Let’s Brush Up on Classic Sorority Horror for Scream Queens
October is that special time of year when all the weirdos come out to play. And by that yes we do mean the casts of various Ryan Murphy shows! For the past four years, autumn among the rated-R set has belonged to American Horror Story, but this year Murphy is doubling down with his network successor to Glee in the form of Scream Queens. It centers on the Kappa Kappa Gamma house at Wallace University as it is terrorized by a masked killer. Series creator Murphy described the show as “Halloween meets Heathers” at Comic-Con International this summer, and while that is true, it’s not the whole story. There’s so much more to Sorority Horror.
To say Scream Queens is merely a long-form slashfest with Ryan Murphy DNA is to overlook its place in the under-appreciated but venerable subset of scary cinema devoted to all the gruesome things that can befall women living the Panhellenic life. Starting with Black Christmas in 1974, the sorority house proved an ideal staging ground for haunted house horror. Coeds! Confined spaces! The unbreakable bonds of sisterhood forcing girls to keep each other emotionally hostage with Deadly Secrets! Oh, the possibilities!
In an effort to better understand what brought us to Scream Queens, premiering tonight on Fox, we binge-watched every Sorority Horror movie we could find, which came to 21 movies in six days. The list was longer at the beginning, but some amendments were necessary to establish the canon. The Hazing from 1977, if you come upon it, is actually Fraternity Horror, and Night of the Creeps is really more of a collegiate alien invasion movie (which also can be said of Decoys from 2004 and Decoys: The Second Seduction, its 2007 follow-up). If you’re a Jamie Lee Curtis fan (she’ll be playing a bitter college dean named Cathy Munsch in Scream Queens), be sure to check out 1980’s Terror Train, but as far as genres go it’s more of an isolation horror experience with fraternity roots. There’s also the 2004 movie Butchered, which came up in our search for sorority candidates, but actually revolves around a group of friends about to leave for college. So, not part of our calculus here.
And, full disclosure, there a few features proved too elusive. The 2000s are a surprisingly prolific time for Sorority Horror—probably because anyone with a phone can make a movie—and some of them are stupid hard to find, even with streaming services. They are: Delta Delta Die from 2003,The Hazing (alternately titled Dead Scared) and Decoys, both from 2004. If you’re keeping score at home that means the data set is 21 movies out of a possible 23. So let us now look at the road map that lead us from a terrifyingly Black Christmas to Ryan Murphy’s latest ode to blood and sass.
Making the Rules, Establishing the Tropes: 1974-1980
Black Christmas is a classic, and though it may be the best horror movie ever set against a Greek backdrop, it is but a precursor to what eventually would be classified as Sorority Horror. The very low-budget Sisters of Death (1977) did far more to establish the tropes that would define the subgenre, even if it was a messy effort: A Deadly Secret, High Stakes Hazing (with pagan ritual elements), Oaths That Go to the Grave and, most importantly, the Head Bitch In Charge with a Master Plan. The HBIC with a mean-spirited or ill-conceived plan that spins out of control is central to setting a Sorority Horror movie apart from general slasher fare. Black Christmas lacked the HBIC, which is a major reason why it only very loosely fits with the pack.
A knock against Sisters is that it doesn’t take place in a sorority house, but a suitably static alternate location. If you want a movie that revolves around the seedy underbelly of Panhellenic life, then look to the 1978 ABC TV movie The Initiation of Sarah, which put the sorority sisters back on campus and brought along stars like Morgan Fairchild and Shelley Winters for serious legitimacy. Besides bringing it back to the house itself, Sarah has the double distinction of introducing the House Mom figure and some supernatural elements into the Sorority Horror sphere. Dalliances with the dark arts would become a recurring theme in Sorority Horror, and it all started with this Carrie-goes-to-college tale of two warring houses at Waltham College, with Fairchild setting the gold standard for the HBIC. Worth noting: The titular Sarah is a psych major, which is the only major ever attached to a Sorority Horror protagonist. Otherwise, their studies are either inconsequential and therefore never named, or they’re explicitly identified as psych students. Go figure.
The Group Showers and Ultimate Mean Girls Era: 1980-1990
After the groundwork was laid in the late 1970s, the 1980s, of course, defined Sorority Horror as it exists in the popular consciousness, because no other decade so gleefully puddle-jumped in exploitative blood and gore and nudity. The Initiation (1984) put a slightly glossier sheen on the genre, utilizing arguably the best Killer With a Motive twist we’ve seen in 40 the genre and landing actress Vera Miles. (Scoring a former Hitchcock Blonde for your coed slasher is no small thing!) Initiation also unveiled the popular ’80s device of group showering, because what are girls doing in large groups if they’re not getting hammered in tiny lace lingerie or showering together? (The answer to that is witchcraft, but more on that later.)
But 1986’s Sorority House Massacre is the movie most likely to conjure the classic Sorority Horror experience. It’s got the right name. It’s set entirely within the sorority house and is so low-budget that a boom mic drops into a scene (keep an eye out for the same tech cameo in Sisters of Death). There’s pointless nudity, a House Mom leaving her charges for the weekend, an escaped mental patient (this element debuted in The Initiation but was used to greater effect in Massacre) and both the house and the protagonist have Deadly Secrets in their pasts. If you’re setting up a Best of Bad Horror film festival in your living room, this one is a must, and a crucial entry in the Sorority canon.
