Before the Ghostface killer ever appears or brandishes a knife in Scream, he scolds his first target, Casey Becker, for being a bad victim. Over the phone, he mocks her for calling out “Who’s there?” when he rings her doorbell. “Don’t you watch scary movies? It’s a death wish,” he tells her. Becker doesn’t know enough about horror tropes, and Ghostface is going to make her pay for that with her life.
Scream is, famously, a movie for people who have seen lots of horror movies — the kind of person who would chide a character for fleeing a home invader by running upstairs for some reason, instead of seeking out a more obvious exit. Even though Scream is 25 years old now — and with a fourth sequel on the way! — it’s still very possible to be frustrated with horror movie protagonists. There are lots of reasons for that, given the audience’s relationship with the screen, and the way horror fans tend to enjoy meaty discussion about genre and craft. But the best one, I think, is also the one that’s most true: I would probably do the same stupid shit if I were in a horror movie, and I hate that.
Like most people, I tend to think I’m cleverer than I actually am, even though I can’t seem to implement simple solutions to basic problems, like cable management. Similarly, I have an unwavering faith in my reflexes and alertness to bail me out of a dicey situation, even though I know the “deer in headlights” phenomenon is absolutely real, because it’s happened to me.
Then there are the more basic problems specific to my current circumstance, which make me even more likely to be an idiot in a horror movie situation. I live in New York City (already a stupid idea) in a small apartment on an upper floor. While it offers excellent sightlines that make it almost impossible to surprise me, it isn’t exactly strong on exit plans. I have also played enough video games to vastly overestimate the falling distance the average human body can withstand. You ever see a toddler get an idea? So full of life and unearned, amoral confidence that they look at a cat and grin while thinking “I can probably take that cat”? I am the toddler here. Laugh as I am found out, having fucked around.
Thinking through how you’d respond to an alien attacker, a mad slasher, or a zombie outbreak is the oldest game in horror movie fandom. Which of you and your friends would die first in the movie? Your answer probably changes with age. A teenager full of bravado but also proud of their pragmatism would probably say they would go out second or third to last, because only a square wants to be the hero, and a good third-act death would likely be memorable, and hopefully metal as hell. I am no longer a teenager. I am a grown-ass man who, like Mike Flanagan, enjoys horror because it is much easier to watch The Babadook or some such creature eat children, instead of confronting any of my own complicated feelings of guilt or whatever.
So yeah, the Ghostface killer would probably get my ass, should he decide to pay me a visit. But now that I am a mature adult, I also have an ace up my sleeve, one that all but guarantees my survival. It would be very hard for the Ghostface killer to murder me or anyone else when he is reduced to tears after I tell him, warmly but firmly, that what he might really need is therapy.