Fear and Loathing: Urban Legends and Legacies of Power in “Fear Street”

November 25, 2021   •   By Claudia McCarron

“FANTASTIC CHOICE,” says Heather Watkins, admiring a paperback illustrated with two pajama-clad girls, mouths contorted in terror. A disillusioned teenager in a dying town, she’s unaware that the customer she’s ringing up will be her last.

“Low-brow horror,” sniffs the woman. “It’s for my stepdaughter.”

Heather’s sigh of disgust is cathartic for anyone drawn to the sensationalism, brutality, and toughness of pulp horror. Fear Street, Leigh Janiak’s film trilogy adapting the young adult series by R. L. Stine, clues viewers into its artistic sensibilities with this opening scene, showing no squeamishness for mixing old-school blood and gore with a pointed commentary on the perils of narrativizing communal trauma. Released this July, the movies are fascinated with how storytelling becomes a method of power and control that dominant communities exert over disadvantaged ones. While the tropes they use for uncovering these themes — ax murders, buckets of blood, and hangings, to name a few — may be considered low-brow, they are no less insightful for that.

Quite the contrary; Heather dies, stabbed to death by someone she thought was her friend, not because of stupidity, sex, or any of the other pitfalls common to horror-movie teens, but because she falls victim to pulp horror’s older, oral cousin: the urban legend. In The Vanishing Hitchhiker, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand defines urban legends as unverifiable pieces of shared gossip where “storytellers assume that the true facts of [the] case lie just one or two informants back down the line.” These tales, which involve murderers in the backseat, hook-handed men, and a host of other supernatural and human bogeymen, spread from state to state and country to country by word of mouth and, more recently, chain emails and forum posts. They have inspired films and literature for many years, with pioneering slashers like Black Christmas drawing most of their dread from urban legends like “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs.”

Fear Street, however, does more than adapt urban legends for the big screen. Not only does it build a rich internal mythology to create in-universe urban legends, it also rigorously investigates why and how urban legends are perpetuated. According to Brunvand, these stories “are a unique, unselfconscious reflection of major concerns of individuals in the societies in which the legends circulate.” In the films, that society is the twin towns of Shadyside and Sunnyvale, linked by shared history and separated by Sunnyvale’s prosperity and self-assurance in the face of the centuries of poverty and violence plaguing Shadyside. Moving back in time from the towns’ uneasy truce to the colonial turmoil that split them apart, the films demonstrate how the community’s urban legends function as a way for Shadysiders to make sense of unbearable misfortune, and for Sunnyvalers to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their neighbors’ plights.

The films’ settings, spanning the 17th to 20th centuries, also situate Fear Street within a revival in historical horror for children and young adults. The trilogy follows in the footsteps of recent movies and television shows like Stranger Things, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and The House with the Clock in Its Walls. Whether tapping into the tropes that defined a generation (Stranger Things) or adapting nostalgic classics (the other three), all of these works enter a dialogue about the past and how it is used within the horror genre. By and large, the answer is aesthetically: interdimensional monsters and apocalypse-seeking wizards can exist in any time period, but grounding them in 1980s Indiana or 1950s Missouri adds a layer of charm and distance. Fear Street is unique in that it chooses to mine most of its unease from the past, specifically how it is interpreted to affect the present. By bringing the manipulations that urban legends enable to the center of its plot and themes, it also acts as a bridge between the joyful nostalgia of the other properties and more overtly socially conscious adult horror, such as Candyman, The People Under the Stairs, or the works of Jordan Peele.

The opening minutes of Part One: 1994 begin to build the mythological scaffold its social commentary hangs from. The community’s response to Heather’s murder shows the double-sided purpose urban legends serve for Shadyside and Sunnyvale. Teens from both towns quickly blame the murder on Sarah Fier, a one-handed witch who “reaches from beyond the grave to make good men her wicked slaves.” According to the legends, Sarah sold her soul to the devil. Her spirit continues to torment Shadyside, possessing citizens and compelling them to murder, and also curses the town with the equally crushing specters of lost opportunity and economic decline. Sunnyvale basks in its reputation as the “safest and wealthiest community in the country,” while Shadyside is nicknamed “Killer Capital USA” and is riddled with abandoned store fronts and crumbling homes.

