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Teaching Horror: Subversion, Sublimnity, and SO MUCH BLOOD!
‘Hello my name is Frances Auld and I teach monsters.’
I began my letters of application with that statement this year. It is my own personal petty rebellion against much of the reception of Horror Studies within the academy. Speculative fiction taps the strength of queerness; it is the (un)wonderbread that nourishes our imaginations. I find that while speculative fiction overall may be receiving a more positive embrace from the academic world, horror (always the ugly sister and rightly so) still faces many of the old prejudices concerning its frivolous or even destructively perverse themes. The prevalence of torture porn in the local cinema may not be helping my case. Unfortunately, those people who dismiss art they don’t understand as ‘popular’ are equally unlikely to discuss aesthetics of form in a bondage tableau or the nuances of political allegory applied to the undead.
‘Horror is ubiquitous and its avatar is the monstrous body’ my dissertation began and I will stick by that assessment.(1) The mere volume of today’s horror fiction and film is a cultural phenomenon and thus should speak for the validity of its academic analysis. However, if you are reading this, you may already recognize the sublime beauty and critical necessity of peering into our culture’s dark mirror, the literature and cinema of sensual decay with its evocation of pain, death, and pleasure. I would be preaching to the choir to reiterate the exquisite arguments of David Skal, Marina Warner, John Clute, Elizabeth Miller, Tony Magistrale, Philip Simpson, Noel Carroll, etc. Rather than repeat these writers, I give them thanks.
That thanks being given, I wish to consider how we who embrace the aesthetic validity of the genre manage to teach sublime horror in some rather prosaic courses. 'Cultural Studies and the Popular Arts' becomes 'Reflections of Desire: Vampire as Icon in American Culture'. Literary Criticism is taught through the bloody lens of Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and Fight Club. There is room for the study of horror in the contemporary academy, and we who teach it know this. Now the only thing we have to do is explain all that blood on the screen.
Horror works as a genre study, both to teach as material by which to understand and master literary and cultural criticism, and as a subject matter with its own integral set of aesthetics. The prosaic, day-to-day work of professors is to provoke artistic interactions, to evoke epiphany about the world, to ignite the imagination of their students. Horror works! The sublime and the subliminal are inherently personal, evoking the body and thus an affective response (2) and with our help this can lead to intellectual/analytical/critical response! As an area of student research this is fabulous. It is practical because of the enormous volume of contemporary horror literature and film (some of which is very, very good) and it is functional because at this point, professors have good critical analyses based on the last 25-30 years of horror scholars’ painstaking labour. There may not be as many good critical analyses of horror as there are worthwhile texts, but I know we are publishing good material as quickly as we can.
Horror repels; horror appeals. It does this in the committee room, in the classroom, in the personal moments when I read for myself. My brain recognizes categories, as well as the merger of those categories. It delights in language even as it laughs at this pale, dry marker for life, language. Language compared to the synaptic pleasure that is my physical experience of life! That really is the point. Horror has the potential to tap personal, physical response. That is beautiful, sublime. Horror is so sublime that the end or purpose to which a college professor uses this ‘power art’ had better be good.
How do I translate the personal experience to a committee and validate what portions of the academe may see as little more than porn? What is the sublime that horror evokes? Perhaps it is the moment an empathic, human response is evoked by the fictive, that moment in which an audience member can find human connection or solace in another’s response. Perhaps it is that moment in which a student learns to trust his or her emotional response enough to explore it analytically. Perhaps horror at its most sublime functions as the revenant: (1) the zombie, (2) the ghost, (3) vampire. It brings the dead material of an exit or survey course to a specialized personal life by evoking passion and curiosity.
Thus, horror as a tool is effective because of its popular appeal, along with the functionality of its subject and matter. I propose three levels at which horror can and does function in the classroom: Affective, Analytical, Critical.
Part I ‘I Sing the Body Horrific’ Affective Function
Ever hold a stranger’s hand in a haunted house? Ever smile when someone, shocked by an image, drops her or his popcorn during a film? Ever need to talk to someone about a story you just read, wanting to share some philosophical epiphany? Ever passed a paperback life-changer to your best friend? Horror works the same way really good non-horror can work: it engages us to the point of dialogue. Horror allows for affective responses that create a bond in the classroom. As Lovecraft suggested, the measure of the horror story is the emotion it evokes from the reader. (4) Horror is interstitial and subversive, perfect for college students who may not want to be thinking about what (they think) the Humanities are, namely dry and dusty. Horror can provide personal, affective entre into the sublime beauty and dread of our cultural heritages.
