The Horror, The Horror: There Are Monsters in the Classroom: All Horror Movie Monsters are Derived from Teaching Styles!

Happy Halloween! I have done about 2 dozen workshops for teachers with a version of this essay.  I show movie clips of teachers (and horror movies) and ask participants to reflect on what they see.  It has always been a big hit.  However, from the title alone, every teacher I have worked with has assumed that the students were the monsters in classroom: they are not; we are. 

Teaching is a scary business and after thirty years of teaching, and many more of observing teachers as a student, colleague, and principal, I have come to the conclusion that teaching styles have provided the models for horror movie monsters.  The reason horror movie monsters are modeled on teaching styles is that the horror movie is a schizophrenic genre encompassing both liberal and conservative elements; and teaching, when done by the best teachers, also illustrates and embraces these antinomies.  Many teachers teach because they believe that there is a tradition worth handing on and that there are things that people should know; they see themselves as conservators of knowledge.  Other teachers have a messianic fervor to undo the tradition, to do what Nietzsche called “philosophy with a hammer”; they wish to subvert what they see as an oppressive tradition.  Good teachers can do one or the other of these things; that is, ground students in a tradition (the conservative mode), or teach students to interrogate the tradition (the liberal mode).  Only the great teacher does both.  The great teacher simultaneously grounds us in a tradition while handing us the tools with which to examine and interrogate that tradition; and, the great teacher models for us the use of those tools to test that tradition.  Bad teaching almost always demonstrates extremism where one of these elements obliterates the other.

Horror movies are virtually always conservative to the extent that society and what society values are shown to be under attack and in danger of being permanently lost if the monster is not caged.  The endings of so many horror movies provide us with this satisfactory conclusion as society is saved, conserved, restored or healed as when, for example, Dr. Frankenstein (1931) struggles with the creature he has loosed upon the world before the creature ends up trapped and burned in the windmill. Frankenstein returns to his senses and is married to Elizabeth.  His father, the Baron, points toward the future with his toast “to a son of the house of Frankenstein.” Or we watch as Van Helsing drives a stake through the eponymous Dracula’s (1931) heart as Jonathan Harker and Mina Seward climb the stairs out of Dracula’s castle toward marriage.  These marriages are like the marriages of classical comedies that inaugurate the restoration of, the promise of, a new world order.  In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), we watch Mr. Hyde, played by Spencer Tracy, exposed and killed by his friend, the good man, John Lansing, and so we see the rupture in society healed.  That movie begins in a church and closes with Jekyll’s valet, Paul, reciting the 23rd Psalm over his master’s corpse.

Still, horror movies are not only about conservatism.  They push out the boundaries of what is acceptable–they are doubtless “liberal” in this fashion, each succeeding movie having to out-do the previous one in technical genius, the daring (or revolting) presentation of more naked bodies, more dismembered limbs, or more spurting blood.  We have seen this trend intensifying in contemporary versions of the movies just mentioned while still preserving their conservative heritage.  It is this preservation of society at the conclusion of the movie that often distinguishes the horror movie from the slasher movie.  (Slasher moves like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday 13th, and Halloween as well as various franchises—the Chucky movies, the Saw movies, the Scream movies, Resident Evil movies, or the Hostel movies do not cage the monster.  The audience accepts this and knows that the evil or sick or demented monster is indestructible and will come back. This is a far more cynical world view than that of traditional horror movies.)  In Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein (1994) the society is preserved at the end when the Creature immolates himself after witnessing Frankenstein’s death.  This may not be the same ending as the 1931 version but it nonetheless eliminates both monsters—Frankenstein and the Creature—as effectively as the death of the Creature and the marriage of Frankenstein eliminate both those monsters in the earlier movie.  In Francis Coppola’s Dracula we are shown the grisly death of the count by beheading and so here, as in Branagh’s film, we are given us the desired conservative restoration at the end.  In the retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story, Mary Reilly (1996) Hyde is stopped but without the comforting religious overtones that mark the earlier version. But, the elaborate and detailed scene-setting and the amount of “realistic” gore in these movies is testimony to their liberal dimension, to their directors’ desire to push the envelope of the horror film.

When teaching is done well it too is simultaneously conservative and liberal.  In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter observed two qualities that define the intellectual: a reverence for ideas (piety); and a willingness to experiment with ideas (play).  Among teachers, if piety predominates to the exclusion of play, then the students of that teacher will be no better than the students of Charles Dickens’ Gradgrind and M’chokumchild (Hard Times) or Fielding’s Thwackum and Square (Tom Jones).  This is the danger of a hypertrophied conservatism which does not so much teach as indoctrinate, and not so much present a tradition as demand uncritical genuflection before that tradition.

If play excludes piety then the student becomes at best a dilettante or a rebel without a cause, at worst a merry-andrew or a harlequin.  Play without discipline, like a game without rules, may seem fun for a little while but will eventually be exposed as meaningless.

