Horror Fans in Horror Movies: ‘Scream’ and the Evolution of the Monster Kid

In the ’70s and ’80s, several archetypes emerged in horror, both in its heroes and villains. The most famous of these is the final girl, exemplified by Sally Hardesty, Laurie Strode, and Nancy Thompson among many others. But another hero emerged as well: the monster kid.

This was usually a pre-teen boy with an obsession for models, monster magazines, and the old horror movies from the ’30s to the ’50s that were shown on TV. Sometimes the monster kid had an interest in EC-style horror comics and a knack for makeup effects. This character served several purposes and often represented not only the audience but the creators of many of these films. Several of the great horror creators of the era are self-professed “monster kids” themselves including John Carpenter, Tom Savini, Joe Dante, Stephen King, and Mick Garris among many others. The exemplars of the monster kid on film are Mark Petrie in Salem’s Lot (1979), Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), and the whole beloved gang of ragtags known as The Monster Squad (1987).

As with every other archetype, trope, and cliché of the previous era, Scream (1996) flipped the script and redefined the monster kid for a new generation. Now, instead of a kid raised on Universal monsters, the new representative for the audience and the younger version of the creator would be a teenager raised on a steady diet of Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, and a slew of slashers. I suppose instead of calling him a monster kid, he could be called a “slasher kid.” The first film introduced Randy Meeks played by Jamie Kennedy, who, at least at the time, quickly became a fan favorite. Like the monster kids before him, Randy is equipped to deal with the film’s crisis because he has seen so many horror movies and therefore knows the rules and clichés to beat the killer at his own game. In fact, Randy figures out who the killer is very early on, but like Mark Petrie telling the people of Salem’s Lot that their town is full of vampires, he is laughed off. Like the audience for Scream and the film’s writer Kevin Williamson, Randy loves the slashers that the film is playing around with and for many, the character served as their voice and representation at a time when horror was on the fringes.

Randy is a representative of the state of horror itself in the mid-90s. At the time it was considered a “dead genre” by studios and mainstream audiences who had grown weary of endless sequels to franchises begun at least a decade earlier. Randy is on the fringes of his school and even a bit of an outsider of his friend group. He’s a little awkward, a little unsure if he really belongs. This may well be why the character was so instantly popular in 1996. The audience could see itself in Randy, which made it all the more shocking when the character was killed off in the middle of Scream 2 (1997), making it clear that even beloved characters were not safe in this world. Randy has faced a great deal of reevaluation over time, but at the beginning, he was the face of horror and the horror fan for a new generation.

Williamson made another clever move by making one of the killers at least as much of a monster kid as Randy. Though Randy gets a lot of flak for being a horror snob and gatekeeper these days, he’s got nothing on Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich). Though it’s impossible to entirely know which killer is doing what in Scream, I’ve always assumed that Billy is the film’s quizmaster. The iconic opening scene has the killer asking Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) a number of horror-related questions over the phone including the “trick” question “name the killer in Friday the 13th,” one that even many lifelong horror fans would have answered as “Jason” and gotten wrong. In the following scene, he talks about how he was just watching The Exorcist on TV. Late in the film he quotes Norman Bates from Psycho and mentions the fact that corn syrup was used for pig’s blood in Carrie. Information like this is all easily accessible online now of course, but in the mid-90s, you had to work a little bit to learn about factoids like these. Billy not only knows the trivia but has also clearly thought about “the rules” at least as much as Randy and Randy was never so much of a gatekeeper that he would kill a person for violating them.

The Scream series has always been a commentary on the state of the horror genre and media at large. Because the first three films were made in fairly quick succession, there were only minor evolutions in either of these areas that the films explored. In the eleven years between Scream 3 and Scream 4, however, everything changed. The 9/11 terror attacks represented a fundamental shift in American life. Politics became far more important to many and news outlets, particularly on cable became more partisan with the rise of various networks directed to political stances. Reality television and the rise of social media made it look as though Andy Warhol’s quote about everybody in the future being world famous for fifteen minutes was not only true but at hand. In horror, the trends had moved from J-horror to “torture porn” to the remake boom. Another thing had happened in the fifteen years since the release of the original Scream? Horror had gone mainstream and the audience representative in the new film reflected that.

Instead of the awkward outsider, Scream 4’s monster kid was popular, world weary, witty, attractive—and female. Kirby Reed, played by Hayden Panettiere, was the embodiment of the film’s tagline “new decade, new rules.” Instead of being raised on ’80s slashers, Kirby grew up with the in-world surrogate for the Scream series itself, Stab. Maybe Kirby could go by the moniker “Stab kid” in her world and “Scream kid” in ours. She has also expanded her horizons beyond a single beloved subgenre. Her room is filled with posters, Nosferatu (1922) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) among them, her Blu-ray collection includes Suspiria (1977) and Don’t Look Now (1973), and she knows that Gunnar Hansen was the first to play Leatherface. She is also the first, and so far, the only character to beat Ghostface at his quiz.

Kirby represents the fact that the audience for horror has expanded greatly. Far more than simply being “Randy 2.0,” she is one of the most dynamic characters of the entire series. She has a streetwise quality to her as though she has had to hold her own against a thousand “reply guys” on a daily basis, while still beating them at any round of horror trivia and drinking them under the table. She is tough, loyal, protective, and smart, the kind of person anyone would want to have in their corner. Like Randy before her, Kirby became an instant fan favorite and the ambiguity of her death (she is still alive when we last see her on screen) has brought about calls by many for her return to the series.

As in the original Scream, Scream 4 has the dark reflection of Kirby in one of its killers, Charlie Walker played by Rory Culkin. Charlie and his compatriot Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) are much more like Randy Meeks than Kirby. The two are the self-styled experts on the genre and lay out the new rules during the cinema club scene of the film. These rules are summed up with the line “the unexpected is the new cliché.” There are no guarantees of survival anymore. No way to spot the killer ahead of the final reveal. These two are in many ways a comment on the internet trolls and Twitter mansplainers that had arisen in the age of online forums and social media. Charlie is a depiction of the darkest tendencies of Randy and Billy from the first film. As Randy pined for Sidney, Charlie pursues Kirby. In Randy’s case, he ultimately comes to grips with the fact that Sidney is not interested and remains respectful of that. Charlie, however, stabs Kirby in the stomach out of anger that she ignored him for so long. His relationship with Jill (Emma Roberts) is a mere means to and ends for her, but Charlie simply cannot see that he is being used.

It should also be noted that in Scream 4 everyone knows the old rules and that the rules have changed. Detectives Perkins and Hoss, played by Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody, have a discussion while sitting watch outside Jill’s home all about the subversions of the genre clichés that have arisen in the wake of the original Scream trilogy. In a way, by this point, everyone has become at least a casual expert in the genre, certainly a massive change from the original introduction of the rules by Randy in the first movie.

As of this writing, I have not yet seen the newest Scream, but it seems likely that it will include a new character in the lineage of Randy and Kirby (or Billy and Charlie) to reflect, discuss, and comment upon the current state of horror fandom. The monster kid is a character and archetype that constantly fascinates me. It has always explored both positive and negative aspects of being a fan that make them some of the most interesting and multifaceted characters in horror. Because of films like The Monster Squad and Scream, there are continued evolutions in the archetype, leading to wider representation such as the band of young vampire hunters in Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020). Just like the final girl before them, I continue to hold out hope that the monster kids will eventually get their due as great heroes of horror, and the Scream films have played a big role in making that happen.