Subtext | The Horrors of High School

High school drama is an international genre. From Derry Girls to Riverdale, the heightened emotions of teens combined with the mixture of structure and freedom that define their lives create plenty of opportunities for conflict. It also adds a double-sided layer to horror stories – fear for the young people, who society and instinct tell us need to be protected, and fear of the young people. People fear what they can’t understand, after all, and how many older people can truly understand the mind of a teenager? High schools are microcosms of society – sometimes insular, sometimes coming up against the wider world with tragic consequences. Sometimes the horror in these shows is supernatural, and sometimes it’s all too real. And it can often be hard to tell which is more terrifying.

Chicha Amatayakul as Nanno in Girl From Nowhere

Girl from Nowhere (2018)

Thailand’s Girl From Nowhere (literally “New Girl” in its original release) takes a novel approach to to that question. It starts with the real world horrors that students can encounter (oftentimes taken straight from the news headlines) and gives us cathartic supernatural vengeance through the medium of Nanno, the “girl from nowhere”. The structure, at least in the initial episodes, begins with Nanno joining a class in a prestigious school as a transfer student (the “new girl”). Through apparently innocent behaviour Nanno positions herself to become a victim of the hypocrisies of the school, an action that ultimately leads to their downfall. For example, in the first episode Nanno transfers to “the purest school in Thailand”, a bastion of such conservative morality that a teacher is fired for merely suggesting they provide sex education. Of course despite this outward morality several of the teachers are actually sexually abusing their students. Nanno becomes one of these victims (incidentally saving another girl in the process) while subtly engineering things so that the teachers are exposed. In this episode it’s more a sinister atmosphere that gives the show its horror edge, but by the end of the second episode it’s become clear that whatever Nanno is it’s something other than human.

What makes the show work is the spellbinding performance as Nanno by lead actress Chicha Amatayakul. Her devious smile, her signature deranged laughter, and her ability to immediately switch from normal to sinister mode all embody the character. Nanno’s moral ambiguity is a key part of the first season, and Amatayakul leaves you never quite sure what will happen next. Nanno’s iconic black hair with bangs was apparently a choice by the actress herself, who based it on the character of “Tomie” from the horror manga of Junji Ito. Like Nanno, Tomie is a mysterious immortal who is more of a supernatural force than a human being (though Tomie is much more murderous and destructive).

Season 1 was enough of a hit internationally that Netflix took over distribution of the second season in 2021. The second season takes the show far more into horror territory, with a lot more gore and violence. Suffice to say that this is one show where the content warnings should be taken very seriously. It also continued to draw on real-life situations, with one episode based on an infamous case where a rich girl whose dangerous driving allegedly caused nine deaths was let off with a sentence of community service. Season 2’s biggest addition is the show’s second recurring character, Nanno’s rival Yuri. Yuri is played by Chanya McClory, who manages to give a performance that keeps pace with Chicha Amatayakul – no mean feat, especially since she was recovering from having a brain tumor removed at the time. While the real draw of the first season was to see supernatural justice visited on those who (in real life) all too often get away with it, season 2 turns the spotlight on its audience. It asks, is it truly justice we’re there to see? Or just revenge?

The members of Hinatazaka46 in Re:Mind

Re:Mind (2017)

Revenge is the driving force behind the plot of Japanese drama Re:Mind, though vengeance for what is one of the key mysteries at the heart of the show. The premise is brutally simple. Eleven high school girls wake up seated around a dining room table in an elaborately decorated room, with no idea of how they got there. Their feet are secured in place, and their phones have no signal. What follows is a tense claustrophobic horror as they gradually dig into each other’s secrets to find out what connects them and why somebody is doing this to them. Everything seems to revolve around a 12th girl who disappeared some months before, the concept of “true justice”, and the enigmatic Hemmingway quote: “I Guess Everything Reminds You Of Something.”

Re:Mind is an idol drama, though its tone is light-years away from light-hearted fare like KO One or Blazing Transfer Students. The eleven students are all “first generation” members of Hinatazaka46, a group that was at the time known as Hiragana Keyakizaka46, a subgroup of the larger group Keyakizaka46. (This lineage speaks to the brutally industrial nature of the Japanese idol singer culture.) All of their characters have the same names as the actors, an interesting choice given some of the ways those characters have behaved in the story. Unsurprisingly given the ability they show (especially the de facto lead Mirei Sasaki), this was not the only drama to feature the group. As well as several theatre productions the whole group starred in DASADA (a story about high school girls creating their own fashion brand) and several of them starred in Koeharu! (a drama about students at a voice acting academy). Neither of these dramas has yet been released in English, though.

While not as hard hitting (or as well-acted) as Girl From Nowhere, Re:Mind does still dive into the claustrophobic nature of high school social circles. Ultimately it’s about bullying, toxic group dynamics, and the slow spiral out of control that leads to tragedy. None of the girls is really shown to be actively malicious, but the end result of their actions or inactions is still the same. The show underlines those through its breezy end credits song that speaks of the lost innocence of youth, and through a frankly cruel “bonus” episode that wrenches us back in time to eighteen months earlier, when the seeds of disaster were sown. Though some may find the ending a bit dissatisfying, it’s still a show that stayed with me for quite a while.

Kim So-Hyun and Min Hyuk Lee in Nightmare High

Nightmare High (2016)

More conventional horror is at play in this Korean drama. A new teacher transfers into a high school, and takes on the role of guidance counsellor. In the high pressure social environment of high school, he proves to have a knack for getting the students to open up about their problems. He even helps them find solutions. But soon the other students start noticing that these solutions may come at a cost – and with a catch. Gradually things spiral further and further out of control into a nightmare.

