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4 Classic Horror Films for Educators

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Halloween is upon us once again and everyone enjoys a good scary movie. It makes our adrenaline pump so we can feel a little more alive than the daily grind allows for. In a post 9/11 world, however, there is a deeper meaning to horror in the face of global unrest and constrained civil rights. In response to this pressure, we have turned to the horror genre to express our anxiety and as a safe avenue for creating societal critiques which fly under the radar of government censorship. The uncertainty of our lives and the constant state of high alert that we have lived in for the past 10 years, combined with the restrictions on free speech and government criticism (Briefel & Miller, 2011), make horror films and literature a way of exploring and gaining some control over our fears.  

However, horror movies made after 9/11 are not the only ones which contain social critiques. Here are four classic films that should be mandatory for educators because of the lessons they teach about life, society and learning.

Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)

Yesterday’s post, “Zombies in the Classroom: An Educational Nightmare” examined the history of the zombie genre and the ways in which it presents a metaphor for many issues in our society, including industrial education. In education, the zombie represents the de-humanizing process of mass-production in schools and the consumerism rampant in the system.

This horror classic allows an instructor to explore these issues as well as representations of racism, sexism, classism, and societal violence. If you are willing to branch out further into the genre, examinations of other issues such as environmentalism, genetic engineering, and terrorism are possible in any number of more recent films. Here are a few resources to get you started in thinking about incorporating zombie films in the classroom:

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

Is there a distinction between a horror movie and a horrible movie? Not in this case. However, if you are interested in media literacy and a biting critique of capitalism, you can do far worse than this Rowdy Roddy Piper (yes, the wrestler) film. The basic premise is that Roddy’s character discovers a box of sunglasses that allow him to see what is really going on in society. It turns out that aliens have come to earth and are living among us in disguise – a sham which the sunglasses can penetrate. Worse still, the aliens have enslaved the entire human race through our own media and capitalist economic system. Sound familiar?

As an introduction to talking about the power of media, this film provides some outstanding (if somewhat cheesy) scenes where the main character sees the true intent of mass media. This cult classic provides a vehicle for examining the role of capitalism in social stratification as well and the links between media, capitalism, and the ruling class. If you are interested in using They Live in the classroom, there is an entire book by Jonathan Lethem dedicated to unpacking the nuanced social critique of the film.

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)

The world’s first science fiction novel Frankenstein is still a good story today as it delves deeply into issues of good vs evil, psychology, science vs nature, ethics, philosophy, and a score more. Essentially, this work can be used to examine almost any contemporary issue. However, for the educator, one stands above all others: the perils of playing god. As the clip from the classic version of the film illustrates, the overriding reason for creating the monster is to experience the power of being divine.

The instructor is a mini-deity in their classroom, and there are many dangers inherent in that power, such as creating mindless, rampaging students. As someone who teaches teachers, I have several philosophical guidelines that I convey to my students. The most important is that they do not need to be a god-like authority on every subject that they teach their students. Take the use of technology in the classroom, for example. It is impossible for anyone to know everything about every piece of software. More often than not, the students will know as much or more than you do. Rather than shying away from technology because you don’t feel like you know enough, embrace your shortcomings as a learning opportunity for yourself and your students. Make learning a collaborative experience, rather than an imposition of your will, and you and your students will learn and enjoy the process.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Chris Columbus, 2001)

In my opinion, this is not only the most enjoyable movie to watch, but it is also the greatest education movie of all time. Aside from being appropriate for the whole family, this film is packed full of lessons for young and old alike: the Mirror of Erised, care of magical creatures, dealing with people who don’t like you, the value of friendship and community, and dozens more. However, the most significant for educators watching any of the Harry Potter movies is how to design a constructivist learning environment.

Hogwarts generally falls into the traditional English school model, which is regularly criticized within the films for its rote memorization, lack of engagement, and absence of authenticity. However, for a few special students, Professor Dumbledore has crafted the ultimate constructivist education which enhances and gives relevance to the lessons learned in the classroom.  The first Potter movie presents the clearest example of the ways in which seemingly useless knowledge gained in the classroom becomes powerful when given an actual context for use. The entire experience of Harry, Ron, and Hermione has been geared toward giving them the skills necessary to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone and defeat Voldemort. Harry becomes an expert broom flyer, Ron hones his wizard’s chess skills, and Hermione learns critical information about killer plants. These and other skills are the keys to solving the problems that they encounter. The retrieval of the stone is their final exam. It is timely, authentic, and really tests their knowledge, skill, and understanding of all that they have learned in the classroom.

While we, as educators, obviously don’t have the same abilities as Albus Dumbledore, we do have the ability to plan engaging and authentic tasks for our students that will allow them to learn and demonstrate their knowledge. In addition to the lessons we, as educators, can learn from these films, taking advantage of the natural appeal of the horror genre is one way to engage your students and begin a critical discussion of the state of media in our world. It’s also a fun way to put a little excitement into your teaching.