The 2006 documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film expresses a bit of common wisdom that seems to be accepted by horror fans and critics. The most successful horror movies, it is believed, do more than tap into general, universal fears. They also exploit fears that are specific to their time and place. So, for example, the sci-fi monster films of the 50s and 60s were about Cold War paranoia and nuclear weapons. Later films dealt with generational conflict, economic distress, and so on.
The original Scream, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, is famous for its slyly self-referential quality, which inoculated it from certain criticisms about its plot and gave young, sophisticated audiences an excuse to buy into it. Craven and Williamson created a new type of slasher villain for a new generation of viewers. Unlike the killers in earlier films, those in Scream are not crazy or abnormal in any way that’s easy to identify. They’re just two high school kids, apparently happy and good-natured, who kill for no reason. Motive, as one character in the film points out, is incidental. Scream came out three years before the Columbine massacre, but it’s hard not to think about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when you watch the film now. Like Harris, the killers in Scream have the true psychopathic gift for lying and charming their way out of trouble in order to appear normal.
Scream 4, released 11 years after the third installment, is the first really satisfying sequel to the original. Scream 2 and Scream 3, though not without merit, were mostly forgettable pot-boilers that veered too far into the ridiculous. Granted, the story necessarily becomes less plausible with each installment, and this one is no exception. Unlike the previous two, however, the new film eschews contrived revenge motives and gets back to what was disturbing about the original, albeit with a twist. Pure psychopathy is once again the driving force, but Scream 4 traces a link to the relatively common narcissism that exists on the other end of the anti-social spectrum. It suggests that mass media are at least partly to blame for nudging the villain's psyche toward violence. Like in some of the classic horror films of past decades, there's an element of social critique here. Without giving too much away, one could say the killer is a kind of post-modern capitalist who seeks to market the appearance of Sidney Prescott's victimhood without the substance.
More than any of the other Scream films, this one takes on the issue of media-driven violence directly. In doing so, it practically dares any Ghostface wannabes in the audience to imitate it. With each chapter, more and more critics complain that the filmmakers seem tired of horror, that the films' running commentary on themselves is an expression of hatred for the genre and the audience. This is where the critics get it absolutely wrong, I think. Because Craven and Williamson understand that post-modern audiences are more emotionally distant from what's being signified on screen, they understand the need to implicate those audiences in the action. And because the audience believes itself to be skeptical and more attentive to the signifier than the signified, the films have to address them where they are in order to involve them. An obvious example is the opening of Scream 2, where the killer attacks his victims in a movie theater while they're watching a fictional horror film based on the "real" events in the preceding film. Scream 4 goes furthest of all, implicating us not only as victims but also as voyeurs and therefore, it suggests, as villains.
It's an open question whether today's horror audiences really are as skeptical and as attentive to the techniques of the medium as we imagine. To me the Scream films suggest otherwise. Each one has some discussion of the rules by which horror films operate, with the suggestion that the characters (and the audience) can use these rules to their advantage and figure things out before they happen. This is tedious to some critics, who observe that tired conventions are no less tired for being pointed out. What's less often observed is that the Scream films don't really follow the rules that they trumpet. More often than not, their recognition of these "rules" is just another way of setting up expectations which they can then manipulate. The tactic is ingratiating in a way that plays well to a po-mo audience, but it's really no different from what horror films have always done. The cool thing is that it still works. Whatever others may believe, I imagine this pleases a venerable scare-meister like Craven quite a bit.
The other big question, at least for a lot of non-horror fans, is why anyone would want to subject themselves to all of this. As they usually put it, "Why do you pay money to be scared?" Stephen King explains that horror films confront us with the most unpleasant realities--there exist pain, suffering, even cruelty, we're all liable to be victims, and in any case we're all made of flesh and blood and destined to die. But in the end the movies also tell us that none of that is going to happen this time. The characters on screen may not have survived, but for now, we did. The comfort we get from horror, according to King, is in that little addendum.
Peter Straub sees another aspect, which he finds even more important than fear. According to him, the true defining emotions of the horror genre are grief and loss. Scream 4 explores these emotions in the main character, Sidney. At this point, after the events of the first three films, she is anything but fearful. She seems more sad than anything else, her demeanor recalling the scene in Scream 3 where she explores a haunting simulacrum of her childhood home on a movie set. Neve Campbell brings an unexpected gravitas to the role of the older Sidney, playing her as weary but somehow strangely empowered by her scars.
From my own perspective, the first thing I thought about when I walked out of the theater and into the daylight was my son, still struggling in intensive care three weeks after being born. My heart sank a little as I remembered that he'd had a setback and we were still waiting to find out how serious the complications were. I may have thought I was scared a few minutes earlier, but as I stepped back into real life, I knew that wasn't really true. What's inside the theater isn't what's scary. It's just a pretty good imitation, good enough to make you forget the real thing for a while. No doubt, a comedy or drama can also take your mind off things. But for me at least, I guess there's a special psychic zone reserved for anxiety, and perhaps the best way to drive it out is with a story that takes over and occupies the same zone. So, that's my explanation for why I pay to see horror movies. Contrary to what the question usually assumes, I'm paying money not to be scared...for a while.