When his best friend goes missing in the backwoods of Canada, a young man joins forces with his buddy’s girlfriend to search for him.

That’s the plot of “Tusk,” one of this Halloween season’s new horror movies. It joins “Honeymoon” (young newlyweds travel to remote lake country …) and “Wrong Turn 6,” set at a forgotten resort deep in the West Virginia hills, among films all but guaranteed to scare you to death.

What is it about horror movies that makes them so popular? Virginia Tech Associate Professor Emily Satterwhite will ask that question and dig deeper into the genre in a humanities seminar in spring 2015: The Functions of Horror Movies (HUM/COMM 4034).

After giving an overview, the course will home in on a popular theme for scary movies: Americans’ fears of rural places like the backwoods of Canada or the West Virginia hills.

“It’s a fear of who or what might be lurking off the beaten track,” Satterwhite said. “What might happen to you if you don’t have cellphone service?”

In writing her 2011 book “Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1878,” Satterwhite focused on the region’s romantic, pastoral image, rather than the darker, gothic notion of inbred mutants who live in shacks and communicate with grunts and squeals, rather than words. Rural horror films explore the latter, she said, romanticism and revulsion being two sides of the same coin.

“We will get into backwoods slasher films,” she said, “but first we’ll look at how a film helps us deal with what we repress. A movie has an ending—90 minutes, and it’s over. It’s a way to call up our worst fears and manage them.”

There has been a boom in horror films since Sept. 11, 2001, she noted. “In part, it’s because these movies are a way of projecting ourselves into a besieged place and seeing how we would cope.”

Then again, Satterwhite said, some people just like being on the edge, whether literally by bungee jumping or figuratively by going to a scary flick. 

“It’s the opposite of our cubicle life at the office,” she said. “It’s experiencing the vibrancy of real life by pushing ourselves to our limits.”

Satterwhite teaches Appalachian studies, and coordinates the American Studies and Pop Culture minors in the Department of Religion and Culture. She is also an affiliate faculty member of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought doctoral program at Virginia Tech.



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