A Cognitive Approach to Examining the Movie “Scream”(1996)


As Halloween is just around the corner, I think a discerning Cognitive look at the cult classic horror movie, “Scream” is exactly what this meta movie needs. Before we continue, I feel I should disclaim, firstly, spoilers for the movie “Scream” if you haven’t already seen it(It’s older than you, how have you not seen it?), and second I will not be posting any gory or disturbing imagery from the movie, so even if you’re squeamish, this is still just a movie review. As a Cognitive movie review, I will be going over how the director uses the audiences attention, perception, memory, critical thinking, creativity, and the use of language to make an already enjoyable film, even more interesting to dissect after the fact.

Scene 1: Slasher, Suspense…Sarcasm?

As the movie begins, we’re met with a scene of a girl in her late teens making popcorn in her house at night, seemingly home alone. She receives a few phone calls while going about her evening, the caller asking her questions about her, her night, and about scary movies. The voice on the end of the line sounds deep and gruff, but with a tone that implies interest and mildly flirtatious curiosity in the girl. She briefly entertains him before being spooked out by the call, and hanging up. The caller, well, calls once again, this time threatening and angry in tone, after a number of threats, he asks the girl to turn on the lights outside her house, only his inflection is momentarily overtly sarcastic. In a bizarre turn of events, he quizzes her on scary movie trivia to save the life of her boyfriend outside. He gives her an easy question to start with, but then gives her a trick question when her boyfriend’s life is actually on the line.(Fun Fact: Steve is in this movie for 24 seconds.)

At the complete end of the scene he kills her after chasing her through the whole house, but in an almost slap dash, wanton fashion, where she almost gets away, and even wounds him a few times. Now, this scene is important for a variety of reasons, as a masked killer, he has to have an identity, and for the rest of the movie, you’ll be pondering this with a bevy of other characters. A few other factors at play are: his interest in horror movies, the fact that he is athletic(at least enough to chase the girl, and apparently tie up a football player), eagle eyed viewers will catch that he is about a head taller than the victim, has a slight temper, and has at least a script or at least practiced for this, and has a knack for being theatrical. The devils in the details right?

Scene 2: Principal, Perpetrator…Piscine?

In a scene that’s one part tense, two part’s hilarious, two students are brought into the principals office for running around the school, in masks that the killer was also wearing.  The principal brings out a pair of enormous, sharp scissors and cuts up the masks, and expels the students. After exclaiming that expulsion isn’t fair punishment, the principal brandishes the scissors at both students, claiming that “ripping out their intestine’s and… exposing their heartless insides” would be more fair.

Our following scene with the principal he is wearing a separate Ghostface mask, looking at himself in the mirror. A knock is heard on his outer door, he quickly removes the mask, with a noticeably serious, almost menacingly determined look on his face and investigates. No one is at the door when he opens it, interestingly though, the Principal seems to jump every time he notices his reflection in the mirror. A second knock occurs, only when he returns for the second, the killer is hiding behind his door, and, you guessed it, kills him.

This scene is brilliant for a multitude of reasons. The principal appears to be jumpy at his own reflection and any unexpected visitors, this could imply guilt, or a fear of being caught, or perhaps both. He puts on the mask while no one is around, getting into his costume to mentally prepare for his “role”? He openly threatens two students with disembowelment with a sharp object for running around in killer costumes! He also loses his temper at them when they decide to have an attitude with him. Is his pride in his work and clever facade getting the better of him? Does he believe he is the only one capable of being the Ghostface killer?

These characteristics are suddenly mounting up against our dear principal. However, he dies the moment after you start suspecting him. Why after all this set up, is he immediately, and suddenly exeunted? It’s my belief that the director knew, or at least wanted you to be making a conscious or sub-conscious list in your mind, about the killers character. Medium Height, Medium Build, Capable but not infallible, angry but only at specific times, smart but not genius. After all these tally marks match up in your brain, he gets the axe instantly, but with it, so too does your mental list. You’re no longer looking for this list of traits in your mind anymore, because your list just died, and it died to the actual killer who is now even more enigmatic than he was before, because now your brain has forgotten what it’s looking for.

3 thoughts on “A Cognitive Approach to Examining the Movie “Scream”(1996)

  1. autumnphipps

    I was actually one month old when this movie came out. I first saw it when I was about five years old, and I saw it again when I got older, not really remembering it. I have always been a horror movie fanatic. I found this article extremely interesting, but I feel that with the way that the boyfriend of Dewey’s sister being so interested, as well as the guy who worked at the movie store, I figured it would be one of them because of the movie store guy’s fascination with the killer and horror movies. Also that Dewey’s sister’s boyfriend just seemed very ‘off’ from the beginning, but that would seem almost too predictable, yet it was him and Sydney’s boyfriend.

  2. jadeturner

    I watched this movie for the first time 3 years ago after watching an array of scary movies. For this genre (being my favorite out of all of them) it is interesting to see the cognitive take on Scream. I believe you could probably do a review on most of the scary movies using this logic.
    In reading this, I was thinking back to the first time I watched the movie, and I have to agree with your commentary. The director knows what will keep their audience engaged with this movie and what will make them jump and scream. However, for an avid horror movie watcher, I was fully aware that the identity of the killer would not be revealed until much later in the film.
    It is interesting to note, that another thing that could have grabbed the viewers attention is the fact that the director made it so that the characters referenced horror films. They all were perfectly aware of what goes on in them and still we are so engrossed by the classic film.

  3. kpender2

    I like how you added your own commentary in this post, making it more interesting to read. I also like the approach you take on this film, because serial killers are already mysterious enough on their own as to what they’re thinking and why they carry through such traumatic events without feeling remorseful, yet you take a look at the directors intentions. I like this perspective because in every movie I feel like they always have that one guy you think you know is the killer yet it is usually too obvious. I feel like its a typical script out horror films play by, but he does do an interesting job trying to highlight important characteristics of the killer, who turns to to be who we least expected.

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