Thursday, December 29, 2016

Using Stranger Things' Demogorgon: Connecting Pop Culture to Ancient Authors

This group really did a great job finding themes to compare.
The end of the semester is tough; not only are students exhausted and stressed by testing (both standardized and local), but it can be equally difficult to time the end of new material so that it's familiar enough to be worth testing.

This year I found I needed a filler day--so I created a short, light lesson based on the recent popular Netflix series Stranger Things. I wanted students to recognize and think about the echoes of the Greeks and Romans that we still see today, and though it's easy to point at architecture and art, I like the chance to focus on some popular culture and an unexpected (i.e., not military or mythology-based) reference.

So I researched the Demogorgon.

Quick background clarification: I am a geek and I love most things geeky, including table top role play games. Especially Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (hereafter AD&D), my introduction to RPGs and the reason I got to know my eventual husband.

When we were watching Stranger Things and the Demogorgon became a central concept and reference, I was inspired to research the Demogorgon in Latin to find out its declension (not to use in class, but just because I wanted to know--I am super cool). Because I knew there would be a Latin version.

Something you may not know, if you are not my special blend of Pliny the Elder and AD&D fan, is that many or most of the AD&D monsters were ultimately derived from Pliny the Elder, after taking a quick detour through medieval bestiaries. My favorite example of this, partly because the connection between the AD&D Monster Manual to Pliny's work is so unmistakable, is the catoblepas, an animal described by Pliny as a slow-moving land creature with a head so heavy it can't lift it, which is fortunate, since whoever it looks at dies immediately (Naturalis Historia 8.77). Pliny's catoblepas definitely inspired medieval imagination, and finally Gary Gygax, the author of AD&D's Monster Manual, found its description in a bestiary and brought it into the game he co-created.

The point of this sidetrack is that only a very few of the creatures featured in AD&D materials are original; most of them come from Classical and medieval sources.

I liked the connections between depictions this group found
and the summary of Boccaccio's description.
So I knew that the word "Demogorgon" existed somewhere in Latin. And I wanted my students to feel that connection that I am constantly making between my every day experiences and Classical resources. I wanted them to see how ideas are transmitted throughout the centuries and to trace their paths.

And I really, really enjoyed Stranger Things. So this was an excuse to bring it up.

What I ended up cobbling together (this could be done much better, but I did not have time, so it's a shallow, mediocre version of what this activity could be) was a description of Plato's Demiurge, Boccaccio's description of the Demogorgon, a 16th century block print illustrating the Demogorgon, the AD&D description of the Demogorgon, and images of Stranger Things' "Demogorgon." Then I put students in groups and asked them to find connections between the depictions, either one common thread, or a separate connection between each depiction.
This group chose to condense the
depictions into one concise image.

I heard really great conversations as I roamed between the groups--the kinds of conversations I was hoping for--and got some great results that I've posted here and hung in the hall.

This is a good, almost no-prep, lesson that could be used to change class routine or just because you and/or your students are great fans of Stranger Things. The handout is here (Demogorgon Handouts), and the only other thing you need is butcher paper for each group. I let them use markers, crayons, scissors and glue to help them organize and present their thoughts on the connections between all of these varied representations.

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