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Horror and the Responsibilities of the Liberal Educator
Michael A. Arnzen
Students might enroll in my course in horror assuming that they will be entertained, if not scared silly. And they will be. But they also know that the course objectives I list on my syllabus would never say ‘By taking this class, students will be able to...skin a person alive’ – or anything cheeky like that. Instead, the objectives on the syllabus – like all of my syllabi – are determined in concert with the objectives of the English major, in line with the college's liberal arts mission. They are learning objectives, employing terms and concepts lifted from such pedagogical foundations as Bloom's Taxonomy. A course in horror needs to be assessable in an academic and pedagogically sound way, if students are to learn, and if I am to keep my job when the assessment and accreditation review board comes to town or when the dean comes to visit.
The fact is, horror is a genre which many (parents, teachers, clergymen, censors, and on, ad infinitum), police – and those who enjoy the genre most derive no small part of their thrills from ‘getting away with’ reading something that is naughty, in defiance of such censorious power structures. It is not simply the case that our world is more conservative than it used to be, in the wake of so many psycho student shootings and right wing culture cops. The truth, in fact, is that horror nowadays is taught more often in colleges and high schools than it ever has been, because it is a dominant popular form, and its texts have stood the test of time as important cultural artifacts. The appeal of horror is as universal as our interest in ‘the great beyond’ and what lies after death. Yet one of the reasons it has so rarely been taught in the past – and why it must be taught so carefully in the present – is that horror is inherently a Dionysian genre, whereas the classroom is an inherently Apollonian space, ruled by the civilizing impulses of prudence, sobriety and order. There is an inherent tension that emerges whenever these two modalities meet, and horror is therefore seen as threatening to the academic status quo.
On top of that, the very logic of the genre often critiques the power of reason, the structure of the intellect, and the civilizing tendencies of mad-made systems – all those systems that lie at the foundation of a scholarly institution. As one of the more rebellious children in the literary family of the English curriculum, the genre status of any given horror text, therefore, is often hushed. But when genre fiction does come out of the literary basement to play in the light of day, its teachers and practitioners need to be especially clear about what it is that horror has to teach us, for the sake of student and administrator alike.
Thus, the objectives for a course that delves into horror matter quite a bit. But of course, students don't really pay attention to the learning objectives on a syllabus. To most of them, these are about as important as the legal disclaimer they have to agree to with a rapid click of the mouse whenever they install the latest version of iTunes: ‘yada, yada, yada...let me get to the good stuff.’ This is well and fine, but the teacher still has a responsibility to teach something, no matter how much ‘good stuff’ they have in store.
That ‘responsibility’ is not simply an obligation to school boards or parents or some abstract sense of propriety or cultural values. It is also a responsibility to the genre itself. Teachers of a literary genre have influence over its legacy and emergent conventions. We are obliged to act in the interest of a genre as much as those in the publishing trade or in fan cultures, because we are the medium through which the genre is transmitted to those who take our courses. We participate in the shaping of both public perception and literary production. Our influence is significant in shaping how future literary critics and authors integrate the genre into the canon.
Luckily, the teacher fully knows what the students want to ignore: that horror is inherently an educational genre. The very notion of a ‘cautionary’ tale is predicated on the notion of teaching someone a lesson. And while not all horror stories and films are cautionary in nature, they are always stimuli that aim at generating a dark emotional reaction which – when all the screaming stops – one inevitably attempts to manage with enlightened intellectual reasoning: whether it's in the mode of investigation (‘what's really lurking in the shadows?’) or metaphysical inquiry (‘do alternatives to God exist?’) or logical judgement (‘why did her baby have to die?’). Our rational minds are still at work when we contend with the most irrational of fictions. Indeed, even when a horror narrative – such as the work of Lovecraft – attempts to obliterate logical reasoning and symbolic systems altogether, it needs to construct them first.
