“Every Town Has an Elm Street”: Ohio On-screen in the ‘80s

For the past few decades, some major motion pictures have quietly set up operations in the Buckeye State. Frank Darabont’s “The Shawshank Redemption” substituted the real Ohio Reformatory for the fictional Shawshank State Prison in Maine. Marvel’s “The Avengers” and “Captain America: Winter Soldier” used the backdrop of Cleveland, OH as a stand in for Washington, D.C. Several cities in Ohio even played Moscow in Wolfgang Petersen’s “Air Force One.” The opinions expressed in this review are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official organizational stance. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

Ohio’s no stranger to acting.

Ohio’s urban-rural landscapes make it an incredibly diverse place to film, and the refundable tax credit of 30 percent on motion pictures operating in the state sure doesn’t hurt, so it’s no surprise that it’s been the backdrop for big-name studio films and a number of blockbusters — just usually in disguise as somewhere, well…not Ohio. Until the recent release of “Black Widow,” Ohio hasn’t been a pivotal location in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or in any of the blockbuster franchises the state may host. There seems to be an understanding that these larger-than-life tales of adventure and superheroes can only happen in major metropolitan areas like New York City or Los Angeles, where landmarks are more recognizable and the collateral damage is more extreme. 

But films actually set in Ohio tell a different kind of story. Cities like Columbus and Cleveland may not have the glamor of Hollywood, but the movies that actually acknowledge they’re set in Ohio (or even disguise other places as Ohio) often do so not in spite of its lack of glamor, but because of it. These movies focus less on superheroes, mass government conspiracies and world-ending threats, and more on a subtler, perhaps more bleak and certainly more self-reflective view of American life. Set in small Ohio towns, the landscapes of these films are reminiscent of cities and suburbs all across the Midwest, making the stories hit — quite literally, for many — closer to home.

For reasons perhaps undetermined, the film industry’s obsession with the perceived mediocrity of Ohio peaked in the mid-to-late ‘80s. One of the most acclaimed movies set there (although it was shot entirely in Los Angeles) is Michael Lehmann’s 1988 film “Heathers.” This cult classic is the story of a public high school in the middle of an idyllic Ohio suburb and its students’ struggles with popularity, suicide and authority. In a way that film critic Roger Ebert refers to as “bleak, macabre and bitingly satirical,” the film’s primary setting of Westerburg High School is a deep dive into the emotional turmoil of high school students, and just how ignorant the adults around them can be.

While the rampant gun violence is largely tone deaf to a modern-day audience, at the time of the film’s release, it opened up a pertinent conversation around mental health and teenage suicide, and the differences in how teenagers and adults address these issues. According to a study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, youth suicide rates in the ‘70s and ‘80s steadily increased until about 1994, putting the release of “Heathers” right in the middle of a rising mental health crisis. The film reflects these trends, with three staged suicides — although they were actually murders — and at least two attempted suicides taking place over the course of the film. 

As the students at Westerburg begin to grapple with the death around them, the administration is at a loss. In one scene, Pauline Fleming, a guidance counselor portrayed by Penelope Milford, suggests creating an opportunity for openness and communal grieving, and is promptly mocked by the rest of the faculty.  Although Fleming succeeds in organizing a sort of “talk-back,” her advice to the students is largely condescending, assuring the assembly that “to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.” This, coupled with the fact that the assembly is televised, ultimately trivializes the seriousness of teenage suicide and mocks the same vulnerability that Fleming aims to draw out. At Westerburg, suicide is treated like a fad instead of a pressing mental health issue, and as a result, they fail to prevent teenage antihero JD’s rampage until after students have already died.

Obviously, the teachers at Westerburg are deeply out of touch with their students’ needs, but the indifference of adults pervades every corner of the film. “Heathers” is a story deeply about young people, but by virtue of them being in high school, the influence of adults in their lives is ever-present. Veronica Sawyer’s parents fail to call out her friendship with the popular and cruel Heathers, despite it being outwardly abusive and toxic. JD’s father is borderline neglectful, encouraging his unstable behavior. While satirical and hyperbolic, this depiction of adult authority, in addition to the film’s irreverent treatment of violence and suicide, evoked extreme, often polarized reactions across the U.S. Although the film was aimed towards a younger audience, according to BBC’s Emma Jones, “the reaction Heathers provoked in 1988 was mainly amongst adults.”

So why was “Heathers” condemned so widely by parents in the ‘80s? Certainly violent films of the era like “Scarface” or “Full Metal Jacket” were more deserving of the same critiques that adults were levying against Lehmann’s film. The difference, however, is that “Heathers” hit a little too close to home. Both explicitly branded as action films, “Scarface” takes place in the criminal underworld of Miami and “Full Metal Jacket” takes place in Vietnam, two settings that are worlds away from most movie-goers. “Heathers,” on the other hand, brings a similar calibre of violence into a far more familiar setting: Sherwood, OH. Because of this literal and metaphorical proximity, audiences may have been unprepared to see that kind of violence in a community so similar to theirs, and equally unwilling to accept such a scathing representation of the adult-youth relationships that are so central to their everyday lives.

In a strikingly similar way, Arthur Hiller’s 1984 film “Teachers,” set in Columbus, OH, focuses on this very same adversarial relationship between students and adults. Roger Ebert sums the film’s setting up pretty well:

“The movie [is set in] a big-city high school where kids get stabbed, students double as drug dealers and police informers, teachers sleep through their classes, and the system is being sued for graduating students who cannot read or write.”

