Playing Dead: Mock Trauma and Folk Drama in Staged High School Drunk Driving Tragedies

Playing Dead: Mock Trauma and Folk Drama in Staged High School Drunk Driving Tragedies

by Montana Miller


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As the Grim Reaper pulls a student out of class to be a “victim” of drunk driving in a program called “Every 15 Minutes,” Montana Miller observes the ritual through a folklorist’s lens. Playing Dead examines why hundreds of American schools and communities each year organize these mock tragedies without any national sponsorship or coordination. Often, the event is complete with a staged accident in the parking lot, a life-flight helicopter, and faux eulogies for the “dead” students read in school assemblies. Grounding her research in play theory, frame theory, and theory of folk drama, Miller investigates key aspects of this emergent tradition, paying particular attention to its unplanned elements—enabled by the performance’s spontaneous nature and the participants’ tendency to stray from the intended frame. Miller examines such variations in terms of the program as a whole, analyzing its continued popularity and weighing its success as perceived by participants. Her fieldwork reveals a surprising aspect of Every 15 Minutes that typical studies of ritual do not include: It can be fun. Playing Dead is volume two of the series Ritual, Festival, and Celebration, edited by Jack Santino.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874218916
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 12/15/2012
Series: Ritual, Festival, and Celebration Series , #2
Edition description: 1
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Montana Miller is an associate professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches courses in ethnographic methods, folklore, youth culture, medical anthropology, and Internet culture. A professional flying trapeze artist, high diver, and skydiver, she researches perceptions of risk and attitudes toward death, particularly among groups that are often stereotyped and misunderstood.

Read an Excerpt

Playing Dead

Mock Trauma and Folk Drama in Staged High School Drunk-Driving Tragedies
By Montana Miller

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-891-6

Chapter One

Every 15 Minutes Someone Dies

As the first class period begins at a local high school, tragic events—prepared through months of careful planning—begin to unfold. Over the next hours the "Grim Reaper," cloaked in black and carrying a scythe, will roam the hallways, pulling students from classrooms at fifteen-minute intervals to represent "one person killed every fifteen minutes by a drunk-driving accident." Each victim's eulogy will be read aloud by a police deputy, as classmates listen in stunned silence. Later, the twenty "Living Dead" will return to their classes, bearing white face paint and coroner's tags, and they will remain silent for the rest of the day. Their obituaries are posted in the school foyer, their gravestones are erected in the courtyard, and their parents receive realistic "death notifications" at homes and workplaces. In the midst of it all, local emergency services personnel will simulate a fatal car accident in the school parking lot; students play the roles of drunk drivers and casualties, "bleeding" with gory makeup. A 911 call is broadcast over the public address system, and sirens wail as fire trucks, ambulances, and hearses respond to the scene.

This is only the first act of an elaborate two-day event commonly known as "Every 15 Minutes" in which tragedy is staged in an effort to transform and inculcate values in high school students. As a drunk-driving-prevention tactic, the program has spread with astonishing momentum since the early 1990s; but it is not nationally organized or sponsored, and it has neither a precise origin nor one "official" version. Replicated and modified in hundreds of communities around the country, Every 15 Minutes—often called "E15M" for short—is collaboratively produced by schools, law enforcement, and community volunteers. Local versions share similar sequences and themes, symbolic actions and imagery. Participants, through firsthand interaction and personal communication with colleagues and friends in other towns, pass on the word about E15M.

As Every 15 Minutes has spread across the country in hundreds of local versions of the program, I have documented dozens of examples—firsthand and through archived documents and videos of the program—each building on a consistent structure and multiple themes. These events feature common and varying elements of costuming, role-playing, music, slogans, poetry, publicity, posters, props, rhetoric, and emotional display.

What is it that schools are producing here? Documentary or soap opera? I have come to understand this contemporary American tradition in the terms of its enactors, who, as they explained their aesthetic and logistical choices to me, repeatedly asserted, "It's a drama!" The production of Every 15 Minutes stages tragedy as "realistically" as possible at the same time as it captures participants' imagination and attention with the dramatic elements of costuming and playacting. The event constantly juxtaposes the presentational and the representational; that is, reality and fantasy intertwine and merge (Pettit 1997).

