Listening vs. Seeing Fear: A Temporal Structural Study of the Teen Slasher Film of Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

In this essay, I will be centering my exegesis of the slasher film in relation to Linda Williams’ work in “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” published in 1991, particularly focusing on the aspect of temporality which she has highlighted in the horror film. She argues that the horror film corresponds to a temporal structure of anxiety where the victim being ‘unready’ during a horrific attack on screen is “too early” (11). As a result, the most terrifying moments of horror occurs when the victim meets the monster before they are ready and thus, being caught off-guard through an “ill-timed exhibition” (Williams 11) creates the horror displayed on screen. While acknowledging Williams’ argument, I wish to take this a step further in relation to the subgenre of the teen slasher film.

For the purpose of this essay, I will be zooming into Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) and   I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997). The temporal loophole of the victim meeting the killer “too early” is dispelled by the threat devices the killer uses in the films. I have noted that both films employ the concept of the “stalker-killer” to threaten potential victims prior to killing them. I have decided to investigate the usage of the letter and the telephone in both films to posit that the nature of these threats subvert the temporal loophole argued by Williams, and that the medium of the letter and telephone in turn, plays a role in manipulating audience’s timely reaction to the horror on screen, thus reducing the ‘shock factor’.

We first acknowledge how Williams’ “too early” temporal structure is applicable in both slasher films. In IKWYDLS, the death of Max and Barry occur at an untimely episode where both characters are unaware of their fate. Max is busy arranging the fishes at his job as a fishmonger where the point-of-view shot of the mist covering the camera (and also Max’s vision) ends in a sudden gruesome fish hook up his chin. Similar for Barry, he is attacked from behind during Helen’s pageant show in the upper stalls of the theatre. In Scream, Tatum is also electrocuted moments after she was oblivious to the killer’s identity (she thought she was being pranked on). The school principal is also violently stabbed to death in his office by surprise. What all of these scenes have in common is that the victims were all “caught off-guard” and killed. In this simple reading, it aligns with Williams’ argument that the “victims who are not ready for the attack die” (11).

The horror of the sudden attack on screen thus result in a ‘shock factor’ to the audience as they too are “caught by surprise” by the sudden attack of the victim. This shock is amplified by the bodily display of violence as seen in the jump cut to the fish hook piercing through Max’s lower jaw in IKWYDLS. This direct portrayal mimics how a fish is also caught by a hook in the same manner: through the jaw. The distressing depiction draws a parallel between Max literally “getting caught by surprise” and the imagery of how a fish is caught. This juxtaposition then exudes the shocking factor, accompanied by the cinematography and sound through which the audience witnesses Max getting dragged away by the killer to potentially get slaughtered like how he, as a fishmonger, slaughters fish. Thus, we see how Williams’ argument aligns with the murder scenes in both slasher films.

However, Williams’ argument can be subverted through the narrative plot device of the telephone used in Scream and the letter in IKWYDLS. These two devices address the temporal loophole of the attacks being “too early” and the victims do not die because they are unprepared, but rather, it is a case of them “running out of time”. The opening scene of Scream begins with Casey receiving an anonymous phone call whom she entertains at first but over time realizes is a threat. It starts off as what one would easily pass as a prank call, but progresses when the killer threatens Casey to a questionnaire to which in giving the wrong answer, she would die. Similarly in IKWYDLS, Julie receives an anonymous letter that read “I know what you did last summer”. Both Casey and Julie were aware of the killer’s existence.

