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Don’t Look So Horrified: The Monstrous Pleasure of Cinema Studies

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I’d explored various academic paths as a college undergraduate, including English and film production, but I was continually frustrated by the lack of critical analysis of popular media; English tended toward more classic and literary novels, while film production focused on the methods of storytelling. But in cinema studies—especially of film and television centered around horror archetypes like vampires and zombies—I found the combination of critical theory and popular media for which I’d been searching.

I enrolled for a class at DePaul called “Monsters in Popular Culture.” Taught by assistant professor Paul Booth, the course used material ranging from short stories by Neil Gaiman to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Friday the 13th.”

I’ve always refused to believe that the movies I grew up watching and the current fare that I count among my favorites are nothing more than pure entertainment. Luckily, I’m not the only one.

During my foray into the cinema studies department, I had the opportunity to learn from two individuals who have structured their academic careers around two of the most prominent monsters in media right now. Take Cary Elza, an adjunct instructor at DePaul and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at Northwestern, who teaches courses on vampires. Elza looks at how mythology changes and adapts along with society, like how vampires in “Twilight” represent family values and the repression of desires.

Associate professor Brendan Riley teaches “Zombies in Popular Media” at Columbia College. The class explores the history of the zombie over the past century, from its Haitian voodoo mythology to the “Romero” zombie to the philosophical idea of the zombie. “Studying these texts provides crucial insight into the human condition,” says Riley, “Zombie stories help us think about what it means to be human, about the ethics and nature of altruism in times of peril, and about our own mortality.”

Popular media is taking its rightful place in academia with good reason, and a graduate degree in cinema and media studies can actually be a better job prospect than other humanities degrees. “Film and media scholars are familiar with interdisciplinary study,” says Elza. “The ability to jump fields and talk to students in a way that bridges gaps between methodologies is becoming more and more important as we all become Wikipedia-fied.” (Kristen Micek)

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