The LAVA Center and Greenfield Community College have partnered up to get a head start in welcoming spooky season.  

For six weeks, Greenfield Community College Professor Lillian Ruiz offered an uncredited mini-course through the LAVA Center called “The Horror Film in Media & Popular Culture.”  

The course, which was open to the community, explored six iconic horror films throughout the decades to watch and review. Zydalis Bauer spoke with Ruiz to learn more about the course and the social commentary that the horror genre offers. 

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Lava Center and Greenfield Community College have partnered up to get a head start in welcoming the spooky season. For six weeks, GCC professor, Lillian Ruiz offered an uncredited mini course for the community at the lava center entitled: The Horror Film in Media and Popular Culture.

The class offered six different iconic horror films throughout the decades for students to watch and review. I spoke with Ruiz to learn more about the course and the social commentary that the horror genre offers.

Lillian Ruiz, Professor of English: Ever since I was very young, I was always interested in horror film. I found it to be very entertaining as I got older and I ended up specializing in English literature. But I’m also interested in media and popular culture and realize that there’s a connection between the two and that many of the literary techniques you use with literary texts are techniques that you can also use with popular culture texts.

So, the two seem to be a natural meld. One of the things that we talk about in my class is the reason why people are attracted to this particular genre. And I think a lot of it has to do with catharsis, which is a Greek term about purging emotions, and that watching horror films is a way for us to be able to deal with some of our fears and to do it in a safe way and to purge them basically, so that at the end we found a way to address those fears or at least try to confront them.

Zydalis Bauer: So let’s talk a little bit about this mini course that happened this summer. Over the six weeks you viewed and discussed six different films. Tell me about the films that you chose and why those were the films in particular that you wanted to share with the public.

Lillian Ruiz: So I started with the cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which came out in the 1920s, and it’s considered to be the first feature length horror film. It’s a wonderful commentary on some of the political anxieties and tensions of the time, the German film, and it is also a wonderful example of German expressionism. So visually it’s a stunning film, but it oftentimes is read as a film that’s a commentary about authoritarianism and the German populist fear of authoritarian government.

And then we moved forward to Dracula, and Dracula is considered the first American horror film. So that also seemed to be a very obvious bit. And Dracula has been read in lots of different ways. But oftentimes the most popular way is talking about the fear of the other or the fear of the outsider as Dracula and has a kind of reverse colonialism and imperialism as he attacks the British coming from a different nation.

And then we moved forward to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and that film plans it for the science fiction genre. So we were able to talk about genres at that point, but it also is a great commentary on the fear of communism in America during that time period.

And then we went to the 1960s and in my course I would normally do two classes. I would do Psycho for the beginning of the 1960s and talk about what happens with isolationism and how it leads to mental deterioration. But, for this particular love of class, we ended up talking about Night of the Living Dead, which helped to bring about the whole genre of zombies. But it also featured a black male lead, which was revolutionary for the time period, and he was the hero. So that was something that we could talk about. It’s also a film, as George Romero says, who is the director of Night of the Living Dead, about revolution because the Sixties were such a turbulent time.

Lillian Ruiz: And then we went forward to actually a film from the late seventies, but I use it as a representation of the 1980s, so I cheat again a little bit. And for this particular film, Halloween, we talk about how iconic this film is, and it helped to establish not just many of the tropes that we think of with slasher films, but it’s a great commentary about the evil that exists behind the facade of the seemingly perfect suburbia. And it also helped to establish this idea of the final girl, a heroine who survives at the end. So we see a level of strength and independence, but that also is mitigated by the anxieties and fears and brutalities that she has to confront over the course of the film.

And then we move forward to get out by Jordan Peele, which is the reason why this class exists. I remember the first time I saw that film and I was so impressed with it, I saw it in the theater, that I thought to myself when I was leaving the theater that I have to find a way to construct the class that could focus on this particular film, which is a commentary on racism that existed post Obama election. And at that particular point, 2016, 2017, there was the hope that we were living in a post-racial America.

Obviously, that’s not the case, very sadly. And we’ve seen the backlash to that election. But it also is a brilliant film, It’s very self conscious, very literary, very deliberate. And Jordan Peele was the first African American or film director to win an Academy Award.

Zydalis Bauer: I’m glad that you brought up how iconic Get Out was for this era, because that was probably one of the first films, like horror films in that genre that I’ve watched, that I had to come home immediately and start searching like symbolism and how it relates to society. And I think that’s when I realized how deep the meanings behind horror films can actually be.

What can we learn as a society from viewing these types of films? Do you think people overlook how important this genre is?

Lillian Ruiz: I think they do. I think it comes with a negative stigma, and like any other genre, there’s quality, and then there also is not quality. So you have to pick and choose. But I think that one of the things that oftentimes is ignored about this genre, how is – how it represents the other that which is different and how we fear difference as a culture. And that, I think, directly connects with things like what we call the isms racism, classism, sexism, ageism.

There also are horror films that are just wonderfully films. Again, if you think about the Cabinet or Dr. Caligari or you think about Psycho, they’re just a wonderful both are wonderful examples of film techniques.

So if you appreciate cinema, if something is done well, then you can appreciate the filming of it, not just necessarily the story of it.

Zydalis Bauer: So as you mentioned, usually this course is being taught in an academic setting with academic expectations. How do the weekly sessions go with the general public? Was there anything that surprised you that came up in the conversations and the experience?

Lillian Ruiz: One of the things that surprised me in the first class, actually in a couple of the classes, is that I had students or members of the community there who weren’t necessarily interested in horror film, but they knew the lava center and they knew Vanessa. And that was the reason why they wanted to learn more, because Vanessa oftentimes speaks highly of horror film, and individuals are oftentimes surprised by how a horror film could have any kind of social or academic relevance. So this was a way that they could see that piece or that perspective.

I personally loved the community format because it was just an open dialog. There weren’t any kind of academic expectations. It felt very much like a reading group or a book review group where we would watch the films together and then have commentary afterwards and just share good company and a few snacks as well.

Zydalis Bauer: What do you hope that the community took away from this experience, and what do you hope for the future for as well?

Lillian Ruiz: Well, I hope the first thing the community took away from this experience is that you can use media and popular culture as a way for academic analysis that anything can be interpreted if you utilize your critical thinking skills.

Secondly, the genre of horror film, although much maligned, doesn’t necessarily have to be something that’s purely for escapism or entertainment or even for shock value, that oftentimes it’s something that will encourage depth of thought if the audience is willing to participate in that.

And then thirdly, I hope the community realized how wonderful the Lava Center is and what a wonderful opportunity the Lava Center is offering us to expose us to arts and also how wonderful GCC is and what a wonderful asset that is. And that although usually people think of college from a very academic perspective, it is possible to merge media and popular culture and academics as I do at GCC.