“Halloween, Texas Chain Saw, Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, The Amityville Horror, The Last House on the Left, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, My Bloody Valentine, When a Stranger Calls, Prom Night, Black Christmas, House of Wax, The Fog, uh, Piranha… it’s one of those, right?”
When that laundry list of aughts remakes spewed out of Kirby’s (Hayden Panettiere) mouth in Scream 4, a paradigm shift occurred within, not just the Scream universe, but the entire meta horror subgenre as a whole. The epitome of effortlessly cool, the chic, quick-witted, middle finger-flipping secondary character chewed her way through the scenery, showcasing an abundance of horror knowledge and enthusiasm – and becoming a favorite among women horror fans who had never before quite seen themselves depicted in the mainstream. Gone were the days of Horror Film Bros Only within these types of movies – Kirby could’ve schooled the best of them on Film Twitter (had she lived longer, RIP).
The Scream franchise – despite its consistent out-doings of itself in terms of freshness and innovation with every iteration – took 15 years and three sequels to acknowledge, that, hey, perhaps the ladies actually love and know their shit about horror, too, and deserve a character dedicated to that. While the women of the OG classic were written to drop casual (and often incorrect) horror references (Drew Barrymore’s Casey and Rose McGowan’s Tatum, especially) and/or expressed general disdain for the genre (Neve Campbell’s Sidney), the proverbial We Love Horror club was designated to the fan boys mainly: diehard, virginal, nerdy expert Randy (Jamie Kennedy), or killer cohorts Billy (Skeet Ulrich) and Stu (Matthew Lillard), who would exploit their fandom for wrongdoings.
And exactly 10 years later to the day, we still haven’t really witnessed anything quite like a Kirby again. Sure, Alyson Hannigan delights as a slasher expert in You Might Be the Killer from a few years back. I hear the Scream: Resurrection series included a gal with some horror knowledge cred (I did not watch myself). We’ve seen pockets of horror-loving ladies here and there, but none have ever quite captured our hearts of hearts like Miss Kirby has, with her physical media collection consisting of Don’t Look Now, Suspiria and the fictional Stab franchise, (as any respectable, slasher-loving Woodsboro resident would own), as well as her ability to apply her trivia talents to very dire situations.
A major takeaway of the meta subgenre is this: not only are these films almost always filled with hetero, cis dude characters who love the genre more than their girlfriends do (if they have girlfriends), but their arcs primarily fall into two categories: a) lovable geeks who save the day, like those in Fright Night, The Cabin in the Woods, Blood Fest and the aforementioned Randy Meeks, or b) crazed, toxic horror bros that abuse their knowledge to become violent killers, like Fade to Black’s Eric Binford, Leslie in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and John Travolta’s Moose in 2019’s The Fanatic. So when Kirby was introduced in Scream 4 as neither of these two extremes (and female), it may have helped spark some interest in, not only the demand for these types of women onscreen, but the involvement of more women within the making of horror films in general, too.
“I think production companies and studios started thinking, ‘Oh, it’s not just the men who love these films – women do, too, and they bring a totally different viewpoint and perspective to the genre,’” Chelsea Stardust (director, Satanic Panic, All That We Destroy) explains. “We just weren’t recognized as fans, and now that we are, I think we’ll be seeing more characters like Kirby [in the future]… I think a lot of films with the ‘horror film fan’ character depicted them as a ‘weirdo’ stereotype. Luckily, we have moved past this, and Kirby is a perfect example of that growth.”
“I hear you like horror movies, Kirby, but do you like them as much as him?”
While most meta horror would only contain a tagalong, female love interest that didn’t share her boyfriend’s genre enthusiasm, Scream 4 allows some serious sexual tension to flow between two horror nerds, Kirby and Charlie (Rory Culkin). But while their flirty banter starts off as endearing (“I could trivia your ass under the table, cinema boy”), it turns tragic and appalling, as Kirby is killed by Charlie’s hands – punishment for not “noticing” him enough, mirrored after movies like Fade to Black in which female rejection to male nerds is sadly causal for excuse to murder. Interestingly, however, Kirby is mocked for her love of horror during her final moments, as Charlie literally twists the knife into her and comments on how death takes longer than it does “in the movies.” And this kind of mocking, doubting, punishing, and/or diminishing is all too common within women’s experiences in both horror fandom and filmmaking.
