"Zombies in the Classroom: Education as Consumption in Two Novellas by Joyce Carol Oates" first published in Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education, Andrew Whelan, Ruth Walker, and Christopher Moore (Eds.). Intellect Ltd., 2013.
George Romero’s 1979 film Dawn of the Dead features what Kyle William Bishop describes as a ‘Gothic mall’ in which survivors of a zombie apocalypse seek shelter, indulge in ‘a fantasy of gluttony,’ and merge ‘life with shopping.’ The living dead, for their part, gravitate to the mall by force of habit or residual memory and in search of living food. The parallel is clear: humans and zombies alike go to the mall to consume. Following Romero’s lead, Edgar Wright’s satirical 2004 film Shaun of the Dead suggests that if a zombie contagion were to wreak havoc on a modern urban population, the walking dead might be indistinguishable from most commuters, office workers, or cell phone users. Since 9/11, there has been a renaissance in zombie cinema, and enterprising filmmakers wishing to capitalize on the trend might be looking for new spaces in which to explore the theme that humans are already zombies. If so, they would do well to consider a Gothic schoolhouse setting.
Nightmarish schools and menacing teachers already make frequent appearances in literature and film that is Gothic in mood, plot, or theme. To review the history of the Gothic as what Davenport-Hines calls a ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ is to see the suitability, if not the inevitability, of the Gothic treatment of education and educators. Schools and schoolteachers are keepers and transmitters of enlightenment, entrusted to transform childish naïveté into confident rationality, replace infantile illusions with hard facts, and initiate students into a life-long quest for knowledge. At the same time, schools and teachers are figures of power. They decide when children work, when they play, when they take trips to the lavatory, and whether they are prodigies or problems. As a result, they can appear to wield an inexhaustible and inscrutable authority. The conflicted mix of promise and terror associated with schools and teachers makes them appropriate subjects for the Gothic, a genre or mode that registers an ambivalence toward post-Enlightenment rationalizations of cultural authority and power similar to what we see in contemporary cultural representations of schools and teachers.
Previously, I have gathered such representations under the designation ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ and included under this rubric not only fictional works by writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, David Mamet, Stephen King, and Joyce Carol Oates, but also academic and pedagogical discourse by figures such as Michel Foucault and Henry Giroux. Fiction of the Schoolhouse Gothic takes place in a wide variety of settings (primary schools, high schools, universities, and even non-academic settings that are controlled by teachers or academics), but it is united in portraying Western education, its guardians, and its subjects using explicitly Gothic tropes such as the curse, the trap, and the monster. The non-fiction variety of Schoolhouse Gothic characterizes the academy using themes suggested by such tropes: the tyranny of history, the terrors of physical or mental confinement, reification, and miscreation. In the Schoolhouse Gothic, the academy is haunted or cursed by persistent power inequities (of race, gender, class, and age) and, ironically, by the Enlightenment itself, which was to save us from the darkness of the past but which had a dark side of its own. Traps take the form of school buildings, college campuses, classrooms, and faculty offices, which are Enlightenment spaces analogous to the claustrophobic family mansions, monasteries, and convents of old. According to Chris Baldick, when curse meets trap, the result is paranoia and ‘an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.’ To these products can be added violence and new, monstrous creation. In the Schoolhouse Gothic, a haunted, incarcerating academy transforms students into zombies, psychopaths, and machines. The pervasiveness of the Schoolhouse Gothic implies that our educational institutions are sites of significant cultural anxiety, and the zombie subset of the Schoolhouse Gothic suggests more specifically that schools are places in which teachers and students alike consume and are consumed.
