20 Years After Scream, Sidney’s Still Going Strong

After countless sequels and a hit TV show, the key to the the meta slasher film's success rests on its enduring female lead.

“They can’t move past their trauma so they keep replaying it,” says Miss Lang, the psychology teacher of Audrey Jensen and Emma Duval in the Season 2 finale of MTV’s 2015 Scream reboot. Across the town of Lakewood, at that exact moment, the two handcuffed girls — then suspected of killing the mayor — were being sprung from the back of a police car by their would-be killer in an almost literal replay of a scene in the film Scream 2. When it comes to knife-wielding, cloak-swishing killers with mommy issues, everything that happened between Casey Becker’s 1996 home invasion and Emma’s holiday to “murder island” this past Halloween has felt like the same tape has been rewound time and time again until there’s nothing left but the transparent threads of trauma and suffering tying these women to their towns and their pasts.

A man in a white mask first began terrifying the residents of Woodsboro (and, consequently, anyone who went to see Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s Scream in the cinema and immediately went out and bought a caller ID) 20 years ago this month, but the history of cinematic women whose trauma informs their heroism began long before Billy Loomis and Stu Macher dialed Casey Becker’s number, and has continued in the decades since. But always at the center of it, keeping her head down to dodge attacks and divert attention, was Sidney Prescott.

In order to scare horror-literate viewers in the mid-‘90s — the ones who wouldn’t flinch at the sight of babysitter stalkers or masked chainsaw-wielders anymore — writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven created a world of gum-smacking cinephiles well-versed in Final Girl 101. But while Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and Mickey (Timothy Olyphant) traded disaffected quips about the value of sequels in Scream 2, the Final Girl in their midst, Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), was showing us the way trauma affects a person at their core-no matter how many of Randy Meeks’ movie nights they might’ve sat through. Over the course of 15 years and four films, Sidney was forced to assume the role of reluctant hero; the survivor who was intended to die in the first act, and who had no choice but to take down not one but seven serial killers, all operating under the same gauzy cloak of maternal betrayal. She became a living, breathing reminder that even the disaffected 90s youth could be affected.

From the first call that Casey Becker (played by Drew Barrymore, in an instantly classic cameo) answered as she prepared a tray of Jiffy Pop in Scream, to the moment Gayle yelled, “Clear!” in Scream 4, it was Sidney who embodied the ultimate hero combination. While the horror buffs around her were one-upping each other in meta quotes and trivia, she was earning her place in the history of cinematic women whose trauma informed their heroism, blending Sarah Connor’s devastating transition from maternal to killer; Ellen Ripley’s clear-eyed quest to end her interstellar torment; Jessica Jones’s absolute refusal to be the catalyst for violence; and Katniss Everdeen’s visible and visceral suffering.

When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) patiently explains the rules of the Hunger Games to her little sister, Primrose, in Catching Fire, she speaks only in hypotheticals, hoping to assure Prim of the unlikelihood of her name being drawn from the pool. Any threat to their personal or emotional safety was speculative and foreign, just as the cold-open murders of Sidney’s classmates, Casey and Steve, are to her in Scream. She was sad and scared, sure, but any threat was distant then. By the time she learns of the murders that announce the killer has returned in Scream 2, Sidney is at college and the passing of time has confirmed that her innocence is long forgotten. Unlike the latter two Hunger Games films — each of which began immediately after the previous one ended — the Scream series leaves years of silence and absence between slashings. Sidney has lived a life between each act of her story, and each time the camera refocused on Campbell’s face, it was painted with layers of wisdom and exhaustion, the inevitable reality of aging colliding with Sidney’s inability to totally relax and let down her guard. The screenplay for Scream 2 introduced Sidney as looking “stronger and more determined, she appears to have weathered the storm.” As Ghostface lies dormant in these years of assumed safety, Sidney is able to piece herself together again, but he always emerges from hibernation before the puzzle is complete.

