We highlight eight of our favorite academic horror films — from the iconic and game-changing to the downright silly and just plain fun.
Horror movies rank highly as one of the more intense genres. Whether it is a slasher film, a horrific thriller, or a comedic horror, one thing is certain: these films take us through a rollercoaster of emotions. While there are many sub-genres to explore, one of the most popular is student/academic horror.
High-school horror takes advantage of our innate horror at watching innocent young people be jeopardized, while collegiate horror taps into the fear of being alone and isolated from loved ones while in danger. For many, being away from home and on their own for the first time at college can be anxiety-inducing enough, even before a real threat is presented. This is why horror movies that capitalize on a collegiate setting can be quite relatable to young people and help amplify the fear.
Ironically, watching horror movies can be a great way to deal with the anxiety and pressure of school — a form of healthy escapism that can even stimulate creativity.
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Young people in peril is a common horror trope.
We love to see pretty co-eds in danger, and the genre is infamous for titillating as much as it terrifies.
Academic horror exploits two major genre motifs. The first is that the fear occurs in an unexpected setting for terror, one where we expect to be safe and protected. The second is that the setting is often contained, as in a college campus, where characters can be trapped and often removed from others who might keep them safe.
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When you do find yourself with some free time, these eight great academic horror films top our list of favorites and easily make it to the head of the class.
1. Scream (1996)
This beloved, highly influential franchise began with the 1996 film by the iconic director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Wes Craven. Originally, it follows a high school student named Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and. her group of friends in the fictional town of Woodsboro, California. Sidney and her friends become the targets of a mysterious killer in a Halloween costume known as Ghostface.
The film helped revitalize the slasher subgenre and the popularity and profitability of horror films in the 90s. It was intended as a satire of slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, as well as Craven’s own A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was considered unique at the time for how self-aware and self-referential it was, openly discussing the clichés that the film attempted to subvert. It still remains the highest-grossing slasher film in adjusted dollars.
Of course, it also spawned a highly successful franchise. In the second film, taking place two years after the original, Sidney and other survivors of the Woodsboro Massacre are now attending college, where they are targeted by a copycat killer inspired by Ghostface.
2. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1999)
Kevin Williamson, the brilliant mind behind Scream, penned another iconic teen slasher film turned franchise, I Know What You Did Last Summer. Prior to Scream, Williamson was approached to adapt Lois Duncan’s source novel by producer Erik Feig. While Scream was an innovative satire of the genre, I Know What You Did Last Summer is a straightforward 1980s-era slasher film whose sole purpose is to scare the bejeezus out of you.
The film centers on four young friends who are stalked by a hook-wielding killer one year after covering up a car accident in which they supposedly killed a man. The film also draws inspiration from the urban legend known as “The Hook” as well as two other must-see academic slasher films: Prom Night (1980) and The House on Sororirty Row (1982).
While critics were divided on this film, which was rushed into production after the meteoric success of Scream, audiences made it a huge commercial success. Like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer has been widely parodied and referenced in popular culture. And it also enjoys significant credit for revitalizing the slasher genre in the 1990s.
3. Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000)
Urban Legend is a 1998 slasher film with a cast of (at the time) hot, young stars, including Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, Recca Gayheart, and Tara Reid. It’s yet another academic horror film that spawned a successful franchise. Its plot focuses on a series of murders on the campus of a private New England university, all of which appear to be modeled after popular urban legends. In addition to its young cast of co-eds, the film features supporting performances from horror icons like Robert Englund and Brad Dourif.
Though critics panned the film, calling it a blatant ripoff of Scream, it was popular among audiences, spawning two sequels, including 2000’s Urban Legends: Final Cut. It follows a film student being stalked by a serial killer in a fencing mask, who begins murdering the crew members of her thesis film about urban legends.
Although not nearly as successful as its predecessor and even more reviled by critics than the original, it’s a lot of gory, grisly fun and has since developed a cult following. By no means a masterpiece, it’s a great popcorn flick and a worthy sequel. In fact, many fans prefer the sequel to the original, appreciating the clever twists and commentary in a film that focuses on the art of horror filmmaking and not just folktale storytelling.
