Monsters Arrive on Cummington Street
How horror films reveal what we’re really afraid of
Spring semester registration for undergraduates is open until January 30 for all courses except the College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program, which closes January 23. This story, about a Writing Program course being offered this spring, originally ran June 6, 2012.
This summer, David Larson’s students have read Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism. They studied the same topic by watching soulless zombies munch up a shopping mall.
Pairing Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Friedrich Engels with director George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead may seem an odder couple than Felix and Oscar. Would it make more sense if we point out that the zombies’ craving for human-burgers serves as a metaphor for mindless consumer consumption? Or that Romero’s 1978 gore-fest made the New York Times’ list of the 1,000 greatest movies? Before the month is out, Larson’s 17 students also will have viewed a werewolf, Frankenstein’s monster, cyborgs, and King Kong—all endorsing or disputing renowned philosophers and academic thinkers.
Fear in Society: Political Philosophy Through Monster Films is a truncated version of a course that Larson (GRS’13), a College of Arts & Sciences graduate writing fellow, taught last year and might offer again next spring. The class meets in a spartan basement room in the Cummington Mall psychology building, with a door that creaks like Dracula’s coffin lid, a fact that did not escape Larson’s notice. He, however, is a social scientist, not a mad one, a mild-mannered, bespectacled academic and PhD candidate in religious studies who showed up for the first class in white shirt, loosened tie, and athletic shoes (sockless). He encouraged students to speak up with any questions, but also gave ample warning of class requirements. “You’re going to start to really suffer if you miss a lot of classes,” he said, meaning a fate worse than a zombie attack—flunking.
Fear is the academic essence of this class. It motivated many of the thinkers studied, from Marx, with his anxiety over the economic oppression of labor, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality fretted over the corrupting and emasculating influence of civil society. Yet “it’s hard to be terrified by a book,” says Larson. By contrast, horror movie makers are professional scaremongers, and their work can “supply something that I think the texts can’t easily offer themselves,” especially when that work addresses the same fears the writers exposed.
Larson doesn’t claim these are art films; indeed, his own taste runs to westerns. But “forcing people to take silly movies very seriously,” he says, gives them a window on society’s real-life fears: about class (Dawn of the Dead), technology (the cyborgs of Blade Runner  and The Terminator ), even fear of self and what uncivilized humanity is capable of (1981’s An American Werewolf in London, which he screens as a counterpoint to the smiley face Rousseau puts on nature and “savages.” The philosopher never contemplated what a savage with fangs and claws could do to the London Underground).
Excerpts from Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s 1931 star-making turn, kicked off the course. Karloff’s lumbering innocent keeps faith with one dynamic of Mary Shelley’s novel, rampaging only after suffering abuse and neglect, a point several students made during the discussion. Larson coupled the screening with an article by a Georgetown English professor who argues that a culture “reveals the limits of its imagination” by what it attacks as “monstrous.” The article highlights Christian activists’ efforts in 1992 to remove a gay community newspaper from Virginia libraries in the name of protecting children. The author references the famous Frankenstein scene in which the monster tosses a child he’s befriended into a lake, thinking she’ll float like the pretty flowers they’ve been playing with. Unwittingly, he drowns her.
The fantastical movie and the real-life protesters, the article argues, both play on cultural fears of child abuse, and both beg the question: who “is the real monster?” The creature, or the creator who neglected him? The newspaper, or young readers who’ll supposedly be seduced by its corrupting text?
“I’m not sure I would label him as a monster per se,” Kavon Karrobi (ENG’14) said of Karloff’s character during the class discussion. Neil Jain (SAR’15) thought filmgoers who enjoy horror vicariously could be indicted as easily as readers of the newspaper: “We enjoy other people’s suffering. In a way, we kind of want to do these things,” which, he said, similarly explains violent video games’ popularity.
Movies about the supernatural have been with us since the dawn of film; the first, 1896’s three-minute The Manor of the Devil, starred a vampire-like character the year before Dracula (the book) came out. Fright films like Jaws have been among cinema’s top grossers, and GQ magazine critic Terrence Rafferty declared that movie a great film, in the same league as The Godfather. “Why are horror flicks so bankable as entertainment?” Larson asked.
One student suggested monsters are a way to talk about unpleasant topics, like serial killing, without actually discussing serial killers. Perhaps we need cyborgs, werewolves, and zombies, Larson agreed: “There’s a way in which a monster might allow us to talk about taboos.…‘I’ll disguise it as a giant insect monster.’”+ Comments