With the release of David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) today, I felt inspired to share my love of teaching horror.
From a critical media literacy lens, the horror genre provides me with a great opportunity to engage in rich cultural studies and dynamic production with students. Although some students are uncomfortable with the gore and tension horror films present, the rich cultural reading that horror provides is worth the short-term discomfort.
The genre forces students to be cultural responsive and aware. To understand horror and a film like Halloween is to have a sound understanding of self and other. This is reinforced that when it comes to producing short films in my Communications Technology courses, the horror genre is the one students seem to most naturally gravitate to. From the haunting and atmospheric aesthetic they love to create to the opportunity to be expressive on their own fears and anxieties, the genre is so rich and layered. Unlike Action cinema that typical reaffirms dominant culture norms, horror, in its history has a tradition of cynicism that speaks to be a critical learner and thinker. Horror is responsive.
Here’s an example of a student produced short film, inspired by the tropes of horror, that speaks to where Gr. 12 students are in their thinking. The learning is grounded in who they at a particular moment in time.
Below, is a classroom ready resource to support the critical understanding of horror and to ready the new Halloween within the context of genre and culture.
From the opening POV frames of John Carpenters original 1978 Halloween, the idea of American horror transitions from the flesh-eating Zombies of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the depiction of monsters from the Universal classics to the safe space of everyday America. In placing the audience in the point of view of a child murderer in a clown costume the duality of existence emerges; we are Michael Myers in that moment and find discomfort not merely in the act of killing that takes place at the immediate onset of the film but from the visceral effect is creates.
In recognizing that Michael is a representation of a lived real world, begin your in class study of Halloween with a reflection of what scares.
In small groups, distribute chart paper and markers. Have students reflect on the following:
- What personally scares you?
- What’s happening in the world or your direct community today that is scary or creates a sense of anxiety?
Once the small group collaboration is completed share reflection as a large group.
Now that you have explored ideas pertaining to fear and anxiety, it’s important to connect lived experience to the horror genre directly. Importantly, genre is more than a category of popular culture (in this case film) and is a reflection of lived and shared experience. Genre studies is cultural studies.
As such, where the American action film celebrates and reaffirms notions of masculinity and revolutionary values of American violence and the romantic comedy reaffirms the formation of the couple, the American horror film rises from the political.
As such, the ideas shared by students within the “REFLECT” component speaks to the genre itself.
Watch the video below celebrated academic Barry Keith Grant, an expert in the field of genre studies. Much of Professor Grant’s work in grounded in the critical understanding of horror film.
In watching the video above, what is significant about Professor Grant’s notation of “change,” as it pertains to horror? What does this force an audience to do when reading a horror film through a critical and cultural lens?
In relation to your reading of Halloween (2018), its important to recognize that what defines horror or adds to it within the context of the political differs from 2018 compared to the original Halloween of 1978.
This is where critical genre studies forces students to engage is a sense of cultural responsiveness – who they are and how they understand and see their world. As such, to address or study Halloween and horror within the framework shared by Professor Grant is to be political and culturally aware.
Individually, read the following short essay written by Professor Grant.
Reflect on the history of the horror genre and how it connects to a shared sense of cultural understanding.
“Scream on Screams” by Barry Keith Grant
In watching Halloween 2018, or the original film and reflecting on the ideas shared within the “Reflect” and “Action” it is now time to consolidate student learning.
Using a graphic design program such as Adobe Photoshop Elements or a web-based application such as Canva, create a graphic postcard that highlights the the film narrative, while illustrating your understanding of Professor Grant’s assertion of “myth.”
The graphic should answer the following: What “campfire story” is Halloween 2018 telling?
Here is an in-class exemplar.
The graphic above was designed in Adobe Photoshop Elements.
Specifications: Width = 6inches , Height = 4 inches, 300 Resolution, 16 Bit
From the voices of the now, Laurie Strobe, forty years after the terror of Halloween (1978) lives in isolation. Although a mother, she is continuously displaced by the male violence she and her friends endured. Suffering from PTSD and haunted by her past for forty years, she has turned into a Sarah Conner-esque figure of resilience.
With her mental state displaced by history of victim marginalization, she prepares for the return of Michael. Rather than hiding, she lurks in both justified paranoia and defiance knowing that Michael Myers, will return one day.
Like the film itself that rises from the discourse of the Me Too and Times Up movements, Laurie rises from her experience of terror to take control of her past and firmly be the author of her present and future. It’s within this context that Jamie Lee Curtis is inspired; mobilized by director David Gordon Green who balances horror with fitting humour to reimagine Laurie as the Ellen Ripley of her story. She must depend on her own skills and mindset to save herself, family and others from Michael.
Whereas other Halloween sequels and reimagining renditions became comic book like and lost their edge by making Michael either fantastical or attempting to humanize him (Michael’s backstory in Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007) weakened the thrill expediently), Director Davide Gordon Green gets back to basics with the goal to remind us that the safety of our homes and neighbourhoods are a misguided construct of All American values. Furthermore, when push comes to shove, it will be the “Final Girl” that saves the day.