In the 1987 comedy Summer School, hapless teacher Freddy Shoop allows an in-class screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. His matinee is interrupted by the principal who is visibly disgusted by the on-screen carnage. He leaves the classroom shaking his head. Kids these days...
A similar scenario played out in April 2013, when substitute teacher Sheila Kearns showed the 2012 horror film The ABCs of Death to a Spanish class at East High School in Columbus, Ohio. The viewing lead to a Kafka-esque scenario which culminated on Wednesday in a 90-day jail sentence for Kearns who was convicted of disseminating material harmful to juveniles, a felony.
The ABCs of Death is a compilation of 26 short films—each loosely inspired by a letter in the alphabet—the movie brings together some of the modern horror film’s most talented writers and directors. The quality of the segments vary wildly, but the net effect is raw and visceral. Topics include torture, sexual assault, castration, supersonic farts, and animated feces.
Kearns showed abysmal judgment—although she maintained throughout her trial she was unaware of the film’s content. She should never be allowed near a classroom again. But jail? These were high schoolers. Not kindergarteners.
I’ll no doubt be accused of being an apologist for offensive content. After all, I wrote the 2010 remake of the infamous exploitation film I Spit on Your Grave, and I am the author of a forthcoming book, The Horror of It All, which in part celebrates some of the most extreme movies ever made. But I’m also a fairly conservative parent of two school-age children. I vigorously support the harshest punishments possible for criminals. Real criminals. Terrorists. Pedophiles. Domestic abusers. Not clueless projectionists.
More disturbing than the draconian sentence is the law under which Kearns was prosecuted. Her crime falls under an umbrella of moral codes known colloquially as “obscenity laws.” And while they might seem like a relic from a time when rock and roll was the devil’s music, they’re still on the books in almost every state in the Union.
Ostensibly written to preserve public order, these laws are used all too often as a cudgel against the outré, the transgressive, and, in this case, the blatantly naive. Since the legal definition of obscenity is as nebulous as the laws which bear its name, obscenity laws have become less a societal safeguard than a rabbit hole of Orwellian proportions.
This is not uniquely an American issue, a vestige of our puritanical past. In 2012 Montreal makeup specialist Rémy Couture narrowly avoided jail time for “corrupting morals” with a video featuring ultra-realistic scenes of rape and torture. His case became something of a cause célèbre for the horror community which feared the chilling effect of art—no matter how disturbing—being deemed a crime.
To date, the mainstream media has treated this case with a mixture of humor and self-righteousness. But Sheila Kearns is going to spend a quarter of a year in a jail cell.
There are plenty of people in this sorry affair who should be ashamed of themselves, from the knucklehead jurors who decided to convict, to Judge Charles A. Schneider who handed down the sentence.
And as for Shelia Kearns, well, once she gets out of the pokey, she can program my film festival any day.