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Is 'Scream' Even Creepier in the Era of Smart Gadgets?

Once upon a time—aka the 1980s and ’90s—horror movie franchises were Marvel-levels of popular. The Friday the 13ths, the Nightmare on Elm Streets, the Halloweens—these slashers came out in droves. They were sickeningly fun, a great reason to shriek in the dark with your friends. They were also an escape, catharsis via blood-soaked tension release.

Then, in 1996, one phone call turned everything upside down. Ever since that eerie voice came through Drew Barrymore’s landline and asked “Do you like scary movies?” Scream’s horror meta-narrative has been seared into the pop-culture consciousness. Four movies and an MTV spin-off series later (and don’t forget the Scary Movie spoof), it’s still one of the highest-grossing slasher franchises of all time.

Now, there’s a fifth installment coming in 2022, and while more Scream is never a bad idea, it’s hard not to wonder if the franchise’s best scares are replicable at a time when teens have smartphones and Nest can remotely lock their doors at night. In the mid-’90s, people just answered their home phones each time they rang, and very few had caller ID. Ghostface’s creepy call was bound to get through. Home security systems existed, but they weren’t the internet-connected all-seeing-eye affairs they are now. With cameras aimed at every possible entryway, can someone be lurking in the shadows? Can Ghostface get anywhere near homebound high schoolers if they have Ring? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

How so? Put simply, the killers just have to get creative. In 1996, Ghostface was able to outwit everyone with cell phones and voice changers. Back then, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) worried that her boyfriend was a killer because he had a cell phone; today people would probably think you were a killer if you didn’t. But while smartphones mean no one has to pick up the landline, they also mean everyone is trackable. Oh and those security cameras and light-controlling apps? Hackable. Someone could be looking at you through your laptop camera right now.

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This, it seems, is where the new Scream (which is, confusingly, also called Scream) is going to find its chills. In the two-minute trailer for the film, after a terrifying call comes through to her landline, a young woman is shown feverishly battling her home’s smart locks, the very thing that should protect her. As she locks them, the killer, lurking somewhere unknown, disarms them. She has already lost all control. Panic ensues. Any sense of safety is shattered.

With this one stroke, audiences are reminded why Ghostface was always the perfect horror movie villain: He’s human. Unlike the Jasons and Michael Myers of the world, the person inside the costume doesn’t have supernatural powers. He trips and grunts when he’s attacked, and he doesn’t have Freddy Krueger fingernails. His only abilities come from gadgets, something that makes him much more plausible—and much more horrifying. 

So if that human monster gets ahold of modern technology, what kind of horrors can they cause? We know that tech has already been used to advance abuse. Domestic violence, which is primarily directed toward women, can increase with the use of smart devices and other tech. There have already been reports on social media of women finding Apple AirTags stuck to their cars after realizing they’d been tracked by stalkers.

The original Scream is perfect for 1996. But to revive it now means it has to be much smarter (and the franchise was already pretty smart to begin with). Whether the new installment will do this, and how, remains to be seen, but it’s notable that it’s not being called Scream 5. Perhaps the whole point is to bring back Sidney (and Gale, and Dewey …) for one final scare before rebooting the franchise with a wiser, more vile villain.

Monsters like Freddy can’t be conquered because they aren’t alive like you and I. They can fall off balconies, get stabbed, or be trapped in a house that burns down, and quickly disappear when the viewer turns their head. That idea is horrifying, but what’s more frightening—the thing that Scream tapped into—is that there are monsters who walk amongst us every day. The official poster says it all: It’s always someone you know. Ghostface is an eerie reminder that the killer could be a classmate, a partner, a friend. No matter how far we’ve come, we can’t run away from them.

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