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Don't Let This Happen to You: Are We Living in a Horror Movie?

Michael Hershey
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts

Associate Professor of English Jack Dudley, Ph.D., on March 22, presented the spring Ducharme Lecture, “Are We Living in a Horror Movie.” Such an evocative title was sure to bring a crowd, with nearly 200 seats filled as the talk began.

dudley-durcharme-in-text.jpgWelcoming his friends and colleague, Associate Professor of English Sean Lewis, Ph.D. spoke of the education of friendship that is imparted to students and faculty alike at the Mount. A modernist like Dudley and a medievalist like Lewis are constantly driven to look beyond their discipline and appreciate the other’s scholarship.

As he began Dudley addressed the peculiarity of the title and shared some responses he had heard to the titular question: “‘Of course.’ ‘obviously,’ and ‘I assume the answer is yes.’” After this brief bit of humor, he dove right into the severity of the content, spooking the crowd with hokey clips of early horror films like Dracula and Nosferatu as examples of thick allegory.

Thick allegory is the abstraction of the metaphors in a story. Early monster movies and low-brow horror rely on an enemy that could represent anything: the economy, inequality, racism, wars and any other source of terror. As the talk progressed, he explained how as the horror genre has evolved, allegory is thinning and the sources of terror in horror are not maniacs with axes anymore. Instead, the true dread is from how characters in horror stories are experiencing the same strains that can be found every day.

In The Shining when Jack first picks up the axe, he lays out a clear argument of the importance of his work to the hotel and the responsibilities of his contract. Releasing pent-up rage against society on one’s family is a horror story that tens of thousands of victims of domestic violence immediately felt. “Do you see it?” Dudley said. How about at the end of Get Out when the protagonist is nearly free of his enslavers, but police lights approach as Chris, a black man, is fighting in the street with his would-be murderer, Rose, a white woman. “Do you see it?” Dudley repeated.

Stories that thin the allegories and force audiences to grapple with the source of our fears are profound uses of horror. Horror can address the themes that are too gruesome to grapple with head-on, like police brutality and racism, and retell those miseries through allegory to make the audience realize that these problems are real and the true villain in the story.

After analyzing the movies Dudley focused on historical examples of horror and the black-and-white true stories of brutality in the United States. These include stories of slavery, lynching and police brutality that have been heard, but are not understood as the horror stories they are or the legacies that they have wrought.

Despite the tragedy and nihilism that horror stories often end with, in reality, and in film, Dudley insisted that the audience needs to be introspective on what aspects of society are unacceptable. “Do ideas you hold as true and good keep you from seeing real horrors of our world for the horrors that they are?” We must avoid complacency and be reevaluating what is right, what is good and what is justice if we are to avoid becoming characters in a horror story, Dudley said.

The talk generated many questions from students, professors and the community alike asking for elaboration on the topics of censorship, how fear is seen in the Bible, and predictions of the horror genre. Several distinguished guests attended the presentation, including the lecture’s namesake Professor Emeritus of English, Robert Ducharme, Ph.D. and the benefactor of the lecture, Raphael Della Ratta, C’92.

Michael Hershey
Graduate Assistant, College of Liberal Arts