A copy of Max Brook's Guide to Killing Zombies lays adjacent to Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, both resting on a bookshelf adorned with snow globes. Aviva Briefel's eclectic office reflects the diversity of her interests?from Victorian literature to horror movies. Professor Briefel, who earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 2000, contributes a colorful ambiance to the two-hundred-year-old Massachusetts Hall. The Orient sat down with Briefel to discuss what's on all our minds?fear, films, and France.
Orient: Wilde or Romero?whom can't you live without?
Briefel: I'd have to say I wouldn't be able to live without Wilde. Wilde has been my favorite author since I was about 14 or 15 years old. He's actually the author who got in me into Victorian literature, and Romero is not the director who got me into horror films.
O: Then would you agree with Wilde that it is an "honor to ruin one's self over poetry?"
B: Absolutely, and I think Wilde is also referring to other forms of literature. I tend to read more fiction than poetry, in general, even though I like poetry. I think a lot of academics can relate to the idea of ruining one's life over any form of literature.
O: Oscar Wilde was Victorian, as we all know, and many believe the Victorians were kleptomaniacs. Is there any one object you covet?
B: Absolutely. Snow globes, apart from books. I have about 110 of them, which sounds freaky, but I have a 105 of them at home and five now in my office. When people travel around they bring me back snow globes. So that is an object I covet, though I don't steal them.
O: Is there any theme that is pervasive throughout your collection of snow globes?
B: They're usually from places people have visited or that I've visited. But the interesting thing about snow globes is that they're not all filled with snow. They can be filled with glitter, or this Las Vegas one is filled with dice, and I actually have one from Pompeii that's filled with ashes. And I also have a Freddy Kruger one.
O: Speaking of horror films, I know you were an expert for Bravo's "One Hundred Scariest Movie Moments." What draws you to these films?
B: Well it's funny, because when I was younger I couldn't see any kind of violence on film, even a drop of blood. Somebody cutting their finger would freak me out when I was growing up. Then I had watched a horror film?I think it was one of the Friday the 13th movies?and I survived it and thought, wow, maybe I can keep watching horror movies, so it was a sort of test to myself.
Now I'm a little bit desensitized, which is scary, but what draws me to these films is their representation of fear and their representation of what kinds of things people are afraid of in different cultures or different periods.
O: Have you ever had the desire to direct or act in a film?
B: I took a few film classes, but I also made a science-fiction film called Zero One, and the props involved a lot of tinfoil and Christmas lights, so that was my moment of stardom.
O: The first question you ask students is what unusual activity they have participated in. What about you?
B: I was once in a Japanese television program. I don't speak Japanese, but I was in Paris?this was awhile back after I graduated from college?and this Japanese film crew was filming a series about a Japanese guy who was traveling all around Europe. I was supposed to speak French with him and pretend I was showing him around the Champs Elysees. So I have been on television in Japan, but I've never seen it.
O: I noticed your French accent. Have you ever lived in Paris?
B: (mimicking heavy French accent) Actually...I was born in France, and both my parents are French. Even though I moved to New York when I was very young, I only spoke French at home. I'm still bilingual, so I often dream in both languages. But that's the reason why I can pronounce French words pretty well.
O: What does Brunswick have over Brooklyn?
B: Well, my heart is still in Brooklyn. Brunswick has nature, but I don't really do anything that would involve nature. My funny anecdote about transitioning from New York and Boston to Maine is that I didn't know how to drive when I first got here. I actually had to take driving lessons so I could commute from Portland.
O: What lesson would you suggest students take with them after graduation?
B: After graduation, do something for awhile that you might not do for the rest of your life. Let's say, if you know you want to go to grad school, do something completely different for a year because you really are not going to have a lot of opportunities to do that later on.
O: Was there any missed opportunity for you?
B: Maybe continuing that Japanese television program (laughs). I took a year and I worked and lived in New York, and I was outside of school for some time. I really appreciate the fact that I got to reach outside of the academic sphere for awhile, since I am devoting the rest of my life to it.
O: What class do you enjoy teaching the most?
B: Well, I enjoy teaching most of my classes (laughs), but I would have to say the one I have the most fun teaching is The Horror Film in Context, because it's a seminar and because it's really interesting to see how people react to these films and also what people get from these films. I think I have learned a tremendous amount from my students.
O: Why should people take horror films seriously?
B: I think people should take horror films seriously because horror is such a popular genre. When a horror film comes out, it's usually at the top of the box office. There is something very significant about our fascination with horror.
Horror films often deal with the decimation of people who look very much like the audience members who are watching these films. And it's really interesting to think about why people are so fascinated with seeing images of violence, especially since we are living in a society that is very violent as well.
O: What do you believe is the greatest moment in horror film history?
B: My favorite moment is Carrie at the prom, when Carrie gets pig's blood dumped on her?not at that moment, but right afterwards, when she is staring and using her telekinetic powers to burn down her prom. It's a really interesting moment because first of all, it's a spectacular scene, but it also really puts into question the role of the monster in the horror film. You don't know to what extent she wants to be destroying her prom, or whether this is something that is actually beyond her.
O: Do you identify at all with Carrie?
B: Well, I never really wanted to burn down my prom, but I think that many teenage girls can understand Carrie's frustration, absolutely.
O: When there's no room in Hell, will the dead walk the earth?
B: If they don't already walk the earth, I think that's a pretty viable thing to think. If you've seen Shaun of the Dead, where the distinction between the dead and the living is not so clear?I think we're a little bit in that too.
Professor Briefel's article, "Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film," is featured in the current issue of Film Quarterly.