Something Is Rotten in Horror’s Use of Pedagogy
Tyler Malone on the Canker in the Classroom
In 1889, Anton Chekhov wrote, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” An example of this principle in action from Chekhov’s own oeuvre can be found in The Seagull (1896). Early in the play, Konstantin carries a gun onstage; the gun later goes off in the final act at a pivotal moment in the plot.
But if you take his statement literally, then Chekhov breaks his own rule in a later play, The Cherry Orchard (1904), in which there are firearms that no one fires. Yet this is not necessarily an example of Chekhov’s failure to live up to his own principle—as is often claimed; rather, it may be seen as an expansion of the principle. Chekhov’s concept, taken more generally, applies not just to guns but to all elements of a story. In his eyes, every bit of a work of art must be necessary. Naturally, a gun can be as necessary in its not-firing as in its firing. As a red herring, the guns in The Cherry Orchard serve a narrative function; more importantly, though, the guns serve a thematic function, only realized through their non-use, for the play revolves around passivity, impotence, and inaction.
Contemplating the inaction in a different work of art, Keri Tate, the headmistress of Hillcrest Academy, asks a class of students in an early scene from Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998): “What could Victor have done to save Elizabeth?” The students are silent. It appears as if no one did the assigned reading—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—or if they did read the novel, then no one seems interested in answering Tate’s question. So Tate does what teachers sometimes must do; she calls on a random student. Molly, her candidate, gives a decent enough answer when pressed: “I think that Victor should have confronted the monster sooner. He’s completely responsible for Elizabeth’s death. He was so paralyzed by fear that he never did anything. It took death for the guy to get a clue.” Tate questions her further: “And why do you think he was finally able to confront his monster.” Molly explains, “I think that Victor had reached a point in his life where he had nothing left to lose. I mean the monster saw to that by killing off everybody that he loved. Victor finally had to face it. It was about redemption. It was his fate.”
This classroom discussion of Frankenstein is—in its own way—a loaded gun, and we expect this gun to go off by the end of the film. The classroom’s foreshadowing needs to pay off for the viewer: Tate, who is really Laurie Strode (the original scream queen of the Halloween franchise, living under an assumed name), must confront her monster, Michael Myers—and her fate. (Fate, of course, is also the subject of the lesson plan in the classroom scene from the original Halloween, twenty years prior.)
This artistic trope of “Chekhov’s classroom”—extended from the original concept of “Chekhov’s gun”—determines that whatever gets taught in a classroom in the first half of a work of art should be relevant, either on a narrative or thematic level, by the end. Sometimes this plays out in a literal way by having a character learn something specific that will be useful to overcome an obstacle later in the plot. In The Devil’s Backbone (2001), for example, a group of boys learn about prehistoric man having “to act in groups” to take down a woolly mammoth. This is how the boys ultimately defeat the film’s primary antagonist, by attacking him with the sharpened sticks of our more primitive ancestors together, acting as a group. In other films, the classroom scene might offer some blatant, on-the-nose presaging of future events, as in Halloween H20. (This kind of foreshadowing can also be used ironically or turned on its head for comedic effect, as when Indiana Jones tells his students in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) that archeologists “do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot,” after which he spends the entire film naturally following a map to buried treasure where an X at one point quite literally marks the spot.)
Most often, though, artists take advantage of the classroom scene’s lesson plan to smuggle in some didacticism, to train the audience’s eyes on a particular message and guide their reading of the artwork’s central themes. Think of Dead Poets Society, and John Keating’s lectures about beauty, passion, nonconformity, and self-reliance, where he quotes Walt Whitman, explaining to the boys that “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” In this way, the classroom scene has long allowed works of art to comment on themselves, to take thematic subtext and make it bubble up into text. But a novel is not meant to be a treatise, and a film no Sunday sermon. Great art must negotiate a tenuous armistice between our meaning-making impulses and our nagging interrogative doubts. Horror films, especially, are intrinsically uncertain endeavors, drawing us nearer not to any hope of certainty, but in the opposite direction toward the uncertain, the occulted, the always-already-terror. So why does the classroom, a place of pedagogy, appear in so many great horror films?
