One of my guiltiest pleasures is the high school horror movie. I can’t get enough of the cheesy teenaged angst, bad acting, and messy murders on school property. Masked maniacs, fleeing cheerleaders, shady teachers, and terrible secrets are all hallmarks of this horror subgenre that just won’t seem to die. It appears that, despite how boring we thought high school was, the high school horror movie strikes a chord over and over again.
I think it must have something to do with the fact that school dominates our early lives. The vast majority of my life before I turned 18 was spent either in school or savoring time away from school (and that’s not even addressing college afterward). Most of my waking moments during those years were spent either in class, working on homework, or hanging out with my friends. It’s where I honed my athletic and artistic skills. School molded my life, and its impact will continue throughout my adult years.
It’s not surprising that the modern experience of school would spawn a vast swath of horror movies. School is a complicated place, and the stakes feel high. Considering the amount of personal and social development one experiences in high school, a lot of it troublesome or even traumatic, there is potent material to mine.
And so, I decided that I should take a closer look at these eleven high school horror movies. They may be hilariously cheesy, but these movies provide some real insight into the high school experience.
There was no way I wouldn’t include this movie on a back-to-school horror movie list. It’s the original high school horror movie, examining how the students themselves can be the main reason why high school sucks. And not all cruelty is the same. There was the bratty bitch, struggling to exert her dominance over the social scene, who decided to viciously degrade Carrie in front of everyone. There was her second-in-command, a girl who bullied Carrie but could no longer ignore her conscience. Countless other kids were perfectly content to ignore Carrie and join in on tormenting her when it was “fun.”
And there was Carrie herself, the painfully awkward girl, isolated from her classmates by and horrible parent and desperate to fit in. After a lifetime of being hurt and ostracized and bullied, she ended up the cruelest of them all, though no one can judge her for finally snapping.
There’s so much in Carrie that dredges up the more unpleasant parts of high school. If you were awkward in high school, Carrie can be an excruciating reminder of how awful high school could be, especially with puberty and family drama thrown into the mix. And if you were more like a bully in high school, Carrie could serve as a haunting reminder of your own terrible behavior and its consequences.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
The TV show gets all the attention, which is deserved. This movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nowhere as good as the show and doesn’t even touch the amount of depth and nuance of the show, but the movie is simply delightful. As origin stories go, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an exercise in early 90s camp (seriously, how did Donald Sutherland end up in this movie?). But it shows a part of Buffy’s past that is only touched upon in the show; namely, how she went from vapid cheerleader to humanity’s only weapon against all the forces of darkness. It also shows how life can change in an instant, and how what could be important in high school often falls by the wayside.
Like the show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s strengths have always been about how kids grow up, how they become adults. High school marks the last hurrah in a way because even though college is still not full adulthood, it’s the first time the majority of teenagers are on their own with a bunch of brand new responsibilities. Some shit just isn’t relevant anymore, right? It may not be important, like defeating vampires and saving the world important, but petty drama and the prom are only important for so long. You grow out of it. It’s inevitable and bittersweet. No matter how adulthood comes knocking, you won’t be the same afterward.
There’s no way I would leave this movie off my Back To School Horror list! If high school slashers were represented by the high school hierarchy, Scream would be in the popular kid clique. Largely credited as the movie that revived the slasher genre in the 90s, Scream combines snarky humor, creative horror moments, and some genuinely messed-up character motivations.
A lot of Wes Craven’s work has focused on themes of helplessness—how teenagers are helpless to overcome dangerous situations or to avoid falling prey to sinister forces. Think Nightmare on Elm Street and The People Under the Stairs. In Scream, the teenagers are mainly on their own, with parents absent for whatever reason. They may be growing up, but they can’t totally protect themselves, a narrative element that mirrors the high school experience all too well.
More specifically, Scream takes all the terrible parts about high school—the high school rumor mill, being pressured for sex, and cruel immaturity—and makes it even worse. Wes Craven’s knack for horror takes all of those relatively normal (though messed-up) high school pressures and grounds them in the sick, misogynistic game the killers play. It’s a strong reminder that even though high school will end someday, the horrible aspects of high school can have real and destructive effects on a person.
