Where exactly is Shermer, Illinois? A bustling suburb of Chicago, home to Shermer High School and its Bulldog mascot, among the town’s residents are a bunch of detention misfits and a trio of teenagers who like playing hooky.
Shermer only ever existed, however, in the imagination of the late John Hughes, who penned movies including The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Home Alone. Many of Hughes’ movies take place in the town of Shermer, with his Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller characters all connected by the same fictional high school. Here is the hidden network that ties all of Hughes’ characters together.
The origins of the Shermerverse
Born on February 18, 1950, John Hughes spent the first decade of his life in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, raised alongside three sisters by charity worker Marion Crawford and salesman John Hughes Sr. The young Hughes felt lonely in his neighbourhood, as he later reflected: “There weren’t any boys my age, so I spent a lot of time by myself, imagining things.”
When Hughes was 13, his family relocated to Northbrook, Illinois, where he attended Grove Middle School and Glenbrook North High School. An affluent suburb of Chicago, Northbrook has one of the lowest crime rates in Illinois and hosts a multi-day festival each summer, as well as a popular farmers’ market. Hughes’ imagination was set alight by this new community.
As Hughes made new friends, he also fell in love with cheerleader Nancy Ludwig. In a tale ripe for cinema, she was charmed by the newcomer and the pair married when Hughes was 20 years old, their relationship lasting until his death in 2009. The magic of this first love stuck with Hughes, whose movies are often focused on high school romances. But he also wrote films about teenage rebellion, likewise a feature of his early life.
According to Hughes’ friend Jackson Peterson, Hughes found it hard to meet his parents’ high expectations, especially as he dreamed of working in entertainment. “His mom and dad criticized him a lot,” Peterson has recalled. “[Marion] would be critical of what John would want to do, that he would never be successful because of all the artsy things that he was into… His parents were pressuring him to get real.”
After marrying Nancy, Hughes defied his parents and became a star writer for National Lampoon magazine. He later wrote and directed blockbusters such as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Home Alone. Hughes decided early that he would set his movies in a fictional town inspired by his Northbrook home.
“Del Griffith lives two doors down from John Bender. Ferris Bueller knew Samantha Baker”
“When I started making movies, I thought I would just invent a town where everything happened,” Hughes later explained. “Everybody, in all of my movies, is from Shermer, Illinois. Del Griffith from Planes, Trains & Automobiles lives two doors down from John Bender. Ferris Bueller knew Samantha Baker from Sixteen Candles. For 15 years I’ve written my Shermer stories in prose, collecting its history.”
Hughes chose the name ‘Shermer’ for his fictionalised version of Northbrook. This was a nod to the town’s history. When it first became an incorporated community in 1901, Northbrook was named Shermerville. This name derived from local resident Frederick Schermer, who had donated his own land to build the area’s first train station.
Although Hughes’ different sets of characters never meet on-screen, numerous Easter eggs found throughout movies in the fan-named ‘Shermerverse’ prove the connection.
The Breakfast Club is explicitly set at Shermer High School. It was filmed at Maine North High School in Des Plaines, Illinois, a location also used for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off also shot scenes in Hughes’ alma mater Glenbrook North High School.) While Ferris’ school isn’t named, we do catch a glimpse of a hallway banner that reads “Go Shermer!”
Ferris Bueller and the Breakfast Club all attend the same school
Shermer High School’s vice principal is identified in The Breakfast Club as Richard Vernon. The school’s dean, Edward R. Rooney, features in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
One popular theory holds that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off takes place on June 5, 1985, while the events of The Breakfast Club occur on June 7, 1985. This means that, within Hughes’ Shermerverse, Ferris Bueller, his sister Jeannie, Cameron Frye, Sloane Peterson, plus Breakfast Club heroes Brian Johnson, Andrew Clark, Allison Reynolds, Claire Standish and John Bender all attended the same school at the same time.
Sixteen Candles, meanwhile, is not set in a specified year, and the film’s school scenes were filmed at Niles East High School. Pretty In Pink and Home Alone are likewise set in fictionalised versions of Chicago’s suburbs, although they deviate from the standard Shermerverse.
Andie of Pretty In Pink attends the fictional Meadowbrook High School, filmed at Silverlake’s John Marshall High School. The film is explicitly set in ‘Elgin, Illinois’, another of Hughes’ inventions – but filming took place in Los Angeles.
Home Alone is set in Winnetka, Chicago, and it was largely filmed on location. This setting differs greatly from Shermer – the homes are far grander and it features a majestic church never referenced in Hughes’ other movies.
An unwritten history of Shermer
In 1999, Hughes summarised why Shermer was the perfect setting for unexpected romances, friendships and adventure.
“I remember this one kid, an eighth-grader, who had his teeth rotted out,” he recalled of his Northbrook days. “But then at the same time, you’d have the richest kid in town in your school as well, so even in this tiny setup, you had both ends of the economic spectrum, real extremes.”
“I’ve always wanted to write a history of Shermer, because it’d be kind of the history of postwar America,” he added. “Haven’t got around to it yet, though.” Hughes never did get around to writing his history of Shermer before he passed, but the fictional town stands immortalised by the late filmmaker’s classic movies.