I managed to time travel last weekend, watching a film through the eyes of my son, who is now the same age I was when I first saw the movie — and finding myself fascinated by the differing reactions between the two of us.
I was 20 years old in the spring of 1989 when I first saw Heathers, the morbidly dark comedy that has Christian Slater channelling his inner Jack Nicholson.
The movie features four teenaged girls — three named Heather and one named Veronica, portrayed expertly by Winona Ryder — who form a nasty clique at an Ohio high school.
When Slater’s character, Jason Dean, arrives at Westerberg High School, he convinces Veronica to help him murder various mean, popular students — including a Heather — and stage their deaths as suicides.
I watched the movie in the old Royal Cinema in downtown Vancouver and was blown away by the blackness of the humour.
This was not a John Hughes teen flick.
My 20-year-old self in 1989 was a bit taken aback by the violence in Heathers, but was not overly fazed by some of the language used in the script.
My 20-year-son in 2022 was more or less unfazed by the violence, but a bit taken aback by some of the language.
And therein lies a clear illustration of how society can change over the decades, transforming along the way how we think and react to situations.
As the 53-year-old me watched Heathers, he was a bit jarred by something that was not even an issue when the 20-year-old me first saw the film — the fact that the fatal revenge on the bullies, the attempt to set off bombs in the school and Slater’s character’s penchant for wearing dark trench coats were strikingly similar to the Columbine school shootings that took place in Littleton, Col., exactly a decade after the movie was released.
When the 20-year-old me watched the film, school shootings were not the regular occurrence they are today.
While the modern mass shooting epidemic (primarily in the U.S., but also happening less often elsewhere, including here in Canada) can be traced to Charles Whitman atop the University of Texas tower in 1966, the disturbing phenomenon of school shootings is generally considered to have begun at Frontier Middle School in Moses Lake, Wash., in 1996.
It is generally considered to have reached (and influenced) so many more disturbed youth in 1999 with the shootings at Columbine.
Since Columbine, the number of mass school shootings in the United States has skyrocketed, so much so that reports of such carnage have become news that no longer shocks. School shootings, sad to say, have become inside-page equivalents of fender-benders, as do most incidents that occur at such a frenetic pace as to desensitize the masses.
And that takes me to my 20-year-old son’s reaction to Heathers as we watched it, an Old Style Pilsner in his hand (befitting a university kid) and a Sleeman’s Honey Brown in my weathered mitt.
My son was born in 2001 and, from the first time he read a newspaper, school shootings and related carnage have been commonplace.
Sure, it was always shocking to hear, but after the first few dozen such incidents, the surprise wears off. My son’s generation learned how to lock the doors and hide from potential shooters alongside the ABCs, something the childhood me never had to contemplate.
So, no, the murders and bombs and other school-related violence of Heathers did not faze him.
But he did notice when some characters uttered homophobic slurs that are verboten today. He did turn toward me with widened eyes when a cop used the “derogatory f’ word to refer to two corpses whose deaths were staged to appear as though a pair of male lovers had carried out a suicide pact.
The liberal use of such slurs was commonplace in society when the 20-year-old me watched the film; the liberal use of weapons to slaughter various segments of a school body, not so much.
For my son at the exact age, the opposite is true.
One step forward, one step backward as we navigate an ever-changing world.