Professor Takes a Grimm Look at Horror Films

Posted: October 31, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich and Tara Laskowski

Why do people enjoy scary movies? What do they say about our culture and our deepest fears? For Walter Rankin, deputy associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs at Mason, horror movies are adult fairy tales, giving the audience a good thrill while tapping into classic storytelling and raw human emotion.

“Horror movies are genuine, safe adrenaline rushes,” says Rankin. “They give you permission to suspend disbelief safely while curled up under a blanket in your house or surrounded by people in a theater.”

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In his new book, “Grimm Pictures: Fairy Tale Archetypes in Eight Horror and Suspense Films,” Rankin deconstructs eight classic scary movies and relates their elements to the original Grimm’s fairy tales such as “Rumpelstiltskin” or “Rapunzel.”

Rankin grew up listening to fairy tales. He happily recounts his mother reading to him each night from a well-worn copy of the “Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm.” For the uninitiated, those who grew up watching the Disney version of Grimm tales such as “Snow White” or “Cinderella,” Rankin is quick to point out the disparities. For example, in the Grimm versions, Cinderella’s stepsisters’ eyes are pecked out by birds at the end of the tale and Snow White’s evil stepmother gets to dance at her wedding — in red-hot iron shoes freshly pulled from the fire. So it isn’t surprising that Rankin is easily able to make comparisons between the 300-year-old folk tales and today’s horror films.

When comparing the film, “The Silence of the Lambs,” to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood (called Little Red Cap by the Grimm Brothers), Rankin shows how the two heroines get in trouble when they start talking to the “wolf”— a literal wolf in the fairy tale, and the ultimate monster and cannibal, Hannibal Lecter, in the film. The film itself seems to be a homage to the fairy tale. In the opening sequence, Rankin points out, Jodie Foster’s character, Clarice, is running through the woods — a lone female with reddish hair taking a path through the forest.

Also in the film, the other “wolf,” the serial killer called Buffalo Bill, is collecting women’s skins in an effort to make himself a suit of “clothing” much like the fairy tale wolf dons the grandmother’s nightgown to disguise himself.

In his book, Rankin also examines popular horror films such as “The Ring,” “Aliens,” “Misery,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Scream” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and finds ways these films employ classic archetypes and build upon the folk tales.

When gathering those folk tales, could Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm have really cornered the market on storytelling? Are there a finite number of stories, scary or otherwise, to be told?

“There probably are a finite number of plot lines because human beings haven’t changed that much,” Rankin says. “We love, we get angry, we cry when we are sad. There is not that much that is different about the human experience.” According to Rankin, many of these themes go beyond the Grimms and can be traced back to Greek tragedies.

Rankin uses some of these films in Mystery, Madness and Murder, the honors course he team teaches with Doris Bitler, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“When students look at contemporary works of horror, they often say that the violence is too graphic and horrible. They react as if these characters are doing something new and shocking, but really the central ideas — even child murder and cannibalism — hark back to our oldest works of literature. You can look at plays like ‘Medea.’ She is betrayed by her husband and murders him and her own children — and gets away with it. These are themes that continue to be played out in different ways, whether in 19th-century fairy tales or modern-day films.”

“With horror films, you can take, say, ‘Halloween’ versus ‘The Silence of the Lambs.’ In a way they have a very similar theme. You could knock it down to ‘pretty young woman attacked by psycho killer.’ But the way the themes are played out have very different styles and play on our nerves and psyches in different ways.”

Rankin also believes each time brings something different to the themes, and horror movies can reflect our fears as individuals and also as a society. For example, films decades ago reflected fears of a Cold War generation, while today’s popular movies, such as “28 Days Later,” can tap into societal fears of infectious disease and bioweapons.

Ultimately, however, scary movies are about entertainment, Rankin says.

“A good horror film gives you someone to root for, someone to identify with,” he says. “Despite the heavy death tolls, there is always a bit of hope that the good, smart kids will survive the masked killer.”

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