31 Knights of Halloween: Scream

Viewing Wes Craven's Scream through a psychiatrist's lens.

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Welcome to my blog, "Views Through the Psychiatrist's Lens," which aims to examine films and other forms of media from the perspective of psychiatry and with an eye towards human behavior. My thoughts on these pages are culled from over 20 years' experience studying abnormal behavior, as well as some of the courses I teach at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. They are intended to stimulate the minds of future physicians and anyone interested in learning about psychology and psychiatry, and are not meant to “diagnose fictional characters” per se, as I acknowledge that fictional accounts are rarely accurate and can inadvertently promote the stigma of mental illness. Instead, these blogs are to be enjoyed and serve to prompt readers’ curiosity of a field dedicated to caring for individuals afflicted with mental disorders.  

My initial submissions will be from our "31 Knights of Halloween" project where students watch 31 horror films in 31 nights knights (as in Scarlet Knights) and analyze each movie through the lens of a psychiatrist. I’ll be posting daily blogs from the project up through Halloween. What better way to launch this blog than with today’s selected film: Scream (1996). 

Film Synopsis

On March 18, 1940, in a small Missouri town, Janette Christman babysat for the Womack family. That night, she was raped and strangled with an ironing cord. Along with the death of Marylou Jenkins (who was also raped and strangled with an electrical cord four years prior) and the biography of Daniel Harold Rolling (Gainesville Ripper), her murder inspired a genre of film that included When a Stranger Calls (1979). Seventeen years later, Wes Craven would direct Scream (1996), a slasher film that depicts Sidney Prescott, a high school student in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California who is stalked by a mysterious killer known as Ghostface. 

How it relates to the field of psychiatry

Scream is a horror movie about horror movies. As the plot develops, the characters continually reference the multitude of horror films that inspired their own creation. In this way, Scream is a forerunner to films such as Cabin in the Woods (2011), explaining why audiences are drawn to the genre. Films like Scream resonate with us because the tropes are archetypes of our collective unconscious. In Craven’s film, we learn of the Jungian archetypal warning of what happens when you neglect your responsibility when caring for children. Similar to Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) (both are, of course, referenced in Scream), Casey is talking to her boyfriend when she’s supposed to be watching the children. Ghostface then represents the keeper of prosocial norms that ensure the preservation of cultural values such as the welfare of children. This is the minor (familial) Father archetype that represents the virtues of sternness and control.   

An unplugged version of Blue Öyster Cult’s (BOC) Don't Fear the Reaper plays softly in the background while Sidney and Billy discuss the intimacy of their relationship. The music is highly symbolic. Among its many themes is its literal message to join the reaper/Ghostface [spoiler alert] who turns out to be Billy. Since he is the reaper, Billy is considered dead (he experienced an emotional death when his mother left him). In joining Billy’s alter ego (reaper), Sidney then would be committing suicide. Billy’s (and BOC’s) message is clarified; this is a murder-suicide. In this way, Scream can be enjoyed as an 90’s version of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliette.    

The film also depicts Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder in its main character. Specifically, Sidney demonstrates intense emotional pain in response to the death of her mother and remains preoccupied with the circumstances surrounding her death. Given that Sidney is “contemplating suicide” and appears underweight, an eating disorder should also be in the differential diagnosis. Since movies that depict matricide (especially by an adolescent female) may be interpreted as analytic depictions of Anorexia Nervosa, the audience is made to consider whether Sidney had an active role in her mother’s murder. This consideration sheds a different light on the dynamics between the characters. For example, is Billy’s message to “join the reaper” instead an invitation for Sidney to rejoin Stu and him in another murder spree? This interpretation also transforms the hated character of Gail Weathers, a shallow reporter who is in search of the truth behind the original murder, into one whose harassment of Sidney is deemed justifiable if Sidney actually did play an active role in her mother’s death. It isn’t surprising, then, that it is Gail who just so happens to end the movie with an impromptu news report about the night’s events.