Gender & Horror: Teaching Horror, Week 6

Obviously, I got kind of behind with my posts about my horror course as the semester went on. My best intentions weren’t enough, clearly. I do want to write about the rest of the semester, however, and this post is a start. I left off with Week 5, so I’ll pick up with Week 6: Gender and Sexuality. This week included Halloween (1978), Teeth (2007), and a short story by Shira Lipkin called “The Final Girl.”


We began our discussion on Tuesday by trying to define the slasher film and talking about what the class already knows about the subgenre. They were familiar with its masked killers, with the tendency for murders to be committed up close (knives rather than guns), and (somewhat) with the trope of the final girl. I placed slashers in the larger international context of giallo films for them (taking the opportunity to recommend Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which I love) and related them to exploitation and grindhouse films.


I also gave the class a little bit of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1993) to help define slashers and to have them consider her argument about how gender is represented in the subgenre. She writes, for instance,

The fact that female monsters and female heroes, when they do appear, are masculine in dress and behavior (and often even name), and that male victims are shown in feminine postures at the moment of their extremity, would seem to suggest that gender inheres in the function itself–that there is something about the victim function that wants manifestation in a female, and something about the monster and hero functions that wants expression in a male. Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other way around. A figure does not cry and cower because she is a woman; she is a woman because she cries and cowers. And a figure is not a psychokiller because he is a man; he is a man because he is a psychokiller. (12-13)

Students weren’t entirely convinced of this, but it was an idea we productively returned to on later days as well. Clover also writes,

One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations. (64)

This question of whether slashers represent “a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representations” or, to put it more simply, whether slashers are or can be feminist, on the other hand, was one we spent a great deal of time on.

teeth poster

Thursday’s class, on Teeth and “The Final Girl,” was one of the days I had been looking forward to since I designed the course. Teeth, a horror movie about vagina dentata, is funny, disturbing, and complicatedly feminist. We began this class with more from Carol Clover, this time on rape-revenge narratives. After outlining the typical structure of such films and giving a couple of other examples (I Spit On Your Grave and The Last House on the Left), I introduced Clover’s argument that

although the practice of remarking male sadism in a film (like the practice of showing male sadism in a film) may be intended to align the remarker with feminism, it also works to naturalize sadistic violence as a fixture of masculinity–one of the few fixtures of masculinity remaining in a world that has seen the steady erosion of such. It is a gesture, in other words, that ends up confirming what it deplores. (226)

Again, as with Halloween and slasher films, one of our central questions became whether Teeth (and rape-revenge films more broadly) are or could be feminist. Teeth both plays into anti-feminist ideas – vagina dentata itself reflecting a fear of women’s genitals and sexuality – and into feminist ideas – sexuality as empowerment, women’s ability to defend themselves, anti-rape statements. I am also fascinated by how often Teeth shows penises. Seeing a penis in a non-pornographic or non-NC-17 film is rare, unlike seeing naked female parts, so this gendered reversal was notable to me. It’s also interesting to observe that the penises shown in the film are all severed, so these moments are either horrific (oh my god, what just happened!) or comic. The film’s penises are not sexual objects.


I am pleased to say that we had an excellent discussion about how to balance these things in our interpretation of the film and its effects. Students dealt with serious issues like rape intelligently and maturely. We also laughed a lot. The movie is, after all, part comedy and slightly ridiculous and we were able to laugh about some of its ideas. I laughed harder in that class than I have laughed in most classes I’ve taught, and I think that class day was memorable for the students as well as for me.

Finally, we discussed Shira Lipkin’s “The Final Girl” for just a few minutes. I wish I had taken more time to set this story up and left more time for discussion of it, because I think most students didn’t quite understand its central idea – the way final girls are left hanging at the end of their narratives and the way the trauma that they must suffer after their stories’ end is effaced – or the weight of that idea. Lipkin writes,

The final girl is disinterested in katabasis. She knows how important it is to everyone that those who go into the underworld emerge into the light. No one, however, tells the stories of those who stay down there, lost in tapering fractal tunnels, stumbling through the darkness. Push them down, leave them there, draw in the dark around them. The world does not want lost girls who cannot be found, so the Final Girls must pretend at all times that they have risen to the surface, even if they have not, especially if they have not.

The final girl knows that some have made the dark their home, though. She knows that the dark can hold you safe. She knows that sometimes you need to not be seen or heard.

