13 Sorority Horrors
Article By: Ben Raphael Sher
Why are sorority sisters so popular in horror movies? Some may argue that it’s because horror movies are geared towards 14-year-old boys, so featuring a bunch of women who live together and perform vaguely sadomasochistic initiation ceremonies all the time gives filmmakers a lot of excuses to pile on the nudity and sex. Okay, this is probably true. However, sorority sisters are also appealing in horror movies because they provide the opportunity to put a bunch of women with awesome personalities (and great hair) in situations where they can have interesting, dramatic interactions and get into fun-filled trouble. As you’ll see, most of these movies have one of three plots. However, us horror fans know that the joy of the genre is often in the details.
1. Thirteen Women (1932)
Twelve former sorority sisters, who have remained friends in adulthood, receive horoscopes from the “renowned” astrologist Swami Yogadachi informing them that they and their family members are going to die in grisly ways. It turns out that their former friend Ursula Georgi, (played by the legendary Myrna Loy), plans to orchestrate their deaths. She seeks to wreak vengeance upon the women, who shunned her when she was a student because she was of Indonesian descent. People die by trapeze, poison, bombs, and hypnotism-induced suicide before the ringleader of the sorority, now a Beverly Hills matron (Irene Dunne), must have a final face off with Ursula. Many now view this fascinating, surprisingly violent film as a precursor to the slasher genre.
2. Monsters Crash the Pajama Party (1965)
As part of an initiation ceremony, a group of pledges must spend the night in a creepy old mansion. Soon, they find themselves attacked by a mad scientist and his hunchback assistant, who are performing experiments in order to turn humans into gorillas. Okay, it ain’t Black Christmas. However, you must remember, Monsters Crash the Pajama Party was originally part of a 1960s “spook show.” Spook shows were evening long events for teenagers that included short films, creepy magic shows, and other giddily eerie happenings. During screenings of Monsters Crash the Pajama Party, actors dressed as monsters would run into the audience to scare them, sometimes capturing screaming teens. To learn more about the spook show experience, pick up Monsters… on DVD from Something Weird Video.
3. Black Christmas (1974)
The first modern sorority house slasher film, and probably still the best. A group of sisters, including classy Jess (Olivia Hussey), brassy Barb (Margot Kidder), and sweet Phyl (Andrea Martin), are terrorized by a series of truly harrowing phone calls on Christmas Eve. Guess where the calls are coming from? Soon, the sisters are systematically terrorized and murdered against a backdrop of colored lights and Christmas carols. Black Christmas has some of the best performances and characters of any horror film. Questions about who might be committing the horrific murders are tightly interwoven into the sister’s realistic life problems. Great director Bob Clark (Dead of Night; A Christmas Story) creates a chilling yet cozy yuletide atmosphere, and beautifully builds up the tension. The movie still has the power to scare the hell out of you.
4. House on Sorority Row (1983)
After graduation, a posse of gals plan to have a big party at their palatial sorority house. Unfortunately, their humorless, cane-toting housemother Mrs. Slater ruins everything. The rich bitch alpha of the sorority (there’s always one) plans to play a vengeful prank on Mrs. Slater involving a gun and a seriously gross swimming pool. Let’s just say that sorority horror movies are really good gun control propaganda. The girls have the party anyway, and pay dearly for it. House on Sorority Row is an unusually twisty thriller with sharp dialogue, charismatic performances, style to spare, and one of the creepiest killer costumes of all time. The film was remade as Sorority Row in 2009. All accounts describe it as terrible, but Carrie Fisher plays the housemother, so it can’t be called entirely unworthy.
And yes, that is future Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Eileen Davidson (also known as Ashley Abbott from The Young and the Restless or Kristen DiMera from Days of Our Lives) as a sorority sister.
5. Hell Night (1981)
Arguably, Black Christmas, The House on Sorority Row, and Hell Night form the triumvirate of sorority slasher movies. If you want to know why some people love Linda Blair’s post-Exorcist period the most, this is one of many good places to start. Linda exudes her typical warmth and likability as yet another sorority pledge forced to spend the night in a spooky old castle as part of an initiation ritual. She seems to find the entire thing ridiculous, leading us to ask why Linda Blair would ever join a sorority, when there is no group of people that is worthy of her? She is the ultimate sorority of one. Anyway, the castle has a sordid past. An entire family was massacred there, and the murderer may still be alive. Hell Night’s gothic, eerie castle sets distinguish it from many of its ilk.