The telephone and the letter thus bridges the gap in knowledge between the killer and the victim. Williams’ argument assumes that knowledge exists only with the killer and the victim is “caught off guard” because he or she is oblivious. However, the devices allow the victim to possess the knowledge of the existence of the unknown (or the killer) which in turn allows the victim an arguable amount of ‘preparation time’. As Casey reaches over to her kitchen stack of knives, we see a moment of the victim’s attempt of arming herself. This shows that the victim, Casey, is in indeed prepared. Also, while Julie is not the main focus in this section, she alerts Helen about the threats, thus passing of knowledge and eradicating oblivion. Moments before Helen’s death in IKWYDLS, she was caught in a cat-and-mouse game where she simply ran out of time (literally) and gets killed during a parade in a dark alley. Both Casey and Helen were not unprepared, they were prepared (and knowledgeably warned by the telephone and letter) as Casey is seen locking the windows and arming herself and Helen desperately running to the store to seek her sister’s help during the chase scenes. However, in these two chase scenes, one thing can be concluded: both victims ran out of time and were not killed “by surprise” per se as Casey and Helen displayed moments of wariness. Both victims die despite being prepared and this thus destabilizes Williams’ argument.

The temporal significance that the telephone and letter have is that it serves to warn the character of potential attacks, thus bridging the knowledge gap between victim and killer. It provides a structure to the narrative by demarcating potential points of murder. The attacks then no longer become “too early” as the telephone and letter serve as a plot device that fills in that temporal loophole, allowing the characters and audience to anticipate and be prepared for “surprise attacks” before they take place.

The anticipation of horror by the audience due to the telephone and the letter reduces actual the actual ‘shock factor’ while accentuating terror. Before we dive into this paradox, I will first make a distinction between horror and terror. Rick Warland defined terror as “the careful construction of suspense that requires the active participation of the audience’s intellect” (10) and horror being the an “emotionally overwhelming form that produces not mere anxiety but revulsion, a sensation that might be laterally stomach-churning” (11). Terror makes us worry about what might happen to a potential victim while horror realizes our worst fears of victimization through the screen.  In both slasher films, the telephone and letter aids in the building of terror through creating an air of suspense in the anonymity of the threats dispelled. In Scream, the killer targets its potential victims by first threatening or rather, teasing them with a phone call. A similar parallel is shown with the letter in IKWYDLS. The anonymity of these threats projects this suspense from within the characters in the narrative to the audience as well as no one is aware the killer’s identity or their whereabouts (note that this is not the same as knowing the existence of the killer mentioned previously). Suspense then builds as a result of the anonymous stalker-killer. However, this accentuation of terror is at the expense of the actual horror on screen. The terror, initiated by the anonymous threats, allows the audience to anticipate pivotal points of attacks. At the back of our minds, we know, as audience, that whenever a character receives an anonymous phone call or letter, something bad is going to happen to him or her. As a result, this anticipation reduces the ‘shock value’ of horror during the murder scenes altogether.

Despite so, pleasure is derived by the audience in seeing things enact the way it was expected to, allowing scenes of horror to no longer be of ‘shock value’ but rather of cognitive pleasure in confirming the presence of the anonymous killer. The bodily suffering in the stabbing of Casey in Scream and Barry in IKWYDLS were projected explicitly on screen with a full front shot of their bloodied face and the sound effect of slicing working in harmony to create a horrific spectacle of bodily torture. Their suffering is thus an amplified translation of pain (Wu 6) which the audience then use as a catharsis of repressed knowledge. Noël Carroll argues that there is cognitive pleasure in disclosing or confirming the monster (or in this case the anonymous killer) and this is “predicated on the revelation of the unknown and unknowable” (36). From the abovementioned, the telephone and the letter were the first metaphorical signs of the unknown. The anonymity embodied in the two devices sets the stage of a brewing curiosity among the audience. He also mentioned that “pleasure is derived from the horror fiction…first and foremost, in the process of discovery, proof, and confirmation that horror fictions often employ” (36). This pleasure is cognitive, and this is derived from fulfilling the curious “appetite of the mind” (36) of discovering the unknown killer and him making his entrance in the screen, which thus translates and concretizes his form from imagined to physical. Therefore, the telephone and the letter were the tools used to dispense traces of the unknown and the uncanny in both slasher films, to which, creates curiosity as mentioned by Carroll. The entrance of the human embodiment of the unknown via the killer confirms the ‘uncanny’ existence, thus exuding the repressed knowledge of the unknown among the audience.