Although Joyce Carol Oates has produced a large and diverse body of work, she is best known for provocative, violent works that examine American culture through the prism of the family, as Wesley argues; appropriate and revise a masculine literary tradition; as Daly contends; and dramatize the divisions of the self, particularly the female self, as both Creighton and Daly maintain. Creighton describes Oates as ‘deeply, if somewhat ironically, subscribed to the traditions of American romanticism’ and, as the editor of Plume’s American Gothic Tales (1996), Oates is no stranger to Romanticism’s dark sister. Further, Oates has returned throughout her career to the school as a source or scene of alienation, abuse, and violence; ‘In the Region of Ice’ (1967), for example, is loosely based on her experiences teaching a troubled young Jewish student who eventually planned and executed a public murder/suicide at a synagogue (she revisited this subject in ‘Last Days’, 1985). Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (1993) features a group of high school students who, among other things, conspire to publicly humiliate a high school math teacher who degrades one gang member in class and gropes her breasts in detention. In Zombie (1995) and Beasts (2002), Oates develops and enhances the Schoolhouse Gothic by comparing schooling to zombification and using consumption as a metaphor for the effects of formal education. Both novels feature hallmarks of the Gothic such as haunted, paranoid protagonists, claustrophobic spaces, and monstrous behavior. These works portray the academy as a cursed, suffocating place in which various forms of mystified authority make monsters both of those who wield its power and those who are subjected to that power. Considered together, they use the trope of the zombie to suggest that schooling does not enlighten young minds and develop their capacity for higher thought but rather enslaves and consumes them, transforming them into mindless servants, amoral shells, or savage cannibals. Education becomes a form of consumption in which the line between consumer and consumed disappears.
Both Zombie and Beasts liken students to the zombies of Caribbean folklore and of 1930s and 1940s cinema, zombies created and controlled by voodoo priests or, in this case, professors. According to Kyle Bishop, the zombie is ‘a fundamentally American creation’ (author’s emphasis), the ‘only canonical movie monster to originate in the New World,’ and a ‘creature born of slavery and hegemony.’ The American movie zombie originates not in European folklore or literature, as do most monsters of the Gothic, but rather in the complex colonial history of the Americas, especially the Caribbean, as translated into film. The zombie has a ‘complicated genealogy’: it is a figure from Haitian folklore co-opted into narrative by western observers. The word zombie, according to ethnographers Ackermann and Gaulthier, is related to African terms for ‘corpse’ or ‘body without a soul’ and the zombie is a creature ‘deprived of will, memory, and consciousness,’ as well as speech, by a voodoo priest or sorcerer. The zombie is a slave, a silent worker whose humanity has been consumed and whose existence is a living death. Bishop argues that before George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead transformed the zombie into the mutilated, decaying, lumbering cannibal so familiar to moviegoers, the source of fear was not the zombie itself, but rather the one who could create a zombie.
The portrayal of teacher as zombie-maker and puppeteer animates Schoolhouse Gothic, especially in Oates’s Zombie and Beasts. The former novel is told from the point of view of the zombie-maker, and the latter from the perspective of the zombie/student who eventually destroys her master/professor. Zombie takes place in the mid-1990s and is inspired by the life of Jeffrey Dahmer in general and by Lionel Dahmer’s A Father’s Story (1994) in particular, the latter being a memoir that Oates reviewed favorably. The narrative alternates between first- and third-person perspectives in a style that is busy, loud, and juvenile, full of sentence fragments, parenthetical asides, capital letters, dashes, and italics, as well as sketches and illustrations. It is divided into two sections: ‘Suspended Sentence’ describes protagonist Quentin P’s family, his past crimes, and his life on probation, and ‘How Things Play Out’ describes, with an exuberance that is jarringly dissonant, the stalking, abduction, and murder of a would-be zombie that Quentin names ‘Squirrel.’ The similarities between Quentin and Dahmer are myriad – the development of alcoholism at a young age, an ability to seem invisible or to project harmlessness, and so on – but among the most significant is the way that Quentin has failed to distinguish himself academically and lives in the shadow of a well-educated, successful father. Jeffrey Dahmer’s father held a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and worked as a chemist with PPG Industries, while Quentin’s father holds dual Ph.D.s, and dual teaching appointments in Physics and Philosophy at his university. When Oates re-imagines Dahmer and his crimes in fiction, she makes academia central to the story, more central than it appears to have been in Dahmer’s life. Her character Quentin associates school with humiliation, surveillance, judgment, and control. It continues to exert a powerful fascination for him well beyond high school graduation, and ultimately becomes the source of his darkest fantasies.