The stories teens trade about Sarah share the trademarks of Brunvand’s taxonomy. Sarah’s history is murky and unverifiable, glimpsed through torn book pages and hazy psychic visions. Similarly wrapped in shadow are the motivations behind Shadyside’s killers, which become more unquantifiable as they are swapped from person to person. Most importantly, these stories serve a purpose. For Shadysiders, Sarah is both a coping mechanism and a way to shift blame. For example, when Deena, Part One’s protagonist, hears her friends claiming the witch is behind Heather’s death, she is furious.

“The dude was probably just some sad sack who hated his life, just like the rest of us,” she says. “The only thing that made him go crazy is this town.”

“You know we don’t believe this witch shit,” says her friend. “It’s just, like, fucked-up Santa Claus.”

The girls’ conversation neatly encapsulates Sarah Fier’s purpose for Shadyside. Deena may simmer with rage over the injustices the legends cover up, but her friends who choose to lean into the stories are no less aware of these facts. For them, Sarah is a way to compartmentalize tragedy and regain some sense of independence and personal autonomy: Shadysiders are not inherently bad — instead, they are being taken over by a supernatural threat

For Sunnyvale, on the other hand, Sarah Fier becomes a symbol of the crime and apathy holding Shadyside back, allowing them to belittle their neighbors with little empathy. Deena’s ex-girlfriend, Sam, unwittingly voices this attitude when the two argue during a vigil held in Heather’s honor. Angry that Deena refuses to forgive her for moving to Sunnyvale, Sam lashes out, saying, “It’s like you want to lose.” Their fight is intercut with a brawl between Shadyside and Sunnyvale kids that breaks out on the football field, showing how this view leads to emotional and physical harm.

Sam learns that there’s more than fatalism backing up Deena’s view when a car accident that uncovers Sarah Fier’s bones makes Sam the target of Shadyside’s resurrected killers. The girls’ quest to save Sam leads them to Ziggy Berman, a survivor of another Shadyside massacre. Ziggy, who tells her story in Part Two: 1978, comes to realize firsthand that the legends of Sarah Fier not only allow Sunnyvalers to dismiss Shadyside, they also lead to much darker acts of cruelty.

Stewing at summer sleepaway Camp Nightwing, where her older sister works as a counselor, Ziggy gets a taste of the bias and causal nastiness directed at Shadysiders. Bullies string her up in the tree Sarah Fier was hanged from and burn her with a lighter, but the contempt extends much further, infecting the staff and Sunnyvale campers as well. When the camp nurse has a psychotic episode, the kids worry more about color war being canceled than they do the nurse’s safety, with one boy fuming, “Psycho Shadysiders always fucking ruin everything!” Sunnyvale counselor Kurt later gives a pep talk for color war more suited to an actual battlefield than a children’s game, insisting that it is not just “Sunnyvale versus Shadyside,” but “good versus evil.” Rather than stand up for her charges, the Shadyside counselor is largely ineffectual, chirping, “Even if we lose, we’re still winners in our hearts.”

Their indifference snowballs into mayhem when another counselor is possessed and begins going after campers with an ax. A book of legends about Sarah Fier leads to an underground lair filled with Satanic symbols, nightmarish visions, and a pulsing rot revealed to be the source of the possessions. The caverns end underneath the camp toilets, thematically connecting most of the trilogy’s memorable kills, which take place in the Shadyside mall, a cafeteria, and a supermarket — all areas of consumption. The implication is stark: oppressed by both demonic and human forces, the Shadyside victims are first digested, and then expelled by a society that transforms their experiences into cautionary tales blaming the very individuals that suffer from them.

The consumption becomes literal in Part Three: 1666. The final installment begins in the colonial era, following the citizens of the small village of Union and the disastrous events that split them into Sunnyvale and Shadyside and give birth to the stories of Sarah Fier. Shaky accents aside, it’s a compelling examination of the elusive nature of urban legends and the flexibility that makes them ideal conduits for prejudice and scapegoating. According to Brunvand, a compression of time is often at play in urban legends, since “there is usually no geographical or generational gap between teller and event.” The shared plots and themes that echo across the three films enable this sense of narrative déjà vu, as does the relative flatness of Part Three’s characters. While the first installments had a fully developed cast, Part Three is more opaque, a creative decision heightened by double casting, with actors from Part One and Part Two reappearing as new characters in the final film (Kiana Madeira, for example, plays both Deena and Sarah Fier). The doubling allows the teens to slip into the skin of their Union counterparts, giving the events they enact a feeling of grim inevitability.

