Rosemary’s Baby: Teaching Horror, Week 4

This week’s horror class explored religious horror. We read Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and watched Roman Polanski’s film adaptation (1968). This was the class’s first film assignment, kicking off a few weeks focusing mostly on film after the opening few weeks of written texts.

Rosemary's Baby poster

This week is the most reading-intensive portion of the class. I didn’t want to interrupt the structure I had set up for the first half of the course (one subgenre, theme, or topic per week) and Levin’s book is a pretty quick read, so I asked students to read the entire novel for Tuesday and then watch the movie before class on Thursday. Not everyone quite succeeded at finishing the book in time, but we still had good discussions on both days. If I teach this course again, I might change the timing on this and either spend a little more time on the novel so they can all finish reading on schedule or simply assign the movie and not the novel.

Assigning only the film version would remove some of this week’s function, however. The film is a very faithful adaptation, so my choice to assign both book and movie was not because students were going to get significantly different narratives out of them. Instead, I wanted to be able to compare the book and movie precisely because they are so similar. Their similarity makes this a good introduction to film adaptation and film analysis. In class today, for instance, because the film is so closely tied to the book, we used that similarity to help highlight the different techniques available to Levin and Polanski. How, for instance, can Polanski give viewers the same understanding of Rosemary as the book does? The book provides us with her thoughts, but the movie doesn’t; how, then, I asked my students, do we know what she’s thinking or feeling? And what tradeoffs are there when shifting from one medium to another? Identifying such techniques and the different effects they have on us, even when the story and its details are so similar, was quite productive.

We also looked closely at some specific scenes in class to identify what film techniques were being used and what effects they had. In particular, I wanted students to note the way the camera stays close to Rosemary, keeping us connected to her and giving us her perspective on the world. I also asked them to listen closely to the music in a few scenes (highlighting the lullaby theme, the theme associated with her physical pain, and the music in a chase scene late in the film) and to try to describe a) its emotional effect on us and b) what the music is doing to create that effect. I pushed them a little on this because I’ve found that although music is an incredibly influential element in film, most people don’t have the appropriate language to talk about how it works. Since this isn’t a music class, I’m not going to try to teach them actual music theory or terminology, but I do want them to listen for what kinds of instruments are used and to work on describing what the melody might be doing (rising, falling, staying static) or identifying how the music uses rhythm, volume, and even silence. We’ll keep working on this.

RosemarysBaby_071Pyxurz mrs castevetrosemary61 castevets

Aside from this kind of comparative work and close reading/listening, most of our discussion of the novel and film revolved primarily around two central ideas.

The first, which I asked the class to write about at the end of class on Tuesday, is about the role of belief in horror. Do we need to believe in the devil (or ghosts or whatever fantastic element a horror story includes) in order to be frightened by the story? Most students argued in their writing that we do not need to believe to be affected by the story, but that belief in the devil or other supernatural entities might add to the fear we experience. Empathy for the characters and suspension of disbelief allow us to connect with the story even when we don’t take it literally, they argued. A small minority in the class wrote that belief is necessary for the story’s effects to work, and I want to continue to explore the failures of horror – where it doesn’t succeed – throughout the semester, too.

The second idea was part of our discussions on both days and is connected to the first in some ways. If many audience members don’t believe in the devil or in the supernatural, what else makes Rosemary’s Baby work? I’m not scared by the devil in this film, but I am scared by the way Rosemary’s entire world works against her and removes all control of her own life. Her husband emotionally abuses her and sells her body and her baby for his own gain; her neighbors manipulate her, stalk her, and steal her baby; her doctor isolates her from her friends and other sources of information; and they all work together to make her helpless and childlike. They gaslight her about her weight loss, they lie to her about their motives, and they physically assault her when it’s time for her to give birth and then keep her drugged so she won’t find out the truth. All of this happened because she wanted a family and a happy home and was too nice and too willing to believe in others to see the threat that her new neighbors represented.

rosemarys-baby-3 sick

Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the devil trying to bring about the death of God and the beginning of a new reign of Satan is okay; Rosemary’s Baby as a story about the abuse and control of young women’s lives and bodies is, on the other hand, powerful and wonderfully creepy.

Rosemary's Baby pain

Next week, our overarching theme will be race, and we’ll watch Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992).

