Why are our favourite scream queens conservative now?

In the 'Scream' and 'Halloween' reboots, our fave horror icons have become gun-loving vigilantes with individualist outlooks.

by Tom George
|
21 January 2022, 2:02pm

When we meet her in Scream (2022), Sidney Prescott is now an activewear-sporting mum, jogging along the riverside with a stroller. In the fifth instalment of the franchise (the first not to be directed by Wes Craven, who passed away in 2015), that’s the only glimpse at the new life of Neve Campbell’s character, 11 years on from the last Ghostface massacre. But, tbh, that’s all we need to see. Because the moment she receives a call from her old friend Dewey, letting her know that there’s another masked killer tormenting a new gen of A24-horror-loving, Letterboxd-pro-using troubled teens of Woodsboro, her demeanour changes entirely. “Do you have a gun?” asks Dewey. “I’m Sidney Prescott,” she scoffs. “Of course I have a gun.”

It’s a throwaway line that feels manufactured for the franchise’s fans to tweet along with the words “omg slay queen”, but it also marks a significant change for Sidney, a character who once defied the conservative ideals often held to the final girl of horror movies.

In the new film, the protagonist is stronger than she used to be, toughened by the trauma of facing off with an endless conveyor belt of Ghostface killers since the 90s. But in some ways, this older, gun-toting version Sidney feels at odds with the character many fans came to adore. “As the latest Scream film follows the previous film’s events, it makes sense that Sidney would become more hardened,” says Katlyn Aviles, an award-winning horror filmmaker and professor in feminist film theory. “At this point, the woman has endured multiple violent attacks.”

But while it’s understandable that the new Sidney may be constantly locked and loaded, her transformation isn’t quite as drastic as that of Laurie Strode. The beloved scream queen, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, whom we met in John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher Halloween, was giving serious right-wing energy in the 2018 sequel. Ignoring the existence of the many, many sequels, twists and cultish reveals of the franchise's past, Laurie has been reeling since that first traumatic night when Michael Myers escaped prison. With a bunker full of rifles and a newfound belief in capital punishment and libertarian individualism over institution based justice, it seems pretty likely Laurie would have voted for Trump in 2016.

“The horror genre has always had political leanings,” Katlyn explains. Horror films have, after all, always played on the contemporary fears raging through the public: communism in the 50s, satanism in the 80s and technology invading our lives from the 90s onwards. “For the most part, I think horror tends to lean liberal, although it has had periods of being more conservative,” she adds. “Many films of the 1980s, particularly the slasher films, reflect the values of the Reagan era”. These conservative ethics were showcased in an aggressively pious approach to sexuality and staunchly anti-drug messaging.

Very often, these conservative ideals were expressed through the different scream queens. A fear of the changing sexual and social positions of young women was explored through the teen babysitter – When A Stranger Calls (1979) – or summer camp supervisor – Friday the 13th (1980) – and what they get up to out of sight of their mothers, fathers, teachers, priests. “Although not all of them were virgins or abstained from drinking and doing drugs, victims in 80s slasher films are presented as immoral for their behaviour, which gets them killed,” Katlyn says. “The final girl is presented as the opposite. Her refusal to give into hedonistic desires allows her to defeat the killer.”

But the scream queens of the 70s and 90s, the eras of both Halloween and Scream respectively, actually leaned more liberal. Katlyn says leading females of 70s horrors often “embodied the sentiments of the second-wave feminist movement”. Laurie herself was originally very progressive. “While not as sexually active as her friends, Laurie still smokes marijuana with Annie on her way to babysitting,” Katlyn points out. “She may not have the confidence to approach boys, but she’s hardly a prude.” Similarly, in the 90s, characters such as Sidney subverted the chaste horror laws the 80s had defined by having sex and surviving past the end credits. Though Billy Loomis, one of the two original Ghostface killers, is the one to take Sidney’s virginity (before attempting to kill her, in keeping with the essential rules of the horror genre), Wes Craven’s film makes her a survivor with sexual autonomy. Part of the reason why we love scream queens is because they refuse to give up their sexuality and hedonism in the face of a killer with more conservative ideals. So why, then, if these two characters were created with liberal messaging at their centre, are their rebooted selves so different?

Maybe it’s because our favourite scream queens are no longer, well, scream queens. In the latest Scream movie, Sidney takes on the role of Dewey’s character in the original film, now there to save the day for a new group of teens being tormented by the killer. Likewise, Laurie follows in the footsteps of Dr Sam Loomis in the first movie, who frantically searches for the escaped Michael, while the new scream queens of the 2018 reboot are her daughter and granddaughter.

Both Sidney and Laurie are now action heroes above all, and are far more aggressive in their response to the murders than defensive. Within the horror genre, the characters typically in this role – usually police officers, vigilantes or parental figures – tend to lean conservative. Think Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead series, Owen Grady in Jurassic World (2015) or Lieutenant Don Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Their distrust of progress, an old-worldly outlook and typically isolationist lifestyle make them more likely to survive and thrive in fight-or-flight situations that have forced American society back to a lawless Wild West.

But while that’s fine for original movies — the action heroes of horror are rarely our favourites anyway — for fans of the genre today (a young community that has a large LGBTQ+ and left-leaning presence), it takes away some of the joy to see our queer icons become hardened, military-style law enforcers. In Scream 3, Sidney is living in isolation, locked away from modern society, but she processes her past through volunteering for a Women’s Crisis hotline. Katlyn notes that in the other Halloween sequels that follow alternative timelines to the latest reboot, Laurie isn’t so closed off either. “In Halloween H20, Laurie dealt with her trauma, but she also tried to build a life outside of Haddonfield. In contrast, Halloween 2018's Laurie has stayed in the town, preparing for the day she would kill Michael Myers. Her trauma has consumed her entire life and prevented her from thinking about anything else.”

“Interestingly, both reboots have characters needing to reckon with violence from the past,” Katlyn continues. “In many ways, America is going through a similar reckoning. Our history of systematic abuses has come to the forefront over the last few years. We can no longer ignore the violence, oppression, and trauma. Laurie and Sydney seem to have taken on a similar cynical outlook that I think many people in the nation are feeling.” It’s clear that the Halloween films were written with modern day politics in mind. The 2021 sequel Halloween Kills, then, allows the right-wing energy of its traumatised leads to go full-kilter. Though filmed prior to the events of January 6th 2021, the movie feels eerily similar to the Capitol insurrection, as a Haddonfield mob charge through a hospital, so blinded by their anger that they end up killing the wrong person.

Interestingly, though our unkillable queens have become more conservative over the years, marketing for the movies still seeks to align with the largely liberal values of their audience demographic. “I remember Jamie Lee Curtis praising Halloween 2018 for portraying a woman's trauma and connecting that to #MeToo,” Katlyn says. With Halloween Ends still to come later this year and probably more movies to follow in the Scream franchise, following its latest box office success — as well as talks about reboots of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street — perhaps there’s still space for our favourite horror survivors to process their trauma while holding on to their defiantly progressive messages. “While there may be some pleasure from watching our favourite heroines blow away a bad guy,” Katlyn adds, “it does perpetuate the idea that violence can solve violence. Or can somehow atone for past trauma.”

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