Reviews 2015

Educational Institutions in Horror Film: A History of Mad Professors, Student Bodies, and Final Exams

Educational Institutions in Horror Film: A History of Mad Professors, Student Bodies, and Final Exams. Andrew L. Grunzke. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 204 pages. $100.00 (hardback).

Educational Institutions in Horror Film: A History of Mad Professors, Student Bodies, and Final Exams by Assistant Professor of Education at Mercer University Andrew L. Grunzke is a comprehensive history of the use of educational institutions as a setting for horror films. The author, examines horror films set in high schools, colleges, universities and summer camps. He shows us what scary movies can tell us about the history of school violence and presents a history of the variety of ways in which horror films have depicted traumatic issues experienced by American youth. The book is divided into five parts. The introduction, where Grunzke explains why horror narratives help us understand rapid change and arising dangers. Part two is a study of Van Helsing and Frankenstein as intellectual archetypes (1931-1975) and part three examines Dr. Jekyll and the evolution of film and television portrayals of Stevenson’s intellectual in the age of academe. Part four looks at student bodies and the school as the locus of trauma in American horror film of the 1970s and 1980s. Part five deals with final exams and Greek tragedies in colleges and universities in American horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Chapter six analyzes survival training and summer camp as an educational institution in slasher films of the 1980s. Grunzke’s essential thesis is that until the 1970s scientists operating outside of the educational institutions often represented a distinct threat, while in the past 50 years horror films no longer portrayed schools as places of safety but as the locus of terror and violence from within. Threats varied from external and alien to internal and personal. Horror narratives help us understand these rapid social changes and uprising dangers, on both personal and social levels.

The author stresses the importance of giving due scholarly attention to the social function of the contemporary horror film since it is a genre that is predominantly concerned with both personal and cultural anxieties. Horror stories capitalize on the political and cultural climate in which they are made and hence studying them shows us our fears on both personal and cultural levels that alter historically. The advent of compulsory education laws at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States led to larger numbers of well-educated intellectuals and to the expansion of educational systems. Intellectuals operating outside of the university system created a host of new anxieties surrounding education. In an in-depth discussion on three famous professors in horror fiction —Drs. Victor Frankenstein, Abraham Van Helsing and Henry Jekyll—the author examines how these figures embody complex cultural attitudes about intellectuals during an era when higher education wanted them to conduct their research at institutions, like the university.

The second half of the book is concerned with films produced between the late 1960s and the 1980s, the time of a substantial transformation from depicting children as an innocent "other" to representing the child as an evil monster, as is the case in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary's Baby (1968). To see through the eyes of the child is from now on to see through the eyes of the monster and not a victim, as was the case before. This way of depicting the child continues during the 1970s and the 1980s, when teenagers became monsters in settings like the uprising suburbia, summer camps, colleges, high schools and universities. Grunzke studies these films and concludes that bullying, revenge and retribution make young people identify with monsters and that adults often act as ineffectual apathetic caretakers. The chapter on surviving training and summer camps in the 1980s slasher films begins with a discussion of the latter as a nostalgic institution seeking the lost American past. Positioning classic slasher films like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) in this specific historical context is an important addition to earlier research, especially for scholars outside the United States, who do not have the same relationship to summer camps as Americans.

Horror films often contain explicit violent scenes and, as Grunzke states: "... force their audiences to confront the effects of violence: physical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual" (12). In one of the sections of the introduction called "A Few Words About Violence." Grunzke discusses the complex and controversial horror genre and different approaches it has merited. Nevertheless, I am missing a few words on "intellectual" since the book is so concerned with this complex concept. "Intellectual" is used frequently and is often mentioned in the same context as science and faith. In the second chapter Grunzke states: "Unlike Van Helsing, however, Frankenstein is unable to see beyond the scientific questions he is investigating into a larger context of morality, religion, and tradition" (38). Does this mean that Van Helsing is more of an "intellectual" than Frankenstein or vice versa? "Intellectual’"" is a concept as complex as "violence," and it would have helped to have a short section where the author commented on his definition of the "intellectual," since it is of great importance for this book. "Intellect" does not mean you need a higher education or a Ph.D. degree and this could have been more problematized in the book, since it sometimes makes the discussions somewhat confusing.

The book contains a lot of plot summaries of the films discussed and hence may serve as an introduction for readers unfamiliar with the horror genre. More conversant readers will probably prefer shorter summaries and more in-depth analyse and conclusions. Some of Grunzke’s readings are ground-breaking, especially those in the second half of the book and in the chapter on summer camps. While this book joins the discussion initiated in Andrew Tudor’s Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie (1989) and David Skal’s Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture (1998), its focus on educational institutions makes it more of an in-depth study of the mad scientists within this context.

Educational Institutions in Horror Film: A History of Mad Professors, Student Bodies, and Final Exams is an important contribution to studies on the social function of contemporary horror film. We have a lot to look forward to in future studies on this topic since school violence, school shootings and bullying unfortunately still happen today.

Anna Arnman
Independent Researcher, Sweden