I love this recognition that not everyone recovers from trauma or, if they do, they don’t do so in a way that others like to see. For all we talked during the week about the power of survival itself, the films ignore the damage that surviving does to these women, and I think it is important to recognize that. We tell stories about fighting back and glorify the survivors, but we don’t want to see the aftermath. It’s not nearly as much fun, after all.

Music this week was “This Is Halloween” from The Nightmare before Christmas (probably one of the most popular choices I made all semester) for Tuesday and Halloween and, for Thursday, Fiona Apple’s “Limp” and Lady Gaga’s “Teeth.” This pairing with Teeth pleased me immensely.





Race & Horror: Teaching Horror, Week 5

This week, we watched Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Candyman (1992) in order to examine representations of race in popular horror films. This also served as our only coverage of zombies in the course, a way in to thinking about urban legends and horror stories, and a continuation of our discussion of gender in horror film (that will be picked up more explicitly next week with Halloween and Teeth).

nightofthelivingdead title screencandyman title screenWe picked up the pace this week after a couple of weeks where we spent two class periods per story; this presented one of the central challenges for me as a teacher this week. I have a lot to say about Night of the Living Dead and a lot I want students to think about. I’ve taught the film a few times before, in varying contexts, so I have teaching notes already developed. I had to minimize some things and cut others this semester. And as it turns out, I had a lot I wanted to cover with Candyman, too. Both days felt busy to me as a result. Having previously taught Night of the Living Dead over two class periods, however, I know that I don’t necessarily need that long with the film. It’s a weird one for me in that one class period feels like not quite enough time and two feels like too much. Oh well. I think it worked out just fine.

We began our discussion of Night of the Living Dead with a brief conversation about zombie narratives more broadly and how Night compares to students’ contemporary expectations (as is often the case, students are mostly surprised at how slow the movie is and that the zombies use tools).  i am a man
bennightofthelivingdead14010450_galben night

As a shift into a more focused discussion of Night, we also talked about the cultural and historical context of 1968: student movements, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, George Wallace, assassinations, etc. How, then, I asked them, does this film reflect its time? We talked about the backstory given for the zombies / ghouls in the movie (something from space, radiation) and its connection to Cold War anxieties; we also talked about Ben (Duane Jones), the African American lead character and the hero of the film. Even though, as some of them already knew, Romero didn’t write or cast that part with racial politics in mind, it winds up being incredibly progressive both in its colorblind casting and willingness to give its audience a black male lead who isn’t stereotypical or subservient as well as in its ending. Even though Ben dies, this avoids reinforcing the Black Dude Dies First trope because he doesn’t die first, because every other character we’ve gotten to know dies, too, and because his death is easily read as commentary on racial violence. The posse that kills him (a bunch of armed white men) may not intend to murder a black person, but they do, and they think little of it. They represent law and order, but instead of being saviors they are represented as monsters in the final moments of the film. They not only kill Ben but they burn his body and are shown standing over him with hooks and menacing looks on their faces.

Night hookNight dead Ben

Although the theme of the week was race, we didn’t just discuss race, however. I find that the character of Barbra (Judith O’Dea) always leads to a good discussion of gender roles and representations of women. This time, that discussion wasn’t too long because we’d already discussed some of those things with Rosemary’s Baby and The Haunting of Hill House. I asked them to think about similarities and differences between the way the three texts representations of women, however. The consensus seemed to be that Barbra was the worst, the most passive and even annoying, while Eleanor was also quite passive but more sympathetic perhaps, and Rosemary was the most active female character – all were clearly shaped by mid-20th century gender politics, of course. (We will look at changes in women’s roles and representations next week with Laurie in Halloween and Dawn in Teeth.)

barbra and brother

One final major topic for the day introduced more philosophical readings of zombies. I showed them Simon Pegg’s essay on slow versus fast zombies and discussed his interpretation of slow zombies as representative of our fear of death itself:

…the zombie trumps all by personifying our deepest fear: death. Zombies are our destiny writ large. Slow and steady in their approach, weak, clumsy, often absurd, the zombie relentlessly closes in, unstoppable, intractable.

However (and herein lies the sublime artfulness of the slow zombie), their ineptitude actually makes them avoidable, at least for a while. If you’re careful, if you keep your wits about you, you can stave them off, even outstrip them – much as we strive to outstrip death. Drink less, cut out red meat, exercise, practice safe sex; these are our shotguns, our cricket bats, our farmhouses, our shopping malls. However, none of these things fully insulates us from the creeping dread that something so witless, so elemental may yet catch us unawares – the drunk driver, the cancer sleeping in the double helix, the legless ghoul dragging itself through the darkness towards our ankles.

