I’m doing a lot of reading for my dissertation on horror films and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) recently came up. It’s been a while since I first saw it, and re-watching it prompted some thoughts about it and other films by Wes Craven.
In the original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) the final showdown involves Freddy chasing Nancy Thompson all over the house. Back in the 80’s, Nancy’s house was probably considered upscale.
Cut to Craven’s Scream: everyone’s house is huge! All three houses featured in the film (Casey’s, Sydney’s, Stuart’s*) are multi-level mini-mansions that seem double to triple the size of Nancy Thompson’s in 1984. The dramatic increase in home sizes between the “normal” settings of Nightmare and Scream mirrors the modern capitalistic/consumerism inability to be content, constantly pursuing bigger possessions and greater consumption.
Why does this matter? Because the theme of each film is normalcy interrupted by killers. But how many people live in these types of houses–massive, elaborate abodes that accommodate only three people? These homes are not normal; they are upper middle class. And if you look at supposedly “normal” settings in Hollywood films you’ll find this aesthetic all over the place.
But why? Because it automatically makes you like the protagonist. We like new, clean things and when we see our main gal/guy in this setting we connect with it (we’re supposed to anyway). Their life and surroundings may not accurately mirror our own reality, but we identify with the dream image of ourselves. We want the nice house, we want the new car, we want our lives to be nice and new, and the physical makeup of the film reflect these life fantasies most of us carry.
If we watched a horror film about poor white trash encountering Freddy Krueger, it might be harder to connect to the protagonist because we’re wondering why they live in squalor thanks to the American mythos of Horatio Alger and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mantra.
Further, poverty is usually portrayed on screen as either a strong character or a main element of the story; poverty can’t just be taken for granted, it always has to explain itself (just like poor people in the U.S.) But with these horror films it’s all about dichotomies, so you portray “normalcy” (upper middle class living) vs the nightmare. Having a setting within a dark and dirty ghetto (black, white, Vietnamese, your choice) would make it more difficult to showcase the scariness of the nightmare.
In essence, Hollywood settings encourage an identification with the (upper) middle class dream and bourgeois culture in general. A likable protagonist (i.e., they are attractive, not the killer, and overall nice to other characters) is placed in an affluent setting, and we are automatically on their side and therefore, on the side of the aforementioned political undertones.
Rounding out my thoughts is this: Why should I care about an affluent white community experiencing the occasional trauma brought on by a cheating spouse (motivation of the main killer in Scream)? Because in the real world, the poor and non-whites exist within a state of regular trauma, due in part to the same capitalist system re-asserted at the end of Scream (normalcy [capitalism/consumerism] is restored when killers are killed).
I thought Craven was all anti-middle class with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. I guess age chilled him out.
*Casey: Drew Barrymore, Sydney: Neve Campbell, Stuart: Matthew Lillard