Whether you notice or not, Greek tragedy remains as influential in today’s pop-culture as it was for ancient Greek traditions, like the Great Dionysia; a festival that was held in Athens once a year to honor Dionysus, the god of wine. Three poets would write, produce, and most likely perform in three separate tragic plays; these poets also wrote one satire play to accompany, and almost subdue, the tragic themes explored beforehand.
The structure of the Greek tragedy was such that the events took place over one day, had a prologue to introduce the character/conflict, and introduced a chorus that was present to explain the events and transition into the next portion of the story. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, wrote of the intention of these tragedies and how modern audiences were to react to them; eventually called catharsis. Catharsis is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “purification or purgation of the emotions”. It was thought that by viewing these great tragedies, the audiences would surely feel completed afterwards: a resurgence of humanity and clarity.
While today’s horror can often contradict the intentions of the Greek tragedy (gore-fests), there are many horror movies that pay homage to the significance of the Greek tragedy and how that impacted the way stories are told today. On a side note, many mainstream movies (not necessarily horror) are praised for the way their stories are grounded in reality; often producing catharsis within themselves. A notable example of this in recent memory is: The Revenant (2015), where you feel exhausted coming out of the theatre and yet you have a certain clarity about humanity and they way we act (at least for me).
Scream 2, directly references Greek tragedy and it’s influence on the horror genre. Not only does the film open within a theatre (how meta), but it also simultaneously uses that theatre audience as a prologue into the story of Scream 2. It lets us know that the events of Scream have been exploited and the characters are vulnerable. While we don’t have a direct chorus, we have a play-within-a-play which closely resembles the events of Scream and gives context to the plot. Coincidentally, that play in which Sidney participates in is Aeschylus’ Agamemnon; which serves as the opening story in the only surviving trilogy of Greek plays: The Oresteia.
Agamemnon, King of Argos returns home from the Trojan War. With him he has a concubine, Cassandra, who is the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. Her story goes as follows: Apollo saw that Cassandra was a woman of great beauty, and granted her the gift of prophecy. When Apollo wanted her love in return, she rejected the notion and he cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prophecies; some of them reflected various aspects of the Trojan War. For instance, she warned against Paris leaving for Sparta, obviously he did, kidnapping Helen and thus starting the Trojan War. She also prophesized that the Trojans should not accept the gift from the Greeks (Trojan Horse) when they supposedly left Troy.
Sidney is aware of her surroundings and while she can’t see the future, she often times will tell her friends what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. She serves as the story’s tragic hero: she’s not perfect and sometimes makes mistakes. Greek tragedy has influenced the way main characters are written. No longer are heroic figures portrayed as perfect beings, but rather flawed humans; a staple which modern audiences appreciate in their protagonists. Within the original Scream, Sidney makes the mistake of having sex; a horror cliché which basically solidifies your death. She also trusts her boyfriend, who turns out to be the killer.
The motive for most of the killers in the franchise comes from the affair Sidney’s mother had with Billy Loomis’ father and numerous others. Most of the Greek tragedies and plays have some level of familial conflict. This is the case with Scream, as the whole series was questionably started by the mistakes her mother made. In the play Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, kills both her husband and Cassandra. Similar plot points are covered in Oedipus the King, where Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. After the truth comes out, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs his own eyes; mutilation obviously present much like in the Scream franchise.
Another interesting aspect of Agamemnon is that by the end of the play, Cassandra almost accepts that her fate is sealed. She doesn’t necessarily view her captor as the root cause of her fate but rather Apollo. In Scream 2, Sidney has a conversation with her director where he forces her to convince him that she is a fighter. Much like Cassandra, Sidney doesn’t view her mother (who I’m comparing to Agamemnon) as the root cause but rather herself; or her curse (Apollo).
And c’mon the most obvious connection to Greek tragedy and plays come from the mask. If you look at the first image in this post, the chorus within the play Sidney’s in wear masks; concealing identity has been a large portion of classic plays and a signature theme in Scream. Often times, Sidney fights to obtain her identity and separate her own image from her mother’s negative stigma. Scream 2’s climax and story concludes on the stage. Wes Craven made the decision to hold off on rolling the credits until Sidney was outside of the theatre, signaling that the audience is supposed to leave their catharsis, their emotions, on the stage with the finale.
We have plenty of tragedy in the Scream franchise but we also have satire. The slasher movie balances the horror elements with comedy by manipulating and exploiting horror clichés. In tragedy, the story doesn’t always end badly. In all of the Scream movies, the original trio is always intact at the end. I’ll admit, for a while this bothered me, but it’s almost more tragic this way; Sidney’s friends are all dead and they would’ve been alive had they listened to her after she told most of them to stay away. The second installment, however, was originally supposed to conclude Sidney’s story, marking her death.
Much like Scream, other horror properties have taken elements from Greek tragedy. The Cabin in the Woods is the best example of this in recent memory. Not only does it pay homage to Greek gods and titans but also to the horror genre. We see a plethora of monsters from Greek epics (one-eyed Cyclops).
Like Scream, it recognizes and exploits the common tropes and clichés of the horror genre. Other horror movies have elements of Greek tragedy (familial conflict and mutilation), granted they aren’t as strongly influenced by Greek classics as Scream.
My advice to you? Watch for these influences in pop culture. So many storytelling elements are taken from tragedy and other classical themes. These are only a few that I can point out off the top of my head. I would go more in-depth but I think I’m saving this topic for a future paper for school. We will do more cool posts like this in the future! Were you aware of Greek tragedy’s influence in the horror genre? Let us know in the comments below.