Somewhere, a school bell is ringing. The doors are open, the classrooms ready, but the halls are empty.
Funny how it takes a pandemic and a general feeling that Armageddon has its hand in our pockets to make us wax poetic about going back to school. I was a good student, but I hated school the way Leah Remini despises Scientology. Mornings, I wished for some disease that would keep me home (and got that wish in senior year when I came down with mono that had me bedridden for months). In class, I prayed the fire alarm would go off and this time it wouldn’t be a false alarm. Having to stop playing Wiffle ball or street football after school so I could get my homework done was like asking me to hack my legs off with a rusty, blunt shovel.
My high school was an all-boys Catholic academy. There was no joy in Mudville. Think a quasi-controlled Lord of the Flies with robed brothers doling out haircut and shave checks. The only bright spark each day was knowing I had to pass by the all-girls Catholic high school on my walk home from the bus. Many is the time I had a nun chase me out of those mysterious, hallowed halls for trying to sneak a romantic tryst with a be-skirtted co-ed.
It’s no wonder I was so attracted to what I call the “horror high” movies of the ’80s when I went to the video store. There were standards — my own — for a movie to be considered horror high. There had to be an entirely subjective number of scenes in an actual high school. The budget had to be low. The good looking girls quotient high. The kills bloody or at least interesting. It was, admittedly, a very low bar.
My utter dislike of school (and quite a few of the schmucks I called classmates) got a little bit o’ purging every time I rented Return to Horror High or Graduation Day. Anything that showed the utter destruction of the institution and people who made my life a living hell was all right in my book. To be honest, I think that’s why horror fans are probably the most docile people you’ll ever meet. We get that shit out in our movies and books and art. Be wary of the so called smiling normies who are always quick to say, “Oh, I don’t like horror.” That son of a bitch will knife you in the throat when you least expect it.
On the flip side, I also loved what one reviewer called “tits-n-zits” horny teen movies like Porky’s, Hard Bodies and Hot Dog…The Movie. These were staples in the movie theater and video store back in the day. Best part was, I could rent them without having to go through those squeaky western saloon doors that announced to everyone, “Hey, there’s an underage degenerate in the porn room!” Those hormones of mine needed an outlet that lasted longer than a quick kiss and maybe, just maybe, a one-second copped feel of Mary Grant (name changed, of course) in back of the high school. Let’s be honest, we watched those movies so we could see naked girls and dudes who were supposed to be our age but looked like our fathers acting more immature than we did. Kinda gave us an air of superiority in a time when we felt like square pegs in round holes filled with dog shit.
Horror high flicks for the most part gave me a channel for my angst AND naked girls. That, for my teenage self, was my PB&J, my chocolate and peanut butter, my Peaches and Herb. I came for the VHS covers and stayed for the bare-naked carnage.
Take Prom Night for example. Our video store had the cover with the person wearing a black ski mask, holding a jagged knife. In the knife’s reflection was a terrified girl hanging upside down. The tagline read: If you’re not back by midnight…you’re not coming home. Sign me up! The movie isn’t perfect, but it’s worth it just to see Jamie Lee Curtis get up and boogie on the disco dance floor. Bet she got those moves from late nights at Studio 54. And it had a pretty cool twist ending, not to mention all of the wicked kills we expected in our horror movies.
Luckily, on my own prom night, I was home by about seven in the morning and we all survived. Though I did threaten to kick an as yet unknown Colin Quinn’s ass when he was on stage hitting on my girlfriend. He didn’t appreciate my going for him on the stage, of course, and we were escorted out of the comedy club. No blood was spilled. Just boiled.
Another uneven yet personal favorite was Slaughter High. I really dug the tagline: Marty majored in cutting classmates. We had a couple of potential Martys in our class (who later became known as Jeremys thanks to Pearl Jam) and I personally steered clear the fuck away from them. I remember taking the public bus home with a Marty who confided to me that he wanted to kill his mother. I have no recollection of what I said, but I do remember wondering why the hell he was telling me, a veritable stranger, such a thing. The kid was weird and flipped me out. By the time I sauntered by the girl’s school minutes later, it was forgotten, smothered in the scent of berry lip gloss and the sight of knee-high socks and short plaid skirts.
In Slaughter High, we get the uber-beautiful Caroline Munro attending a high school reunion of sorts in the old, now -abandoned school. Couple of lessons in this one. Be careful who you bully (a common theme that runs all throughout horror high movies) and just walk away if your high school reunion is in anything less than a decent restaurant. I drooled over Caroline Munro back then, renting the movie over and over. Now that I think about it, she’s just about my mother’s age. That Marty in my school wanted to kill his mom. Does this mean I wanted to…
I can’t go there.
It’s funny, A Nightmare on Elm Street has all the elements to make it a horror high movie, but back then, I think I kept it out of the category because it was so well made and had a standout bad guy who wasn’t just a pissed off teen or the grown version of the maligned nerd. One might be tempted to add The House on Sorority Row, but remember, they were in college. Too old to slip into horror high. For a kid who was all about breaking the rules, I sure had enough of my own to follow.
Other horror high movies included Student Bodies, Happy Birthday to Me and Slumber Party Massacre. A higher-class version of horror high came about in the nineties with entries like The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Faculty. Though all are wonderful, they’re a little too pretty, too professional to be true horror high. In every respect, they are better than their ’80s counterparts, but I get more joy from, as Shudder calls them, slashics. It might be just a nostalgia thing. Or maybe there was just a raw, unrefined energy running through the ’80s that still grabs me by the throat today.
I like my horror high down and dirty, gritty and grisly. That lack of spit and polish is the same magic ingredient that separates the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre from all of its glossier follow up movies. Maybe in this new so-called enlightened age, horror high flicks are deemed unworthy at best and a cause for outrage and a hashtag or three at worst. Oh well. I’ll dig them until they box me up. Sometimes, it’s great to be a dinosaur.
In the immortal words of David Lee Roth, “Class dismissed!”
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.