In 1993, journalist John Donvan received his first assignment as a writer and reporter on ABC’s Turning Point. He had just returned to the United States from Moscow after more than a decade abroad, covering disastrous global conflicts as a foreign correspondent. Donvan had been on the ground during the Gulf War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and paramilitary clashes in Northern Ireland. But when ABC tasked him with covering the trial of Danny Rolling—a Louisiana man charged with serial murders in Gainesville in 1990—he felt uneasy.
“I had been covering some pretty bad human tragedy. It was on a large scale, and it often had very major political consequences,” Donvan says. “This was the first time I did a story where the tragedy was all there was. And it was very, very personal.”
Four years earlier, on August 20, 1990, a string of murders had rattled Gainesville, Florida, to its core. An unknown assailant pried open sliding glass doors, slipping inside to murder women and men seemingly at random. As attacks attracted a storm of national media attention, panicked Gainesville residents raced to purchase the local supply of guns and deadbolts. The Gainesville Ripper, a sensational (and notably flawed) book about the case published just after Rolling’s trial, hyperbolically describes fear and panic so intense that Gainesville took on the surreal feel of a horror film. “The toll had now reached five dead in forty-eight hours,” author Mary Ryzuk wrote. “And this time the murders occurred right on ‘Elm’ Street. ‘Freddie’ was on the loose.”
Donvan’s episode of Turning Point aired in March 1994, when celebrated screenwriter Kevin Williamson was still a Hollywood hopeful desperate for a break. Though Williamson studied theater arts at East Carolina University and had been cast in a few small television parts, he needed to sell a script that could cover his overdue rent and car payments. In a 1998 interview, Williamson credited the Turning Point special with giving him a burst of inspiration. “[I] went off to the desert for three days, locked myself in a room, and I pounded it out,” Williamson recalled in a documentary.
The struggling screenwriter had to borrow $20 just to print a copy for his agent. But to his surprise, the script quickly became the subject of a full-blown bidding war—with interest from Universal, Paramount, Miramax and more. “The first thirty pages were perhaps the most compelling thirty pages of a script I have ever read,” producer Cathy Konrad later recalled. “I couldn’t put it down. I was terrified.”
The movie was Scream. When it was released in December 1996, the Wes Craven-directed slasher shocked audiences with its graphic violence and delighted horror film fanatics with its witty, trivia-infused dialogue. The story follows high school student Sidney Prescott as she’s stalked and taunted by a movie-obsessed killer in a cheap Halloween mask. Williamson’s smart, layered satire and chilling scares revived American horror movies during a time when most went straight to VHS—and launched a franchise that maintained the original film’s tricky balance of fear and fun. “‘Scream’ was fantastic precisely because it was boldly upfront about its love for and emulation of slasher classics while concurrently discussing and poking fun at them,” wrote critic David Walber in a review praising Scream 4. Today, fans are eagerly awaiting a fifth installment due out this January, in which the original cast will reunite to confront a new killer intent on stirring up Woodsboro’s secrets.
Though Williamson drew inspiration from the Gainesville murders, Scream doesn’t reenact the crimes. Instead, Scream weaves a surprisingly scathing critique of the way real-life trauma is laundered into news, then entertainment for the masses—the same mechanism that made Donvan so uncomfortable when he was tasked with approaching the grieving families of Rolling’s victims. The franchise’s core cast of characters includes Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers, a dogged television reporter who views the horrific events as a path to fame. “If I'm right about this, I could save a man's life,” Gale remarks while chasing a scoop. “Do you know what that would do for my book sales?”
Scream arrived just as a national debate about on-screen violence was boiling over. In February 1996, the New York Times published a dispatch from a Yonkers movie theater where middle schoolers freely bought tickets to R-rated movies. Though MPA ratings had been used since 1968, it was up to individual movie theater employees to enforce them—and Americans were increasingly worried that graphic on-screen sex and violence would lead to a drastic rise in antisocial behavior. “It is an assumption endorsed by a majority of Americans in polls and a theme beloved by politicians from conservative Republicans to President Clinton,” the article noted.