Nightmare High was released in Korea as a “web series”, a short drama released on the internet and designed to be watched on phones in bite-sized chunks. At ten episodes averaging around 15 minutes in length it moves at a breakneck pace. The teacher is played by Um Ki-joon, a former theatre actor who found a talent for playing villains in recent years. He had played the role of a teacher five years earlier in the ironically named Dream High. The show also features a familiar face to fans of supernatural Korean drama – the female lead is played by Kim So-hyun, who was the undead heroine of Bring It On, Ghost the same year. A third cast member was not so well known at the time, but is very well known now – Lee Min-hyuk, who was at the time recording an album as part of the boyband Monsta X. The album was a reasonable success, but it was their second album Take.1 Are You There? that would put them (and “Minhyuk”) in the spotlight. Nowadays he’s definitely one of the rising stars of the K-pop scene. Incidentally, if you’re looking for this show on IMDB you’ll find it listed as Nightmare Teacher, a more literal translation of the Korean title.

Nightmare High perfectly captures the two things that make high schools such a perfect venue for horror. The first is the problems that seem so significant to teens , but that persepctive and distance would let you realise are meaningless. The second is the very real problems that teens can face, problems too often dismissed by adults who think they fall into the first category. There’s a third type of horror that can take place in these venues, though: when the real world comes slamming into the microcosm. And that’s what Detention is all about.

Ning Han and Lee Ling-Wei in Detention (2020)

Detention (2019)

Detention is based on a videogame of the same name, developed by Red Candle Games and released in 2017. The videogame tells the story of two students, Wei Chung-ting and Fang Rui-xin (known as Ray) who are trapped in their deserted school as a typhoon approaches. The player controls Wei at the start of the game, but later trade him for controlling Ray and piecing together what has actually happened. Ray is an unreliable narrator, but we come to understand how her crush on one of her teachers and jealousy of another led her to do something unforgivable that had consequences far beyond what she could have imagined. Because this was in Taiwan, in the 1960s, at the height of the White Terror.

Taiwan’s origins are a bit of a controversial and complicated subject, but the short version is that in 1928 a political party called the Kuomintang ruled China as an authoritarian one-party dictatorship. In 1949 they lost a civil war against the Communist Party of China, and their leadership fled to the island of Taiwan around 112 miles off the coast of China. There they claimed to be the one remaining “true” Chinese territory, while the CPC claimed they were a rebellious territory of China. (Complicating matters is that the island of Taiwan had been conquered by Japan in 1895 and only reclaimed by China after World War 2.) For the next forty years the Kuomintang maintained an iron grip on the island through brutal repression of freedom of speech. (This began in 1949, though two years earlier the Kuomintang had killed 18,000 Taiwanese civilians suppressing an uprising on the island.) Over the course of the terror 140,000 people were imprisoned and around 4,000 were executed. There was no clear end to the terror either – a gradual process of democratic reforms brought an end to the direct repression in the late 80s, and the lifting of martial law in 1992 drew a line under it. The Kuomintang still actually exist as one of the major political parties in the democratic “Republic of China” (which mainland China still refuses to accept as legitimate), though they’re currently in opposition and not power.

Screenshot from Detention videogame
A moment from the Detention video game

Detention the videogame is not really about the White Terror, though it forms the crux of the inevitable looming tragedy that the typhoon symbolises. Detention the TV series is very clearly about the Terror, or rather the failure of society to properly examine its own trauma. The show begins in the 1960s with a shot of a statue of Sun Yat-sen (founder of the Kuomintang) while a voiceover talks about him founding the country. This turns out to be a teacher lecturing a class, but it soon develops into a climactic scene of the game – the teacher, and several of the students, being arrested for dissidence. One of them stares at a girl as he is led off (the girl, we learn, is Ray) and we cut to her on the school roof at night as she jumps off to her death. The show then jumps to 1992, where a transfer student to the school (named Liu Yun-xiang) encounters Ray’s ghost, and soon gets drawn in to uncovering the tragic and still raw history behind her death.

This isn’t the first live-action adaptation of Detention, with a 2019 film being a straightforward adaptation of the game’s story rather than the altered TV series story. The film did unexpectedly well in the Golden Horse film awards that year, in part because tensions between China and Taiwan led the former to boycott the awards. Ironically, Detention was banned in China and reporting on the film awards simply referred to it as “xx”. This is partially because of its subject matter and partly because Red Candle Games had gotten embroiled in controversy. Their second game, Devotion, was extremely well received but after a week on sale was found to contain a hidden message mocking Chinese general secretary Xi Jon-ping. Hardly an uncommon sentiment in Taiwan but one that led to a great deal of outcry from Chinese gamers. The game was review-bombed on Steam and eventually withdrawn from sale due to pressures from Chinese gamers, the Vice Premier of Taiwan spoke out in defense of the game, and for a while the game became very hard to obtain. Good Old Games (also known as GOG) were supposed to be selling it, but backed out at the last minute (again under pressure from Chinese gamers) leading to a lot of outcry and accusations of them buckling to censorship. The game is currently only available on Red Candle’s own storefront. Red Candle are still going strong though, and in March 2022 held a crowdfunding campaign that successfully financed the creation of their third game, Nine Sols.

So there you are, four terrifying high school dramas. One offering the catharsis of revenge, one showing that for those on the receiving end revenge can seem arbitrary and cruel. One about the small world of teenage angst where problems loom large, one about the real world proving to be far more dangerous than teens can realise. Each of them a Halloween horror of their own, and all reminding us that the real horror of the world is human nature, and our cruelty to each other. Pleasant dreams.

All images via Netflix except the Detention game shot which is via Red Candle Games.

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