Saturday, March 30, 2013

Horror movies about graduate school speak some of graduate school's darker affective truths more clearly than any other form of discourse.  Graduate school can be scary, and I will let these horror films tell you why.  However, lest you worry, these films also carry valuable lessons to help you get through it.  WARNING: This post contains spoilers about all of these films.

Suspiria (1978, Dario Argento):

"We don't teach you how to dance because we expect that you already know how to do that."

In Suzy's first moments of "continuing her studies" at the Tanzakademie Ballet School in Germany, instructor Ms. Tanner, dressed like a Nazi guard, breaks it down for her.  "Girl, if you're not already the best, take your leotard and get the hell home!Suspiria is the rosetta stone of the first year of graduate school experience.  Within its first five minutes, Suzy is thrust into a bizarre world filled with rules she doesn't understand, but that she must follow if she doesn't want to face dire troubles.  Her fate is at the mercy of a faculty who meets somewhere in secret, and lord knows what happens in those meetings.  Her new colleagues offer supportive small talk like:

"Next year after I finish the course I have an offer from the State School of Ballet in Geneva.  What about yooouuu?"

The over the top, expressionistic lighting, camera angles, and set design of Suspiria literalize the disorientation that one feels in the early days of graduate school, in which settings familiar from college like classrooms and crummy housing seem familiar, yet strange and ominous.

In the sequence that most crystallizes the graduate school experience, Suzy feels nausea because the school's maid has put a spell on her, and she informs Ms. Tanner that she can't dance.  Her teacher pressures her to dance ("Come on, it's an easy step!"), and then castigates her for dancing without energy ("Get those heels up higher!  Higher Suzy, you're not paralyzed!").  Dance, dance, dance!

Finally, Suzy passes out and starts bleeding.  Anybody who has studied for comprehensive exams while taking seminars and working as a TA has been there.

Suzy learns the ins and outs of The Tanzakademie, and figures out how to survive, by forming a close bond with sweet, neurotic, insecure Sara.  Unfortunately, Sara is killed--one's best friends tend to drop out or transfer.  However, by then, Suzy has the keys to making it out alive.

Life lessons:  Find those who are as lost as you.  They will help you find the way.  Make time for friends and relationships.

Candyman (1992, Bernard Rose)

Ugh, the need to have an original dissertation.  The lengths that you will go.  Helen Lyle confronts violent gangs, haunted abandoned buildings in the most dangerous part of town, and a toilet full of bees to write an opus on urban legends that 30 people will read if it gets published by an academic press.  All of this while dealing with the confused power dynamics that take place when one marries one's dissertation adviser. 

Helen Lyle offers a case study in getting too emotionally involved with your traumatic dissertation topic, which, let's face it, most of us do.  Her cathection to (that's graduate student for "investment of emotion or feeling in") her research topic, Candyman, the brutally murdered artist and son of a slave, becomes so intense that she conjures and has the best sex of her life with his ghost.  Meanwhile he brutally murders everybody around her.

She finally saves the child of Vanessa Williams (the other Vanessa Williams) from Candyman by rescuing him from atop a bonfire in which she eventually perishes.  I have often thought, "If only my dissertation could save just one life!"  And I would venture to guess that each of us has fantasized that our work would have the power to invoke the choral Philip Glass score that plays when Helen digs her way to the top of that bonfire with a hook to save that baby.  Helen is sainted by the residents of Cabrini Green, and eventually comes back as a ghost to kill her adulterous dissertation adviser/husband.  But was it worth her life?

Life lessons:  Don't let your work take over your life!  Find balance!

Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, Chuck Russell):

Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is the only horror movie sequel that realistically states what final girls do after they survive the horror:  They go to graduate school and specialize in the area of their trauma, in order to help themselves and others.

When Nancy Thompson makes one of the best diva entrances ever in Nightmare on Elm Street 3, she reveals that she's reinvented herself as a "hot shot" medical resident "doing groundbreaking research in pattern nightmares."