Before Stardust occupied the director’s chair, she was interning for Blumhouse at the time of Scream 4’s release – a time in which even fewer women-identifying folks were occupying those chairs than now. “For so long the industry just didn’t realize that women love horror films, too,” she says. “It wasn’t until somewhat recently, maybe in the last few decades, statistics showed that women make up over half the audiences of horror films.” And while women account for a generous portion of the butts in seats at horror movie screenings (and conventions and film fests – when those things were still occurring), with recent studies suggesting their enjoyment actually surpasses their male counterparts', women are still not dominating behind the cameras nearly as much as they should be – and often feel like their passion, knowledge and competence is questioned by their dude counterparts.
“This is something that myself and other women in the genre deal with ALL the time,” Stardust says. “So many men have been ‘shocked and appalled’ when I haven’t seen some obscure, direct-to-VHS sequel for a random horror film that came out in the 1980s. ‘Well, you must not be a true genre fan since you haven’t seen movies A, B, and C, and you haven’t seen every installment of every franchise, etc., etc.’ I’m always watching films I haven’t seen, discovering new ones I love, and broadening my horror film education. But you can never see enough horror films to prove that you love them, and you are also expected to know every detail about them… Honestly, though, at this point I don’t need, nor have time for, this idea of approval. I just want to tell great stories and make great movies that (hopefully) all the genre fans will love.”
Like Stardust, Gigi Saul Guerrero (director of Culture Shock and El Gigante) has faced this kind of belittling “everywhere,” but never allows it to affect her work. “It has happened on set, in the office, at a pitch, on the street, at an event,” Guerrero says. “But do I see being female as a disadvantage? Hell no! I embrace the cards I have to offer. Female, minority, and young? Let’s go! I use what I have to offer as an advantage to work harder – a reason to feel confident in who I am and what I represent. It's too bad when we defend ourselves, we are immediately considered a ‘b*tch’ or ‘hard to work with.’”
“It was the killer’s voice, from Stab. Or, I mean, you know, from your life.”
So if the women creating these films are done fighting for their horror cred, have they also moved past this kind of meta self-referencing in their films as well? Is that why horror, particularly women-made horror, remains in a Kirby-less drought? Well, the answers are more complex than that.
Jill Gevargizian, writer/director of The Stylist, does prefer to keep it real when it comes to writing characters like her – she’s just done it in a different way. “In my film, I literally put someone like me I’ve never seen in a movie: a hairstylist as the protagonist,” she says. “So it does matter to me to put people on screen I’ve never seen before.” When asked if she’d ever consider writing a horror-loving lady in one of her future films, she’s all for it – as long as the story called for it. “I let the story tell me what it needs,” Gevargizian explains. “I like to create characters loosely based on traits from people I know in real life.”
Stardust has also implemented meta-referencing in other ways. “Well, since I am a female horror fan, I try to incorporate this love in other ways – as opposed to a specific character in the film, who might be like me,” she told me. “For example, I have very specific homages to horror films I love within my own films, but they are subtle and may only be noticed upon second viewing, or by a handful of fans. I’m drawn to the intimacy that this creates with the audience.”
As for Guerrero, it’s imperative to note that, as beloved as she is, Kirby’s character only constitutes a mere fraction of horror-loving gals in the grand scheme of things – specifically cis, hot, blond, able-bodied, white, etc. Wouldn’t it be cool to incorporate a lady horror fiend character that didn’t check those boxes for Scream’s next iteration? As a Latina, Guerrero thinks so. “Claro que si! [Yes, of course.] That would be incredible," she told me. “As a woman filmmaker, I believe it is critical to integrate layered, diverse characters into a story. Latina women are not just fierce and spicy creatures – we bring different sensibilities through the female perspective. We look at death differently; we are not afraid of it.” Take that, Ghostface.
So Hollywood and horror creators, give us more Kirbys – but do f*ck with the original a little bit.