How ‘Scream 4’ is like the Bible

scream4

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.

(Photo courtesy of Dimension Films.)

Josh Larsen is editor of ThinkChristian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm.com and on Facebook.

Comments (9)

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I like the Scream movies a lot and love your take on the Bible as metanarrative. Only God can take real events and real personalities in real lives and incorporate them into the big redemption story He's always telling. Reminds me of something C.S. Lewis said about miracles: "Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see."
You can say Scream is witty, ironic, self-referential but it is still a slasher movie that depends on horror and fright for that titillation some people sadly call entertainment. I detest all violent, sadistic fear exploitation movies masquerading as entertainment. Is it a meta-narrative like the Bible? Doesn’t matter. It’s evil and dark and worst of all it’s clever.
Josh,

Biblical narrative is additionally self referential and sophisticated in that it invites (requires) the reader to place him or herself in the narrative (cf. Auerbach's book Mimesis). A great example of this process written out is Kirkegaard's Fear and Trembling.

js
Well, RickD, it does actually matter in that the Scream franchise--like it or not--is, like the Bible, an influential text in American culture. And so a comparative study of the two is perfectly valid. One does not have to approve of a piece of literature or its contents to recognize its cultural influence, merit or the glimpse it may give of a bigger truth.

But, like you implied, that engagement does come with an obligation of discernment. And so while the first film was ground-breaking and its style did evoke for Josh a quality present in God's Word, that of course does not make it godly or something to show in youth groups. But I don't see why it has to be one or the other: sinless & safe for the whole family OR completely discarded as a work and not discussed or engaged by believers.
I appreciate Josh’s comparison between the Bible and Scream. It was not a critique of Scream, more a comparison of literary forms. And I suppose it was ground-breaking in that it broke ground for the blatantly sadistic Saw franchise and scores of video games among others. My concern is that these movies desensitize young people towards sadism and violence. They are dehumanizing and the use of humor makes them all the more so. Unfortunately the human race has a long rfelationship with the nasty emotion of blood lust. From bear baiting to dog fights to modern fight clubs. I try to learn from Josh, I tried to make myself watch Bruno, another film he thought was entertaining and instructional and I couldn’t. It wasn’t rationalized morality, just a visceral revulsion to grossness. Some people have a gag reflux when eating a raw oyster, some don’t. I have children and I have always been bothered by seeing violence trivialized or people victimized. I don’t want to criticize Josh, I really did appreciate his point about the Bible being a self-aware meta narrative bearing similaroties to the sophisticated self-consciousness of the characters in Scream. Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima movies are violent and bloody, as are King David’s battles or Macbeth, but they are useful meditations on the place of violence and it’s origin in the fallen nature of humanity. Movies like Scream are about the thrill of violence, bloodlust and sadism. Josh has a tough job and I appreciate his reviews.
I'm glad you mentioned Saw, because I see a clear difference between that series and the Scream movies. The Saw films that I've seen (I eventually bailed on them) are nothing more than exploitative sadism and their popular appeal is indeed disturbing. The Scream franchise, while still violent, has an entirely different tenor - the creativity and wit and love of film that courses through them makes them almost genial. (Only Scream 3 has hints of cruelty.) A minor distinction, perhaps, for those who see no value in the horror genre whatsoever. But for those of us who feel even horror flicks have value, it's a crucial distinction.
But like you say, Scream, in this case, has truly been ground-breaking film. Its wit and love of film might also be a distinction lost on its adolescent audience. I'd love to see you do a piece (maybe you already have) on dealing with the dehumanizing effect that slasher and horror films (Scream, Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, zombie splatter fests, Halloween etc.) have on their young audiences. I do see some value in a few movies that have been lumped in the horror genre (Flatliners, Bodysnatchers etc.). I appreciate your voice.
I think it's interesting that you call the Scream movies violent and sadistic, yet the Bible is full of some pretty violent things (that some may even call 'sadistic'). Is it because the vehicle is different, making things okay in written word but not visually? I'm honestly not sure where to draw that kind of line. I think engaging culture is important... Redeeming culture is more important. But both cannot be done without being exposed to culture. All that said, we still should use discernment with what we put in front of our eyes, etc. I personally enjoyed the first two Scream movies and will see this one. I have watched some incredible films that are violent and uncomfortable, such as Lars Von Trier's Dogville, but say some very important things. I'm glad I watched them despite the times I cringed and felt disgusted.
Joe, you know that feeling you get when you’re watching your third slasher horror flick and teenagers are getting sliced and diced and you viscerally “cringe and feel disgusted”? That most likely is the Holy Spirit inside you saying “Enough Joe!” The difference between the Bible’s inclusion of a violent detail and a Hollywood movie maker’s obsessive graphic slo-mo focus on splatter, horror and it’s anticipation, is intent. Is it there for titillation, or does it have a larger moral point to make? The movie maker is producing a commercial vehicle designed make as much money as possible from teenager’s fascination with blood lust and fright. Full coffers keep immoral stockholders happy. No matter what you hear, the Bible is not “Sadistic”.

 

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