Ivy On Celluloid: Final Exam

Final Exam

Today, in my continuing series on films about higher education, I’m going to look at the 1981 horror movie Final Exam.

The plot of Final Exam is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A psycho killer shows up on college campus to slash up pretty co-eds and dumb jocks.

Final Exam was written and directed by Jimmy Huston, whose other credits include My Best Friend Is a Vampire and Running Scared. Huston’s career started with some minor work in the 70s, and concluded with a handful of television directing gigs in the mid-90s.

The musical score for the film was the first credited composition for Gary S. Scott, who would later make a name for himself providing music for television shows like Beverly Hills 90210, Behind The Music, 7th Heaven, Fame, Freddy’s Nightmares, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.

To fill out the extras and background characters, the production apparently recruited theater students from the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and Appalachian State University.

Final Exam is the first horror movie I have analyzed for its portrayal of higher education – however, I found that it still brought up a handful of interesting issues relating to colleges and universities.

First off, three campuses served as filming locations for Final Exam – Limestone College in Gaffney, SC; Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC; and Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC.

Lanier College, the setting as portrayed in the film by the aforementioned campuses, is entirely fictitious. However, there is a Lanier Technical College located in Oakwood, GA, though it is a trade and technical school that doesn’t match the traditional description of Lanier College in Final Exam.

Speaking of the description of the setting school, what kind of school is Lanier College, exactly? There are a few details scattered throughout the film – first off, the school is clearly residential and rural, as it is clearly not located in a city, and has a number of student dormitories. It is also revealed early in the film that a rival institution to Lanier College – March College (also fictitious) – is a small population, rural school that recently dealt with a significant football recruiting scandal. I think that it logically follows that Lanier is similar in size and athletic competitiveness – otherwise, it is hard to imagine how a rivalry would exist. There is also a throwaway detail that Lanier requires science courses – namely chemistry – as a core requirement for all students.

Based on these general descriptions of March College and Lanier College, I think it is safe to say that neither institution is meant to stand-in for a specific, real college – they are both designed to be as generic and relatable as possible to any given audience. They are both merely vague amalgamations of American higher education institutions.

At the beginning of the film, a killer is shown murdering March College’s star quarterback and his girlfriend. This got me wondering – has a star college quarterback ever been the victim of a murder?

In early 2018, Washington State University quarterback Tyler Hilinski was found dead as a result of suicide. Later in 2018, a Maryville College wide receiver was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend. Also in 2018, a former Penn State quarterback was killed in a stabbing in Philadelphia. In 2007, former University of Miami safety and NFL player Sean Taylor was killed in a break-in at his home. In 2009, former Alcorn State quarterback and retired NFL star Steve McNair was murdered. In each of these cases, however, the formula is different than what is described in the film – either the student had long since graduated, was a perpetrator rather than a victim, or wasn’t murdered.

In the trailer for Final Exam, the narrator states that Lanier College has “the finest security, the best teacher-student relations, no fraternity hazing, [and] strictly enforced curfews,” juxtaposed with images that counter each statement.

In regards to campus security, there is only one campus officer shown in the movie, who is quickly revealed to be a dire alcoholic and an incompetent. It is also shown that there is a jurisdictional debate between local police and and campus police, which has led to a negative view of the college by local police officers.

In a 2015 piece in The Atlantic, it was written that the role and size of campus police departments has expanded significantly in recent years – apparently, “over 4,000 police departments total operate at public and private postsecondary schools.” This is a far cry from the early 80s, single-guard security depicted in Final Exam, to say the least. In the words of the President of International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, campus police often “do a better job of interacting with the public” than local police departments, and allegedly have a more “harm-reduction” mentality than their non-campus colleagues. However, incidents like the UC-Davis pepper spray fiasco have also come about with the increase in campus police, as well as allegations that campus cops are insufficiently trained to deal with their ever-widening jurisdictions beyond their campuses:

the shifts within college and university police departments raise some odd jurisdictional issues: Even though they’re narrowly tasked with enforcing the law and student safety…According to DOJ statistics, eight of ten college police can patrol off-campus areas (81 percent) and make arrests (86 percent).

In the trailer narration, “teacher-student relations” is used as a euphemism for sexual activity between students and members of the faculty. In the story of the film, such a relationship plays a pretty minor role in the background of the story. This is an ethical issue in higher education I brought up back in my coverage of Necessary Roughness. As an example of a typical university policy on these kinds of relationships, here is an excerpt from a Cornell University document, which specifically outlines that romantic relationships are prohibited between faculty and students at that institution, and why:

The relationships between students and their faculty…should be conducted in a manner that avoids potential conflicts of interest…a conflict of interest arises when an individual evaluates the work or performance of a person with whom he or she is pursuing or engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship. Romantic or sexual relationships between students and persons in positions of academic authority may compromise the relationship between students and the university.

Fraternity hazing also plays a minor role in the film, though it does ultimately leave a character prone to an attack from the mysterious killer. The hazing ritual that takes place is one in which the pledge is tied to a tree overnight. I was able to dig up a couple of approximately similar hazing rituals, including an incident at the University of Central Florida in 2004 where a pledge was found tied and Saran wrapped to a tree, and another case where a Troy University fraternity pledge was tied to a tree and pelted with eggs in 2015.

In regards to “enforced curfews,” as mentioned in the trailer, this is a policy that is not entirely uncommon. Kentucky Christian University, for example, has a campus-wide curfew of 1:00am. In 2017, a long-standing curfew policy at Liberty University was relaxed, allowing students 20 and over to stay out past the traditional midnight curfew, which met with a mixed reception:

“Our argument was to have college be a transition period from kind of being a kid into being an adult. This way when you graduate from here and go out on your own, it’s not going to be this huge culture shock where you can do whatever you want,”

– Jared Cave, Liberty University SGA Vice President

During one of the first scenes of the film, one of the characters complains about his required chemistry class, despite his non-science major:

“Why do I have to take chemistry anyway? I’m going into advertising.”

