Playing Dead: Mock Trauma and Folk Drama in Staged High School Drunk Driving Tragedies (Ritual, Festival, and Celebration Series)

By Montana Miller. 2012. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. 160 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-891-6 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Monica Foote, Indiana University

[Review length: 753 words • Review posted on February 27, 2013]


Montana Miller’s Playing Dead is an insightful examination of the contemporary mainstream folk drama Every 15 Minutes (E15M) produced by high schools across the United States as a part of anti-drunk-driving campaigns. Miller grounds her study in frame analysis, focusing on the complex and slippery ways in which the participants and observers understand the event and their roles in it. The E15M drama is thrilling and dramatic and emotional. It is also playful. Participants enjoy playing dead for the variety it lends to their routine and for the attention that they receive in the process of being “mourned” for.

E15M is fun and is an opportunity for participants to engage in “dark play” in which they can engage in ordinarily unacceptable behavior, revel in the macabre, and have a controlled and “safe” experience of death and loss. Miller does not shy away from these more controversial aspects of this folk drama. She recognizes the importance of the fun that people have doing this and the ways in which the serious aspects of the production are sometimes a gloss to permit engagement with parts of life that one is not usually at liberty to explore.

Active participants in E15M tend to perceive their engrossment in the proceedings as universal. School power dynamics in which those in positions of authority tend also to be very invested in the drama mutes dissent and sheer boredom amongst members of the student audience. Miller expands her fieldwork beyond the school parking lots and sports fields in which the dramas take place in order to capture some of these dissenting voices. As participatory media have risen in social importance, video montages of E15M productions have been increasingly uploaded to YouTube. Miller mines the comments appended to these videos to give voice to the confusion, criticism, and heckling that some audience members suppress during the event itself. At the same time she acknowledges that the hidden transcripts of students, as the less powerful people in the situation compared to the organizers, are ultimately not accessible to outsiders and that the ambiguity that surrounds this kind of darkly playful situation can result in people being engrossed and critical at almost the same time.

One area upon which I wish the book had expanded is the notion of the real. So many of the quotations from informants include commentary on how “real” the experience of E15M was for them despite the fact that, as per Bill Ellis (1981), folk drama operates not when participants believe in what is going on; rather, it operates in a space in which they simply do not disbelieve. In fact, if they did believe, the drama would not function properly. More analysis of what “real” means to the people who use the term to describe their experience of E15M and how this kind of “real” relates to the kind of “real” located in belief rather than in the lack of disbelief would have been fascinating.

In addition to being of interest to folklorists as an analysis of folk drama, Playing Dead would be an important read for educators, school administrators, and public health workers interested in participants’ personal engagement with and reception of such programs. Understanding how and at what points meanings become slippery in these kinds of simulations, as well as the range of ways the simulations are experienced and engaged with, would have very practical applications for people in these positions.

Playing Dead explores the links between simulation and reality, drama and tragedy, teenage social pressures and the macabre. Montana Miller is adept at navigating the relationships between these sliding and overlapping frames of meaning and offers an engaging and useful analysis of this widespread contemporary form of folk drama.

Miller’s analysis is very dynamic. In addition to acknowledging the sliding, overlapping, and simultaneous frames through which participants perceive E15M, she devotes a fair amount of attention to the differences between how these events are planned to go and how they in fact play out, how people are meant to engage with them and how they do. It is interesting that disruptions and unforeseen events tend not to derail the proceedings or ruin participants’ experiences of it. The result is a picture of a very flexible event that can be simultaneously experienced in a number of ways by participants occupying diverse positions with regard to the event and that can thus be understood in a variety of ways.

Work Cited

Ellis, Bill. 1981. “The Camp Mock-Ordeal: Theater as Life.” Journal of American Folklore 94: 486-505. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/540502

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.