Let’s get one thing straight. Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson saved the slasher genre with their meta-horror film, Scream.
The slasher sub-genre was a bit dull around the mid-90s. There were a few films that made the cut, like Bernard Rose’s Candyman, but even he couldn’t bring the genre out of the hole it was in.
Scream follows the classic “whodunit” formula of slasher films while simultaneously calling out the problem within the genre. George Romero and Sam Raimi stayed far away from satire-slashers, fearing them too comedic, but Scream was able to function because it was so self-aware.
Both the movie world and the real world hold the same expectations of what a slasher film is supposed to look like while the film goes on and reinvites the expectations of the sub-genre through the three elements of horror logic.
Check out how Ryan Hollinger breaks down horror logic in the below video.
Here’s the thing. There is a logic in slasher films that we think wouldn’t work in real life (e.g. only bad things happen to teens, the final girl is a virgin, and someone is always running upstairs). Slasher films got into this habit of repeating these tropes over and over again, and audiences began to groan about how predictable these types of stories were.
Scream takes “horror logic” and makes it seem logical to the audience.
Every action is justified, even if it seems a bit silly. What else could the characters do? If the doggy door is the only way out of the garage, you damn well know I am going to try to squeeze through it. The film does kick one outdated trope to the curb—the virginal final girl, but other than that, all we are left with is good ol’ traditional horror logic.
Scream is a love letter to the tired genre and saves it through motivation, representation, and the logic of time.
The killers’ motivation in Scream is actually very simple. Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) blames his psychopathic tendencies on his mommy issues (similar to Psycho's Norman Bates) while Stu Macher’s (Matthew Lillard) reason for killing is... “peer pressure.”
Both reasons for killing are shallow and unjustified, but not unbelievable.
Many real-life killers don’t have much of a reason beyond their shallow and unjustified reasons. This is called the base rate fallacy—qualitative data that is used to create an image of the offender. The issue is there isn’t one thing that makes someone the killer. Instead, the theory just tries to justify why someone goes crazy.
Horror-film guru Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), simplifies this when saying, “Motives are incidental.”
In slashers, complex motives lose an audience. Like most slashers, the motive is secondary. When the motive matters so little, anyone could be the killer for any reason. If the film focuses too much on the logic of motives, then the film would make the ending way too obvious.
Killers in slashers have always played a game of dominance with their victims. It’s tiring to watch as the killer goes on a killing spree only to be defeated in the end because of their one weakness.
Craven does a different take on the killer by making them regular people who are just as weak as you and me. Ghostface is a truly humanized killer. They make so many mistakes due to their own eagerness to kill, and the film constantly shows us that the victims can put up a fight against Ghostface (cue the montage of Ghostface getting their ass kicked).
Killers like Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger don’t consider the consequences of their actions because they are the embodiment of evil; therefore, they can never die.
Billy and Stu, two teenage boys, fail to understand that they are “not” in a horror film and have to face the “real-word” consequences. This is never more apparent than when they begin stabbing each other and begin losing way too much blood.
Humanized killers are far more terrifying than demons because we can no longer relate to them as we did throughout the whole film. They are just like us, until the moment they take off the mask to reveal it was them the whole time. We are shocked, mortified even, that the person we were rooting for is the killer.
The Logic of Time
At the climax of the film, Ghostface is out to kill the remaining victims in the house, and the timing of these actions is outstanding. The timing and understanding of the space in the house are impeccable, which creates a flow of movement that looks effortless and invisible to the audience.
Craven’s understanding of the geographical location and time allows for the movie to flow so effortlessly. Having Billy appear right when Ghostface gives up on chasing Sidney diverts the audiences’ expectations of Billy being the killer. It's a big slap in the face when he admits he is the killer.
A similar moment turns the audience’s focus toward Dewey Riley (David Arquette) when the phone call between Sidney and Ghostface ends right before Dewey runs out of his room.
Time is also manipulated for Ghostface to make the surprise kill at the news van and is justified by the 30-second delay on the camera inside. There is not a moment when time is lost or wasted in the film, which reinforces why and how things happen.
Craven and Kevin Williamson understand the location and time of the world and give that skill to the killers, which makes Billy and Stu look like they are in control of the situation.
The expectations we have for horror films were reinvented by Scream.
There are few films nowadays that pull us away from what we expect out of slasher films while still delivering the satisfaction of being scared, like Cabin in the Woods and Happy Death Day. By applying motivation, representation, and the logic of time in your slasher film, you’ll be able to deliver a film that stays true to the traditional sub-genre structure while exceeding the audiences’ expectations.
Are there any other elements of horror logic that you know of? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.