In February 2020, a reboot of the original film was announced to be in development, to be written and directed by Colin Minihan.
4. Final Destination (2001)
By this point, you may be noticing a theme. Many of our favorite academic horror films have kickstarted great franchises. Films, like the next one on our list, Final Destination, are based on concepts so smart and creative that audiences are left craving far more after the credits roll.
It’s one thing to cope with a killer you can see, but what happens when you’re up against otherworldly forces well beyond your wildest dreams? In the cosmos, there are many strong, evil forces at work, and Final Destination shows us just how dangerous they can be when they’re out for blood.
It’s such a simple setup, but the concept of fate and our inability to escape it is powerful and resonated with audiences. Every film in the franchise is essentially exactly the same: a group of young people escapes a horrible, freak tragedy that should have claimed their lives. They then find themselves stalked by death, which comes for them one by one in the order they were originally supposed to die.
In the first film, the freak accident that sets off the horrific chain of events is an airplane explosion carrying a group of high school students on a school field trip to Paris.
It doesn’t matter that each film is the exact same concept. After the striking originality of the first film, audiences keep tuning in for one thing: to watch the many creative and unexpected ways the characters will die. The franchise produces some of the best kills in the genre, and it’s masterful at creating suspense and subverting expectations.
The title of this film well illustrates the dual themes of death and destiny. It combines graphic chain events with a reminder of our mortality and the inescapable but constant force of nature.
Stay tuned for Final Destination 6, a franchise reboot coming soon to HBO Max.
5. Sorority Row (2009)
Sorority Row is a 2009 slasher film that stars a cast of young newcomers alongside legendary actress Carrie Fisher. It is a re-imagining of the 1982 slasher The House on Sorority Row by Mark Rosman. The film focuses on a group of sorority sisters who are stalked and murdered on the night of their graduation, eight months after covering up the accidental death of a fellow sister.
As is common among horror films, especially slashers, critics hated this one. And we’ll be the first to admit it’s far from the groundbreaking and influential horror included elsewhere on this list. So, why is it appearing in our roundup of great academic horror films? That’s for one reason and one reason only: it’s damned entertaining.
Sorority Row leans heavily into its genre tropes and delivers exactly what you expect and likely desire from these kinds of films.
You get plenty of beautiful, scantily-clad women, lots of intense and gory kills, and a well-paced adrenaline ride that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The film is not intended as camp or parody, but it’s also not trying to be elevated in any way. And that’s ok. Because sometimes all you want is a wickedly fun, mindless film you can get lost in for roughly 90 minutes. In that regard, Sorority Row really delivers.
The filmmakers waste no time putting the girls in peril, and the characters are well-written enough to keep you invested. We get a decent number of deaths, and the kills are all fun and inventive. It’s a hard-R horror that delivers the goods. Plus, it’s worth a watch for Carrie Fisher’s performance alone.
6. Carrie (2013)
Sure, the original Carrie (1976) from celebrated auteur Brian De Palma, adapted from Stephen King’s masterpiece of the same name, is an essential horror classic. But we’re focusing on the polarizing 2013 remake. That’s not because it’s a better film; it’s certainly not. But you likely have already seen 76’s Carrie (if you haven’t, for the love of god, please drop everything and go watch it immediately), and you may have overlooked the beleaguered but worthwhile remake.
First off, Carrie (2013) was directed by a woman, Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), which is refreshing for a film that centers around themes of womanhood and a young girl’s traumatic coming of age. It also stars the immensely talented Chloe Grace Moretz in the title role made famous by Sissy Spacek and Julianne Moore in Piper Laurie’s role of the religiously fanatical Margaret White, Carrie’s less-than-nurturing mother. The original actors were extraordinary, but Peirce could not have picked two finer actors to fill such big shoes.
