Kennedy: UTC students make horror movies to ponder philosophy and religion

Ethan Mills, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, has his students make horror videos as part of a class in philosophy and pop culture. Contributed photo by Angela Foster, UTC.

There's a trend in higher education called experiential learning.

It's based on the theory that a hands-on experience is often a good way to stamp an idea on your brain.

If you live it, you learn it, the thinking goes.

One course offered by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga uses fly fishing to teach religious concepts.

Another example is Dr. Ethan Mills' Pop Culture and Religion and Philosophy course at UTC.

The course has a surprising twist: Students work in five-member teams to make short horror films on subjects such as death, existentialism and absurdity. Imagine M. Night Shyamalan meets Albert Camus.

"At first I was really nervous about the [video] project," said Jalela Bahar, who took the course this fall. "[But] I actually enjoyed it."

This year, fall semester students produced eight videos while working around COVID-19 restrictions at UTC. They used social distancing and Zoom teleconferences to get it done.

"The idea of the class stems from the thought that philosophy can be found in anything," says Mills, an associate professor of philosophy who has made this video assignment part of his course syllabus for Pop Culture and Religion and Philosophy since 2018.

Last semester, a team of students made a short movie called "Wake Up," a Zoom-based video that featured a cast of four women and their fictional ruminations on death and dying.

The video, shot partly in black and white to show characters in transition from "life" to "death," won the award for the top film in the class. It can be found at

"As an all-girls group, we were able to create a film that was recognized by other horror film lovers, and show that women can be just as scary and horrifying as men," Bahar said. "We don't always have to play the damsel in distress role."

Cyara Artaud, another member of the "Wake Up" team, said the students had fun creating costumes.

"There were silly challenges like making sure we looked 'dead,"' Artaud said. "So, we would use branches (in our hair), ketchup and makeup to achieve that look."

As always, Mills arranged a film festival/awards ceremony to showcase students' work. He said group projects like this are important parts of the college experience.

"Group work is a challenge," he said. "Every career is going to have group projects."

Wes Smith, a studio librarian at UTC, assists the students with their video-making skills. He says college students are beginning to pick up videography organically.

"If you think about it, current students have probably recorded a Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook video before, and so that concept is very familiar to them," Smith said.

Students typically need the most help with post-production issues like editing and audio, he said, noting that video-making is a good way "to break away from the traditional (research) paper in a low-stakes format."

Emily Cooper, another member of the first-place video team, said the project worked for her.

"Before we could write a script we had to discuss the themes of existentialism and denial of death and how those would be expressed through acting," Cooper said.

Sometimes, college students today don't say "boo" to their classmates.

Who knew "boo" might be the perfect thing to say?

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photo Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo