You’ll no doubt be encouraged to find out, on this fine date, that the academic study of horror cinema is alive and well. The University of Pennsylvania offers “Horror Cinema”, Bowdoin “The Horror Film In Context”, Xavier “The Horror Film”, and the University of South Carolina “Horror Films.” Australia’s not far behind, with horror offerings at the University of Melbourne.
Now it’s time to argue how these courses are wrong? Well, no, actually not. The problem’s not that such classes exist, but what they suggest about colleges’ attitudes to students and the importance of the learning that they convey. Classes such as horror cinema dangle pulpy bait in front of prospective students. Consider the University of Pennsylvania’s “Horror Cinema” class description: “an effort to better understand how the horror film makes us confront out worst fears and our most secret desires.” Yes, that’s what horror films do, and “worst fears” and “secret desires” are terms with more appeal for the average undergraduate than, say, “the sublime and the beautiful.” So the average student will eagerly troop to such a class, and then, to their great chagrin, find out that they were duped – the material considered is often quite substantive; there is, after all, a respectable body of criticism on horror, dating back to the Gothic novel and beyond. The problem is that, students reeled in, such classes are then typically suitable only for a schizophrenic inter-disciplinarity; the Penn course modestly promises to address “issues of ethics, gender, sexuality, violence, spectatorship through a variety of critical lenses (psychoanalysis, socio-historial and cultural context, aesthetics,…” Whew. That might be rewarding to a student who had studied ethics, or psychoanalysis, or say, the historical background of German expressionism, or had read Poe or Lovecraft in detail, but who’d bother with such musty old topics when they could pick up a splattering of knowledge (and course credits) by simply watching slasher movies in the first place.
I find scholarship on horror films very interesting – some of the study is trivial, and deserves all the scorn heaped upon it, but much of it is assuredly substantive. In that though, it’s a topic that, if it’s to have any worth, is best approached by students who’ve acquired sufficient academic background beforehand. Topics with pop elements such as horror cinema might be accorded greater respect were they contextualized effectively, as material suitable only for upperclassmen study. Instead, by staggering administrative and departmental inattention, these sensationalized offerings are left to compete with educational fundamentals. When this happens, it’s not surprising that the Night of the Living Dead will always tend to win over the Night of the Long Knives.