Cassandra’s Curse: Unheeded Warnings In SCREAM 2 And BLACK CHRISTMAS

A tale as old as time, ignoring prognosticators across the ages.

By Jessica Scott · @WeWhoWalkHere · March 2, 2023, 2:00 PM PST
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The horror genre is filled with evidence for the necessity of the #MeToo axiom “Believe women.” From ghost stories to slasher films, horror is replete with female characters who are dismissed and ridiculed for telling the world about the terrors they’re experiencing. Final (and not-so-final) girls are modern-day Cassandras, doomed to tell the truth yet facing skepticism and mockery until it’s too late. Cassandra was a Trojan priestess in Greek myth whom the god Apollo gifted with the ability to see the future; when she displeased Apollo, he cursed her, making sure that no one would ever believe her prophecies. Bob Clark’s famously feminist Black Christmas and Wes Craven’s Scream 2 both tell stories about such women who bring unheeded warnings to save us from disaster.

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The violation of bodily autonomy is an inherent part of the slasher subgenre. How many killers have horror fans seen penetrating their victims with razors, knives, and machetes? Slasher films are a visceral reminder that bodies, especially female bodies, are not safe. The celebrated final girl is the character who manages to escape relatively unscathed, with as much bodily autonomy remaining as possible. Those issues come up in surprising ways in Black Christmas and Scream 2. In the former, Jess (Olivia Hussey) informs her boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea), that she’s going to have an abortion. He reacts violently, not asking, but telling her — that they’re going to get married and have a baby, then yelling and threatening her when she calmly refuses to go along with his plan for her life.

Liev Schreiber Scream 2

A similar scene plays out in Scream 2. Just moments after Sidney (Neve Campbell) receives a threatening message from the killer, Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber) appears and physically menaces her in an attempt to get her to interview with him and Diane Sawyer so he can elevate his own profile (and bank account). He corners her, using his imposing size to intimidate, regardless of what she wants. An even more troubling moment occurs in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line of dialogue from Gale (Courteney Cox). When Randy (Jamie Kennedy) tells Dewey (David Arquette) that Gale has been a smoker “ever since those nude pictures on the internet,” Gale clarifies, “It was just my head. It was Jennifer Aniston’s body.” While it may seem like a throwaway line intended to get a laugh based on Cox’s connection with her Friends castmate, its thematic relevance goes much deeper than that. Gale’s victimization is hardly a joke, especially with AI and revenge porn becoming bigger and bigger problems in the technological realm of sexual assault. Even when Ghostface isn’t chasing her around Woodsboro with a knife, Gale’s bodily autonomy is still under attack.

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Worse still, the people paid to protect these women refuse to take them seriously. In Black Christmas, the police dismiss Jess’s sorority sisters, Barb (Margot Kidder) and Phyl (Andrea Martin), when they report Clare (Lynne Griffin) missing. Jess tells Clare’s boyfriend, Chris (Art Hindle), “I think they figured she was shacked up somewhere.” It’s only when Chris, a burly young man, barges into the police station to complain that the police take any action regarding Clare’s disappearance. Sergeant Nash (Douglas McGrath) is just as dismissive when Jess complains about the violently obscene phone calls they’ve been receiving from Billy, condescendingly telling her that it’s probably “a little joke.” The police in Scream 2 use the same language when the killer sends Sidney a threatening DM in the library: “Sid, it’s probably just a sick joke.” According to the police, in both cases, men threatening women’s lives isn’t a horror story to take seriously; rather, it’s comedic and insignificant. Sidney, starring as Cassandra in the university play, is cursed yet again to speak the truth yet be dismissed at every turn.

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The same fate befalls Cici (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a “sober sister” left alone in her sorority house during a big party in Scream 2. This is one of the clearest homages to Black Christmas from Craven and writer Kevin Williamson: both feature a terrifying chase through a sorority house with voyeuristic POV shots and creepy phone calls from a killer already in the house. Ghostface even reminds Cici, “Don’t forget to set the alarm,” echoing what her sorority sister Dawnie (Marisol Nichols) tells her just before she leaves the house. It’s a clear callback to Billy from Black Christmas repeating Peter’s bitter words about Jess treating her abortion like “having a wart removed.” The Cici-Ghostface chase even culminates in the attic, which is Billy’s domain in Black Christmas. Throughout this frightening sequence, Cici’s sorority sister laughs at her on the phone, and campus security hangs up on her repeatedly. The phone is not her salvation but her doom, because the only person who believes she’s telling the truth is the person who will end up murdering her.

