are seeing narrative representations of economic success and physical beauty involved in the time honoured murderous passage from Order->Disorder->Order. Exaggerated portrayals of economic and physical superiority is a staple of the horror genre -- it helps to establish a veneer of safety which exists only to be shattered. The distinguishing feature of films such as Wes Craven's Scream is that the killers are not hideous misfits, they are in fact equal in beauty and social stature to their victims. The other quality which defines the yuppie horror is a visual and narrative attention to material wealth and contrived suburban perfection and the ineffectuality of this world at preventing the cathartic violent acts from occurring. In both Scream and Pacific Heights typical symbols of post-modern affluence such as cars, wide screen televisions and plush interior design get destroyed during the bloody process of re-establishing a tenuous order. Prior to the unfolding of this crucial aspect of the plot, important relations and similarities in lifestyle are established between the victims' way of life and that of the killer(s). This is a dramatic shift away from the old school tactic of gradually revealing a dark past which emphatically distances the heroes from the stalkers in a way that preserves the sanctity of the American suburban dream defined by films such as Halloween, Friday the 13th, or Nightmare on Elm Street. The modern horror relies on the audience's understanding that the killers occupy the same exaggeratedly cosy space that the victims do. In most cases the means through which films such as Scream 'address the anxieties of an affluent culture in a period of prolonged recession' (Grant 280) involves the young and beautiful being stripped of their material shelter not by blue collar hicks or monsters but by other yuppies turned playfully psychotic. This revamping of the horror genre plays on strong, new concerns about capitalist ideology and media culture, and informs the audience about what effect this ideology is having on contemporary Western emotional life.

The 'playfulness' mentioned above operates on various levels in most films of the genre; typically the yuppie-killers simply make it obvious they are enjoying a kind of selfish revelry in a rare immaterial act. Scream, on the other hand, is the best example of a new movement in the yuppie horror sub-genre which maintains a discreet distance from traditional horror via an unnerving joviality which pervades the script, performances and look of the film. The film is simultaneously satirical and diegetically faithful to the genre it debunks. Scream involves well off high school students treating the advent of mass murder in their leafy town as an opportunity to playfully act out clichéd roles which they also fulfil as legitimate victims. One perky cynic remarks: 'I see myself as sort of a young Meg Ryan, but with my luck I'll get Tori Spelling'. The film makes continual references to other films of the genre including those made by Craven himself. Scream has a narrative quality akin to the grim pleasures pursued by Patrick Bateman in the notorious novel by Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho (1991). In the same manner as Ellis's psycho fetishises his possessions to disavow (justify?) the horrifying brutality of his favourite pastime of indiscriminate slaying, so too do both the victims and the killers of Scream fetishise horror films and media representations of thrill killing.

Make no mistake, Scream is a horror film and extremely gory. Its appeal depends on its self-referential and dichotomous relationship with the viewer who is encouraged to reject the conventions of horror via the playfulness of its tone, as well as be horrified by the frequent disembowelling of innocents. In this way, the film cheats us: there is something transcendental about the graphic violence which makes it impossible for Scream to detach itself from the conventions of the horror genre. The playful behaviour of both the protagonists and the director is a very dark message that illustrates the vanishing potential of film to resolve tensions between conscious and unconscious attitudes towards media saturation and trash culture. Extremely violent representations of affluent American society during a period of both economic and moral recession in Scream promote the notion that the sanctimonious, puritanical institutions of the middle class are at risk of being exposed due to the desensitising nature of television media, personified in the film by the aggressive and bloodthirsty reporter Courtney Cox. It is partially her jocular disavowal of the threat that makes Scream such an interesting film, much more so than similar representations of media in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1996) due to Cox's clever intertextual link to yuppie heaven in the huge television sit com, Friends.

This idea of symbolising or disguising threats to the American Way has always been a driving force in Hollywood production. The Western is perhaps the most conspicuous, where staunchly defended pastoral values serve to undermine a perceived social threat posed by the industrial revolution (Wark 10). Other examples include the textualisation of a 'red menace' from Mars in SF films to reinforce Cold War paranoia, and the use of the musical during the thirties distracted audiences from the harsh realities of the Depression. Horror films have traditionally drawn on trauma from the stalker's childhood which is commemorated in the act of killing, and according to revisionist Freudian criticism this representation acts on the predominantly adolescent viewers' voyeuristic desires for psychosexual empowerment over childhood (Tudor 130). The advent of the yuppie horror has corrupted this crucial distinction between the killer and the victim, due to the killer's participation in the same affluent and material world which dominates their lives. This materialism includes the media and their dangerously superficial retelling of tragic events. The anxieties encoded in Scream and its spin-offs activate, through the violence adopted by psychologically identical characters, a new regression similar to the Freudian one mentioned above. The crucial difference is that the trauma stems from a desensitisation to media representation of real events, ultimately realised in the apparent emotional stability of the affluent and beautiful who playfully slaughter the inhabitants of their own, false world.

Author Biography

Ben King