Cinematic College: National Lampoon's Animal House Teaches Theories of Student Development

Article excerpt

The purpose of this qualitative study is to analyze how potential college-bound and current college students make meaning about the higher education experience from the legendary film that is pivotal in the American college culture, sets the trend for future college-themed films, and is a national phenomenon--National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) (Cross, Errigo, Kamey, Finler, Oppedissano, Bergan, & Hirchhorn, 2002). Since the film's release in 1978 higher education films have distorted college images, which may influence societal perceptions of higher education. More specifically, higher education films highlight the social aspects of college, which overshadow the academic benefits. Luke and Roe (1993) say, " ... schooling can no longer afford to ignore the profound influences mass media have on the young" (p. 117) because " ... schools can no longer claim the monopoly over information which it once held" (p. 116). The research question is offered: What does National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) communicate about administrators, students, professors, and in general, the college experience? In addition, screenwriters craft a film's message by interweaving complex meanings. For this reason, another research question addresses meaning: Is the screenwriter's message the message received by audiences?

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To date, little empirical research has analyzed films' depiction of the college experience. To understand how college students make meaning from the depictions in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), a qualitative approach is used for analyzing and interpreting the film. The data is analyzed using the respected research methodology of content analysis and the theories of symbolic interactionism, semiotics, fantasy-theme analysis, cultivation effects theory, symbolic convergence theory, and psychoanalysis. The methodology and theories provide a lens of analysis to understand the deep structural messages in the film. In addition, Harold Ramis, the film's screenwriter, responds to the essence of the film's message.

The results of the research indicate that there is a blurring of boundaries between "real" college and "reel" college. Desiring to combine the "developmental" aspects of college, which include intellectual development and social development (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991), screenwriter Harold Ramis writes the screenplay by interweaving both developmental aspects. Even though these two developmental aspects are interlaced in the film's message about higher education, the message of social development overpowers the intellectual message. Thus, the participants in this study conclude that college focuses on elements of socialization. Such elements include destroying campus property, engaging in relationships (male/female students and student/faculty), and initiating pranks.

BACKGROUND

Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2003, National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) continues to educate viewing audiences about the higher education experience. Still considered as one of the top five college-themed films (The Wall Street Journal, 2002), the movie has durable staying power and has the ability to communicate the workings of higher education institutions via portrayals of students, professors, administrators, and in general, the college experience. The film highlights college life by following the adventures of the Delta fraternity and their conflict with the college's Dean. National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) is the premiere quintessential "coming of age" film (Cross, Errigo, Karney, Finler, Oppedisano, Bergan, & Hirschhorn, 2002, p. 12) and has laid the groundwork for future college-themed films. The film offers potential college-bound students, current college students, parents, and other interested parties an insider's look at college life.

Films, in general, are a pivotal information source for many viewing audiences. They offer a front row visual description of topics that may have otherwise been obscure due to lack of knowledge. …