The Twists and Turns of ‘Hangman’s Curse’
In a decade filled with remakes, reboots, and slashers, Hangman’s Curse stands out as an original teen paranormal horror story. The movie captures the feeling of the Aughts with jock and goth stereotypes, a punk-pop soundtrack, and the feature film debut of Aughts staple Leighton Meester. And while Hangman’s Curse presents a strong supernatural narrative, it succeeds best when it moves between subgenres. As the movie twists from supernatural terror to real-world killer—and finally into a full-blown creature feature—it finds new ways to up the scare factor. By constantly subverting the viewer’s expectations, Hangman’s Curse creates a unique horror experience.
The Haunting of John R. Rogers High School
Hangman’s Curse follows the Springfield family, members of a mysterious group named the Veritas Project that investigates “strange mysteries, crimes, and unusual occurrences.” The Springfields are sent to a high school where students claim to see the ghost of former student Abel Frye before they fall into comas. According to legend, Frye killed a girl who didn’t reciprocate his feelings for her and then hung himself in the school’s attic. Mom Sarah (Mel Harris) takes on the role of school counselor; Dad Nate (David Keith) hides in plain sight as the school’s custodian; and twins Elisha (Meester) and Elijah (Douglas Smith) go undercover as students. Together, they hope to find a rational explanation for what is occurring at the school.
As the Springfields investigate, all of the clues seem to indicate that the school is experiencing a supernatural haunting. The symbol of a hanged man is carved in the locker of the victims, marking them for an attack. They also find a hidden chamber where the goth kids have formed a cult and perform rituals to summon Abel and direct him toward specific victims. Finally, we see Abel Frye’s ghost looming over the victims as they scream in fear. After befriending some of the victims and witnessing their attacks firsthand, Elisha and Elijah try to prove that the events truly are supernatural. However, their parents are still determined to find something scientific to explain everything.
From the very beginning, Hangman’s Curse is setting the viewer up for their expectations to be subverted. The presence of the Veritas Project and the Springfield family immediately calls into question the validity of the supernatural claims. The twist could be that the supernatural events are actually something mundane, that the Veritas Project discovers something genuinely supernatural, or something else entirely. But by putting the idea of a potential twist front-of-mind, the movie puts itself in a place for the twist to be successful almost no matter the outcome.
A Not-So Supernatural Twist
For more than an hour, Hangman’s Curse is a supernatural horror movie. The evidence of this being a metaphysical problem mounts; despite the Veritas Project trying to develop reasonable scientific explanations, the family cannot find anything. Then, suddenly, an answer manifests. Someone has planted poisonous spiders in the victims’ lockers and targeted them using spider pheromones. There is still the mystery of who has placed the spiders, but the supernatural antagonist has suddenly been debunked. Despite the visions we share with the victims—and despite the cult seeming to summon Abel Frye and direct him toward specific people—the Springfields have managed to discover the scientific explanation they seek.
Despite the loss of the supernatural element, Hangman’s Curse manages to maintain its grip on horror. Even when all signs point to a supernatural cause, the scientific twist works so well because it doesn’t take away from the victims’ terror. Not only that, but the victims are still at risk of dying as their conditions worsen in the hospital. But the Springfields now have an explanation and a plan as they evacuate everyone from the school, checking them for spiders and administering a newly created vaccine to all affected.
An added element to the terror of the spiders as the cause for what is happening is that these attacks are no longer focused and targeted like everyone had previously thought. Anyone is vulnerable to being bitten, and one student is covered in spiders when they check him as he is being evacuated from the school. The student body reacts in panic when they see the reality that they could all be victims. Instead of being able to reassure themselves that they wouldn’t be targets since they weren’t antagonizing the goth kids, everyone has to face the fact that sickness and even possible death could be coming for them at any moment. Any element of personal safety many of the students may have been able to convince themselves of is ripped away, grounding their terror in reality far from the abstract of a potential ghost.
This twist is also successful because the movie’s central conflict—who is targeting and attacking these students—remains unsolved. Sure, The Veritas Project has discovered what is happening, but they still don’t know why it is happening or who is doing it. While Elijah and his parents facilitate the school’s evacuation, Elisha is off on her own on a hunch that she may be able to discover what is happening. She doesn’t yet know about the spiders—not everyone in the Aughts had a cell phone—so she climbs into an air vent to investigate mysterious sounds. To add even more horror to the situation, the spiders have cross-bred and mutated. They are reproducing more and more rapidly and begin to literally overrun the school. After almost being overtaken, Elisha discovers that Norman (Daniel Farber), a nerdy kid that both she and her brother have befriended, is behind everything.
The Ghost of Abel Frye
As Elisha remains in the school looking for answers and eventually confronting Norman, Hangman’s Curse taps into the visual terror that the spiders bring. Arachnids begin to slowly crawl out of air vents and lower themselves down from the ceiling. The gym teacher—who has been confrontational with the Springfields since they arrived—sits at his desk when a spider scurries across it. He recoils into the lockers behind him only to see dozens of spiders covering everything. As Elisha climbs through the air vents to get to the attic, she looks down and sees hundreds of spiders ascending below her. This final transition from supernatural terror, to targeted spider attacks, to the school being physically overrun with spiders completes the movement through the horror subgenres and lands Hangman’s Curse solidly in the realm of creature features.
The amount of spiders all over the school is truly overwhelming. Visually, they take over the screen. While Elisha’s hazmat-style suit provides some protection, she is still completely covered in spiders. When Norman cuts a hole in her suit to let the spiders in, we see the spiders covering the visor showing her face. She screams in pain and terror as the spiders repeatedly bite her. Despite what she knows, as the venom overwhelms her system, Elisha sees the ghost of Abel Frye looming toward her. Hangman’s Curse brings the terror full circle as Elisha experiences the supernatural and creature elements at the same time in a paralyzing climactic scene.
The Springfields feel relief when they discover the spiders. But when they realize that Elisha is in the school alone and without the knowledge they have, their terror is compounded. The reality of a horde of poisonous spiders descending on the school is far scarier to them than any supernatural possibility. Elisha’s fall into the spiders and her subsequent attack by them illustrates why this twist is so impactful. The horror has moved from hypothetical and supernatural to actual and tangible. Anyone left in the school will be attacked by the spiders. Even when Elisha is rescued, she lays lifeless on a gurney as paramedics try to bring her back, her body overcome by the deadly poison coursing through it.
Hangman’s Curse is a movie that most people haven’t heard of, let alone seen. But, it is an Aughts-fueled horror gem. Not only is it telling an original story, but it is playing with horror subgenres and subverting expectations throughout. Multiple times during the movie, Hangman’s Curse manages to pivot the narrative while still maintaining, or even increasing, the terror. If any 2000s horror release deserves to be reevaluated and watched so it can be recognized as the horror gem that it is, it’s Hangman’s Curse—as long as you’re not arachnophobic.