Monday, June 15, 2020
June 15, 2020: American Horror Stories: The Scream Series and Meta-Storytelling
[On June 16th, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock premiered his new film Psycho in New York. So to celebrate that anniversary, this week I’ll contextualize Psycho and other horror films, leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on your own spooky story studying!]
On the benefits and the drawbacks of metafiction, in any genre.
In this post on E.L. Doctorow, Robert Coover, and the Rosenbergs, I highlighted postmodern theorist Linda Hutcheon’s concept of “historiographic metafiction,” a genre of creative art that blurs the boundaries not only between fact and fiction (as do the found footage films I’ll discuss later in the week) but also between art and reality, the work and its audience. The characters and creators of such works step back to examine and address themselves, the works as creative works, and their audiences, among other layers to their metafictional engagements. In the mid-1990s, master filmmaker Wes Craven and his collaborators introduced such metafictional qualities into the horror genre: first in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) and then, far more successfully and influentially, in Scream (1996) and its multiple sequels.
Scream has plenty of qualities of a straightforward slasher film, as the justifiably famous opening scene with Drew Barrymore amply demonstrates. But the discussion of “scary movies” integral to that opening scene is extended and amplified in the movie proper, which features a cast of characters who have been seemingly raised on such films and who engage in multiple (even constant) metafictional conversations about the genre’s “rules,” conventions, and expectations. The metafiction unquestionably works, elevating what would otherwise have been a largely unremarkable horror movie into an analytical commentary on its own existence, the legacy of which it is part, and the guilty pleasures it and its ilk offer (and make no mistake, Scream remains scary and gory despite, if not indeed through, these metafictional qualities).
As with any genre and form, metafiction has its potential drawbacks and downsides, however, and as the Scream series evolved it reflected quite clearly one of those drawbacks: the tendency of such self-referential commentaries to multiply to the point where they’re chasing their own tails more than either analyzing or entertaining an audience. So, for example, Scream 2 features both a movie version of the first film’s events and a killer hoping to get caught so he could be the star of a televised trial; Scream 3 is set in Hollywood, on the film set of the third movie version of the prior films’ events; and so on. When metafiction amplifies both the effectiveness and the meanings of the text that features it, it can be an important quality of 21st century works of art; when it becomes an end unto itself, it can reflect our most self-aware and snarky sides. Or, to quote a film that was terrifying in entirely distinct ways, “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Next horror story studying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other horror films or stories you’d highlight for the weekend post?