Sunday, April 22, 2007

Virginia Tech & the Culture of Death

It's appalling -- but in a way not surprising -- to read in the Boston Globe that the murderer at Virginia Tech was enrolled in a credit course on the horror genre in literature and films. ("Saugus native had reached out to troubled Cho," 4-21-07). Legitimize and focus on the "horror genre", and who knows what will come of it. From a Roanoke, VA newspaper story (10-31-06 -- Halloween) on the "Contemporary Horror" class that Cho was enrolled in at Virginia Tech:

... only at Tech is [Brent Stevens, the instructor] allowed to indulge his love of horror in the classroom. This is the first year for his class English 3984: Contemporary Horror. Stevens considers it the highlight of his career and appreciates that Tech's English department was open-minded enough to allow him to teach it.

"People raise an eyebrow as you can well imagine when you tell them you're getting paid to do something like this," he said. Stevens strives to make the class intellectual -- exploring the history of horror and what the development of the genre says about the culture....

The class of 35 students is about half men [including Cho] and half women and gender roles in horror movies are an oft-discussed topic in class. In addition to two papers, a midterm and a final exam, students in Stevens' class keep a "fear journal" to track their reactions to the material they encounter as well as discuss their own fears. "This class is much more personal than other literature classes because the text feeds off our own personal history and what we are afraid of," [a] junior English major ... said.

So what scares Stevens? "When I was young it was the idea that everyone you love turns against you," he said. Classic films such as "Night of the Living Dead," in 1968, played on that fear as well as the fear of communism turning people into mindless zombies. The genre developed to capitalize on the fear of repercussions of newfound freedoms in the 1970s -- teenagers driving around in a Volkswagen minibus are the victims of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" -- to morality lessons during the conservative 1980s -- think Jason getting vengeance on the misbehaving camp counselors in "Friday the 13th."

Chilling. It's a warning not to "play" with such evil. And why didn't our beloved Boston Globe note that article on Mr. Stevens' course? Here's what the Globe did mention:

Saugus native Ross Alameddine knew the gunman who killed him at Virginia Tech, often sitting next to him last fall in an English class about the genre of horror, classmates said yesterday.... [A] 21-year-old senior also in the horror class, said Cho behaved strangely, writing his name down as "question mark" on the attendance sheet and refusing to introduce himself to other students when the professor asked everyone to say hello the first day....

[Students watched] campy horror films ... during the course. "One of the first movies we watched was 'Friday the 13th,' the original," [another student] said. "We would talk about how the final scene in that is so great..."[T]he class on horror ... featured films like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Patricia Cornwell's book on Jack the Ripper ...

Now while Poe may be legitimate literature, why are "campy horror films" taken seriously for academic study? For some decades now at most universities, one could actually construct a major in the Culture of Death. You could take courses in:

The Bible as Fantasy Literature
God Is Dead: Nietzsche and Beyond
Feminist Theory
The Marquis de Sade Then & Now
History of Abortion Rights in America
Queer Theory/Gender Studies
Michel Foucault
The Horror Genre in Literature and Film
The Holocaust as Fraud
American Imperialism ... etc.

And then, for an honors thesis ...