Music for this week: On Tuesday, I played John Fullbright’s “Satan and St. Paul” for both a change in musical genre and the Satan reference; on Thursday, I played Kishi Bashi’s “I Am the Antichrist to You” for the antichrist reference. I’m not subtle.

LGBTQ Literature: Coming This Spring!

I will be teaching a one-hour course on LGBTQ literature this coming spring semester. Teaching a one-hour course feels a little odd, but I am excited about the class. I haven’t worked out all of the details yet, but at this point it looks like we will be reading Martin Sherman’s Bent, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues plus a variety of other short stories and poems as time permits.

Obviously, any course is going to fail to achieve complete coverage and this is even more true of a one-hour course. I had to pass on a major work like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, for instance, because it was just too long to work out for a semester where we only meet once a week for an hour. Similarly, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which I love and teach often, had to be left out, not because it is too long (it reads really quickly) but because it is packed with references and connections that students need time and assistance to work through. We just don’t have that time.

Having said that, I think the three major texts I’ve chosen will work well and should lend themselves to some interesting discussions.

Now I just have to get people to sign up for the class!

LGBTQ Literature poster legal 4

The Haunting of Hill House: Week 3 of Teaching Horror Lit & Film

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

This week’s horror course was devoted to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a novel that grows out of the Gothic tradition we’ve previously discussed and that influences later works such as Stephen King’s The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (books that, sadly, we do not have time to read this semester).

This week consisted of pretty straightforward literary discussion of the book. Our discussions for both days relied fairly heavily on student questions from their notecards. This group of students has so far brought good questions to class, so that worked well. Lots of students wanted to talk about whether Eleanor influenced Hill House (in addition to being influenced by it), whether she was actually possessed by the house or just insane, and the significance of Eleanor’s final moment of clarity (“Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why don’t they stop me?”). There were also questions such as these, which we discussed as a class: When everyone is searching for Eleanor, how would the mood change if the perspective was from the group instead of just Eleanor? What do you think would have happened if they had not made Eleanor leave?

I also provided the class with a couple of questions to consider. For instance, I asked the class to consider how this novel fits (or doesn’t fit) into the horror genre. There was an interesting division of opinion on this. Quite a few argued that the novel is standard psychological horror and fits clearly within our definition of horror as something that is about the threat of death and/or madness; others, however, argued that this is not horror but instead a psychological drama. The latter group seemed to see Jackson’s novel as not quite horror because it lacked some of the conventions they are accustomed to in more recent horror and because it set up certain expectations with its Gothic trappings that it didn’t then fulfill. I found this interesting. I argued that the book is horror and that those Gothic trappings (the giant statue, the cold spot, the library, etc.) are not the point. Jackson, on the contrary, includes these elements to show that they are not what is truly frightening; what is truly frightening is what happens inside Eleanor’s mind.

Finally, the following two statements (made by Dr. Montague) are key to the book, I believe, but they are also potentially key to the horror genre more broadly. First:

…the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.

And, later:

Fear… is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishment of reasonable patterns.

Does our modern rationality make us more susceptible to these stories? Or does it make us less likely to be influenced by them because of our lack of belief in the supernatural? Must we willingly relinquish such rationality in order to be frightened by these stories?

Next week we will move on to religious horror with Rosemary’s Baby, and I want to see what the class thinks of these ideas as applied to this subgenre. If we do not believe in Satan, can we still be frightened by him or by stories about him?

Music for this week:

On Tuesday, I played Poe’s “Haunted,” both because it’s about a haunted house and because it’s linked to Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I brought to class to show them. On Thursday, I played two short songs that are less obviously linked to the course material, but that felt relevant to me: The Unicorns’ “I Don’t Wanna Die” (which made me think of Eleanor’s end) and Laura Stevenson’s “Barnacles,” definitely a song I could see Eleanor singing.

Scrape these barnacles
I am utterly yours
take my lack of control
and swallow it whole
break my excuses to leave
over your boney knees and
free me
free me
free me
free me
I am utterly yours

Updated Horror Film Review List

Over the summer, I posted about a list of horror films I was working on. My horror students will be writing reviews of films that we do not watch as a class, and this is the list they will be able to choose from. After that earlier post, I made some changes and wanted to share the updated list (films in bold have been chosen by my students already):