The fictional John F. Kennedy high school is very similar to Westerburg in that its faculty seems entirely indifferent to the plight of their students, save for Social Studies teacher Alex Jurel, played by Nick Nolte. While the rest of his coworkers are preoccupied with an impending lawsuit, Jurel is the only educator still focused on helping his students, mainly Eddie Pilikian, played by a young Ralph Macchio. Jurel is appalled by the indifference of his fellow teachers, and despite being asked to resign, Jurel doesn’t back down, reminding the Vice Principal:“The damn school wasn’t built for us… It wasn’t built for your unions, your lawyers and all your other institutions. It was built for the kids! They’re not here for us, we’re here for them. That’s what it’s about: kids!”

Here, the film ends on an optimistic note. Yet, that is not before the most tragic part of “Teachers,” and perhaps the most scathing commentary: the fate of Eddie’s best friend Danny. Played by Crispin Glover, Danny struggles with schizophrenia and paranoia throughout the film, and as a result has a hard time in school. As Jurel spends more time mentoring Eddie, Danny’s paranoia grows more extreme, and without his best friend to back him up, he struggles to overcome his illness. In a climactic scene towards the end of the film, Danny steals a gun and is killed by police in the hallway.

The warning signs of Danny’s illness were always there; in his first appearance, he bites his teacher’s hand, and he continues to act erratically throughout the film. But the faculty at JFK High School were too busy saving face to provide Danny with the support he desperately needed. Like in “Heathers,” the teachers’ indifference results in the very avoidable death of a student.

The 1980s marked the beginning of a massive wave of “coming of age” films. “The Outsiders,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “The Breakfast Club” — these were movies where viewers watch characters, usually in late childhood, struggle with the wild and sometimes tragic circumstances of growing up. On an episode of the podcast “Deviate with Rolf Potts” centered on these very movies, author Kevin Smokler said, “…all of the best 1980s teen movies were saying that the stories of teenagers are the stories of all of us. They have the same human need and longing that the stories of adults have.” 

Even today, the most iconic movies of this genre hail from the ‘80s. “Heathers” and “Teachers” might even count, although their critiques extend just as much to this very genre of film as it does to the society that created them. According to Emma Jones, “Heathers” was “a satirical answer to [that] spate of ‘coming of age’ films.” It, along with “Teachers,” is a darker twist on what it means to grow up, and a reminder that real life is often messier and a little more hopeless than it is depicted in these popular ‘80s movies.

So why is it important these films take place in Ohio? Couldn’t they have been set in similar high schools and neighborhoods across the country? Well, yes, they very well could have. But Ohio was chosen exactly because of its similarities to other parts of the U.S. Life in the Buckeye state — and much of the Midwest — is symbolic of the joys and struggles of American life at large. These films are set in a town “just like yours,” and evoke a stronger connection between audiences and the settings of these films.

This dynamic is most at play in another movie set in Ohio: Wes Craven’s 1984 “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Hitting theaters the same year as “Teachers,” this classic horror film tells a story of parental neglect with a much more malicious tone. The film’s heroine Nancy Thompson, played by Heather Langenkamp, maintains throughout the film that the vengeful ghost of Freddy Krueger is very real, and very dangerous. In response to her distress, Nancy is locked inside and treated as if her experiences were simply delusions. Disregarding her constant pleas for help, Nancy’s parents don’t believe her until it’s too late; Nancy’s friends and family are slowly but surely killed.

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” is frightening not just because of its villain; the setting’s proximity to what many Americans consider “normal” manufactures a new kind of urgency, one that is hard to experience when watching films set in big city high rises. According to an article by BJ Colangelo at Clevescene, prior to horror films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Halloween,” audiences enjoyed the “comfortability of suspension of disbelief, knowing that the events of these films would never impact their lives.”

But as horror films made the move to Midwestern towns, namely Ohio, audiences began to experience settings that were familiar and unnerving. A true union of urban and rural sensibilities, Ohio becomes an “idyllic representation” of what it means to live in the Midwest and in the United States. It’s the closeness to and the disturbance of every-day life that makes the film hit even harder. Colangelo writes, “No longer could we escape to the safety of “this could never happen to me,” because horror was now interrupting the false sense of security enjoyed by those living their daily lives in the comfort of suburban Americana. The intrusion of darkness in a presumed bubble of Midwestern safety quickly became a formula ‘Hollywood Horror’ would try to emulate, and continues to do so even today.”

That relationship is not just relegated to horror films. Both “Heathers” and “Teachers” benefit from the same idyllic Midwestern image that “A Nightmare on Elm Street” does. Had the films taken place anywhere else, their themes may not have seemed as pressing. But because they take place so close to what many Americans consider “home,” the unaddressed mental health crises of “Heathers” and the institutional educational neglect of “Teachers” seem even more pressing. These three films in particular tell an important tale of mental health and parental guidance in Ohio, and therefore America as a whole. Each of them seem to critique traditional American familial relationships, calling on parents to be more hands-on in their relationships with their children to avoid the unnecessary tragedy that is present in all three movies. And it’s because these films take place in commonplace Ohio towns that they are so incredibly universal.

Freddy Krueger says it best: “Every town has an Elm Street.”

1 COMMENT

  1. While setting up a haunted house in Columbus’ Central High School a few years later (now the location of COSI) we found one or two sets left from “Teachers.”

    On the other side, I visited the Railway Museum of British Columbia in the 1990’s. They had a small-town passenger station with an outdoor schedule for Apple Valley (or Apple something) OH. I probably have a (film) photo of it somewhere.

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