30 Years of Heathers: Teen Angst Lives On

"If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host."

Heathers (1988)

I first watched Heathers alone, in my living room. I had the TV to myself, so I lazily flipped through channels, hoping to find something even a little bit interesting. That afternoon came and went slowly; it was sunny and inviting outside, but chilly, so I decided to stay on the couch wrapped in a blanket. In the late fall it was easy to choose these types of afternoons, cozy in warm sunlight that streams through windows, holding a mug of tea or hot cider.

On the TV, nothing caught my eye, so much so that I considered taking a nap rather than trying to find something to occupy my time, but then I landed on Heathers. It was about midway through the film, when JD and Veronica kill the Kurt and Ram in the woods near their school and stage it as a gay suicide pact. That scene and the ones that followed were simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. I was hooked and sat through the rest of the film. Once the credits rolled, I immediately searched for it online, needing to see the whole thing from the beginning, needing to know how Veronica became a killer.

Since that day seven years ago, I have watched Heathers five or six times a year, often roping in friends who only know that it’s a black comedy about suicide or have lived in blissful ignorance. Heathers is easy to overlook, especially because of its subject matter: the killing of high school students by other high school students. Still, the film has a sort of cultural infamy; its plot asks the viewer to consider the violence inherent in teenagedom. Even the opening scene of a game of croquet between the three Heathers, depicts Veronica on the receiving end of physical pain, taking Heather Chandler’s croquet ball to the head.

The angst begins early; already the film pits Veronica against her friends, who represent some type of societal norm that Veronica intends to fight against. Even Veronica’s clothes—blues and grays—are conspicuous against the brightly colored wardrobes of the Heathers. As a teenager, I related to Veronica, wanting both to keep my individuality and push against my desire to be accepted as “cool.” Though I never had friends like Veronica’s, and I don’t think my high school had people like the Heathers, watching the film spoke to me in the way that teen movies often speak to teenagers. Heathers became my favorite film easily; I thought it cleverly pointed out the pressures of societal homogeneity with murder and quirky dialogue.

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The social dynamics of the film, especially in their clear messaging against this type of high school toxicity, makes Heathers an easy film to re-watch over and over and over. I’ve often found myself choosing this film over lighter, more heartwarming fare like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or The Breakfast Club. I needed the satirical outlet for teen angst that Heathers provides. Even into my twenties, the film has sat with me, its message, though seemingly juvenile, prodding at me with an index finger. It is endlessly quotable and endlessly fun. The teen angst in Heathers takes action, the darkness of the murder plots enough to keep me coming back despite watching the film every couple of months.

When Veronica dons her monocle and writes about how her “teen angst bullshit has a body count,” I weirdly get it. In my teenage diaries and poems I wrote in a similar voice. Even the conversations between Veronica and her peers work against the philosophical underpinnings of the heartwarming messages of other teen films. By wrestling with teenage angst in the framework of darkness, Heathers easily became a marker for an alternative and edgy understanding of how high school is the “real world” and teenagers do experience the trials and tribulations of human life. I always liked this aspect of the film, especially when younger, because it made me feel that I had greater answers to what it means to be human. The edginess of Heathers indulged my own dabbling in darkness: dealing with undiagnosed depression.

In a way, my teen angst never died, integrating itself into my depression over the past seven years. Through my screenings of Heathers, I’ve been able to connect with the part of myself that has an intense interest in suicide, in playing God for my own life. Even through JD’s reprehensibility, his telling Veronica “you’ll be back” after she breaks up with him reminds me of my own depression. When I finally, like Veronica, break away from the hovering cloud of darkness, my mind whispers to me in warning that soon I’ll be drowning in my frustration at my own living, my own frustration with being misunderstood and unable to articulate what I want. Veronica, in a sense, appears to me as a heroine; she leaves the darkness and death in favor of an attempt to start anew. I wish working through mental illness was as easy as Veronica makes it look; as easy as “Que Sera Sera,” which opens and closes the film, reminding the viewer to sit back and take life for what it is.

Through high school and college, I turned to Heathers as a source of comfort. Even now, as a grad student, I like to play the movie in the background while I work on other things, whispering the dialogue as the film progresses. Sometimes I hum “Que Sera Sera” to myself, the lyrics of the song reminding me that sometimes things will just happen and I have no way of knowing what each day will bring.

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