What all this means is that, despite the naysayers, horror provides an excellent context for learning. It raises the serious questions that allow critical inquiry to transpire. This is, perhaps, patently true of all literary texts, but the omnipresent mode of ‘uncertainty’ that underpins most works in the horror genre inherently moulds the reading experience into the shape of a question mark. Even the most juvenile of stories that ‘go for the gross-out’ can still prompt critical thinking about the human condition (‘Why does this gross us out? What is the attraction of the repulsive?’) One of the reasons readers feel thrilled by exploring the taboo is not simply because the content is ‘naughty’ but also because the reading act is a particularly rebellious exercise: horror stories ask ‘Why should such things be unspeakable, unthinkable, unwanted, unknown?’
‘-Un’ is not simply the token of repression (as Freud famously remarks in his landmark essay on ‘Das Unheimliche’); ‘-un’ is also the inverted logic of the question mark, appended to anything we take for granted. The teacher's role in a class that studies horror is to call attention to these questions that often are already right there on the tips of student tongues, by constructing a social space where even the most frivolous-seeming text is taken seriously, where emotions are sorted out and responded to with earnest discussion and writing, and where critical inquiry is made freely.
In other words, the first ‘responsibility’ that a teacher of horror has is constructing an environment of trust. Critic Isabel Pinedo compares postmodern horror films to structures of ‘recreational terror’ (not unlike a rollercoaster thrill ride) and this is a good phrase for a student's enjoyment of the class. Classrooms can indeed be playgrounds of the mind, particularly in creative writing, but students always need to feel that they will be treated fairly and that there is not only someone supervising the ‘playground’ (or operating the rollercoaster), but also some sense of rule and social order firmly in place. Students need to know, for instance, whether they can confess their fears or talk about taboo desires, without fear of the censor, if this is an epistemological goal of the course. Likewise, they need assurance that the more taboo reading assignments – no matter how disturbing – are not intended to induce trauma, but to challenge assumptions and to raise questions.
Right from the outset, a course in horror needs to establish some sense of these ground rules that will assure students that the metaphorical rollercoaster will not fall off its rails. To this end, when I teach a course in horror – whether in literature, film, or creative writing – I not only distribute and discuss a very thorough syllabus, but I always include a lengthy disclaimer in my course description and I use it to focus the first class discussion on day one. Here are all 300 words of the opening to my most recent ‘Topics in Creative Writing’ course in ‘Horror and Suspense’:
Taking a course in ‘horror’ involves a modicum of emotional risk. Although I expect us all to act as professional writers, intelligent students, and emotionally mature adults, it would be helpful if you came to class as prepared for effrontery as you would if you had entered an ‘R-rated’ movie. You must expect to encounter topics, language, images and texts (whether assigned by the teacher or written by other students) which you might otherwise find morally offensive, emotionally disturbing, or otherwise grotesque and reprehensible. If you are not willing to be offended, disturbed, or ‘grossed-out’, then you should probably drop this class immediately. Horror is a genre which purposely strives after reactions of fear and loathing – on a deeper level, it is also inherently disturbing because it probes the taboos of society – in order to make a point. As the late writer Robert Bloch once put it, ‘Horror is the removal of masks.’ Think about what that means and how far you're really willing to peek behind them.
If you feel you need help coping with the horror in this class, please visit the professor during office hours. But know that you stay in this course of your own free choice. You have been warned.
While we should, from time to time, argue that many of the ugly things we'll read in horror stories should be suggested or evoked rather than graphically depicted, we also should try not to censor anyone's work out of hand. Indeed, one of the major topics in class will be ‘where to draw the line’ – if at all – so if you decide to stay in this class you are making a contract with us all to at least keep an open mind and to offer reasons, rather than emotions, to justify your response to any of the materials read/shown in class.”
As hyperbolic (or even overly cautious) as the language may be, this disclaimer accomplishes quite a bit. Cautioning students in this direct manner, right up front, often has the same effect that an ‘explicit lyrics’ warning label on a music CD might have: it actually encourages investment in the course by being provocative and hinting at the taboo. But being honest like this is also the fairest way to address or appease those who might otherwise be fraught with anxiety about the course content. I both dare them to stay, and I encourage them to drop. But beyond these effects, the context for learning is established right away. I try to use the disclaimer to immediately treat horror – and creative writing – as serious scholarly business. Note how I include a genre definition, raise the question of censorship and risk, emphasize reasoning over emotional appeal, and set the stage for treating student writing as on the same level as published fiction. I go on to reinforce these concepts in both the course content and the collaborative peer workshops throughout the semester. And I keep the question ‘What is horror?’ open all term long, as a method of extended inquiry.
