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Creature Feature

U of M course pays homage to classic monster movies.

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Parties will be packed with Draculas, Wolf Men, and plenty of zombies this Halloween weekend, but a group of University of Memphis students are spending more than one night doing the monster mash.

Since the beginning of the fall semester, nearly 30 students have been taking a closer look at classic monster films in a new U of M course that breaks down scary movies in a theoretical and cultural fashion.

Marina Levina teaches "Monster Films" in the school's communications department. She began teaching the course at the University of California at Berkeley before introducing it to the U of M this fall.

Levina said she explains how monsters are "representative of societal fears" regarding race, gender, appearance, and sexuality. For example, one film the class will focus on later this semester is King Kong, which Levina said represents societal anxiety over race.

"King Kong gets presented as this dark figure that comes out of the African jungle as it tries to destroy this civilized white society," Levina said. "It threatens to kill the blond women. The anxiety about the racial other gets presented in the figure of it."

Other films will address sexist ideals.

"We look at how anxieties about women having too much power in society get presented as these monstrous, female figures," said Levina, an assistant professor of communications. "For example, David Cronenberg's movie The Brood presents this woman as a female body that's potentially dangerous if left on its own."

The course meets on Mondays, and all types of traditional monsters are up for discussion, including vampires, zombies, werewolves, and aliens. Besides The Brood, the syllabus includes viewings of Freaks,The Thing, Teeth, and Frankenstein.

Although students spend much of their classroom time watching movies, Levina warns that it's no easy "A." The class covers psychological and film theory.

Student Devon Haines was misguided by the course title and received a wake-up call on the first day of class.

"She pretty much told us that we're not going to just be sitting here watching monster movies. We're going to be analyzing them and looking at them in a completely different light," Haines said. "At first, I was kind of skeptical because I was thinking, I don't want another lecture course. I know everything that I need to know about monster movies. It turned out that was not the case."

Haines said the course has helped him look at horror films in a new light, applying the various theories and aspects he's learned from class.

"It's actually really interesting, the way she brought these films in and completely transformed them into not just movies but works of study," Haines said.

Another student, Carolyn Block, said she's "one of the biggest wusses you'll ever meet," but the class is helping her rid her fear of monster movies.

"I'm looking at the movies from an academic perspective instead of from a personal perspective, and it's not quite so scary," Block said. "I can understand why the story is the way that it is and that takes some of the fear away."

Besides watching films, the students have assigned readings, exams, and a research paper to write about a film of their choice, analyzing scenes using material they learned in class.

"Monster Films" student Graham Winchester said the class puts students on their toes and challenges them in a way they haven't been challenged before.

"It's been cool learning that each monster is representative of a different cultural time and space," Winchester said. "I would tell other students to take the plunge. Take the challenge. Accept the fact that it's going to be difficult work, but it's going to be a lot of fun."

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