By JENN ADAMS
SCREAM is one of the most beloved franchises in the slasher sub genre. Unique for focusing on the survivors rather than the killer, each film feels grounded in reality. Wes Craven’s iconic series is also notable for its of-the-moment incorporation of technology. While this often dates the films (landline anyone?) devices used by the killers, victims, and survivors are always intricately woven into the plot, rarely detracting from the overall narrative. In fact, SCREAM’s embrace of phones and related applications brings out an element of betrayal often at the heart of the killer’s motives. Though the characters donning the iconic Ghostface costume change with every film, the one constant is their use of technology designed for communication.
The original SCREAM begins with a sound that would go on to define the franchise. Before an image appears on screen, we hear the ring of a telephone as Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) prepares popcorn. The iconic opening revolves around a conversation she has with the killer as she prepares to watch a scary movie. Though she uses a landline, now a relic, it’s worth noting that Casey has an updated version of the old classic: a cordless phone. Those old enough to recall the days of talking on a landline will remember the curly cords that kept users confined within a small radius around the base unit. But with a cordless, Casey is able to walk around the house locking doors while maintaining contact with the killer. In a later call, franchise heroine Sidney (Neve Campbell) is able to call the killer’s bluff, walking onto the front porch to confront him while continuing the conversation. This is in contrast to the nefarious Billy (Skeet Ulrich), who is forced to hand a corded phone to his accomplice Stu (Matthew Lillard) while he walks around the house searching for Sidney during the film’s conclusion.
But each bit of technology also provides a false sense of safety as well. Casey clutches the phone as she talks, hiding in the corner, but the phone is only protective if she uses it to call for help. In one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Casey’s mother hears her daughter’s death over the open line, immediately setting the tone for an intimate film in which the murderer will be someone close to us and his kills will cut to the bone.
Cell phones do factor into the original SCREAM, though in the mid ’90s, the technology was merely a whisper of what it would become. When Billy arrives at Sidney’s house moments after she is attacked, his cell phone ominously falls to the floor. She immediately suspects her boyfriend (who will indeed turn out to be the killer) and he is arrested, but in a bit of quaint dialogue, his cell records clear him of the crimes. It’s assumed that he did not make the calls because they did not come from his phone. Using an understanding of landlines and assigning calls to the location rather than the person holding the phone, the authorities assume that Billy is innocent and let him go. They trace the calls to Sidney’s father’s phone and mistakenly believe he is the killer. It doesn’t occur to them that Billy might have stolen someone else’s phone to make the calls himself.
The Camera in the Living Room
Hoping for a lead, reporter Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) hides a camera in the living room during the film’s last act, allowing her and cameraman Kenny (W. Earl Brown) to monitor the teenagers from outside the house. This leads to one of SCREAM’s most famous scenes as film lover Randy (Jamie Kennedy) watches the original Halloween, begging Jaime Lee Curtis (as Laurie Strode) to look behind her while Ghostface stands with his knife raised behind him. Kenny and Sidney watch from the news van parked outside, engrossed by the screen. Fearing for Randy, they forget that the feed is on a 30 second delay. They believe they are safe because they can see the killer in another location, but Kenny is caught off guard as the killer uses those 30 seconds to approach the van and slit the cameraman’s throat. It’s the ultimate commentary on art imitating life imitating art
The Voice Disguiser
The technology SCREAM is infamous for is the voice disguiser, which allows the killers to call and harass their victims while hiding their identity. In another evolution of the genre, the killers are not supernatural monsters, but characters in the film. SCREAM has always been a whodunnit and part of the fun is trying to figure out who is behind the Ghostface mask. This audio cloaking ability epitomizes another hallmark of the franchise: betrayal. The killers are always people Sidney knows intimately. In the first film, her boyfriend Billy Loomis and his best friend Stu Macher reveal their plan to orchestrate a real life horror movie. Their motives are personal, and the voice disguiser lets them further torture their victims by blaming them for their looming deaths. The handheld device becomes as much a disguise as the iconic costume, allowing people Sidney knows and loves to torment her, while simultaneously watching the results of the trauma they are inflicting up close.