School is omnipresent, and mostly threatening, in Quentin’s life. He is a careless, indifferent student at the technical college that his father, who holds a professorial position at a nearby university, regards patronizingly but nevertheless wants him to attend. Quentin serves as caretaker of an apartment that houses university students, and he easily poses as a graduate student himself when he wants formaldehyde. His sister is a junior high school principal whose interest in him surges after his molestation arrest; as Quentin sees it, ‘having a sex offender for a kid brother is a challenge to her, and she is not one to back off from challenges. Like I am one of her problem students.’ He gives letter grades to his experiments: ‘my first three ZOMBIES—all F’s.’ While stalking a young victim who attends his former high school, Quentin remembers how much he ‘hated’ the school and how he ‘wished’ it had ‘burnt to the ground. With everybody in it.’ His therapist is his father’s university colleague, and his questions remind Quentin of being ‘blank and silent blushing like in school when I could not answer a teacher’s question nor even (everyone staring at me) comprehend it.’ Most of his remarks about school are about being watched, bringing to mind Foucault’s description of schools as sites of modern disciplinary control enacted through surveillance strategies and enforced by the figure of the ‘teacher-judge.’ Quentin’s father is his model for all teachers, but he is an ‘impatient’ man, ‘always finding fault,’ as though ‘his only son was a student failing a course of his.’ As an adult, Quentin’s compulsive avoidance of his father’s judgmental gaze becomes an axiom for life: he continually reminds himself to avoid ‘EYE CONTACT’ with anyone for fear that someone will ‘slide down into [his] soul.’ To be looked at is, for Quentin, to be evaluated and found wanting: it is a profound threat to his personhood.
Quentin fears the professorial gaze, but, sensing its power, goes to a large lecture hall at his father’s university and attends a class that marks the start of his quest to create a zombie that will be his slave and toy. Quentin does not seem sure of his motives for attending the lecture, but he takes steps to ensure that his lecturer-father does not see (i.e., judge) him. He listens to his father speak about cosmic rays, black holes, ‘quantifiable and unquantifiable material,’ and mysterious, undetectable parts of the universe disobedient to known physical laws. The lesson that he takes from the lecture is the insignificance of human life: ‘seeing the Universe like that … you see how fucking futile it is to believe that any galaxy matters let alone … any individual.’ In the moment, however, Quentin watches students furiously taking notes and decides that ‘almost any one of them would be a suitable specimen for a zombie.’ Unlike Quentin, who is thinking about the implications of an unknowable galaxy in which even the laws of physics cannot be taken for granted and finding in his father’s words justification for embracing the monster within, the students are mindlessly consuming instruction and information, apparently with no motive beyond pleasing their professor when exam time comes and earning a letter grade that may or may not reflect understanding or engagement. In this, the most important episode in young Quentin’s life, teaching is dehumanizing in both form and content. The student is represented as a zombie bowing before its master and devouring facts like meals, and the lesson is that moral laws are meaningless and that humanity is inconsequential. The predatory nature of the academic is further underscored when it comes to light that Quentin’s father’s mentor, a famous physicist, had experimented on mentally handicapped children by feeding them radioactive milk. The lecture delivered by the father parallels the experiment performed by his own academic father figure: the latter feeds toxic milk to children, while the former feeds psychologically toxic lessons to students. Both children and students are consumed in their acts of consumption.
