Death and Society: An Analysis of “Heathers”

A deeper look into the film “Heathers.” Please, note, this post will only focus on the original. No related productions or spin-offs will be discussed.

In the 80s, some of the most popular films about high school were The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off by John Hughs; unfortunately, they merely scratched the surface of teenaged life. While classics in their own rights, they were never as honest or as deep as the social commentary that is Heathers.

Released in 1988, Heathers is a black comedy written by Daniel Waters, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. At the time the film was in production, teen suicide was highly reported in the news. Shortly before she was offered the role, Ryder knew a classmate whose suicide mirrored the story in the film. The student in question was Goth and often bullied. After her death, the class swore they always loved her, and they all attended her funeral. The hypocrisy of the whole thing moved Ryder to accept the part.

Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is one of the most popular kids at Westerburg High School, and she’s miserable. Her determination to be one of the cool kids, specifically the Heathers, has ruined her life. No one seems to understand her. She has nowhere else to turn except her diary to vent her true and often times hilarious thoughts. That is until she meets J.D.

No, my life’s not perfect. I don’t really like my friends.

Winona Ryer as Veronica Sawyer
Popular Winona Ryder GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The adults in the film think that teen suicide is about problems that only young people face; Jason “J.D.” Dean (Christian Slater) is wise enough to recognize the way teen life imitates adult society at large. Whether it’s a click at a high school or grown adults in the office, society is all about power exchange; unfortunately, he’s too far in denial to recognize his own toxic habits. While he considers himself a rebel and sadistic prankster, way above the popular crowd, he is just as bad as the bullies he criticizes.

J.D. lost his mother when she purposely entered the building his father was about to blow up. His mom was the only person he ever loved. As a result of that trauma, he has an obsession with violence and murder. To release those urges, he targets his school. He believes that the only solution to the inequality is to kill everyone. He hopes they will all be at peace in Heaven.

People will look at the ashes of Westerburg and say; “now there’s a school that self-destructed, not because society didn’t care, but because the school was society.” Now that’s deep.

Christian Slater as Jason “J.D.” Dean

Who are the Heathers?

Before there was Regina George in Mean Girls, there was Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), the leader of the Heathers. She calls the shots and abuses everyone. Her privilege of socioeconomic status allows her to get away with it. Underneath it all, she’s hallow. Her only aspiration in life is to impress others; even if it means doing things she doesn’t want to do. There are a few moments that hint at the secret disgust she has for the life she boasts so much about.

They all want me as a friend or a fuck. I’m worshiped at Westerburg and I’m only a junior.

Kim Walker as Heather Chandler

Chandler becomes the first victim at the hands of J.D. and Veronica. J.D.’s special talent for manipulation really shines during the scene in which he offers her what he claims is a hangover cure. First, she rejects the cup, not wanting to make a fool of herself if it’s a trick; however, he already knows that she can’t allow herself to appear weak in any way. He also knows how to use someone’s insecurity against them. When J.D. comments that “knew it would be too intense,” Chandler proves him wrong by downing what is actually liquid Draino.

Kim Walker Heathers GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

After each murder, Veronica uses her talent for writing to compose fake but convincing suicide notes.

Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) is the most passive of the Heathers; an ultimate people-pleaser. No matter who abuses her, she still wants them to love her. Veronica is the only one who genuinely cares about her. This can be seen most when McNamara attempts to kill herself by taking a bottle of pills to follow in Chandler’s footsteps, yet again. Veronica intervenes in time and literally holds her hand through her struggle to deal with the events.

Heathers Suicide Is A Private Thing GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Like McNamara, Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty) wants to be Chandler; however, she is happier once her idol is dead. When she is given the opportunity to become the replacement, she jumps on it. She starts bullying McNamara and Veronica whenever either of them show the slightest weakness. The only person still able to see her deep-rooted insecurity and fear under the facade is J.D. When he can no longer control and manipulate Veronica to accomplish his dark wishes for the school, he uses Duke.

I prayed for the death of Heather Chandler many times and I felt bad every time I did it but I kept doing it anyway. Now I know you understood everything. Praise Jesus, Hallelujah.

Shannon Doherty as Heather Duke

Although Duke treats her horribly, Veronica tries to protect her like she did McNamara. She knows J.D. as much as she knows Duke; unfortunately, warning her that she is being used does nothing to change Duke’s mind because J.D. threatens her reputation with evidence that would humiliate her.

Heathers Shannon Doherty GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Kurt Kelly (Lance Fenton) and Ram Sweeney (Patrick Labyorteaux) are jocks who bully others through homophobia. After J.D. kills them, Veronica writes their suicide note to turn their ultra-masculine legacies into a repressed homosexual love affair. To their surprise, students and parents alike embrace them as gay. In true J.D. fashion, he knows that if they were alive when this note was read, no one would be supporting them.

Martha “dumptruck” Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) is one of the main outcasts at the school. Chandler pushes Veronica to write a love note from Kurt for the unsuspecting Martha, all for the sake of a good laugh. After receiving the fake love note, Martha approaches Kurt about it. When she realizes it’s all a joke, she is humiliated like Chandler wanted, but Veronica isn’t proud of herself. After suicide appears to become a trend among the popular kids, Martha walks into the road with a suicide note attached to her body. This is her final attempt to reach popularity. When she survives, the jokes about her increase.

Unlike a lot of teen films, Heathers portrays the adults to be as unstable as the teens. Neither the parents nor the teachers really try to understand the teenagers. After Heather Chandler’s death, the faculty argue over how early they can let the students leave according to how important she was to the school. Chandler wasn’t a cheerleader; therefore, they could only close the school an hour early.

Teacher, Pauline Fleming (Penelope Milford) seems to want to help the students during the crisis. First, she talks with her class about Chandler’s suicide and even reads her note. Later, she organizes for the students in the cafeteria to be filmed for television. Her goal is to present the school as united, peaceful and loving; in reality, they aren’t.

Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.

Penelope Milford as Pauline Fleming

Spoiler Alert…

Veronica tricks J.D. into revealing his plan to blow up the school. She decides to save everyone by fighting J.D. in order to prevent him from setting off the bomb he has ready in the boiler room. Interestingly enough, for all of J.D.’s efforts to convince students to kill themselves, he is the only character who successfully ends his own life with the bomb strapped to himself, outside the school. After everything is over, having had saved everyone, Veronica is finally free.

Winona Ryder Heathers GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Today’s Relevance

Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between 15-24 years old. The film itself is not so much about teen suicide as the fake emotional response to those who do take their lives.

I have explored the topic of society’s response to suicide before when writing a post about the public reaction to Chester Bennington’s death [“Not the Entertainment: Suicide, Mental Illness, and Society“]. While Heathers is a fictional story, it rings true to the lack of real understanding and compassion surrounding mental health, as well as any real effort to remedy these things in the future.

Note: Originally published on HubPages in 2015, this is a revision by the same author for their own site.

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