The Zombification of Higher Academia

John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness

illustration by Dani Manning

“Grad school needs more overnight research sleepovers,” said no one ever, except maybe John Carpenter. So go the proceedings in his criminally underrated supernatural horror Prince of Darkness: a group of STEM graduate students (*insert puking noises*) hole up in a threateningly large cathedral to study a secret green liquid that is said to contain the essence of Satan (obviously a humanities major). Released in 1987 and on the heels of Carpenter’s known classics Big Trouble in Little China and The Thing, Prince of Darkness dares to ask the most important theological questions of our time: what would happen if the Devil looked like a can of Monster Energy? And what if, when the can-devil squirts demon juice into your mouth, you too become possessed by demonic energy? What then?

There’s a certain thrill in watching academics-in-training dissolve into piles of insects or transform into walking, zombified blood clots. As a current PhD student (putting that in writing should come with a $200 fine), there are times when I wander the hallways of the University at Buffalo’s brutalist architecture in an otherworldly daze—not distracted, per se ($300 for use of “per se”), but more so catatonic; an ugly husk of a human plucked from the goose-poop soil, some kind of fleshy cloud rising from the fumes of intellectual ruin and empty Juul cartridges. Grad school is a lot like possession—why else would one willingly surrender six years of their life to survive on nothing but subpar coffee from the campus Tim Hortons and tears, produced in a chosen bathroom stall on a random building’s upper floor? It’s telling, then, that the grad students in Prince of Darkness are more recognizable to me post-possession than pre-. The two main characters—if we can call them that—are physicists Brian and Catherine, and when they aren’t quarreling over which physics is better (applied or theoretical?), they are fucking (who has the time?) and pretending like their hairstyles aren’t the biggest jokes you’ve ever seen. I wasn’t around in 1987, but my mom sure was, and I’ve seen plentiful photos with hairstyles she can never take back. This film features at least a dozen of the world’s worst follicle errors, and our main lovers are the biggest culprits. All this to say, can’t relate.

But for a film with big questions about humankind on the mind, it’s relatively unclear what it is that these grad students are researching, or what kind of data is being collected. Yes, there’s the aforementioned big can of Monster, but what is the thesis at play here ($400)? As scientists, they hunch over old computers, play with glasses full of unspecified colored liquids, and observe, observe, observe. Somehow, we are meant to believe that work is getting done as strings of code appear on the dark screen of a computer—proof of action, of some technological labor. But because the cohort can’t simply extract a sample of devil-fluid from the spinning cyclone of green antimatter, they are made to simply stand in front of it, looking quizzically as academics are trained to do. It’s only when the green liquid starts spraying itself at people that real hypothesizing begins ($500), in the form of E=My colleagues are possessed by Satan, and if I can’t escape this church, they will snap my neck or turn me into a shuddering hill of beetles. If research is the method of discovery, possession is the evidence, the harsh proof that the unknowable can never truly be known, not even by ivory-tower 30-somethings with jean jackets and caterpillar mustaches.

Prince of Darkness is a supernatural horror at heart, but some critics have made the case that the film has more on the ghoulbrain than bloodshed and theological quandaries. One such example comes from critic John Kenneth Muir, who argues that the film was an allegory for the AIDS epidemic that was devastating queer communities across the country when the film was released. As evidence, Muir points to the transmittable nature of the devil-spray and the character Walter, who is seen making multiple gay jokes only to find himself trapped inside of a closet. While these may be convincing examples pointing to the allegorical nature of Prince of Darkness, I’m left to wonder what kind of commentary these examples provide beyond “AIDS is happening.” For instance, does the film condemn the ways in which the US government effectively ignored the outbreak, thus leaving the burden of mitigation tactics to those most vulnerable to the disease? What, then, do we make of those who escape? The presumably closeted Walter leaves the film unscathed by the Devil’s influence, but the straight couple at the center is doomed to the shadow realm by the film’s end. What do we make of this reversal of fate that sees heterosexuality punished and homosexuality both erased in literal utterance and freed of homophobic and religious projection? Viewing Prince of Darkness as solely a ‘message film’ about AIDS or gentrification (homeless people surround the building ominously, and at one point, a character describes the Devil as ‘pushing out’ the human host) is ultimately a lesson in half-hearted communication. While readings of AIDS and gentrification are sound critical pursuits, the film seems disinterested in coming to a political conclusion about either subject. In the end, what succeeds beyond any shallow attempt at political point-making is the visual excess of the Devil himself, turning grad student flesh into pocked, oozing blisters of blood and pus.

Also noteworthy is the galaxy-brained idea that Jesus is a time-traveling space agent sent to warn humanity of the Devil’s impending plan to take over. This theological backflip is as ballsy and deliciously provocative as a deep-fried meme of Kermit the Frog with the accompanying text “Gonna Kermit a War Crime” emblazoned boldly beneath the puppet’s empty thousand-mile stare. This is to say that ($600) both are silly beyond measure, yet require, from a creative standpoint, a brain so broken that it resembles Play-Doh in the punishing hands of an infant. So it’s no surprise that the true god at the center of the film is revealed to be Carpenter himself, clearly delighting in the kind of blasphemous visual magic that would’ve scalped at least a dozen Reaganite mullets back in the day. Fear not: there are no clean blessings to be had here. Carpenter’s Jesus relies not on apparition or telepathy to communicate but opts to infiltrate the dreams of grad students instead, transmitting images to them in the form of grainy public access TV footage, to no clear end or resolution. By the film’s gruesome conclusion, it appears that the Devil wins out, taking at least two grad students with him into a black, watery portal where STEM majors probably belong.

While some would argue that Prince of Darkness fails thematically, narratively, and structurally when compared to other Carpenter movies like The Thing or Halloween, I take pleasure in the film’s unruly appearances. Even a mess by Carpenter is interesting, and Prince of Darkness is admirable for how much it tries to pile onto its already-full plate. I’m even drawn to its paper-thin character cut-outs with nary a personality trait besides “student” because—and I mean this—that’s what grad school is really like. The greatest punchline Prince of Darkness has to offer is that grad students don’t even need to be possessed in order to be soul-sucking ($700). In fact, in order to write this, I had to google the characters’ names, just to be certain they had them, that they weren’t already these nameless cyphers wandering the church grounds in search of purpose. Maybe the film spends its runtime searching for the same thing, but when heads start rolling in true Carpenter fashion, it becomes difficult to care whether I can see all three of a character’s dimensions. There’s pleasure in watching others experience the threat of no escape. Less so when one is also confined by it. And so it must be that the true horror of Prince of Darkness lies not in the possibility of Satan’s takeover, but in the idea that you can spend your whole life studying the world and never come up with a clean explanation for why things happen the way they do. Either way, the Devil is there to fuck you and your nerd herd all the way up.