Ah, the Prom Horror Movie. The guiltiest of my guilty pleasures!
They’re so cheesy, so campy, so over-the-top and wonderfully bad, though not always. Some prom horror movies have unexpected depth and nuance, exploring (sometimes clumsily) the dynamics of high school and the pressures of being a teenager. Just like the high school horror movie, the prom horror movie fumbles towards peering at the dark underside of the high school experience as memorialized in high school’s forever hyped event.
It makes total sense that prom is a big deal. In high school, especially the closer to graduation they are, teenagers find themselves stuck in a weird, awkward limbo where they don’t have the rights and privileges of an adult but know enough to want them, where the responsibilities and obligations of adulthood loom on the horizon. The intense desire for agency, meaning, and purpose melds with teenagers’ immature assumptions that agency, meaning, and purpose can be found in one glitzy, epic night.
Of course, it rarely happens that way. Prom night is almost never the incredible, life-changing event that Hollywood movies would have you believe. Most of the time, you get all dressed up in your high school best and spend a few hours swaying on the dance floor or sitting at your table with your friends, wondering why your crush hasn’t noticed how awesome you look. And then a drunk junior pukes Malibu all over the dance floor, and you and your friends leave and go to Denny’s on the way to someone’s house to watch Donnie Darko and try to sneak beer out of the garage refrigerator.
That’s why I love prom horror movies—prom night is always an unmitigated disaster, a more truthful expression of the stressful situations and bad experiences that create the sense of agency, meaning, and purpose we all crave.
And so, here are my favorite prom horror movies, in all their campy glory.
The undisputed queen bee of the prom-school-horror-movie dance, Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic Carrie invented the prom school horror movie. It has inspired (read: been ripped off by) countless lesser teen horror movies and will be until the end of time.
And for good reason—Sissy Spacek is heartbreaking as the titular character, trying to navigate the perils of high school and mean girl types while dealing with a religious psychopath for a mother. All she wants is to be free to fit in, the explore herself, and not be bullied or abused while doing it. Unlike so many teen horror movies, Carrie has real substance to it and speaks to the alienation, confusion, and isolation that so many teenagers yearn for in their high school years.
Also, the iconic climax where Carrie finally snaps and retaliates against the town is hellishly epic.
Prom Night (1980)
I could say that Prom Night is a lesser version of Carrie, Halloween, and Saturday Night Fever combined, and it is, but I don’t think that fully captures just how cheesy and hilariously bad the movie is. It is a cult classic for a reason.
Where do I start? The nonsensical bullying scene that resulted in a girl’s death and a childhood pact to keep it secret? The cringey 70s-ness of the cast’s hair and costume choices? The random pot dealer and his sex van? The 45-year old Neanderthal who has somehow enrolled in the high school without tipping anyone off and who assaults Jamie Lee Curtis every chance he gets? The DELIGHTFUL disco dance sequences? The masked murderer who decides that prom is a great place to exact revenge? The fact that Jamie Lee Curtis agreed to be in this movie?
Most importantly, Prom Night fails to deliver the prom horror movie scares we all want. Some parts are effective, like the scene in the high school’s mechanic shop, but the rest of the movie is not scary. At all.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
I don’t know about you, but prom never really lived up to the hype for me. That’s especially true for my senior prom when my boyfriend at the time didn’t want to go because he was in college (in the same town) and instead made me go with his friend who proceeded to hit on me the whole night even after I told him to stop.
But I have to say; there is just nothing worse than becoming a legendary vampire slayer, losing all your popular friends because you can’t juggle vampire-slaying with high school drama, then making out with a “rebel” Luke Perry at prom before vampires crash it. Damn it! You did not wear the right shoes to kill a bunch of vampires!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite prom horror movies because it’s fun, sarcastic, and has vampires in it. It’s also a cheesy but entertaining coming-of-age story, where a formally shallow cheerleader learns there’s more to life than high school drama. Buffy undercuts the significance of prom even as it marks the film’s climax. What better way to explore her newfound responsibilities and obligations than at the senior prom, a sacred rite of high school that transforms teenagers into something not quite adult, but no longer childlike?
