Taking a Stab at Understanding the “Stupid Teens” Horror Trope

TV Features
Taking a Stab at Understanding the “Stupid Teens” Horror Trope

There’s a GEICO insurance commercial from a few years ago that mocks slasher flicks. Showing four freaked-out people emerging from the woods next to a creepy old house, they opt not to get in the running car but instead hide behind a wall of chainsaws.

“If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions,” the voiceover says before segueing into how you can save money on auto insurance by signing up with a company whose mascot is a talking gecko.

Several people have mentioned this commercial to me when I said I was working on a story about the trope of teens doing stupid things in horror movies and TV series. And they all remember the ad saying “if you’re a teen in a horror movie.”

Films like Halloween and Scream play off the idea that teens and young adults—at least the ones who aren’t the heroine—will definitely make the worst decisions possible when there’s a masked killer out for carnage and (usually) revenge. TV series like Peacock’s One of Us is Lying and Amazon’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (adapted from written works) offer modern-day, more sophisticated takes on the trope while still delivering a decent body count.

But things weren’t always like this.

“If you look at the horror genre, until you get to the science-fiction horror hybrids in the 1950s, it’s very much an adult genre,” says James Kendrick, a professor in Baylor University’s film and digital media department who teaches on cult and horror films.

He says things changed when it dawned on advertisers and marketing execs that teens were influencers with capital who could buy records, afford movie tickets, and start fashion trends. Then you saw movies like 1958’s The Blob, which Kendrick says “is a classic teenage fantasy where it’s the kids who know what’s going on, and all the stupid adults won’t listen to them.”

However, this eventually shifted to the films of the ‘80s. Alison Peirse, the author of Women Make Horror: Filmmakers, Feminism, Genre and an associate professor at the University of Leeds’ film and media department, says that’s when we saw morality tropes of “1980s America conservative climate” that promoted the message that “if you have sex in horror films, you will die. If you sneak out late at night; if you don’t do your homework; If you take drugs, you will die.”

This all could seem insulting of younger viewers’ intelligence. “I think there’s something to that innocence that teenagers have. It’s something that we lose as we grow older, unfortunately,” says Bryce Bullins, who teaches a class on horror media at the University of Cincinnati (and who did our Zoom interview with a replica of Freddy Kruger’s hand from A Nightmare on Elm Street hanging on the wall behind him). Eventually, he says, 1990s films like Scream “lean heavily into that meta commentary and send up that idea that teenagers are dumb.”

“It’s contextualized film-to-film and show-to-show. If it does have some of those meta elements and those winking nods … I think it can be done in a maybe not respectful, but understandable way,” Bullins says. “When you start beating it over the head, it’s a question of [looking like you’re] not trusting your audience to get it. If you over-explain it, you wind up alienating your audience and target viewers.”

And why would teens want to see people who represent them get brutally murdered?

Kendrick says that “part of why these films were so popular with suburban teenagers is because they always take place in recognizable locations [like] suburban neighborhoods and homes and summer camps.”

“This is completely, diametrically opposite to classic horror films,” he says. “They’re always in Transylvania and some scary castle and if you just stay away from those places, you’re fine.” (The catalyst for the events in One of Us Is Lying takes place inside a generic high school classroom. I Know What You Did Last Summer is set amongst a tight-knit Hawaiian beach community. Another show, geared toward younger audiences, is Disney+’s Just Beyond. It’s an anthology series that frequently uses the trope of “normal” kids who happen to have “gifts.”)

Therefore, Kendrick says, these movies can make the viewer feel smart; that “they kind of anti-identify in a way. They see the teenagers who are making the dumb choices. And they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s not like me. That’s like that idiot I sit next to in math class. He would be the one who would go down in the basement. I wouldn’t do that.”

And while there is definitely some historic sexism in the horror genre—Bullins says that “there are male victims [in these films], obviously. But the camera doesn’t linger on their deaths the same way that it does with women”—there are also instances of progressive thinking. Peirse reminds that it’s usually a girl who survives and that she’s “really bookish; she’s quite well-behaved; she’s really smart.”

The stakes are only slightly different for horror stories that are serialized for television versus a concise couple hours of film footage.

“The serialization on TV is often more to do with the narrative peaks and troughs, which isn’t always to do with the kills,” says Peirse. “You might have one in the first act as you prologue that this is a slasher show […] But I don’t think there’s a mentality of ‘in order to serialize the drama, we have to increase the intensity or the amount of kills.’”

Plus, Bullins says, like all genres of storytelling “telling the horror stories through television is a bonus because you can make far more complex characters; you can get more interiority with characters than you wouldn’t necessarily [with a movie.]”

But, as we have more conversations surrounding things like bullying, abuse, and school shootings, is it still OK to show teens getting killed?

“Filmmakers always need to be aware of that,” Baylor’s Kendrick says, adding that “speaking mainly for Americans, but we just have a very strange relationship with violence on screen. Which is that, even as we’re repelled by it in real life, we seek it out in our entertainment.”

Just don’t try to find it in the basement when you’re home alone at night.

One of Us Is Lying (Peacock), I Know What You Did Last Summer(Amazon Prime), and Just Beyond (Disney+) are all currently available to stream.

Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.

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