In this book, I examine the complex interplay of realistic and unrealistic elements in Every 15 Minutes, and the ways participants play with these ambiguous frames throughout the event. This phenomenon illuminates a great deal about the moral messages conveyed, displayed, and debated when education and folklore meet and merge.

In Every 15 Minutes, especially during climactic moments, many role-players and spectators weep—on cue, spontaneously, or somewhere in between. In the standard scenario, one student role-player is rushed from the crash scene to the hospital, where she flatlines and dies in the presence of her parents (who exhibit reactions of despair and hysteria, though aware it is a simulation). The Living Dead are secluded overnight at a remote location. Seated at tables stocked with boxes of Kleenex, they must write letters to their parents "from the grave." The next day, at the mock funeral and assembly (ostensibly the cathartic moment of the program), students are reunited with their families and they read their letters in public, often breaking into tears.

Enormous resources of time, money, energy, and emotion go into this dramatic reenactment. It includes months of planning, full-scale EMS operations, helicopter evacuations for critically injured "victims," tours of prisons, courthouses, and morgues, and video crews documenting the action. Participants describing the program attribute great importance to following the planned scenario; they devote hours of meetings to hashing out the details of the script, the graphic detail of the images, the rules to be followed by those "playing" in the drama, and decisions about which students get to play key roles.

However, during the actual two-day event, things rarely go according to plan. Even those who are most invested in the play (including school administrators and law-enforcement officials) frequently deviate from the script or the rules. Accidents, oversights, improvisations, subversions, and deliberate sabotage constantly interrupt the smooth progression of events. Despite all this, in the end, organizers consistently judge the play a hit. But the range of responses to the performance is wider than administrators acknowledge; while many students participate in the simulated grieving, others express skepticism, outrage, indifference, or amusement.

Every 15 Minutes, as an emerging tradition, involves many symbolic elements, from its shared beliefs (for example, "Teenagers think they are immortal") to its evocative slogans. The program's catchy title, based on a 1980s statistic, persists despite improvements in the numbers. Organizers told me that a current and more accurate statistic (by the late 1990s, the number had dropped to one death every thirty-three minutes; by 2008, it was one every forty-five minutes) "wouldn't hit home the same way" that the number fifteen did.


This book is based on my observations of the Every 15 Minutes program, a folk drama or play in which participants are continually shifting frames. (That is, their actions are interpreted—by themselves and by others—in constantly changing ways.) I explore the key aspects of this emergent tradition, paying particular attention to its unplanned elements. While many may wonder whether E15M actually makes any difference—whether it "works" to prevent drunk driving—I do not aim to answer this elusive question. From a cultural standpoint, the more crucial questions involve why people create and re-create these mock tragedies.

• How do people modify and personalize the drama, and the rules of the play, to fit their local contexts?

• In what ways (planned and unplanned) do participants mark out, and shift between, frames during the play? How do they manipulate and improvise on the rules or script?

• How may such frame shifting and rule breaking affect participants' engagement in, and perception of, the drama? What elements of E15M are essential, remaining stable as the program is transmitted over time and space?

• What constitutes E15M's continued appeal and perceived success, even when things do not go according to plan?

This book is grounded in the scholarly concepts of folk drama and play; it will explore the spontaneous nature of what is often assumed to be prescribed ritual in these forms of folklore. I use ethnographic methods to reveal the perspectives of participants in events that entail shifting frames, as well as ambiguous and dark aspects of play. Playing Dead challenges some assumptions that previous scholars have made about the process of engagement or engrossment in folk dramas and the implications of that process for the "success" and perpetuation of such traditions.