The learning objectives for my horror course go on to state that the course is ‘first and foremost a course in fiction writing’, which speaks to a second responsibility that a horror teacher must keep in mind: a regard for literary merit. A commonly held belief by many creative writing faculty is that genre writing is to be avoided because what one learns about a particular genre has fewer applications than what can be learned in a course that emphasizes the craft of literary storytelling in general. Janet Burroway – whose textbook in Writing Fiction I almost always use in my courses – explains the problem in a way that speaks to the concerns of most of the English professoriate:
“Many – perhaps most – teachers of fiction writing do not accept manuscripts in genre, and I believe there's a good reason for this, which is that whereas writing literary fiction can teach you how to write good genre fiction, writing genre fiction does not teach you how to write good literary fiction - does not, in effect, teach you ‘how to write’, by which I mean how to be original and meaningful in word. Further, dealing in the conventions and hackneyed phrases of [genre] can operate as a form of...avoiding rather than uncovering your real concerns.... Escape does not represent the goal of a liberal education, which is to pursue, inquire, seek, and extend knowledge of whatever subject is at hand, fiction no less than science.”
Although there may be a modicum of superficial literary judgement at work in Burroway's claims (because she sees conventions as ‘hackneyed’), she nevertheless raises a central argument about teaching genre writing: that the key elements of ‘literary fiction’ should be taught, because being skilled in those elements has universal application. However, this does not mean that a course in genre writing inherently cannot teach ‘how to write good literary fiction’, let alone ‘represent the goal of a liberal education’. Her presupposition is that these texts teach themselves, or that their ‘escapist’ tendencies are actually forms of avoiding epistemological and intellectual honesty. What Burroway neglects is the role of the teacher in the ‘liberal education’: a good teacher knows how to focus learning in order to ‘pursue, inquire, seek and extend knowledge’ no matter what genre is being studied, from commercial horror stories to modern realist novels to the love sonnets of the Renaissance era.
How does a teacher reconcile the literary/popular fiction divide? I tend to cluster the course calendar around areas of emphasis that span the key elements of fiction: plot, conflict, point-of-view, character, style, dialogue, and so forth. My goal is both to educate English majors in the ‘universal’ concepts of the field of literature while simultaneously using these concepts to shed light on the ‘particular’ nuances of the genre (or vice-versa). I do not limit my focus to conceptualizing craft elements – I embrace intertextuality, which brings similarities and differences to light. In other words, any horror syllabus of mine will not only feature works traditionally categorized as genre text; there will always be at least one work on the reading list – often near the end of the term – that problematizes any easy assumptions that would lead to oversimplicity. I'll mix both commercial and literary texts together for study, and ask students to compare and contrast them, raising the issue of how we define genre, while simultaneously addressing notions about artistic movements and historical literary periods along the way. But even in a course that focuses primarily on popular culture, I try to organize an array of different forms of that culture – from product packaging of Halloween candy to splatter films – to show the range of approaches and different rhetorics at play. For the fact is, a genre is itself almost always inherently a contested space, where meaning is renegotiated, and where any given ‘convention’ is always in a tension with ‘invention’, and the New almost always operates in some adversarial relationship to the Old.
In my Horror Writing course, I play assumptions against each other, and one method I use for this is to assign selections from a standard creative writing textbook directly alongside a genre story or horror writing exercise. For journal assignments, I'll often prompt students to directly apply principles from Burroway's book on craft to horror stories I assign (eg ‘Referring to Burroway's discussion of “setting” (p. 131), discuss how the opening chapter of Karl Edward Wagner's story, “Sticks” accomplishes each of the following: builds the world the story is set in; uses the camera of narrative distance; establishes mood; places symbols, and creates action.’). Such cross-application of key principles keeps students focused on the literary strategies that the genre writer employs, and helps illustrate how different writers from different genres share common techniques.