Beasts portrays education in much the same way as Zombie but switches the point of view from victimizer to victim, saying more about the process of academic zombification by which a student is rendered incapable of reason, judgment, or discrimination. It also dramatizes the return of the repressed as the slave rebels and the consumed becomes the avenging consumer. The novella opens and closes in 2001, but the bulk recounts four tumultuous months in the mid-1970s, when Gillian, the protagonist, was a student at a women’s college in New England. Early on, Gillian learns that her parents are divorcing and reveals her infatuation with a Creative Writing professor named Andre Harrow, a ‘verbose, bullying’ countercultural figure whose name suggests plunder and pillage. Harrow rhapsodizes about the writings of D.H. Lawrence and the Beats, is rumoured to have been arrested in a Vietnam War protest, and behaves in class like ‘the father who withholds his love, with devastating results.’ Gillian is also fascinated by Harrow’s exotic artist-wife Dorcas, who has recently displayed on campus disturbing, controversial sculptures inspired by ‘primitive’ fertility carvings. As the months proceed, Harrow makes a sexual advance towards Gillian, who pushes him away in confusion. He then claims to have been ‘joking,’ thus supplying ‘the narration, the interpretation, for what had happened, as, in his lectures and workshops, he controlled such information.’ In retaliation, however, Harrow begins to bully and belittle her in class while encouraging her classmates to do the same. Ultimately, Harrow seduces Gillian and draws her into a sexual relationship with himself and his wife. During this time an arsonist begins to victimize the campus, and the suspects include Gillian’s poetry workshop classmates and dorm mates, who are also, it is suggested, fellow victims of the professor and his wife.
Oates presents Harrow’s teaching as demeaning, exploitative, and manipulative, calculated to make students desperate for his approval and keep them emotionally, intellectually, and ethically off-balance. After Gillian fails to respond to his ‘biting kiss,’ Harrow stops complimenting her poetry in class and starts patronizing it, prompting other students to join in on the attack. In addition to demeaning Gillian individually, he bullies and insults the class as a whole with voyeuristic assignments and misogynist remarks. He scorns and rejects what he calls ‘nice-girl bullshit,’ instructs the students to write journals in which they scrutinize their ‘emotional, physical, sexual lives’ as if they were ‘anatomical specimens,’ and teaches them not to violate the ‘one cardinal rule’ of his class, which is that he not be ‘bored shitless.’ He demands revealing, confessional journals with ‘a focus upon childhood, traumatic and demeaning memories’ and advises against ‘self-censorship,’ which he refers to as ‘self-castration.’ When Dominique jokingly asks if women can be castrated, he responds, ‘Dear girl, women are castrated. You must struggle to reverse your pitiable condition,’ and Gillian recalls that while the students laughed, Harrow ‘wasn’t smiling.’ Harrow teaches them to scorn conventional morality and speaks approvingly of the ancients, whose ‘gods were passions. Obsessions. Appetites’ that ‘terrified’ them. The theme that Gillian derives from her study of Ovid is that ‘human happiness [is] possible only through metamorphosing into the subhuman,’ and Harrow appears to concur with what he calls ‘Ovid’s judgment on the “human.”’ He also praises D.H. Lawrence, who, according to Harrow, prized ‘sensual, sexual, physical love’ but detested ‘“dutiful” love—for parents, family, country, God’ because in it he ‘saw the “rotted edifice” of bourgeois/capitalist morality.’ Such statements frighten and excite his students, and Gillian later reflects that ‘we, Mr. Harrow’s students, had no way of refuting such logic’ and reports that ‘we believed, or wished to believe, it was true’ because ‘it was believed that Andre Harrow knew “everything.”’ Andre Harrow plainly abuses his power in order to strip his students of their defences and render them vulnerable to his advances. At one point, a student says in class, ‘if I’m a puppet, I intend to choose who will be my master. From now on.’ As her classmate speaks, Gillian senses her yearning to look at Harrow. The dazzled, needy young women feed Harrow’s ego, cater to his sexual desires, and even clean his house.
Harrow’s abusive teaching is explicitly compared to ‘soul murder.’ Towards the end of the novel, Gillian and her dorm mate Penelope have a conversation about evil. Gillian takes a morally relativistic position because Harrow would have been ‘furious’ with her if she did not deride conventional, bourgeois values. Penelope suggests that Gillian’s relativism is overly facile, and Gillian assumes that her friend is being contrary out of jealousy. Penelope claims, ‘there’s such a thing as soul murder, … except you can’t see it, the way you see the other.’ She goes on: ‘there are evil people. Cruel people. People who should be punished. If there was anyone to punish them.’ Within the context of the tale, her remarks only make sense in reference to Harrow and his wife.
