Professor explores scary cinema's link to larger cultural forces

Q&A with Andrew Scahill, who got hooked on horror by watching Freddy Krueger

March 14, 2018

Assistant Professor of English Andrew Scahill is fascinated that the same movie can be repulsive or enthralling to different audiences. Scahill’s knowledge of cinema is masterful, but his reactions to it are surprising. “In ‘The Exorcist,’ when Raegan vomits on the priest, I know the film wants me to see her as abhorrent,” he said. “But I love it,” he winces with a smile, “I think it’s hilarious.”

An expert on horror, Scahill describes himself as a “film historian” who considers how a movie’s successes are both deeply idiosyncratic and indelibly linked to larger cultural forces. At the same time, Scahill suggests there are no right or wrong ways to experience a film, and his classes ask students to consider how their own identities make certain reactions inevitable or impossible.

Scahill joined the CU Denver faculty in fall 2017, coming from Salisbury University. CU Denver Today sat down with Scahill discuss his history with monsters, as well as his new class on censorship.

CU Denver Assistant Professor Andy Scahill
Monstrous children in film and why people are entertained by them are among the topics Andy Scahill discusses in his film courses.

Today: What was the first horror film that you saw, and how did it set the tone for your research?

I think it was “Nightmare on Elm Street.” I liked it because it had this very dynamic villain, Freddy Krueger – it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. This was the era of lumbering Jason (from “Friday the 13th”), and here was this wisecracking, almost comic relief villain. It was also the first time I saw the teenage victims as capable. I’ve taught it since then, and even my students are surprised. Essentially, the ending of the film is a war film – it’s like “Rambo,” where (the protagonist) is booby-trapping her own house to catch this monster.

That whole franchise is fascinating in terms of agency for teenagers. By the time you get to “Nightmare on Elm Street 3,” it’s a comic book where they have powers and they’re going into battle. What a fruitful fantasy for teenagers, that you’re more capable in your dreams than you are in real life!

Today: Horror films have also been the object of a lot of repression. Is that how your new class about censorship came into being?

I’m interested in the child-saving rhetoric of censorship, which is mobilized to control adults. Defining spaces as “safe for children” is often a way to control the sexuality of adults.

‘I hope to see more horror films that think about the monstrousness of white privilege.’

– Andrew Scahill, when asked about the success of ‘Get Out’

When I started my dissertation, I was very interested in “The Bad Seed,” which is about an 8-year-old girl who commits murder. It’s such an anomalous film for the ’50s. I was also interested in (Peter Jackson’s) “Heavenly Creatures.” Those two films became central to my dissertation, which was about monstrous children and youth rebellion. I’m interested in children as symbolic bodies; not children in children’s films, but children in adult movies.

What does it mean to look at the child? What sorts of symbolic work do we force the child to do on our behalf? What do our fantasies about the perfect, plucky child – say, Shirley Temple or Annie – do for us in terms of how we characterize children? Why are we entertained by images of monstrous children?

Today: How is the landscape for horror shifting with the success of “Get Out?” Do you see the stigmatization of horror films, which have been disregarded as “low art,” changing?

I hope that success means more eventual prestige for the horror genre, and I hope more minority filmmakers will employ the genre. I hope to see more horror films that think about the monstrousness of white privilege.

Today: Where does your passion come from? Why did you enter the field of film studies?

Well, I started as a literature scholar. But in my master’s program, I had this really fantastic film class and a really great professor who said, “Look, I know you’re studying literature, but your papers about film are so much better.” And I thought about it, and it was great advice. So I went to the University of Texas at Austin for film studies. And that’s where interests that I thought were separate started to dovetail.

CU Denver Assistant Professor Andy Scahill
Andrew Scahill, assistant professor of English

I worked with Janet Staiger, whose area of expertise is reception study, and she asked me, “So why are you into all these films about monstrous children?” And what attracted me was this gulf between how the films wanted me to feel, and how I felt.

The more I looked at these figures of monstrous childhood, I saw the child who harbors a dark secret, I saw the child who becomes a monster in adolescence who needs to be cured, the child who finds others like them and forms this cabal, the parent who disowns a child they’re raising – these are all ways we talk about queer children in popular culture.

I bring this into my pedagogy, too. I’m really invested in getting students to theorize their own reactions to a text, and not think they “got it wrong,” which is such a limited way to think about art. It’s good to get students to realize that just because they have an adverse reaction or a different reaction that it doesn’t mean they’ve done something wrong.

A film isn’t a telegram, it isn’t just encoded one way, transmitted, and then decoded by you. There’s a difference between where the text wants you to go, and where you go. A film can corral you, but it can never control you – that’s worth talking about.

Today: What do you know now that you wished you knew when you were entering grad school?

I can tell you the advice I give students, which is that they have to know for themselves what they’re willing to put up with, for how long. So, how long are they willing to be poor? How much rejection can they put up with? How long are they willing not to feel like an adult? How much are they willing to move? I’ve moved a lot for work, and it can be exhausting starting over all the time.

Otto, Professor Scahill’s dog, serving you Elsa-from-“Frozen” realness. Otto is on IG as “ottobiogruffy.”

Today: What quote grounds your work in academia?

It’s from the literary critic Eve Sedgwick, who asked – in an essay called “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading” – “What makes pleasure and amelioration so ‘mere?’”

It’s so much about Sedgwick looking at her mortality and her cancer diagnosis and essentially saying, “I’m tired of being paranoid; I’m tired of talking about how texts hurt me, and I want to start not from a place of paranoia, but from a place of love.” That totally shaped my dissertation.

Today: If you weren’t a professor, would you be a filmmaker?

I would love to have been a location scout! I love thinking about film environments. What a cool job it would be to discover a place and say, ‘This is our cinematic space.’

Today: What is your favorite non-academic interest?

Probably cosplaying my dog! But my initial response was, “Are we supposed to have non-academic interests?” I don’t really feel a divide between my personal and professional lives.

Today: What gets you up every morning? What keeps you up at night?

Well, I do a job that I love. Any time I get down or feel stressed, I think, “Andy, you’re paid to talk about movies.” And, I get to talk to young people about movies; I get to open up worlds for them. It’s a really fulfilling career.