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Scary-Good Lessons in School Marketing from the Best Horror Movies
Connor Gleason

Schools and horror films might seem worlds apart (aside from when it comes to lunch duty), but they do share a few common threads about reaching and influencing an audience and the power of storytelling.

Last minute board meeting? “I’ll be right back…”
No coffee in the faculty lounge? “Don’t go in there!”
Did you just hear that horrific scream? That’s this year’s budget.

Horror and slasher film directors need to tap into primal emotions, and the best stories leave an impact, keeping us up all night long. Similarly, schools need to market their missions with passion and engage their communities in a way that resonates with students, parents, and their broader community. 

The world of horror can teach us a thing or two about the eerie world of marketing, so let’s uncover some creative and effective school marketing strategies (minus all the screams.)

Understanding Your Audience: "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

In "A Nightmare on Elm Street," Freddy Krueger terrorizes his victims by infiltrating their dreams and manipulating their deepest fears. Similarly, in marketing, it's important to understand your target audience.

Knowing what drives your families, what they value, and what they fear (AKA pain points) allows you to tailor your messaging. For your school, this means understanding the desires and concerns of families so you can craft campaigns that resonate with them directly.

Lesson: Know your audience. Understand their needs, preferences, and pain points so you can adapt your marketing strategies and directly appeal to them.

scary woods

Word of Mouth: "The Blair Witch Project"

Made on a shoestring budget, The Blair Witch Project is one of the most profitable horror movies ever. This film took advantage of the early days of the Internet and relied heavily on viral marketing and word-of-mouth to create a buzz that spread like wildfire.

If you feel like your marketing campaigns are aimlessly walking through the woods screaming your school’s name, then listen up: Schools need to encourage fans to share their positive experiences because, often, their testimonials can be more convincing than any paid advertisement.

Lesson: Encourage your community to share their experiences because word-of-mouth remains one of the most powerful marketing tools for any school.

The Importance of Branding: "The Exorcist"

"The Exorcist" remains iconic not just because of its narrative but because of its eerie theme and aura. Now, your school nurse might know a thing or two about projectile vomit, but in marketing, this equates to the power of branding.

When people think of your school, what feelings and images do you want to evoke? Your brand should consistently be communicated across all platforms. Having a strong brand can set your school apart and make it stand out in a competitive market.

Lesson: A strong and consistent brand identity helps your school be remembered. Create a unique selling proposition (USP) that differentiates you from other schools.

a zombie walking into a sunset

Stay Flexible: "28 Days Later"

What made "28 Days Later" so unsettling was the unexpected speed of its zombies — you won’t outrun these “walking dead." In the marketing world, being adaptable is crucial. Whether adopting the latest social media trend, learning more about AI, or adjusting to changing demographics, your school should be prepared to revise its marketing strategies based on evolving circumstances (or a horde of zombies.)

Lesson: Education is evolving. Stay adaptable and be willing to change your marketing strategies based on new trends and technologies.

Create Suspense and Anticipation: "Jaws"

Is “Jaws” really a horror movie? Regardless, Spielberg masterfully created suspense in "Jaws" by delaying the full reveal of the shark. This kept audiences on the edge of their seats, and schools could steal this tactic by building anticipation for upcoming events or big announcements. Instead of revealing everything at once and catching your community off guard, provide teaser content that keeps your audience eager and engaged. 

Lesson: Get a bigger boat and build anticipation for events, campaigns, and announcements. Tease your audience with snippets of information to keep them engaged and hungry for more.

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The Power of Authenticity: "Paranormal Activity"

"Paranormal Activity," a ghostly found footage horror film, scared the pants off of audiences with its ultra-realistic portrayal of the supernatural in an everyday setting. The movie's creators didn't rely on flashy special effects or big sets. Instead, they capitalized on the raw, unpolished nature of home video to make the terror feel genuine and relatable. 

Today's audiences are inundated with polished ads, and like the film, your school can benefit from showcasing real, unscripted moments – whether it's a spontaneous student reaction, behind-the-scenes looks at events, or candid discussions with faculty. In a time when trust is valued, authenticity in your marketing can set your school apart.

Lesson: Authenticity in your school's marketing messages builds trust. Be genuine in showcasing your school's strengths, values, and even challenges.

Dracula vampire teeth

Leverage Influencers: "Dracula"

Dracula, as a charismatic figure, seduces and influences others to do his bidding. Count Dracula wielded a mesmerizing influence over his victims. By today's standards, influencers can have a similar sway over audiences. Schools can collaborate with alumni, idolized faculty, or influential parents to amplify their message.

Lesson: Leverage influential community members to act as ambassadors and support your efforts.

The Danger of Neglecting Feedback: "Frankenstein"

Dr. Frankenstein neglected the warnings and feedback from those around him, and things didn’t go as planned...Amidst the torches and pitchforks, Dr. F's tragic flaw was his refusal to heed warnings and feedback about his creation. Schools should actively solicit feedback from all stakeholders and act on it, whether it’s a constructive critique of communications, the enrollment process, or parent satisfaction. This not only optimizes your marketing strategies but also demonstrates that your school values its community's input.

Lesson: Listen to feedback from students, parents, and staff, and adjust your marketing strategies based on the input.

Stay Persistent: "Halloween"

Michael Myers just refuses to stay dead. He’s notoriously persistent, always coming back for one last chance. His madness, or “resilience,” serves as a lesson in patience and persistence. In school marketing, not every social post will go viral, and not every campaign will be an instant success. Just like Michael Myers, you’ll have another zillion chances to take another *stab* at it. Consistent effort, testing, and refining strategies can lead to long-term success.

Lesson: Marketing requires persistence. Not every campaign will be a hit, but consistency and perseverance are key.

Key Takeaway

This was fun, but there are some real parallels. Your school can take these lessons, heed this advice, and stay alive to make your school’s marketing engaging and memorable.

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Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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