SCREAM 2 (1997)
SCREAM’s famous sequel almost immediately comments on its predecessor’s premise by introducing the concept of caller ID. While watching Stab, a recreation of the first film incorporated into the cinematic narrative, Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith) yells what many viewers have likely thought while watching the original SCREAM: that Sidney should “Star-69 his ass!” This now defunct service was designed to identify the source of a call after the connection was broken by dialing *69 to receive the information. Sidney uses a variation of this feature to stop one of the many prank phone calls she receives in her dorm room, but this identification only gives her the illusion of power. The killer has evolved with the technology, a trend we will see throughout the franchise. Knowing the source of the call helps her rule out pranksters, but it doesn’t help her know who’s actually holding the phone when the killer calls.
SCREAM 2 uses an interesting twist in the cordless phone update when fellow student Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is targeted in her sorority house. She’s able to click over to an additional line and report the unnerving call, but believing it to be her drunk boyfriend, doesn’t take the concern seriously. Once she realizes the caller may actually be dangerous, she leaves the house with the phone planning to call campus security. Though cordless phones are not physically connected to their bases, they do need to stay within a certain range to be effective. Going outside causes Cici to lose her signal and she is forced to re-enter the dangerous house to call for help.
More Cell Phones
Upping the ante, the killers aren’t the only characters with cell phones in the sequel. Annoyed by the incessant ringing of Gale’s phone, Randy answers and finds himself talking to the killer. While Gale and Dewey (David Arquette) split up to look for anyone else talking on a cell phone, Randy walks around the quad trying to keep the killer on the line. He becomes so engrossed in this conversation that he wanders right into the killer’s clutches, the news van where she is waiting. Lulled into a false sense of security by his public location, Randy becomes consumed with identifying the killer and forgets to pay attention to his own surroundings.
SCREAM 3 (2000)
The Voice Imitator
The most notable technology in SCREAM 3 is an updated version of the voice disguiser. Not only masking the voice of the killer, this device allows him to imitate the voice of anyone he chooses. Though the real-world functionality is dubious, it adds an interesting element of betrayal to the film. Central to the franchise is the idea that anyone can wear the killer’s mask, but the iconic voice has always distinguished them from other callers, instantly alerting the intended victim of the looming threat. Using this variation of the voice disguiser, characters have full conversations with the killer before realizing they have been deceived. The killer is able to lure them to their deaths because they trust the voice they hear on the other end of the phone.
While the voice disguiser is interesting, the most empowering bit of technology in SCREAM 3 is the helpline. Sidney is able to work remotely, a novel concept at the time, patching in from the comfort of her own home. This allows her to support herself while maintaining the privacy that makes her feel safe. Her job displays the positive side of anonymity. Though she is going under an assumed name, Sidney can use her past trauma to help others.
SCREAM 4 (2011)
Debuting eleven years after the third film, SCREAM 4 updates the franchise’s previous use of landlines. The film’s notorious nested opening sees characters use various iterations of cell phone technology as they get calls, texts, and pictures from the killer. But the film’s most notable innovation is its embrace of the now common practice of texting. The killers are able to silently send messages to their intended victims or lure them to unsafe locations without having to worry about the complication of a voice disguiser.
But this new innovation further underlines the perennial themes of trust and betrayal. In previous films, people were identified based on call records taken after the fact. But here, characters are able to instantly see who is sending the message. Now more familiar with the devices, characters are more savvy to the idea that the person sending the message is not necessarily the owner of the phone. While this identification once falsely cleared Billy Loomis, the younger generation is more skeptical. Though many characters receive messages from Trevor (Nico Tortorella), his insistence that he lost his phone is met with skepticism. Jill (Emma Roberts) claims that she did not send incriminating texts and is instantly believed. Though she does turn out to be the killer, her guilt is never called into question because of the possibility that someone else may have sent the message from her phone.
