When you think of a horror movie, what typically comes to mind? Likely some kind of monster, or a killer on the loose. Maybe a final girl to survive the night and pave the way for a sequel. Some of the most well-known horror movie monsters and villains are Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, and Jigsaw. What these horror icons have in common – besides going on killing sprees – is that, for the most part, they are all one individual. Sure, Jigsaw takes on apprentices, and the first Friday the 13th focuses primarily on Jason’s mother, but in most of their appearances, the killer’s identity is always the same. It’s always Michael under the mask, Freddy in your dreams, and John Kramer behind the traps (until his death). The unlucky citizens of whatever town they terrorize have come to fear those specific individuals.

What sets the Scream franchise apart is that the Ghostface character has never been the same person twice. Instead, it is a mantle for serial killers to take up, a mantle that strikes fear in everyone in the town. It’s made for a long and fascinating history and one that holds a unique place in the horror genre.

A Not-So-Tragic Villain Backstory

Looking at some of the most popular horror icons, their killing sprees are often accredited to a traumatic event in their life, or the unique and unfortunate circumstances of their birth and upbringing. Michael Myers is mentally ill, Jason Voorhees was bullied and drowned in a lake due to negligence, Freddy was a neglected child, Leatherface was bullied for his deformities and disabilities, and Jigsaw lost a child shortly before being diagnosed with terminal cancer. But that isn’t the story we get with Ghostface.

The Ghostface persona has been taken on by different characters in every film, most of which seem to want nothing more than fame and recognition, or they have a taste for revenge. Arguably, the only Ghostface with a tragic justification for their actions is Roman, who takes up the mantle in Scream 3. But even still, Roman was given up for adoption by his and Sidney’s mother, and sure, the circumstances aren’t great, but I wouldn’t put it on the same playing field as drowning or having terminal cancer. The others that have picked up the mask have all been there without any huge sob stories. In the original 1996 Scream, Billy Loomis wants revenge from feeling abandoned – which one could argue isn’t as tragic as Roman’s story, though similar – and Stu Macher is only roped into the mask by peer pressure. Then there’s film student Mickey Altieri from Scream 2, a horror movie enthusiast on the hunt for his own big break. There’s not a whole lot of tragedy to generate much sympathy for there.

Do we look more kindly on villains when they have a tragic backstory? Arguably, yes. It gives us the chance, even just for a moment, to view the humanity in them and have some form of sympathy toward them. With Ghostface, it’s hard to have sympathy for someone who murders just for the sake of fame. Revenge is a typical motivation, but nothing overly tragic. But maybe the bigger question is, do we even need to have sympathy for horror movie villains? While it can be an interesting touch given the genre, it’s by no means a necessity. In fact, one of my personal (and maybe controversial) favorites behind the Ghostface mask happens to be one of the least sympathetic characters in the franchise: Jill Roberts from Scream 4. With fame on her brain, Sidney’s cousin sets out to become the new Sidney Prescott and final girl, intending to be the sole survivor of the recent round of Ghostface massacres. But the real twist is revealed when she also wants fame for being the one to recreate the murders 15 years later by becoming Ghostface herself. So, no sympathy here for wanting a double dose of fame, but you have to applaud the crazy way of thinking. There’s nothing better than a good Scream murder-mystery twist. Sympathetic villains and tragedy aren’t what draw us to Scream, but instead, it’s the spooky take on the whodunit that has us lining up for more.

Anyone Can Be Ghostface

With Ghostface never being just one person, but a series of different people, it makes it impossible for the characters, namely Sidney and those around her, to truly know if the cycle of horror will ever be over in the Scream franchise. In fact, capturing one person behind the mask only sparks the next one to pick it up. It’s like the Olympic torch: once one person is done – of their own choosing or not – the next person takes it up. The Ghostface legacy somehow always continues one way or another, and there seems to always be someone desperate enough for fame that they’ll do anything to achieve it, even become the next Ghostface killer.

This passing of the mantle means that our heroes must always be on their toes, never knowing which of the ordinary-looking townsfolk could be the person behind the mask. It instills fear not of a particular individual, but of a costume – worse, of a possibility. And when you’re afraid of a costume and a mask, you can never know for sure if you should instead be afraid of the classmate sitting next to you, the next-door neighbor, or even the family member across the table. When it could be anyone behind the mask, how do you know when you’re truly safe and can relax? The answer is, you don’t.

The Ghostface Mystery Keeps Us Guessing

Aside from its characters’ need to always be cautious and on the lookout, the passing of the Ghostface torch gives Scream a unique position in the world of horror franchises. If horror movies played by the laws of the real world, then really, their franchises would end the moment Michael Myers or Jason bite the dust. But these horror icons have never played fair, being practically unkillable. We get one last glimpse at Myers or Jason before the screen cuts to black, and know that we’ll see them again soon in the sequel. As Gale Weathers famously notes, “They always come back.”

On the other hand, with Ghostface being just an ordinary person underneath the mask, and capable of being killed, we never know who to be on the lookout for in the sequel or spinoff. Thanks to Gale’s work, we know Billy is gone at the end of the first Scream, but what we don’t know is who will be under the mask next time. It’s always a mystery, and that’s something unique that Scream continually brings to the horror genre. As much as we are waiting for Ghostface to jump out from behind the corner, we’re even more impatient for the iconic Scream mask to come off at the end of the movie and reveal the new killer. Who will it be in the upcoming Scream movie? Plenty of new faces have joined this latest installment, but I’m still placing my own bet on this Ghostface being someone (or two people) close to Sidney – it’s even the movie’s tagline! We’ll have to wait and see who terrorizes the town as Ghostface this time before being unmasked.

Get tickets to see Scream, playing only in theaters on January 14.

  • Editorial