In Class: Horror Buff

English professor Jim Hansen on revenge films, horror movies and why we like to have our buttons pushed

Jim Hansen English professor Jim Hansen (Image by L. Brian Stauffer)
English professor Jim Hansen on revenge films, horror movies and why we like to have our buttons pushed

I’ve been teaching film since I was a graduate student in English, back in the mid-90s. I’ve always loved it. I used to use film to make points in classes about prose fiction. Eventually film became an end in itself. It is a completely different form of narrative—where the camera is looking, where the eye is being guided. I like drawing students’ attention to how they’re being manipulated. And the aesthetic of what they’re seeing—how it is beautiful or horrible and why.

I taught a class last year on revenge drama—Old Greek drama, Renaissance revenge plays, revenge films. I started with The Oresteia by Aeschylus, and I did Seneca’s Thyestes, an insane and terrifying play written in Roman times, during the age of Nero, so you have cannibalism and crazy stuff. I came forward to Elizabethan revenge plays, like Titus Andronicus, which is often considered Shakespeare’s worst play. But it’s insane. Again, you get cannibalism. You get a guy who cooks up two of a woman’s children in a pie and serves her the pie. Why do we like this?

I also did Oldboy, the South Korean film by Park Chanwook, which is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It shows you how vengeance destroys you and how it destroys everyone that’s involved with you.

(Image by L. Brian Stauffer)

The last time I did my class on horror movies, I showed Psycho and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby—Polanski’s a terrible human being, but it’s a good film. I also did William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and John Carpenter’s The Thing. I like films where you don’t have anyone you can trust, and any ground you stand on as the viewer is slowly eroded. Like Jordan Peele’s Get Out. It plays on all these tropes of horror, getting you to trust certain people that you shouldn’t trust. But it also says, “These tropes work differently if you’re African American.” At the end, the police pull up and here is a black man strangling a white woman in the street. Because she and her family tried to kill him and take out his brain. You realize there’s no way they’ll believe him.

My favorite horror film is definitely The Shining. I also think Psycho changed the direction of film and it’s amazing to watch and teach. Hitchcock is a terrible sadist as a director. He makes you want something. And then he holds it back. Or he makes you want something terrible—and he gives it to you. In Psycho, he breaks all the rules. It’s the first film to show a toilet on screen, for instance. He also pushes the viewer’s identification with characters. You identify first with Marion Crane. But suddenly you switch over to identify with Norman Bates. And you’re really going to be punished for that. You find yourself feeling anxious on behalf of someone who’s concealing murdered women’s bodies.

There are a lot of students in my classes who are watching these kinds of films for the first time. It’s like pushing them into the deep end of the pool without them being able to swim. But we like edgy material. We like to have our buttons pushed. By analyzing fear, you are using the most useful tools that you have for fighting fear—understanding and knowledge.

Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on July 8, 2020.