  1. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920)
  2. Nosferatu, dir. F. W. Murnau (1922)
  3. Dracula, dir. Tod Browning (1931)
  4. Frankenstein, dir. James Whale (1931)
  5. Freaks, dir. Tod Browning (1932)
  6. Cat People, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1942)
  7. I Walked with a Zombie, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1943)
  8. Gojira, dir. Ishirô Honda 1954)
  9. Diabolique, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954)
  10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Don Siegel (1956)
  11. House on Haunted Hill, dir. William Castle (1959)
  12. Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
  13. Eyes Without a Face, dir. Georges Franju (1960)
  14. The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961)
  15. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, dir. Robert Aldrich (1962)
  16. The Birds, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1963)
  17. Repulsion, dir. Roman Polanski (1965)
  18. Kill, Baby, Kill, dir. Mario Bava (1966)
  19. Kuroneko, dir. Kaneto Shindo (1968)
  20. The Last House on the Left, dir. Wes Craven (1972)
  21. Deliverance, dir. John Boorman (1972)
  22. The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin (1973)
  23. The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)
  24. Deathdream, dir. Bob Clark (1974)
  25. Hausu (House), dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)
  26. Carrie, dir. Brian De Palma (1976)
  27. The Omen, dir. Richard Donner (1976)
  28. Suspiria, dir. Dario Argento (1977)
  29. The Hills Have Eyes, dir. Wes Craven (1977)
  30. Dawn of the Dead, dir. George Romero (1978)
  31. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Philip Kaufman (1978)
  32. Alien, dir. Ridley Scott (1979)
  33. Phantasm, dir. Don Coscarelli (1979)
  34. Zombie, dir. Lucio Fulci (1979)
  35. The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1980)
  36. Friday the 13th, dir. Sean S. Cunningham (1980)
  37. An American Werewolf in London, dir. John Landis (1981)
  38. The Howling, dir. Joe Dante (1981)
  39. The Evil Dead, dir. Sam Raimi (1981) or Evil Dead II (1987)
  40. Poltergeist, dir. Tobe Hooper (1982)
  41. The Thing, dir. John Carpenter (1982)
  42. Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983)
  43. A Nightmare on Elm Street, dir. Wes Craven (1984)
  44. Re-Animator, dir. Stuart Gordon (1985)
  45. Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch (1986)
  46. Hellraiser, dir. Clive Barker (1987)
  47. Near Dark, dir. Kathryn Bigelow (1987)
  48. They Live, dir. John Carpenter (1988)
  49. Santa Sangre, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
  50. The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme (1991)
  51. Man Bites Dog, dir. Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde (1992)
  52. Scream, dir. Wes Craven (1996)
  53. Mimic, dir. Guillermo del Toro (1997)
  54. Ringu, dir. Hideo Nakata (1998) or The Ring, dir. Gore Verbinski (2002)
  55. Audition, dir. Takashi Miike (1999)
  56. Ginger Snaps, dir. John Fawcett (2000)
  57. The Devil’s Backbone, dir. Guillermo del Toro (2001)
  58. 28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle (2002)
  59. Willard, dir. Glen Morgan (2003)
  60. Bubba Ho-Tep, dir. Don Coscarelli (2003)
  61. Shaun of the Dead, dir. Edgar Wright (2004)
  62. Dumplings, dir. Fruit Chan (2004)
  63. The Call of Cthulhu, dir. Andrew Leman (2005)
  64. The Descent, dir. Neil Marshall (2005)
  65. Slither, dir. James Gunn (2006)
  66. [REC], dir. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (2007)
  67. Let the Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008)
  68. Pontypool, dir. Bruce McDonald (2008)
  69. Thirst, dir. Chan-wook Park (2009)
  70. Jennifer’s Body, dir. Karyn Kusama (2009)
  71. Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009)
  72. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, dir. Eli Craig (2010)
  73. John Dies at the End, dir. Don Coscarelli (2012)
  74. Honeymoon, dir. Leigh Janiak (2014)
  75. Creep, dir. Patrick Brice (2014)
  76. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)
  77. It Follows, dir. David Robert Mitchell (2015)
  78. Spring, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (2015)
  79. The Green Inferno, dir. Eli Roth (2015)
  80. Goodnight Mommy, dir. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (2015)

I removed a few from the earlier version of this list that I hadn’t had a chance to see yet as well as a handful that I thought didn’t quite deserve to be on the list, and I ended the list with a couple of films that are supposed to be released this fall. The list, therefore, begins with film itself, pretty much, and ends with right now.