Like any graduate student (hopefully?), her hair and clothes have gotten much better since high school (she rocks a wide brimmed hat, a fetching pashmina, and various ensembles in winter colors--I'm a winter, too, Nancy!)

Many graduate students eventually do a dance with mental health related medications.  Accordingly, Nancy represses her dreams with an experimental drug called Hypnocil in order to be a safe and fully functional adult.  However, like Helen, she is thwarted by her desire to save all of her research subjects, "the last of the Elm Street children."

Nancy obsessively crosses the labyrinthine red tape of academic bureacracy (Priscilla Pointer) and pushes the boundaries of academic ethics.  She makes her patients her research assistants, and brings them with her to do field work in dream world in order to kill the demon that haunts them all.  As often happens, tragically, the research subject wins.

Life lessons:  Don't move back to your hometown to do research on the traumas of your childhood.  Too many triggers!  And for heaven's sake, don't drag poor undergraduate students into your dissertation work.

Altered States (1980, Ken Russell):

Altered States is, perhaps, the ultimate satire of academic life.  Altered States sends me into an altered state, transforming me into a normal person looking, confounded, into the depths of the academic world from outside.  Altered States turns me into an innocent civilian, listening to me describe my dissertation topic at a dinner party.  It features probably the only Hollywood screenplay ever to include the word "phenomenological."

William Hurt plays a narcissistic professor who is obsessed with the death of his father, and with his QUEST FOR TRUTH.  Even though he is married to beautiful, brilliant anthropologist Molly Dodd (who wears a funny little anthropologist safari hat), he feels that human relationships are not truth because truth is unchanging.  He seeks to find truth by spending hours in a deprivation tank, and taking hallucinogenic mushrooms that he borrowed from a native tribe while doing fieldwork in Mexico.

His "research" takes him back to primordial times, and he finally emerges from his deprivation tank as a hairy, apelike being.  It is so sublime, he suggests, to escape the stresses of modern life, become primordial, and eat a live goat!  So masculine-academic.  The "primitive version" of William Hurt is mysteriously played by a Puerto Rican actor which, for reasons that I cannot fully articulate, speaks more truths about this rich, white, male Professor's attitude towards primordial beings than he will ever find.

Altered States is a batshit crazy movie that, like its protagonist, takes itself and its pretentious but finally obvious philosophies as seriously as death.  It is like the worst kind of academic has been put through a deprivation tank portal and has emerged as a psychadelic science fiction film/yuppy melodrama.  I infinitely prefer engaging with Altered States to engaging with its human alter-ego.  I love it for its self-obsessed lunacy.  Finally, Altered States is the ultimate academic horror movie because it contains these lines:

"Anyway, don't let anybody tell you that baboons aren't occasionally carnivorous.  I observed instances of predation which involved the unmistakable behavior of hunters.  A pair of baboons killed a Thomson's gazelle and ate it.  There was even a rudimentary communication between the two baboons.  So I've become fascinated with the work being done on nonverbal communication with apes.  I've been corresponding with Gardner at The University of Nevada.  I may just go out and spend a couple of weeks there this summer."

It hurts because it's true.

Life lesson:  Altered States has a sense of humor about academia, and so should you.


  1. I love this analysis. Do you have an archive of grad school horror films? Is there such a thing?

    1. I don't, although somebody needs to make a comprehensive list! One that I haven't seen is called THE ADDICTION, directed by Abel Ferrara. It's about finishing one's dissertation and vampirism. Can you think of others?

    2. Hm, I know it's more of a thriller, but does Flatliners count?

    3. Heather also reminded me of THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW!

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  3. I'm actually writing an academic paper on horror movies, so this post gave me a strange sense of comfort (and I needed it!).

    1. There is nothing *less* comfortable than writing an academic paper! If you don't mind my asking, what movies are you writing about?

    2. I just started, and although I had my proposal accepted, it's being retooled. I'm actually not sure where it's going, but I started out with Prom Night. It's a favorite, so I'm happy about that! And you're right, it's almost totally un-fun. :P