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From Carrie to Buffy, prom is an unforgettable night in horror
"You guys are going to have a prom. The kind of prom everyone should have," Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) emphatically tells her friends in this Season 3 Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. A high school that sits on top of the Hellmouth comes with challenges, including demons frequently interrupting regular activities — because being a teenager isn't already enough of an emotional minefield. Buffy is determined that this night should go without a hitch for her classmates. "I'm gonna give you all a nice, fun, normal evening if I have to kill every person on the face of the Earth to do it." Thankfully, she doesn't have to resort to this extreme and the gym remains a demon-free zone. Well, not including the ones with an invite.
Prom is an adolescent rite of passage documented across various teen movies and TV shows, portraying the highs and lows of a night filled with expectation. Some narratives focus on the romantic side — which often involves first-time sexual escapades — but in the world of horror, characters are lucky if they make it to the end of the dance with their lives. Throwing danger into an already potent mix has been a successful strategy for supernatural TV shows and slasher movies, which seem to love screaming teens in formal wear.
Marking the end of high school, this final hurrah before summer is a night of celebration and a farewell (that has sadly been canceled this year because of the global pandemic). The chapter-defining aspect ensures it is the perfect venue for resentment to manifest — instead of making memories, this is the occasion to lay waste to old enemies. The alchemy of this evening is one of heightened anticipation, which can bubble over in terrifying fashion if the person suffering happens to possess a supernatural gift. With this in mind, Carrie is the quintessential prom horror. It set the tone over 40 years ago and is still shorthand for a specific kind of high school dance.
Adapted from Stephen King's 1974 novel of the same name, the image of Sissy Spacek covered in pig's blood is indelible. At the start of the movie, the humiliation Carrie White suffers in the shower lays the groundwork for the subsequent public shaming. Her classmates' chant "Plug it up!" in unison after she gets her period for the first time (and she isn't sure what it is) and her embarrassment is magnified when she is on stage wearing a shiny new crown at senior prom.
Going to this event is an act of defiance against her strict mother's wishes, after she is asked to the dance by a handsome suitor and encouraged to say yes by her teacher. Not only does she look stunning in a chic dress, but she is also named Prom Queen. This sounds like a plot from a teen rom-com like She's All That, in which a makeover reveals her hidden beauty (even though it was obvious in the first place). Unfortunately, as it is based on a book by Stephen King, the body count is far higher.
The pig's blood prank is the result of mean girl dynamics and the desire to remind Carrie she is low down on the social ladder. The whole "gag" hinges on a brief moment of acceptance and a fleeting glimpse of popularity, which is quickly washed away with the thick syrupy crimson substance (yes, Billy from Scream, we know it is corn syrup). Carrie's psychotic break has been building throughout the film, resulting in weaponized telekinesis against every single person in the decorated gymnasium. The massacre that follows set the bar for horror movies and TV shows portraying what is meant to be a night of happiness that can often be fraught. A 2002 television movie, the Chloë Grace Moretz-starring 2013 adaptation, and a stage musical are part of the Carrie legacy, not to mention the many references to this character across pop culture.
Spoilers below for I Am Not Okay With This.
The recent first season of the Netflix series I Am Not Okay With This climaxes at a dance, and while the celebration is at a different time of year — homecoming, not prom — the evening still ends tragically with an adolescent girl covered in blood trying to control telekinetic powers. Interrupting the coronation of the homecoming king and queen to read from Sydney Novak's (Sophia Lillis) diary, Brad Lewis (Richard Ellis) loses his head before he can reveal her superpower secret to the entire school. Her rage and fear are a trigger she hasn't quite harnessed yet, resulting in Brad's exploding body part — and some expensive dry cleaning bills and therapy sessions.
This scene has been teased all season, as the opening scene of the first episode features a bloody frock sneak peek escape. It is impossible to witness this moment and not think of Carrie White, who opened the door for other teenage girl outcasts, but I Am Not Okay With This does not end in a massacre, and Syd's story has more to come. Maybe she will get to go to prom.
Carrie sets the tone for teen girl rage, but they are the demo that is often the target of violence in these narratives. High school dances are no different, which is why slasher movies have also taken the opportunity to use this setting as a backdrop for terror. Fancy frocks and stiletto heels are not exactly ideal for running away or fighting for your life.
In the Buffy prom episode, Tucker Wells — his brother Andrew is a later-season antagonist turned ally — has trained hellhounds to attack people in formal attire, and he has used movies like Pretty in Pink and Prom Night to condition their behavior. The latter movie is part of the slasher boom, which Halloween kicked off. Released in 1980, the Canadian horror film stars none other than Jamie Lee Curtis (see her strut her stuff below), who is part of the popular clique targeted, while also extending her Final Girl credentials.
