Professor edits book on heaven, hell, and horror

by Ally Rzesa / Beacon Correspondent • October 5, 2017

Cynthia Miller began as an editor of western essays and films, but when she stumbled upon the zombie-western It Came From The West, her focus shifted from cowboys to the undead. This summer, Miller released her most recently edited essay collection, which discusses horror films through a mystic lens.

Miller co-edited Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical alongside A. Bowdoin Van Riper. The essay compilation, published by McFarland & Company, examines the role religious and supernatural elements have played in horror movies from classics such as The Exorcist to modern films like The Witch. Miller, a senior affiliated faculty member for the institute of liberal arts and interdisciplinary studies, contributed an essay to the book, which analyzed the 1999 horror film Stigmata. Divine Horror was released on July 18.

“I love to do these editing collections rather than just sitting down and writing a horror book,” Miller said. “I love getting other people’s perspectives on things, and whenever I do an edited collection, someone has a viewpoint on something that I would never have thought of.”

Miller, a cultural anthropologist, said sometimes publishing companies approach her with ideas for essay compilations.

“Editing is partly about understanding how to write, and it’s in at least an equal part understanding how to work with people,” Miller said. “Communicating to them that their writing needs to be reorganized or that it’s not going to be clear to the average reader is a real skill to develop.”

Miller said because many people associate heaven and hell as separate from earth, fear is created when these worlds overlap. Miller said Divine Horror features the movies The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, which both include a devil being born on Earth.

“All our religious books that talk about saints and angels also talk about angels falling,” Miller said. “People worry about going to hell, and in a lot of these movies we try that on.”

Miller teaches the classes “Making Monsters” and “Staging American Women: The Culture of Burlesque.” Miller said the classes have become staples in her schedule due to their popularity, and “Making Monsters” is her favorite class to teach.

“I’m very spoiled teaching at Emerson because students don’t just settle for jump scares,” Miller said. “They recognize that horror is so much more.”

Miller said movie monsters act as symbols for what a person or culture is afraid of in real life, and that horror films are a way for people to cope with their fears in a safe and controlled environment. She said this is why topics like alien invasions, biological plagues, and demonic possessions occur so often in horror.

“I think we are our monsters,” Miller said. “Monster theorists always say every era gets the monster it needs, but I think it’s always us. All of these stories are about our better or worst selves, our fears about each other, and our fears about what we’re capable of.”

Miller said she encourages her students to delve deeper into the psychology and emotion of the genre, rather than focusing on blood and gore.  

Ryan Micolucci, a freshman visual and media arts major, is enrolled in “Making Monsters” this semester. He said he enjoyed how class discussions focus on the abnormal, like how zombies transitioned from being horrific to comedic within pop culture.

“She’s a great teacher,” Micolucci said. “She understands the creative side of things.”

He said that even though scary movies give him nightmares, Miller’s class has made him want to view and study more horror films.

Becca Silberfein, a sophomore performing arts major, took “Staging American Women” with Miller last year.

“[Miller] really knows what she’s talking about, and she goes towards any lengths to research further,” Silberfein said. “She’s met a lot of the people she talks about, so you feel like she has firsthand knowledge and that she has been studying for years.”