Like almost every element of horror culture in the 1980s, Sorority Horror existed entirely on the surface. Social commentary was low and the thrills came cheap, but it sure was fun. To round out your 1980s Sorority Horror filmography, see the Linda Blair special Hell Night, Sorority Beach Babes in the Slime Bowl-O-Rama (no beaches or slime, but it does pioneer the use of demonic possession!), Killer Party (even better use of possession), and The House on Sorority Row. House on Sorority Row is a highlight of the canon and an excellent example of both the crazed House Mom—a rare but wonderful treat—and the HBIC with a plan that falls apart, thereby forcing everyone to keep a Deadly Secret that puts them in mortal danger. Sorry, though, no group showering.
The Arrival of Minority Characters, Social Messaging, and Lots More Sci-Fi: 2000-Present
Despite being a venerable subgenre by the close of the ’80s, the 1990s were a fallow period. After Sorority House Massacre II in 1990, nothing popped up again until 2003’s Delta Delta Die. This is one of the few we weren’t able to watch, but some cursory investigating reveals it is the only Sorority Horror movie to feature cannibalism. After a 14-year drought, it’s nice to know the genre came rushing back with a bold new idea.
It’s also been a prolific period. Thirteen sorority-centric horror films have been made in the past 12 years, giving rise to set of really, really bad movies that still managed to contribute to the genre in meaningful ways. The 2006 remake of The Initiation of Sarah was the first to feature a sorority sister of color in a meaningful role, and quite possibly the first who was visible in any way.
As a remake, it’s also a great example of how the movies have tamed themselves. Yes, the gore has gotten gorier and the special effects have gotten [slightly] more special, but the mean spirit that coursed through Morgan Fairchild’s HBIC character (named Jennifer Lawrence) in the 1978 original was exponentially crueler than her counterpart in the remake. Both were ABC television movies, but the ways in which Sarah was persecuted decades ago were sickening. Watching it now makes you feel truly awful. The on-screen sorority bullies of the 1970s and ’80s, an era when hazing was not only fashionable but legal in Greek houses, were heartless, evil bitches. Full stop. Thankfully in the new millennium they either have more nuance to their personalities, making them at least semi-redeemable, or they are just actual witches. And witches are supposed to be evil, so that makes it OK.
Oh and speaking of supernatural and the occult, the 2000s have been great for Sorority Horror fans who love sci-fi and fantasy! The villains in 2005’s Insecticidal were gigantic bugs accidentally created by one of the sisters. And worth mentioning, it’s the only movie in 40 years to feature a lesbian character. Initiation from 2006 was filled with witches, and so was Alpha Girls from 2013. The Haunting of Sorority Row from 2007, with the first and only protagonist of color, and Haunted House On Sorority Row from 2014 both get the job done if you’re in the mood for ghosts and vengeful spirits. Interestingly, Haunted House also is the most feminist movie of the bunch, with positive messaging about sororities as service organizations and being a survivor of sexual abuse. Yeah, we didn’t see that coming either, especially since its production value was among the worst we saw.
Most of all of these movies veer into C-, if not D-level cinema, with The Sleeper and Die Die Delta Pi being additional examples that are fun if you have the proper constitution, but are torturous for the average person. But because it’s the 2000s, there are remakes to consider! The same year ABC revived Initiation of Sarah, Black Christmas was pulled from the archives to deliver more blood and brutality than its predecessor could get away with in 1974. It was a who’s who of 2006 It Girls like Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Katie Cassidy, Lacey Chabert, and Michelle Trachtenberg. Yes, please!
And here’s a fun fact for you: The house in Black Christmas ’06 is Delta Alpha Kappa, making it part of what we’re going to call the proud Alpha Delta Theta tradition. Besides the original Christmas from ’74, every house in the Sorority Horror genre that discloses its letters incorporates either Alpha, Delta, or Theta in its name, with Delta showing up in nine out of 19 possible situations and being the only letter to rise to the prestige of title status (Delta Delta Die and Die Die Delta Pi). We do this for the little things.
But the one ring to rule them all is the 2009 remake of The House on Sorority Row, efficiently titled Sorority Row. While the original Black Christmas might be the best movie in the Sorority Horror set, Sorority Row is the best all-out slasher. It’s got tons of dark humor that is genuinely funny. It’s got all your favorite character stereotypes from the 1980s (the Girl of Loose Morals is actually nicknamed “Chugs”). It’s got group showering, a highly motivated killer, a deadly prank that binds the sisters together even as it tears them apart, multiple raging house parties, and a kick-ass House Mom in the form of Carrie Fisher with a shotgun! In short: This movie has everything.
The Scream Queens Era: Present Day
And so, after 40 years of a few hits and more than a few misses, we arrive at Scream Queens, with which Ryan Murphy will put his mark on the genre in the most 2015 way possible: by turning it into a TV show! We know we’ll have a masterful HBIC in the form of Kappa Kappa Gamma’s leader, Chanel Oberlin (played by TV’s current bad girl du jour, Emma Roberts). We know there will be a Deadly Secret kept under a Till the Grave Oath that puts everyone in danger. And since it’s Murphy, we can be damn sure there’s plenty of High Stakes Hazing.
If anyone can turn the short shelf life of slasher horror into a multi-season success story, Murphy has to be the man for the job. If he can’t do it no one can. So when you tune in to Scream Queens tonight, know that so much came before this moment to make it possible. There were hundreds of gallons of fake blood spilled. Dozens of bras discarded. And, most importantly, an army of unsung hero actresses who thanklessly gave their on-screen lives for the sick voyeur in all of us. It is for you, anonymous sorority girls, that we watch and we binge. Sisters for life!
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