Students examine violent media during Jan Term course

January 25, 2010

Shrill screams seep from 110 Hill Hall, piercing the silence of the stately hallway. None of the building’s regulars – in offices, the writing center and classrooms – even notice the not-quite-muffled “Aaaaahhhh! Aaaaahhhh!” echoing throughout the first floor.

But then, it is the third and final week of Joshua Baron’s Jan Term course, “Philosophy of Violent Media.” The buzz of the chain saw, the smashing and crashing of metal, the squeal of a newborn alien as it explodes from a human chest, the shrieks of Freddie Kruger’s victims – all are by now familiar sounds in this hallowed hall of learning.

“What is it that makes us want to experience, to be entertained by, something that’s unpleasant?” says Baron, an adjunct lecturer who is completing his doctorate dissertation on violent media at Temple University. “Being horrified and disgusted is unpleasant. Therefore we are enjoying what is not enjoyable.

“That is the paradox of horror.”

And the essence of Baron’s class. The students are examining the paradoxical nature of violent media – from paintings to photographs, comics to video games, sports to TV shows, movies to real violence and the internet. They are exploring a dozen or more theories on why we choose to experience – even enjoy watching – violent media whether in the popular TV series “CSI” or video games or even on the evening news.

Baron offers the theories, plays the clips and ignites discussion that can border on debate. He asks his students to consider the “Fascination Theory” as to the popularity of the 1979 sci-fi horror flick “Alien” and the 1982 cult classic “The Thing.”

“It’s not about the violence – it’s about the monsters, the supernatural. We are fascinated by the supernatural,” Baron tells the 38 students enrolled in the class that was expanded beyond its 25-student limit in response to student demand. “We wonder, ‘What is that thing? Where did it come from? Can they kill it?’

“Fascination draws us to the film and keeps us watching. Violence, horror and disgust are all secondary to the fun of that fascination.”

Well, at least that’s one theory, Baron says. All are virtually impossible to prove since there are so many variables, he says before moving on to “The Final Girl” theory. The shrieks – on the screen not in the class – begin with “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) through “Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) and don’t subside until the psychopathic security guard in the 2007 “P 2” has been immolated on a gasoline-soaked makeshift pyre.

Baron asks his students what differences they notice about the final girl – the survivor – in the three clips.

“She gets more courageous.”

“In early movies she needs to rescued and later she kills her pursuer.”

Baron nods. “That’s right – she not only survives, she thrives,” he says, adding that one aspect of the “Final Girl” theory speculates that the heroine in classic slashers, modern action movies such as the 2001 film “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” starring Angelina Jolie, and other movies with “hot chicks that are tough” allows men, with whom the genre is most popular, to safely entertain their repressed desire to imagine what it would be like to be a woman.

The class, about 60 percent men, erupts in discussion. Baron tosses out a comment or two, but mostly listens as his students consider the theories – disputing or agreeing with various points their professor or classmates have offered. It’s exactly what the professor hoped to seed.

Even the students who are decidedly not fans of horror and slasher films are spirited, so to speak, contributors.

“I really hate movies like this,” says Echo Bein, a sophomore majoring in Psychology who took the course to add to her understanding of the disturbed adolescents she hopes someday to counsel. “I wanted to understand why anyone would watch these movies. And I have been pleasantly surprised at the theories and how they put it in perspective.

“What I’ve learned in class makes me less angry that violent media is produced because I have a better understanding of why people watch it.”

Most of the students in the class added new perspective to their views of violent media. Junior Felipe Fonseca believes the class was a good experience – both entertaining and traumatizing. Senior Rachel Hansen thinks the course has been very interesting, even though she registered with reservations.

“I’ve been watching horror films since I was 12,” says junior Laura Abbasi. “I see them now from new points of view – and I found my threshold for violence.”