There’s a simple answer: horror is more popular with teen and twenty-something audiences, so naturally the makers of such films tend to create characters in that age-range that share that audience’s problems, many of which are problems that surround schooling (learning lessons, passing tests, avoiding bullies, navigating the social scene, finding a date to the prom, etc.). If that’s the real reason for the excess of classroom scenes in horror, then nothing else need be said about it.There’s a simple answer: horror is more popular with teen and twenty-something audiences, so naturally the makers of such films tend to create characters in that age-range that share that audience’s problems…
But the tenor of the best of these scenes betrays a deeper, more disconcerting reason for their prevalence in the horror genre. One of the most common nightmares—experienced not only by children but by adults—involves classroom anxiety. Even long after we graduate high school and college, the pressures of that social and pedagogical space remain with us as archetypal terrors. Our classroom experiences coincide with a particularly accelerated series of changes: the monstrous physical alterations of the pubescent body, the overactive hormonal ignition of sexual awakening, and the expanding consciousness of the narcissism of childhood developing hopefully into a more balanced understanding of the place of the adult in society. Because these changes are not only actual, but symbolic, they continue to haunt our subconscious like so many specters. This is why adults still dream of the embarrassment of being unprepared for a test or, worse, of having to give a speech at the front of the class only to look down and notice the shock of their own nudity. Classroom scenes, for all their seeming didacticism, provide an alternative function in the horror genre, by terrorizing us through vestigial anxieties.
The opening scene of Carrie (1976), which shows students playing volleyball in their P.E. period, disturbs us with its evocations of universal high school dreads. Carrie is not only the worst athlete on the court, but she causes her team’s loss. “Hit it to Carrie, she’ll blow it!” is something no young person wants to hear about themselves. Before the girls head into the lockerroom—a space rife with adolescent foreboding, no matter how romantically Brian De Palma shoots it—her peers make sure to dress her down with nasty comments. But this is nothing compared with what’s to come. Because her bible-thumping mother hasn’t warned her about menstruation, Carrie freaks out when she notices blood between her legs while washing herself. Embarrassingly, in her shock, she smears her blood on some of the other students, who proceed to throw tampons and maxi-pads at her, shouting “Plug it up!” as she cowers in the corner of the communal shower. Though the menses in this classroom scene offer a foreshadowing of Carrie’s blood-soaked climax, this is not a scene that provides the viewer with simple thematic truths packaged in pedagogy.
The original Halloween (1978) appears to give us a more classic classroom scene in that regard. It involves a teacher with a lesson plan and hints at some one-to-one correlations between the lesson and the goings-on of the film’s plot. As Laurie Strode looks out the window and notices a masked Michael Myers standing by a car in broad daylight staring back at her, an unseen teacher lectures about fate. The teacher asks Laurie, who seems distracted: “How does Samuels’ view of fate differ from that of Costaine’s?” We feel the cringe of the common fear of getting called on when you’re not paying attention, but this is quickly subverted: Laurie, even when preoccupied, is observant enough and knows her stuff; she’s studied her books, unlike her friends. She replies: “Costaine wrote that fate was somehow related only to religion, where Samuels felt that, well, fate was like a natural element, like earth, air, fire, and water.”
“That’s right,” the teacher responds. “Samuels definitely personified fate. In Samuels’ writing fate is immovable like a mountain. It stands where man passes away. Fate never changes.” The clear implication here is that Myers, who is lurking outside the school as this scene unfolds, is Samuels’ personification of fate. But what seems like a simple example of foreshadowing and theme-stuffing is actually not so straightforward, for Michael Myers is not fate, just as he is not “the evil” that Dr. Samuel Loomis claims he is. These are futile attempts to bend “the Shape” (the moniker the film’s credits give to Myers) into a more comforting shape. Seeing him as “fate” or “evil” makes Myers understandable: the one thing he is not. Hence, his impossible dream-logic disappearance when Laurie gazes back out the window. Myers is an emissary of the always-already-terror; he is the void we can’t avoid.
Our aptitude for and interest in learning is a foundational human trait, but in spite of this—or perhaps because of this—it is also something around which our angst-ridden uncertainties gather. This is perhaps the greatest of our vestigial anxieties, the perpetual suspicion that we don’t know enough and that whatever we do know is suspect. We wonder if the information we have been given might be imperfect, especially if we haven’t attained it or confirmed it ourselves. Laurie may survive, when her closest friends do not, because she is studious and knowledgeable, but nothing from her pedagogical encounters, as far as we know, actually helps her survive in any verifiable way.
Skepticism and attentiveness are tools for knowledge, and they prove more useful to her than any particular fact she’s been taught. True learning involves more than merely regurgitating what our teachers and textbooks tell us. In the opening scene of Starship Troopers, Johnny Rico answers his teacher’s question a little too perfectly, causing Mr. Rasczak to interrogate him further: “Exact words of the text. But do you understand it? Do you believe it?” Rico admits he doesn’t know, and that admission may be his only moment in the whole film as a true individual, where he stands furthest from the fascism that will inevitably consume him. The ability for a student to admit an uncertainty is, in some ways, more valuable than even a wealth of information.