‘Soul murder’ is a psychiatric term defined by Leonard L. Shengold in 1979, and refers to a type of abuse whose effects closely resemble zombification. Shengold picked up the term from Daniel Paul Schreber’s nineteenth century Memoirs (1903), themselves the subject of one of Freud’s case histories (1911). Shengold uses the term to describe a specific set of ‘traumatic experiences’; namely, ‘instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation alternating with emotional deprivation … deliberately brought about by another individual,’ normally a parent or substitute parent. He argues that alternating periods of abuse and neglect distort ‘the primal fantasies that motivate human behavior’ and have a devastating impact on the emotional and intellectual development of the victim, ultimately robbing that victim of an authentic sense of identity. According to Shengold, this kind of abuse ravages the victim’s ‘individuality, his dignity, his capacity to feel deeply (to feel joy, love, or even hate)’ and smothers ‘his capacity to think rationally and to test reality.’ He describes a male patient whose parents, in an effort to toughen him up, had deprived him of warmth and ensured that others did the same. These same parents would ‘cultivate the rivalry’ between the patient and his siblings; they would fight viciously; their fights would often ‘end in turbulent and exhibitionist sex’ near their ‘terrified children’; and they would ‘sometimes disappear for weeks.’ Many such victims become, as Shengold puts it, ‘destructive and self-destructive’ robots. Their humanity is, in short, consumed.
Andre Harrow and his wife can be aptly described as soul murderers, and the negative effects of soul murder are apparent in Gillian and her classmates. The Harrows may not be performing makeshift lobotomies like Quentin P., but they are making zombies out of students nonetheless. The professor and his wife represent substitute parents for Gillian, replacements for biological parents who are cold and negligent. When Gillian visits the Harrows’ home, she is plied with drugs and overly rich food, overwhelmed with noise (from the stereo and/or the pet parrot), and sexually exploited. During the visit that leads to the Harrows’ deaths, Gillian is sickened by the food Dorcas cooks, and she vomits. Disgusted, Dorcas slaps Gillian’s face and pushes her out of the room. The couple proceeds to have sex upstairs, and while she listens to their noises, she thinks, ‘they want me to hear, I’m their witness’ (129). Sometimes the Harrows withhold their attention or their presence altogether, leaving Gillian to feel neglected and abandoned, as is the case with a ‘misunderstanding’ about whether or not Gillian would accompany them on a holiday trip to Paris. Such neglect seems intentionally calculated to increase the pliability and vulnerability of the Harrows’ victims. When Gillian is able to ‘bask’ in the glow of attention and approval, she feels ‘like a dog that has been kicked but is now being petted, and is grateful.’ At school, Harrow compounds the emotional torment of his victims by actively cultivating the rivalry for his attentions and approval among Gillian and her classmates, effectively isolating them from one another. This mistreatment takes its toll on Gillian by disrupting her emotional and intellectual development, leaving her ‘head filled with static,’ rendering all classes but Harrow’s an undifferentiated ‘blur,’ and causing her to look, act, and feel like a ‘sleepwalker,’ a ‘doll,’ a ‘puppet,’ and, of course, a ‘zombie.’
Abuse and zombification consume Gillian and her classmates, rendering them anonymous and indistinguishable, even to themselves, as is evidenced by Gillian’s slippage between first-person singular and first-person plural in her narrative: ‘I had no choice,’ ‘we were dazed,’ ‘we felt the sting of his lash.’ Her facelessness is not, however, simply a matter of her own distorted perception. When Gillian follows Dorcas to the post office at the beginning of the story, Dorcas notices her and demands, ‘which of them are you?’, and her words echo in Gillian’s head thereafter, as if to haunt her with fears of her own insignificance. After Gillian and Penelope’s conversation about soul murder, Penelope’s parents arrive to pick her up for the holiday, and they mistake Gillian for another student and call her ‘Sybil.’ When Gillian investigates a file cabinet of pornographic pictures at the home of her professor, she cannot confidently identify a single classmate, but many of the photos remind her of her peers and of herself. She thinks to herself, ‘They’d been drugged, like me. They’d been in love, like me. They would keep these secrets forever. Like me. We are beasts and this is our consolation.’ Clearly, she has learned the lesson that Andre and Dorcas worked so diligently to teach her. When she was first invited to the Harrows’ home, she felt that she was ‘blessed’ and unique because the couple loved her. After she comes upon the pictures, she knows better. She, like the totem to which Dorcas eventually affixes Gillian’s severed braid, is only ‘minimally human,’ stripped of anything that distinguishes her as an individual.
