At the beginning of Wes Craven’s Scream, we meet Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore). Casey is an attractive, flirty teenage girl who is home alone and getting ready to watch a scary movie; in short, she is quintessential slasher bait. Her only potential saving grace — given that slasher films tend to let their most famous actresses last the longest — is the fact that she is played by ‘80s child superstar Drew Barrymore. But Scream is dedicated to subverting slasher tropes, and so Casey’s star casting does not end up helping her. Instead, a peculiar, bordering-on-flirty phone call from a gravelly-voiced stranger ultimately leads to the brutal slaughter of both Casey and her football player boyfriend Steve Orth (Kevin Patrick Walls) within the first 10 minutes of the film.
Scream’s opening scene is a concise distillation of the postmodern, tongue-in-cheek slasher trope subversions that have made the film so iconic. In the same way that we can instantly see where Casey both matches and then subverts our expectations of slasher film characters, we can easily place most of Scream’s teens into their traditional roles. Our protagonist Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is our sweet, smart, chaste Final Girl. Sidney’s dreamy boyfriend-turned-psychopath Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) is our Slasher. Sidney’s best friend Tatum Riley (Rose McGowan) is beautiful, sassy, and sexually active, and thus at high risk of being a Slasher Victim. Randy Meeks (Jamie Kennedy), a film nerd with a puppy-dog crush on Sidney, is our Nice Guy Virgin.
And then there’s Stu Macher (Matthew Lillard). Stu certainly has some classic slasher film character traits: he’s the comic relief, he’s a teenager who parties and has sex, and he’s part of our Final Girl’s friend group. But there’s also a lot about Stu that doesn’t fit as neatly into the preconceived roles and tropes often found in slasher films. Where every other teenager in Scream is easily placed within their prescribed roles, Stu begins the film as just a goofy teenage boy.
Comparative to his friends, Stu has the least pressing life issues. Sidney is trying to cope with the upcoming anniversary of her mother Maureen’s murder, Billy is recovering from his mom’s sudden abandonment a few years before, Tatum is trying her best to care for her fragile friend, and Randy is often preoccupied with his crush on Sidney. Stu, on the other hand, is mostly unassuming. He likes hanging out with his friends and his girlfriend, he likes cracking jokes, and that’s about all there is to him for most of the film.
But within Stu’s average, unassuming characterization rests something disturbing and realistic. In probably the most notorious twist of the film, both Maureen Prescott’s murder and Ghostface’s terrorization of the town are revealed to be the result of Billy and Stu’s team efforts. Stu is our unexpected second slasher. While Billy kills for the pretty traditional slasher film motivation of being a spurned psychopath, Stu seems inspired to kill by his misogynistic ideology and a destructive obsession with masculinity and male approval. He stands out as a strikingly realistic character in the otherwise tropey, eccentric teenage slasher-film gang that he is surrounded by, with motivations stemming from violent, gendered ideals that are not just relegated to the surreal world of slasher horror films, but very much a part of our reality.
Even before we know that Stu is one of the killers, we are reminded again and again of his infatuation with the notion of masculinity and being perceived as a man by others. When the friend group muses over lunch about who may have murdered Casey and Steve, Stu declares, “Casey and Steve were completely hollowed out, and the fact is it takes a man to do something like that.” It’s a strange point to insist upon, especially when you are close to successfully getting away with these murders, but Stu seems unable to resist making a prideful reference to his own strength and physical capability.
Stu also frequently insists upon reminding his peers of his sexual activity, and he’s often helped in this regard by his equally braggadocious girlfriend Tatum. When Randy asks where Stu was at the time of the killings, Tatum pridefully pipes up, “Stu was with me last night.” Stu grins, “Yeah, I was.” When Randy, who occasionally provides Scream with some self-aware narration due to his film buff status, describes the “rules” of slasher films later on, he says that the biggest mistake one can make is having sex. To this, Stu shouts from the back of the room, “I’d be a dead man!” He is insistent — almost embarrassingly so — on reminding his peers that he is a man who has sex. He even seems to highlight his masculine stature in his physical affections with Tatum: when the two walk home with Sidney after school has been canceled, Stu throws Tatum over his shoulder, spanks her, and allows her much smaller frame to twist and turn in his arms. Even in physical movement, Stu seems infatuated with his own relative strength and size.
Where Stu tries to emphasize his masculinity, he also often speaks to his female counterparts in a way that reiterates their gendered differences. After school is canceled following the ongoing murders and scares, Stu skips up to Sidney and offers her a flower. “Darlin’, I don’t know what you did, Sidney, but on behalf of the student body, we all say thank you,” he coos. At his house party later on, he turns to Tatum and asks, in a very adolescent attempt at playing the man of the house, “Grab me another beer, would ya?” And when the party ultimately turns into a slasher bloodbath and Sidney is no longer sure who to trust, Stu pleads with her by repeatedly calling her “baby” in an attempt to earn her trust. “He killed my Tatum,” Stu whimpers, trying to pass the blame onto Randy. “Sidney, baby, please give me that gun.” Tiny little gendered, unearned affections and hints at Stu’s possessiveness and objectification of the women in his life (“baby”, “darlin’”, “my Tatum”) are littered throughout the film long before his ongoing violence toward women is revealed.
