What are the elements of gothic fiction and how can the Netflix series Stranger Things help to teach gothic fiction and close reading? This is the inquiry project my students are currently working on in our film elective.
Gothic Films contain the following elements:
● Dark & gloomy
● Supernatural beings, monsters and the paranormal
● Heroes, villains, damsels in distress and sometimes, romance
● Feelings of suspense, mystery and fear
● Settings of unease such as dark forests, storms and unnerving
I first polled my students to see who had access to Netflix. As students are watching Season One of Stranger Things we have been focusing on why this film series is so popular and the elements of great storytelling and filming.
To help building background knowledge, students read an article about the Stranger Things creators, Matt and Ross Duffer in the New York Times. Students then completed a graphic organizer based on their reading and understanding.
As students watched Season One we focused on color, lighting, sound, and music to build suspense. Students learn film terminology to help better understand the ways filmmakers manipulate these elements for emotional responses from the audience. For example, Diegetic sound is a noise which has a source on-screen. They are noises which have not been edited in, like dialogue between characters or footsteps. Another term for diegetic sound is actual sound. Non-diegetic sound is a noise which does not have a source on-screen, they have been added in like the music interludes. I asked students what are some of the ways the film directors use non-diegetic sounds to build tension and suspense in the series.
Additionally, students have studied the character archetypes presented in the film series and mapped out the hero’s journey based on Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth.
I do not only want students to be consuming the show, but also use the show as a catalyst for their own creativity and movie-making. Students have had two film challenges, courtesy of The Jacob Burns Film Center.
Film Challenge No. 1 – Taking inspiration from Stranger Things and what you learned about match cuts. Create a short film about someone or something in your house that is not what they seem to be. Your film should use at least one graphic match, a way to connect two shots by having similar composition. Also consider sound, color, and lighting to help tell your story.
Check out this film posted on the JBFC website:
Film Challenge No. 2 – Think about Stranger Things and the moments when the characters were introduced to the Upside-Down (the Lab Scenes, When the wall in Joyce’s home reveals another world, when Nancy and Jonathan go into the Upside-Down.
Your second film challenge is to use some new camera moves and create a story about a mysterious room in your home.
IMAGE: Revealing a character’s reaction or a new piece of information at just the right moment can add the perfect amount of tension to your zombie love story or get a big laugh in your action-comedy.
A whip pan is a quick turn of the camera that can be a stylish way to make that big reveal. You must use a whip pan to reveal something to the audience. Check out the video about the Whip Pan Shot below for more information.
SOUND: What’s the sound of a sword made of light? What about a monster made of cosmic gas and time particles? Deep questions like these are the realm of the Sound Effect Designer and her team. They create all the sounds in a film from the common (footsteps), to the uncommon (Chewbacca). Create at least 3 sound effects for your film.
STORY: A new room has just appeared in your house! Nobody has ever seen it before. Was it there all along? How could you miss it?! Maybe it just appeared. However it happened, now it’s here and there’s a problem.
A few tips:
Every scene in your film should move the story forward in some way, big or small, and every scene should have conflict.
A character wants/needs something, and the story can’t move forward until they get it. Remember, the scene is only interesting if there is something in the way of your character and their goal.
Using frames from Stranger Things I created weekly check-ins with my students, like this “Meme” Check-ins in a Google Forms and ask how students are doing under the current pandemic.
Here were a few student responses:
I love creating films but I like watching and breaking down shows/movies better.
I enjoy when we watch little videos about something related to film making.
I like creating more than watching.
Class online school is has been good so far! The lessons and everything have been nice.
Class has been really good during this online school period. The amount of work is really good and the assignments can be fun.
Lastly, students are comparing what is real and what is fiction in the show. Students researched more about What Was Going on in the Hawkins Laboratory in Stranger Things? From the 1950s to 1970sProject MKUltra, also called the CIA mind control program, is the code name given to a program of experiments on human subjects that were designed and undertaken by the United States Central Intelligence Agency—and which were, at times, illegal. Experiments on humans were intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations in order to weaken the individual and force confessions through mind control. The project was organized through the Office of Scientific Intelligence of the CIA and coordinated with the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.
For a creative writing activity, student wrote out the dialogue for the scene between Dr. Brenner and Hopper in Episode 7 at the Lab. What did they say to each other that allowed Hopper to go into the Upside Down with Joyce. Having students write out edited scenes sheds light on inferential knowledge and understanding.
Television shows and movies are great visual texts to help students practice close reading skills and showcase their understanding in creative ways like movie making projects.