On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Halloween is the one night of the year when vampires and demons typically lay low, but on non-supernatural teen drama My So-Called Life, the dead returned to impart an important life lesson on this spooky night.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about Liberty High. Protagonist Angela Chase (Claire Danes) is not a Slayer. There is no Hellmouth to speak of. Up to this point, there has been no hint of anything out of this world. The scare factor on My So-Called Life is pretty low — although talking to your crush is terrifying. But in this 1994 Halloween episode, the dead and the living merge and this is another case of teen TV turning to genre as a way to explore matters of the heart.Pretty much every high school or town has a ghost story or urban legend intended to scare kids and teens into behaving — a cautionary tale so you don’t end up in an early grave. These stories are often based on a real tragedy, but over the years details are twisted into something more horrifying. Liberty High is no different, but somehow Angela has never heard of Nicky Driscoll (Andrew Kavovit) or the many versions of his death until she happens to borrow a book that was once his.
Nicky died the night of the Halloween Hop in 1963 after a prank gone wrong in the school gymnasium. The rest of the details are a mix of rumor and hearsay. This may or may not have been done as a way to impress a girl. One person heard the power went out across the town at the exact moment Nicky died. A more fantastical embellishment is that Nicky landed on a spike heel, which had been abandoned during the dance. This outlandish gory version of the story comes from Rayanne (A.J. Langer), Angela’s best friend, who swears it is true. She also happens to be the architect of the plan to break into the school so they can contact the ghost of Nicky Driscoll.Rayanne has also provided Angela with her costume. “They’re actual,” Rayanne states, as the clothes belonged to her aunt in the ‘60s. Rayanne claims her aunt rode on Nicky’s motorcycle, providing a tether between Angela and the dead. In the pocket is a ticket for the Halloween Hop, the dance that ended in the death of Nicky. Ooooh, spooky.
One connection to the land of the living is Angela’s crush on Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto). Jordan is the typical disaffected bad boy, the guy you think is dreamy af in high school, but later on, will realize he’s not all that beyond his great hair and ability to lean. Angela is very much in the throes of thinking Jordan is The One, so naturally, she thinks the love of a good woman can save him. After hearing the Nicky story, Angela connects his plight to Jordan’s, which becomes a matter of some urgency after a teacher dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi — it is Halloween after all — has threatened Jordan with expulsion. Angela can’t go back in time and save Nicky, but if she can get through to Jordan then she can prevent another tragedy.The parallels between Nicky and Jordan are far from subtle, Angela even blurts out “Nicky Catalano” at one point. But what makes this Halloween adventure standout in the pantheon of “teen shows go creepy” is when Angela has a full blown conversation with a dead guy and doesn’t even question it, despite claiming earlier in the episode that she doesn’t believe in ghosts.
Attempting to contact the dead is a teen rite of passage both on screen and IRL. The number of sleepovers I attended that began with watching a scary movie followed by some ghostly shenanigans is pretty much all of them. Telling ghost stories didn’t end there, or at least for me, it didn’t. I recall a party in my early 20s at a house in the middle of nowhere, which ended with about 10 of us standing at the side of a country road at 3 a.m. expecting to see the specter of a horse and carriage, which would then explode into flames after someone told that particular legend. Tension filled minutes ended not in an encounter from the other side, but getting scared by a bird. It sounds rather silly now, but I remember thinking we were really going to see an apparition.Angela not only sees a ghost, but she also talks to one. One classic horror movie rule is you shouldn’t separate from your friends, as this is when bad things can happen, but Angela seems undeterred wandering the dark corridors of the empty building, bumping into skeletons, as you do. The school location is unnerving at night, not only due to the lack of lights and appropriately creepy music but because these corridors are normally bustling with activity. “Blue Moon” is sung and hummed throughout the episode, with one character passing on the earworm to another, the strains of this track emanates from the decorated gym, a ghostly echo of Halloween night 31 years ago.
What happens next is wild because it is not explained away as a dream or hallucination from a spiked drink. Two girls dressed in similar attire to Angela walk by discussing Nicky Driscoll, one is his girlfriend, she is done with him. Angela is an observer in this bitching session, nothing more, but when she sees Nicky doing his best Jordan Catalano lean, she tries to stop what has already taken place.She doesn’t just see him — throughout the episode she has caught glimpses of Nicky — she has a full on conversation about his foolish mistake, which cost him his life. And when she can’t stop him she lies down on the floor like it is her bed and goes to sleep. I guess that is one way to react to a supernatural encounter. Instead of suggesting Angela was seeing things, instead, her experience is validated when the rose that was discarded in 1963 appears at the end of the episode, pressed in the textbook that Nicky had also used.
One of this Halloween episode focuses on the manner in which those who die young are fetishized; they stay that way forever, frozen in time like a vampire. As Angela looks at Nicky’s memorial in the 1963 Liberty High yearbook, Rayanne picks up a copy of Rolling Stone with Kurt Cobain on the cover — this episode aired six months after Cobain’s death — and comments that she still can’t look at photos of him.
The notion of dying young is scary, which is why when it happens to a famous person it has such a huge impact — the deaths of Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix are the first young celebrities I remember and it felt earth-shattering — but those cautionary tales also feel so far removed from the horrors experienced as an adolescent on a daily basis. Those are things that happen to other people, or so it seems.
Everyday anxieties are more likely to center on social interactions or lack thereof. This fear of missing out runs through this episode. This is long before the acronym FOMO, but Jordan explains this concept to Rickie (Wilson Cruz) as a reason for doing dumb stuff. The message of this Halloween episode is pretty heavy-handed; we all do things we might regret to fit in and sometimes if you’re unlucky, it gets you killed (or threatened with expulsion).
My So-Called Life is very much grounded in reality, but when it comes to holiday episodes, ghosts appear in order to help a character work through issues, and not just for the spooky holidays either. In the Christmas episode “So-Called Angels,” another dead teen is on hand to impart a valuable life lesson. Ghosts are not what these teenagers are afraid of; there is already enough to worry about in the land of the living.