The original Prom Night killer is motivated by revenge (and he has family ties to Curtis' character), and this movie features several cliché booze, drugs, and sex scenarios within the familiar school halls. The Brittany Snow-starring 2008 remake changes the backstory and the motive, as well as the location of the big bash, switching out the gymnasium for a lavish hotel. In the most basic of plots, a teacher was fired after becoming obsessed with his student Donna (Snow), and he killed all of Donna's family in a bid to get close to her. It just so happens that he has escaped from a psychiatric hospital days before her senior prom. What are the chances?! One highlight of Prom Night is that Idris Elba plays a detective on the case, but it is a paint-by-numbers slasher that doesn't offer anything new to the genre.
"You know everyone always says that prom is supposed to be this amazing time that everyone looks forward to since the beginning of freshman year," Donna comments. "But no one ever tells you it's really sad, you know?" Her reasoning for this melancholy mood is that it marks the end of this time with friends, and there are some people they will never see again. It is a tad on the nose because of course pretty much everyone in this conversation doesn't get to see the sunrise, but it also speaks to why prom is such a popular horror setting. It is a year-ending ritual that most will be familiar with, which makes it relatable, and there is a sadness in how it marks the end of a chapter. It is also one of the reasons why it must be so disappointing for graduating high school students that this event has been canceled in real life due to another terrifying killer.
Sometimes prom provides the dramatic backdrop for the climax of the movie (see Carrie), but the 1993 Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, kicks off with this formal. Instead of short shorts and strappy tanks, the unfortunate teens who get lost in the middle of nowhere are still in their fancy frocks, making it hard to flee and also offering a juxtaposition between what this night is meant to represent and the hell they have stumbled into.
Riverdale's young residents, much like those on Buffy, are used to circumventing danger — it is people rather than demons who are the issue here. Junior prom is open season against students in a Season 3 episode aptly named "Prom Night." There are not one but two serial killers on the loose, and three students are killed during the festivities. The theme is changed to match the Gargoyle King demands and this is Riverdale at its most deranged. The students didn't even get a senior prom, because Mr. Honey (Kerr Smith) canceled it, although it might have still happened if the season hadn't been cut short due to COVID-19 shutting production down — seniors have been finding inventive ways to celebrate this triumphant evening safely during the pandemic.
No high school show embraces a party-themed episode more than The Vampire Diaries, which excelled at finding anniversaries for the town to celebrate, no matter how tenuous. Of course, this is not some random Mystic Falls event but the highlight of the senior year social calendar, and while it isn't what the teens dreamed it would be, it is done in style and with enough danger to tick the prom in horror boxes. Occurring during Elena's (Nina Dobrev) whole humanity-free arc means this is not the fun event they had long planned. Instead, Elena took the dress Caroline (Candice King) had been planning on wearing and the entire evening is a push/pull between former friends.
Prom is a pop culture rite of passage that has long been a source of tension and memorable moments. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie also featured a prom, which delivers a kickass white dress/leather jacket pairing — the TV show later paid homage to this look — but doesn't have the same gravitas as the depiction several years later.
In the TV show, Buffy refuses to let the "happiest night of a senior's life" get ruined by the usual demonic nonsense that rears its head at times like these, and in return she finds out how much her actions mean to her classmates. Saving the day efficiently gives her time to fix her hair and put on her gown. She arrives during the superlatives ceremony, which includes a new category to honor the "Class Protector." This emotionally charged moment highlights how much Buffy's heroics haven't gone unnoticed and why it means so much for her to save this celebration. It doesn't matter who is prom queen, because a tiny sparkly parasol is much better than a crown. Thanks to Buffy, this night doesn't end with Carrie-level destruction. Memories are made, the gym survives, and dry cleaners won't be trying to remove blood from garments all week.
Prom on-screen is a battleground that bookends the high school experience. In rom-coms, it is a fight for the heart, but in horror, it is more literal than that. A pivotal event that is targeted for a variety of reasons — be it revenge, years of torment that can no longer be contained, or because the killer has a thing for spectacle and formal attire. For some, the horror of prom night might be a fashion disaster, drinking too much, or a missed opportunity with a crush. However, the nightmare occurring under the disco ball lights in a scary movie or TV show is far worse than a style faux pas. And sadly, not everyone has a Buffy Summers in their midst to ensure a "nice, fun, normal" evening is had by all.