You and an older fellow sit in small room with a big box with lots of switches on it. You both draw a slip of paper from a hat. You get to ask the questions. The older guy gets to answer them. The scientist walks you both into the adjacent room. The older guy is sat in a chair and strapped to a bunch of electrodes. The idea is that you are going to ask him paired words from the room with the big box. He answers them. When he answers correctly, nothing happens. When he answers wrong, you punch one of the switches and give him a shock. Those shocks increase in voltage until he yells out that he has a heart condition and wishes to stop the study. The scientist tells you it’s okay to keep going because the shocks hurt but don’t cause any damage. You keep doing the study until he reach the last switch which you believe delivered enough electricity to kill the man in the other room.
You sign up for a study at the prestigious Stanford University. You are assigned the role of prisoner in a makeshift jail beneath the psychology department. Other students are with you. Some are prisoners. Others are guards. Within a few hours, one of the guards assumes the role of warden and begins demanding order and compliance. When you and your fellow prisoners do not comply, he and his jailers create a series of humiliating psychological punishments to make you fall in line.
Neither of those scenarios are fictional. You may have actually heard of both of them. The first is the infamous Milgram Study, which looked at how far people would go if an authority figure gave them orders. The second is the Stanford Prison Study, which looked at something very similar. They are both considered to be two of the most unethical psychological studies ever conducted.
When I teach about these two studies, I always include a discussion about a particular horror novel: Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. The reason is that book shows the extremes that people will go to when they believe it has been made socially acceptable. The book is based off of a true story about a woman and group neighborhood children who torture a teenage girl to death. (Sorry about the spoiler.)
Several years before Ketchum passed away, I had the good fortune of meeting him. He was great, down-to-earth guy and easy to talk to. I told him that I discussed his book in my psychology classes when we talked about social compliance for evil deeds, which is when I talk about Milgram and the Stanford Prison Study along with the real life case of Kitty Genovese. Ketchum nodded his head as he listened. Then he told me that was one of the reasons he wrote the book. He wanted people to see the evil of following the crowd just because it was seen as socially acceptable. Then he told me he was amazed I still had a job since I made students aware of this book, which is not for the faint of heart.
I never require my students to read The Girl Next Door. I know how disturbing it is. Not everyone is up for the challenge. I do have them at least read a summary of it and the true story its base off of. Then if they think they can handle it, I recommend it to them.
All this is to say that horror fiction serves a purpose in education. It is frowned upon to use contemporary horror in the classroom, even in college. Modern horror fiction is considered lurid and little more than schlock. The thing is not all of it is. The Girl Next Door serves as an example of the evil social compliance can cause. It shows as Milgram’s study did that the authority figure telling people evil is okay to commit doesn’t have to be a powerful person. In Milgram’s study, the authority figure is a guy in a lab coat. In The Girl Next Door, it’s the neighbor kids’ mom.
Horror fiction serves an important role in society. It shows what everyday people can do extraordinarily horrible things. Does this mean that The Girl Next Door should be required reading in introductory psychology classes? No. You have to consider the audience. How about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”? Her short story expresses the exact same idea as The Girl Next Door. In the case of “The Lottery,” people have no idea why they still do the lottery. The reader doesn’t know the consequences. (I won’t spoil this one.)
Education needs horror in it. Kids and adults can learn valuable lessons from it. Oftentimes, horror fiction is written in a way that is easy to understand. Most horror is written for a popular market so it’s not flowery and draped in excessive metaphorical language, although many are allegories and do have metaphorical ideas throughout. It’s all about finding the right work and using it appropriately. I never force my students to read The Girl Next Door as part of a grade. The suggestion that they look at a synopsis, often gets the students interested in the story and they read it themselves with no grade involved. I have had more than one student come back and tell him how the book affect them and how they looked at life and following the crowd differently. Horror fiction can show us in a safe environment what happens when that cross over occurs.
So I’m going to close this post with a quote from Philip Zimbardo. He is the professor who created the Stanford Prison Study back in the 1970s, and one of the experts on why people do evil things.
We all like to think that the line between good and evil is impermeable–that people who do terrible things, such as commit murder, treason, or kidnapping, are on the evil side of this line, and the rest of us could never cross it. But the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies revealed the permeability of that line. Some people are on the good side only because situations have never coerced or seduced them to cross over.Phillip Zimbardo