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Unleashing the Gremlins in the Crypt: Teaching Horror Fiction

Linda Holland-Toll

The hows and whys, the workings of horror fiction, particularly the emotional effect, and its connections with culture are of consuming interest to me, so it is no surprise that I teach horror fiction courses at every opportunity that comes my way. This fascination goes back a long way; well before I ever became a college professor the reactions of people to my reading material of choice, what the effect was and how it worked, fascinated me. When I decided to pursue a doctorate in literature, my topic was almost preordained. As I noted in the opening remarks on my study of horror fiction, As American as Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction:

‘Once, shortly after reading Stephen King's vampire novel, `Salem's Lot, I was sitting in a chair at my optometrist's in total darkness when I suddenly noticed two small red dots of light. These dots immediately reminded me of the descriptions of sullen red eyes glowing in the dark in `Salem's Lot, and I re-experienced the dis/ease which that particular text had produced in me. (1) For weeks, I had glimpsed those same sullen red eyes out of the corners of my eyes during my evening walks, even though vampires do not exist, and I know that vampires do not exist. Nevertheless, the lines, “Even from the rise we could see the sullen red glare of those eyes. They were less human than wolf’s eyes” reverberated dis/easefully in my mind. (2) To questions like, “Why do you read that stuff, anyway?” I could return no satisfactory answer. But I felt that whatever role horror fiction plays in American life was important, and more than an easy couple of hours’ worth of thrills-n-chills.’ (3)

This anecdote reveals several interesting strategies for teaching horror fiction, to whit, why are nonexistent things scary, why do I, as well as millions of other readers, read ‘that stuff’, and what is important about horror fiction, anyway? Why teach horror when one can scan newspapers, watch the TV news, surf the net and ruin one’s day quite effectively without delving into the fictional? What is important about horror fiction and what is its connection to the culture out of which it comes? That there is one seems inescapable. As Mao Tse-Tung posits, ‘literature does not fall from the heavens, but is the product of social practice [...] inescapably part of a material process [...] the product of reflection, the life of a given society [...],’ and cannot be safely contained within the covers of a texts. (4) Thus, not only is horror fiction interesting, but worth examining on several different levels for what it says about our culture.

Once an instructor either has decided or is allowed to teach a course on Horror Fiction, however, several concerns immediately rustle about and raise their gremlin-like heads from the crypts of the unconscious. Not only must this instructor decide how to teach it: possibly from a structural/generic emphasis, which calls for a definition of horror fiction – a process more fraught than the neophyte might realize – or a historical emphasis, tracing the evolution of horror writing, or a course which looks at the political and social agendas of horror fiction, just as examples. Some instructors might even choose to combine these approaches. (5) All of these sound interesting – and they are – and each approach is quite pedagogically sound. However, all of these approaches eventually lead to deciding what texts to use. The selection is more a problem than might be apparent, but in this case the problem is an embarrassment of riches, rather than too few texts. We are, after all, limited in numbers by the page count we can reasonably expect students to assimilate. One way to avoid too much of a problem is to restrict, perhaps chronologically, generically or thematically the type of texts one wishes to use; naturally, this will restrict the number, at least somewhat. But that approach leads right back to a definition of horror fiction,

‘which tends to elicit the same type of definition as that of the man who says, “I don't know much about art, but I know what I like.” Like our man gazing at canvases and reacting on the basis of simple preference, the reader of horror fiction can readily recognize a horror text but may well resort to the lame and rather exasperating argument based on, “I know what it is when I read it.” What may horrify, terrify, or revolt one reader may not be recognizable or definable as horror to another reader.’ (6)

Only half jokingly, I ask my students whether some recipe for writing horror exists. ‘Take two parts gore and one part walking dead, throw in a pinch of ghost and forbidden knowledge – and there you have it.’ (7)

But all joking aside, horror fiction is a very hard genre to define, although at first it does not appear difficult. We all have assumptions about what is and is not horror fiction. Books which are populated by monsters, for example, are almost always classified as horror fiction8. But what if we have books, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, in which the vampire emerges as the hero? Is the presence of a vampire an absolute horror marker, or not? What about books which feature human monsters? Although many people would disagree, I think that Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon is a horror text; the monster may be in some ways all too human, but certainly Francis Dolarhyde qualifies as a monster. Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach, as well as Stanley Kramer’s fine film, falls into my classification of horror as well. (9)

As a scholar of genre studies, I see defining the characteristics of horror fiction as an important tool to determine why some horror fictions are more effective than others. How, after all, can one talk about a genre and its effects without at least having some idea of what that genre encompasses? And once we have figured out that part, we can talk about how horror fiction works. Like Jane Tompkins in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, I am also interested in examining the kind of cultural work horror texts perform. Tompkins sees literature and literary study ‘not as works of art embodying enduring themes in complex forms but as attempts to redefine the social order [...] they offer powerful examples of the way a culture thinks about itself [...]. (10) This view provides a very fruitful manner in which to teach horror fiction, breaking away as it does from the more canonical view of literature as universal art, as horror fiction is rarely considered, however incorrectly, of canonical stature, particularly the popular and contemporary.