The eerie sense of recognition continues; while the bulk of Part Three reimagines Sarah Fier as a sympathetic character, the essential nature of the urban legends — that there is something feeding off of the spirits and lives of Shadysiders — remains unchanged. The real originator of the pact with the devil that cursed Shadyside was not Sarah, but her friend Solomon Goode. Devastated by hardscrabble conditions and personal loss, Solomon decides that a demonic bargain requiring human sacrifice is the only way to ensure the “power, prosperity, [and] legacy” he craves. When Sarah protests that he has no right to take the lives of others, he accuses her of witchcraft and hangs her, leading her to become the source of the community’s fears and tall tales. Meanwhile, Goode and his descendants continue to feed the demon by signing over innocent souls.

By appropriating Sarah’s story and using it as a cover for their own evil, the Goodes are able to establish a power structure that ensures that their family and the Sunnyvale community will always prosper at the expense of Shadyside. Here the “major concerns” described by Brunvand hinge on guilt and accountability. Spreading the myth of Sarah’s evil not only shifts the blame away from the Goodes, it also allows them to justify Sunnyvale’s continued success and their control. But, as power structures tend to do, the one they create takes on a life of its own, making victims even of its practitioners.

Sheriff Goode, Solomon’s descendant, whom Deena and Sam find themselves battling against, is not entirely without sympathy. Shadysiders possessed by the Goodes’ pact struggle for autonomy over their bodies and minds, but the sheriff’s journey is one of deliberate moral decay. As a teenager at Camp Nightwing, he flirts with Ziggy and confides in her. “He just dropped this huge burden in my lap,” he says of his recently deceased father. “What if I don’t want that?” Goode is guilty enough about the massacre that he puts himself in danger to take care of the campers, and resuscitates Ziggy, saving her life. Although these actions become more sinister with the reveal that he was the one who prompted the bloodshed, it’s undeniable that at one point he felt shame about his role in the Shadyside curse and that he did have at least some affection for Ziggy.

Hardened by continuously sacrificing innocent lives, the adult Sheriff Goode is a conniving individual who doesn’t hesitate to turn on Ziggy in an attempt to save his own skin. In Part Three’s climactic moments, he is also stalked by the ghost of Sarah Fier, who confronts him over his crimes and kills him. Sheriff Goode is trapped in a cycle just as grim — and ultimately deadly — as Shadyside’s. The difference is that he had a choice, and the story he finds himself acting out is of his own making.

There’s a grimness to Goode’s fate that breaks with the ultimate optimism found in other recent works of children’s historical horror. In those narratives, evil is vanquished decisively, but at the conclusion of Part Three, it’s hard to shake off the feelings of betrayal that linger. Watching Deena and Sam stagger away from the sheriff’s corpse, I’m reminded of the climax of the similarly urban-legend-obsessed adult horror Candyman, where protagonist Helen Lyle goes out in a blaze of sacrificial glory only to reappear as a vengeful spirit much like the one she fought to destroy. It’s easier to become consumed by stories than it is to break free from them.

For Fear Street makes it clear that, despite Deena’s victory, the urban legends and the structures of power they enable haven’t disappeared. Instead, they’ve shifted. Emerging from Goode’s luxurious McMansion after their final showdown, she watches a garbage truck plow into a car. For years, Sunnyvale thrived because Shadyside could not. Now the wheel will turn; the places will reverse. Prosperity and control for one group can only mean the misfortune of another. The stories that will be told make sure of that. And, just like the concerns that hide behind real-life urban legends, the details of these tales may be fuzzy or even made up, but the dread that births them is true.

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Claudia McCarron is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Lunch Ticket, the Ploughshares blog, Avidly, and elsewhere. She lives in West Virginia.