Horror works as a validation of the students’ responses, especially their emotional responses. Suddenly, a professor tells them they have been right all along; the way they feel about a text is important. This sense of emotional competency is especially valuable to those students who have had rigorous training in using language for measurement and rational evaluation. Suddenly they get to feel past the crust of college apathy and tap the cortex of intellectual growth, feeling. Even the pain or discomfort of a new aesthetic can feel pretty good, when they are invited to feel!
Part II Dis/Re/Membering Their Culture, Aristotle et al
Horror allows entrance into the intellectual exercise of analysis. Students are invited to identify and read structures; this is a fast track to Artistolean analysis. If form follows function, then how do these forms/structures within horror work? To what extent can students find patterns of these structures and what is the relationship between authorial use of these structures and aesthetics? If Fangoria is a stepping stone to Aristotle, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer allows a student to theorize a gynocentric world view, then both the class and the underlying pedagogical methodology is working. Once students have the tools and some confidence they can approach the process of self-defining aesthetics towards horror. What does ‘Beautiful Horror’ mean to them?
As professors, we are faced with assessment and evaluations and horror can offer proof of our success. The proof is in the pudding—or perhaps the meat pie in the case of horror. Students consistently demonstrate proof of critical thinking and higher order writing skills. Horror analyses (student produced quizzes, papers, films) can demonstrate the very analytical prowess demanded by an academy that may otherwise easily disregard or trivialize the genre under analysis.
Part III Critical Readings from the Safety of Horror
You want to teach students the concept of infantilization? Show them Rosemary’s Baby. Have them keep a list of images, symbols, narrative incidents that remind them of babies. Explaining Kristeva’s abject? Consider showing them any zombie film. Even the parodies allow for a dramatic physical rejection of the familiar walking dead. Vampires, in their vast beneficence, allow for as many modes of critical analyses as the polymorphous boogers have shapes. They are category crisis made flesh and blood, and more blood. (6) They are also less scary to bring into a classroom than Karl Marx. Yet, with the help of Franco Moretti, vampires can perform effective introductions to Marxist theory.
Perhaps horror is a side door into critical theory, but it works. It works especially well for non-majors who are often genuinely terrified to be taking a “writing intensive” class sitting next to the English majors who may have read Faulkner for fun and consider a Hemingway novel a “beach book.” The non-majors’s affective response, “I was disgusted”, is actually a fine place to start discussion of how a short story works. Once again, the affective response which is so easily negated in a college classroom becomes the starting place for the negotiation of new ways of seeing, new tools for analysis. Meanwhile the well-heeled English major has the chance to redefine/expand the canon as covered in survey hell.
My students accuse me of teaching theory. Not just in the Literary Theory course, but in every class with a monstrous body. And I repeat: Horror is ubiquitous and its avatar is the monstrous body. Try painting a word picture, a portrait in language directed by the whole class. Students will willingly contribute. They may be terrified of Queer Theory, but they know Dracula can turn into a bat, the simultaneous experience of multiple categories. Try looking for monster parallels through different critical lenses (Psychoanalytic, Queer, Deconstructive, Feminist, New Historical, Marxist, Postmodern, Structuralist/Poststructuralist). Thank heavens and the writers’ imaginations for Zombies, Vampires, Ghosts, and Werewolves. Iconic for much of the undergraduate population, they become a kind of lingua franc(enstein). These are not real bodies by any means, but they stand in for the real, made permeable to critical analysis precisely because they are such symbolically real bodies.
Fictions of horror, themselves an interstitial, category-permeable genre, welcome non-English majors and non-expert film enthusiasts. History majors, Finance majors, Women’s Studies majors can speak to short horror fiction that evokes varied, discipline-specific responses, each of which is a good critical tack to meaning. You may argue that all good literature can evoke contextual responses in a wide audience. Perhaps it can, but the visceral nature of horror, combined with the contemporary cultural saturation for college students, makes it a unique venue for interdisciplinary undergraduate discourse. (8)
English doesn’t work, so we struggle with it, enmeshed in the swirls of a synthetic experience (language), searching for the pith, the meat of experience to communicate pain, fear, empathy. That is when and why horror works. You don’t get any more “meaty” than horror. Why all the blood? To quote the masters: “The Blood is the life!” (9)
Carroll, Noel (1990) The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge).
