Dr. Melinda Hall’s recent Arts and Ideas presentation, “Monstrous Villains and Horrible Heroes,” was a fine addition to the Celebration of the Humanities series because it demonstrated so well the nature and the utility of studies in the humanities. Using a number of classic and recent horror films (James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Steven King’s Carrie), Dr Hall, from Florida’s Stetson University, demonstrated how many horror films repeat and extend some of the worst prejudices about people with disabilities. Monsters not only threatened the stability of the allegedly harmonious society, but they are also, unnecessarily, studies in disfigurement and deviation from “normal” body types. In the world the film creates, the monsters must be vanquished not only because they are socially disruptive but also because they are physically repulsive. More recent horror films, like Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” reverse the formula and show that deviance and cruelty reside not in the monster but in the self-righteous community that has constructed elaborate hierarchies that exclude rather than enfold what it labels as deviant. Dr. Hall wants us to applaud these somewhat rare correctives to the arguments that most horror films, even recent ones like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, make.
For many of the audience, first year students new to college level inquiry, the presentation beautifully showed how a researcher could range across a number of disciplines in order to explain a popular cultural form. Dr. Hall adroitly moved from psychology to mythology to film history to explain the harmful confluence of threatening monsters and images of the disabled. Furthermore, her presentation demonstrated that our popular entertainment choices and other ordinary cultural practices can be objects of serious and creative academic study. But most of all her presentation helped students to recognize how harmful arguments are wrapped in popular narratives and how viewers can protect themselves against the subtle and seductive powers of “just entertainment.” At their best, studies in humanities — like Dr. Hall’s presentation — call upon us to develop the powers of discrimination and the skills of rhetorical analysis.
The presentation was this semester’s addition to the Philosophy of the Edge series, a program that aims to provide new and different ways of thinking about the world. This year’s offerings focus on disability ethics. Dr. Tracey Nicholls organizes the series.