The list is a bit longer than it needs to be, but I wanted my students to have some options, even those who choose last, so I decided 80 was a nice, even number for the list. There are 30 students in the class; each of them is required to write one film review and has the option to write another for extra credit, so 80 is well more than what’s required even if everyone does two reviews. I suspect this means that the very early films will be neglected if students have later choices, however, so if I do this again, I might try to trim the list a bit more.

Some students have already made their first choices and so far the these have been spread across the 1970s, 1980s, 2000s, and 2010s. The 1990s have been skipped entirely and no one has ventured earlier than 1973. But quite a few people still need to choose their film, so it’ll be interesting to see if that pattern continues.

Teaching Horror Literature & Film: Beginnings

My upper-level horror literature & film course is off to a good start! I plan on posting something every week to document our progress through the course, since this is my first time teaching it and since I am very excited about this class. (Probably, most future posts about the course will be shorter since they’ll be covering a week at a time, however.)

The first two weeks were dedicated to beginnings: the beginnings of the class (discussing definitions, expectations, assignments, etc.) and the beginnings of the genre.

Day 1: We had to spend a little time talking about the syllabus, but I tried to get through that as quickly as possible so we could start discussing horror immediately. I went over my expectations and talked about how excited I am about the course and had them get in groups for a few minutes to find answers to some basic questions in the syllabus. This ensures they at least see some of the most important points and also gets them talking to each other right away. Since so much of the course is discussion and groupwork, this is important.

I primed them for our discussion about the genre a bit by projecting a quote from H. P. Lovecraft on the screen before class began (this quote is also at the beginning of the syllabus; it comes from “The Call of Cthulhu”):

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

I began our discussion of the genre by asking them to list things they associate with the horror genre. In other words, I asked, what elements do you expect from a horror story (whether a novel, film, video game, or something else)? We generated a long list on the board that included items such as gore, jump scares, monsters, and the final girl (there were many, many other good suggestions, but I didn’t record the list, so I don’t remember what they were now). Working from this list, we tried to develop a definition for horror, and the three central ideas we landed on and will work with throughout the semester are the following:

  • Horror includes the threat of death and/or madness.
  • Horror includes or is about the violation of our expectations or social norms.
  • Horror includes the emotions of fear, dead, and/or anxiety.

To conclude the first day, I had them complete a quick survey online to get a sense of their familiarity with and expectations of the genre, and then we watched a couple of short films together – See You Soon (a 14 second horror film) and Hell No – and discussed how these short films fit our definitions and what they reveal about the genre.

Day 2: I began playing music before class. I do this all semester; sometimes it’s relevant music and sometimes it’s not. I started this class off with some Nick Cave, which wasn’t directly relevant to the day’s work, but seemed generally appropriate.

I didn’t assign any reading for the second day so that we could do a little more general work and because there’s typically still some adding and dropping going on at this point. Instead, I gave a brief lecture at the beginning of the class period about the Gothic novel and its role as a source for modern horror.

walpoleFollowing this, I had them work in groups to discuss significant 19th century works and their influence: FrankensteinDracula, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Two groups worked on each novel and had some overlapping and some differing questions. All groups were asked to list the major themes and ideas of their assigned novel (I assumed that everyone would have some general, basic knowledge of these stories, even if they hadn’t read the originals) and identify some iconic visuals associated with their assigned story. Some groups were then asked to look at film adaptations of their novel; others were asked to look at all other types of adaptations. Their job was to look for patterns in these adaptations and then, finally, consider where they can see the novels’ influence today.


This group project took a good chunk of time so they could discuss and research and then discuss some more, but we still had time to hear from each group and look at some examples together. I showed them examples like Blackenstein and Blacula, which no groups came up with on their own; I also brought up a couple of adaptations of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde that I enjoy and that they didn’t mention, like the musical and the BBC show from a few years ago. Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter got perhaps the strongest reaction, however.

Day 3: This was the first day with assigned readings. I assigned “The Black Cat” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe and “The Call of Cthulhu” by H. P. Lovecraft. Most of the course’s content is mid-20th century and later, but Poe and Lovecraft are clearly huge influences on the genre that I want to be sure students have some familiarity with. This also turned out to be the perfect day to introduce some tools for analyzing literary style, since both of these authors have distinctive styles and since their style can be a barrier for modern readers. We discussed their use of first person (in all three stories), the emphasis on the narrators’ storytelling itself, the distance placed between the action and the reader, and the vocabulary and language itself.