Folklorists have used the concept of folk (community-based) drama to trace variation in a tradition, often analyzing folk drama in the context of its surrounding culture. Usually these studies have focused on the anatomy of the drama, cataloguing examples without delving into the varied experiences of participants. Many scholars of play have made similar generalizations about human experience, looking at games or dramas as reflective of culture or as functional in psychological development. Some scholars of play, however, have paid more attention to individuals as active agents with strategies and motivations. Play-frame analysis has enabled some to explore the complexities of play, in which distinctions between reality and fiction are frequently blurred.

Frame analysis helps scholars to examine how participants in dramas like E15M cross the lines between audience and performer. Certain markers intentionally set E15M apart from everyday life, in its own specialized time and place; these markers may be theatrical cues—including costume, makeup, music, and gesture—or verbal references to the event. Presenters, as they communicate utilitarian messages, consistently step in and out of the performative or "make-believe" (Goffman 1974) frame; they blur the distinction between performer and audience, earnestly proclaiming the importance of the very drama they enact. The event also blurs representation and reality, combining presentation of realistic images (the simulated car wreck) with representation of supernatural ones (the Grim Reaper, the Living Dead). While some folklorists have contended that folk drama does not require participants to believe in either aspect, some have argued that it does require the collaboration of players and spectators, who together sustain the fantasy by choosing to behave as though the fictional events depicted were real (Ellis 1981; Pettit 1997).

These ideas of collaboration and engagement, discussed by various scholars of play and folk drama, need further development. To address this issue, I illustrate here a range of responses and perceptions to a production that is intended to sweep up everyone into a shared frame of staged tragedy. One organizer explained to me, "We do so much of the imagery ... the motorcycles, the fire engines, the emergency vehicles, the hearse from the funeral home. And because it's all so vivid, it really catches their attention and at that point, they're caught up in the drama." The reactions I witnessed and documented at various field sites, among teenagers and adults alike, were far more varied than this organizer's assessment suggests.

In addition, my fieldwork revealed an aspect of Every 15 Minutes that typical promotions of the program do not include: it can be fun. As one school employee remarked, "The community loves it, and so do the police officers and the fire [department workers] and so on, because they usually do a drill anyway, and for them this is more fun." Another teacher attested to the appeal of the program's "sensationalism," explaining: "Kids are fighting to be in the body bags. They want to be the one in the limelight." In the staging of the tragic scene, fun is not explicitly planned or officially sanctioned. But apparently, there is something fun about all this drama—the dressing up, the graphic makeup, the sirens, the excitement and tears, the emotional music. The influential psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1975) has argued that fun cannot always be dissected and analyzed. Even so, we must not discount the appeal and excitement of a folkloric event officially described as serious and traumatic. Furthermore, participants may use Every 15 Minutes as an occasion for expression that would normally be inhibited; during this extraordinary event, everyday order is suspended, and many can voice feelings and show emotion in the safety of reassurances that it's all just pretend.

Finally, innumerable factors affect the ubiquitous frame shifting and rule breaking in E15M as well as in other allegedly educational or preventive programs whose symbolic importance their promoters tout so highly. Many of these factors are idiosyncratic and spontaneous, depending more on individual personalities, interactions, and accidents than on predictable cause and effect. Still, patterns do emerge in the ways people bend and break the rules, and these patterns can reveal valuable insights into the human element in folklore. During my research, I had the chance to observe many of these human elements shaping the enactment of the "tragedy."

Between 1999 and 2003, I investigated Every 15 Minutes intensively, both by attending events in person and by examining videos and other artifacts and records of the program. I tracked examples down in dozens of states across the country, each event a variation on a consistent structure and themes. Ultimately, I compiled a database that included hundreds of local versions of the program, from a California suburban school of thousands to a tiny rural school in Maine. I watched the staged tragedy unfold at urban high schools in Los Angeles, wealthy suburban high schools in Maryland, and a small rural school in New Mexico. During in-depth interviews, dozens of local sponsors and administrators—E15M's "tradition-bearers," to borrow folklorist Carl von Sydow's term for those who participate in the passing on of a specific tradition (1965)—explained to me how they learned about the program through their professional networks and why they perceive it to be such a powerful collective experience.

