Artist Heather Kohos came to “Gently, With a Chainsaw: A Heathers Art Show” prepared with cigarettes. After chatting with her about her art in the show and her Heathers origin story, I asked for her card. She handed me a wooden cigarette enscripted with “Dear Diary, Heather told me she teaches people ‘real life.’” (and, of course, the address of her Tumblr). I held the faux cigarette in my hand for the rest of the night, aiding in my low-level Veronica Sawyer cosplay and rereading the quote. What did Heathers teach me about real life?
Released in 1988, Heathers (written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann) followed Veronica Sawyer (all time babe Winona Ryder), an Ohio teen, who very half-heartedly hangs out with the popular “Heathers.” When a mysterious new dude, J.D. (peak Christian Slater) comes to town, Veronica’s tolerance for the social politics of Westerburg High turns murdery with J.D. by her side.
I don’t remember my Heathers origin story. I must have seen it in late high school, I guess, but at any rate, by the time I moved to Los Angeles almost five years ago, my out-of-print DVD copy had been watched at least a hundred times. And I revisited it: feeling the growing pains of moving to a new city, I used Heathers and other teen movies to find my people. I threw a teen-movie-themed 26th birthday party, dressed up in a Heathers group costume with a new group of friends on Halloween. It was easy to figure out who we wanted to go as; we all had our attachments and reasons. A red blazer, sitting unused in the back of a closet. The excuse to drink a mixed cocktail out of a bleach container. The hope to fully embody the spirit of Veronica Sawyer. At parties, people loved our costume. Someone invited us to go watch their dodgeball team, “The Heathers,” play next to The Abbey in West Hollywood. It seemed that the movie had an essentially endless appeal.
Erika Paget, curator of Gently, With a Chainsaw: A Heathers Art Show, loved the movie from the moment she saw it in high school. “You know when the movie is melodramatic or insensitive or provocative, it’s always on purpose,” she told me. “It feels rooted in the 1980s, but it also feels timeless. Those girls were badasses, and they had a real handle on life, at least in the way that you feel you do when you’re a teenager.”
She added, “And they were also just boss, take-charge, get-what-I-want-when-I-want-it ladies, which I really loved. I have always strived to be a Veronica in my everyday life. I might be closer to Betty Finn.”
On April 24th, Paget curated a show that showcased Heathers-themed art from over 65 artists at Los Angeles’ Nerdist Showroom at Meltdown Comics, a site well-known for their pop culture themed events. Paget has been curating shows at Meltdown for the last two years and always had a Heathers show in the back of her mind. After curating successful shows based around The X-Files and Pee Wee Herman, Paget got up the nerve to propose Heathers, which she was a little afraid might be too niche for both artists and audiences.
But it wasn’t. I went to the show with tempered expectations that were blown away. There were portraits of the characters (Heather Duke eating chicken in the locker room), religious iconography (Veronica as a gun wielding Virgin Mary) and even a Heathers Clue board that was available to purchase. The crowd wore Heathers t-shirts; there were multiple red blazers and a pair of matching Slurpee cups. There was an Archie-esque rendering of Veronica on the walls, multiple paintings of stockinged feet and croquet balls—and even Heathers-inspired clothing, like a plaid motorcycle jacket with “Fuck Me” in sequined lettering on the back, accompanied by a chainsaw.
The artists were present, equally enthusiastic. Nico Colaleo, a filmmaker and cartoonist, first watched a VHS copy of Heathers that he rented in high school. His piece, of Veronica and Heather’s fight at the Remington party, depicted his favorite scene: it was the first time Veronica stood up to Heather. Many of the artists I spoke to cited Veronica’s influence on both their teen attitudes and adult fashion choices. Aurora Lady, an artist who had a mixed media piece in the show, mentioned to me that Heathers always felt smart and “sticky” to her—that its appeal has lasted in that there aren’t a ton of movies about women that will tackle subversive, ugly things. And that was what the art show was littered with—pieces that spoke to Heather Duke’s eating disorder, Veronica’s terrible and deadly taste in men, Heather Chandler’s murder. Horribly dark topics, in the guise of a teen comedy—horribly dark topics that clearly have resonated for 27 years.
I went to the show with the same friends I dressed as Heathers with three Halloweens ago, people who are now my closest friends. Later that night, over drinks at a nearby bar, I geeked out over the print I bought and attempted to take drunk pictures to show off my “Veronica” look. We talked about Heathers for the entirety of the night. Teen angst, bullshit, murder: it brings everyone together, after all these years.
Photos via the author/Cinemarque
Kerensa Cadenas is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She’s written for Women and Hollywood, The Week, The Hairpin and Bitch media. Follow her for tweets about ladies doing cool shit, weeping during TV shows and eating weird snacks.