Millions of Americans really like to be completely and utterly terrified to the point of nausea or speechlessness. In fact, they're constantly craving more of that unsettling feeling. And that's a big reason why the horror genre, inspired by the classic literature of legendary authors such as Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, has been a permanent part of Western culture for at least a couple centuries.
In recent years, horror in popular culture has often taken the role of slasher films, which usually feature a mentally ill psychopath murdering multiple victims in a small, helpless town. Kevin Williamson's Scream franchise (directed by the late Wes Craven) was an overwhelmingly successful example, racking up more than $600 million in worldwide sales. Last year — four years after Scream 4 hit the big screen — MTV came out with a TV sibling imaginatively named Scream: The TV Series. The first season is now available on Netflix, and season two premieres on Monday, May 30.
You probably think the Scream movies depicted brutal, cold-blooded killings of innocent teenage victims. And indeed, they did! But this TV show takes things to an inexplicably horrific new level. The show's protagonist is witness to her ex-boyfriend's head being sliced in half by a mechanized blade. A young woman is thrown over a balcony and hung by a noose. Another character is stabbed twice in the back, and bleeds to death on a rooftop. And perhaps in the most sickening act of all, the town cop is gutted. Oh, and that happens in front of his love interest.
All of these killings are carried out by a mysterious masked villain, who looks just as frightening in broad daylight as he/she does at night when everything is pitch black. It's terrifying.
Developed by Jill Blotevogel, Dan Dworkin, and Jay Beattie for MTV, the series pilot was written by Kevin Williamson himself. The show centers around Emma, a young, cherub-faced Lakewood high school girl who drew the short straw as the daughter of Maggie and Kevin Duval, two survivors of the Brandon James murders. When a cyber-bulling incident goes viral (naturally, because it's 2016), Lakewood suffers a new string of murders that bares a freakish resemblance to Brandon's killing spree. Everyone in town is a suspect, including Emma's teacher and the local police officer. Emma tasks herself with finding out her families' connection to Brandon, all the while watching her ex-boyfriend and many of her friends suffer excruciatingly graphic deaths.
With the show's inclusion on the Netflix roster, anyone with a subscription (including children with access to their parents' account, and their parental control settings) can freely view it, whether or not they fit into the target audience demographic. The series only has a TV-14 rating, a strikingly different scenario from the films, which hold a strict R rating for mature, age-appropriate audiences.
We can debate whether kids and teens ought to be shielded from shows like Scream: The TV Series. What's not debatable is that this particularly savage brand of horror is infiltrating our lives at a rapid speed. That summons a familiar question: Are we becoming desensitized to extreme violence? Perhaps more importantly, do we even care?
Even if mild interest is all you have in Scream: The TV Series, it's impossible to miss the anxiety-inducing mask that the show employs for its main killer. It's featured in all the teaser clips and billboards, emblazoned with bloody, sprawling handwriting that states, "You'll never see it coming." Instead of duplicating the somewhat comical masks of the Scream movies, this new mask resembles a rotting corpse with the eyes hollowed out. Having an imprint of this image in our brains as we go to work or put our children to sleep is probably not conducive to a harmonious life. But it's there, staring at us. And if you've watched anything remotely similar to this type of show in the past, the Netflix algorithm will recommend Scream: The TV Series at every available opportunity. The nightmarish mask is unavoidable. You cannot escape it.
But the most disturbing aspect of this show is not its inescapably terrifying marketing campaign and imagery. It's the fact that none of the characters appear to be particularly devastated by the sudden and gory loss of their loved ones. They continue to attend school and do their homework and gossip enthusiastically with their friends as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Dare we consider that this actually mirrors our own community, where we boast a profoundly inappropriate ability to tolerate death in the films and TV shows we so eagerly consume?
If that's the case, then one can't help but wonder what's next for the horror genre. Or more specifically, what psychological or physical fate might we humans tolerate that is worse than death? Because if there is such a thing, we can only assume that it's heading straight for us.