It was 1999. We were gathered on the tweed sectional sofa in my best friend's living room, dressed in our itchy flannel pajamas and clutching our pillows; we squealed in both horror and delight. The weakest among us (namely, me) burying our faces and peeking through our fingers, still sticky with freshly applied nail polish, at the terrors flashing across the old CRT television screen. The rite of watching a scary movie at a pre-teen slumber party is sacred. And that night's choice was particularly exciting. We were thirteen, with high school looming in the near future, and this movie had our favorite broody dreamboat, Josh Hartnett. And also thirsty, parasitic aliens. We were, of course, watching The Faculty.
Unbeknownst to us, my best friend's mom was lurking in the kitchen, spying on the festivities. She noted the aliens' need to consume large amounts of water to keep them and their human hosts hydrated. When the film ended, she casually entered the room, chugging a giant glass of water, taking care to make eye contact with each of us. When she finished the glass she exclaimed, "ugh, I'm just so thirsty! I think I need another glass!"
Her little prank was met with several nervous gulps, a gasp, and one extremely irritated eye roll from her daughter. And yet, I've been obsessed with The Faculty ever since.
The longevity of The Faculty as a classic of the nineties teen horror genre is due to the ways it is both a perfect encapsulation of the late nineties/early aughts (it can't be a nineties teen movie if you don't have Josh Hartnett's spiky bowl cut or Usher as a supporting character!) and yet powered by themes that feel eternal. Perhaps because The Faculty draws the most heavily from two classic sources: the science-fiction horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and John Hughes' teen angst opus The Breakfast Club.
In The Breakfast Club, we meet five teenagers who both embody and struggle against the boundaries of their assigned high school roles. As the varying symbols of white, suburban adolescence, they simultaneously fear and loathe adulthood while longing for its freedom. We have: The prom queen who has the hots for the bad boy, the bad boy with a hidden sensitive side, the weird goth girl who is just in need of a good makeover, the jock who is sick of competing, and the nerd: the permanent outsider, neutered but with a shocking capability for rage and violence. These five characters became the archetypes for modern teen comedies (and dramas) of the past thirty-five years.
Meanwhile, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the '56 and the '78 versions) resonates as a classic of the genre because it functions as a political metaphor. It was about the fear of assimilation and indoctrination. In 1956, audiences could watch and - depending on their political beliefs - view it as a critique of either the possible infiltration of communists into their "safe" suburban neighborhoods or the destructive tyranny of McCarthyism. Don't trust your neighbor, they might be a plant - literally! In 1978, that metaphor was expanded to include the Watergate scandal and its aftermath. The bleak cynicism of the seventies pervades this adaptation, down to the ending in which we learn that not even our hero, Donald Sutherland can escape being assimilated by the pod people.
The Faculty essentially asks, what if the kids of The Breakfast Club had to fight the pod people?
By colliding these two stories together, The Faculty taps into something primal. Something abject. For our core players - our five high school seniors on the cusp of adulthood - resisting assimilation by the alien horde is tied intimately to that adolescent compulsion (but also revulsion) towards fitting in. They are in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, but also one in which they both want to belong and to stand out. They desire the acceptance of their peers but also the acknowledgment that they are unique, special. But even that is a superficial exterior for what the terror of The Faculty truly implies. To teenagers, adults can seem like a terrifying monolith. Unthinking, unfeeling, and unable to understand, they command every aspect of the young lives under their control. To contemplate inevitably joining those ranks feels untenable.
To assimilate is to grow up. And to grow up is to die. To accept the parasite is to accept the unthinkable - the loss of the self. It is the literalization of The Breakfast Club's thesis: "When you grow up, your heart dies." After all as Julia Kristeva touches upon in Powers of Horror, "There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable." The horror of the Abject is not its exterior vulgarity or filthiness but the way in which it disturbs our sense of identity and forces us to accept our eventual unbeing.
But like the Abject, growing up would not be so terrifying if it weren't also so alluring. We see this in the parasites themselves. They are visually and tactilely repellent - both bony and fleshy, like a shrimp on steroids or a severed finger with teeth. When seen outside of their hosts, they provoke a visceral response of disgust. And yet, what they offer: a sense of belonging and community, peace, and freedom from the dictatorship of hormone-driven emotions, is seductive.
This confrontation forces a subversion of the established teenage archetypes. Delilah (Jordana Brewster), the popular mean girl and the biggest advocator for assimilation into the high school hierarchy, is the first of the group to succumb. Stan (Shawn Hatosy), the jock desperate to shed his alpha bro status is ultimately unable to sever himself from the team and becomes the second to give in. Stokely (Clea DuVall), is the goth girl and pseudo lesbian who rejects all markers of belonging, but only because she desires it so strongly. Zeke (Josh Hartnett) is the criminal, the smartest kid in school (technically an adult!), repeating his senior year instead of growing up and moving on. Marybeth, (Laura Harris) is the virginal girl next door who is actually the queen alien, the puppetmaster, in disguise. Casey (Elijah Wood) is the nerd - the outsider who, due to his status as observer and documenter, first sounds the alarm and is ultimately the one who destroys the queen alien and saves the day, penetrating her violently with his phallic sword, his pen full of amphetamines.
We see the individual variations of their fears reflected back at them by the faculty they fight against. These adults represent their twisted futures, what awaits them if they choose to grow up and belong. The hard-nosed bitch of a principal (Bebe Neuwirth), the big mean fish in her small pond, is the fate that awaits our mean girl Delilah. The raging coach (played by the one and only T-1000 Robert Patrick) is a reflection of Stan the jock. The shy Miss Burke (Famke Janssen) who becomes a femme fatale after her possession represents Marybeth's virgin/monster dichotomy. Mrs. Olsen (Piper Laurie), the put-upon art teacher who unleashes sharp, scissored violence at the first hint of power, reflects the secret urges of Stokely. The science teacher (Jon Stewart) reflects both the bumbling submissive nature of the nerd and a potential dismal future for the criminal and his aptitude for chemistry. This potential fate is what keeps him clinging to adolescence. But perhaps the criminal, the only true adult (legally) among our intrepid teens, has no mirror; he has attempted to arrest his own development even if time has already forced him over that boundary.
After Casey (the nerd) defeats the queen and things at the school return to the status quo, we see our established tropes' final evolution and subversion. Stan is able to devote himself to his academic interests and (much like the ending of The Breakfast Club) pursue a romantic relationship with the now traditionally feminine Stokely. Zeke behaves in class. Casey, in the ultimate triumph of beta-nerds everywhere, dates Delilah the queen bee.
And so the message of The Faculty is slyly bleak. By defeating the alien queen, they were not actually conquering death and adulthood but were purging their anxieties about it. Those fears conquered, they now willingly assimilate with ease. Growing up isn't so scary after all.