Teaching Horror Writing
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.
• 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.
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.
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
Stereotypes and Stock Elements
We brainstorm our expectations from horror stories:
- the unexpected, the unfamiliar
Body fears, identity fears –
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 –
Further body, identity, location and safety horror (with more violence…)
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 –
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
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:
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).
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.
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….
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