Thus, picking and choosing through literally thousands of choices can be not only daunting but a bit mind-numbing, as I discovered after reading eight hundred horror fictions to arrive at the following conclusion:

‘Generally speaking, however, the reader of horror fictions expects at least some of the following elements to surface: an aspect of the supernatural -- an actual physical monster embodied in the vampire, werewolf, ghost, or aliens; fantastic or inexplicable events which may or may not have a non-fantastic cause, or which [. . .] may or may not be explicable; characters with super/paranormal powers; extreme emotions, melodramatic situations and sensational plots; emotional engagements of terror, horror, or revulsion; and, of course, the paradoxical feeling of enjoyable terror.’ (11)

In addition, I postulated one other element of importance. It [a horror text]

‘must generate[s] a significant degree of unresolved dis/ease within society. The key definition employed is that of a significant degree of unresolved dis/ease or conflict significant enough that the reader who inhabits the society cannot simply gloss it over and return to business as usual. Spreading glossy white frosting over the burned and lumpy cake is not enough; people know that the frosting only hides the ghouls, whatever those ghouls may be, without destroying them. It is the knowledge that horror fiction, rather than reflecting unreal horror, is metaphorically or allegorically discussing everyday horror that causes dis/ease.’ (12)

Since some definition of horror fiction is necessary, in order to construct a reading list, give the course some type of direction, and restrict the number of texts assigned, I decided that I would use books that met the above mentioned paradigm. As David Hartwell states in the introduction to The Medusa Shield, ‘The emotional transaction is paramount and definitive and we recognize its presence even when it doesn't work...’. (13) The lack of resolution is also important, as a text which ends with all the disturbing elements contained and a complete affirmation is not going to generate feelings of horror as the primary effect. The ‘happy ending’ will mitigate the emotion so necessary to horror.

Since I have long been fascinated with horror fiction, how it works, why it works, what value it possesses, and what its prime message concerns, I wrote As American As Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction in an attempt not only to account for my fascination with this somewhat disreputable genre but also to attempt to figure out how the best kinds of horror fiction work. Not only, in other words, what horror is but why we read it at all. What is it about being frightened that is enjoyable? Why is a fiction so dependent on causing feelings of terror and horror in its readers, indeed, a fiction that is ineffective if it does not cause fear-related emotions, so popular? After all, how many people can say they truly enjoy being frightened while they are ostensibly being entertained? While it is certainly true that we can close the book, turn off the film, or remind ourselves that this is only a book/film, etc. and this is a vicarious kind of fright, I have encountered books so disturbing that they quite literally haunt me. (14)

One of the very positive things involved in teaching a class on horror fiction is that it is often upper level and thus is more likely to be composed of students who are actually interested in the subject matter. No one who has ever stared at a large bunch of freshman college students who are staring glumly at their literature anthologies, busily texting, or showing other evidence of massive disinterest and unwillingness to engage, will fail to understand the emotional effect this can have on an instructor. At present, I am dragging a freshman class through Composition II: Writing about Literature, and the vast majority are attending to get it over with, as this is a required course. Some find by course’s end that literature is a delight and go on to take more English classes than the bare requirement, but many do not. Thus, students who have a real interest in a specific genre of literature, who are there because they want to read and discuss horror fiction, are a pleasure to teach.

