On Representations of Trauma and PTSD in Horror: ‘Scream’

Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott in Scream (1996). A close up on Sidney, a teenage girl whose long brown hair is slick with blood which covers one side of her face. She is looking down, away from the camera, with an exhausted expression.
Dimension Films

In third grade, my favorite movie was the classic slasher film Scream. A few months earlier, my dad had made the questionable, but ultimately pretty rad decision of introducing me to classic horror, from serious psychological dramas such as The Shining to campy black comedies like Creepshow. I was completely spellbound by all of these films—but Scream was my favorite one of all. I popped that disc into our Blu-Ray player so many times that I could quote the film line for line. I developed elaborate fan theories. When I was 11, I even dressed up as Ghostface for Halloween. The evidence of this is buried in the annals of my mom’s Facebook page: a hilariously low-quality picture of myself standing next to a friend who is dressed as Cleopatra, plastic knife held mock-menacingly to her neck.

With Neve Campbell officially negotiating her return to the upcoming fifth installment of the franchise, I decided that it was time to rewatch the 1996 cult classic. I hadn’t seen it in years; since then, I’ve experienced quite a bit of horror in my own life. As a school shooting survivor, the shots of squad cars and news vans swarming Woodsboro High were hauntingly familiar. For the first time, it occurred to me just how young the protagonist, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), and her friends are. I had never been older than them before.

Scream is just as delightfully terrifying and caustically satirical as it was in my childhood, which is an amazing feat in itself. The soundtrack is still ingenious, and Rose McGowan continues to look incredible in that iconic tight-fitting turtleneck. But in my adulthood, I’ve come to realize that it’s also an incredibly successful meditation on trauma, post-traumatic stress, and the grieving process. Most importantly, it depicts these issues while still retaining the essence of a perfect horror film: a careful balance between terror and comedy.

Scream (1996). Sidney is sitting on a low wall outside of the high school with her group of friends, including the preppy Randy and her boyfriend Stu. Sidney is leaning on the leg of her boyfriend Billy, who is lay back watching his friends.
Dimension Films

The movie begins with the murder of California teenagers Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) and Steven Orth (Kevin Patrick Walls), who are brutally slain by a mysterious figure in a black robe and a ghostly white mask—a costume which will become universally known as “Ghostface” following the film’s release. The day after the murder, policemen and reporters flock to Woodsboro High in order to interview the peers of the deceased. The detectives are especially gentle in their questioning of Sidney Prescott, a soft-spoken senior whose mother was raped and murdered the previous year.

Still traumatized by her mother’s violent death—and the media storm that ensued—Sidney is more alarmed by the news than many of her friends and classmates; on the phone with her best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), she says, “The police and reporters and everything, it’s like déjà vu all over again.” Tatum is sympathetic to Sidney’s distress, but frequently fails to stop their friend Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and her boyfriend Stu (Matthew Lillard) from making distasteful jokes about the carnage. Without any comparable experiences of violence or trauma, they are unable to comprehend the extent of her anxiety.

Her boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich) also tries to be understanding, but ultimately offers Sidney little in the way of emotional support. In the months following her mother’s rape, he has become increasingly frustrated with her sexual trauma, and resulting refusal to go past “on-top-of-the clothes stuff.” Unsurprisingly, he is not an ideal shoulder to cry on in the aftermath of yet another tragedy.

Scream (1996). A mid shot of Ghost Face, the iconic villain wearing a black cloak and hood with a white mask distorted as if screaming. He is holding a bloodied knife.
Dimension Films

That night, Sidney becomes Ghostface’s next target. Unbeknownst to her, the attack is almost identical to the previous one—an anonymous phone call that becomes increasingly hostile, a threat of violence, and, finally, the assault. When Billy arrives at the scene just after the killer flees, Sidney is relieved—that is, until a cell phone falls from his pocket and clatters on the floor. Now, her boyfriend is the prime suspect in the Woodsboro murder case, and in her own attempted homicide.

When Billy is released from custody with a clean phone bill, his relationship with Sidney becomes even more strained. He’s hurt that his own girlfriend refused to vouch for his innocence; she is incredulous that he’s more concerned with himself than her well-being. This is where their paths begin to divulge, a moment all trauma survivors are achingly familiar with: he cannot, or will not, understand the devastating effects of a psyche saturated with the memory of violence. He tells her that she needs to let go of the past, to which she delivers a perfect, raging rebuttal: “I am sorry if my traumatized life is an inconvenience to you and your perfect existence.”

Despite her seeming confidence, the cumulative effect of these criticisms inevitably takes its toll on Sydney. She begins to question herself: has she been grieving for too long? Is she being oversensitive, or selfish? She shares these fears with Tatum, who reminds her that she is still recovering from a massive ordeal: “So you have a few intimacy issues as a result of your mother’s untimely death. It’s no big deal, Sid. You’ll thaw out.” But Sidney isn’t so sure. And so, to convince herself, she allows Billy to take her virginity.

Neve Campbell and Rose McGowan in Scream (1996). A close up on Sidney and her friend Tatum: Sidney is on the phone, rubbing her neck anxiously as she listens. Tatum is right beside her, watching closely with concern.
Dimension Films

Later in the film, the audience will discover that Billy has been gaslighting her all along; together, he and Stu perpetrated all of the murders, including the seemingly unrelated attack against her mother. This final betrayal is just as integral to the plot as the bloodbath that follows—perhaps even more so. In many ways, it’s more horrific than the stabbing and screaming that terrified me as a child. It’s a reminder that violence is unpredictable and unknowable; that there is only so much you can do to protect yourself from it. That, all along, there were monsters in the closet, and you were right to be afraid.

The film ends on a fairly triumphant note. Sidney survives the night, outsmarts Billy and Stu, and ultimately kills them both with the badass adage, “Not in my movie”—a reference to the many murdered female protagonists of horror movies past. As a kid, I found the final scene almost comforting. The heroine was alive, the bad guys were dead, and the sun was rising; an ostensibly happy ending, seeing as there are horror movies that end without a single surviving lead. My thoughts never ventured to the dreaded day after, and all the nightmares, flashbacks, and therapy sessions that would surely follow.

The audience will watch Sidney struggle with PTSD in future films, living as a recluse before reentering the public sphere and publishing a self-help book. And while her trauma becomes more obvious after the events of the original Scream—as opposed to her mother’s murder, which is referenced but never shown on screen—all of the signs were there from the very beginning. She shudders at loud noises and sudden movements, avoids physical intimacy, and turns the TV off at any mention of her mother’s assault. One scene struck me as particularly poignant—there’s no dialogue or action, just Sidney sitting in a classroom, staring at the empty desk where Casey Becker once sat. She looks hollow, glassy-eyed and dazed. For one moment, free of the weight of a watching world, she allows herself to grieve.

by Isabelle Robinson

Isabelle (she/her) is a writer and aspiring Twitter fiend from Parkland, FL. She is currently a junior at Barnard College in NYC, pursuing a degree in English. Besides writing, her passions include oversharing on the internet, haunting antique thrift shops, and raising three beautiful snails. For more shenanigans and links to previous bylines, including the New York Times and Business Insider, follow her on Twitter @isabellerobz.

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