This is a season that celebrates the strange, the dark, the eerie, the creepy, and the weird. The disciplines of science, technology, and engineering may not seem to have much to offer to devotees of Halloween, but a closer look at the MIT curriculum suggests that the world is not as straightforward, rational, and prosaic a place after all. In courses offered at the School of Engineering, one can learn how quantum entanglement causes particles to behave in ways so inexplicable that Einstein himself dismissed the topic as spukhafte Fernwirking, or “spooky action at a distance.” Over at the School of Science, physics students learn about dark matter—mass that can’t be seen or directly detected but that has to exist for the universe to be the way it is—while mathematics students study strange attractors, multidimensional combinations of states toward which dynamic systems tend to evolve.
It’s at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, however, that Halloween really comes into its own. There’s a whole course on vampires:
- 21L.310 Bestsellers: Out for the Count This class uses a range of literary texts to trace the growth of the vampire trope from its first appearance in English-language fiction in the early years of the nineteenth century. Centering on classic works by Lord Byron, John Polidori, Sheridan le Fanu, Bram Stoker, and others, we learn about the formation of the modern literary canon, the folklore of the undead, and the creation of one of the most prolific popular culture genres—vampire fiction—which reached its first apotheosis in Stoker’s masterwork, Dracula.
There’s also a course on all things supernatural:
- 21M.013J The Supernatural in Music, Literature and Culture This course explores the relationship between music and the supernatural, focusing on the social history and context of supernatural beliefs as reflected in key literary and musical works from 1600 to the present. It provides an understanding of the place of ambiguity and the role of interpretation in culture, science and art. Great works of art by Shakespeare, Verdi, Goethe (in translation), Gounod, Henry James and Benjamin Britten are explored, as well as readings from the most recent scholarship on magic and the supernatural.
There’s even a course (partly) about Godzilla:
- STS.S28 Godzilla and the Bullet Train: Technology and Culture in Modern Japan This course explores how and why Japan, a late-comer to modernization, emerged as an industrial power and the world’s second-richest nation, notwithstanding its recent difficulties. We are particularly concerned with the historical development of technology in Japan especially after 1945, giving particular attention to the interplays between business, ideology, technology, and culture. We will discuss key historical phenomena that symbolize modern Japan as a technological power in the world; specific examples to be discussed in class include kamikaze aircraft, the Shinkansen high-speed bullet train, Godzilla, and anime.
And for lovers of gory horror, there’s a course based on an ancient tale prominently featuring three monsters, including not only a semihuman, God-cursed, anthropophagous swamp creature and his even more loathsome mother, but also a rampaging dragon for good measure. Dismemberments abound:
- 21L.705 Major Authors: Old English and Beowulf “hƿæt ƿe gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon….” Those are the first words of the Old English epic Beowulf, and in this class you will learn to read them. Besides being the language of Rohan in the novels of Tolkien, Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is a language of long, cold, and lonely winters; of haunting beauty found in unexpected places; and of unshakable resolve in the face of insurmountable odds. It is, in short, the perfect language for MIT students.
If this is all just a little too intense for you, take a look at the course materials from 21M.732 Beginning Costume Design and 21M. 715 The Craft of Costume Design—though you’d better get busy if you expect to have your outfit ready in time for Halloween!
(Credit: photo of Whitby Abbey, one of Dracula’s favorite haunts, courtesy of Derwisz on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-SA.)