Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner

Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner




Teaching Horror Writing

Gina Wisker

Teaching or reading horror are both often seen as suspicious, deviant pleasures, and yet they offer wonderful opportunities to question the received versions of comfortable reality, and to handle some of the difficult, challenging situations in which we might find ourselves. Both seem to me to be subversive, exciting, and about our development. However, think of the responses to people seen reading horror in public places, and we might uncover some of the latent distaste and distrust of the genre among maybe our more conformist or less imaginative colleagues (friends, family, students). What, one might wonder, is going on in your head or that of your students to make you want to read something deliberately nasty, absurdly fantastic, gruesome, and disgusting (possibly even pornographic)? Reading, writing and teaching horror are not something easy to own up to among friends and acquaintances, and not to academic colleagues either. I have spent some time wondering myself why when I was much much younger I enjoyed and sought out ‘horror comics’ and the Tales from the Crypt alongside the Superman and Batman. I think, in retrospect, that they both fed my lively imagination and helped me face up to a sense of uneasiness at the apparent safety of the everyday. There was a particularly surprising revelation of how odd my tastes were when, visiting my grandparents in Hull, North of England, on an extremely rare visit from our life abroad, I tried to buy a horror comic on Hull station. The woman at the kiosk stared at my mother as if she were some kind of monster. I was clearly very deviant. Horror comics had been banned in the UK. I did not understand this criminalisation of my favourite pursuit (I was nine years old) until much later I read Martin Barker’s Haunt of Fears (1984), which pointed out the relationships between the radical critique of horror comics and the repressive politics which shut them down in the fifties and sixties. This started then to help me make connections between horror’s pleasures and its potential as an ideologically engaged, critical vehicle (see Femspec special issue on horror 2004).

Horror, in particular, attracts critical scrutiny about our motivations for reading, teaching, writing and the pleasures we derive from this. I thought I would share some thoughts about teaching a creative writing class in horror writing, rather than the move conventional sessions embedded in my popular fiction module. Let me take us all back….

It’s a creative writing course in Ruskin College, Oxford, England, and I am going to do a session on writing horror. I have done this with several other groups around the UK and have a good idea that the extracts and prompts will work with these very interesting looking students, but you never know.

Context and Students
Ruskin is both an Oxford college, solid, old, but not Gothic and medieval, and a college where adult learners engage with a variety of courses from the history of the trades unions to creative writing. This group are a mixture of mature women returners and younger men. Some have been at work, others studying, some perhaps in prison, and the older women are anything from housewives to journalists and dramatists. I have no real idea at the outset what the backgrounds or reading practices of the students are until I ask them a few things about themselves and about their thoughts about writing horror.

On such occasions I usually start with asking:

• What do you expect from a piece of horror writing?

• What horror have you read or seen on film?

• What are its stereotypical characteristics?

• Do you like horror?

The final question reveals that some students really hate horror. They think it is sexist, sick and rather bizarre. They have, for instance, no idea that it can be amusing as well as gory and that good horror genuinely finds its way to our inner selves and makes us face some of the things we are afraid of in order to help us perhaps to overcome or face these. They think it is entertaining rather than imagining it can also engage with cultural, social and personal issues. I think it is my role to let these thoughts emerge and also to offer some others, before we set about writing some horror. I would like to engage them enough for them to want to use it as a genre to speak about themselves and their lives, about cultural and political or social issues, and speak to others, through their writing. The whole point of the sessions is to loosen up these responses so that they can decide that, even if they won’t use the medium of this genre themselves, they won’t need to dismiss it again because they can see what it can do, and how it does it.

I think it is important to share our experiences of the genre. So I share mine, and ask for examples of theirs, in pairs, then ask for a couple of offers to tell the whole group.

One of my own experiences is watching The Fly when I was eight years old in a thunderstorm, in Cyprus, when the whole film show system fused at exactly the moment that the scientist is accidentally merged with the horrible fly in a freak accident. Many of us, including me, have a loathing of flies and their disgusting habits, so this is a terrible fate. It is disgusting, the result is monstrous, he turns into a victim and a monster depending on which bits are fly and which human, and so discussing what we mean by ‘monster’ is one of the first prompts to trigger creative imaginative juices in this session. Differently unpalatable is the lapse in rationality which leads a scientist to think that he or she can master science and play with what it means to be human. It is a standard monster situation exploited in mythology but here it is a terrible scenario because it merges with the mad scientist model, the scientist who we believe can cure diseases, transport us aboard rapidly and solve the world’s problems. He clearly lacks such godlike powers and can only dissolve everything into disgust and sorrow. The moral or morals of the tale is clear, the elements of horror within it are also gradually clear and familiar – mad scientist, hubris or arrogance, bugs and horrible nasty insects ie flies, what is human nature and switches of identity. Entertaining qualities are included and a violent and unpleasant ending.

A perfect example of horror. I share this experience with them, and they reveal their own versions of horror, which range from reading and viewing monstrous activities on the TV or in news stories – war atrocities, genocide, multiple serial killers and cannibals, and then the films which have fascinated and disgusted them – The Exorcist, Dracula in its various versions, films featuring body swaps, spiders, snakes, incarceration, impaling, saws, chainsaws, cannibals, getting lost (and then being eaten) and so on.

Everyone is sufficiently disturbed by now but they are also pleased they have shared this, and interested in the images the discussion provokes, the variety of what horrifies, disgusts, terrifies, awes.

Moving On – Engagement with Social, Cultural, Personal
It is time for some cultural, social, and personal engagement. From their fears and their experiences we lead on to explore what the horror examples might be saying about the human condition, and how they might be saying it – lashings of gore, serious historical realism, deep seated psychological issues and images are noted. Fear of engulfment, ingestion, invasion, unwanted change, death, guilt, and evil itself emerge.

