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Ooooohhh, Scary Stuff: Halloween Season Draws Horror Film Expert To USF For Lectures

Vampire Count Dracula tries to attack vampire killer Van Helsing before being repulsed by a Christian cross.
The 1931 film “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi, was the first of its kind to be labeled as “horror,” says University of Central Florida film professor Gary Rhodes. Credit: YouTube/MovieClips.com";s:3:"u

In grainy black and white celluloid from 1931, the count glides down a spider-webbed staircase toward his future toady, Renfield, when wolves start to howl in the distance.

“Listen to them,” Dracula https://youtu.be/o_N-H_5Pvu8" target="_blank">says in a thick Hungarian accent, “children of the night. What beautiful music they make.” 

When Bela Lugosi turned in the performance for which he is legendary, horror films were already decades old. “Dracula,” however, was the first to bear the name “horror,” according to Gary Rhodes, a University of Central Florida film and mass media professor. It was initially marketed as the "strangest love story the world has ever known."

Horror films - by any name - have proven timeless, he said.

"Of all of the genres of the movies, from musicals to westerns, and so forth, they come and go, they're not consistently popular," Rhodes said. "What does seem to be the case though, is that comedy and horror have been pretty consistently popular, with a few little gaps here and there, but they've been pretty consistently popular since the 1890s."

People love them because of the vicarious thrill.

"Even some people who work on such films often think it's the thrill of getting close to danger of whatever kind, from ghosts or serial killers, whatever," he said. "It's that feeling of getting close to danger while all the while knowing you are safe, that you're in the theater rather than someplace where this is really happening."

Horror gives theatergoers a release.

"You know that there is that kind of almost cathartic quality that that you feel the thrill, that you jump, that you feel frightened, your spine tingles, but again you know you're really not facing imminent threat," Rhodes said.

Rhodes wrote the book on the genre, 2018’s exhaustive study “The Birth of the American Horror Film." He is giving three lectures this week at the University of South Florida, two of which are open to the public.

Professor Gary Rhodes poses in front of ornate, gothic columns
Professor Gary Rhodes studies horror, Native American films. Credit: University of Central Florida

On Tuesday, he will speak on “The Birth of Horror Cinema” in the 4th Floor Grace Allen Room in the USF Tampa Library from 1-3 p.m. The next day, Wednesday, he will turn to his other love, Native American filmmaking, for a talk at the same time and location.

Both lectures are free.

Rhodes says that nearly all the major themes in horror were exhausted by 1915, but that hasn't stopped filmmakers from finding new ways to frighten us. One producer in the 1950s wired theater seats with electricity to get a rise out of the audience.

And if he were going to recommend just one horror film for you this Halloween, it would be Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shining,” with Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.

His second talk will focus on the rise of the Native American cinema. Rhodes, a citizen of the Cherokee nation, said he is glad to see Native Americans reclaiming their own story.

"You have this situation in Native American cinema of decades of, generally speaking, being depicted by others," Rhodes said of the famed westerns of the 20th century. "The later years, say the 1990s to the present, especially with the digital revolution, has meant there are a large number now of Native Americans making films from various tribes across the country in ways that was, generally speaking, not possible earlier.

"And so that is the wonderful switch that when people are able to kind of take control of their own heritage, their own background, their own their own stories, their own image, and make films themselves rather than simply being depicted by others," Rhodes said.

Wayne Garcia is working with the WUSF newsroom and its digital media interns for the fall 2019 semester.
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