Mason doctoral student uses horror films to explore identity and culture

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The word horror brings to mind movies, television shows or books that intentionally create an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Many horror fans do not realize that the story behind the story is often a metaphor for the larger fears society faces as a whole such as loneliness, finding one’s identity, battling oppressive rules, and atonement.

woman sitting outside on stone wall
Doctoral student Maillim “May” Santiago. Photo by DeRon Rockingham/Creative Services

For Maillim “May” Santiago, a third-year cultural studies PhD student at George Mason University, the genre presents a way to find the strength to fight life’s difficult battles and accept her true self.

“I had been split all my childhood [between Florida and Puerto Rico] and had a very rough home life,” she said. She often wrestled to feel at home with her culture, history and own identity.

“The only time I ever felt safe was when I was watching films,” Santiago said. “My earliest memories are of horror films, and the first movie I ever saw was Predator, which shaped part of my personality.”

Horror also helped her accept her true self, a queer Puerto Rican feminist, by allowing the “monsters” to be resolved in a medium most people don’t use when on a journey of self-discovery, she said.

Santiago craved stability after high school graduation and chose to attend the University of Central Florida to focus on her growing interest in film studies. She earned a BFA in film production and MFA in entrepreneurial digital cinema there.

Upon completing her master’s degree, Santiago once again found herself at a crossroads. Following the loss of multiple friends in the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Santiago felt deeply unsafe. She was also unsure about her career path, so she moved to the Washington, D.C., metro area to live with extended family and to make plans for her future.

Santiago was hired as an adjunct at Mason at the beginning of the COVID pandemic to teach FAVS 300 Global Horror Film, which takes students on a wide ranging journey of the horror film genre through an international lens. Over the course’s decades-plus lifespan, instructors have gone to great lengths to cover a multitude of countries, cultures, and their contributions to cinema to ensure students receive maximum global exposure. As she taught and searched for her own cultural connections, Santiago noticed a lack of representation of Puerto Rican filmmakers within the industry itself and realized that getting a PhD would provide her with the opportunity to expand her research and fill that gap.

Alison Landsberg, professor and director of the Center for Humanities Research, who serves as Santiago’s advisor, describes Santiago as a “talented film essayist” who has the potential to break new ground with her doctoral work and is poised to teach the world a great deal about Puerto Rican cinema.

“There has been surprisingly little academic scholarship on Puerto Rican cinema, and I anticipate that she will continue to make films even as she pursues doctoral research which attempts to identify and define [it],” Landsberg said. “Her longstanding interests in horror and queer cinema have to do… with their capacity to unsettle and destabilize social norms. These films often serve as provocations for the viewer, and have the capacity to advance counterhegemonic aims.”

Knowing that funding could be an issue, Santiago applied for the Mason Graduate Inclusion and Access (GIA) Scholarship, which is awarded on a competitive basis and aimed at first-generation, incoming fall semester doctoral degree students who are from an underrepresented population within their field of study at Mason, and have demonstrated financial need.

“GIA is one of the best scholarships to have. It has changed my life and research… the safety the scholarship gives me, the recognition I get, and the opportunities that have been given to me throughout the program have created this perfect mix,” she said. “There is also a prestige that comes with being a GIA Scholar as people realize there is significant weight to it.”

Laurence Bray, associate provost of graduate education, takes great pride in Santiago’s work, as she understands exactly how it feels to be a first-generation student.

“I could not be prouder of May for her resilience as a GIA scholar,” Bray said. “Navigating though the difficulties of being a first-generation doctoral student is far from easy, but May has shown that everything is possible with courage and kindness.” 

Santiago has been able to take what started as an interest in her culture and horror films and translate them into deeply meaningful areas of her life within cinema: feminist, Puerto Rican, and queer representation. She is pursuing a dissertation focused on using Puerto Rican cinema as a cultural studies tool.

Once she completes her PhD, Santiago is interested in starting a foundation for Puerto Rican filmmakers, providing them opportunities to make the connections they need for funding, producing, marketing and exporting their work. She is also adamant about providing opportunities for marginalized identities within the Puerto Rican sphere—queer, black and immigrant—so she is able to tell the full story of Puerto Rican cinema.

“Horror is about the anxiety of cultures and societies—it’s never just a slasher movie—and Puerto Rico has had so many horrors as a country,” Santiago said. “I need this industry to exist, and I want Puerto Rican films to be normalized so they can be seen in theatres worldwide.”