Miller book explores folk drama in ‘Playing Dead’


BOWLING GREEN, O.—In high schools all around the United States, including locally in Ohio, a morbid performance is played out. Months of planning and preparation are put in by a variety of professionals, from police to paramedics to funeral directors and school administrators, who take time and resources to construct the elaborate folk drama known as “Every 15 Minutes.”

Designed to demonstrate to high school students the consequences of drunken driving, this enactment of events surrounding a tragic automobile accident commands the attention of the community and, not surprisingly, caught the eye of Dr. Montana Miller, now a Bowling Green State University professor of popular culture and folklorist.

Miller has written a book on the phenomenon. “Playing Dead: Mock Trauma and Folk Drama in Staged High School Drunk Driving Tragedies” was recently published by Utah State University Press, an imprint of The University of Colorado Press. Through the lenses of play theory, frame theory and theories of folk drama, she explores the complicated set of explicit and unstated goals, unpredictable outcomes, truths and fictions surrounding “Every 15 Minutes.”

As a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles 10 years ago, she began noticing news of these events and was immediately intrigued and outraged — a reaction that signals a perfect topic for a folklorist, she says humorously.

“The event began in the Pacific Northwest and spread by word of mouth among firemen and first responders to southern California,” she said. “Soon there was state grant money available and they began springing up around L.A.”

The two-day productions spread from state to state, and she began attending as many as she could, having chosen “Every 15 Minutes” as the topic of her dissertation. She traveled the country, from New Mexico to Maryland, to either observe them firsthand or follow up through interviews.

As a folklorist, her interests in studying the programs were not to determine whether they actually had an effect on drunk driving, but to see “what was really going on and what people were getting out of it,” she said.

In “Every 15 Minutes” (a misleading name, Miller says, since the national numbers on drunk driving deaths are now closer to every 45 minutes), a Grim Reaper figure prowls the halls of the school summoning about 20 preselected students to play the “Living Dead.” Another four students portray the victims of the crash, including the culprit drunk driver. Classroom loudspeakers often broadcast the sounds of a horrific crash and emergency vehicle sirens. The “victims” — usually popular students — are given realistic and grisly makeup and the student body goes outside to see a terrible accident scene that often includes use of the Jaws of Life and a Life Flight ride to a hospital. Parents of some of the students go to the hospital emergency room, where they see their children’s heart monitors “flat line.”

Now the “Living Dead” are removed to a remote location where they spend the night and write letters to their parents as if from beyond the grave. At this point, Miller observed, it is common for “contagious crying” to begin. Events proceed through a funeral and may include jail tours and mock trials.

When pressed about the effectiveness of the exercise, organizers inevitably could only say, “If it saves one life, it’s worth it,” Miller found.

“The goal described by the people putting it on and the effect they said it had was ‘a life-changing experience’ and a ritual that ‘hits students hard’ in the same way,” Miller said. “But what I observed was that while it was meant to be strictly controlled and run by adults whose aim was to control the message, it often became almost accidental art. Students ranged from deeply affected to detached. There was a huge variety of responses. It’s very complex and the results are impossible to measure.”

Although the outcomes did not appear to achieve what the producers professed as their goals, Miller’s observations revealed a certain playfulness and enjoyment of the activities, even by the adults, an extraordinary number of things going wrong, much deviation from the script as people step in and out of the frames of make believe — but also much genuine emotion.

Like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Joe found when observing their funerals after letting people believe they had drowned, there is much beguiling satisfaction in the attention and adulation lavished on the “dead.”

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(Posted December 04, 2012 )