Backed by bipartisan support, the Clinton administration promised to combat onscreen violence with a tiny piece of hardware: the “violence” or V-chip. In theory, the chip would empower parents to block mature television programming, based on a ratings system developed primarily by the MPA. Though the FCC has required V-chips in most television sets since 2000, the system was barely functional at the peak of public support. A longitudinal study that followed 110 families from 1999 to 2001 found that just nine regularly used their V-chip to control programming.
News shows were unfettered by ratings, and therefore beyond the V-chip’s reach—and producers found that violent events reliably kept millions of Americans tuning in. The 24-hour news cycle that began in 1980 with CNN’s launch was ravenous for stories that provided a steady drip of minor developments. On June 17, 1994, the nation watched in fascination as police pursued O.J. Simpson on a slow chase through the sun-bleached freeways that looped around Los Angeles. According to NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, the subsequent arrival of Fox and MSNBC made 1996 a “seminal year for cable news.”
Jamie L. Flexon, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida International University, says this onslaught of round-the-clock coverage of bizarre, outlier incidents powerfully shaped Americans’ perceptions of crime. “I believe because of this, society is much more afraid,” she writes in an email. “The ‘boogie man’ does exist in this way, an interaction between the human condition and the business of media amid a context of exploiting rare situations to symbolize problems.”
In reality, violent crime decreased sharply by 10 percent from 1995 to 1996, marking a third year of decline. The dramatic dip was likely due in part to 1994’s Violence Against Women Act, which strengthened legal protections against domestic violence. In 1991, 60 percent of women who were murdered knew their attacker, including half who were killed by a spouse or partner. Before the law was enacted, intimate partner violence, sexual assault and stalking were considered “family matters,” and protection orders were invalid beyond state lines. (VAWA expired in 2018 and has yet to be reauthorized by the Senate.)
These statistics demonstrate just how uncommon it was for Rolling to attack Sonja Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Manuel Taboada and Tracy Paules—all strangers who caught his attention by chance. In fact, the task force of local police, special agents and FBI agents quickly zeroed in on another suspect: Ed Humphrey, a 19-year-old student whose erratic behavior in the period leading up to the murders drew his classmates’ attention. But Humphrey was not the killer; not only did his blood type fail to match physical evidence left at the scene, two additional murders happened after he had been taken into custody. A 1993 Orlando Sentinel profile describes Humphrey’s struggles to find work and rebuild his life, even after his innocence had been proven. “They think, 'Well, there's a good chance he did it because he's on TV,'” Humphrey said.
While law enforcement and the media fixated on Humphrey, Gainesville police didn’t realize that they had already crossed paths with the actual perpetrator. Months earlier, police had stumbled upon a campsite while pursuing a bank robbery suspect into a sweep of woods that they would later realize ran behind the victims’ apartments. There, they found a duffel bag of cash stained by an exploding dye pack and personal items that included a cassette tape. Both belonged to Danny Rolling, a Shreveport man who was on the lam after shooting his abusive father. He used the tape to record his thoughts, as well as bluesy guitar songs, while he evaded police. In one recording, dated just before the first murder, Rolling made an especially chilling remark: “Well, I'm gonna sign off for a little bit. I got something I gotta do.”
As Rolling’s 1994 trial unfolded, the case gained bizarre new dimensions. Rolling claimed he had a split personality, with a violent side named Gemini—details lifted directly from the Exorcist III, which he had seen in theaters the week of the murders. But according to expert witnesses, no evidence of split personality disorder or Satanic rituals were ever found, and Rolling was not suffering from psychosis. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death, a punishment that was carried out in 2006.
Scream’s original Ghostface, Billy Loomis, directly addresses the notion that movies like the Exorcist III could translate into real-life violence: “Movies don’t create psychos, they make psychos more creative.”
In fact, this was one of the key findings of a 1996 peer-reviewed study in the Annual Review of Sociology by Richard B. Felson, today a professor of criminology and sociology at Penn State. Felson analyzed the findings of an international wave of studies that attempted to measure the impact of television violence on small towns in Canada, a kibbutz in Israel and communities in Finland, Australia, Poland, the United States, and more. But proof of a causal link proved stubbornly elusive, and the studies’ definitions of violence rarely aligned. “Theories that emphasize specific socialization to violence are likely to be limited in their utility, since most violent offenders are generalists,” Felson pointed out. This was the case for Rolling, who committed numerous robberies of banks, grocery stores and private homes before and after his killing spree.
