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Classes that will keep you up at nights

South Boston News
Matthew Fisher introduces the students to horror films that revolve around the acts of revenge. / May 17, 2021
If you like horror films, or just want to take a deep dive into the freakishness and gore that cinematography has to offer, check out the Survey of Horror. This very unusual and unique class is being offered next at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center beginning in the fall. A part of the SVHEC curriculum since fall 2019, the most recent spring class concluded with some 30 students enrolled.

The second-year SVCC humanities class explores the horror genre in its various forms — literature, film, music, art, and other media. Topics include demons, zombies, vampires, witches, murderous doppelgängers, vegetarian cannibals, and a whole family of Ed Geins.

Gein was convicted of grave robbing, decapitation, and murdering two women whose physical features favored his mother. Gein’s psychotic behavior inspired numerous books and movies, and three of the most influential horror films ever made — “Psycho,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and “The Silence of the Lambs” — owe a debt to his monstrous story.

“Students will also explore philosophical and scientific questions related to the genre: What is horror? What makes it scary? Why do some people get pleasure out of fear?” said SVHEC Instructor Matthew Fisher. Fisher teaches College Composition I and II, and Children’s Literature, in addition to the Survey of Horror course.

A recent class, held on a Friday in late April, began with several disturbing music videos to get students into the mood for the day’s topic. One video in particular, “Pagan Poetry,” by Icelandic musician Björk, features very blurry and stylized images of explicit sex from Björk’s personal footage and images of large needles sewing pearls to skin.

Following the video segment, Fisher focused the class instruction on transgressive horror and narratives with graphic representation of body horror, torture, mutilation, and cultural taboos. Fisher showed a snippet of the 1929 short film, “An Andalusian Dog,” which is a collection of photos compiled by Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali aimed to provoke a reaction.

“Transgressive horror is disorganized, incomplete, and probably inaccurate history of extreme cinema,” said Fisher, citing such examples of Mel Gibson in the “The Passion of The Christ” and Anthony Hopkins as Titus Andronicus in the film “Titus.”

Each week, the class watches some style of horror movie. This past Friday, the students watched the film “Martyr” by Pascal Laugier, a French screenwriter and director. The class was advised previously to not read or take a sneak peek at the movie.

Fisher, did not offer any insight to the film before the students watched. “It’s best to enter the film blind,” said Fisher.

Without giving the entire film away, “Martyr” tells the story of a secret society that hunts for a woman who can undergo levels of torture to convey what the afterlife has to offer. The film includes twenty straight minutes of force feeding and regular beatings performed by a burly man punching a woman in the face who was held captive. Eventually she is skinned alive.

During the discussion following the film, students in the class and those who were watching virtually from home agreed the movie was more disturbing than “Saw,” a mass-market horror flick previously screened by the class, where two strangers awaken in a room with no recollection of how they got there, and soon discover they’re pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by a notorious serial killer.

“I didn’t like watching a woman being beat up,” said one male student.

“Martyr” was more realistic than “Saw,” one student deemed. “It was not far-fetched — things like this could really happen, and that’s why I find it more disturbing,” said the female student.

“The director wrote this film during a state of great depression,” said Fisher, contributing to the class discussion.

The students expressed respect for the director for choosing not to have a happy ending and thought he succeeded in keeping their attention through the movie’s character development and exploration of themes. Some found this film more bearable to watch compared to others that contained sexual torture.

The course ended in early May with a review of Stephen King’s hierarchy of scares.

The class does not focus on the horror genre over a specific time period. Instead, it covers as many topics as possible. The course begins by discussing horror’s roots in Gothic fiction before surveying different kinds of monsters: zombies, vampires, demons, serial killers, and more. Then the students look at various sub-genres such as extreme horror, urban Gothic, and the Shakespearean revenge tragedy.

“My hope is that students will leave the course with an appreciation for horror’s diversity,” said Fisher.

Survey of Horror is open to everyone. Students in a degree program can use it as a Humanities elective, with financial aid covering costs for those who qualify. The course also transfers to other colleges and universities, so participation is not limited to SVCC students. In fact, anyone may enroll, with or without a degree program.

“Participants are advised to enroll sooner than later due to the popularity of the class,” said Fisher.

In the fall, Survey of Horror will be offered at a new time: Thursdays from 6:30-9:30 p.m. You can register by calling the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center at (434) 572-5451 or any other SVCC location. No books are required; Fisher will provide students with everything they need. For more information about the course, contact Fisher via email at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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