Stereotypes and Stock Elements
I ask them to consider a number of horror stereotypes and the typical trajectory of a horror narrative from shock revelation, duplicitous revelation, attack, undermining comfortable scenarios, building up to the violence and gore, and back down to resolution or lack of resolution, from exposure and explosion to some kind of a management, to the culmination, the final resolution and closing down, returning to some kind of morality (or not).

Then we look at short examples and discuss the types of horror scenarios and images they reveal. I tend to use some examples such as from Dennis Wheatley, which features conventional Devil vs patriarchal power, with female victims and tough very British bringing of sensible order. I use Suzy McKee Charnas’s story ‘Boobs’, also, where a teenage girl takes revenge on a pest at school by using her adolescent metamorphosis, which turns her into both an object of desire and, unusually (but metaphorically?) into a werewolf – so she can finish him off. Werewolf nature is not something terrible to her, it gives her power and her power can be used wickedly to get rid of sex pests. Students are worried about the trying out of her power in eating small dogs, and some take literally the devouring of Billy Linden, the teenage sex pest, and worry about him. This provokes comments about not taking horror literally but seeing it as a metaphor or an imaginative parallel to the working out of a situation in life (male/ female relations, teenage changes, power games…). Those who cannot see such a parallel in such an imaginative embodiment through the horror fantasy might have problems reading and certainly writing horror. It could be too confused with the real. We are trying here to engage with issues of representation as opposed to mimesis, while still recognising that the daily ingestion of horror from the media is about real events.

We brainstorm our expectations from horror stories:

- the unexpected, the unfamiliar
- eruptions of violence – or it’s threatened
- a scary atmosphere
- monstrous creatures or people – sometimes those you know turn into these, reveal themselves
- ghost stories as versions of horror stories are often told as part of a comfortable family and friends    moment, eg Christmas
- a way of drawing you in, so you the reader have to take part or suffer too
- usually you trust whoever tells you the tale – authenticity
- it’s finished off – but suggestion the horror could return

We brainstorm what horror/ghost tales they know of and start to label the kinds of fears and horrors these relate to:

Body fears, identity fears –
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The Island of Dr Moreau
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Friends, family, those you feel you can trust, such as doctors and teachers, erupt into something terrifying, which, it is suggested, they probably have always had within them.

Horrors of birth and child rearing –
The Midwich Cuckoos
The Village of the Damned
Rosemary’s Baby
Demon Seed

Further body, identity, location and safety horror (with more violence…) –
Wolf Creek

We talk of examples of horror imaging of women – and what to expect – hags, bimbos, femme fatales, victims screaming in Hammer films, and identify such female figures in everything from Species and Species II to Keats’ Lamia and Poe’s Ligeia, vampire women, Medusa, sirens, devouring creatures and conventional horror figures, eg of Denis Wheatley’s valuing and insisting on patriarchal controls over women’s sexuality in To the Devil a Daughter.

What kind of beliefs and values are these built on? What do they undercut? How are the female figures and characters being used?

We look then at dreams and nightmares, at houses which seem neighbourly and safe but which turn into houses of horror –
A Nightmare on Elm Street
The Amityville Horror
House of Usher

We are moving between 19th century and 20th and 21st-century texts – Poe, Keats, Stoker etc and late 20th century/early 21st-century films, to capture the variety of their experience.

Onto Some Writing
Having identified the tropes, locations and the formulae I ask them to:

Think carefully, then spend 20 minutes on the writing.

Pick something that is an everyday part of your life, your work, someone or something that you are familiar with or feel safe about, and turn it into a short horror story or poem. Destabilise what is comfortable about this – familiar family turned dangerous or Other, familiar trip turned threatening and deadly, disease transferred in an everyday setting, bugs, spiders, aliens….

Notice the elements of:
• Setting
• Atmosphere
• Tone
• Pace
• Character
• Point of view
• Event
• Build up of suspense and then revelations, explosions, and resolutions, or not
• Adjectives and adverbs
• And so on

To help them along I offer a few lines as starters (these come from any part of the short tale):

1. There was a sudden noise in the corner, and turning to see what it might be, she….

2. It had seemed such a good idea in the beginning….

3. ‘No doctor, you must listen to me, my husband is not my husband….’

4. ‘I’ll just go and take a look, I’ll be back in a moment….’

5. It was at that moment that he realised it was all going horribly wrong….’

6. The figure turned, revealing….’

They build these short pieces of work up. Then they share and act as critical friends to each other (15 mins either way).

What the intention is? What are the perceived threats? Where is the horror atmosphere? How is it constructed? How are other elements (character, narrative point of view, voice, setting, etc) working, and also, clarifying – is there a message? A warning? A revelation? An ironising? In here too?

Each makes some suggestions about where the little stories can be further developed. The writer then decodes what else to do (not necessarily what has been suggested). Then they work for a further 20 mins on the piece. Some are read out – this is a personal choice. Everyone else is invited to make positive comments.

This is usually a fun, cathartic experience which offers the opportunity to identify the characteristics of the genre in action, and the kind of responses which it provokes in its readership.

These are only starter exercises. Longer creative writing courses, courses with several weeks devoted to horror, would move beyond the starters to the honing of the very different pieces these students would produce, each from somewhere in the depths of a mix of their own experiences, their imaginations, and what they have read or seen before.

You would have to search their portfolios, their secret drawers and arcane little magazines to find out what else these students might have written later. And little did I know, as I left the solid, stone building in the ancient city of ivy clad walls and incessant rain in that dark November afternoon, turning down a gloomy and unexpected side street, to find my car….

Website maintained by Michelle Bernard - Contact michelle.bernard@anglia.ac.uk - last updated May 27, 2009