After the events in Woodsboro in 1996, Sid moves away to college, keeps her film-geek buddy Randy close, finds a few more people to confide in, and becomes fluent in the laws of prank-calling. Between the events of Scream 2 — when her high school boyfriend Billy’s mother, “Debbie Salt” (Laurie Metcalfe), tries to finish the job her son couldn’t — and Scream 3 — when Sid reluctantly visits the set of Stab 3 in hopes of putting an end to the murders one and for all — she went from just being a little calloused to being only hard edges; she begins traveling with a can of mace in her belt, and doesn’t think twice about strapping knives to her calves and wearing a bulletproof vest when she finally goes to confront Ghostface in their final showdown. Sidney’s appearance in Scream 3 is a lesson in how trauma changes a person at their very core. Because of what she’s survived, Sidney no longer runs at the sign of evil, but cocks her pistol and aims. This transformation echoes that of Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) between The Terminator in 1984 and Judgment Day seven years later — from wispy bangs and maternal protection to a muscled killer devoid of all emotion as she breaks her doctor’s arm. Where high school Sidney scrambles out of the school bathroom when the tattered hem of Ghostface’s coat drops to the ground behind her, the hardened adult Sidney in Scream 3 hears the faintest rattle over her shoulder in the Hollywood replica of the same bathroom scene, and kicks down the door ready to defend herself.

Sidney wears her trauma like Ghostface wears his mask: on the surface, for everyone to see. It became such an intrinsic part of her character, and allowed him to move her from one place to the next, like a piece on his chessboard. For that reason, it’s hard to know just how much of what she did was pulled from her own instinct and desire, and not tied up in her underlying motivation for stopping him, surviving, or saving someone else. This loss of control was not unlike the way Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) was convinced to rethink her refusal to return to exomoon LV–426, or how Katniss was talked into militarizing herself in District 13’s mission to take down Snow: these women have endured and suffered and survived, and memories of past trauma claim control over their decisions and actions in the wake of it. At the root of each of them, though, was a determination not to let anyone else fall victim to what they did.

“No one else will die because of me. I’m taking myself out of the equation,” Jessica Jones explains in Episode 7 of the titular Netflix series, as she hatches a plan to sacrifice herself to save any future victims of villain Kilgrave. He “throws innocents” at her, knowing she can’t let them die, no matter the personal toll saving them takes on her. Both Jessica and Sarah Connor are willing to be imprisoned — the former in Supermax prison, the latter in a hellish asylum — if it means hitting the pause button on their daily terror and how it ricochets and impacts everyone in striking distance. Similarly, Sidney is compelled to suit up and confront the threat that’s hung over her head for five years when the killer’s voice on the phone reminds her, “When you’re friends with Sidney, you die.” Sidney never set out to be The Girl Who Lived, the hero of the Woodsboro massacre — but when the death toll rose, she had to assume the role. When she learns about the copycat murders at the Stab premiere in Scream 2, she immediately springs into action; she’s learned enough to know a threat is less than a whisper away. By the time the killer calls her at her secluded hideaway in Scream 3, she wastes no time trading in her headset for a handgun.

After five years of terrorizing her (both directly and with his susceptible proxies), Roman Bridger (Scott Foley) spends his final moments reaching for his half-sister’s hand — right before she directs Dewey to fire one final round into his head. The suffering he inflicted on her informed her formative years, but Sid refuses to let it be her entire story. She surrounds herself with tokens of her past — the poster for her college theater show that provided the stage for the second-act showdown is pinned to the wall in her isolated house in the mountains; the Greek letters that her boyfriend Derek gave her before he was killed (R.I.P., shout-out to Jerry O’Connell) still hang around her neck when she arrives in Detective Kincaid’s office — ignoring the reality of the terror that surrounded those memories. Even when she’s not trying to remember — when she’s forcing herself to go to sorority mixers or making a life for herself as trauma hotline counselor “Laura from Monterey” — it’s impossible for Sidney to forget. Survival is in her bones.