It’s easy to forget how revolutionary 1996’s “Scream” was at the time. Fifteen years later and with “Scream 4” in theaters, we now take its influence for granted. We’re living in a popular culture governed by the very laws the first film established. Among them: there is no distinction between reality and entertainment; self-reflection is the noblest form of thought; take nothing at face value, because irony is king.
If you need one word to sum this up, it’s the term “Scream” brought into popular use: “meta.” In a cinematic sense, a movie is meta if it knows it’s a movie and cleverly employs that knowledge. And so “Scream” was your standard slasher flick – a masked killer slices his way through the teenagers of a sleepy suburb – except that the characters recognize they’re essentially living in a slasher flick and make their decisions based on the cliched rules of the genre. Simultaneously a spoof, satire and slick teen flick, “Scream” was a landmark metanarrative that has had as much influence on screen storytelling as its more critically favored mid-’90s cohort, “Pulp Fiction.”
The series upped the stakes with “Scream 2,” which cheekily questioned the sanity of horror audiences in its opening scene. Set at the premiere of “Stab,” a fictional movie based on the murders from the first film, the sequence hits a meta high when the killer strikes in the audience as everyone is cheering the fictional killer onscreen.
The franchise lost original screenwriter Kevin Williamson and most of its wit with “Scream 3,” a limp Hollywood satire that takes place on the set of “Stab 3.” Williamson returns for “Scream 4,” and with him comes the series’ flair for circular storytelling (as well as a smidge of social satire). The film doesn’t break any new ground - series survivor Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is besieged by yet another maniac in a ghost mask - but it is a clever-enough reminder of where the modern, metanarrative trend began.
“Scream 4” also reminded me that the Bible is a metanarrative too. Not in the snarky sense - irony is sparse on its pages - but in the sense that the Christian narrative, as told in the Bible, consists of a group of stories reflecting one larger account: The Story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.
This is the arc not only of the Bible as a whole, but also of so many of its individual accounts - those of Joseph, Jacob, Peter and Paul, to name only a few. As we read, rapt, about each of these tales of fallen men used for God’s good, we’re also aware that their accounts echo each other. What's more, many of the Bible's heroes are themselves aware of these reverberations. They understand that their individual stories are part of - and point to - the story Jesus tells when he arrives: That we have been redeemed through him and that he will return to restore the entire world. In this sense, someone like Joseph is as self-aware of his place in the metanarrative as any "Scream" character.
Also consider the fact that the Bible, though chronologically ordered, can be entered at any point and it really doesn't matter. The ultimate Story can still be understood. It’s not the narrative - the plot - that matters, but the metanarrative: The plot about the plot, the all-encompassing one of which every word in the Bible is vitally aware. It’s a virtuoso display of narrative gymnastics rarely seen on the page, stage or screen; the ingenuity of the “Scream” movies, while similar on the surface, is simple in comparison.
It’s interesting that the Bible so rarely gets credit for this literary creativity. We mostly discuss it as a historical account and rule book - dry things, to be sure. It’s also regarded as a biography of Jesus, true, but the Bible is certainly unsatisfying on that account (there’s so little juicy stuff, Nikos Kazantzakis had to invent it for “The Last Temptation of Christ”).
What’s lost when we see the Bible this way - as a matter-of-fact instruction manual - is how it works as an intricate, ingenious metanarrative. It’s embarrassing - a bit ironic, actually - that it took a pale shadow such as “Scream 4” to remind me.