This January, just the thought of going outside is frightening, what with the ice, wind, and subzero temperatures competing to make the walk across campus as miserable as possible. But one group of Gusties is examining something much more terrifying than winter in Minnesota for their January Interim Experience: horror films.
The Horror Films class, taught by Sean Cobb, Assistant Professor of Film Studies in the English Department, consists of a combination of lectures, discussions, film screenings, and film production labs. Production of their own horror movie is over half of students’ grades for the class.
“Learning how to make a film is such an important step in learning how to appreciate, understand, and analyze film,” Cobb said. “I divide the class into production companies and the company has to select a screenplay writer, storyboard artist, director, cinematographer, producer, editor, actors, and sound person. I expect a professionally formatted screenplay of at least 10 pages, 20 storyboards, and a final film by the last day of class, when we hold a screening of all the films.”
Besides producing a film, the class takes a serious approach to the study of horror films. But this doesn’t mean they can’t have fun along the way. “Often people regard film as a low-art form, and horror films to them are the schlockiest of all film genres, so it’s fun to counteract this criticism by studying the historical evolution of horror films,” Cobb said. “We discuss issues of race, class and gender, and we even have zombie walking and horror screaming competitions at the end of the term.”
The course’s zombie film unit also happened to coincide with the campus-wide zombie week, making for an interesting overlap.
“Sean is such an easily approachable professor that it does not seem like a traditional classroom setup at all – his classes are both extremely fun and incredibly enlightening,” first-year English Major Peter Diamond ’16 said. “We spend the days watching film, discussing theory and relating the criticisms we’ve read back to the films in classroom discussion.”
Fun and gore aside, horror films serve an important purpose for society, revealing what society fears and how those fears change over time.
“Whether it’s the fear of the East in the 1931 version of Dracula, or the fear of female sexuality in Carrie in 1976, horror films reflect the stories and narratives that society tells itself in order to understand what it means to be a society, a human, and an individual,” Cobb said. “Horror films are often about the horrors of identity, about the things outside or at the boundaries of symbolic society. When society can’t make sense of these contradictory people or objects, they turn them into a monster. Horror films ask philosophical and existential questions: what makes us different from a monster and how does society define the monster in contrast to the human.”
The class watches a few of the great classic films, as well as some of the newer movies that most students have already seen, and examines them under a more academic scope.
“I have a new perspective when watching films now where I not only look at the story on screen, but also appreciate the choice in editing techniques to tell that story,” said first-year English major Allison Hosman ‘16.
Along with viewing and analyzing films, the class also studied film terminology and editing techniques, which were then utilized while making their own films.
“We covered some of the history of horror films and the underlying themes in films that generally go beyond the scope of the manifest plot, and of course there was some in-depth discussion about bodily fluids,” said sophomore psychological science major McKensie Irving ’15.
Society remains fascinated with horror films. In fact, Irving enrolled in the class because of her life-long interest in horror movies.
“I’ve loved horror movies ever since I was a little kid, so when I first heard about the class I knew I’d be signing up for it,” Irving said. “The promise of a zombie unit taught by the craziest professor I’ve ever had sealed the deal.”
Irving’s production company is setting their film in Rundstrom Hall, an upperclassmen dorm where the basement chapel is said to be haunted. The film will take place throughout the whole building, instead of just the chapel, to allow for a bigger set.
“In a nutshell, the ghost of a student who was bullied and committed suicide in the basement of the building comes back to exact his revenge on students like the ones who tormented him, and since some monsters can’t be killed, everybody dies at the end,” Irving said. “We’re going for a handheld camera feel to make the action a little more intense and maybe to compensate for the fact that there will be a lot of zero budget gore involved.”
Diamond’s production group took a slightly different route, choosing to make a zombie film, which will be centered on a whole college campus, rather than just one building.
“The main character is your regular slacker who has lost all hope and meaning in life – even before the apocalypse strikes. We came up with the idea by combining our own college experiences, and then asking ourselves, “Okay, now how would the situation change if we threw some zombies in it?” It has been a blast, and I cannot wait for the final product to be completed,” Diamond said.
Hosman’s production group is keeping things under wraps until the premier of their film.
“I’m not certain I can divulge a ton of information about our particular film due to our very secretive creative process at Asylum Productions, but I can tell you that it’s Blair Witch meets Psycho,” Hosman said.
Students are in unison about one thing: Cobb’s class is one of a kind and worth taking.
“Aside from getting to kick back and watch awesome movies every other day, I just love the content and the discussions we have based around it. After learning some of the things I have about these classic films, I definitely can’t watch horror movies in the same way anymore because there are so many more elements to them than just buckets of blood and gore,” Irving said. “I would recommend this class in a heartbeat. It offers a chance to learn a lot about something you might not have thought could be very academic as well as have a blast doing it.
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