Hold on to your popcorn and brace yourselves! There's more to horror films than you think.
Dr. Pat Gill
Associate Professor, jointly appointed in Gender and Women's studies
Joined the department in 2007
A teenage girl slowly creeps down the stairs of the house in the suburbs with a knife in hand ready to strike at any minute. Her breathing gets louder and she is sure the invader in the house can hear her. Right before she turns the corner to face the invader... a scream! You've probably seen this scene in slasher films such as Halloween, but did you know that slasher films are educational as well as entertaining? Dr .Gill teaches a course that examines the complexities of various genres of films. In our interview with her, Dr. Gill explains the value of slasher films and tells us about some of the film courses she has taught.
1. What got you interested in studying slasher films? How does your essay "The Monstrous Years: Teens, Slasher Films, and Family" elaborate on this interest?
Popular media not only portray situations and events that they hope viewers will find interesting, amusing, or important but also suggest ways of thinking about those situations and events. In an entertaining and at times compelling manner, media both reflect and in part help to construct our responses to cultural trends, issues, and concerns. The target audience for slasher films, a sub-genre of horror films, is late teens and young adults, in short, college-aged students, and I wondered what it was in these intense, brutal, and not terribly upbeat films that spoke to those viewers.
In class and in my article, I examined the narrative premises and visual strategies of slasher films, contemplating the reasons for their sudden rise in the 1980s and evaluating what seemed clearly to be attempts to come to terms with new, acute challenges to youthful social identities, challenges that incorporate terrible vulnerability, violent alienation, and deadly peril. In teen slasher films, suburban and small town teenagers and young adults are put in danger time and again, at home, at school, at camp, and on holiday. These films seem to mock white flight to gated communities and parental attempts to shield their children from the dangerous outside influences often connected to the city, such as widespread crime, easy access to drugs, and unsupervised friendships. The danger is within, the films seem to say; the horror derives from the modern family and from the troubling ordeal of being a late twentieth-/twenty-first century teenager.
Parents in these films are generally absent, either physically or emotionally. They have demanding jobs, working late in the evening. They go on business trips or on vacations without the kids, and on getaway weekends with friends. In more than a few of the films, parents have drinking or drug problems, or are involved in new relationships. Some parents are well-meaning but inept and insufficiently attentive, failing to grasp the seriousness of their childrenâ€™s worries and fears while making a show of interest. Other parents are exacting, abrupt, and impatient, too concerned with their own pleasures and desire to pay attention to the needs of their children. At no time in these films do parents attempt to set values or explain limits. They may constrain their children, but they never teach them. The adolescent heroes in slasher films are cool, resourceful, and independent, but the grim events that unfold suggest the psychological and physical price they pay for their freedom from parental intrusions and the precocious self-reliance they are forced to develop.
2. What cinematic genres have you taught in your classes? Why are genres significant?
I have taught a lot of genre film courses. To list the most recent: (a) American SciFi: Homeland Security; (b) Life Sucks: The Devolution of the Cinematic Vampire; (c) American Gangster Films; (d) The Media and Street Gangs: Gangland as Genre; (e) Blaxploitation Films; (f) Teen Slasher Films; (g) Film Melodrama: Gender and Genre; (h) Genre Heroes and Generic Masculinity; (i) Film Genres: Crime, Horror, and Sentiment; and (j) Film Noir and the Detective Genre.
"Genre" is the French word for "kind" or "class." Although there is considerable dispute among literary scholars about whether genres exist or are simply fabricated by critics, media scholars seem more amenable than literary critics to thinking of film or television productions in terms of categories, such as westerns, thrillers, crimes, horror, etc. Media in a specific genre share themes, visual and narrative strategies, character types, and thematic content. I have found that students think it both interesting and fun to see what develops in innovative ways and what remains the same in films in a certain genre over time. For example, in my American Gangster Films course, students viewed films from the 1930s through the present time, ascertaining the ways in which the issues, beliefs, and anxieties of the past eighty years are suggested, and, in some ways, worked out, through the selected films. Students learned the history, philosophy, politics, and cultural milieu of the eras in which the films were produced, and they examined the ways in which the generic themes and narratives address crucial issues of their time.
3.What did you focus on in your American Gangster Films course?
We began with Little Caesar (Mervyn LeRoy, 1931) and ended with American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007). The typical gangster saga tells of the rapid, gaudy rise and spectacular fall of a working-class antihero. It is something of a celebration of undisciplined American entrepreneurial spirit, of unrestrained vitality and enterprise. Film gangsters are often assertive, determined, focused, and exciting, but their restless intensity and unpredictable actions hint at psychological maladjustments. Their enthusiasm, ambition, and determination to rise above their impoverished condition combined with their callous brutality makes them frightening and intriguing. Gangster films always suggest that there is something fearfully, fatally wrong with crime bosses, that in some way their climb to power is generated by a confluence of personal, social, and historical events that generate fearsome forms of displaced energy. Class readings and discussions focused on the social issues, depictions of violence, and constructions of masculinity elaborated in gangster narratives. By looking at exemplary selections of this genre and reading pertinent theoretical essays, the class examined the narrative premises, gender constructions, and visual strategies of gangster films, assessing their historical significance as well as their explorations of a social identity that both violates and confirms traditional American values.
What is one thing that you would like undergraduates to know about your research, your findings, or your role as a professor?
This is a difficult question for me. My academic life has been governed by a belief in multiple and varied underlying causes. I think the phrase I have used most often in assessing work or making a point is: "Wait! I am sure I can complicate that in an interesting way." As a consequence, I don't think that there is any one thing I would wish to identify as serving as an easy access to my work or pedagogical beliefs and approach. Like the 18th-Century English writers, however, I believe that one of the primary aims of works of art, including popular media, is to teach and to delight.