Welcome back to our Halloween YA throwback book club! Today we are tackling Cheerleaders: The First Evil, which follows "vibrant, blonde" sisters Bobbi and Corky Corcoran in their fight against a faceless menace stalking their squad. It remains amazing.
Published in 1992, Cheerleaders kicked off R.L. Stine's legendary Fear Street series, which (judging from the Jezebel comments section) kept an entire generation of Americans from sleeping during the fifth grade. Not that that stopped anybody from reading the sequels. (Incidentally: Were you aware that R.L. Stine was also co-creator of Nickelodeon's Eureeka's Castle? Dude covers some ground.)
The book follows Bobbi and Corky as they settle into Shadyside High School and its cheerleading squad. Their arrival immediately causes hard feelings—technically they missed try outs, but captain Jennifer and coach Mrs. Green insist. This alienates second-in-command, less-than-perfect Kimmy. Then Jennifer is paralyzed in a terrible accident at the edge of a cemetery (SPOOKY), Bobbi takes over as captain (bypassing a very pissy Kimmy) and things get really weird. Locker doors slamming, mysterious paralysis and finally GRUESOME DEATH.
Erin Gloria Ryan and I reread this adolescent landmark and we both loved it:
Kelly: Did Cheerleaders: The First Evil live up to your very fond memories? I'd never read it and I must say, it was everything you promised.
Erin: It's so good. As I was reading it, I felt a real yearning in my chest cavity—like a pining—for it to be a movie. I want it to be a major motion picture so badly.
Kelly: I want it to be a major motion picture SPECIFICALLY in the style of Twin Peaks, which I feel is what this book calls for.
Erin: Yes, oh my god. That is the book. It's like young adult Twin Peaks but with cheerleaders. And 1000% more worm-covered skeletons.
Kelly: "Worm-covered" really doesn't do it justice. That corpse is well over a century old and it's still WRITHING. But to backtrack for a moment: What did you think of our heroines, sisters/cheerleading prodigies Bobbi and Corky Corcoran? All I could think was how unlikely they were as modern YA heroines.
Erin: They were very aspirational rather than relatable. That was before being an outsider was a prerequisite for being a Young Adult protagonist. It was a book kids would read to escape into an entirely different social strata rather than to imagine themselves ascending with their own weirdness as an asset.
Kelly: But in a genuinely talented way—all-state for cheerleading (in Missouri, too) isn't a walk in the park!
Kelly: Not like the Sweet Valley girls who were, let's face it, not that special. SORRY, SWEET VALLEY FANS.
Erin: They were melted vanilla ice cream. These girls are like the vanilla macaron of YA heroines. Maybe a little basic, definitely almost too perfect. But still good.
Did you find them the most compelling characters in the book?
Kelly: Well, I ended up rooting for them by default. But I found Kimmy, second-fiddle to first Jennifer and then Bobbi, more compelling, because she was so full of teen girl rage. So, so, so angry.
Erin: Who would be Kimmy in a movie version of this?
Erin: The Corcorans would obviously be the Fannings.
I had some questions about Kimmy during the book, though. She was supposedly the least attractive of the cheerleaders, but she still was good at cheerleading, but she used to go out with the quarterback. What kind of a guy would go out with the most interesting girl on the squad and then break up with her for the prettiest one?
Kelly: What I didn't get was why Bobbi would have anything to do with Chip. He dumps Kimmy because, what, she'd temporarily quit the squad? I really wasn't clear on the reasons for their breakup (and Kimmy didn't even seem to know they were broken up). Is the quarterback contractually obligated to go steady with the hottest cheerleader he can? I understand that 80s YA operates by a different set of rules, but damn. Who'd want to date that shit-ass?
Erin: Also, he sounds like a REAL dork.
He is literally the only male character that is around the girls' age who is singled out by name. The book is almost entirely teen girls.
Kelly: And the book is really good at the claustrophobia of being a teen girl!
Erin: Yeah! When you're a teen girl the only people who exist are the people you want to impress, the people you want to like you. The rest of the people are just people you don't want to laugh at you.
