The Influence

The meta-commentary of the Scream horror franchise showed theatre-maker Alethea Beetson how to bring colonisation into a frame that’s both hilarious and vicious. By Neha Kale.

Alethea Beetson

A figure in a cloak and white mask has a knife raised in one hand, directed towards a woman who is speaking on the telephone. A sliding door acts as a partial obstruction between them.
A still from the seminal horror movie Scream, and Alethea Beetson (below).
Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy (above), Joshua Tate (below)

Alethea Beetson is a Kabi Kabi/Gubbi Gubbi and Wiradjuri artist and producer who works across theatre and music. Growing up in Toowoomba, she dreamt about being on stage. Teaching young people drama changed her direction. She went on to found Digi Youth Arts and achieve national renown for making art with, and for, her community. She wrote and directed Cooked, a 2022 performance that explores the tangled history of colonisation. She adapted and directed Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria for the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2017 and 2019. Most recently Beetson – who is also the former First Nations producer of BIGSOUND – founded the multiarts company Blak Social. Its debut production Queen’s City drew four Matilda Award nominations, and this week co-won the Bille Brown Award for Best Emerging Artist. The work, which premiered at the 2022 Brisbane Festival, draws on the language of the ’80s: karaoke bars, skating rinks. She says it invents white history and centres Blak narratives to tell complex truths.

Beetson, who recently presented an experimental theatre work titled Blak Friday, has long been obsessed with Scream, the 1996 franchise originally created by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven. For Beetson, the films’ clever meta-commentary, and mix of horror and humour, is an ongoing inspiration.

When the first Scream film came out in 1996, it reinvented the slasher film for a new generation. Tell me about the first time you watched it.

I remember watching Scream with my friends and Scream 2 with my mother. My mum explained to me that slashers were a real thing when she was growing up. I have memories of her watching Scream 2 and kicking the chair every time she screamed. I remember Scream being the film to watch. I had no idea until this past 10 years that we were watching movies six months later than overseas. There were no spoilers. Every time I’ve gone back to watch Scream from the beginning, it is like a time capsule. I love how it reinvigorated this genre.

The thing I’ve always loved about Scream is its meta-analysis. That is something that sits across what Blak Social does. We have a formula for how we tell a story. Rewriting history is one component. Indigenising popular culture is another. Deep-time travel is another. We like to be hilarious and vicious. Excuse my language, but we like to be as meta as fuck. All I want is to make people laugh and make people think. Stories like Scream unpack the horror genre in front of you. It’s scary. It’s funny. It takes you on a roller-coaster.

The Scream movies are both terrifying and laugh-out-loud funny. In the first movie, the famous opening scene sees Drew Barrymore’s Casey killed by an intruder wearing a mask. Why does it speak to you?

The thing about Scream is the biggest star, Drew Barrymore, gets killed in the beginning. That is iconic! To throw away the rules and say can we do this in a story? Let’s just do it.

I honestly think it is [about] that switch between horror and humour. Horror has always had a relationship to humour, but in Scream it is done so incredibly well. In my work, we can go from pointing out this serious and poignant political moment and then flipping it completely to a humorous kind of place in characters’ lives. In franchises such as Scream, you are laughing one minute, scared one minute. It is also the roller-coaster of life, when you are up against the colony. I know Scream doesn’t deal with that, but I like how it borrows from other horror genres and references throughout.

In the first film, the characters are horror movie buffs who reference classics of the genre such as Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. What do you admire about the way Scream weaves together different references? It’s clever how it breaks the fourth wall.

I love breaking the fourth wall so I think, okay, cool, if Scream can do that, my independent Blak theatre production can do that. And I think when you walk into a theatre or any kind of art form really, you suspend reality. I don’t like to spend too much time thinking is that going to make sense to an audience?

In Queen’s City, even though audiences came in to watch a theatre show, it didn’t feel like they were sitting in a play because it is an assault to the senses. They get sucked into arcade games, there is a skating rink that is going to get torn down by the politicians to build a museum. Pac-Man became Blak-Man, the ghosts they had to eat are all the folks who colonised the place, such as Captain Genocide. In the same way that Scream references horror movies that paved the way, we referenced ’80s films in Queen’s City. That intertextuality gives people ways to latch on to a story.

The Scream franchise combines tropes of the horror genre with social critique. It touches on trauma, the glorification of violence in the news, female survivorship. It was also an inspiration for films that use the horror movie as a vehicle for exposing racism, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out. How do you think slasher films can hold up a mirror to the real-life horror that exists in our society?

I think what Blak and brown folks are doing in this space is incredible. There are so many Indigenous filmmakers here and overseas who are doing such amazing work in horror. For me, of course, the folks who are least served by these colonial and capitalist structures can understand the darkness of horror the most. A dear friend said to me, if you are ever feeling anxious it is good to watch horror. Horror can provide a vehicle to understand some of the darker parts of the world we are forced to live in but gives us a space to fight back. Those of us who are forced to the margins can use horror to fight back and tell a story about the real horrors.

When we put on Blak Friday, it was one of the hardest things Loki [Liddle] and I had worked on. There was a lot of mob there, a lot of our family. But they came out laughing and we thought that was worth it. It was a wonderful bit of escapism.

I think laughter can really show us where we’ve hit a nerve. This month, Scream VI comes out, 27 years after the first instalment. How do you think it changed pop culture?

I think it was an iconic film in the ’90s that birthed this plethora of horror fans. I imagine that there were those intersecting moments of who you were on that timeline. I was very much the teenager who was that target audience. But looking at my mum, it brought up the genre she grew up with. Now, young people get to watch it. It will be interesting to see where Scream goes in a world where audiences want cinematic universes.

If you watch the Scream that came out last year, they brought in this meta-analysis of the modern, elevated horror genre – even pointing out the way the original Scream has dated. There is this beautiful moment when you know the killer is going to be revealed and they fake tension-build. Why can’t this be a great moment in cinema? They pulled that off! You were giggling, waiting for a jump scare. I think that is just genius.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Alethea Beetson".

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