The Dawson's Creek Episode Guide: The Scare
Even after Dawson’s Creek became a cultural touchstone, creator Kevin Williamson was still primarily known as the guy who resurrected the horror film economy with Scream (and to a lesser extent I Know What You Did Last Summer). After a decade or so of box office dominance, horror movies hit the skids in the ‘90s as many of the ‘80s slasher franchises faded away without any suitable replacements. Williamson delivered a delightfully meta script that director Wes Craven turned into a knowing, thrilling comment on the genre as a whole and opened the door for a new generation of scare-friendly creators and cinemagoers.
So it’s not surprising that the first season of Dawson’s Creek contains an episode that essentially operates as a 45-minute horror movie (and one that does a lot of commenting on horror to boot). Though his Spielberg fixation defines a lot of his conversations, when the time came to actually make a movie, Dawson put together Sea Creature from the Deep, a tongue-in-cheek monster flick. Apparently that appreciation for scares runs into his everyday life as well, as “The Scare” opens up with Joey and Pacey anticipating some sort of elaborate set-up for Dawson’s traditional Friday the 13th celebration. (In my memory I thought this episode was tied to Halloween, which never made any sense as this aired in May.) Dawson initially dismisses the idea of doing anything for the holiday, despite the fact that his parents are out of town and that we already saw him terrify Joey with a Jason mask in the cold open. But of course that’s all part of Dawson’s plan, as he ends up striking while Joey and Pacey’s guards are down. His scares are pretty elemental—in the opening scenes, Dawson is mostly a slightly creepier prop comic—but he has more elaborate plans for the evening, including a junk food-fueled séance at his house.
This plan initially doesn’t include Jen, who begs off the evening of frights to go on another date with Cliff (a returning, and still winning, Scott Foley), though she’s also a little put out by the fact that Dawson didn’t plan a scare for her (even though she’s an admitted fraidy cat). In reality, shouldn’t she still be mad at Dawson after the switcheroo he tried to pull during last week’s “Double Date”? Didn’t they have it out on that Ferris wheel? And yet Jen still is just casually hanging with everybody at lunch, even though she’s not really friends with any of these people? And also Pacey and Joey operate as though they didn’t kiss and Pacey didn’t profess his love for her last week? There’s a part of me that wants to let this episode off the hook, because outside of a brief bit at the end, it could honesty exist just about anywhere in the timeline of the first season and was clearly used as a cooling off ep before the fireworks of the final two entries. But it’s also a little disappointing because the narrative thrust of the last few eps has been terribly strong, and there are a lot of character elements in “The Scare” that feel like water treading (or in Jen’s case an illogical step back).
That’s not to say “The Scare” isn’t a fun episode, particularly when the extended crew (which includes Jen and Cliff as well as a crazy woman named Ursula who Dawson and Pacey meet at a convenience store) end up at Dawson’s house. He’s got a bunch of spooky gimmicks already set up (including a planned blackout and a severed head in the refrigerator that recalls the opening of Friday the 13th Part 2), but the evening rapidly devolves as Ursula’s ultra-violent boyfriend shows up and tries to get into the house. After playing around with some haunted house scares, the episode briefly becomes an exploration of survival horror, with the boyfriend operating as Michael Myers (who gets referenced earlier in the episode when Dawson’s film teacher compares John Carpenter’s use of light and shadow to Alfred Hitchcock). When the dust clears, “The Scare” settles into a long denouement which finds Jen discovering that Cliff has been the one leaving her threatening notes and making creepy phone calls (on the advice of a still-meddling Dawson) and that the creepy guy who asked Joey for directions at the convenience store was actually an at-large serial killer whose narrative has been in the background of the whole episode.
But the most meaningful moment arrives right at the end of “The Scare,” when Dawson and Joey break down the evening and Dawson admits that he doesn’t know what he would do if Joey were to die. Though I think that’s a pretty low bar for devotion, that sentiment clearly touches Joey in a profound way. In a scenario we haven’t seen since the beginning of the season, Joey sleeps over (though not before revealing one finale scare: a bed full of plastic spiders). It’s a sweet moment that brings them closer together without saying anything, and perfectly sets up the revelatory one-two punch that is coming at the end of season one.
- Though Williamson is the one with the horror bona fides, the credited writer on “The Scare” is actually Mike White. I always forget that White had some horror chops of his own coming into Dawson’s—he wrote the screenplay for the better-than-you-remember-it murder farce Dead Man on Campus. Still, "Detention" remains his Dawson's masterpiece.
- This episode was directed by Roman Flender, who also made Idle Hands (another entry in the better-than-you-remember-it club) and ironically ended up directing a bunch of episodes of the Scream TV series on MTV. His hand goes a long way to make this episode feel very cinematic, and there’s a ton of interesting camera movement and use of shadow. I remember watching this with the lights off when it first aired and thinking it was pretty effective, and I still think that today (even though I didn’t really jump this time).
- Grams is a huge fan of the idea of Jen dating Cliff, who is captain of the football team, on the honor roll, and goes to church. It’s that middle entry that confuses me: Wasn’t Cliff portrayed as a huge idiot during the Helmets of Glory stuff in the first part of the season? Or was that just the assumption that Dawson made because he was a jock? Either way, Grams’ doting on Cliff and Jen’s date is sort of creepy but ultimately charming.
- This episode was a little light on music, though it did include a song by a band called the Rosenbergs who would later become notable for being one of the few bands to partner with the first generation version of Napster. Their underloved debut Mission: You is a pretty stellar example of new millennium power pop, and I still keep “In Pursuit” on a handful of mixes.
- There’s very little relationship stuff happening in this episode, though Dawson and Jen do have another one of their “What are we?” conversations, though this one nearly ends in them kissing, which makes no sense whatsoever. Ursula does mention that she has ESP and can tell that Dawson and Joey are in love, which is the one interesting thing that Ursula does this entire episode (she mostly just screams at stuff otherwise).
- This was the first of a handful of horror-themed episodes in Dawson's Creek's six season run, though the best one comes down the line in season five when Jen becomes a radio DJ and spooky things start happening. It's a true highlight of that season.
- Next week we find out whether or not the streaming rights to “On My Own” from Les Miserables were easy to clear!