Cthulhu Images

One of the regular assignments for this semester is that they each bring a notecard with a quote they found interesting and a discussion question to class every day that there is an assigned text, so I had them work with their questions and quotes in groups. They were given the following instructions and 20-25 minutes to work:

  1. Share your quotes and questions from your notecards.
  2. Discuss those quotes and questions.
  3. Choose a question to ask the rest of the class to discuss and a quote to share with the rest of the class (including some comments on why that quote is significant).
  4. Consider patterns and connections:
    1. How do today’s texts relate to one another? What do they have in common? How do they differ?
    2. How do today’s texts relate to our discussions in previous classes? Consider, for instance, our definitions of horror from the first day of class, the Gothic, and the three novels discussed last Thursday (FrankensteinDracula, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde). 
    3. How do today’s texts compare to your expectations of horror? In what ways do they pave the way for contemporary horror? How do they differ from your expectations and/or from contemporary horror?

We spent most of our time after their small group discussions discussing the connections they’d found between texts and ideas, but we also got to talk about a couple of their discussion questions.

I had shared Nnedi Okorafor’s blog post about winning the World Fantasy Award and being troubled by H. P. Lovecraft’s racism on D2L before this class meeting, so I made sure we talked briefly about how to deal with an author’s personal views at the end of class. Lovecraft was, of course, not only privately racist. In “The Call of Cthulhu,” there is some pretty overt racism, and I wanted to make sure students were aware of it and were able to sort out some way to deal with it. Most seemed to think it was something that could just be written off as representative of the time or that the author’s personal views could be kept completely separate from his/her work, but this is a complicated issue and it is definitely something I want to return to later in the semester. For instance, we will be watching Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby in a couple of weeks, but he is an instance of an artist who does wonderful work but has a problematic (to say the least) personal life. I feel very conflicted about even teaching the movie because I don’t want to support Polanski. I can justify (to myself) teaching Lovecraft because he’s dead and cannot profit from our reading his work, but living artists are a different story.

Pre-class music was The Mountain Goats’ “Lovecraft in Brooklyn.” Given the day’s reading, I couldn’t possibly have played anything else:

Woke up afraid of my own shadow, I mean, like genuinely afraid.
Headed for the pawnshop to buy myself a switchblade.
Someday something’s coming from way out beyond the stars
To kill us while we stand here, it’ll store our brains in mason jars.

And then the girl behind the counter,
She asks me how I feel today.
I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn.

Day 4: We looked at some pre-Code horror comics and discussed the Comics Code Authority. I scanned some comics stories and cover art from Jim Trombetta’s The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! as well as a few passages from Trombetta’s commentary on the comics and their historical context. I also played a brief slideshow with additional images from the 1950s and 1970s before class began and as I made some announcements.

Trombetta - horror comics images2Trombetta - horror comics images3

For this day, I wanted to have a more free-form discussion and make use of the students’ discussion questions, so I took up their notecards at the beginning of the class and shuffled through them as we talked, choosing questions pretty randomly at first and more deliberately later, to avoid repetition. We spent a lot of time discussing the reaction against the comics as representative of the time period and contemporary fears of Communism. We put the CCA in the larger context of the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy’s Senate hearings; we also discussed the reaction against the comics as an instance of a fairly normal reaction by an older generation against the entertainment of a younger generation (they connected it to more contemporary arguments against video games, for instance). We returned to elements of style, too, discussing the recurring use of the second person in the narratives provided. Some are fully in second person and some just end with a sudden turn to the reader and a challenge to “Look carefully — scrutinize your neighbors, the people on the streets! Are they what they seem to be — or are they monsters? Perhaps, if you watch, there is still time to save the world from enslavement by the monsters about you!!” (“Dungeon of Doom!”, Chamber of Chills no. 6, March 1952). Finally, I made sure we looked at the visual style of the art itself and noted some of the sexual imagery in the cover art.

Trombetta - phallic Trombetta - vaginal

Thoughts: So far, I feel really good about the class. Students have been engaged and ready to discuss. They have been asking great questions and keeping up with the reading (as far as I can tell, at any rate). Although the beginning has been a bit rushed – getting through definitions, the Gothic, Frankenstein, DraculaDr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Poe, Lovecraft, and horror comics all in four days means that some of that is not very in-depth – I think it gives us a good set of foundational ideas and references to work with as we move forward.

Next week: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.