Live Streams and Webcasting
Another interesting innovation is the live webcast one of the characters seems obsessed with. Inspired by the idea, and perhaps remembering her trick from the original film, Gale hides cameras at the annual Stab-a-thon party. But the cameras are only effective if they are secret. Being watched herself, the killer simply covers the lenses of each camera, leaving Gale once again in the dark.
Film lover Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) is also familiar with this technology, broadcasting his entire high school experience on a webcast. It’s assumed that this live feed will save him because his whereabouts will be readily obvious to anyone watching. But one wonders how large his audience actually is. A record of him in danger will only help him if viewers are motivated to call for help. And video of the killer will only save him if help is able to arrive before the killer does. Though his webcast may be helpful in documenting his actions and surroundings, it doesn’t help him if he’s already dead.
In fact, this webcast ends up costing Robbie his life. Drunk and confused, he puts the headset on backwards, stumbling around and looking at his own feed on the screen of his phone. It’s a dangerous doubling that causes him to dissociate from his surroundings. When he opens a door and finds himself face to face with the killer, Robbie sees the threat on his phone screen first. The moment of hesitation before he recognizes the killer in reality is all it takes to strike the first blow. With the screen in between him and certain death, he is briefly lulled into the position of audience rather than participant. Part of his brain assumes that because he is watching it on a screen, it can’t be real enough to hurt him.
Due to the advent of social media, SCREAM 4 adds another element to the killer’s motives. While in class, all students get a notification of the most recent death on their phones at once. Because the killers are uploading information, the students are more informed about the murders than even law enforcement. When the killers are revealed, they share their plan to upload each kill onto social media. Tech savvy, they know that once the videos are shared, they will live forever in cyberspace. Part of a burgeoning culture of influencers and reality TV, they seek the fame and fortune they know accompanies internet stardom.
App Controlled Security Systems
Though SCREAM (2022) further explores many of the films introduced in the fourth chapter, the proliferation of cell phones and communicative technology allows the film to dig deeper into the devices capabilities. When high school student Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked in her home, an app prevents her from having to scramble around the house locking every door. With a tap of her finger, she can secure every door in the house, making herself instantly safe from the killer. Unfortunately she is still vulnerable if the killer can use the feature too. Tara may be able to simultaneously lock every door in the house, but with access to the app, the killer is able to immediately open every door she has just locked. The protective technology is only as safe as the people capable of using it.
Another interesting app is Find Fam, the cinematic version of phone linking technology. Tara’s friend Chad (Mason Gooding) wants to use the app to get closer to his girlfriend. By accepting his digital request, the two phones are linked and can be used to locate the other person as long as they are holding the phone. However, this works both ways. As Chad attempts to evade the killer, his location is revealed by the other phone he is connected to. In a devastating twist, he is unable to operate the untether function because his own blood on his hands renders his touch screen useless.
Though not exactly technology, Twitter and Reddit are also explored in SCREAM (2022). A primitive version of this is hinted at in SCREAM 2 when the killer, Mrs. Loomis (Laurie Metcalf) mentions that she found her accomplice Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) in an internet chat room. Fast forward to 2022, and social media not only fosters the connection between the new killers, it is the foundation for their motive. Film Twitter is notorious for its toxic fandom, and one murderer is driven by the need to right what he perceives as wrongs in the most recent Stab film. He is also furious at being shamed for his myopic devotion to the franchise. While he is correct in his assertion that it’s ok to love movies, there is a problem with living for them. He is a manifestation of the toxicity that runs rampant on social media platforms. In fact the larger premise of the film is centered on the destructive nature of toxic fandom and internet culture, demonstrating the real life ramifications and darker side of the technology we use to bring us closer together.
What is perhaps most notable about the SCREAM franchise is that its killers are always human. Not mystical or undead monsters who seemingly exist in another realm, they come from the friend group of the victims and are just as tech savvy as the people they target. SCREAM has always excelled at commenting on whatever time period the franchise finds itself in, examining timely themes of trust and betrayal. Ultimately SCREAM continues to find new and inventive ways of exploring the technology we use to bring us together while proposing that it may not always be a good thing. From its opening moments, SCREAM shows that it doesn’t matter what the phone can do, but how much you can trust the person holding it.