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Lessons in Classic Horror Films

Lessons in Classic Horror Films
UMaine professor unleashes zombies, mummies and vampires to help students understand popular culture

About the Photo: "Students automatically take Beckett or Shakespeare seriously because they learned to in high school and the names have a venerable quality. It's my job to teach them to take horror just as seriously and to learn something about popular culture and the way it reflects and influences our lives." Welch Everman

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Welch Everman sees the good in the bad and the ugly.

From the monsters, alien invaders, vampires and ax-wielding psychopaths of classic horror films and B-movies, The University of Maine professor of English has a passion for drawing out relevant and often profound commentary on society.

As one of the nation's foremost experts on horror films and popular culture, there isn't a flick Everman doesn't like.

"I love these movies, even the ones that are really bad," Everman confesses. "Even the worst of them are funny, and you have to admire the nerve of these people who make and release (them) to an unsuspecting public."

Everman has authored two books on "bad movies": Cult Horror Films (1993) and Cult Science Fiction Films (1995). He has taught UMaine courses on the history of the horror film, cult horror films and comic books.

He also has written two books of literary criticism, a novel and a collection of short stories, and teaches courses on creative writing, contemporary European and American fiction, Jack Kerouac, Samuel Beckett and Stephen King.

Welch Everman
"Students automatically take Beckett or Shakespeare seriously because they learned to in high school and the names have a venerable quality. It's my job to teach them to take horror just as seriously and to learn something about popular culture and the way it reflects and influences our lives." Welch Everman

Welch Everman's list of 10 horror movies you should see:

1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

2. Nosferatu (1922)

3. Dracula (1931)

4. Frankenstein (1931)

5. White Zombie (1932)

6. The Mummy (1932)

7. King Kong (1933)

8. The Wolf Man (1941)

9. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

10. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Cult Horror Films earned him a national reputation and interviews with the New York Times, London Times and various newspapers and radio stations throughout the country.

He continues to field plenty of requests for commentary especially around Halloween.

"I think people find it funny that a college professor is even interested in watching awful movies," says a grinning Everman, who estimates that he watches at least 200 movies every year.

"I loved horror films long before I became a professor. I saw my first one when I was 10 years old. It was the original Frankenstein, on late night Shock Theatre coming out of Philadelphia," Everman recalls fondly. "I asked my mother if I could stay up and watch it, and amazingly, she said, yes. I was hooked."

With the bright-eyed enthusiasm of that 10-year-old boy intact, Everman is changing the way people think about horror.

"My students tell me they can't watch horror films anymore without analyzing them, and I say, good. A popular culture artifact like a horror film makes a statement, whether it intends to or not. It can't help but make a statement about something about authority, about women, about the social structure."

Everman takes what he calls a literary approach to horror films and comic books, submitting them to the same rigid analysis as he does the accepted works of high culture. On occasion, he's met with resistance.

Once, Everman received a telephone call from a parent who was aghast that his son wanted to enroll in his course on comic books. After much persuasion, the parent relented. Soon, Everman received another phone call from the parent, aghast this time because his son told him it was a more difficult course than he thought it would be.

"I don't see why I couldn't teach Beckett and horror in the same course. Read some Beckett, and then watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre," says Everman.

"Students automatically take Beckett or Shakespeare seriously because they learned to in high school and the names have a venerable quality. It's my job to teach them to treat horror just as seriously and to learn something about popular culture and the way it reflects and influences our lives.

"I want students to read horror films as critically as they read a text, and to look seriously for a moment at something that's not normally taken seriously. Popular culture often challenges the status quo, but it also often reinforces it. It perpetuates stereotypes and makes the assumption that certain things go without saying, and when something goes without saying that worries me," he says.

Everman says it's particularly important to analyze popular culture in an age of video games, DVDs, sound bites and reality TV.

"When the mass media is as all-pervasive as it is now, the lines between popular culture and reality become blurred. That kind of confusion means it's important to be attentive to the forms that popular culture takes, and the give-and-take between popular culture and the way we live our lives," Everman says.

Everman's first pop culture course at UMaine was the history of the horror film, which he introduced 12 years ago. It analyzes classics such as Psycho and Night of the Living Dead that have influenced the entire history of horror movies. He conceived the idea for the class after hearing about a similar course Stephen King once taught at UMaine.

Everman's cult horror film course focuses on those films that appeal only to the "marginal, rabid audience for horror films myself included," he says. These movies, Everman writes in Cult Horror Films, "have minimal budgets, are poorly written and directed, the production values are near zero, and the acting is appalling."

But, he insists, these B-movies are his favorites because they can often be "pretty radical and challenging of the dominant culture." A flick like Bucket of Blood is a good example of such a movie, as is Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman. Mainstream horror like The Exorcist has to be fairly conservative to draw the largest audience, he says.

Such a philosophy reflects Everman's unease about the distinction between high culture and low culture.

"That distinction implies that if something is liked by too many people, it can't be good. But most of what is now at the top Shakespeare, Dickens, symphonic music used to be at the bottom," Everman says.

"Stephen King is often compared to Dickens because he's in that kind of cultural position right now. But if it's popular, it must be saying at some level what we want it to say."

What a horror film says often reflects the anxieties of the time in which it was made. For instance, most 1930s horror films did not address the Depression. Rather, in movies such as Frankenstein or Dracula, individuals or small communities solved their own problems.

"People then needed to hear that individuals could make a difference," Everman says.

By the post-war era, large-scale problems such as alien invasions and giant monster attacks, portrayed in such movies as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, Them! and Earth Vs. The Spider, dominated horror movies.

"These were global issues that individuals and communities could not solve. The message was that you had to depend on authority," Everman says.

The social unrest and political scandals of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to horror films that were anti-authoritarian and questioned science, politics and big business Endangered Species, Prophecy, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders. That trend continued until the 1990s, when what Everman identifies as an underlying fear of AIDS was reflected in vampire movies Dracula Rising, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Near Dark, To Sleep with a Vampire.

Today, given the events of Sept. 11, it's uncertain what direction horror movies will take, he says.

"Popular culture often lags behind events, so it will take a little while to see how it reacts. I haven't seen any horror recently that I felt addressed the world we live in now, although one of the more popular (early summer) political thrillers, The Sum of All Fears, addresses terrorism. That's what frightens us now.

"The world we are in might be better addressed by other genres. For instance, there has been a revival of the war movie. I take my children to Toys R' Us, and there are G.I. Joe dolls all over the store. There are Spider-Man action figures in fire department and police uniforms. And Marvel Comics is bringing out a series where the heroes are policemen and firemen," Everman says.

Horror is a genre that won't lose its appeal, says Everman. Other types of films Westerns, beach movies, kung fu movies, jungle movies, sword and sandal movies, women in prison movies, motorcycle gang movies wax and wane in popularity.
Everman is interested in researching why certain types of films traverse boom-and-bust cycles. For instance, horror films remain popular because people like to be scared as well as entertained.

"They can be almost like a Freudian reading of a dream in that they express our real fears in fantasy terms. For instance, it's a rare moviegoer who believes in vampires. You don't go to be convinced vampires exist," he says. "The fantasy fear of a vampire is analogous to real fears, such as the fear of change in oneself or the fear of change in a loved one.

"Horror films allow you to express your fears in a safe setting, and give you the notion that you can deal with your fears in a manageable way," Everman says. "They're safer than a roller coaster."

by Gladys Ganiel
September-October, 2002

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