Gender Bashing: The Pursuit of The American Dream in I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER
In the same year that I Know What You Did Last Summer was released, a scandalous news story rocked the headlines across America. On June 6, 1997, young teen Melissa Drexler attended her senior prom in Aberdeen, New Jersey. Unbeknownst to her friends, family, and the father of her unborn child, Melissa was pregnant and had successfully hidden the pregnancy as she carried to term. On prom night Melissa went into the bathroom complaining of stomach pain, and proceeded to give birth into the toilet bowl. After delivery, Melissa either suffocated or strangled her baby, placed it into a plastic bag, and dumped it into the trash can. She then exited the bathroom and joined her friends on the dance floor, participating in the night’s festivities. The baby’s body was later discovered by the school custodian, who thought the hefty weight of the trash bag to be suspect upon removal. Melissa was arrested the same night, and pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter. She served three years of a 15-year prison term before her release in 2001.
And for what? She wanted to have her prom like everyone else.
“The Prom Mom”, as Drexler had become known, had big dreams. She was going to advance beyond her station and make a name for herself— the American Dream that Ronald Reagan had sold to so many voters over a decade prior. Women Criminals: An Encyclopedia of People and Issues (Jensen, 2012) elaborates:
“Melissa Drexler had plans for a career in the fashion industry and was taking classes at a vocational school with plans to continue her education at a community college. The unique circumstances surrounding Melissa Drexler’s accidental pregnancy interrupted her plans.”
Scholars and pundits alike have tried to make sense of how an 18-year-old girl could commit such an act so callously. While answers remain as elusive and varied as they always do for heinous crimes, there does exist a dark undercurrent of ambition within Drexler’s infanticide. She was grinding towards her dream life, and a baby would certainly throw a wrench in the works. In her mind, the choice was clear.
Horror, as its known, can often reflect and refract societal problems and fears. That same undercurrent of ambition seen in The Prom Mom story can be found in more than a few horror films of the 1990s aimed specifically at teens, like The Faculty and Disturbing Behavior. Alexandra West adds hefty dimension to a generational reading of ‘90s teen slasher films at large in The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula. She elucidates:
“As the 1980s raged and the moral majority influenced the no-sex, no-drugs policies that would trickle into slasher films, it was also a time of heady capitalism with young families driving themselves further and further toward capital gains. By the time the 1990s came around… there was yet another generation of teens who had been raised by television, films and music looking to understand the world through the lens of corrupted politics, unfulfilling jobs and a need to achieve.”
The need to fit in, the need to be successful, or the need to just do something worth doing wove its way into several of the decade’s youth-centric horror films at varying levels of intensity, sometimes subtext, sometimes text. One of the slicker films to do so was Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Scream scribe Kevin Williamson penned the script for I Know What You Did Last Summer as a loose adaptation of Lois Duncan’s 1973 novel, albeit with the teenage melodrama deposited into a slasher narrative. At its center are a teenage quartet: Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt); her bestie, Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar); Barry (Ryan Phillippe); and Julie’s boyfriend, Ray (Freddie Prinze, Jr.). The foursome has just finished high school in their small North Carolina town and take part in the town’s Independence Day festivities. They grow bored with the celebration, as teens do, and head to the beach for booze-soaked lounging. The conversation is ripe with excitement and dreams about their potential futures. The fun is cut short on their drive back into town when they hit a man on the road, killing him. Their car reeks of liquor. The group considers calling the police:
There it is. The stakes, for these teens, are laid out. One by one, the friends warm up to the idea of dumping the body and acting like the accident never happened, except for Julie. An idealistic moral center to the group. Ray reminds Julie that he doesn’t “have the family or the money to get out of this,” to which Barry adds, “This is your future, Julie. Think about it. College, scholarship…the guy’s already dead. If we go to the police, we’re dead, too.”
In their mind, the choice is clear.
And so the four decide to to dump the body. As their victim sits at the bottom of the murky waters, they make a pact to take their secret to the grave. And they do manage to keep it a secret until one year later, when a dark, hook-carrying figure in a high-collared rain slicker beings to terrorize the group. His message: “I know what you did last summer!”
