How Scream Saved Horror Movies

In the 1990s the horror movie genre was almost dead, thanks in part to a slew of badly received sequels to iconic franchise like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.

Then Scream with its Ghostface serial killer slashed its way into theatres and breathed new life into the scary movie business. Along the way it inspired a teen movie boom in the late 90s.


Scream was like no other horror movie before it because beyond terrifying, it was also incredibly self-aware.  From the opening scene when Drew Barrymore is asked, “What’s your favorite Scary movie?” it was pretty clear this wasn’t what we were used to.   Scream was unique because the characters knew about slasher movies and ironically recognized they were in the middle of one.  

Scream made fun of all the horror movie tropes that dominated the scary movies of the 80s and we were all in on the joke.  Remember that great scene when Randy Meeks played by Jamie Kennedy lays out the rules of a horror movie?

It also shifted the rule book when it came to female characters. In old horror movies women were never the formal star – that was left for the villain. But in Scream we were compelled to root for Sidney, a female teenager, instead of the masked killer. 

Released on December 20, 1996, Scream had a slow build in popularity and eventually became a phenomenon as movie goers went to see it in theatres multiple times. As heard on episode 9 of History of the 90s, Scream ended up grossing $100m on a budget of just $14m, and cemented its position as a true cult classic.  

Following Scream’s box office success, rival studios rushed to capitalize on the slasher boom, realizing the financial potential of casting recognizable but inexpensive actors in low-budget thrillers.

A new genre was born that centered on wise-cracking, sexy teens trying to survive a maniacal killer. 

Horror movie fans were treated to the birth of new franchises like: I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legends and the return of old characters like Michael Myers in Halloween H20.  

The success of Scream also contributed to an overall boom in all types of teen movies. Studios recognized that relatively low-budget high school movies stocked with the casts of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dawson’s Creek could actually turn a profit.

Even though the 90s teen horror cycle came to an end, its influence is ever-present. Scream’s blending of violence and scares with self-aware comedy can be seen throughout modern film and television, most obviously in the largely unrelated Scream MTV spin-off of the same name which ran from 2015 to 2019.  

But also, in TV series like Scream Queens and iZombie, as well as Joss Whedon’s 2012 satire The Cabin in the Woods. And don’t forget the recently released Amazon series reboot of I Know What You Did Last Summer.

For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at

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