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Talk about the worst prom night ever! This movie is notorious in the way only a Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie can be, which is to say it’s filled with teenagers who ditch the prom, chainsaw-filled chase sequences, a criminally insane white trash family, gnarly violence, and more camp and scene-chewing than you can shake a corpse at.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation might be the most ridiculous and crazy movie on this list. The film is famous for its pre-stardom performances from Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, who are surprisingly good and enjoy great chemistry. Zellweger is a fierce heroine, and McConaughey is enjoying his role as a terrifying psychopath. However, Leatherface himself is the film’s weakness, who screams and wrings his hands more than he scares. He’s also portrayed as wearing the skin of female victims in a seriously problematic and transphobic development. And then there’s the whole thing with an Illuminati subplot…seriously. As far as prom horror movies go, this one will have you constantly asking, “What the f***?”
Dance of the Dead (2008)
It’s strange to me that there aren’t more zombie movies set at the prom since the high school environment is rife with material that lends itself to zombie movies. But so far, only Dance of the Dead has given us an enjoyable (albeit not groundbreaking) zombie prom horror movie. And it takes advantage of as many high school movie tropes as possible.
There’s the rag-tag group of high school archetypes, including the Good Girl, the Hot Girl, the Loser, the Psychopath, and The Geeks, leading the charge against the zombie horde. There’s a drunken principal, a bitter biology teacher, and an ex-military gym teacher with an illegal arsenal in his garage (of course). From the graveyard make-out spot to the streets of suburbia to the high school gym, Dance of the Dead delivers fun and gruesome zombie kills.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever is probably one of the most disgusting movies I’ve watched in recent memory, and it doesn’t succeed with any kind of character development or creative plotting or anything like that. All that said, however, it was a super cheesy, nasty, and entertaining prom horror movie. It turns out its ridiculousness somewhat works in its favor.
Do not go into the film thinking it’s going to be, like, groundbreaking horror. Cabin Fever 2 is committed to one thing: making a prom as gross as possible, and it does just that. It crams in as many awful, sexist, tired high school tropes, body horror gross-outs, and weird jokes as possible. It also tries to fit in as many references to other prom horror movies as possible, as well as a misplaced Twin Peaks reference in the beginning (I laughed).
Cabin Fever 2 is a great bad movie, perfect for disgusting all your friends.
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Prom is supposed to be a fun time to get dressed up and hang out with your friends, but we all know that prom can also highlight the cracks in certain friendships and create tension between frenemies.
Take Jennifer’s Body, a witty and uncomfortable dissection of female “friendships” that are built on unhealthy competition, insecurity, belittling each other. In this prom horror movie, the friendship of Jennifer and Needy is sustained by their toxic, co-dependent dynamic. Everything is fine for a while—Jennifer gets validation from Needy by being the hot, mean friend, and Needy receives validation from Jennifer by being in the close orbit of a beautiful, seemingly confident girl. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially once Jennifer becomes possessed by a succubus and Needy begins to pull away from Jennifer. And how does Jennifer repay her? By going after Needy’s boyfriend at the spring formal like a total soul-sucking bitch.
Of course, there’s more to Jennifer and Needy’s conflict than boys, which is why I love Jennifer’s Body. Too often, prom is not the fun, glam night we all insist it is. Sometimes, it’s a sad, passive-aggressive airing of grievances and old wounds.
The Loved Ones (2009)
This might not technically be a prom horror movie since Australia doesn’t really do prom the way we Americans do it. However, the dance in question in The Loved Ones is an “End of School Dance,” so I’ll allow it.
The Loved Ones has earned its place in the prom horror movie pantheon for one simple reason—the character of Lola, a spoiled, demented nightmare who kidnaps and tortures the young men who reject her advances. As far as movie villains go, what Lola lacks in nuanced character development she makes up for in a monstrous depiction of twisted puppy love and entitlement. The Loved Ones is a provocative take on teenage infatuation and obsession.
Fair warning: The Loved Ones is gruesome, the kind of horror movie that’s less scary and more about creating apprehension due to impending violent acts.
Tragedy Girls (2017)
Sometimes, I’m thrilled I didn’t go to high school when social media was a big deal. Prom was enough petty drama without people snapping and ‘gramming it to death. People used prom as evidence of their own self-worth and importance without having to splash every aspect of it across the internet. I’m exhausted just thinking about it (and get off my lawn!)
Tragedy Girls takes the tiresome, shallow aspects of social media and brings it to a violent, disturbing conclusion, where two high school friends start murdering acquaintances in their small town and blame it on a serial killer to gain internet fame and hundreds of thousands of followers. The worst part is that their vapid, murderous plan actually works because apparently everyone in that town is too stupid to see that the girls clearly benefit from those highly suspicious murders.
All of this comes to a fiery end at prom, because if you’re really going to try for Influencer-level status, you need to think big.
Which prom horror movie is your favorite, Internet?