----------------(1987) ‘The Nature of Horror’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Autumn), pp. 51-59.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome (1996) ‘Monster Culture (Seven Theses)’, Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Cohen (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Clute, John (2006) The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (Seattle: Payseur and Schmidt).
Gordon, Joan and Hollinger Veronica (eds) (1997) Blood Read: Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).
Holland-Toll, Linda J. (2001) As American as Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction (Bowling Green: Bowling Green UP).
Kristeva, Julia (1982) The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudez (New York: Columbia UP).
Lovecraft, H.P. (1973) Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover).
Magistrale, Tony (2005) Abject Terrors: Surveying the Modern and Postmodern Horror Film (New York: Peter Lang).
--------------------- (1996) and Michael Morrison (eds) A Dark Night’s Dreaming: Contemporary American Horror Fiction (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press).
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1848) The Communist Manifesto, ed. Gareth Stedman Jones (2002) (London: Penguin).
Melville, Herman (1851) Moby Dick (London: Bentley).
Miller, Elizabeth (1997) Reflections on Dracula (Whiterock, BC Canada: Transylvania Press), http://www.transylvania.com/
--------------------- (1998) (ed) Dracula: The Shade and Shadow (Essex: Desert Island Books).
----------------------(2000) Dracula: Sense and Nonsense (Essex: Desert Island Books).
Moretti, Franco (1988) ‘The Dialectic of Fear’, Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (trans.) Susan Fischer, (ed) Franco Moretti (New York: Verso).
Salomon, Roger (2002) Mazes of the Serpent: An Anatomy of Horror Narrative (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
Shelley, Mary (1818) Frankenstein (London: Harding, Maver, and Jones).
Simpson, Philip (2000) PsychoPaths: Tracking the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP).
Skal, David (2001) The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (New York: Faber and Faber).
Stoker, Bram (1897) Dracula (London: Archibald Constable).
Warner, Marina (2007) Monsters of Our Own Making: The Peculiar Pleasures of Fear (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky).
Wells, H.G. (1896) The Island of Dr. Moreau (2008) (Rockville, Maryland: Phoenix Pick).
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Paramount Pictures. Directed, Screenplay by Roman Polanski. Adapted from Ira Levin’s novel.
The Thing (1982) Universal Pictures. Dir. John Carpenter. Screenplay Bill Lancaster. Adapted from John Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”
2 Noel Carroll’s brilliant discussion of the affective nature of horror is available in The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990). I have had great success using a short journal article of his, “The Nature of Horror” (1987) as an introductory critical reading for my undergraduate classes. He brings students the concepts of “art horror” (51) and the interstitial” (55), both of which are very useful tools to begin textual analysis.
3 Perhaps the most exciting discussion of cultural trauma and visual horror is David Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (Faber, 2001). Students usually enjoy the text and they often read beyond the assignment. The book has a wonderful interdisciplinary flavour to it and student film buffs, architecture geeks, as well as 20th century historians can hold a conversation about a single film based on a chapter.
4 H. P. Lovecraft’s famous essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” written in 1927 is still a valuable tool in understanding why some texts seem so effective at affecting their audiences. Paired with a short story by the author, Lovecraft’s analysis is a fine introductory kit for the application of theory to text.
5 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Theory, (Seven Theses)” is a milestone in cultural theory that speaks to a sequence of theoretical statements about contemporary societies’ need and use for the figure of the monster.
6 Gordon and Hollinger’s Blood Read offers a delightful batch of essays that offer strong critical insights. Having used this as a textbook, I found that it challenged the students with theory, but always offered them a plethora of examples of popular culture vampires to explain the theory.
7 Linda Holland-Toll speaks to the ways in which real cultural tensions about contagions can be explored through fictions of horror in As American as Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction.
8 Linda Holland-Toll speaks to the ways in which real cultural tensions about contagions can be explored through fictions of horror in As American as Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction.
9 Deuteronomy 12:20, by way of Bram Stoker, F. Marion Crawford, and
many other fine horror writers.
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