6. Sisters of Death (1976)
A sorority sister kills a pledge during an initiation ceremony involving candles, Russian roulette, and fabulous nightgowns with matching veils. Years later, an anonymous figure invites the sisters, now modern women of the ‘70s, to a glamorous estate for a reunion Never go to a reunion when you don’t know who invited you, especially if you killed somebody during college! Sisters of Death is like the love child of an Agatha Christie novel, a feminist-tinged ‘70s soap opera, and an ‘80s slasher film. In other words, it’s sublime.
7. The Initiation of Sarah (1978)
Shy, sweet Sarah and her perky, popular sister Patty go to college and join the dorky, nice sorority and the powerful, evil sorority (respectively). Morgan Fairchild leads the evil sorority, as she runs all evil sororities, in a literal or figurative way. They get their kicks by viciously tormenting the dorky sorority. Little do they know that Sarah has telekinetic powers, and that housemother Shelley Winters has the knowledge that will help her harness them in vengeance! Yet another life lesson to be learned from sorority horror movies: Do NOT mess with any organization with which Shelley Winters is affiliated! You will lose!
8. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988)
A group of pledges (and some random, “dorky” guys who are mostly hot guys in glasses) have to spend the night in a bowling ally at the local shopping mall, and steal a trophy. They accidentally unleash a jive-talking imp who grants them each a wish. As in the fable The Monkey’s Paw, their wishes don’t come true in exactly the way that they imagined. Meanwhile, the evil Morgan Fairchild-esque sorority sisters come to the mall to terrorize the pledges, and the imp turns them into murderous monsters (you will dig one of the sisters’ Bride of Frankenstein get up!). The perfect Linnea Quigley plays Spider, a goth robber who might be able to save the day. For a movie that regularly played on USA Up All Night, Sorority Babes weirdly has a very complex and nuanced plot that is difficult to explain. Horror fans of ‘80s and ‘90s made for video scream queens will thrill to see Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, and Brinke Stevens working together. In fact, they probably already own this movie on VHS and DVD.
9. Nightmare Sisters (1988)
More craziness from Sorority Babes director David DeCouteau and stars Linnea, Brinke, and Michelle. This time, they stretch their talents by playing dorky sorority sisters (Linnea has buckteeth!) who become transformed into sex-obsessed succubi after some unfortunate experimentation with a crystal ball. Will their male prey be able to handle them? Note: We can’t show you a clip because this movie has so much nudity! That probably tells you all you need to know about whether or not you want to see it.
10. The Initiation (1984)
Kelly, played by Daphne Zuniga, has a lot of problems. She suffers from recurring nightmares about a burning man, she is having a tres-inappropriate romance with her college professor, and she’s pledging a sorority that makes her break into her father’s department store (which weirdly looks like an office building). She and her fellow pledges get trapped in the department store, where a killer seeks to get them.
It’s enough to make a girl consider trade school.
11. Sorority House Massacre (1986)
In Sorority House Massacre, our heroine keeps dreaming up her repressed memories of hiding in the basement while her brother killed her family (apparently, sorority pledges are always plagued by dreams and encounters with men who kill their families). As it turns out, her new sorority house is actually her childhood home! Her brother psychically senses that she’s returned, escapes from a mental institution, and comes to finish his fowl crime. During all of this, there’s a lengthy pop-music scored montage in which the sorority gals go through their closet and try on all of their clothes. Sorority House Massacre II: Nighty Nightmare is a lot tackier, including tons of nudity, bad acting, and several scenes from Slumber Party Massacre (1982)!
12. Killer Party (1986)
How do you know when a party is killer? When it includes chic mid-‘80s threads galore, demonic possession, a vengeful killer who might be a ghost, April Fool’s Day pranks that keep you from knowing whether you can believe anything that’s happening around you, and a soundtrack featuring songs by Laura Branigan.
13. The Hazing (2004)
Sorority horror films sort of fell out of favor after the ‘80s, so this very fun made for DVD outing was a refreshing return to form. A Satanic professor, who is killed on Halloween during yet another sorority prank gone wrong, possesses his students and makes them kill each other during a party at yet another big, old mansion. Obviously, you’ve seen variations of this before. However, the evil professor’s ability to inhabit anybody at any time provides a good new angle, creating tensions for our protagonists, who never know who to trust. The filmmakers have a good sense of humor that doesn’t detract from the film’s action and scares. The cast, including Brad Dourif and nouveau-scream queens Brooke Burke, Nectar Rose, and Tiffany Shepis, are pretty awesome. The Hazing is one of the few movies from the early 2000s that really captured the fun of ‘80s horror comedies like Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Night of the Demons (1988).
Ben Raphael Sher holds a PhD from UCLA, where he has also teached. His work has appeared in Fangoria, Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and Back Stage. He is a co-host of the podcast Retro Movie Love. You can read more of his work here.