The Scariest Scene In Scream Cuts Right To The Point

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition, Ariel reflects on the scream that changed the genre while Matt welcomes another visit to Woodsboro.)

If you're reading this, then chances are you don't need me to tell you that "Scream" changed horror forever. Regardless of the other meta-horror features that came before it — of which there are several, perhaps most notably "Wes Craven's New Nightmare" — this played with the most familiar parts of the genre while grinning from ear to ear the entire time.

The opening of the movie, a very deliberate nod to Marion Crane's (Janet Leigh) infamous death scene in "Psycho," set it apart and allowed it to thrive as it did. Without that scene, "Scream" loses its power.

It immediately frames the protagonists as kids. Sure, they're 20-somethings playing high schoolers, but in the context of the film, they're someone's baby, and Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson want you to be viscerally aware of that as soon as it starts. There have literally been hundreds of movies where a slasher murders a bunch of teenagers in [insert setting here]. Sometimes we've even seen their parents reckon with the aftermath — my mind jumps to "Last House on the Left" — but this was different. It would chill parents to the bone while reminding its core teenage audience that they're still so young, inexperienced, and, you know, mortal.

I'd say that's enough to render it one of the scariest moments in the entire movie.

The setup

A year after the vicious murder of Maureen Prescott (Lynn McRee), the once presumably sleepy town of Woodsboro, California, is rocked yet again by a series of murders. This time, the targets are local teens, and the killer has an affinity for horror movies. Known only as Ghostface (voiced by Roger Jackson), they work with a hunting knife and like to call their victims before striking. They just want to know ... what's your favorite scary movie?

The story so far

The original trailer for "Scream" really set the movie up to be a kind of "Copycat" meets "Friday the 13th," which was deeply misleading. There is no game of cat and mouse happening here, and the questions Ghostface asks are purely ornamental. If they want you dead, you're dead. End of discussion.

Well, sort of.

The movie starts with young Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), home alone on a weeknight and about to make some popcorn and "put on a video" when the phone rings. Innocent enough. She answers, and an unfamiliar voice asks who's speaking. She assumes it's a wrong number, politely wishes him well, and hangs up.

Then he calls back. Casey's initially unsettled but quickly appeased. She's flattered by the attention, and it seems innocent enough. He calls back again and manages to get her talking. He tries to get her name, but she changes the subject. A series of questions beget more questions which leads to some mild flirtation.

"You never told me your name," he says.

"Why do you want to know my name?"

"Because I want to know who I'm looking at," he answers.

He backpedals, but it's too late. She's officially scared. Casey tries to brush him off two more times until he calls again.

"Listen, ***hole," she yells into the phone.

"No, you listen, you little *****! You hang up on me again, I'll gut you like a fish! Understand?"

Thus far, "Scream" has been playing by the rules. Now it's rewriting them.

The scene

Barrymore's performance has been sugary sweet and painfully affected up until this point. Now, the polished teen pretense erodes, and her fear comes through. It helps that she was legitimately scared while filming.

The more Ghostface taunts Casey, the more terrified and helpless she becomes. Not only is he threatening her, but he has her boyfriend, Steve (Kevin Patrick Walls), tied up, gagged, bloodied, and bruised outside in her backyard.

He wants to play a game. Answer correctly or die. She has no choice.

His warm-up question is easy, but the follow-up catches her off-guard, and Steve winds up gutted on her patio. He has one final question. Guess it correctly and supposedly she lives. Guess it incorrectly, however...

"What door am I at?"

You can see the blood leave her face. Cowering behind the TV and refusing to answer out of abject terror, she grabs a letter opener as a last-ditch effort at self-defense when a chair comes crashing through the patio doors. He's in, and she has to hide.

Casey quietly sneaks outside only to see her parents' car slowly coming up the driveway. As she's about to make a run for it, Ghostface bursts through the window and grabs her. She's able to get away, but not for long. He tackles her to the ground. She runs. He comes up behind her and in painfully slow motion swings his knife and stabs her in the chest.

She's on the ground and in shock but fights back, only to be choked hard enough to fracture her larynx. She can't scream for help anymore, and it's just a few feet away. Her parents are walking up the front path as she pleads silently for help, sobbing, terrified. They're discussing the garden. They don't hear a thing.

Casey is stabbed repeatedly while the phone is still off the hook, clutched in her hand.

This is where Craven really hits the home run.

Her parents, frantic and afraid, are running through the house, progressively seeing more traces of Ghostface's carnage. They're calling out for their daughter, clearly petrified something's happened to her. When her mother (Carla Hatley) picks up the phone to call the cops, she can hear Casey on the line. She's listening to her daughter getting murdered with no idea where she is or how to help her. She's powerless. Casey's father (David Booth) takes the phone as Casey lets out one last whimper and Ghostface presumably destroys the receiver.

Her father urges Casey's mother to drive to the neighbors' place and call from there as she pleads through heaving sobs, "Not my daughter!"

She opens the door clutching the car keys, steps outside, looks up and screams as she falls to her knees. Casey's father runs outside to investigate, and then we see it. Casey, hanging by the neck from the family's tree swing, disemboweled and swaying. Her father runs towards her almost as if he could save her, and suddenly the audience is watching from his point of view, bolting for the now deceased Casey, steam still rising off of her dangling intestines.

The impact (Matt's take)

We all understand the revolutionary impact "Scream" provided in the '90s, making "meta" happen in a significant, trendsetting way. Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson produced a slasher that poked fun at itself and an entire subgenre without hollow spoof humor. "Scream" is a masterclass of subversion, satire, and sickening kills, but the latter often gets shelved when conversations turn to the historical footprint "Scream" left on the horror universe. Casey's death is a gruesome reminder that Craven mutilates teens as well as he slays a clever narrative.

Killing Drew Barrymore like livestock in a slaughterhouse after mere minutes sets the audience up for continued unknowns. "Scream" takes tremendous strides to ensure viewers have no idea what could happen next because Craven introduces his killer and provides an exceptional murder before we even greet the main cast. That alone jumpstarts fear that tingles a bit pricklier, given the asserted air of unpredictability. If Ghostface can kill an American sweetheart before her Jiffy pops, who's to say there'll be structural rhyme or reason to what follows? 

The greatest weapon in a horror filmmaker's arsenal is forgone expectations, thanks to creeping anxiety that won't stop nagging as convention goes head-first into a woodchipper.

Casey Becker dies brutally as a warning and promise. Her entrails spill over the green suburban lawn as a disruption of pleasant teen-flick ecosystems. Ghostface toys with his prey, pushing Casey to the brink of pure terror like he's feeding off the blonde's bloodcurdling shrieks. There's a punishing inhumanity to Ghostface's unwinnable game of trivia before finally carving Casey like a jack-o-lantern. It's a terrifying scene that kickstarts the heart of "Scream" with the clean stab of cold steel before anyone even has a chance to react.