Kelly: My favorite moment comes right after Bobbi doesn't catch Kimmy because of THE EVIL, and Ronnie tells Megan (in a voice juuuust loud enough to be overheard) that it's totally attempted murder. Which, to me, is a pitch-perfect illustration of the slightly hysterical way you view events in high school. Everything is just very, very high stakes (even when it's actually very, very low stakes).
Erin: Oh my god yes. The cheers are literally just rhyme yelling with some light tumbling.
Kelly: When you're 15, being on the cheerleading squad (or whatever teens aspire to these days—Tumblr fame?) is literally everything. I vividly remember the day my school posted JV cheerleading tryout results. So many tears.
That thing you said about the only people existing are the people who you want to impress—I wonder if that's still true. I went back for my reunion and not one but three girls from the marching band were on the Homecoming Court, which wouldn't have happened back in my day.
Erin: There are just so many more people to impress now. You have the whole internet, and all these hyper specialized little worlds with their own languages and behavior codes.
Kelly: Good point—it's still hierarchical, it's just fractured (and probably therefore more perplexing).
I was also really impressed with how dead seriously R.L. Stine took cheerleading. There was no authorial "wink wink cheerleading w-evs," and the solution was not for Corky to quit the squad.
Erin: Even the part where Corky does a cheerleading move to jump off of the coffin—it's completely deadpan.
Kelly: Cheerleading literally saves her life! And her fellow cheerleaders rescue her, in the end. So this team we've seen operate in really toxic ways ends up functioning as something positive. Which I thought was nice. It would have been so easy for him to take the stances of BITCHES, AMIRITE?
Erin: TGFC (thank God for cheerleading).
I will say that the first two parts of the book could be creepier. We only get to the really great stuff until The Evil.
Kelly: Yeah, I wish The Evil had gotten a move on. Making Chip lose that football game was insufficiently evil.
Erin: Oh yeah, that was totally un-evil. I've seen YouTube videos more evil than that.
Kelly: Boiling Bobbi in the showers, though. Damn.
Erin: The evil goes from zero to murder in like 10 pages. Jennifer walking around through the curtains was creepy, but I wish she'd done more weird stuff before. Also, why wasn't Corky in PTSD counseling after she discovered the cooked body of her sister?
Kelly: Rereading all this retro YA has taught me that America has come a really long way regarding therapy in the last 30 years. In Wail Till Helen Comes, the kid has lingering issues from surviving a fire that killed her mother and her dad is just like, "Nah, therapy fucks you up."
Erin: She should be in therapy. Jennifer should be in therapy. Miss Green—whatever her deal is—should also be in therapy.
Kelly: Therapy would solve a lot of the problems in these books.
Erin: All of this could be solved with some mental health care and taking trauma seriously. I guess from the other side of things, though—maybe therapy would have ruined the fun of watching the evil unfold. Which is maybe the most evil thought of all.
Kelly: The Evil is getting to you, Erin. It has you in its grip.
Kelly: Are you there, Sarah Fear?
Erin: Gonna backflip away from this one.
Kelly: Another thing I really liked is how the cops know Fear Street is an issue, apparently. When the cops are wrapping everything up one of them literally shakes his damn head and says "Fear Street... Fear Street..."
Erin: "Fear Street is an issue. We've been getting a lot of reports."
Kelly: "Can we PLEASE have a city council meeting on the issue of Fear Street?"
Erin: Emma Roberts would obviously play Jennifer, right? We still need a Kimmy. For some reason, I am picturing Ilana Glazer.
Kelly: I bet Taissa Farmiga could do it.
Erin: WHAT DO WE NEED TO DO TO GET THIS MADE INTO A MOVIE? I want Diablo Cody to adapt the screenplay. I can picture everything.
I will say, as sort of a final thought, that the boiling in the shower scene was still just as horrifying as it was when I read it when I was 10, and I definitely had at least one nightmare about the book last night.
Kelly: Boiling to death in the shower is a fear that transcends generations.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby