This week, we watched Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992) in order to examine representations of race in popular horror films. This also served as our only coverage of zombies in the course, a way in to thinking about urban legends and horror stories, and a continuation of our discussion of gender in horror film (that will be picked up more explicitly next week with Halloween and Teeth).
We picked up the pace this week after a couple of weeks where we spent two class periods per story; this presented one of the central challenges for me as a teacher this week. I have a lot to say about Night of the Living Dead and a lot I want students to think about. I’ve taught the film a few times before, in varying contexts, so I have teaching notes already developed. I had to minimize some things and cut others this semester. And as it turns out, I had a lot I wanted to cover with Candyman, too. Both days felt busy to me as a result. Having previously taught Night of the Living Dead over two class periods, however, I know that I don’t necessarily need that long with the film. It’s a weird one for me in that one class period feels like not quite enough time and two feels like too much. Oh well. I think it worked out just fine.
We began our discussion of Night of the Living Dead with a brief conversation about zombie narratives more broadly and how Night compares to students’ contemporary expectations (as is often the case, students are mostly surprised at how slow the movie is and that the zombies use tools).
As a shift into a more focused discussion of Night, we also talked about the cultural and historical context of 1968: student movements, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, George Wallace, assassinations, etc. How, then, I asked them, does this film reflect its time? We talked about the backstory given for the zombies / ghouls in the movie (something from space, radiation) and its connection to Cold War anxieties; we also talked about Ben (Duane Jones), the African American lead character and the hero of the film. Even though, as some of them already knew, Romero didn’t write or cast that part with racial politics in mind, it winds up being incredibly progressive both in its colorblind casting and willingness to give its audience a black male lead who isn’t stereotypical or subservient as well as in its ending. Even though Ben dies, this avoids reinforcing the Black Dude Dies First trope because he doesn’t die first, because every other character we’ve gotten to know dies, too, and because his death is easily read as commentary on racial violence. The posse that kills him (a bunch of armed white men) may not intend to murder a black person, but they do, and they think little of it. They represent law and order, but instead of being saviors they are represented as monsters in the final moments of the film. They not only kill Ben but they burn his body and are shown standing over him with hooks and menacing looks on their faces.
Although the theme of the week was race, we didn’t just discuss race, however. I find that the character of Barbra (Judith O’Dea) always leads to a good discussion of gender roles and representations of women. This time, that discussion wasn’t too long because we’d already discussed some of those things with Rosemary’s Baby and The Haunting of Hill House. I asked them to think about similarities and differences between the way the three texts representations of women, however. The consensus seemed to be that Barbra was the worst, the most passive and even annoying, while Eleanor was also quite passive but more sympathetic perhaps, and Rosemary was the most active female character – all were clearly shaped by mid-20th century gender politics, of course. (We will look at changes in women’s roles and representations next week with Laurie in Halloween and Dawn in Teeth.)
One final major topic for the day introduced more philosophical readings of zombies. I showed them Simon Pegg’s essay on slow versus fast zombies and discussed his interpretation of slow zombies as representative of our fear of death itself:
…the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.
However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them – much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares – the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.
I also shared William S. Larkin’s “Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies, and Zombies” with the class. This essay discusses two different ways of defining personhood: the psychological approach (in which a person is defined by his/her mind, personality, or even soul) and the bodily approach (in which a person is defined by his/her body). Ultimately, he argues that our
intuition that zombies are people too betrays our preference for the bodily over the psychological approach to personal identity. . . . To the extent that we can be taken in by a good zombie film, we must think that a person continues to exist so long as some critical mass of her material properties does and that a person can survive without any distinctively human psychology.
We didn’t have much time to discuss this argument in class, but I introduced it to them and talked a little bit about what that might mean. I also then listed this as a topic to write about in their short essay over Night of the Living Dead and/or Candyman, and several of them explored this further there. (I got great arguments on both sides.)
Race plays an even more central role in Bernard Rose’s Candyman. It’s everywhere: the Candyman himself (Tony Todd) and his backstory (lynched for daring to love a white woman); the projects in Chicago, which are seen as threatening at first but later shown to be a neglected place where people are doing their best to live their lives; the threat of gang violence; and the white privilege shown by Helen (Virginia Madsen). Once again, I made sure we talked about the historical and cultural context before getting into the meat of the story. Mostly, I wanted to make sure they knew about Rodney King and the L.A. Riots, which happened earlier in 1992. Night of the Living Dead was released in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which may not have shaped the actual filming but would certainly have been on people’s minds as they saw the movie; similarly, Candyman was released in the aftermath of Rodney King’s beating and the riots and even though its filming was not a response to those events, viewers would have had them in mind.
(An interesting side note about the historical context – the majority of my students were not born when this movie was made. One of the older students in the class hadn’t realized this before and seemed shocked to discover that 1992 is actually the distant past now for traditional college students.)
This class was mostly structured around group discussion of their questions. I took up the class’s notecards and chose questions from them to discuss in groups for much of the class period. These are the questions they had to discuss (the first two were my questions to get them started while I typed up more):
- We’ve jumped ahead to 1992 with Candyman. How does the time period influence the movie or our interpretation of it?
- How does Candyman deal with race? How does this compare to the representation of race in Night of the Living Dead?
- How would the movie’s effect be different if the Candyman weren’t black?
- What is the purpose or effect of the long aerial shots (particularly early in the film)?
- Candyman looks relatively normal. Is this scarier than a typical movie monster or less scary?
- Is Helen insane? Is the Candyman real (in the movie)?
- What is the function/effect of the bees in the movie? What do they add?
- Helen’s husband says that urban legends are “the unself-conscious reflection of the fears of urban society.” Do horror movies/books serve the same function?
- What do you think of the shift to Helen as the monster at the end? What is the tone associated with her role as a new urban legend?
- Choose one scene you’d like to look at as a class and think about what you would say about it.
After their group discussions, we talked about most of these at least briefly, but we probably spent the most time trying to work through the question of whether Helen was insane or the Candyman was real. The class was divided on this point. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film about Candyman’s status, and so we looked at some of the details and what they seem to push the viewer toward. As a class, I think we agreed that the end of the film leans more toward reading the Candyman as real, but some still really wanted to find ways to interpret it otherwise. Some of their ideas were quite inventive but not necessarily supported by evidence in the film itself. Ultimately, our division as a group about how to read this seemed to come down to what we wanted to be true.
Personally, I believe in the Candyman. I think that to see this as simply Helen’s unraveling is to undo most of what makes the movie interesting: Candyman’s backstory, the repercussions of historical and institutionalized racism, the power given by collective belief, and even the effects on Helen, which carry more weight for me if they’re externally motivated rather than simply her own issue. I also think that taking the Candyman seriously makes Helen not just a dead female victim at the end of the movie but also gives her power in her return from beyond the grave to murder her husband. It’s a complex and maybe not entirely positive power, but it’s something.
Ultimately, this week was a little looser in organization than previous weeks, but I think this was productive. The two movies we watched allowed us to discuss some of the more progressive potential in horror film while also acknowledging that they worked against some of our genre expectations (e.g., the trope that the black guy dies first) and societal stereotypes.
Interestingly, I surveyed students anonymously the following week and one of the questions asked which of the texts we’ve covered so far they liked best and least. Candyman appears to be a class favorite so far (although I wouldn’t have guessed that from our discussion – people seemed in class to think it was kind of silly) while Night of the Living Dead got a much more divided response. It and Rosemary’s Baby got the most mentions as least favorite, but several students really liked it, too.
This week’s music: For Tuesday, I played Jonathan Coulton’s “Re Your Brains” as a fun nod to more contemporary zombie stories; for Thursday, I played Jolie Holland’s “Dark Days.” I love this song and it just felt right for Candyman, but I’m not sure I can articulate how. Something about its hopelessness, its loss of a lover, its reiteration of the sweetness of that lover… I don’t know. It’s a great song, though.