Everywhere, it seems, E15M's combination of realistic and fantastic imagery works to striking dramatic effect. And as the tradition has taken hold and continues to spread, I have noticed E15M exemplifying a trend in educational settings: communities across the country stage various gruesome dramas, from lockdown drills to haunted houses, aimed especially at transforming teenagers' attitudes and behavior. My descriptive study provides insight not only in the field of folklore but also in related disciplines such as education, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and public health. Historically, folkloristic studies of similar presentational and representational events have been classified variously as folk drama or as play; scholars in both of these areas have provided grounding concepts for my research, helping me to observe and interpret what happens "Every 15 Minutes."


According to Thomas Pettit, writing in the 1997 encyclopedia Folklore, folk drama is distinct from theatrical performance in that it is characteristically presentational, rather than fully representational: "While consciously representing something other than themselves and the time and place of performance, performers remain conscious of themselves as presenting a show to an audience in a given time and place. Dramatic illusion, although aimed for or gestured at, is therefore breached consistently by awareness of context and relationship to the audience ... by direct address from within the fiction of the play world to the audience or even interaction (verbal and/ or physical) with spectators" (212).

Most studies of folk drama have examined discontinued traditions of the past (such as Christmas mumming and medieval passion plays) or have been limited to religious contexts. While local folk dramas that reenact historical events, parody weddings, accompany political protests, or thrive as camp skits exist (Ellis 1981; Mechling 1980; Pettit 1997; Taft 1996), in-depth studies of such living examples are rare. Sylvia Rodriguez's The Matachines Dance (1996) is one exception; the author describes a current southwestern dance/drama, symbolic of interethnic conflict, emerging from a common tradition. Rodriguez relates variants of the performance to their broader community contexts, but she does not attempt to bring forth the voices and experiences of the participants, as I do. The spectacle of professional wrestling has attracted scholars' notice as well (Campbell 1996; Dawson 1992; Rickard 1999; Saunders 1998), yet this form of popular entertainment lacks the local variation and intimacy between actors and audience that has been said to typically define folk drama (Green 1978). In wrestling, professional players travel from venue to venue; in Every 15 Minutes, in contrast, members of the community act as players in each local version.

Folk drama thrives in numerous examples in educational or youth-oriented settings (Taft 1996), from Christmas pageants to church-sponsored Halloween Hell Houses (Gordon 1999; Katz 1998; Ratliff 2002a; Squires 1998; Verhovek 1996), but scholars have rarely noticed these traditions and have paid even less attention to eliciting their participants' points of view. Studies that consider folk drama in education, like studies of ritual performances in general, have primarily focused on the nonsecular context (Kapferer 1981; Lesko 1988), and typically have not emphasized the creative variation and subservience to context that, as Pettit (1997) notes, characterize folk drama as a genre.

Bill Ellis (1981) has described a staged summer camp ritual in which encounters with "supernatural" characters create a sense of unity among campers of diverse backgrounds. Ellis writes that folk drama requires participants' willingness to act as though they believe in its fictional elements and characters. He contends that a successful folk drama depends upon the willing collaboration of its participants—players and spectators—in this temporary unreality; those apparently caught up in the drama behave as though it were real while implicitly understanding it as fiction. The issue of engagement, though, has not caught the attention of most writers who document and compare versions of a folk drama, even when they describe the performance as a political or educational tool.


Excerpted from Playing Dead by Montana Miller Copyright © 2012 by University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Jack Santino ix

1 Every 15 Minutes Someone Dies 1

2 Backdrop for the Scene 15

3 Marked for Death: Ambiguity and Slippery Steps in Frames of Play 48

4 Engrossed Out: Every 15 Minutes as Folk Drama 79

5 The Dazzle and Darkness of Play 100

6 Shattering Frames: The Crash through YouTube's Window 117

Conclusion: Rustles in the Gallery 127

References 135

Index 143

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