Learning to die: 23 fictional schools that might kill you

Learning to die: 23 fictional schools that might kill you

Inventory. The book.

1. Unnamed English public school, If…. (1969)
At the end of a turbulent decade that found the counterculture revolution spreading around the world, Lindsay Anderson’s 1969 classic If…. represented a shocking call to anarchy. The action is set in an all-boys high school where the brutal power structure in greater England is enforced by the tacit rules governing the students. All the authority in the school belongs to the “Whips,” a group of privileged seniors who wield their power over the freshman “Scum” with sadistic glee. (For instance, the Scum have to warm their superiors’ toilet seats.) Nobody questions the system until mischievous rebel Malcolm McDowell and his two friends decide to go to war with the Whips and upend the rules of this society in miniature. The film’s most famous scene—still shocking 40 years later, considering Columbine and other school shootings—has McDowell and friends in sniper positions on the roof, blasting away at the people below. It’s unwise to take the mêlée at face value, but it remains potent as fantasy. 


2. Herrington High School, The Faculty (1998)
After working with director Wes Craven to put a self-referential spin on the slasher film with Scream, writer Kevin Williamson teamed up with Robert Rodriguez to do the same for Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. In fact, they made it really self-referential: The script references Jack Finney’s original short story by name. But there’s an added twist beyond characters who know the rules of the game: in The Faculty, the aliens first take over the bodies of Herrington High’s adult staffers (including Jon Stewart, Salma Hayek, and, in a Carrie homage, Piper Laurie), turning the ensuing battle against an alien takeover into a thinly coded confrontation between rebellious youth and soulless grown-ups. Everyone knows teachers try to crush kids’ spirits and indoctrinate them. This just takes it a step further.


3. Springwood High, the Nightmare On Elm Street series (1984-1991)
By all appearances, the fictional town of Springwood, Ohio has a perfectly adequate high school, filled with clean facilities and concerned teachers. But have you seen the boiler room? Or hung around the gym late at night? Then again, it isn’t just Springwood’s school system that has problems. The whole town suffers a collective punishment for its decision, years earlier, to exact vigilante justice on child murderer Freddy Krueger after he escaped punishment via a technicality. Now Krueger (memorably played by Robert Englund) haunts their children’s dreams, wherever those dreams might happen. That’s yet another reason to stay awake in class.


4. Tromaville High School, the Class Of Nuke Em High series (1986-1994)
When it comes to the “films” of tongue-in-cheek schlockmeisters Troma, memorably outrageous titles come first; everything else is a hazy afterthought. That’s the case with the franchise-starter Class Of Nuke Em High, a low-budget shocker that took a page from the Roger Corman handbook and combined a contemporary social issue with sleazy exploitation. In Class Of Nuke Em High, a Three Mile Island-style nuclear spill transforms the students of Tromaville High School from garden-variety freaks, geeks, and weirdoes into grotesque mutants. In Nuke ‘Em High, going to school can be bad for your health, if not downright fatal. (Nonetheless, two sequels followed. Perhaps lax Tromaville public-safety standards kept the school open?)


5. Skool, Invader Zim (2001-2003)
Say you’re a dim-witted, violent, spastic alien that’s been sent to Earth to suss out how the place works and soften it up for an invading armada. Where do you go for an education in all things Earthly? Why, to elementary school, naturally, especially since you’ll fit right in—it’s full of dim-witted, violent, spastic creatures much like yourself. (Some of them are even teachers.) Granted, the nameless “skool” in Invader Zim became a lot more dangerous when Zim the alien showed up, with his reckless disregard for “human wormbaby” lives, and penchant for stealing kids’ internal organs, testing their electrical conductivity, or turning them into human-bologna hybrids. But even before his arrival, it was a grim, surreally lethal place, with filth everywhere, teachers and students ranging from disturbed to insane, and a penchant for reducing class size by dropping surplus kids at random through trap doors into “the basement school.” (When one kid meekly asks if there’s really another school in the basement, he gets an indifferent shrug from his morbid, serpentine teacher, who doesn’t even care enough to keep up the pretense for that crucial extra three seconds.)


