“The seminar asks students to develop their critical thinking skills by closely examining the world and the texts around them—yet it’s not strictly an ivory tower class.”
—Britt Abel, professor
Kathy Clarke ’17 (Asheville, N.C.) saw the unusual class listed on Macalester’s website a couple years ago and thought, “‘Wow! This college has a vampire course. This is perfect for me!”
Two years later she was enrolled in that very class along with 13 classmates, discussing everything from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the popular ’90s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Instructor Britt Abel, a German professor, was inspired to teach the course after reading the Twilight series while leading a study abroad group in Vienna several years ago.
“I couldn’t put the books down,” she remembers, “I thought it was interesting that a Mormon woman wrote a vampire book about female sexuality which then became an international bestseller—I saw the Twilight saga everywhere in Vienna.” Soon she was reading the critical work written about Twilight and delving into European and German material on vampires, too, such as Vampyr by John Polidori and the 1922 film Nosferatu.
“I always thought there was more to these stories than most people gave them credit for,” says Clarke. “And it has been so great to see that someone else, especially a professor, had the same feelings and can help us look at the deeper value of vampire texts instead of just the surface horror value.”
Because the course materials include many film and TV screenings as well as readings, Professor Abel hosted a weekly movie night for students—complete with popcorn, candy, and in some cases, pajamas and pillows.
Those informal gatherings, along with a shared residence hall, helped bring about a sense of community among the group of first-year students, says Jake Mayer ’17 (Seattle). His classmates, he adds, are “an interesting group—you have to have a sense of imagination to have signed up for a class on vampires.”
Another reason it works well as a first-year course, says Abel, is because “the subject matter is engaging and partly within the realm of pop culture. The seminar asks students to develop their critical thinking skills by closely examining the world and the texts around them—yet it’s not strictly an ivory tower class.”
It is, nevertheless, a rigorous one, Mayer and Clarke agree. The students tackled more than half a dozen writing assignments along with writing regular posts about their reactions to the material. Mayer found himself struggling with repeated rewrites of papers and Clarke says, “The level of depth has surprised me. Professor Abel has such a wealth of knowledge about so many subjects, such as feminism. And she’s discovering new things along with us.”
Luckily, there’s always a light side, too, when you’re studying fictional bloodsucking monsters. One day, while discussing an upcoming group dinner, Abel remarked, “It seems strange there are no vegetarians in this class.” Responded one of her students: “Well, it is a vampire class.”