[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]
On one thing that’s really changed since the first Scream, and one that hasn’t.
I wrote about the most important conceit of the Scream series of horror films, their metatextual commentary on the tropes and traditions of the horror genre, in this 2020 post. I think that element relates closely to the way the films use phones, so I’ll ask you to check out that post and then come on back here for this related topic.
Welcome back! One of the many, many many many, horror movie tropes on which Scream (1996) was commenting was the external yet intimate threat posed by horror monsters and killers, a threat exemplified by Halloween’s Michael Myers looking into windows but also captured quite nicely by a threatening phone call (whether or not it’s “coming from inside the house!”). There’s a reason, after all, why Scream begins with the sound of a phone ringing followed by a young woman’s screams, before the audience even sees the specific, threatened young woman (Drew Barrymore) who will unfortunately answer this call and provide her own screams. But it’s pretty telling that that call comes in on a landline, and one without caller ID at that—if Barrymore’s Casey Becker and her family had that technology, and/or if she had a cell phone with caller ID as well, she’d likely not pickup a call from a strange number, eliminating the entire premise of the killers toying with her over the phone.
Yet even as the Scream series has evolved into the smartphone era (with both 2011’s Scream 4 and, even more fully, 2022’s Scream set in that brave new world), a time when virtually everyone has both a cell phone and the ability to see and screen our calls, it has apparently maintained this central trope of the killers calling on the phone (I haven’t seen either of those films, so as always I welcome corrections and comments of all kinds!). I’m sure the filmmakers have found specific ways to explain how these smartphone-era killers are maintaining their anonymity (even in the original Scream there’s an elaborate plotline about a cloned cell phone, for example). But to my mind, the more important point is that the scary phone call trope endures, and perhaps has even deepened in the smartphone era—I know for me, almost every time my phone rings these days (unless it’s my kids calling to say goodnight when they’re with their mom) it feels at best unnerving and at worst potentially threatening. It doesn’t have to a psycho killer on the other end to make the phone an external yet intimate and potentially invasive technology, it turns out.
Next famous phone tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?