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Our Recent Fascination with Horror and Education

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Horror is most prevalent as a means of expression during times of unrest; political turmoil, economic uncertainty, war, terrorism, etc. In these times, people need an escape from the horrors of their every-day existence and horror novels and films allow them to confront their fears in a safe, controllable way. What is interesting about the horror genre is that it serves as a reflecting pool in which we can see our broader societal fears. Given the current state of world affairs and the climate of unrest surrounding our educational system, what might our most recent crop of horror films tell about our fears for the future of education?

2000’s : A sigh of relief. We survived the millennium! And then 9/11 happened and we weren’t so sure.
The horror genre has been around since humans have been able to share their fears with one another as a way of overcoming them. More recently, and since the advent of the motion picture, in particular, horror has increasingly served as a focus for our overarching societal fears (King, Danse Macabre, 1981). In the aftermath of 9/11, the genre has taken on a very specific function in this process which has been manifest in an explosion of recent horror films and literature. Here is a look at the trends in horror leading up to and after 9/11, and an examination of several movies from the time period and what they show about education.

9/11 caused a lot of soul searching among movie makers as they had to re-evaluate what was and was not appropriate to show in film. We ended up with a lot of warm-fuzzy, family movies after 9/11 (none of which I can name). However, by 2005 we were over that and horror movies started what has arguably been their biggest boom ever.

Pre-9/11 we got possibly the last great airplane disaster movie, Final Destination. The twist, the characters all know that they are going to die in advance. This movie makes death a real thing that can be confronted and (possibly) overcome. Ultimately, this provided some comfort in the post 9/11 world. But not for long, we were about to be overrun by zombies and werewolves!

Some of the earliest post 9/11 films depict soldiers as ineffective pawns in a larger game. A game they have no say in the outcome of. Notably among these are Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later, both from England.

Then we graduated to Torture Porn…
 "David Edelstein coined the term torture porn in the January 2006 New Yorker magazine, suggesting that we engage with these kind of movies on a purely visceral level, all considerations of story and character aside. Just like porn, except the focus of the action is torture, rather than sex. The viewer becomes a voyeur, the traditional distance between lens and object is no longer measurable, no longer a constant. In the torture porn movies of the 2000s, viewing is about realism, about going to that place in the blood-spattered cellar and coming back, after a couple of hours, at least alive. Little is left to the imagination; the sequences of images are all about the details, the biting power saw, the cracking spine." – horrorfilmhistory.com

So many current movies are falling into this genre that I’m having a hard time finding any horror to watch that doesn’t turn my stomach (Red Dragon, Hostel, Turistas, the Saw series, Devil’s Rejects, Human Centipede, and Captivity as examples). I’ll use Hostel to illustrate why these films bother me so profoundly. When I first heard about this film I was intrigued because the early news was vague, but it was supposed to be powerful and influential. Then I saw it and could only finish it by force of will.

What troubled me so greatly is that this film paints a picture of a society so focused on greed, money, and self-centered-ness that human life has ceased to have any value beyond the monetary. It depicts a culture where relatively innocent individuals are captured and used as sport for those rich enough to pay for any experience they can imagine having. It shows a remarkable lack of humanity on the parts of all those involved in the industry depicted in the film, and I find it almost unbearable to think that there are people in this world who are so desperate for money that they would willingly force this fate on others.

Having said that, I love the film as a critique of capitalism, and I believe that it provides one of the most striking illustrations of the potential evils of our revered economic system if left unrestrained.

But What’s Haunting Our Students . . .
Looking at some of the best teen and college age horror of the past 20 years provides insight into what those making movies think America’s youth are afraid of right now. Here are some of the best that the genre offers, why they are scary, and what that says about education:

The Faculty (1998) – A fairly straightforward critique of the disconnect between students and those who teach them. The teacher as alien concept is not that far off in the era of strife between digital natives and the immigrants who don’t really understand them, but think they can mold them.

Ginger Snaps (2000) – Teen angst is played out to the maximum in this campy black comedy that equates the main female characters’ outsider status and transition to adulthood with lycanthropy. In a world in which the plight and emotional struggles of our young people is largely ignored by the larger society, this film can be interpreted as a critique of the disassociation of students from the systems –including education- in which they feel trapped.

Final Destination (2000) –  The first installment of one of the longest running horror franchises, this film examines the ways in which young people are dealing with the knowledge of their own mortality in a world that no longer seems secure. This film is a sad reflection on the ways in which students have become increasingly less secure about their future.

Hostel (2005) – One of my least favorite movies, this movie presents a sharp criticism of our capitalist economic system and the vulnerability that young people have to it. As a social critique it is extremely disturbing to imagine a world in which anything can be purchased and people are willing to facilitate any activity for a price. I’d rather not revisit the specifics, so any interested should experience this film for themselves.

Teeth (2007) –  In a time when women, particularly young women, seem to be fighting an uphill battle for control of their own bodies, this movie takes the assertion of female agency to new levels. Gross and good for some laughs that will make you shudder, this film explores the plight of our young female citizens in and outside of school and the struggles that they endure in schools and a society that still undervalues them.

The Hunger Games (2012) and Battle Royale (2000) –  These two films bookend the time period being considered nicely, and demonstrate that nothing has changed in the intervening years. I’m not sure that The Hunger Games counts as horror, but as a dystopic, post-apocalyptic vision  of a world largely devoid of education, it certainly fits here. The Japanese film Battle Royale covers the same ground and more clearly demonstrates the sense of fear that students have of government and regulations that have no purpose beyond making their lives a living hell.

These are just a few of the many, many horror movies about school-age children and the fears that they deal with on a daily basis. We are living through one of the most unstable periods of our history and the explosion of horror films reflects our insecurity and the need to assert some sort of control over a harsh and dangerous world. While I love the genre, here’s hoping that things stabilize soon and we can move on to a more secure place where the reliance on the genre is lessened and education becomes a place of refuge and learning again.

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