Horror movie monsters and their teaching counterparts may be divided into three broad groups: 1) those who appear to be one thing and are something else.  Examples of this might be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Wolf man, and Norman Bates from Psycho.  The wildly inconsistent teacher—a mark of immaturity at whatever age—is one whom the students never learn to trust because they don’t know who they will see on any given day.  The great danger here, it nearly goes without saying, is the inability of the victim to recognize the monster. 

The second group of monsters might be called those who attempt to force themselves on their victims—a kind of conservative teacher gone wild.  An example here is Frankenstein. The Frankenstein-teacher resembles Dr. Frankenstein in his or her desire to stitch together human beings, to make previously non-human lumps into human or humane beings.  This is a fundamentally noble, if often insanely ambitious, desire.  What student has not been on the table with such a teacher who has been trying to add body parts.  When done by a butcher this is always a failure; when done by a genius the result can be, as Frankenstein screams, “Life!”  The blob, the drill instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and the killer in Brian DePalma’s Body Double who, it will be remembered uses a masonry drill to kill one victim are monsters whose counterpart in teaching is a sort of force teacher against whom the victim is, usually helpless.  The point of this kind of teaching—and there is a point—is to turn the student into something different from what he or she currently is. (Maybe that’s the point with almost all teaching–it is certainly a consequence even if unintended.)  Students who fight back against these teachers, as Ripley fights back against the Alien, may find reserves of strength they didn’t know they had; but, the price they pay may be high.

The third broad category of teacher/monster is the kind who works from the inside out.  Dracula, who either takes his victims by force as in the 1931 Dracula or who seduces his victims as portrayed by Frank Langella in 1979, have as their goal the replication of themselves.  Their victims become little more than pale imitations of the master as one recognizes in the puny ambition and power of Renfield or Mina.  Other examples of this kind of teacher/monster come from Invasion of the Body Snatchers or in John Carpenter’s The Thing where the monster gets inside and replicates in the host leaving no self there. 

I don’t think we should be surprised at student resistance to us in these various forms, after all, the victims in horror movies try to fight back too.  Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism that “all forms of influence are evil” certainly applies to teachers, but it does not apply equally to all teachers.

A horror movie that is a good movie investigates its own genre and, if it is good enough, say Psycho (1960), may become known without the qualifying adjective of genre association, “It’s a good movie for a horror movie.”  A teacher, if he or she is good enough (Socrates, Christ, Confucius, Gandhi, King, Sullivan), may become known as those who, by their very existence refute George Bernard Shaw’s fallacious dictum that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” 

It is no accident that the movies here mentioned have been made and remade over and over again. (The Internet Movie Database reports more than 100 titles for Frankenstein, more than 200 for Dracula, and more than 50 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)  They have a pull on our imaginations that is profound and we will doubtless continue to confront them again and again in the future; we have much to learn from the monster before we kill it.

The title is a quotation from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Mr. Kurtz, a “universal genius” has gone into the ivory trade in Africa and has become a thoroughgoing monster with no principles, looks into himself on his deathbed and hoarsely breathes out, “the horror, the horror,” at his recognition of his own soul.  We should all hope to recognize the monster in ourselves.

A special word about administrators—they have their own horror-monster designation that is best exemplified in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, wherein the undead crash pointlessly through the lives of students and teachers.

An Incomplete Appendix of Horror Movie Monsters

The most common teaching models that horror movies imitate are listed below; this list should not be seen as exhaustive.

1. The Frankenstein Teacher: this teacher should not be confused with the Frankenstein’s-creature-teacher.  The Frankenstein-teacher resembles Dr. Frankenstein in his or her desire to stitch together human beings; to make previously non-human lumps into human or humane beings.  This is a fundamentally noble, if often insanely ambitious, desire.  What student has not been on the table with such a teacher who has been trying to add body parts.  When done by a butcher this is always a failure; when done by a genius the result is often, as Frankenstein screams, “Life!”

2a. Dracula/Bela Lugosi; 2b. Dracula/Frank Langella:  the Dracula-style teacher comes in two forms which share the common goal of converting the student over to the teacher’s side.  Dracula’s brides (Lucy and Mina) and servants (Renfield) are usually little more than pale shadows of the master, however.  The more primitive, Bela Lugosi-style of teaching, depends primarily on taking the students by force; the modern, Frank Langella-style, hopes to seduce the student over to the teacher’s side, but is willing to take the student by force.  The Dracula-teacher usually exhibits great tenacity and takes rejection badly, two admirable qualities in our profession.

3. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:  this style of teaching should not be confused with the Werewolf teaching style (see 4) to which it is superficially related.  The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the kind of teacher with two distinct personalities, usually one that is personable and easy-going in class and another that is a bear at grade time.  Occasionally this style is the mark of an immature teacher, whatever his or her age. (See also Norman Bates [Psycho] for a modern version of this character)

4. The Werewolf or Wolfman:  this teacher appears to be normal or predictable for long periods of time but erupts upon occasion.  Many teachers defend this style noting that it keeps the students alert.  Psychologists call this “random reinforcement;” teachers call this a pop quiz.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers: or in this case, the mind snatchers.  The goal of this style is to appear to do other things while plotting that at the end of the year and in the student’s subsequent life a little voice will go off in the head of the student in the teacher’s voice saying, “Approach a problem by breaking it into little problems,” or “the square root of negative 1 is i.”  If done flawlessly the student will begin to imitate the style of thought that this teacher has modeled and will have changed without knowing it.  (Freddy Kreuger [Nightmare on Elm Street series] may be a more violent manifestation of this style as he gets into the students’ dreams.)

6. The Blob: a smothering personality with no redeeming features, dedicated to eradicating the student’s psyche.  This teacher sees himself as the center of everything and is devoted to consuming others to stay alive.  As a student I was on the other end of the desk from too many. 

7. Alien: voracious and nearly indestructible, this style consumes many students, though a few escape.  The Ripleys and students who fight back are occasionally diminished in the struggle.  They may find reserves of strength they did not know they had, but they may be tempted to become the thing they fight.  The implacability of the Alien can be a very good lesson to learn.

8. The Thing: more dangerous in its John Carpenter manifestation than in the earlier Howard Hawkes’ version because this personality can adopt virtually any form and infiltrate and replace the host (see Alien and Body Snatchers—a new version is expected in November, 2011!), its metamorphic powers are extraordinary.  The great danger is that, as with the Alien-teacher and the Body Snatcher-teacher, the parasite kills the host instead of just modifying the host.

9. Brian De Palma’s Body Double shows the killer with a power drill destroying the victim—in the academic world the results of such tactics are often fatal for the students’ learning.  Coercion, outside of a boot-camp, is rarely good pedagogy (and to judge from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket this method may not always work even in boot-camp conditions).

10. Night of the Living Dead: actually this applies more to administrators who often crash pointlessly through the lives of students and teachers. (See the Mummy and Jason Vorhees [Friday 13th].)

Daniel McMahon is in his 31st year teaching secondary school.  He is the principal at DeMatha High School where he also teaches World Literature.   For many years he taught Film Study; he is probably a Body Snatcher.




Filed under books and learning, first person narration, horror movies, kinds of narration, pedagogy, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

3 responses to “The Horror, The Horror: There Are Monsters in the Classroom: All Horror Movie Monsters are Derived from Teaching Styles!

  1. Skip Daly

    Most entertaining! Happy Halloween Dan. A couple random thoughts: 1.) Following the ‘monster’ analogy through to its conclusion, does this mean that we need to ‘slay’ our teachers (at least until the sequel?) at the end of each semester/year in order to ‘save society’? There is a deep metaphor in there somewhere, I am sure! 2.) When you refer to the basic argument of whether it is the teacher or the students who represents the ‘monster’, I can’t help but think of the role that one’s own perspective by necessity plays. After all, one person’s “freedom fighter” represents another’s “terrorist”, no? (see: the excellent ‘Death Star’ dialogue in ‘Clerks’). 3.) Finally, since you are Principal in addition to Teacher, I can only hope your Administrative staff take your last analogy as the good-natured satire I’m sure was intended (I found that I actually ‘heard’ that text about “crash[ing] pointlessly through the lives of students and teachers” being spoken in my head by James Stewart in his ‘Rope’ character, as he so eloquently described how “murder should be an art”). 🙂 Cheers, and again: Happy Halloween!

    • Hi Skip–you are exactly right–we do need to “slay” our teachers (in the manner that Plato slays Socrates and then Aristotle slays Plato (I love the ‘Freud and Jung’ version of this–and I have had to wrestle with some titanic personalities who were my teachers–there’s probably a Bloomian “Anxiety of Influence” thing going on here). All good students should go beyond their teachers. It’s not so much about saving society but about students saving themselves from becoming (to use Tyrrell’s term from “Blade Runner”) replicants. You are right about perspective–as Obi-wan tells Luke Skywalker, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly upon our own point of view.” Still–you have probed an interesting point that I’ll deal with in two weeks when we look at Diogenes’ observation, “Why not beat the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?” You are correct that I am the principal but I believe that one goal of administration should be to be like a service (cafeteria, library, maintenance) that does everything it can to serve the primary relationship–the one between teacher and student (or conductor and musician, coach and player, mentor and mentee, etc). (Another goal of administration is to have vision for the whole school and communicate that–and then do everything to facilitate the incarnation of that vision.) I’m hoping to find a place to teach “Rope” in my class. Pax.

  2. Pingback: Magicians, Strippers, and Sherpas: A Teacher reflects on Roles of a Lifetime at Year’s end | pulpteacher

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