With Simon Barrett’s Seance — about a group of teens who unwittingly awaken their dorm’s resident ghost — arriving on May 21, we’ve got spooky boarding schools on the brain. Much like college campuses, they’ve been a rather popular setting for horror movies over the years, but these are 9 of our favourites.
It’s hard to top Phenomena, Italian horror master Dario Argento’s 1985 take on the boarding-school horror genre (before anyone says anything, 1977’s Suspiria is set at a ballet academy, which isn’t quite the same — but a double-feature of the two would still be thematically copacetic). Phenomena, which is sometimes titled Creepers depending on which version you’re watching, stars a pre-Labyrinth Jennifer Connelly as a teen, also named Jennifer, whose movie-star father ships her off to a Swiss boarding school that happens to have a serial killer problem.
Jennifer has the strange (but ultimately useful) ability to communicate with insects, something that alienates her from her classmates — but also brings her into contact with a kindly entomologist (Halloween’s Donald Pleasence) and his nurse, Inga, who is played by… a chimpanzee named Tanga. And for what it’s worth, Phenomena’s soundtrack (Goblin, Iron Maiden) and striking cinematography and production design (both Argento trademarks) are as glorious as the plot is gloriously weird.
Released in 1978 and initially dismissed as a Carrie rip-off — not entirely unearned, considering its tag line was “Makes Carrie look like an angel!” — Jennifer introduces us to the titular sweet, brainy country gal (Ghoulies’ Lisa Pelikan) who earns a coveted scholarship to a boarding school otherwise populated by arsehole rich kids. She’s immediately singled out for being different (read: being poor) by not just her fellow students, including a truly vile senator’s daughter played by Amy Johnston, but the school’s snooty staff.
But what they don’t realise is that like Carrie before her (and Phenomena’s Jennifer, a few years later), the “hillbilly” they love to torment has an incredibly spooky gift that that she calls upon when pushed to the edge: MAKING SNAKES DO HER BIDDING. Really, the tag line should have been “She’s the head of the classssss.”
3) Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
This surprisingly entertaining entry in the long-running Halloween series was released in 1998, making it part of the Scream–I Know What You Did Last Summer onslaught of second-wave slashers, complete with a telegenic young cast that includes Michelle Williams, then the darling of Dawson’s Creek, and newcomer Josh Hartnett. But the main draw is the returning Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode — who’s now the headmaster of a California boarding school, barely battling PTSD and living under an assumed name to protect herself (and her son, played by Hartnett), from her infamous maniac brother.
Honestly, the school itself isn’t the problem in this one; it’s picturesque, boasts the convivial LL Cool J as a security guard, and does cool stuff like organise trips to Yosemite for its students. Really, it wouldn’t be such a bad place to study — if not for that whole “isolated location/Michael Myers on a kill-crazy rampage” situation.
4) Picnic at Hanging Rock
Peter Weir’s 1975 film is really more of a mystery than a horror film, but it does dip into some awfully dark places, both mentally and physically, as it investigates some of nature’s stranger powers. On Valentine’s Day 1900, at a very prim boarding school for girls in southeastern Australia, a day trip to a nearby geological oddity turns tragic when several girls and a teacher vanish without a trace.
The atmosphere at the school — already highly charged, thanks to some intense adolescent longings and the strict headmistress’ fondness for preferential treatment (or cruel treatment, depending on your status) among her students — becomes a tempestuous sea as everyone, including the local townsfolk, become drawn into the search. Picnic at Hanging Rock’s conclusion may ostensibly be open-ended, but as the tragedies pile on, the dreaminess that’s pervaded its early scenes has turned into a full-on nightmare.
5) The Moth Diaries
Mary Harron (American Psycho) wrote and directed this 2011 chiller set at an upscale boarding school for girls that’s strict (demerits for messy hair, tardiness, etc.) but not draconian, and meaningful friendships are formed alongside field hockey practice and chapel assembly. The previous year, Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) arrived at the school after a family tragedy, but came out of her shell after forming a close friendship with Lucy (Sarah Gadon).
As The Moth Diaries begins, Rebecca is looking forward to another semester with her BFF — but her joy turns to frustration when a mysterious new student named Ernessa (Lily Cole) starts commanding all of Lucy’s attention while exhibiting some odd and frankly supernatural-seeming behaviour. You’ll know where the plot is going even before the hunky English lit teacher (Scott Speedman) whips out a copy of Carmilla, but The Moth Diaries treats its young heroines unusually respectfully, which makes the emotions it pulls from its familiar story actually feel well-earned.
6) The Woods
In this 1960s-set thriller shot through with dark fairy-tale elements, directed by Lucky McKee (May), sullen teen Heather (Agnes Brucker) is shipped off to an isolated boarding school after a fight with her mother inspires a bit of arson. Naturally, all is not what it seems — particularly among the teachers, led by a ice-cold headmistress (Patricia Clarkson) who is keenly interested in Heather’s potential as a “gifted” student, though her testing methods to gauge the girl’s abilities seem less academic and more… well, witchy.
It doesn’t take long before Heather starts hearing ghostly whispers and having strange dreams that hint at the school’s hidden agenda (hint: don’t drink the milk!). When The Woods’ spooky shit really starts hitting the fan, both main character and viewer can delight in the fact that Heather’s father is played by none other than Bruce Campbell, who obviously knows a thing or two about fighting evil things lurking in the forest.
7) The House That Screamed
This 1969 Spanish production from director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (who also made the cult classic Who Can Kill a Child?) is set in 19th century France. While it follows the “new girl arrives at new school and realises things are very, very off” template that would become the standard for later boarding-school horror films, The House That Screamed has a much racier tone than any of the others listed here. Trashier, even, if you’re able to interpret that as a compliment, which it is.
There are sadistic beatings in the name of discipline, sky-high sexual tension that somehow goes along with that, and a vicious serial killer whose identity might be obvious — but whose grim and extremely specific endgame, which is presented in a big last-act reveal, is absolutely not.
8) The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Osgood Perkins (Gretel and Hansel) directed this moody tale with a twist: it’s partially set at a boarding school that’s empty during a chilly school holiday, save for a couple of left-behind students (including Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s Kiernan Shipka; American Horror Story’s Emma Roberts also has a juicy role). Plus, there’s maybe, just possibly, some Satanic vibes lingering in the air — the school is called “Bramford,” for all those eagle-eyed Rosemary’s Baby fans out there.
The Blackcoat’s Daughter is actually full of twists, with shifting perspectives and time jumps that pretzel the story until the last act. Unlike many other films on this list, you definitely won’t see the finish line as soon as you walk through the school’s imposing front doors.
9) Down a Dark Hall
Rodrigo Cortés (Buried) directed this 2018 adaptation of YA horror giant Lois Duncan’s 1974 novel. Teenaged troublemaker Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) is shipped off to a boarding school aimed at taming troublemakers, though there are only a handful of other students — all girls — in attendance. At first, things don’t seem so awful — the fact that the school is kept perpetually dark is a little odd, but having to hand over their mobile phones is about the worst of it, at least until unmarked pills start becoming a non-negotiable part of the night-time routine.
Gradually, though, the girls — who are all unremarkable in terms of academic and artistic achievement — start displaying genius-level talents that spring not from hard work, but from something beyond the grave. The malevolent headmistress is played by Uma Thurman, whose deliberately theatrical French accent allows the mostly very serious Down a Dark Hall to slip into campy territory on a few welcome occasions.