Once I have involved the class in working out what they see as horror fiction texts, usually by question-and-answer, a definition emerges, which involves most of the conventions discussed above, with the importance on the emotions evoked being of paramount importance and often also adding horror film to the discussion. Most of my students tend to agree with Hartwell on the importance of the emotions generated, and for current students, horror films produce the emotional effects. Since there are many many horror films, as a quick scan of Blockbuster’s shelves or Netflix’s listing will reveal, and since today’s students are more attuned to the visual aspects of film than reading print (alas!), including at least some discussion and showings of horror fiction is very important. In fact, in my experience, the films often serve as portals to the actual texts. Students, for example, who have watched Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining frequently see Jack Torrance as a semi-comic figure: the scenes in which he pops up saying ‘Here’s Johnny!’ and the scene in which it turns out that he has been sitting in the basement typing ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ come to mind. In contrast, the Jack Torrance of King’s novel The Shining is a character of tragic stature, who is seduced and overcome, despite his best attempts at resisting the Hotel and overcoming his many flaws, by the Hotel Overlook. Students who have only seen Kubrick’s film are quite frequently galvanized into discussion by the book. As an aside, I am presently teaching the Epic Hero in Fantasy Novels and Film, and while almost all of my students have seen Peter Jackson’s evocation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there were moans and groans of protest upon the course requirement that the books also be read. The moans grew substantially louder in volume when the students actually hefted Tolkien’s trilogy, but I held my ground (something like Gandalf facing the Balrog, according to my print-savvy students), and three weeks later, my students have begun to appreciate the richness of Tolkien’s texts. The same thing occurs in horror fiction, as students who have watched, it sometimes seems, every horror film made in the last decade without reading the texts on which the films are often based, discover that the books allow for much richer and more in-depth discussion. Dracula is an excellent example of students having watched many vampire films and many versions of Dracula, without ever having read any portion of the original. ‘No, I say, Lucy Westenra is not a promiscuous nymphomaniac; in fact, the worst thing Lucy ever does is sleepwalk and comment that she would like to accept all three of the marriage proposals made her to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.’ How Francis Ford Coppola got Lucy-the-slut out of Stoker’s version remains a mystery. Students often find the original Dracula highly interesting, once they understand the epistolatory nature of the work.

Students are, I have found, particularly interested in both how and why horror fiction works. Since I prefer to lecture as little as is possible and open the class to discussion as often as possible, the question I ask after we have explored the opening question of ‘What is horror fiction, and how do we know we are reading it’, and we have thrashed out a satisfactory answer to the generic basis, the discussion usually shifts to the ‘how’. As in the conventions, I generally expect to see agreement on the necessary elements, as well as the simple fact that the emotions of fear/terror and horror are strong indicators. Students can easily identify texts that frightened them. One student, who watched Stephen King’s mini-series It at the age of about eight, confessed to a life-long fear of circuses and clowns; some students agreed, though one pointed out that she had watched It but asserted that it was the drainage grate that got her – she claims that she cannot walk past one without fearing that she will see Pennywise the Clown peering up at her. Most students will enthusiastically discuss frightening experiences, often, if allowed, veering into haunted house stories, ghost stories and urban legend. This is a useful strategy, as it permits discussion on why horror stories work in the first place. I am careful, however, to not allow the discussion to get too far afield and deteriorate into a story-swapping session; entertaining though this is, creative storytelling is not the purpose of the class.

Drawing upon their supernatural experiences, though, does bring us to an important point in my classes: why does horror work at all? We all agree that there are no vampires or werewolves or mummies, no zombies or ghouls or ghosts. We are unlikely to encounter a haunted house or be actually haunted by a ghost. Nor is Pennywise the Clown lurking in storm drains, waiting to snatch the unwary reader. Nor would we feel the sense of pleasurable terror if any of these situations were real. We live in the real world, I say, and the real world, while it does have manifest horrors, human monsters and environmental disasters and man’s inhumanity to man abounding, we neither have nor do we need supernatural monsters to contend with. Why, therefore, do these stories affect us? A common narrative emerges here: students are very clear on the emotions and the triggers (darkness, the storm grate, the clown, spiders, the creepy house, etc.) but unclear on what these specific triggers, metaphorically or archetypically, represent. King refers to these triggers as ‘phobic pressure points’, and cogently comments that these phobic pressure points are often national in scope and ‘play on and express fears that exist across a wide spectrum of people’. (15) He also links the triggers to cultural and societal anxieties, an idea which may form the terms for exploring horror fiction for the rest of the semester. In my experience, fruitful discussions occur when one asks such questions as: What is a monster? What do vampires do? What does sucking blood stand for? Why is it that so often horror figures are outside established societal norms? What happens to a person who turns into a werewolf? Is a human monster an oxymoron? Does horror fiction validate our values or reject them? What, for example, happens to teenagers who have sex in the back seat of a car in several well known horror movies?

I then ask why something that has not happened can so affect us. This is not only relevant to horror fiction, as anyone who has had students debating the merits of a text or the characters’ behaviour within almost any fictional text is well aware, but horror fiction, like some fantasy but unlike realistic novels, depends on the willing suspension of disbelief and the muscular imagination necessary to support the weight of that disbelief. While these students may or may not be familiar with Coleridge’s concept of ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ or King’s commentary that ‘disbelief is not like a balloon, which may be hoisted in the air with a minimum of effort; it is a lead weight which has to be hoisted... and held up by main force.’ He further comments that when he meets people who don’t read horror, he feels sympathy. As he says, ‘They simply can’t lift the weight. The muscles of the imagination have grown too weak.’ (16) Most students taking a horror fiction class will understand this view, even those lacking a critical background. Once all of these issues have been thoroughly discussed and understood, which can be assessed by short response papers and class discussion, it may be time to move on to the larger issues.