The Craft (1996)
The Craft is my favorite movie on this list. Most girls at my school loved this movie because a) Nancy, Bonnie, Rochelle, and Sarah, looked freakin’ cool, b) they were witches, and c) it was a “scary” movie that was rated only PG-13, which meant it was much easier to rent for slumber parties.
Even though the girls were outsiders, they found a way to rise above their problems (if only for a short time). I think most girls felt drawn to these powerful young women, especially during a time of uncertainty and change, when all of us were beginning to experience puberty and the first pangs of growing up. Even the popular girls felt insecure and weak. Even the girls who seemed to have perfect lives weren’t so sure things were going to be ok.
Personally, the Craft has always struck a chord with me because I was never a popular cool girl in school, but I wasn’t a total outcast. I was just part of the fray, but I often felt like a total outcast for some of my interests and hobbies. The Craft spoke to me, especially after dealing with a lot of personal family issues from middle school all the way into high school and then having to swallow all of that to focus on studying and extracurriculars and navigating the social scene. Add in my burgeoning weirdness, and I often felt so alone. Because not everyone overcomes the difficulty of their teenage years, least of all me, The Craft still speaks to me.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
I’m aware that this movie doesn’t take place during high school. But as we all know, high school’s effects go well beyond graduation, especially as it concerns the relationships and friendships we had.
Like any human relationship, high school friendships can be fraught with dysfunction while also providing a meaningful support network. This is especially true in I Know What You Did Last Summer, where four friends who don’t seem to like each other are bound together by a deadly car accident. The accident exposes all the cracks in their friendship, including fierce peer pressure, overbearing group dynamics, and loads of manipulation.
Watching this movie, I can’t help but recall my high school relationships. I realize I can’t remember why I was friends with some people. I can’t remember why I no longer talk to people I had a genuine connection with. Was our friendship about convenience and proximity? Or did we all just grow up and grow out of each other?
It’s hard to confront the fact that your high school friends will probably not be your lifelong friends, that your tribe will one day disband. While that’s a painful truth full of bittersweet memories, just imagine how terrible it would be if your high school group were bound together by a murder?
The Faculty (1998)
Honestly, I love The Faculty. It’s got some solid scares, gross-outs, a stellar cast, the right amount of self-awareness, and a very cool premise. I’ve always thought of The Faculty as The Breakfast Club meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which makes for an excellent, inventive high school horror movie. What else but an alien invasion could make the popular bitchy girl, the quarterback of the football team, a freshman nerd, the scary loner girl, the cute new girl, and the resident drug dealer band together? They even looked past Josh Hartnett’s tragic bowl cut, that’s how dangerous the threat was.
Cool premise and impressive gross-outs aside, I liked how The Faculty framed the school as hell for students and teachers alike. This school from the film is one of the most depressing represented on this list, where everyone is unhappy and act like huge jerks to each other. The movie does a pretty good job of exploring the isolation teenagers feel and the ways they lash out to protect themselves. It also does an excellent job hashing out how teachers experience crushing insecurity, which a person can only take for so long. But not everyone acts on those feelings or is manipulated by aliens to act out, thank goodness.
Battle Royale (2000)
This movie is another obvious addition to my back-to-school horror list, but that doesn’t mean it’s not awesome. A whole class of Japanese high schoolers transported to a deserted island and told to kill each other off until a single survivor remains? That is a brutal and rather elegant premise, one that directly confronts the ultra-competitive Japanese educational system. (There’s also a biting critique of the way older generations always blame the younger generation for societal problems.) Equal parts horrific and depressing, with added dashes of humor, Battle Royale is hands down the most violent, savage film on this list.
But to say that Battle Royale is solely a satire of the Japanese education system is not the whole story. Battle Royale is way more involved than you think, trading in all the high school drama that seems like a life or death situation at the time. Only in this movie, flirting with that other girl’s boyfriend might make her so mad she’ll want to kill you, literally. Or being a creep to your crush might give her the perfect excuse to stab you to death.
Cherry Falls (2000)
Y’all, this movie is dark! As far as high school horror movies go, Cherry Falls pulls no punches.
