In the long, storied tradition of horror cinema, there’s a lengthy list of unfortunate occupations. If you’re a cop, there’s about a 50/50 chance you’ll end up dead by the closing credits. If you’re a scientist (mad or benevolent), your death is as much a part of your character as your lab coat (and if you’re mad, you deserve it!). But one career path has become the poster child for humiliation, for no good reason: the janitor. Whatever killing spree is in progress at the local college, at some point the characters will look to blame the janitor. I’m here today to stand up for that blue collared custodian. Because IT’S NEVER THE JANITOR.
I have no idea when this malicious trend started, but it’s most prominent in school-based slashers. I first noticed it when I wrote a series of reviews of them. First there was one, then two, and then they kept showing up. Both PROM NIGHT (1980) and URBAN LEGEND (1998) use this gag. There’s a span of 18 years between those flicks, which makes a statement that this isn’t just a gag, but a longstanding tradition. And a wasted one at that, because IT’S NEVER THE JANITOR.
Not only is it the same, lazy idea every time, but the same, lazy presentation as well. Here’s the setup: A bunch of kids are getting killed at the local campus. Several logical suspects come into play, maybe the shunned student, the “weird kid,” the teacher alleged to be having an affair with his teacher’s pet, the teacher’s pet who was scorned when the teacher cut off the affair. Once the protagonists have run through all those sound choices, one kid will look across the cafeteria, leer at the man mopping up the spilt milk, and blurt out, “Hey… maybe it’s… Crazy Pete the janitor!” This is the point where I want to reach through the screen, grab this character by the shirt and slap him into a state of unconsciousness.
I am by no means a violent guy, but this kid deserves a beatdown for several reasons. First, without any proof he’s accusing a hard working man of being a serial killer. His rapid fire conjecture has absolutely no grounding, it’s just a theory. In today’s world, it’s also slander. Also, it should be obvious the kid’s grasping at straws, because there is absolutely NO reason to blame the janitor. The kid will go on to explain to the group that Crazy Pete either was accused of inappropriately touching his own nephew at some point, or that five years ago he was “resting” in a mental institution for a few years before he returned to his mop. This kid is an asshole who’s spreading rumors. Never once in the film will you see him having any in-depth discussion with Crazy Pete. The principal never gives him a long rundown of Pete’s mental or criminal history. Mom and Dad never sit the kid down and warn him, “Avoid your uncle Crazy Pete. Remember that time you were 14 and he decided to change your diaper?”
So why does poor Pete always find himself among the suspects? Well, he doesn’t exactly do himself any favors in the way he comports himself. He’s usually a bit unkempt, prone to long stares into nowhere and occasionally uttering cryptic statements. But to judge him on his appearance is prejudiced. When I was in high school I had a history teacher who wore crisp shirts, ties and a fancy sports coat with faded jeans that looked like they’d fall apart if a mild breeze blew through. But no one ever accused him of mass murder. Those long stares are probably the product of another 10 years before he retires and leaves this exhilirating line of work behind him. And those cryptic statements of Pete’s often turn out to be job-related and ultimately innocuous (the kid heard him say, “It’s time to wipe out all the scum in this place!” but ran off frightened before Pete pulled out a Brillo pad and headed into the Boys’ Room).
Pete may draw attention to himself, but there’s an insidious group of bastards behind him making the suspect list: lazy screenwriters who love clichés. Somewhere in the ancestral DNA of horror scripts, these clowns dug out The Janitor Rule and, in true, uninspired fashion, decided to do nothing with it. There’s never some swerve where it’s Esther the Weird Lunch Lady, or John the Principal’s Oddball Secretary, because that would take a little thought and creativeness. These guys are creatively bankrupt, and so it’s “stick to the formula,” and out comes Crazy Pete.
But here’s where you screenwriters out yourselves as hacks, because IT’S NEVER THE JANITOR. Pete may as well be wearing “RED HERRING” on his nametag. He’s guilty of many things, but never of slaughtering 16 kids from the graduating class. He’s just a blue collar guy with a wife and a mortgage, going about his thankless job five days a week to assure that kids have a clean place in which to learn. And you just called the cops on the guy, there on page 65 of your screenplay, just to screw with him so the principal could tell that asshole kid on page 75 that he’s got a rock solid alibi. Shame on you, you dicks.
In my review of PROM NIGHT, I said, “Why is the custodian/janitor/grounds keeper always a suspect in these films, and never ever the killer? My dad works maintenance at a college. At least I know he’ll never be the one responsible if the students start getting snuffed.” Off that lengthy list of unfortunate occupations to have in a horror flick, plenty of them end up dead, but the janitor always gets screwed. In a perfect filmic world, he’ll get his revenge when he sues the slasher’s survivors for slander and he’ll head off to early retirement. I can only hope that boon falls upon Pete.
As a former teacher who’s never once met a killer janitor, I envision a better world of school-based slashers in which Pete can live in the bliss an innocent man deserves. Until such a day arrives, to all the cliché loving screenwriters who want to slander poor Pete, IT’S OFFICIAL! YOU SUCK!