In at least one horror fiction class, I chose to explore horror fiction and its relation to social/cultural fears and political agendas. If most of the fear-generating images in horror fiction are symbolic, allegorical or metaphorical, books and short stories which feature human monsters, the breakdown of values and community, and dystopias are among the categories that work well here. The move is from the individual to the community to the overall society. Students move from horror on a personal level, to horror and community, to the even more encompassing society, examining what horror fiction has to say about themselves and the world they inhabit. From such well known texts as Red Dragon and The Mist to less well known short stories as ‘Extenuating Circumstances’, The House Next Door and ‘Midnight Mass’, ‘The Lottery’ or ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’, ‘All My Darling Daughters’, ‘A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned’ and The Handmaid’s Tale, the better horror texts look at what much other literature looks at – the relationships between ourselves and our societies. (17) Such texts ask us to think of what these texts are on a deeper level than the delights of terror or a consideration of the structures of horror fiction, and while students may not like each and every text, and in fact, may really really dislike or be troubled by specific texts, I see this as one of the more important functions of horror. One of my students who read a trio of horror stories in my Women & Literature class – Connie Willis’ ‘All My Darling Daughters’, Joyce Carol Oates’ ‘Extenuating Circumstances’ and Lisa Tuttle’s eerie ‘Replacements’ – at least five years ago, still remembers the stories and still feels troubled by them. It is not, he says, that he sees them as realistic and accurate depictions of feminist engagement with the patriarchy, precisely; it is just that, well, the stories make him think about women’s place in society. And the thoughts are not comfortable. As I note in As American As Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie, ‘Effective horror fiction holds up a carnival house mirror which reveals the often warped but ironically true image of our society, our community, and ourselves, and while this may be, as Stephen King says, “the most important and useful form of fiction a moral writer may command,” it is also a subject about which people do not wish to think’. (18) And while horror texts, be they novels or be they films, are entertaining and offer insight not only into literature as a specific set of conventions and functions, they also offer a chance to dig deep into how something works and why it affects us as it does on its many levels.

So, given a chance to teach horror, leap at the chance, let the gremlins loose and enjoy the ride!

1 ‘Dis/ease’, a neologism I coined for this project, is the disturbing effect and the sense of unease which the texts I discuss generate; a sense more active than ‘un-‘ and generating a greater amount of the horrific emotions. The slash is less axiomatic of current literary theory and criticism and more to separate the word from disease.

2 King, Stephen (1978) ‘One for the Road’, Night Shift (New York: Doubleday), p. 319.

3 Holland-Toll, Linda J. (2001) As American As Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction (Bowling Green: U of Bowling Green Popular P), p. 1.

4 Mao Tse-Tung, ‘Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art’, qtd. in Ettienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey, ‘On Literature as an Ideological Form’, Oxford Literary Review, 3 36.

5 One course I have always wanted to teach starts with Lewis’ The Monk, includes Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in their historical, social and political contents, and moves from those texts through more current times. Why a monk? There are no monks in Protestant Britain; do people fear being ‘parts’, is Dracula xenophobic and J & H about the Ripper.

6 Holland-Toll, p. 6.

7 Holland-Toll, p. 9.

8 I am quite sure there is an exception somewhere, although I cannot, off the top of my head, think of one.

9 See Linda J. Holland-Toll's As American As Mom, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Constructing Community in Contemporary American Horror Fiction for further analysis.

10 Tompkins, Jane (1985) Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790 - 1860 (New York: Oxford UP), p. xi.

11 Holland-Toll, p. 6.

12 Holland-Toll, p. 9.

13 Hartwell, David G. (1987) Introduction (ed.), The Medusa in the Shield, vol 2, The Dark Descent (New York: Tor), p. 9.

14 Thomas Tryon’s The Other, Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, The Stand, and ‘One for the Road’, Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird, and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’.

15 King, Stephen (1981) Danse Macabre (New York: Everett House Publishing), p. 5.

16 King, Danse, p. 99.

17 Naturally, these are just a few examples of horror works that might be useful for discussion.

18 King, Stephen (1981) Introduction, The Arbor House Treasury of Horror and the Supernatural (eds.) Bill Pronzini, Barry Malzberg, and Martin H. Greenberg (New York: Arbor House), p. 5.

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