, Newburyport, MA

September 30, 2013

Horror at the Athenaeum: a high-brow Halloween series

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — SALEM — This Halloween season, the Salem Athenaeum wants to say that just because something is thoughtful, sophisticated, even literary, that doesn’t mean it can’t scare the bejesus out of you.

In years past, said the Athenaeum’s Jean Marie Procious, some might have seen the organization strictly as a library — conservative, quiet and above the milling ghouls, witches and mad slashers that populate this city every October. But the fact is, there’s plenty of horror within the covers of a book, she said, and sometimes those books are literary classics.

Sue Weaver Schopf, an associate dean at the Harvard Extension School, is determined to put Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde, Dr. Moreau and Dracula in your head this Halloween season. She’s going to do it in a series of lecture/discussions illustrated with film clips. The five-week series begins today, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., and will continue each Monday through Oct. 28.

It was Schopf who suggested this program to the Athenaeum as part of Haunted Happenings.

“It seemed to me there ought to be something literary,” she said.

It’s giving Halloween “an academic spin,” Procious said.

The film clips are from the hundreds of movies attempting to bring these scary characters to life, or unlife, as the case may be, Schopf said. But the films very often miss the essence of the author’s message, which has more to do with science as the source of horror. Whether it’s electricity, chemistry, surgery or the difficulty of relying on science to confront evil, the books take the measure of progress and its sometimes frightening ramifications.

“Most people have only seen the movies,” said Schopf, who finds them “pretty far removed” from the message in the books. “The books are so much more sophisticated. ... People are so surprised how much more science is in the books.”

Concerns about science were rife in the 19th century when Mary Shelley’s “Frankstein” (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886), H. G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” (1896) and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) were written. Suddenly, the patterns of centuries, including beliefs in God, were being upset by scientific progress, and Schopf pointed to the resulting anxiety.

“People were asking questions about the limits that science should be allowed to go to.”

And after more than a century of scientific progress, including, for example, a revolution in genetics, a scary future doesn’t seem any less likely.

“A lot of these issues have not gone away,” Schopf said.

Her program will end with two nights on what she calls the only “erotic” monster, Dracula. As a concept, the bloodthirsty Transylvanian can be traced back 3,000 years. But he’s a monster capable of drawing people in.

“He uses sucking and drinking and nuzzling the neck as a way of seducing women,” Schopf explained. “He gives the promise of eternal life.” And the hero “has to reason scientifically on how to defeat him.”

Free e-texts of each book are available online, and Schopf can’t resist suggesting that people to do a little home study — read them.

But don’t get the impression she sees all this as work. Rather, it’s pure horror.

“And I thought it would be fun,” she said.

Attendance is $20 per person per night, $5 for students. All five nights can be purchased for $85.