Teaching in Beasts is enslavement and it is also, of course, consumption. Harrow calls D.H. Lawrence ‘the great prophet of the twentieth century,’ whose ‘god was the god of immediate physical sensation, a god to devastate all other gods,’ and so it is no surprise that Harrow, who relishes the teaching of ancient mythology in which appetites are gods, does not hesitate to satisfy his own cravings. Right before Harrow kisses Gillian the first time, he smiles at her, ‘baring his teeth’ and leaving her ‘shivering as if he’d drawn those teeth over” her. There is more than a little of the cannibal in this professor, and he and his wife eventually consume his students by helping to create the conditions that result in their anorexia. Throughout the novel, Gillian and her classmates lose alarming amounts of weight and appear increasingly skeletal, as though the process of being emotionally and intellectually consumed is manifesting itself physically.
Much of the literature on anorexia, including the work of Calam and Slade, suggests that it represents an attempt by young women who feel powerless to exert some kind of control over their lives and their bodies. The need to feel powerful is particularly acute for those who have experienced sexual abuse, especially at the hands of an authority figure or at times ‘of other major problems and upheavals in their lives,’ such as Gillian’s parents’ divorce. At least one of Gillian’s many doubles also fits the profile of the anorexic; her classmate Marisa is ‘painfully thin,’ perhaps even ‘starving herself to death; and she confesses in workshop to having been sexually abused first by a cousin, then by a family friend, and finally by a ‘much-beloved grade school teacher.’ Eventually, Marisa attempts suicide, confesses to setting the fires on campus, recants her confession, and is hospitalized. When Gillian confesses that she cannot ‘live without’ Harrow, he responds, ‘we don’t want you to live without us either.’ Harrow does more than simply use and abuse his students: he devours them – mind, soul, and body.
Anorexia has been further linked to ‘soul murder,’ or the reduction of the human to a zombie-like state. Louise Kaplan’s Female Perversions describes anorexia as ‘the outcome of one of those little soul murders of childhood in which, to survive, a child gives up aspects of the self she might have become and instead becomes a mirroring extension of the “all-powerful” parent.’ Female Perversions challenges the psychoanalytic tradition represented by Freud, Karl Abraham, and others that regards perversions as ‘pathologies of sexuality’ that primarily afflict men; in contrast, Kaplan defines perversions as ‘pathologies of gender role identity’ that can be found in both men and women. She argues that identity formation in both men and women is hindered by ‘infantile ideals of sexual prowess demanded of men and sexual innocence demanded of women,’ and that perversions develop when such ‘infantile ideals’ are reinforced rather than challenged by ‘soul-crippling social gender stereotypes’ that ‘assign certain narrowly defined characteristics to one sex, and equally narrow but opposite characteristics to the other sex.’ According to Kaplan, male perversions such as fetishism and masochism both reveal and disguise a man’s hatred for his own shameful feminine traits or longings. A similar strategy is at work in female perversions, which, according to Kaplan, have been neglected by psychoanalysts both because of the male-normative history of the field but also because the perverse strategies of women are not always explicitly sexual. For Kaplan, various forms of self-mutilation, including anorexia, represent not only a young woman’s bid for control but also her attempt at ‘forestalling final gender identity and denying that the illusions and hopes and dreams that made life endurable are lost forever.’ As such, they lend ‘expression to forbidden or shameful’ masculine desires. Anorexia allows the young woman to present ‘herself to the world as a sexless child in a caricature of saint-like femininity’ that hides ‘a most defiant, ambitious, driven, dominating, controlling, virile caricature of masculinity.’ Anorexia is, in short, an unconscious, compulsive refusal of female identity and sexuality as culturally prescribed.
