When I was a sophomore in college, my professor handed me a novel, written by a woman who had taught briefly at the college I was attending. She had moved on to teach elsewhere, common in the academic life, but the novel, according to my professor, fictionalized the campus and particularly the English department. It was a horror novel, with a murder, and I would recognize some of the suspects.
The academic novel has been a mainstay in bookstores for generations, from Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” to “Blue Angel” by Francine Prose. Many campus novels, like Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” are comedic. Some detective novels substitute the college campus for the quaint English country home as a setting for suspicious death — and some books, like “Academy Gothic” by James Tate Hill, do both: murder and comedy on campus.
Educational settings have always provided a good home for horror in film too, particularly slashers. Though many of these films are set in high schools or boarding schools, sororities seem to get terrorized often, from “Black Christmas” to “Sorority House Massacre.” 2014’s “Kristy” used a mostly deserted university campus over Thanksgiving break as the site of its scares.
It’s not simply a college campus, but a small liberal arts campus in New England that provides the setting for Mariama Diallo’s directional debut feature film, “Master,” which Diallo also wrote. Isolated, insular and rooted in oppressive structures, this is a very specific academic setting perfect for fear.
Set at the fictional campus of Ancaster, which sounds like every small liberal arts college you’ve ever heard of, “Master” centers on two women: Gail Bishop (Regina Hall) a tenured professor who has just become the first-ever Black woman Master, a position of authority at the college which comes with its own, musty living quarters; and Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), a first-year Black student assigned to a dorm room that is allegedly haunted.
Jasmine’s room, which she shares with a wealthy, disaffected white girl, was once the room of Ancaster’s first Black undergraduate, who died by suicide in the room in the 1960s.
Add into this mixture the story of a New England witch — or, a woman accused of and hanged for witchcraft — who allegedly haunts the campus, and a sect of strict, Amish-like folk who dress in colonial garb and live on its outskirts. There’s also a third woman at the film’s center, professor Liv Beckman (Amber Gray) who clashes with Jasmine to the point of a grade dispute, is going up for tenure and may be hiding a secret of her own.
It’s a lot, and some reviewers have criticized the film for “too many plot beats,” as The Washington Post wrote, or that it is “so full of ideas,” according to Vox. But I keep coming back to that setting, a college a lot like my own undergraduate institution. What is it about a small, liberal arts campus that makes it so ripe for horror?
As a kid from a farming family on scholarship, liberal arts college was a new, isolating world for me. I had never seen so many tennis courts, never heard of rugby or polo. And I had never met anyone who went to a private high school, let alone boarding school, as some of my new classmates had. Many were also legacies. I was a second-generation student, and certainly the first at a private college.
A Black student in an overwhelmingly white and wealthy private school, Jasmine tries to fit in with her roommate and the rich girl’s friends, who all knew each other before from boarding schools. It’s an uncomfortable, tense friendship tinged with microaggressions (and just plain aggression: Jasmine roommate eventually tells her straight out that she hates her). There are only a few other Black students on campus, and they don’t really each out to her until late in the film, something that has been criticized as unrealistic.
Jasmine’s friendship with her roommate and her friends is also tinged with classism. In a painful moment, Jasmine brings pizza to the group and tries to ask them to pay their share. They don’t, of course.
It’s painful because it’s real. The scariest parts of this film are not the witch Jasmine may or may not be seeing, and the infestation of pests Gail may be finding in her living quarters — but moments like when Gail discovers a racist figurine under the sink in her assigned faculty house. This is masterfully shot, focusing on Gail’s face.
Both Gail’s and Jasmine’s living quarters are haunted. Who knows if it’s ghosts, but something terrible is lingering: the specter of the past that never really went away. The campus of Ancaster is old, and so is the world of academia the women try to walk in. Scenes of tenure review meetings are as difficult to sit through as the pizza scene, because again, they’re real beyond real. It’s a world that doesn’t really want to make room for Jasmine. Or for Gail.
Near the end of the film, Gail endures a faculty party where, having learned potentially terrible news, she seems to be seeing the ghosts of white men who taught at the college generations ago. Then again, the ghosts look exactly like the white men currently teaching at the college. Ancient portraits blur with present faces, laughing at her.
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Some of the appeal of the small liberal arts college for a student was always its intimacy, small class sizes and the close relationship between professors and students. But what if your professors don’t really help or believe you, as Gail and Liv do not with Jasmine? What if there’s nowhere you can turn?
We weren’t allowed to have cars on campus until we were upperclassmen and in a pastoral, small town, there wasn’t any public transport. We were, in a real sense, trapped on campus. In the film, the Amish community represents isolation, but the students and faculty of the college are just as sequestered, most of their so-called liberal ideas just as “backward” in practice. Or, not practiced at all, simply academic.
Jasmine’s roommate ends up leaving the school, possibly because of sexual violence. We don’t really know. But that’s real too. How a college closes ranks. How the ranks don’t include you. It protects its own, and Gail gets the message, no matter how hard she works, she will never be one of them.
Maybe “Master” is not straight horror, or maybe it’s the most horrific of all. The witch isn’t scary. But academia is.
“Master” is now streaming on Prime Video. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.
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