Welcome to Polygon's 13 Days of Halloween series! Between Oct. 19 and Oct. 31, Polygon will publish 13 opinion pieces about different films, shows and specials that exemplify what Halloween means to us. Whether that's the scariest movies you haven't seen yet or a look at a popular Treehouse of Horror episode, this is our tribute to the world of the strange, creepy and downright horrifying that exists within popular culture.
The beauty of Scream Queens isn’t its attempt to bridge horror and comedy, but its adamance and commitment to satirizing genre films of the 1980s and the Greek system (otherwise known as fraternities and sororities) in America.
Scream Queens isn’t a perfect show by a long shot. The direction is sorely lacking and the plot is often contrived, but even with its flaws, there's a reason I return to the show week-after-week. As comedic as it is, the writing in Scream Queens is poignant and uses humor to remark upon major issues like bullying, eating disorders and sexuality.
When I sat down to write this piece for Polygon’s 13 Days of Halloween series, I knew that I wanted to say something about the show that had wormed its way into my heart, but I didn’t know what aspect of the show I wanted to specifically address or how best to showcase why I think it’s brilliant. As I revisited a couple of episodes with some friends, one of them who had never seen it made an offhanded comment that stuck with me:
"It’s not great, but I guess it’s cool you can watch Mean Girls every week."
On the surface, the similarities between Scream Queens and Mean Girls are pretty obvious. Both focus on a group of teenage girls that rule a school campus (the Plastics and the Chanels), both examine groups that come from privileged backgrounds, and both feature an outsider coming into the fold and drastically shaking up the status quo.
Scream Queens is poignant and uses humor to remark upon major issues
Beyond that, however, both share the ability to keep things lighthearted in the face of literal danger or unavoidable drama while tackling the issue of acceptance and self-discovery. While that’s important for Mean Girls, a movie about being a teenage girl and trying to navigate the difficult world that it can be, it’s the reason that Scream Queens has succeeded as much as it has. As a genre, horror is based on exploring the unnatural or strange, and when the focus of that project is on a group of young women, the unnatural or strange isn’t the serial killer stalking the group or a strange entity, but an examination of how many women feel during that time in their lives.
In the first season of the show, Chanel #1 (Emma Roberts) isn’t scared of the killer stalking her sorority, Kappa Kappa Tau, and she isn’t concerned about her "sisters" dying. In the face of actual evil, Chanel’s biggest concern is her relationship with Chad, her boyfriend and president of the college's top fraternity, and the horrifying revelation that she has to admit any girl that wants to be included in the sorority. The most important thing in Chanel’s life isn’t her own physical survival, but her social thriving, and she’d be willing to let actual friends die if that means that she gets everything she wants out of life.
One of the most common tropes from sorority-focused movies that became a popular subgenre within horror was "Main Bitch Syndrome," which I refer to lovingly. Think of films like House of Sorority Row or Carrie, and to some extent, Ginger Snaps or The Initiation of Sarah, and one of the most common themes is taking an outsider who doesn’t quite fit in and tossing her to a pack of wolves. In Scream Queens, which makes it satirical nature far more noticeable through no-holds-barred writing, this group of socially unacceptable girls come with physical abnormalities or different styles that oppose the sorority's that are easy to point out and insult: a comically large neck brace, a more masculine style of dress, or someone the slightest bit overweight.
The Chanels, which refers to Chanel #1’s handpicked insider circle who lose their identity the minute they’re inducted, have built a fantasy within their mansion on campus. They date similar looking men from the same fraternity, drink the same lattes from Starbucks, wear the same clothes and as a collective, verbally attack those who they deem less worthy than themselves. When they’re forced to open their doors to those they fear the most, they lose the safety of everything they ever knew. The serial killer that stalks the campus, slowly killing off those closest to them, isn’t as much of a threat as it is a metaphor for what the Chanels are going through. They’re in the midst of losing their identity and with every person taken from them, they begin to question who they are a little more.
In Mean Girls, the introduction of Cady has similar effects on the Plastics, led by notorious Main Bitch Regina George. Although Cady’s physical and stylish differences aren’t as noticeable as some of the Kappa Kappa Tau pledges in Scream Queens, Regina and her Plastics still go out of their way to point them out. Her clothes are a little bit too masculine, her ponytail is out of style and the way she acts isn’t appropriate for their clique.
Like Scream Queens, however, and the pledges' desire to be in the Main Bitch’s inner circle, Cady quickly learns what she has to do to be accepted by Regina and become a Plastic.
Scream Queens is far smarter than it has any right to be
Despite her quick acceptance, she brings a level of uncertainty to the group and disrupts the natural flow they’ve built. Breakups are had, friendships fall, and the school quickly descends into chaos.Both Mean Girls and Scream Queens could have been run-of-the-mill films within their own genres. But their embracement of the tropes that defined similar movies from years past and using those tropes to progress conversations about important topics that affect young women make Mean Girls and Scream Queens more than just casual entertainment.
Scream Queens is far smarter than it has any right to be, but its also scathingly funny and full of well thought-out homages to horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The only reason that its dismantling of the various tropes and use of them works is because of the respect the show has for the genre. There’s an obvious admiration and knowledge of horror that can be seen from the moment the first episode starts that makes every exaggerated aspect of the series feel funny and refreshing as opposed to argumentative and accusatory.
Scream Queens is currently in its second season. Although it can be problematic at times when it comes to plot and moving various parts of the story forward, the dialogue is as biting as ever and the main thesis of the show is still going strong. The first couple of seasons are on Netflix right now and if you’re looking for something to binge through the Halloween season, Scream Queens is more than deserving of your attention.