By contrast, Felson found that multiple studies conclusively disputed the notion that violent television increases aggression. In 1982, a longitudinal study of 3,200 elementary and middle school students in Fort Worth and Minneapolis found no evidence that violent television drove aggressive behavior over time. A decade later, a study in the Netherlands also found that any changes in aggressive behavior were statistically insignificant. Felson concluded that violent television programs carried only a small, weak effect on a limited number of viewers, when it came to suggesting novel ideas for violence and creating a false idea of reality and unrealistic fears.
“In fictional television, those who engage in illegitimate violence tend to lack any attractive qualities that would lead to sympathy or identification,” Felson wrote. “In real life, illegitimate violence may be committed by loved ones or others who are perceived to have desirable qualities.”
Though Scream drew inspiration from Rolling’s crimes, its horror comes from the reality that violent crime is more likely to lurk close to home. Scream’s hyper-literate killers quiz their victims on horror movie trivia and orchestrate showy slayings. But in each movie’s final act, when the Ghostface mask comes off, the killers always come from heroine Sidney Prescott’s inner circle of family and friends.
Back in 1996, Dimension Films settled the multi-studio bidding war by offering Williamson $400,000—and promising not to censor the script’s graphic violence.
Famed horror director Wes Craven had initially passed on Scream. Feeling stifled by the genre and eager to break out, he found Williamson’s script too gory—particularly the opening scene, in which a young woman is taunted by phone calls and ultimately murdered. “[The script] was ironic, but I felt I didn’t want to go there,” Craven recalled in an interview for John Wooley’s 2010 biography, Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares. “[I]t was so violent and so much back where I had started, that I felt I’d screw up my karma if I did it.” By chance, Craven was already working with Dimension Films’ parent company, Miramax—and executives finally persuaded him to direct the movie as part of his existing contract.
Having directed cult classics including The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven was uniquely well suited to Scream’s reflexive, ironic meta-commentary about horror movies. In fact, Craven’s own movies are liberally referenced in Scream alongside John Carpenter’s Halloween, Friday the 13th and other slashers from the 1970s and 1980s. In one brief but memorable scene, the school’s janitor is dressed in Freddy Kreuger’s iconid red and green striped sweater. In another scene referencing a classic Stephen King adaptation, Sidney’s boyfriend, Billy Loomis, appears to be uninjured despite being drenched in blood. “Corn syrup,” he comments, licking his fingers. “Same stuff they used for pig’s blood in Carrie.”
As a writer, Craven was also known for crafting movies with themes that reached deeper than cheap scares, such as Nightmare on Elm Street’s exploration of dreams and the subconscious. “You can put as much comedy as you want in the movie, as much romance or philosophy,” Craven once told an interviewer, in an excerpt included in Wooley’s biography. “[A]nything, as long as you scare the bejesus out of people six or ten times.” Beneath Scream’s gore and witty dialogue, Craven viewed the movie as a “thriller-whodunit” that explored rich themes ranging from family trauma to the exploitative nature of the nightly news.
Most members of Scream’s young cast were relatively unknown when filming began in 1996—with the notable exception of Drew Barrymore, who found the script so thrilling that she requested the part of Casey Becker. Barrymore’s onscreen death during the opening scene was both unprecedented and a well-kept secret that shocked audiences. “We didn’t even know if audiences would even forgive us for that,” Craven said. “It was a very risky film, in many ways.” Though Scream had a limited budget of just $14 million, Barrymore and Craven’s involvement drew interest. The cast included Courtney Cox (then Monica Geller on Friends) and David Arquette, who appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in April 1996 alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey and Will Smith (as well as fellow Scream star Skeet Ulrich). Neve Campbell, who played the lead as Sidney Prescott, was unsure of whether she wanted to do another scary movie after The Craft—but ultimately the prospect of working with Craven won her over for the physically and emotionally demanding role.