But I also like to spring very creative and unexpected exercises that blur the boundaries that students take for granted, since such ‘boundary blurring’ is a key element of horror, sui generis. For instance, in my Horror Writing course, when students are studying ‘Characters Real & Unreal’, I assign a creative non-fiction piece from Burroway's Imaginative Writing, called ‘The Inheritance of Tools’ by Scott Russell Sanders. Burroway intends this memoir – in which the narrator is cast into recollecting experiences with his dead father through the tools he has inherited from him – to illustrate key concepts about character description and narrative voice. I ask students to read this for homework, answer one of Burroway's posed questions about character, and also study a few chapters from the book On Writing Horror on characterization. But when they come to class the next period, I immediately recontextualize the learning by bringing horror material to bear on the lessons of literary craft. I ask them to randomly choose a sentence or two from Sanders' memoir – perhaps something like ‘I went down into the basement, opened a drawer in my workbench, and stared at the ranks of chisels and knives. Oiled and sharp, as my father would have kept them, they gleamed at me like teeth’ - and to use that as the first sentence in a stream of thought inside the mind of a serial killer who uses carpentry tools as his weapon of choice. The emphasis on lush, metaphoric literary description tends to continue, by emulating the voice of the literary author.
Such creative repackaging of literary texts and ordinary creative writing assignments, filtered through the lens of the horror genre, in fact, drives a lot of my class activities. One of the most successful in-class writing exercises I've ever run was lifted straight out of Burroway's chapters on point-of-view and setting, where she compares the psychic distance of third person perspective to a movie camera and asks students to write a scene that starts in ‘close-up’ and then ‘zooms out’ to show the entire setting, if not the whole world, in a passage no longer than a single page, or the reverse, beginning with the world and ending in extreme close-up. This exercise is a wonderful method for teaching intensity. I transform the exercise, however, by specifying that the passage must begin or end with either a monstrous birth or a brutal murder. They enjoy the extreme close-up on the gross-out – but the progressive ‘zoom’ of distance tends to not only get students to put these images into some kind of context, but also to see how specific scenes of gore and shock can be used to illustrate a broader theme by virtue of ‘expanding’ or ‘intensifying’ the setting. For example, one student in my course started with a bullet entering a skull in scatologically surprising ways, then ‘zoomed out’ to describe that the skull belonged to a soldier who was being shot, then ‘zoomed out’ again to detail the sandy and oily setting of a battlefield, and then ‘zoomed out’ again to show Iraq, and then the Middle East from a global satellite, then again to show planet earth and the universe behind it. The variety of perspectives put the gore in a particular context that raised the stakes of the scene, while also addressing the theme of warfare from a global perspective. Guiding such literary exercises can recontextualize horror tropes in ways that push students to embrace thematic concerns in relation to ‘scary’ conceptual ideas and formulae, giving their work more weight and moral significance than it would if genre texts were taught in a vacuum.
Conversely, I have used some of these strategies in non-horror focused English courses. The last time I taught my general Fiction Writing course, we were discussing ‘Setting’ and I intended to have students go out of the classroom, find a quiet place on campus and describe the environment in writing as though it were ‘haunted’. I've had success with this in the past, because students love not only to write ghost stories, but also because they like to get out of their chairs and go out on an expedition. They also enjoy ‘writing what they know’, communally. But on this day, time was running short, so off the cuff I came up with an alternative activity, which still invoked the local environment they were familiar with, but without leaving the room. I asked students to do some in-class writing involving the campus' team mascot: the Seton Hill ‘Griffins’. It occurred to me that this mythological creature – half lion, half-eagle, walking around in a costume on two pawed feet – was truly monstrous, so I asked them to write a flash fiction piece entitled ‘The Day the Griffin Attacked Seton Hill’. They enjoyed this activity so much that they refused to stop writing when I called time, so I asked them to complete the story for homework. When they returned the following period, I asked students to read aloud – and everyone laughed as each student proceeded to slay the college president, claw apart the football team, and even decapitate Dr. Arnzen himself. Even the most die-hard literary writers reported in my evaluations at the end of the term that this was their favourite activity all semester. I think I understand why they enjoyed this so much. They had been asked to merge the ‘write what you know’ philosophy that had been espoused all term with the imaginary approaches of horror writing – which is always about ‘the unknown’ to some degree.
