When I was a freshman in high school, there was a pair of upperclassmen who were pretty nasty to me: we’ll call them “Becky” and “Bree”. Becky and Bree came from the nicer side of town, had hair like Disney princesses, and looked as if they had just walked out of a Delia’s catalog. One of them was actually dating the quarterback of the football team, I kid you not. I, on the other hand, was trying (and failing) to wrangle my naturally curly hair into submission, and my fall wardrobe was whatever was on clearance at Wal-Mart or Goodwill. Every day in algebra class, Becky and Bree made it very clear to me that I was not one of the cool kids. Remember that scene in Carrie when Tommy Ross mutters, “You suck” quietly enough for the teacher to miss exactly what he said, but loud enough for Carrie to hear? I got that treatment in some form or another whenever the duo felt cheeky. Paper clips thrown in my hair, maps of the school with the dumpsters circled in marker laid on my desk with the caption “Found you a nicer house”, it was a comedy hour for Becky and Bree. The aim was always the same: to tear me down and make me feel less-than. It worked like a charm; I hated that class and I hated Becky and Bree.
Until the day that Becky smiled at me and invited me to sit with her and Bree in the classroom.
It wasn’t a term in common usage in 1999, but I can safely describe my internal reaction as “shook”. Not only were they not actively giving me hell, but they were acting inclusive. I had friends, but didn’t really belong to any one particular social group. I wanted to belong.
Reader, I sat with them.
Before I tell you what happened next, I’m going to talk about conformity and belonging. In the spirit of Dread Central’s Back To School month, I’m focusing on a movie that isn’t as popular as, say, Heathers or Mean Girls or Disturbing Behavior. There’s a reason for that; it’s not exactly Citizen Kane. But it’s a supernatural horror film that features Meg Tilly, Adam West, oozing animated corpses, and a night of hazing gone wrong.
One Dark Night begins with the discovery of seven dead bodies. The first is of Karl Raymar, a well-known occultist. Along with him, the bodies of six women were discovered, with no accounting for the events that preceded their deaths. Raymar’s daughter, Olivia (Melissa Newman), is understandably stressed out as a result and begins to have bizarre visions. Her husband, Allen (West), joins her in her efforts to find out what her weird dad was into (and he was into a thing or two). In the same town, young high schooler Julie Wells (Tilly) is excruciatingly close to completing her initiation into a satin jacket-wearing clique called “The Sisters”. Julie’s final task is to spend one dark night inside the local mausoleum, which, it turns out, happens to be the late Karl Raymar’s current resting place. The Sisters sneak onto the cemetery grounds to give Julie the fright of her life, but their plans are interrupted. Tom McLoughlin’s 1982 movie didn’t make any waves at the box office (understandably so, it was the same year that saw Creepshow, Poltergeist, and Friday the 13th Part III‘s release), but with the one-two punch of Tilly’s and West’s involvement plus Tom and Ellis Burman’s Fulci-reverent effects (plus several House On Haunted Hill-esque gliding ghouls-on-skateboards), it’s a fun use of an hour-and-a-half of your time.
The Sisters are the generic store brand of Grease‘s Pink Ladies; within the first ten minutes of the film, they brag about cutting class and smoking weed. By contrast, Julie is a sweet, quiet girl. First glances show her sitting with a cashmere sweater loosely tied about her shoulders, giggling with her beau Steve (who happens to be one of the Sisters’ exes) over a carton of milk. She’s a vision of innocence. But that’s the problem; Julie is concerned with her image, and membership in the Sisters’ clique could change that.
The subtext becomes text in a quiet scene before the mayhem, in which Julie makes it clear that being part of a group is important to her. “I’ve got to prove I can do it,” she says to her boyfriend Steve, “I want to prove I can take their initiation.” Steve points out that the Sisters don’t really want Julie in the group, and that Carol just wants someone to torment for a while longer. No dice; Julie’s tired of being seen as an uncool princess, and she won’t be backing down. The violins swell and it gets melodramatic after that, but the moment taps into the same thematic reserves that The Craft does, and Heathers, and Jawbreaker. Most of us just want acceptance and belonging.
It’s with that motivation in mind that Julie takes on the Sisters’ final challenge and allows herself to be locked into a mausoleum overnight. And it was with a similar motivation in mind that I decided to trust my former hecklers. Seconds after I sat in the chair beside Becky, Bree (seated behind me) “accidentally” smeared a half-melted chocolate bar on my lower back. They laughed and high-fived. Our teacher told us all to “keep the chatter down”. I had a sweater that I immediately wore to cover it up, but it was apparent that Becky and Bree took the time out of their day to plan a prank on a girl they didn’t like.
A viewer might wonder why such a smart girl in One Dark Night would do something so foolish, and for people who couldn’t care less for her. Indeed, two of the Sisters return to the site after nightfall with aims to traumatize their eager pledge and, for a while, they succeed. But anyone who has been bullied can empathize with that craving for understanding and acceptance among peers, even the cruel ones.
From what I’ve seen in my thirty-odd years on Earth, it takes something heavy to change a nasty person’s attitude. A profound or preventable loss, a brush with death, someone they love becoming a victim. The Beckys and Brees of One Dark Night come to regret their little prank through a series of unfortunate events that befall them. I don’t know if my personal Becky and Bree have ever felt pangs of regret for the way they acted, nor do I have any idea what they are up to these days. Frankly, I don’t care. But that’s the point: I no longer let garbage people take up residence in my head. I’ve stopped trying to please those who don’t want me to sit at the table with them. I’ve got my own table, where I get paid to watch Meg Tilly horror joints and write about them.
One Dark Night is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.