Billy and Stu’s motivations for killing are a little convoluted; they’re a mish-mash of ideas and inspirations. The two are partially inspired by their love of horror movies, partially inspired by Billy’s mother having left after his father cheated with Sidney’s mother, and partially inspired by Billy being a self-proclaimed psychopath. But notably, of Billy and Stu’s six successful kills, half of them are directly related to people Stu has been involved with sexually: Casey was his ex-girlfriend, Steve was Casey’s new beau, and Tatum was Stu’s current girlfriend.
Sex and murder have always been tied together in slasher films, a notion that Scream explicitly relies upon in its premise. But while sex is perhaps the most punishable act in this genre, sex does not usually occur with the slasher himself. In other slasher films — like Psycho — we often see the murderers hating themselves for the sexual thrill they feel toward women, on whom they ultimately take out their anger. In other movies, a psychotic, murderous rage might be triggered after the killer sees two people involved in a sexual act, as is the case for Halloween’s Michael Meyers. We rarely see these slashers involved in the sex acts and urges that they loathe, repress, or fear. Stu therefore stands out in the way that he enacts violence upon the women who willingly have sex with him. Just as he deems his sexual escapades as proof of his manliness, he also sees these same sexual encounters as failings on the parts of Tatum and Casey, and hypocritically and violently passes judgment and punishment on them himself. He hates the women who have sex with them because of their sexual willingness.
But the catch is that Stu doesn’t just hate the women who have sex with him. He seems to have a cruel little misogynistic reasoning for every woman that the duo attempt to or successfully kill. When Billy and Stu regale Sidney with their successful plot to kill Sidney’s mother, Stu makes a cruel little quip about Maureen’s unattractiveness: “Yeah, we put her out of her misery because, let’s face it, Sidney, your mom was no Sharon Stone.” And when Stu attempts to strangle Sidney in a last-ditch effort to keep her from escaping his and Billy’s clutches, he spits “I’ve always had a thing for ya, Sid!” at her. Perhaps more than anything, Stu wants Sidney to know, in her potential final moments, that he sees her as a sexualized being.
Stu hates the women he can have, hates the women he can’t have, hates the women he’s attracted to, and hates the women he’s not attracted to. Stu is, in this sense, an embodiment of the impossible standards of patriarchal, misogynistic systems. The only pleasure or joy he actually seems to derive from women is either through bolstering his masculinity via interactions with them or by enacting violence upon them. Most disturbingly, it seems for Stu that these events are often one and the same.
There’s also the matter of Stu’s adoration for Billy in relation to these violent urges. Some read Billy and Stu as queer-coded, while others detect a certain homoeroticism in their relationship. At a 2021 Comic Con, Lillard even doubled down on the theory himself: “Stu is super gay,” he announced to delighted cheers from the audience. Billy and Stu’s connection in plotting these complex killings, their physical, affectionate closeness as they reveal their plot to Sidney, and their general married couple-esque bickering throughout the film can absolutely support a queer reading. The genre itself justifies these readings as horror films historically have ties to queer fanbases and subtexts. But I think that Stu acting like Billy’s “little lapdog” — as Randy snippily describes him in one scene — as well as his general interest in being perceived as a man by other men can also be read as a form of homosociality rooted in misogyny. Stu insists upon his manhood, his virility, his strength, and his general distaste for women mainly in hopes of impressing his male best friend.
It takes a bit of sifting through Stu’s character to get to this icky, sexist throughline that seems to determine most of his decisions. On first watch, it’s easy to see him as comedic-relief-turned-henchman to the ultimate slasher mastermind Billy Loomis. But Stu is tied more than anything to hating the idea of women and obsessing over the idea of manliness. Almost all of his interactions with women are ultimately invested in degrading or enacting violence upon them in order to impress Billy.
What’s disturbing about Stu is that while not many of us will unknowingly be friends with, date, or have sex with a spurned, vengeful, plotting psychopath, many of us will unknowingly be friends with, date, or have sex with someone who privately holds intensely misogynistic beliefs. A “normal” teenage boy who has been socialized to both actively pursue women as sexual objects and to hate them no matter what they do is not a concept unique to slasher films. It is a known and accepted part of our reality that there are indeed some men who enact violence upon girlfriends, women who reject them, and ex-girlfriends and their new lovers. That Stu embodies this violent misogyny places an uncomfortable realism into an otherwise postmodern, irony-heavy, and sometimes even camp-adjacent slasher film.
Stu’s motivations are not aligned with those of some horror film psychopath, but instead with misogynistic ideologies and social norms that hold immense space and power in our world. Stu’s goofy, “normal” nature is gradually peeled back throughout the film, and even when he and Billy’s plan falls apart at the end, his violent distaste for women remains partially obscured beneath his panicked, childish blubbering. He seems more pathetic than anything as he panics about getting in trouble with his parents or bleeding out. But Stu’s true, overarching beliefs are perhaps most effectively encapsulated in his final words: moments before Sidney electrocutes him to death, he snarls out an embittered, cold “bitch.” Stu is ultimately just some teenage boy holding tight to some impossible, violent ideals of masculinity and misogyny, making for a disturbing characterization that isn’t just relegated to the world of slasher films but is very much a part of our social fabric