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Playing Dead

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

Montana Miller

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: Utah State University Press


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pp. vii

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Foreword by Jack Santino

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pp. ix-x

With Playing Dead, Montana Miller has provided a study of a unique phenomenon: the imaginary deaths of high school students, theatricalized with a combination of verisimilitude and fantasy. Teenage death resulting from drunk driving is dramatized in a program called Every 15 Minutes Someone Dies, developed...

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1. Every 15 Minutes Someone Dies

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pp. 1-14

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...

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2. Backdrop for the Scene

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pp. 15-47

The staged tragedy of Every 15 Minutes takes place against a backdrop of real carnage on American highways. Drunk-driving fatalities, as well as public concern about the problem, have been tracked over the years by various government, academic, and advocacy groups. Alarming statistics are easy to find...

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

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pp. 48-78

In scholarly studies of play, “framing” has been used to understand how individuals make sense of their activities and interactions and how, based on their interpretations of frame, people communicate and express themselves in ways that can lead to collective...

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4. Engrossed Out: Every 15 Minutes as Folk Drama

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pp. 79-99

The momentum of Every 15 Minutes, as well as other related phenomena that target “impressionable youth” while sweeping entire communities into the act, embodies a surge in contemporary folk drama. These events’ theatrical elements are apparent, and in their participants’ own terms, they are dramas (despite ubiquitous exclamations...

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5. The Dazzle and Darkness of Play

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pp. 100-116

My research highlights participants’ attraction to the fun and creative elements of Every 15 Minutes, and their desire for the community attention—the “dazzling notoriety,” in Twain’s words—that they receive as players in the drama. The program’s promoters advance the premise that its entertaining aspects make it an effective...

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6. Shattering Frames: The Crash through YouTube’s Window

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pp. 117-126

When Every 15 Minutes was a young program, it was carried by word of mouth from school to school, its emerging traditions passed on among friends and colleagues who knew each other through personal and workplace networks. Local and sometimes national newspapers and television stations put the occasional spotlight...

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Conclusion: Rustles in the Gallery

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pp. 127-134

Today teenagers all across America are acting out bloody scenarios of violence and death, as their teachers, parents, and mentors look on in tearful approval. Each year, under the banner of the various programs discussed in this book, more teenagers bleed and expire. They reenact fatal car accidents and attend their own mock funerals; they burst down hallways with machine guns and hold...


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pp. 135-142


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pp. 143-148

E-ISBN-13: 9780874218923
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874218916

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2012