Kaplan’s view of anorexia, the consumption of the physical and sexual self, is clearly evident in Beasts. Harrow observes that Gillian ‘must weigh eighty-nine pounds,’ and he refers to her as a ‘little girl’ immediately before making his first sexual advance. In other words, she is far from womanly, and his desire for her has a paedophilic component. Gillian remembers her mother’s disappointment at her refusal in high school to try ‘to be pretty like the other girls,’ and she wonders if she ‘might have smiled more’ and used more lipstick; clearly, she has neither embraced feminine stereotypes nor pursued adult sexuality. Nevertheless, remembering Dorcas’ adolescent totem with her braid on it causes her to muse on the ‘delusion of young-female power,’ the belief that ‘in your beautiful new body, you will be treated with love.’ Power is linked in her mind not to self-efficacy but rather to attractiveness to and love from others. In some ways, however, despite her frailty and passivity, she imagines herself throughout the novel as quite powerful and aggressive, like a ‘hunting dog picking up a scent’ while following Dorcas, for example. Given her experiences, it is not surprising that Gillian’s ambivalence towards her gender, her sexuality, and her sense of self is profound. Her anorexia is a sign of that ambivalence.
Gillian’s sexual ambivalence is part of her distorted and monstrous self-image, but her monstrosity is an important part of the narrative in its own right. Thus far, the horror of the zombie-makers Quentin and Harrow has been considered, but not the horror of the zombie itself. In Zombie, the would-be zombies are pure victims, in part because Quentin is unsuccessful at lobotomizing the young men and ends up murdering them instead. Quentin is the only monster. In Beasts, however, the zombies, while victims, are also sources of terror. Harrow robs Gillian and her classmates of the ability to think rationally, which makes them behave throughout the novel either mechanically, ‘by instinct’ or ‘as a child might.’ Though her mental faculties have been destroyed, she has not, however, lost the ‘indomitable will of all life to survive’ that she attributes to (or projects onto) the snow-covered evergreens that surround the Harrows’ isolated house. Those survival instincts find expression in her murderous act of setting fire to the Harrows’ home while the owners enjoy their drunken, post-coital slumber, and it would appear that by the end of the novel, Gillian, like Ovid’s Philomela, to whom Harrow has cruelly compared her, refuses to be a ‘passive victim’ and instead ‘takes bloody revenge on her rapist.’ Of course, Gillian’s motives for setting the fire do not seem particularly clear, even to Gillian: if she is out for revenge, then it might be revenge for the abuse and exploitation she suffered at the hands of the Harrows, but then again, it might be revenge for their exclusion of her from the primal scene or for Andre’s refusal to leave his wife for her. From the beginning of Beasts, there are many suggestions that Gillian is not simply a victim of monstrous abusers but may be something of a monster herself. Throughout the novel she regards herself, perhaps defensively, as having a degree of control that seems ludicrous, considering the power dynamics involved. In any case, she appears to have internalized the amorality that her professor tried to inculcate in her and her classmates, and she feels no remorse about their deaths. Harrow appears to have consumed Gillian’s ethical sensibilities along with her intellectual capacities, her sexual identity, and her physical body. She says that her story is ‘not a confession’ because she has ‘nothing to confess.’ She may believe that she had no choice, no other avenue of escape, but then again, she may have come to regard guilt the way that Quentin and Harrow do: as ‘superstitious and retro,’ in Quentin’s words. Either way, it is safe to say that if zombies represent enslavement, then the possibility of a slave uprising is always around the corner. The consumers are always in danger of being violently consumed.