Of course, Summer isn’t the first horror film to feature youths dealing with the fallout of their misguided decisions of year past. The slasher heydey was filled with such gems: The Burning, Prom Night, Terror Train, and The House on Sorority Row all had young adults suffering the consequences of cruelty gone wrong. But on a subtextual level, Summer subverts old-school morality tales with a scoff at the idealistic American Dream.
The Dream is a basic one. It’s the thought that in America, anyone is free to chase opportunity, and that anyone has the ability to make a better life for themselves. The American obsession with advancement is a double-edged sword, both motivating and dangerous. It inspires a zealous labor ethic, but tacitly encourages risk-taking. Aim high, stop at nothing. This can lead to…misjudgements.
From the film’s beginning, each of the protagonists are set on advancing beyond their small-town setting. Julie and Ray are going off to college, a huge departure from the labor-intensive family tradition for Ray. Barry is going to play pro football if it kills him. Helen is going to be a daytime soap starlet and, she wistfully points out, she’ll still find the time to bear Barry’s children in between contracts, creating a successful little nuclear family. Even for the youth of the nineties, white picket fences were still the ideal. For these American teens, the Dream is alive and within reach— until the accident. Once Julie spots the body on the side of the road, the group spiral into panic and despair, as each of them sees their respective big-time goals slip through their fingers. Barry shouts curses and bemoans how it will look when the cops arrive. Helen constantly clings to her pageant crown like a worry stone on her head, as if it, and her dreams of a soap opera contract, will fly away at any moment. And so they make a choice to bury the body in the water and to bury their secret forever, all in pursuit of the Dream.
But after the accident, those dreams are dashed. One year after their pact, the group exhibits the devastation of dreams deferred. Ray has gone to work on the fishing boat as his father did. Helen’s attempt at New York stardom has failed and she now works retail. Julie, who was the most morally resistant to the cover-up in the first place, has failed several college classes and shows visible wear-and-tear underlining the mental trauma of her secret. None of the foursome are where they want to be, despite the grave acts they had committed in order to get to where they want to be. By the time a hook-wielding killer shows up to torment them, Julie, Ray, Helen, and Barry are living in their own horror story— one of small-town stagnation. The killer’s sole taunt is a reminder of their crime and, by extension, the ambitions that motivated its cover-up. So when an exasperated Julie spins around and screams into the summer air, “What are you waiting for?” she is reclaiming time lost after the life-altering incident. But the incident (and the monstrosity representing it) must be confronted first.
I Know What You Did Last Summer remains a fascinating gaze into the looking glass of American youth during the late ‘90s. A youth feeling enormous pressure to achieve, at any cost. Even when that dream is achieved, it’s fleeting. The teens that see Summer in theaters would, one year after the film’s release, see Bill Clinton impeached for perjuring himself to Congress amid a White House scandal. On-screen and off, it only takes a single, gross act of misjudgement to bring a hero down. And in horror, those chasing pure dreams, no matter what they do in that quest, are heroes in their own arc. For the protagonists of Summer, the pursuit of the American Dream is Faustian-lite. You may get where you want to be, but whatever you did along your journey may end up being your downfall.
Today, Melissa Drexler lives a quiet life in New Jersey suburbia. It’s no high-flying life of haute couture, but perhaps time served and the privilege of post-conviction privacy is its own achievement of the American Dream. Her baby, posthumously dubbed “Christopher”, would have turned 21 this year. What Drexler did that summer of ‘97 was a horrific symptom of a social malaise that, if the teen slashers of the era are any indication, threatened the American Dream as it was sold to the children of the moral majority. As always, the horror genre is there to filter society’s ills through a dark, but revealing, prism of self-reflection.
Anya Stanley is a California-based writer, columnist, and staunch Halloween 6 apologist. Her horror film analyses have appeared on Birth Movies Death, Blumhouse, Daily Grindhouse, and wherever they’ll let her talk about scary movies. See more of her work on anyawrites.com, and follow her shenanigans on Twitter @BookishPlinko.