Some colleges certainly require science classes as part of their core curriculum, which all degree-seeking students must take. Columbia University, for example, uses the following logic for its three required science classes:

The objective of the science component of Columbia College’s Core Curriculum is identical to that of its humanities and social science counterparts, namely to help students “to understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it.” The science component is intended specifically to provide students with the opportunity to learn what kinds of questions are asked about nature, how hypotheses are tested against experimental or observational evidence, how results of tests are evaluated, and what knowledge has been accumulated about the workings of the natural world.

Columbia’s policy does allow for a degree of choice, however: students have to choose from Astronomy, Biology, Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Psychology, and Statistics to fill their three required science classes.

The very idea of a core curriculum ties in to a very old debate as to the purpose of higher education. Is college supposed to, as Columbia states, “help students to understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it,” or is it to provide specialized job training for a designated career? Passionate arguments for both sides have been made for centuries, and the battle continues through higher education policy and programming today.

In an early sequence in the film, a Professor glibly announces that he is introducing a modified honor system for an upcoming quiz – saying that any cheating is to be met with “sniper fire” from Nazis located in a nearby tower, who he claims trained with UT-Austin sniper Charles Whitman. While all of the students take this as an obvious joke, this kind of quip from a professor would almost certainly be received with hostility from students and fellow faculty alike.

An inappropriate joke by a King’s College London professor in 2018 led to disciplinary action from his professional association; in 2011, a Roosevelt University sociology professor’s immigration joke led to an investigation, and ultimately his dismissal from the university; in 2015, a Louisiana State University professor was fired for telling sexually-themed jokes to undergraduate students. While all of the aforementioned cases involved at least questionable professionalism, they all pale in comparison to the dark comments from the Lanier College professor in this movie, which could easily be interpreted as a direct, physical threat to his students.

The UT-Austin sniper killings, which were referenced in the aforementioned scene, took place 15 years prior to the release of this film. However, numerous other notable spree killings occurred on college campuses in the intervening years. For example,  in 1966, a copycat of the UT-Austin sniper killed 5 people and injured 2 others at the Rose-Mar College of Beauty in Mesa, AZ.  In 1970, 2 University of Pennsylvania professors were gunned down by a disgruntled graduate student. In 1969, two students at UCLA were killed by a third, who was never apprehended. In 1971, a spree shooter shot four people at Gonzaga University. In 1976, a university custodian killed 7 people and wounded 2 others at California State University – Fullerton. Even in 1981, the year of the film’s release, a flunking University of Michigan student killed two of his peers on campus. Even this is only an abridged list – there were numerous other incidences between 1966 and 1981, let alone in the ensuing years afterward the film’s release.

However, there is a key difference between the typical campus killer and the villain portrayed in Final Exam. Most campus shooters fit the definition of either spree killers or mass murderers, whereas the killer in this film is unquestionably a serial killer who targets college students.

Speaking of which, I was able to find one serial killer who specifically targeted college students – Danny Rolling, the “Gainesville Ripper,” who brutally killed five college students in the Gainesville, FL area over the course of four days in August of 1990.

When discussing the potential of campus violence, the characters in the film always assume it will be a random “psycho” who will show up on campus to bring the chaos (which ultimately proves to be the case). However, judging from the records I could dig up, the odds are far more likely that a member of the university community would commit such a public, on-campus act – whether a student, faculty member, or staff member.

In an early scene, a Lanier College fraternity launches a shocking, mock mass shooting on the Lanier College quad, terrifying the student body as an apparent prank. Ultimately, the intention behind the prank is to push back exam week, giving fraternity members more time to make a plan to cheat their way through the tests.

Outside of a bunch of conspiracy theories about crisis actors, I couldn’t find any documentation of a mock mass shooting on a college campus. Cheating, however, is an undeniably common practice. On top of the mock mass shooting, there are a number of other times where students at Lanier College are shown plotting to steal tests or actively tampering with grades. In 2015, there was a case at Texas Tech where a number of students tampered with their grades to graduate, but were caught by a professor and investigated. A Kessler International survey of 300 college students found that 86% admitted to cheating in some way in college coursework. A 2013 Boston Globe article claimed that the percentage of college students who are admitted cheaters is at 75%, and has been for some time.

At one point, one of the fraternity members in the film complains to a professor that “this isn’t the test I studied,” which seems to be a reference to the somewhat ethically dubious practice of test banking. Test banking is the practice of keeping copies and records of previous tests, which are frequently used by fraternities and other student organizations. While some schools and professors encourage this practice, many still find it to be ethically questionable.

At one point in the film, one of the characters tells the story of a student who rushed to join a sorority at Lanier College, but was ultimately rejected, and subsequently committed suicide. This kind of story is the sort that gets told over and over again, until people eventually just assume it is true. Personally, I haven’t been able to produce a single instance of a suicide that attributed a sorority rejection as the cause. Kind of like with the Dead Man On Campus roommate suicide straight-A scenario, this is something that is an unfounded hypothetical that has ballooned into the public consciousness over the years, despite there never apparently being a root truth behind it.

Final Exam, at the end of the day, is a weird, mostly-forgotten little film. It was a bit of an oddball choice to cover here on the blog, but I am glad I did. While it isn’t a movie I can particularly recommend, it brought up a fair number of interesting higher education issues and topics for me to dig into. Horror fans who enjoy an off-the-beaten-path slasher movie might get a kick out of this one, but otherwise I think it is worth a pass. If the Rotten Tomatoes scores of 14% / 18% say anything, it is that there are long odds that any given person is going to enjoy this flick.

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