Earlier I mentioned how important it is to establish an environment of trust. One sure fire way to accomplish this is through an emphasis on collectivity over individuality. Too often, literature and mainstream writing courses are predicated on reading iconoclastic authors who are ‘singular’ in their accomplishments or who stand out as ‘master’ authors in the canon. Genre fiction participates in this literary hero worship as well, and any syllabus that enumerates writers of distinction will always read like a ‘top ten’ list of literary masters. But one of the determining factors of genre fiction is its status as ‘popular’ culture – and genres themselves are constructs of a reading community as much as they are the works of singular authors. Thus, for a horror course to be successful, the more emphasis that is put on the students as a collective group, the more they will understand how a reading community contributes to the significance of any given genre text.
A teacher can employ any number of strategies to foment communal and collaborative thinking. Group work, open class discussion, class photos, a class anthology, and other clustered activities all serve to share inquiry among members of a class and bonding student learning in a mutually beneficial manner along the way. In my horror courses, I often try to cultivate community by asking students to read their work to the class as a whole, who respond as an audience. In the past, I've had classes host ghost story readings at night on campus, and I've also sponsored class trips to the movie theatre to screen the latest schlock – and then discuss it deeply in the classroom the next day.
Reading communities – like horror fans – often have a shared, implicit set of criteria by which they judge a work in a genre. In my horror writing course, I try to make these criteria explicit, by ending the term with an in-class writing contest that reinforces what they as an individual group have learned to value across the term. I make it a fun activity, by buying quirky horror-related objects from a local thrift store (a sausage grinder, Halloween decorations, and an RL Stine board game), which served as prizes to the contest winners. They compete, but the activity is really geared to celebrating the communal bonds of the class. The contest is simple: students pull two slips of paper out of a hat, one with a scary-sounding noun (blood, dagger, storm, etc) and one with a scary-sounding adjective (curdling, sharp, dark, etc). They must use this pairing as a title for an imaginary horror novel, and write a hyperbolic synopsis for this book that might appear on its back cover (‘Thunder claps. Clouds fester. Horses bay. And knives rain down from the sky...’). Each student reads his wild plot summaries to the class, and then they collectively vote for the prize-winners (everyone always wants to win the sausage grinder!) I will usually precede this with a look at Douglas Winter's article, ‘Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction’, which offers up criteria for evaluating genre fiction – and I ask the class to rank these items by order of importance, and we use these to judge the prize-winners. Thus, trinkets go to ‘Most Original Premise’ or ‘Best Characterization’ or ‘Goriest Story’. In this way, the course ends with a celebration of the best work produced by the class, judged by a hierarchy of standards that they themselves choose, and aimed toward ‘excellence’ in genre.
As you can see, the ‘thrills’ and pleasures of horror are often as intellectual as they are visceral, and a course that focuses on the horror genre should freely highlight both in the interest of learning. Teachers of popular culture always have it easy when it comes to motivating students, because the material is inherently entertaining. But our responsibility to liberal education need not be any less entertaining. We are in a position to help students respond to genre issues by entertaining thoughts...particularly those that otherwise might frighten us away. There's nothing to fear in the horror classroom, especially fear itself. Fearlessness in intellectual matters is perhaps one of the most important skills we can teach in the name of liberal education, and the horror genre has been fearlessly exploring the darkness for as long as literature has existed. The genre gives artists and readers alike free licence to explore all matters of anxiety and dread that otherwise might go unexamined. In our classes, we explore the limits, powers and responsibilities that come with that licence. It is a licence to kill, imaginatively, after all.
--- (2003) Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 6th Edition (New York: Longman).
Pinedo, Isabel (1997) Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (Albany, NY: SUNY Press).
Winter, Douglas (2007)‘Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction’, In On Writing Horror, Revised Edition, ed. Mort Castle (Cincinatti, OH: Writer's Digest Books), pp. 124-31.
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