Precedent for the classroom scene as a trope in horror predates Carrie and Halloween. Universal Pictures’ iconic Frankenstein (1931) contains a classroom scene, as do The Body Snatcher (1945), The Brute Man (1946), Monster on the Campus (1958), Night of the Eagle (1962), The Birds (1963), and others. Classroom scenes in horror films are as old as the genre itself, extending at least as far back as 1922, to F. W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu. In one scene, Professor Bulwer shows his students a Venus flytrap, referring to the carnivorous plant as “like a vampire,” yet even in such an early example of this trope the pedagogy is undermined because his comparison is immediately overshadowed by a better comparison made by the madman Knock in the next scene: “Spiders!” (Later, Knock’s comparison will be endorsed visually when the camera observes Count Orlok on the deck of a ship from a low angle with the rigging web-like behind his arachnoid body as he slowly moves toward the ship’s captain, who is tied to the helm, caught in the vampire’s spiderweb. )
Halloween, though, created the modern formula for such scenes (just as it created the modern formula more broadly for the slasher sub-genre). Classroom scenes have since become a staple of teen horror, so much so that by 1985 the horror-adjacent comedy-fantasy Teen Wolf was already poking fun at such scenes. After Scott Howard discovers that he is descended from a long line of lycanthropes and has begun his transformations into a werewolf, every class he attends seems to say something which relates to his lupinity. In his Latin class, the teacher discusses Romulus and Remus being rescued and “suckled by a wolf.” In his English class, the book they’re reading is Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas…Wolfe. When you’re looking for connections to your plight, as young people in distress are wont to do, suddenly there are signs everywhere—but the signs are just empty signifiers. None of this amounts to much in the way of meaning.
An early classroom scene in Hereditary (2018) regarding Sophocles’ Trachiniae shows, more directly, the futility of signs in the face of the occulted world. The teacher asks the class “What is Heracles’ flaw?” One student answers, “Arrogance….Because he literally refuses to look at all the signs that are being literally handed to him the entire play.”
Peter Graham, distracted like Laurie Strode in Halloween, is not paying attention to this lecture; instead, he’s texting a classmate about drugs. Whereas Laurie can look out the window and see Myers but still answer questions when called upon, Peter is lost when his name is mentioned. Asked by the teacher to weigh in, all he can muster is, “Um…about which part?” It’s not difficult to draw connections between Heracles who “literally refuses to look at all the signs that are being literally handed to him the entire play” and Peter who is literally at that very moment refusing to see the signs in his classroom discussions that mirror his family’s predicaments. It’s too easy though. Even if Heracles and Peter didn’t miss the signs, their responses to the signs would be meaningless. As the teacher explains, “Sophocles wrote the oracle so that it was unconditional. Meaning Heracles never had any choice.” We’re all just, in the words of another student, “pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.”
In a later classroom scene—the famous one where Peter smashes his face into the desk—we can hear less of the teacher’s lesson. What we do hear are three claims: “Iphigenia’s murder was commanded by the gods,” “Agamemnon had no choice,” and “Clytemnestra was driven by revenge.” Each statement gives its character little to no agency—they are not seen as in control of their own actions. Yet on the board the teacher has written three words, which reference the conclusion of Sophocles’ Antigone: “Punishment brings wisdom.” Even if there is pedagogy in punishment, would the wisdom it brings possibly be useful in a horrible, hopeless machine, where everything is outside of our control?
Though courses of every stripe—mathematics, science, history, even physical education—have potential for pedagogic subversion, English courses are often the setting of the best classroom scenes in horror. Poetry, especially, courts the nuance needed, because while prose often strives for clarity, even in the face of something as un-understandable as the occulted world, poetry uses language that remystifies rather than demystifies.
What It Follows (2014) achieves with its poetry-infused classroom scene is relatively unique: the absence of any didacticism. This is pulled off solely because the professor isn’t actually teaching anything, at least we don’t witness any of her lecture. Instead, we merely hear her reciting lines from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Allowing the poetry to remain undiluted by dogmatic analysis expands rather than contracts the possibilities afforded by Eliot. Facile connections can easily be drawn between the central characters’ sexual anxieties, between Eliot’s “eternal Footman” and the film’s titular entity that follows, between the underwater imagery of “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” and the climactic pool scene, between the resurrected Lazarus and “It” taking on the form of dead loved ones. But just as the entity is diminished the moment you pin it down solely as a metaphor for death or STDs or sexual maturity or whatever else suits your fancy, so too does the poem’s ability to rhyme with the film’s various scenes if you hew too closely to any one alignment. If horror films are our collective nightmares, then a classroom scene like the one in It Follows attains its beauty by supplanting the didactic with the oneiric.
There is one classroom scene that trumps even It Follows in its ability to infuse the classroom environment with a poetic dream-logic that simultaneously builds both meaning and uncertainty. At school, early on in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Nancy Thompson listens to her English teacher’s thoughts on William Shakespeare as she begins to doze off, despite her best efforts to stay awake. She’s scared of what will happen if she falls asleep because her friend, Tina, has just died at the hands of a dream-demon named Freddy Krueger, who has been haunting and hunting her and her friends in their nightmares.
“What is seen is not always real,” her teacher declares. “According to Shakespeare, there was something operating in nature, perhaps inside human nature itself, that was rotten. A ‘canker,’ as he put it. Of course, Hamlet’s response to this, and to his mother’s lies, was to continually probe and dig—just like the gravediggers—always trying to get beneath the surface. The same is true in a different way in Julius Caesar.”
The teacher, then, asks a student to read a selection from Shakespeare in front of the class. We presume the reading will be from Julius Caesar, since that’s the play she’s just made an elegant segue to. Behind the student, who is now standing, we can even see a line from Julius Caesar on the chalkboard: “I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar, and things unlucky charge my fantasy. I have no will to wander forth of doors, yet something leads me forth.”
When the student begins to read, someone less versed in Shakespeare might even imagine he is reading from Julius Caesar, because Caesar gets name-checked in the quote, but the lines he reads are from Hamlet: “In the most high and palmy state of Rome, a little ere the mightiest Julius fell, the graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.”
As Nancy falls asleep at her desk during her classmate’s reading, things unlucky charge her fantasy: “the sheeted dead” which “squeaks and gibbers” materializes as Tina’s blood-soaked corpse, shrouded in a clear bodybag, calling to Nancy. At the shock of this image, suddenly the reading changes. The same student remains at the head of class, book open, reciting Shakespeare, but his voice is different, otherworldly, uncanny—and we’ve now jumped to another scene from Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
The jumping between scenes and confusion between plays would likely bewilder a student if it were a real lesson, but in the infinite space of a dream-world classroom, Shakespeare’s plays can reorganize and cross-pollinate—and why shouldn’t they?
Something—a puddle of blood—leads Nancy forth of doors, out of the classroom and down the hall. There she runs into a female hall monitor, wearing Freddy Krueger’s red-and-green sweater and knife-tipped glove, who asks her for her hall pass and tells her “no running in the hallway.” Nancy runs off and ends up in the labyrinthine boiler room lair of Freddy Krueger. She is confronted by this burned, rotten, and putrid creature. He too is an emissary of the always-already-terror. Just as Myers is a blank shape, whose contours are never quite what we misread them as because he is a terrifying, amorphous void; Krueger is a corpse-like canker which disturbs our identity and disrespects our borders through the abject.
As Krueger is about to kill Nancy, she touches her arm to a hot pipe to wake herself up. In order for Nancy to escape the dream, she must burn herself, make herself—in part—canker too. The occulted world is not only around us, but on us and in us. This scene not only remystifies the thematic underpinnings of the film, but is actually about this remystification process itself. Shakespeare’s canker is key, not only to this classroom scene, but to the classroom scene as horror trope. These scenes show us the always-already-terror of pedagogy, particularly a pedagogy that has curdled into didacticism. But a pedagogy of a different stripe offers the Hamletian response to such a canker. Education is, at core, an attempt to “get beneath the surface” of things. The classroom symbolizes our need to “continually probe and dig.”The occulted world is not only around us, but on us and in us.
The most serious infection currently plaguing the Academe is in the privileging of the wrong kind of pedagogy: the idea that pedagogy should be about the content of knowledge (indoctrination) rather than the form of knowledge (interrogation). The job of an educator is not to give answers, but to give tools for finding one’s own answers. As Lydia Tár says in Tár’s bravura ten-minute classroom oner, “It’s always the question that engages the listener; it’s never the answer.”
The questions, uncertainties, and anxieties of horror film classroom scenes show us the beauty and terror of learning, which is a process, not unlike that undertaken by Shakespeare’s characters, of probing and digging, but ultimately never getting any closer to understanding that un-understandable canker at the heart of all things: the always-already-terror. But the answer’s not what engages the listener anyway, so who needs it?