The production itself faced numerous hurdles. “I remember being on set and watching Wes pull these masks out of boxes because they didn’t have a mask for the movie,” Matthew Lillard, who played Stu, told Consequence on Scream’s 20th anniversary. “The movie had already started shooting.” The now-iconic mask Craven chose was what one critic dubbed “Edvard Munch by way of a trick-or-treat costume.” Nicknamed “Ghostface,” it was originally designed by “Halloween guru” Alan Geller in 1981 and mass produced by the Funworld Division of Easter Unlimited.
But it was Scream’s graphic violence that threatened to derail production altogether. On April 16, just nine days before Craven had planned to begin shooting at the stately campus of Santa Rosa High, 800 people crowded into an auditorium for a heated debate before the school board, which ultimately voted to ban the crew from filming. Production stalled as Craven tried unsuccessfully to negotiate before moving to nearby Sonoma Community College. Scream’s credits immortalized the incident with a jab: “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa school district governing board.” Later, the MPA gave Scream a NC-17 rating until Miramax’s Bob Weinstein appealed the decision, citing its satirical elements, and finally got it knocked down to a R rating.
Finally, on December 20, 1996, Scream premiered in theaters.
“‘Scream’ is an interesting stab at altering the shape of horror,” a lukewarm Variety review declared. “But it’s one experiment that needed more lab time before venturing into the marketplace.”
Roger Ebert was more generous, giving Scream a largely positive review that weighed its self-aware satire against its extreme gore. “Is the violence defused by the ironic way the film uses it and comments on it? For me, it was,” he wrote. “For some viewers, it will not be, and they will be horrified.”
Scream’s opening weekend brought in a modest $6.3 million—but without much competition from other horror movies, word of mouth kept Scream in the top 10 for nine weeks. In 1997, Scream and Scream 2 both raked in gross box office earnings that were higher than Evita, The English Patient and Austin Powers, among others. As Scream became Dimension Films’ highest-grossing picture ever, a sequel was urgently greenlit, with the goal of delivering a follow-up by the end of 1997. To date, Scream has grossed more than $103 million domestically and another $70 million internationally.
Rodrigo Kurtz was 16 when Scream came out in 1996—the same age as the movie’s cast of horror-movie obsessed characters. “The way they talk with each other was the kind of talk that I had with my friends,” Kurtz told me. “I was a major film buff.” Eager to connect with other fans, Kurtz built a website dedicated to Scream in 1998, initially in Portuguese. Today, Kurtz enjoys mingling with the Scream franchise’s cast and crew on social media—and running Hello Sidney, a reboot of his original website where he still publishes exclusive interviews with the franchise’s cast and crew.
When Kurtz joined me on Zoom one evening in early October, the iconic poster of a wide-eyed Drew Barrymore hung over his shoulder, next to a Ghostface mask signed by director Wes Craven. Scream changed the trajectory of his life. His early interest in film transformed into a passion for web design, which remains his profession today. In 2016, Kurtz traveled 6,000 miles from his home in Brazil on a pilgrimage to Scream’s filming locations in the vineyard-spotted hills of Sonoma, Glen Ellen, Healdsburg and Santa Rosa e Tomales. “You cannot go in certain places, or if you do go there, you won't see anything,” Kurtz explains, since many of the filming locations are set deep within private property and invisible from public roads. Still, “It was magical, and it was enough for me.”
As the fifth Scream movie’s release date draws nearer, fans of the series have high expectations for yet another sequel that will subvert and deconstruct the media landscape of horror through witty banter, shocking twists and gallons of fake blood. Historically, the franchise’s sets have been shrouded in secrecy, with scripts printed on red paper that defied photocopying and cast members kept clueless about Ghostface’s identity until the end of shooting. Knowing that Kurtz has connections, I asked if there’s anything he can reveal from the private messages he’s exchanged with the movie’s cast and crew.
“I could reveal a lot,” Kurtz admitted, laughing. “I think it could be very surprising. And from what I’ve heard, it's everything a fan could want.”