While Williams’ notes that the display of the ‘horrific’ when victims are “taken by surprise in the violent attacks [are] deeply felt by spectators” (11), perhaps Wu and Carroll’s reading go on to further address how the ‘shock value’ is reduced to make room for a greater reaction cathartically, through the repressed cognitive knowledge for the unknown.

Perhaps then, there is a need to strike a balance between the horror and terror and thus question then arises, which is the better sense: listening (the telephone) or seeing (the letter) fear? I propose that the nature of the letter used in IKWYDLS allowed for anticipation, but also gave ample room of ambiguity to shock. The telephone allows for less “reactive time” as a duo engaged in a phone call operates in a “live” environment where we hear everything over the phone live. As a result, there is little to no buffering time and it gives away too much information as after all, it is a live and direct communicative platform. You may then have noticed that in Scream, this is almost directly proportional to the murder that takes place after the phone call. The murder happens almost immediately, just like how the communicative response of a phone call is also immediate. The buffer time for anticipation is short or even arguably nonexistent.

In contrast, the letter is a more archaic form of communication. The letter operates on “delayed” time, allowing for more reaction. The letter in IKWYDLS is a “one-way” means of communication, as opposed to the telephone in Scream which is intended to be bi-directional. This thus creates more suspense in IKWYDLS as greater ambiguity is created in the “delayed” buffer time (as we all know, letters take time to get delivered) and the anonymity is heightened through the one-way communication as only one person is ever in full-knowledge. The murder scenes do not take place immediately after the letter is delivered compared to the phone call in Scream, this then subscribes to its commitment in preserving ambiguity to the horrific murder scenes later. As a result, the horrific murder scenes in IKWYDLS were portrayed more shockingly as the device of the letter did not build terror at the expense of horror as it still, by nature, maintained a good level of ambiguity to still preserve its ‘shock factor’.

While it is easy to prize IKWYDLS over Scream due to the narrative plot device of the letter, it is important to note that the two films, though of the same genre, are not of the same tone. Scream made its way into the horror cinema in 1996 as a form of Craven’s attempt to revive the slasher subgenre that seemingly grew stagnant in the late 1980s. It has a satirical tone embedded in its narrative which sought to make a commentary of the classic slasher film. IKWYDLS however was considered a traditional slasher film which narrative followed closely to its predecessors in the 1980s despite being released a year after Scream in 1997. Perhaps then, the use of the telephone and letter were an intended ploy to highlight the difference between the classic and contemporary slasher film. Scream is self-aware in its digression of traditional horror conventions (thus perhaps explaining its lack of ambiguity in the development of terror and suspense through the live phone call) while IKWYDLS still strongly adheres to the traditional conventions of the slasher film. While my essay does not focus on this aspect of genre studies in the fluidity of horror conventions, it is important to note the distinctiveness of both slasher films – though seemingly alike.

In conclusion, this essay sought to explore the use of the narrative plot device of the telephone and letter and its role in the temporal manipulation of portraying terror and horror in the two slasher films. While my reading of listening versus seeing fear does not address all aspects of the teen slasher subgenre, it hopes to shed an alternative light in marrying narrative elements into the theoretical perspectives provided by mainly Williams and Carroll and how sometimes, subtle insertions of key props like the telephone and letter project a larger interpretation of two films of the same genre.

Works Cited:

Carroll, Noël. “Why Horror?” Horror, the Film Reader, edited by Mark Jancovich, Routledge, 2002, pp. 33-45.

I Know What You Did Last Summer. Directed by Jim Gillespie, performances by Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Freddie Prinze Jr., Johnny Galecki, and Bridgette Wilson, Columbia Pictures, 1997.

Scream. Directed by Wes Craven, performances by David Arquette, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich, and Drew Barrymore, Dimension Films, 1996.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2-13.

Wu, Harmony. “Tracking the Horrific: Editor’s Edition.” Spectator – The University of Southern California Journal of Film and Television, vol. 22, no. 2, 2002, pp. 1-10.

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