6. Unnamed California high school, Brick (2005)
In Rian Johnson’s John-Hughes-meets-Dashiell-Hammett pastiche, the normal humiliations of public schooling get translated into hardboiled cliché: the assistant principal becomes the humorless cop, the town drug dealer becomes a criminal mastermind, and the clever outcast becomes a world-weary private dick before he’s legally able to buy beer. It’s a great device for turning the embarrassments and miseries of adolescence into art, but there’s a cost for the students who inhabit those well-worn tropes, and in some cases, it’s fatal. Brick doesn’t have the highest body count in this Inventory, but its most important death casts a shadow over the lives of every other character, teaching a lesson that must be endlessly relearned. In this high school, allegiances can die when the lights go out, and not even the smartest play and the strongest gun are protection against what happens next.


7. Crowley High School, “Die Hand Die Verletzt,” The X-Files (1995)
There’s something suspicious about substitute teachers; they come in for a day or two, no one knows from where, and while there’s a lesson plan to follow, who’s to say they’ll follow it? The pleasant-faced spinster who steps in to cover biology might be just another maiden aunt with too much time on her hands, or she could be an agent of Satan himself, with the eyes and heart of a student tucked away in a desk drawer. Sadly, Mrs. Paddock isn’t the only thing the students of Crowley High School have to fear in “Die Hand Die Verletzt” (“The Hand That Wounds”), a second-season episode of The X-Files. Their own parents are responsible for inviting evil into town, engaging in demonic rituals and sacrifice during otherwise humdrum meetings of the PTC. While Mulder and Scully try catching up to a plot far darker than they’ll ever realize, the kids and the grown-ups drop like flies. Everyone knows high school is hell, but leave it to the grown-ups to make things literal.


8. Freiburg Dancing Academy, Suspiria (1977)
The life of an aspiring dancer is challenging; maintaining physical and mental control in an artform that demands perfection in every detail can’t be easy. So with all that focus, it’s forgivable that Jessica Harper didn’t have time to read the fine print before jetting off to Germany in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. There, she finds a dance academy with harsh teachers, blindingly colorful interiors, and a headmistress who just might be the queen of witches. Whatever the school’s reputation, it isn’t the ideal environment to prepare for The Red Shoes, even without the occasional rain of maggots falling on the student quarters. As is always the case with Argento, the story in Suspiria doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but that’s more than made up for by the art design, Goblin score, and deeply unsettling horror setpieces. Still, it’s hard to imagine a worse place to study dance; that room full of razor wire doesn’t exactly encourage movement.


9. Woodsboro High School, Scream (1996)
Being a teenager means knowing more than anybody else about everything. And what better way to show that than by knowing all the rules? The kids of Woodsboro High School in Wes Craven’s Scream are snarky, cynical, and well-versed in cinema. When the bodies start stacking up, the students decide the whole world is just another horror movie, and react accordingly, laying down the guidelines for slasher survival and mocking the twists like flesh-and-blood Statlers and Waldorfs. But all the sarcasm in the world won’t keep them safe. Given the scandals that haunt the town, Woodsboro High is just the best place for history to start repeating itself, only this time with costumes, gimmicks, and a lot more gore. Principal Henry Winkler isn’t even safe in his own office. The message is clear: This year’s senior class is too smart to care about anything. The only question is whether any of them will be left standing by graduation day. 

[pagebreak]10. Bates High School, Carrie (1976)
With a Hitchcock-referencing name like Bates, the high school in Stephen King’s Carrie might as well have adopted “There will be blood” as its motto. And blood there most definitely is: When emotionally abused, telekinetic protagonist Sissy Spacek has her first period after gym class at Bates, her peers mock her mercilessly. And even though one of the popular girls makes a single good-hearted attempt to do right by Spacek, a prom-night prank (in the form of a bucket of pig’s blood) turns the shindig into a wholesale schoolhouse slaughter. Note to bullies: Before picking on the class weirdo, make sure she doesn’t have massive untapped psychic potential.


11. Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry, the Harry Potter series (1997-2007)
There’s sure to be a fair amount of peril involved when a bunch of teenagers with magical powers are set loose in an enchanted castle full of hidden passages and ancient secrets. But the real danger at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry comes from being an acquaintance of Harry Potter, who spends his life in the crosshairs of the murderous wand of Lord Voldemort. As the most feared dark wizard of all time grows increasingly powerful throughout the Harry Potter series, the death count at Hogwarts—and in the wizarding world as a whole—grows ever higher. Starting in the series’ fourth volume with the casual murder of Cedric Diggory, and progressing through a climactic final battle in which several other students are maimed or killed, Hogwarts has seen its share of collateral damage in Voldemort’s quest to kill Harry Potter.


12. Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, The Wire (2006-2008)
While no one technically gets killed within the walls of Edward Tilghman Middle, the culture of violence that pervades the fictional West Baltimore school portrayed in the fourth season of The Wire suggests that such a fate could be just around the corner, particularly for snitches. Face-slashings, bathroom rape, and shrubs full of hidden weaponry are just some of the dangers facing the students at a school that’s supposed to be their one refuge from the perils of their brutal, drug-ravaged community. 


13. Neptune High, Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
Money, sex, and murder rule at Neptune High, and the Neptune Pirates are first-place champions every season. Neptune is also where Veronica Mars, teen detective/badass/marshmallow, spends the day when she isn’t tracking down who killed her best friend, took her virginity, or made that school bus crash into the ocean. Neptune offers an array of exciting extracurricular activities ranging from Mexican gang slayings to dating your own brother, but students are generally too busy accusing Mr. Rooks of rape or hiding a secret daughter to really commit. Luckily, Veronica Mars has the skills to solve all your shit, so you can go home to your movie-star father and his alcoholic trophy wife. Just try to get good grades so you don’t end up at Hearst College: There’s a sexual predator shaving girls’ heads over there. 


14. Camden College, The Rules Of Attraction (1987)
Though it’s merited a mention in every published work by Bret Easton Ellis (in addition to novels by Jonathan Lethem and Ellis’ fellow literary brat-packer Jill Eisenstadt), it’s Ellis’ darkly comic The Rules Of Attraction that establishes Camden College as a top-notch liberal-arts school with a reputation for pushing its privileged, alienated students over the edge. Not that they’re far from it to begin with—a freshman tries to top himself after he learns he’s adopted, while a co-ed slits her wrists in a public bath when her love letters to narcissistic drug dealer and (rock ’n’ roll major) Sean Bateman go unanswered. Meanwhile, weekend bacchanals like the Dress To Get Screwed party—reportedly based on actual hedonistic bashes at Ellis, Lethem, and Eisenstadt’s alma mater Bennington College, for which Camden serves as a poorly disguised stand-in—offer enough chemical and sexual-related opportunities for overindulgence to flatten an entire Delta House of John Belushis. It’s no safer off campus: The townies that supply the drugs are known to settle debts with machetes, and Bateman’s (potentially) psychopathic older brother Patrick is only a phone call and a few states away. 


15. Miskatonic University (various stories by H.P. Lovecraft and many followers)
Judging just from its reputation, Miskatonic is a desirable place to get a sheepskin. In fact, it’s a highly prestigious Ivy League school with a gorgeous campus, a stellar faculty, and one of the best-stocked libraries on the East Coast. It’s just that things go wrong there. The campus holds dark secrets, the faculty is drawn to disastrous expeditions, and the books in the library tend to make students go insane. Students and teachers from every department, from chemistry to political science, produce top-shelf research, but rack up a stunningly high body count in the process. (The Lake-Pabodie Expedition of 1931 alone wiped out a significant portion of the staff.) The only real upside is that if that Herbert West fellow in pre-med is to be believed, death doesn’t have to end your tenure at Miskatonic.


16. Shiroiwa Junior High, Battle Royale (1999)
Shiroiwa is no different from any school of its kind in Japan—except that its student body happens to be selected one year as the participants in “Battle Royale,” a game provided for by the Millennium Educational Reform Act. In this science-fiction dystopia (first a novel, then an acclaimed movie), high unemployment and rampant teen delinquency is dealt with by an annual contest where one group of young teens are shipped off to a remote island and forced to fight to the death until only one student is left. Some of the students are understandably hapless and terrified; others turn out to be surprisingly gifted at the art of murder. The result is a giddy, bizarrely satisfying fusion of a slasher film and Beverly Hills 90210, where one minute, the students are vowing to be friends forever no matter what, and the next, they’re mowing each other down with submachine guns.