It starts off as a sharply critical (though not as smart as it wants) criticism of gender roles and the way budding sexuality is handled in high school. As in, not well. Every single student seems obsessed with sex—who is having it, who isn’t, who is a slut, who is a virgin, and who is lying about all of it. It’s not long before a depraved serial killer starts carving up virgins, making the students become even more sex-crazed than normal.
But then it takes a HARD LEFT into HOLY SHIT territory when protagonist Jody finds out that her dad participated in a gang rape twenty-five years ago. The same dad who taught her self-defense moves to ward off rapists. The same dad who is now the sheriff of Cherry Falls. The same dad who has contributed to the serial killer’s madness.
Cherry Falls is a disturbing look at rape culture and how it protects perpetrators, especially if they are handsome young men on the football team and from “good families.” And especially in light of a dense, insular community that rallies around those men to protect them and itself. It speaks to the fucked-up priorities that are incentivized and rewarded in high school. Unfortunately, too many young women learn that they are conquests in the worst meaning of the word.
The Covenant (2006)
Full disclosure: The Covenant is not a good movie, though it is a highly entertaining movie about a bunch of boys who inherit magical power from their witch ancestors once they reach puberty. We don’t have enough high school horror movies about witches, ok?
Now, do not, for one second, think this is the Craft, but for boys. A) The Covenant is not as good as The Craft, and, B) the witches in The Covenant are not social outcasts or struggling with overwhelmingly hurtful personal problems. No, the boys of The Covenant are in a position of extreme privilege for the entire movie. If anything, this movie is more a witchy Mean Girls, but with boys.
Like the worst, most douchey rich kids or jerky jocks you knew growing up, the boys of The Covenant use their wealth, privilege, and powers to wreak havoc and score chicks. Their whole families are involved in the scheme, which is a simple but effective metaphor for generations of inherited wealth and power. The only real rules are how far they should push their power on others and if they should ever use it against each other. The stranglehold of the privileged few is the ultimate resource and is ruthlessly guarded, even against other rich white dudes.
I wish this movie were better. It could have been edgy, but instead, it upholds the status quo. It’s due for a remake.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
We don’t have a horror version of Mean Girls, but at least we have Jennifer’s Body. Friendships are never totally pure. This can be especially true in high school, where the social ladder seems to be of the utmost importance, and when we discover new vulnerabilities and strengths every day. The heady mix of insecurity, immaturity, and new challenges of growing older can turn otherwise innocent friendships into toxic traps.
Jennifer’s Body touches on depressingly real themes, hitting buttons that most girls know about but would rather not acknowledge. Not every female friendship descends into condescension and manipulation, but I’d bet money that most girls have had that unfortunate experience, regardless of what side they were on.
The worst part is that, as Jennifer’s Body points out, both halves of the doomed friendship didn’t create the conflict, though they did exacerbate it. They were both fall victim to outside forces beyond their control. Ultimately, they don’t have the maturity or strength to avoid danger when it presented itself. They become angry, defensive, and distrustful, not that anyone can blame them for their confusion and desperation. It’s something hurtful and somewhat tragic, but it happens to be an almost unavoidable part of growing up.
The Moth Diaries (2011)
As in Jennifer’s Body, one of the worst parts about life, in general, is making friends and then growing out of those friendships. A dying friendship that can’t be saved is heartbreaking and can lead young people to act in possessive and destructive ways. The Moth Diaries, an ethereal and haunting high school horror film set at an all-girls school, explores the specific insecurity of a young woman, struggling with personal tragedy and failing to navigate the way people change as they get older.
I loved this book, and I loved the film adaptation, directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho). Friendships, like any human relationship, can fall prey to jealousy and possessiveness. Sometimes it feels like female friendships can be full of both vulnerability and mistrust. High school can feel like an island. It can be lonely, and so a friend can be the most valuable thing you can have. And losing a friend, especially if you’re having a hard time in school, especially if that’s your only friend, can be devastating.
Is she going crazy, with the loss of her friend pushing her further into her madness? Or is Ernessa a monster, the ultimate mean girl here to steal her one true friend? Whatever the truth, rejection can happen outside of romantic relationships, and it can hurt just as badly.
What do you think? Are there any other high school horror movies that particularly captured the high school experience?