Zombie and Beasts clearly portray formal education as the consumption or zombification of the student. Less fully developed but worth briefly noting are their further suggestions that students are consumed in another sense, which is to say, commodified. Quentin consoles himself for his failure to create a proper student-zombie by taking ‘mementos’ or ‘good-luck charms’ from his victims, often items of clothing and sometimes body parts that can be transformed into accessories. He describes these items in detail (including, in some cases, their brand names) and wears them to blend in with other students at his college. In addition, he compulsively fondles them to trigger the sexual excitement he felt in subjugating their former owners. Quentin’s dehumanization of his victims, in short, literalizes Karl Marx’s concept of ‘commodity fetishism.’ In Beasts, the students have been reduced to pornographic images for sale and resale. When Gillian rifles through the Harrows’ mysterious file cabinets and locates a cache of pornographic pictures, she inspects the files in a horrified daze, wondering ‘would [her] photo turn up in a porn magazine; had that been their intention all along…?’ She examines the magazines and guesses that the Harrows have been exploiting young women for at least a decade, and when she looks at the pictures, she feels ‘as if someone had struck [her] a numbing blow between the shoulder blades.’ She recognizes that a part of her has been sold, and she is overcome with a desire to destroy the proof of her ‘degradation.’ Like the young women around and before her, Gillian may also have been reduced to a pornographic image endlessly produced, reproduced, and circulated. Harrow has exploited both the use and the exchange value of his students. He has consumed them on every level, and he has profited from ensuring that they will continue to be consumed. For her part, Gillian has been schooled in a great many ways, and while the economic dynamics of the education she has received at Harrow’s hands have not been the focus of her story, neither have they been completely erased from it.
Critics of the Gothic tend to speak of it in therapeutic terms: both David Punter and Maggie Kilgour, for instance, call the Gothic a form of ‘cultural self-analysis,’ and Punter sees the curative powers of the Gothic in its provision of an ‘image-language in which to examine … social fears.’ Some of the most familiar components of this ‘image language’ are tropes under consideration here: curses, traps, and monsters. A curse is a reminder that we are never as free from history as we might think or wish. A trap suggests limitations on our movement, physical and psychic. Monsters manifest evils of all kinds, internal and external. These and other Gothic tropes literalize our fears, forcing us to regard them in their most extreme, grotesque forms. They are psychological caricatures, which is to say, exaggerated portraits from whose broad lines something of the ‘real’ might nevertheless be inferred. The zombie embodies our fear of enslavement to others, to our own animalistic instincts, or to our daily routines. It represents our fear of being consumed or of consuming others. When the zombie appears in the Schoolhouse Gothic, it manifests a range of cultural anxieties about such things as the role of public education in a modern, pluralistic, secular America and the degree to which the academy both preserves culture and serves a progressive agenda. It raises questions about the nature and meaning of learning and the role of power in the classroom. Most educators will say that far from consuming students, university appears not to interest them in the least, that students should be more consumed, more absorbed, more engaged in study. One explanation for the zombie-like appearance and behaviour of so many students is overstimulation from technology, but there are many others, including the impact of the consumer model of higher education, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have recently argued in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011). The zombie subset of the Schoolhouse Gothic challenges us to think about education as consumption, an examination that can happen on a local and personal as well as a global level. Many educators want to see their students consumed by study, absorbed by the subject at hand, able to internalize and recreate a body of knowledge. Joyce Carol Oates challenges us to see the fear that lurks behind that ideal and serves as its dark Other: the fear that what educators really want is to feed their egos with their students. Teachers confronting zombified students should consider how they have contributed to their state, or worse, whether they secretly want to keep them that way.
Sherry R. Truffin was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and holds English degrees from Baldwin-Wallace University (BA, 1993), Cleveland State University (MA, 1995), and Loyola University Chicago (Ph.D., 2002). She has held teaching posts at colleges and universities in Georgia, Illinois, and Ohio, and she is currently an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University in North Carolina, where she teaches courses in American Literature and English Composition. Her research interests include Gothic fiction, popular culture, and literary stylistics. In addition to her first monograph, Schoolhouse Gothic, she has published essays on works by Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Chuck Palahniuk, Donna Tartt, Stephen King, Bret Easton Ellis, and Joyce Carol Oates. She has also written about postmodern storytelling in The X-Files and the Gothic literature of New Orleans, Louisiana.
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