A University of Akron professor had no problem scaring up people who wanted to take his class.

The smell of popcorn wafted in the air in the dark theater at the campus student union. Big, dripping-red letters on the screen declared "Monsters Among Us," giving a hint of what tonight's lecture would explore.

On this night, professor Henry Astley's "Biology of Monsters" class was watching the 1956 cult classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," in which "pod people" are the monsters, mimicking humans to replace them. The movie came after a short but jam-packed lecture on how animals mimic other animals for survival.

Astley's recipe for the course: Combine lectures filled with lots of pictures and fun references with monster movies to explore core biology principles in an approachable way.

The biology department bought the popcorn machine for $200 on Amazon. "It's cheaper than paying catering for popcorn," Astley said with a laugh. He's a monster-movie buff who is supplying all the films from his personal collection. Each class features one movie that is used to relate to specific biology concepts.

The one-credit class is an offbeat offering of the university’s new Five Star Fridays initiative, which ended most traditional Friday classes for undergraduates beginning this semester. UA's aim was to set itself apart from Ohio's other four-year public universities by offering different activities on Fridays. Astley's class will be offered again for the spring semester.

 

Nature's Fakers

During the class, laughter and excited chattering revealed the students were indeed having fun. "I love this class," a student said loudly to no one in particular during the lecture.

This endorsement came around the time the words "Nature's Fakers" popped up in big letters on the screen, and Astley relayed how when harmless water snakes are frightened, they will flatten their bodies to resemble venomous snakes. Some snakes mimic venomous rattlesnakes by rattling their tails, while others have evolved a yellow, black and red color pattern that mimics that of the dangerous coral snake to keep predators at bay, he said.

(Astley, 38 and in his third year at UA, is into snakes; he created a robotic sidewinder that focuses on the biomechanics of animal locomotion, and keeps a Taiwanese beauty snake named Penumbra in his office.)

Laughter rumbled through the theater when Astley explained that this type of biological copying is known as Batesian mimicry, named for naturalist Walter Bates. He's "not Bates the guy from the movie 'Psycho,' " Astley quickly noted. Walter Bates was known for his work involving nontoxic butterflies with color patterns similar to toxic ones.

After he seemed to have crammed an entire textbook — or at least several long chapters— into a 30-minute lecture, he introduced the evening's movie, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." He noted that even though the alien invaders "aren't perfect" duplications of humans because they lack emotion, "they're close enough to fool most people" in the small California town where the film is set.

 

Self-described nerds

William Rudibaugh, 29, was among the roughly 40 students who showed up for the lecture and the 62-year-old black-and-white movie. "I'm kind of a nerd myself ... I grew up liking superheroes, monster movies," he said, explaining why "Biology of Monsters" was a draw.

He and other students have a kindred soul in Astley, who sports nerdish-looking mutton-chop sideburns, like a longer version of Hugh Jackman's "Wolverine" beard in the "X-Men" film series.

Rudibaugh, studying emergency management and homeland security, said he didn't even need a biology credit. The class seemed like a good way to get his head out of his required classes — "take me away from all that" — and still learn something.

Biology/pre-veterinary major Meghan McCracken, 19, lives in Plain Township, outside Canton, and commutes to Akron on Friday evenings especially for the class, which offers "another way to dissect movies. You can say, 'Let's break down the biology of what really could really happen and what couldn't.' "

Kaitlyn Meece, 21, saw posters about the class this summer, when she was looking for a "more fun" science class to add to her chock-full schedule. She's racking up credits after switching her major to biochemistry. "Plus, I'm a biology nerd," she said, echoing Rudibaugh and others.

"And I love the 'bad' monster movies that are cheesy," she said. "That's what I was looking forward to."

Astley's featured flicks for the class, however, don't all fall into the cheesy category. On Friday, the class will see the rare director's cut of the 1986 "Aliens," considered a classic among sci-fi-horror films. Astley's talk that night will focus on eusociality — the most complex level of animal sociality, the forming of cooperative groups like a beehive with its queens, drones, soldiers and workers. Some students plan to wear costumes that night for a post-Halloween bash.

One of the nonscience students in the class, Gavin Reiland, 21, of Cleveland, is studying painting and illustration. He's also a monster movie fan, and his art, he says, "is a lot about biological phenomena and creature studies." (Check out his work on Instagram, @robotzombiedino.)

The class, Reiland noted, has included some popular movies he's never seen, including "Tremors," featuring huge, man-eating creatures that live underground. Astley used it to talk about subterranean locomotion.

Each of the Friday classes, he said, "has a lot of information to take in. But it is presented in a way that's easy to understand. It's almost like we don't know we're learning."

That's music that's not scary to any teacher's ears.

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-886-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com.