In today’s installment of Ivy On Celluloid, I’m going to take a look at 2017’s Happy Death Day: a time twister of a slasher movie.
The plot of Happy Death Day is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A college student must relive the day of her murder over and over again, in a loop that will end only when she discovers her killer’s identity.
The screenplay for Happy Death Day was written by Scott Lobdell, who is primarily known for his extensive comic book writing for series like Uncanny X-Men and Generation X. The director for the film was Christopher Landon, who has worked as both a writer and producer on a number of entries into the Paranormal Activity franchise. Some other notable crew members include editor Gregory Plotkin (Get Out, Game Night) and cinematographer Toby Oliver (Get Out, Fantasy Island, Breaking In).
The primary filming location for Happy Death Day is New Orleans, LA, on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans and in the surrounding area. As an aside, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on this campus, as I attended my first two years of college next door at Tulane University.
To begin the higher education analysis of Happy Death Day, let’s see if the fictional “Bayfield University” is actually a loosely fictionalized version of a specific university. As mentioned previously, the movie was filmed on the campus of Loyola University – New Orleans. If Bayfield was meant to be any specific school, it would make sense for it to be Loyola-NO. However, there are some key details of Bayfield that indicate that it is likely a distinct institution from Loyola-New Orleans, rather than a stand-in. First, Loyola-New Orleans is a private Jesuit university, one of 27 in the United States. While it is not explicitly stated, Bayfield University appears to be a stand-in for a public, state university, given the prominence of athletics in campus life, and the apparent absence of religiosity on campus. Another detail that distinguishes Bayfield from Loyola-NO is the presence of a university hospital and medical center – while this location has a prominent role in the film, Loyola-NO does not have such a facility. Notably, Bayfield University does retain the color scheme of Loyola-New Orleans – red and gold. However, Bayfield University’s iconography is perhaps the most significant change from Loyola University – New Orleans.
The mascot for Bayfield University featured in the film is a giant baby, whose image is co-opted by the killer(s) throughout the story via a creepy baby mask. The “Bayfield Babies” would certainly be in the running for one of the worst university athletic team names in the world, though there are perhaps some weirder examples in real life. As I covered in my post on Van Wilder, schools like University of California – Santa Cruz (Banana Slugs) and Evergreen State College (Geoducks) have exceedingly strange team names, but today I am going to focus specifically on horrifying mascots.
There are a few college mascots that merit acknowledgement when it comes to the uncanny and unnatural ability to conjure nightmares. First, I think Wichita State University’s mascot, known as WuShock, deserves recognition. Officially described by the university as “a big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat,” both iterations of WuShock I have seen are equally unnerving.
Another terrifying university mascot of note is Purdue University’s hammer-wielding Purdue Pete, whose unfeeling, void-like eyes can burn their way into your soul. The University of Louisville’s Louie the Cardinal has a similar overt aggressive energy to WuShock, with the added intimidation factor of having grinding, omnivorous human teeth inside of his over-sized bird beak. Perhaps the most unnerving of college mascots, however, is Western Kentucky University’s Big Red – an undefined blob-like creature with a gaping maw that has been described as the “amorphous, ambiguous, asexual and always lovable representative of the school’s athletics,” and is renowned for its unusual ability to “make expressions” and “show emotion.” Personally, I would prefer to keep mascots emotionless.
An interesting detail of Bayfield University in Happy Death Day is the absence of “blue light” emergency phones. These have been a visible campus safety fixture on college and university campuses for decades. They are meant to provide a direct line to campus police or security in the case of any emergency situation, such as the confrontation in the dark tunnel towards the beginning of the film. Interestingly, there has been growing debate about their continued operation due to the costs they incur, coupled with the ubiquity of cell phones. Many campuses have begun using emergency mobile applications to phase out the blue light phones, whereas others, like the University of Colorado – Boulder and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, have already eliminated the blue light phones.
Early in the film, a brownout occurs throughout the Bayfield University campus, the effects of which are seen in a sorority house by the characters Tree and Danielle. Afterwards, Danielle exclaims, “Our tuition money at work!” This got me curious about the ownership of fraternity and sorority houses – Danielle’s statement seems to imply that the university owns the house, but I was under the impression that houses were usually owned by outside parties, like alumni or the national fraternity/sorority organizations. According to information I was able to dig up from Appalachian State University, the earliest fraternity chapter houses were owned by chapter alumni, and not by the host university. However, this isn’t always the case today. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, 24 of 32 fraternity and sorority houses are directly owned by the university. Likewise, fraternities and sororities at North Carolina State University, Georgia Tech, and the University of Maryland – College Park live in a mixture of university-owned and privately owned houses. In contrast, at the University of Washington all fraternity and sorority housing is privately owned.