The remake was met with understandable outcries of, “Why remake an immortal classic?” Though a strong case could be made for revisiting a film that centers around teen bullying, public humiliation, and devastation retaliation in this day and age. We sadly live in times that make these delicate topics more relevant and resonate than ever. And Peirce, along with screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, does a fine job bringing Carrie’s infamous locker-room humiliation into the modern age — making it all the more tragic and impactful.
Unlike the original, there’s no humor or camp here. The result is a far more traumatic and realistic portrayal of loneliness and ostracization, resulting in unspeakable horror. Peirce also manages to deepen and further complicate the all-important relationship between mother and daughter.
The ending falls short of expectations and opts for a more is more approach that belies the subtle texture of the film up until that point. Still, there is a lot to praise with this interpretation, including a great performance from the always enchanting Judy Greer (Halloween, 2018)
Both Sissy Spacek and Brian De Palma gave this remake their blessing. And it’s clear Peirce isn’t trying to usurp the greatness of the original. Instead, she seeks to modernize a heartbreaking tale and give it contemporary social relevance for a modern audience.
7. Happy Death Day (2017)
In this clever horror-comedy, Jessica Rothe plays college student Tree, who is murdered the night of her birthday by an unknown killer but wakes up the next day to find she is back a the beginning of the day — before her murder. The cycle repeats repeatedly, and she appears doomed to die night after night until she can discover who wants her dead.
The film was directed by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity 2-4) and written by popular comic book writer Scott Lobdell. It was produced by Jason Blum through his Blumhouse Productions banner.
Released near Halloween in 2017, it grossed $125 million against a measly $4.8 million budget. Critics were kind to it and seemed charmed by the film’s sense of fun and Rothe’s great comedic performance. Though it clearly borrows heavily from a familiar premise, made popular by Groundhog Day, the idea of combining the repeating cycle trope with horror elements made the film feel fresh and original.
It’s a blast to watch Tree die in a variety of increasingly wild ways, and it’s an exceedingly clever way to give the audience lots of satisfying death scenes without upping the body count or killing off characters you’re invested in. It’s ultimately more fun than frightening, but it really works. It’s also enjoyable to watch Tree’s character development over the course of the film, and we even get some genuinely touching moments that add a bit of depth to the otherwise lighthearted film.
Rothe is an actress, like Samara Weaving, that you can’t help but be drawn to. She’s captivating and relatable in an effortless way. And she’s just as good at killer comedic timing as she is at showcasing her scream queen chops. This movie made me long to see her in many more horror films. Fortunately, we get to see Rothe’s return in Happy Death 2U, the 2019 sequel, and it’s just as wildly entertaining as the original.
8. Truth or Dare (2018)
Truth or Dare follows a group of college students who play a game of truth or dare while on vacation in Mexico, only to realize it has deadly consequences if they don’t follow through on their obligations. It’s another film from horror hitmaker Jason Blum.
A group of friends decides to visit a supposed haunted house to play an ordinary game of Truth and Dare. As they play, they realize the house is indeed haunted, and their game is anything but ordinary. In fact, they are playing against a vengeful spirit. Back in 1983, a girl named Donna Boone played the same game and lived to tell the tale. Now, in the present day, the group realizes they cannot cheat death. They must play the game with sincerity.
As in Final Destination, each of the friends starts to die one by one. It’s reminiscent of films like Unfriended, where dark secrets are revealed, and It Follows, where a curse continues to get passed on until more and more people are infected. It’s also got an ending that will make you weep for humanity if you aren’t already.
A critical flop but a box office success, it’s silly fun that focuses on body count over character development. It moves at a nice clip and never gets bogged down in things like logic and reasonable explanations for the madness that unfolds. It’s formulaic and intends to be, and it makes no apologies for being schlocky and gleefully unhinged.
It’s not a great film. But it makes our list because it’s worth watching with a group of friends so you can enjoy laughing in between scares. It’s PG-13 antics, so you can also watch it with your more gore-averse friends.