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.


1 thought on “Teaching Horror Literature & Film: Beginnings

  1. Pingback: The Haunting of Hill House: Week 3 of Teaching Horror Lit & Film | Dr. Christy Tidwell

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