Monday, October 03, 2011

The Blackboard Boogeymen: Your Horror Film High School Curriculum

I get asked all the time -- particularly when I discuss my admiration for Wes Craven's The Last House on The Left (1972) -- how I can "defend" such gruesome, explicit and upsetting horror movies.

In particular, people comment that I seem like such a "nice guy" to watch that sort of stuff, the inference being that because I like and enjoy horror movies, I'm somehow unbalanced, or that my public persona hides a darker, more sinister facet.

My by-now-rote answer to this interrogative goes to the very core of the genre: horror movies are socially valuable, socially responsible and yes, socially necessary because -- at their very finest -- they examine aspects of our culture that mainstream dramas do not.  A really good horror movie can go to places where non-genre movies fear to tread.  

Horror movies are not afraid to transgress, break decorum, and shatter taboos so as to really get at new, provocative and meaningful truths about violence, war, race relations and other forbidden topics.  In other words, the great horror films contextualize our world, our culture, our leadership, our politics, and our national fears in an illuminating, imaginative and wholly entertaining fashion. 

Over the years, a number of memorable horror films have showcased their socially valuable credentials, actually, by literally "schooling" audiences. 

In particular, the horror film has frequently gone back to high school itself, and there -- in the rubric of the American classroom -- laid out the film maker's artistic case for audience examination and edification.  It's a didactic but worthwhile approach that often expressly compares horror to great literature, or even to American history.

In John Carpenter and Debra Hill's classic, Halloween (1978), for instance, student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- in high school English class -- listens to an off-screen teacher discuss the concepts of fate and destiny. 

Laurie is then asked to compare and contrast aloud two authorial points-of-view on the subject.  In particular, she is asked about the works of Samuels and Costain.  Costain wrote about fate only in terms of "religion," says Laurie, whereas Samuels "personified fate" and believed that fate was a "natural element."

Naturally, this discussion reflects the story of Halloween itself.  In this film, Laurie encounters Michael Myers/terror personified, or her fate

In fact, the story for Halloween could be described in broad terms very similar to the teacher's lecture on Samuels: "...fate caught up with several lives here."  Annie and Lynda would agree, no doubt.

The English class and the work of the fictional writer Samuels (not based on a real author, so far as I can tell...) therefore establish the thematic terrain of Laurie's life-and-death battle.  Her life is about to intersect with fate, with her destiny, and will therefore never be the same.  Michael Myers -- the Bogeyman -- is also like a natural element, unstoppable.  He too is "destiny personified."  The classroom scene establishes this fact rather elegantly.  In fact, while Laurie is discussing fate in class, just outside the English classroom Michael Myers waits, parked in his stolen car...

In 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street,  the professorial director Wes Craven  presents a philosophical response to Carpenter's and Hill's 1970s meditation on fate.  In a different high school English classroom, another female student (and final girl) -- Heather Langenkamp's Nancy Thompson -- listens to another teacher lecture. 

This time the subject of the lecture is Shakespeare, particularly the tragedy of Hamlet.  The teacher notes, importantly, that Hamlet "stamps out the lies of his mother," and that is the very task that Nancy will undertake in the film to learn the secrets of serial murderer Freddy Krueger.  Just as Hamlet probes and digs beneath the surface of things, seeking the truth, so does Nancy investigate the truth of Freddy Krueger's history.  She must stamp out the lies of her (alcoholic) mother, and face the truth.  That's her gift, her mother asserts, Nancy's ability to "see" things and not turn away.  And again, that idea recalls the melancholy prince of Shakespearean literature.

Where Halloween's high school lecture involves the intersection of fate and predestination, Elm Street's lecture pointedly suggests that a person can actively shape destiny by digging and seeking the truth.  The two films -- in combination -- thus debate how much control we actually have over our lives.

In 1998's H20: Halloween Twenty Years Later, interestingly, the high school setting is revived as a crucible for character learning.  Now an English teacher, Laurie Strode discusses the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein and the idea that Victor waited too long to confront the monster, at the cost of all those he loved (his younger brother and his wife-to-be, specifically). 

This didactic high school "lesson" provides valuable and significant character information.  Now in middle-age, Laurie realizes she has allowed the specter of Michael Myers to rob her of a healthy life for far too long.  If she wishes to survive, and to see her son  John (Josh Hartnett) survive, she realizes she must finally confront the monster.  She doesn't want to wait too long, like Victor did, and thereby see all that she loves destroyed.  Once more, a horror film draws an explicit comparison to literature, using that literature as the foundation for its theme. 

The high school English class lesson recurs in other horror films too.  In 1998's The Faculty, written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Robert Rodriguez, an English class discusses Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe.  As you may recall, that novel concerns a castaway trapped on a desert island, one isolated from society at-large  For the teenage protagonists of The Faculty, this is an important example.  Many such teens feel isolated in the "island" of high school, afraid they will never escape.  When aliens invade the high school in the film, isolation intersects with paranoia, and teens must seek friendship from those they have withdrawn from (namely unpopular kids, jocks, etc.)

In 2011, Kevin Smith's dazzling Red State -- the best horror film of the year -- revives the classroom as a specific setting for philosophical debate. 

Here, however, the film's lead characters attend a high school civics or history class and there debate the nature of the First Amendment, of the freedom of speech. 

When does speech cross the line from being "free" to being "hateful?"  When does hateful language turn dangerous and inspire violence? 

Such important questions are brought up in regards specifically to a charismatic, fundamentalist preacher named Abin Cooper, loosely-based on Westboro's Fred Phelps.  Cooper pickets funerals, including those of gay soldiers, and warns that Christians should "fear God" because God is very, very angry.

Like Laurie in her high school English class thirty years earlier, the teens of Red State learn the hard way that the academic principle they discuss in high school isn't just some high-minded ideal, but rather boasts real life repercussions and consequences for them. 

Ironically, the high school class on the First Amendment segues into an impromptu joke about the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), and in one of the film's many shocking but droll developments, the movie's philosopical debate also shifts in the same manner.  The last half of Red State, in fact, involves a Waco-like stand-off with blazing gunfire, not philosophical ideas, holding sway.  We are thus left to infer how incendiary free speech might lead to all-out warfare,

One idea underlining all of these memorable horror films is that the horror genre boasts a socially-valuable link to the important ideas in our lives, ideas that we debate and learn about, even, in high school. 

The crucible of high school "thinking" thus permits intrepid filmmakers such as Carpenter, Craven, Rodriguez, Miner and Smith to debate our history, or stories, and even our belief systems. 

So as Halloween nears this year, we can reflect on how these directors not only scare us...but teach us.  And we ignore their cinematic lessons at our own peril...


  1. Kudos, John. A remarkably keen essay on what the horror genre brings with it, and what many fail to spot when they dismiss it. Thanks for this.

  2. Thanks for this essay John. I typically skip the horror stuff you write about, being more of a sci-fi fan; however, I do occasionally enjoy a horror film from time to time, Halloween being one my favorites. Anyway, this was quite an interesting read. It's also introduced me to the film "Red State" which I plan to check out.

    Thanks again.

  3. Hello my friends,

    Thanks Le0pard13, I'm glad you enjoyed the essay on horror in high school. I've been wanting to right it for a while, but the last piece didn't fall into place until I saw Kevin Smith's Red State...which is a humdinger of a movie.

    BigNick0: Thank you for your kind words. I do heartily recommend Red State, just prepare yourself. It's bracing. I mean REALLY bracing. It's a mean, lean, audicious genre film, one that never ceases surprising. I thought it was pretty terrific, and it's been tough to not think about it. Very powerful stuff.

    Best to you both,