“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
As is expected at the beginning of the school year, a couple weeks ago I received an assignment: pick a film to discuss for Dread’s Back to School month. A lot of thoughts ran through my head immediately: Scream. Scream 2. The Faculty. I Know What You Did Last Summer. Teaching Mrs. Tingle. It was impossible to pick just one, and I realized I didn’t have to, because what every single one of these films has in common is a script by the incomparable Kevin Williamson.
His work in the late 90’s produced a string of memorable horror hits, all starring high school teens, but this isn’t just coincidence or typecasting. Williamson had stories to tell, and those stories did more to shape teenhood in the 90’s than any other piece of culture. In fact, his influence can still be felt today in many major ways.
The concept of the “teenager” itself has really only existed since the mid-20th century, when life expectancies and expanded general education allowed for a middle ground between childhood and adulthood that was exploited by marketers who smelled a brand new demographic full of pocket change with nothing to spend it on. But since then, there are exactly two people who helped teens along the path to creating their own definition of what it meant to be young in America.
The first is John Hughes, who defined the 80’s with his films like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His teen protagonists are treated with respect and given tremendous emotional depth, acknowledging that teenagers have nuance and are capable of holding the spotlight.
The second is Kevin Williamson, who took what Hughes gave to the world and ran a marathon with it. As exemplified by all the films I mentioned above, his teen characters are skilled, capable, and articulate in ways they had never truly been presented before. Williamson is well known for his snappy dialogue, but it’s more than just that. His teens are savvy, self-aware, and clever, presenting high school characters who are exactly as smart as every high school kid thinks they are.
He’s not talking down to his teen audiences, he’s building them up. He’s showing them that they can be resilient (just look at what Sidney Prescott has had to go through for four movies now). They can be knowledgeable (also in Scream, film geek Randy is the single person who knows enough to help everyone get out alive). They have talents (Jo Lynn Jordan in Teaching Mrs. Tingle wants to be an actress and she deserves to be, given her incredible abilities at mimicry), skills (Freddie Prinze Jr.‘s Ray in IKWYDLS is a capable fisherman), and passions (Dawson Leary, the title character of “Dawson’s Creek” is a visionary young filmmaker), and they are all worth something to the world. When a Kevin Williamson character dies, they’re not just a piece of body count meat. They’re a tragic loss to a world that needs them but is too cold to care.
Kevin Williamson gave teens a vision of themselves that presents their sharpest, best qualities first, and he has continued to do that well into the current era. His long-running show “The Vampire Diaries” just ended last year, having given today’s teens another taste of exactly what his pen is capable of inspiring.
In recent times we’ve seen teens gain a lot of autonomy. From taking bold stances against the powers that be to helping shape a culture of kindness and inclusivity in schools to building social media empires with just their wits and an iPhone, today’s high school students are just as savvy and ingenious as Kevin Williamson has always told them they are. There couldn’t possibly be one single person responsible for such a massive tide shift in the perception and inspiration of teens everywhere, but that massive tide shift began with Williamson and his widely popular, incredibly clever screenplays. His films and television shows have reached every corner of the teenage sphere, and we owe him a lot for using that platform to build up his characters rather than treat them as one-note archetypes. He gave teens the opportunity to tap into the most important asset they could ever have: themselves.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980’s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.