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Not only do the people in their lives not believe the female victims of Black Christmas and Scream 2, they often don’t even hear them. The shocking opening kills of both movies feature women who by all rights should be the final girls — Clare is chaste and prim, fitting the pre-Scream definition of a final girl, and Scream 2’s Maureen (Jada Pinkett) is suspicious and wise to all the horror tropes that usually get you killed. In both cases, their screams are drowned out by celebrations. Clare dies during a Christmas party, and Maureen dies at a Stab screening as moviegoers unknowingly cheer on the real Ghostface’s brutal stabbing. Clare remains “missing” for the remainder of Black Christmas (though, fittingly, if the police would simply look up and see her, they would find her body sitting in the attic window, ready to be discovered). Maureen, on the other hand, has everyone’s attention as she screams and cries for help, but nobody actually listens to her, understands, or believes what’s happening until it’s too late to save her.

The proximity of the killers to their victims is one of the most insidious parts of both films, and indeed of real-world violence against women. Even though Black Christmas is most assuredly an analog horror movie, its terror feels very online: the combination of the anonymous calls with the closeness of the killer mimics the diffuse nature of internet harassment. The calls are coming from inside the house, but you don’t know who’s making them. In Scream 2, it’s always someone you know, but when the killer is hiding in plain sight, it could be anyone. The horror is both familiar and unknown at the same time. It’s the worst of both worlds.

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The biggest twist in Scream 2 is that one of the killers is also a woman, but Mrs. Loomis being Ghostface doesn’t make her crimes any less misogynistic. She blames Sidney for killing Billy, and she blames Sidney’s mother for turning Billy into a killer in the first place. Violence against women is never a man’s fault, in Mrs. Loomis’s opinion; it’s always a woman’s fault, especially if a woman’s sexuality is involved. It’s important to note that her son shares a name with the killer in Black Christmas, which Scream 2 directly references in its opening and closing moments. Just as Billy addresses — and impersonates — his mother on the phone, Ghostface whispers to his “mommy” in an eerily Billy-like voice to lure Phil (Omar Epps) into getting stabbed in the bathroom. The maternal focus is significant, given Mrs. Loomis’s relationship to Scream’s Billy, Jess’s adamant refusal to have a baby with Peter, and the looming presence of Maureen Prescott over the woman-blaming motives of the various Ghostface killers.

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Even more important is the focus on the killers’ eyes in both films. It’s an uncomfortable detail that forces the viewer to get intimately close to a violent murderer, underscoring that those who victimize women are people the viewer could know in real life. The red herring characters in each film — Peter in Black Christmas, and Cotton and Sidney’s boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) in Scream 2 — have blue eyes. The real killers — Billy in Black Christmas, and Mrs. Loomis and Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) in Scream 2 — have brown eyes. It’s a small but crucial detail that plays a pivotal role in the plot of Black Christmas since it clues the audience in on the fact that Jess is left alone with the killer at the end of the film. Jess sees Billy staring at her through the crack of a doorway with a brown eye glowing nearly red, proving that Peter — whose lifeless blue eyes stare into the distance after Jess kills him — can’t be the real murderer.

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In the climactic showdown in Scream 2, Mrs. Loomis shoots through a doorway to try to kill Sidney and then peers through it with an angry brown eye, in another clear homage to Clark’s film. Scream 2 even references this important detail in its marketing: the famous poster for the film features black and white images of Maureen and Sidney, with the only colors showing one brown eye and one blue eye juxtaposed against each other.

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These details may seem like insignificant minutiae, but they underscore the themes of both films. Jess is left alone with a killer in Black Christmas after the police have ‘gotten their man.’ From the start, Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) is convinced that Peter is the killer. Despite the fact that the audience can clearly see he’s wrong, Fuller refuses to listen to anything or anyone that would contradict that idea. He even dismisses Jess when she mentions the second phone line in the house, an act that leads to Phyl and Barb’s deaths. Then Jess is left sedated and defenseless as men tell the wrong version of her story in the form of police reports and statements to the press, all while Billy likely claims her life. Likewise, Sidney sends the reporters over to “the hero” Cotton Weary, who gets the last words of Scream 2 as he glows in the spotlight.

The people who could have helped Jess and Sidney refused to listen to them. Those meant to protect Jess serve her up on a platter to the killer after convincing themselves that their jobs are done. Sidney — who, through no fault of her own, is the center of Ghostface’s plot — ends up tossed aside in her own story when she won’t give a good sound bite. Even after the violence is supposedly over, people still don’t listen to or believe women. As both Black Christmas and Scream 2 prove, victim-blaming and refusal to listen to women have dire and often deadly consequences. Jess and Sidney both play the role of Cassandra, doomed to warn the world about the dangers of not believing women but suffering from the very curse they decry.