17-18. Sunnydale High School and the University of California at Sunnydale, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Does Buffy Summers live in Sunnydale because it’s a nest of demonic activity, or is it a nest of demonic activity because Buffy Summers lives there? That’s the sort of chicken-and-egg question on which no one wants to bet their lives. In spite of their seeming gratitude for her existence, the students at Sunnydale High must have occasionally wished the Slayer was doing a better job; her four years there saw a student-body fatality at least once a week, and things didn’t get much better when she transferred to the closest branch of the state university system. (At least Buffy was trying, though, which is more than you can say for the over-21 segment of the population.) By the time she basically gave up on higher education—no doubt much to her classmates’ relief—the local population had dropped faster than that of the human fleet in Battlestar Galactica.


19. Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, Marvel Comics
Parents—even parents of mutants—can be very particular about the schools where they send their kids. If they find out that anything is amiss, especially at an expensive boarding school in upstate New York, they’re likely to raise hell. So it’s hard not to wonder why innumerable complaints weren’t lodged over the fact that the School For Gifted Youngsters run by wealthy educator Charles Xavier was constantly being attacked by supervillains, or that those caring parents’ tuition checks went to fund the “Danger Room,” a huge chamber filled with automated death-traps aimed at their precious kiddies. And at least once a semester, a lesser-known student would turn up dead. Maybe the fact that Xavier had incredible memory-erasing and mind-controlling powers had something to do with it. Or maybe he just had really good insurance.


20. Twin Peaks High School, Twin Peaks (1990-1992)
The town of Twin Peaks is pretty strange, so it’s no surprise that some of its pervasive weirdness rubs off on the local high school. While its body count doesn’t rival that of other schools on this list—at the series’ end, only one student, Laura Palmer, has died, albeit in a particularly gruesome way—death still shadows the school like the specter of a losing football season. Half the male students seem to be involved in a cocaine-smuggling operation led by former alum Leo Johnson, half the female students find part-time employment at a combination gambling den/whorehouse, and even seemingly good kids like James Hurley are liable to break out into bouts of cruel, random falsetto crooning.


21. “School” in the abstract, Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)
It’s another gloomy day in the conformist thought factory that is the British school system. First, your monstrous instructor—a leering sadist who takes the belt to his wife at home—mocks your anti-capitalist poetry in front of the whole class, even though it will become the biggest hit (“Money”) off one of the most popular albums ever produced (Dark Side Of The Moon). Then it’s off to some strange industrialized area, where you and your classmates do a creepy zombie-shuffle through the machine that turns you all into faceless conformists nailed to your school desks. And finally, after a group sing-along that serves as a testament to your groupthink and illiteracy (“We don’t need no education!”), your journey ends in the meat grinder, after which you’ll be offered to some other kid who can’t have his pudding if he doesn’t eat you first. And thus, the circle of life continues in the dystopian future imagined by a pseudo-profound concept album. 


22. Westerburg High School, Heathers (1988)
“Dear diary, my teen-angst bullshit has a body count,” Winona Ryder mourns to herself in the black comedy Heathers. “Are we going to prom, or to hell?” She’s upset because her new lover, good-lookin’-rebel-who-plays-by-his-own-rules Christian Slater, has managed to trick and manipulate her into murdering three of the popular kids on campus and forging their suicide notes. But she’s also unhappy to realize that murder really has solved some of her problems, not to mention that it’s created a cachet for suicide. Surely if the popular kids are all doing it, it’s gotta be cool, right? Which makes Westerburg High a particularly lethal place to spend the teen angst years. If Slater’s massive bomb plot doesn’t kill everyone there, the desire to fit in and follow the herd will take care of it for him. Or as Slater sarcastically puts it, when looking forward to Westerberg’s mass demise, “Now there’s a school that self-destructed, not because society didn't care, but because the school was society. Now that’s deep.”


23. University Of Toronto, Black Christmas (1974)
Years before making the holiday staple A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark shot a different sort of Christmas movie, the pioneering slasher film Black Christmas. Shot on location at the University Of Toronto, most of Black Christmas takes place off-campus at a sorority house where a drunken house mother and an incompetent, John Saxon-led police force provide shoddy protection against a demented thrill killer. The terror begins with a series of obscene phone calls, then escalates amid the thinning ranks of a cast that includes future SCTV favorite Andrea Martin, Margot Kidder, 2001’s Keir Dullea, and grown-up Romeo & Juliet star Olivia Hussey. This semester, someone is getting straight As… in murder! (Note to movie marketers: Want to buy that last sentence as a tagline for your horror movie? Contact The A.V. Club today.)