Blood-curdling screams. Taunting phone calls from a psycho killer. Creepy, ominous music with lyrics like “Here’s a knife. Here’s a gun. There’ll be fun for everyone. Death is on the menu tonight!” Elements of a forgotten ‘90s slasher classic? Nope. Just some highlights from the most memorable episode of ABC’s family sitcom Boy Meets World.
With the launch of Disney+ and ample time to get nostalgic and revisit old movies and TV shows due to the pandemic, many older millennials are diving back into Boy Meets World, which ran for seven seasons from 1993 through 2000 as a staple of ABC’s TGIF lineup. The show centered on Philadelphia teenager Cory Matthews (Ben Savage) navigating life with his best friend Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong), his love interest Topanga Lawrence (Danielle Fishel), and brother Eric (Will Friedle), while perpetually receiving life lessons from longtime teacher and eventual principal Mr. Feeny (William Daniels).
Boy Meets World had no shortage of standout moments and episodes, like WWE wrestler Vader appearing as the father of a misunderstood school bully, a young Linda Cardellini being the girl who almost destroyed the Cory and Topanga love story for good, and Peter Tork (who briefly played Topanga’s father), Micky Dolenz, and Davy Jones staging an impromptu Monkees reunion. And who could forget when Ben Savage’s famous brother Fred guest starred as a creepy college professor and was shoved through a glass door?
But perhaps no other Boy Meets World episode made a bigger impact to impressionable young minds than the fifth season highlight “And Then There Was Shawn,” a format-breaking homage to the popular slasher films of the moment, like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (the latter of which hit theaters just four months earlier). Serving as a metaphor for the fear and uncertainty Shawn feels over the recent breakup of Cory and Topanga, the episode is a mini-horror movie that operates in dream logic and features shocking cast deaths, zeitgeisty jokes, and a big ‘90s teen idol cameo. Many young fans were genuinely frightened by the scares conjured up in the episode, while older fans loved the campy, winking references and the change of pace storytelling.
“And Then There Was Shawn” writer Jeff Menell was typically happy to do what was asked of him on the series, but he jumped at the chance to write a horror-influenced episode. “I’m a diehard movie fan. I have been my entire life. But as a writer on set, I just did whatever I was told,” Menell said in a phone interview with Den of Geek. “I never went after anything. But I begged to write this one because I just knew I could do it.”
The episode finds the high school-aged cast members serving detention with Mr. Feeny after a fight, springing from Cory and Topanga’s recent breakup, disrupts the class. Things quickly take a turn when the kids see a message in blood written on the chalkboard that reads “No One Gets Out Alive!” and hear a discomforting jingle with menacing lyrics playing over the high school’s PA system. Initially, the kids believe that Mr. Feeny is playing a prank on them, but things take a turn for the serious — and scary – when classmate Kenny is murdered in the dark by the masked killer wielding a pencil (prompting a very timely “You Killed Kenny!” reference). None other than Mr. Feeny himself bites the dust shortly thereafter via scissors to the back.
“You know, usually you go off for two weeks and you go write this draft and you bring it back, and then the room rewrites it. That always was the process. I wrote this one like in two days, and I had to pretend that it took longer because if you’ve written the script in two days, they assume it sucks, or that you didn’t really care or make an effort,” Menell says.
When Menell brought the initial draft to the writer’s room, however, there were minimal changes to his script. The episode’s director, Jeff McCracken, was impressed.
“Jeff (Menell) went out and wrote his episode and when it came in it was perfect. It was an absolutely perfect flow of the script. He just nailed it.”
Emulating classic slasher film elements, McCracken had to approach the filming of “And Then There Was Shawn” differently than a typical episode.
“It was so much fun,” McCracken says. “Because it had all these special sequences, we really had to shoot it like a film. We rehearsed for two days, then shot it for three, and then we showed it before a live audience. The film style is generally single style or two cameras, but I shot a lot of it with three to four cameras so that we wouldn’t have to do multiple retakes. You couldn’t have done the whole thing in front of a live audience because it would have taken too much time to set everything up and run through a show with an audience sitting there.”
The pencil kill is the most memorable moment from the episode, but McCracken nor Menell can take credit for it. “I remember the one gag that was not in the script, the one gag that Michael Jacobs (creator/executive producer) came up with, which was genius, was the pencil dynamic,” McCracken recalls. After classmate Kenny is shown impaled through the head with a pencil, his body slumps down the wall, leaving a lead pencil mark behind him. Cory quips, “We’ll always remember he was this tall.”
Kenny and Feeny’s deaths are bloodless, but they leave a mighty impression for a network family-friendly series. Both writer and director knew that they’d have to tread lightly if they were going to be faithful to the slasher genre (“I’m surprised they let us have Feeny with (scissors) in his back, to tell you the truth,” Menell says) but they both made a concerted effort to surround the kills with humor.
“We had to make it funny,” McCracken says.” I mean, you put (scissors) in someone’s back, it can be very disturbing for a young audience. You can’t traumatize them. We did it with some sense of humor and it wasn’t so graphic.”
Part of the humor was derived from the very specific references made in the episode. Like Scream standout character Randy, Shawn makes meta references to the rules of the horror genre, telling his friends that virgins are the only ones who are safe. Eric says, “I’m dead,” Jack says, “I’m dead,” and Shawn says, “I’ll get as sick as you can without dying.”
This slightly scandalous joke wasn’t anything new for the series, but the violent nature of the episode led to “And Then There Was Shawn” receiving the show’s first TV-PG-V rating. According to Menell, Michael Jacobs had a way of pushing the boundaries with network executives. “He got away with a lot more stuff than most people because he could really browbeat some network executives at times to get what he wanted.”
One major addition to the cast for “And Then There Was Shawn” probably helped Jacobs catch the network in the right mood. Jennifer Love Hewitt, coming off Party of Five and at the height of her scream queen powers, guest stars as new John Adams High student Jennifer Love Fefferman. Hewitt at the time was dating Will Friedle and it’s believed their relationship inspired her cameo.
“We maybe asked him to ask her, because obviously she was in I Know What You Did Last Summer, so having her there just adds horror film credibility to it,” Menell says. “She was great. She was such a great sport, and it was fun having her on.”
McCracken concurs: “It was such a pleasure. It was one of those things that you don’t know how a major star walking in on your set, how they’re going to be, what their demands are going to be, what their personality is going to be like, what their disposition for the script’s going to be like, and she just came in full guns blazing and just had a blast and that made everything just wonderful. She was game for anything.”
One thing that Hewitt was game for was a big makeout scene with Friedle’s Eric, that may or may not have been improvised. “I don’t think we wrote that in, I think they just wanted to do it and we let it,” Menell laughs.
Amongst all of the horror homage fun, the episode ends with Shawn removing the killer’s mask to find himself starring back, having gone through this whole slasher bit just to get his friends back together. It’s quite the philosophical ending for a show primarily aimed at tweens and teens.
“When it did get serious with Shawn at the end, it was more poignant than it was scary and it was also a great reveal that it was him,” McCracken says. “It was metaphorical in the sense that that component of Shawn is in us all and it’s always lurking and it’s always out there. And so, be vigilant.”
The Jeffs knew that they had a special episode on their hands with “And Then There Was Shawn,” but who could have guessed the episode would have this sort of longevity 22 years later?
“We got a few letters from people that were so scared, couldn’t believe we would kill Feeny. And we got some people that were upset,” Menell says. “But we had no idea until years later when the internet came on how popular that episode became. We did some crossovers, some time flashbacks, and some other really cool episodes, but this was a show that was nothing like any other episode we had aired or would air. It was probably the most fun … it’s certainly the most scary.”