During a number of the timelines in the film, a murder occurs within a sorority house. The first thing that is clearly evoked by these instances, particularly given the fact that there is an escaped killer nearby, is Ted Bundy’s spree at Florida State University’s Chi Omega house, which occurred after he escaped from custody. While the fictitious serial killer in Happy Death Day does not bear a resemblance to Ted Bundy, the implication that he targets college women and is prone to escape attempts draws a parallel between them.
Despite the presence of a serial killer, it is ultimately revealed that Tree is the repeated victim of a murder plot by her roommate. After doing some digging, I was able to find a handful of examples of college roommates committing murder. In 2007, a University of Arizona student stabbed her roommate 23 times because she had been exposed for stealing $500. In 1995, a student at Harvard University murdered her roommate before subsequently killing herself, which became the subject of a book that criticized Harvard’s mental health services for students. A recent case of apparent college roommate murder occurred in 2019, when a Clark Atlanta University student was allegedly killed by her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend. Both of them have plead not guilty, and a trial is forthcoming.
A number of times throughout the movie, an unnamed student is shown passing out during what appears to be a hazing ritual. The student appears to be a fraternity pledge who has been forced to stay up all night while standing and singing with other pledges. There are countless articles that have outlined dangerous hazing practices that have occurred on college campuses. Universities have long acknowledged the safety issues inherent to hazing, and have widely adopted strict anti-hazing institutional policies, which are intended to curb potentially dangerous hazing rituals. Further, there are anti-hazing laws in a number of states. However, in 2018, Oracle: The Research Journal of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors published a document analysis of anti-hazing policies and legislation, which critiques some of their notable shortcomings and provides a fantastic overview how hazing persists in higher education. Because of the public scrutiny and admonishment of hazing practices, it seems unlikely to me that hazing, even of this debatably innocuous sort, would be carried out on campus in broad daylight. It seems more likely to me that hazing would at least happen behind closed doors, in order to avoid formal repercussions for the organization.
A number of times throughout the film, a particular focus is placed on the dietary restrictions placed on members of the sorority Kappa Pi Lambda by their apparent leader, Danielle, in order for the members to maintain a consistent image. This kind of food policing by sorority leadership comes up occasionally in higher education films, usually coupled with gags about eating disorders among sorority members. There are a handful of research studies on implementing programs to prevent eating disorders among sorority members that focus on either individuals or the sorority social systems as a whole, but there isn’t much that indicates concretely that sorority members are more likely to have eating disorders than college women on the whole. A phenomenological study on perceptions among sorority women found that “sorority women may have a greater fear of becoming fat, are more dissatisfied with their bodies. and are more weight preoccupied and concerned with dieting than are college women from previous studies,” which could put them at greater risk of developing eating disorders. While there is a research study that indicates that sorority members develop a greater “drive for thinness” as a result of their sorority membership over three years when compared to non-sorority peers, there was no indication that they have higher rates of bulimia or general body dissatisfaction compared to their unaffiliated peers.
All of that said, the Kappa standards in Happy Death Day do seem consistent with a leaked 2013 email from a University of Southern California sorority to members which Jezebel described as “unhinged”:
Start eating healthy today and you’ll feel so much better by the time polish week and recruitment starts. Stay away from fried and super sugary foods. Your face will seriously brighten up. Also, exercise. Start now and you’ll have way more energy and endurance for the long hours of recruitment.
One of my favorite things about Happy Death Day is how it portrays a casual day on a college campus. Most college movies gloss over the hustle and bustle of the college campus in the daylight in favor of the classroom setting or the debauchery of nighttime. Happy Death Day spends some quality time on a quad at the beginning of each repeated cycle, showing students collecting petition signatures, folks hanging out on the grass, a flurry of assorted noises, and the seemingly perpetual human motion of a buzzing university at full capacity. It is a strange element to be left out of so many college films, but Happy Death Day captures the spirit of a daytime college campus in these sequences better than any other film that I can think of.
There are quite a few other topics I could cover from Happy Death Day – university policies about sexual relations between faculty and students, suicide on campus, violence at fraternities, etc. – but I have either already covered them in other Ivy On Celluloid features, or plan to cover them with another film.
On the whole, Happy Death Day is an entertaining horror-comedy movie that is reminiscent of a number of classics: there are explicit nods to Groundhog Day, and thematic similarities to the Scream franchise and other subsequent self-aware slashers. I’m hesitant to say that this is a great movie, but I found it to be a pretty good late night horror film, and a surprisingly interesting depiction of higher education. Though it does lean on some lazy stereotypes, spends a bit too much time and effort making the lead unsympathetic, and takes too long to get the momentum rolling, there are definitely things to like about Happy Death Day. I can recommend this confidently to horror fans out there, particularly if they are into the Scream and Cabin In The Woods brand of self-aware horror.
A big thanks to my old Columbus film critic buddies Hope Madden and George Wolf, who inspired me to take a look at Happy Death Day. I recently hopped on their amazing horror podcast Fright Club to discuss college horror movies, which included a little discussion of Happy Death Day. Check it out!