I also shared William S. Larkin’s “Res Corporealis: Persons, Bodies, and Zombies” with the class. This essay discusses two different ways of defining personhood: the psychological approach (in which a person is defined by his/her mind, personality, or even soul) and the bodily approach (in which a person is defined by his/her body). Ultimately, he argues that our

intuition that zombies are people too betrays our preference for the bodily over the psychological approach to personal identity. . . . To the extent that we can be taken in by a good zombie film, we must think that a person continues to exist so long as some critical mass of her material properties does and that a person can survive without any distinctively human psychology.

We didn’t have much time to discuss this argument in class, but I introduced it to them and talked a little bit about what that might mean. I also then listed this as a topic to write about in their short essay over Night of the Living Dead and/or Candyman, and several of them explored this further there. (I got great arguments on both sides.)

Race plays an even more central role in Bernard Rose’s Candyman. It’s everywherethe Candyman himself (Tony Todd) and his backstory (lynched for daring to love a white woman); the projects in Chicago, which are seen as threatening at first but later shown to be a neglected place where people are doing their best to live their lives; the threat of gang violence; and the white privilege shown by Helen (Virginia Madsen). Once again, I made sure we talked about the historical and cultural context before getting into the meat of the story. Mostly, I wanted to make sure they knew about Rodney King and the L.A. Riots, which happened earlier in 1992. Night of the Living Dead was released in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., which may not have shaped the actual filming but would certainly have been on people’s minds as they saw the movie; similarly, Candyman was released in the aftermath of Rodney King’s beating and the riots and even though its filming was not a response to those events, viewers would have had them in mind.

(An interesting side note about the historical context – the majority of my students were not born when this movie was made. One of the older students in the class hadn’t realized this before and seemed shocked to discover that 1992 is actually the distant past now for traditional college students.)

candyman collage

This class was mostly structured around group discussion of their questions. I took up the class’s notecards and chose questions from them to discuss in groups for much of the class period. These are the questions they had to discuss (the first two were my questions to get them started while I typed up more):

  • We’ve jumped ahead to 1992 with Candyman. How does the time period influence the movie or our interpretation of it?
  • How does Candyman deal with race? How does this compare to the representation of race in Night of the Living Dead?
  • How would the movie’s effect be different if the Candyman weren’t black?
  • What is the purpose or effect of the long aerial shots (particularly early in the film)?
  • Candyman looks relatively normal. Is this scarier than a typical movie monster or less scary?
  • Is Helen insane? Is the Candyman real (in the movie)?
  • What is the function/effect of the bees in the movie? What do they add?
  • Helen’s husband says that urban legends are “the unself-conscious reflection of the fears of urban society.” Do horror movies/books serve the same function?
  • What do you think of the shift to Helen as the monster at the end? What is the tone associated with her role as a new urban legend?
  • Choose one scene you’d like to look at as a class and think about what you would say about it.

After their group discussions, we talked about most of these at least briefly, but we probably spent the most time trying to work through the question of whether Helen was insane or the Candyman was real. The class was divided on this point. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film about Candyman’s status, and so we looked at some of the details and what they seem to push the viewer toward. As a class, I think we agreed that the end of the film leans more toward reading the Candyman as real, but some still really wanted to find ways to interpret it otherwise. Some of their ideas were quite inventive but not necessarily supported by evidence in the film itself. Ultimately, our division as a group about how to read this seemed to come down to what we wanted to be true.

candyman parking garage IT WAS ALWAYS YOU

Personally, I believe in the Candyman. I think that to see this as simply Helen’s unraveling is to undo most of what makes the movie interesting: Candyman’s backstory, the repercussions of historical and institutionalized racism, the power given by collective belief, and even the effects on Helen, which carry more weight for me if they’re externally motivated rather than simply her own issue. I also think that taking the Candyman seriously makes Helen not just a dead female victim at the end of the movie but also gives her power in her return from beyond the grave to murder her husband. It’s a complex and maybe not entirely positive power, but it’s something.

Ultimately, this week was a little looser in organization than previous weeks, but I think this was productive. The two movies we watched allowed us to discuss some of the more progressive potential in horror film while also acknowledging that they worked against some of our genre expectations (e.g., the trope that the black guy dies first) and societal stereotypes.

Interestingly, I surveyed students anonymously the following week and one of the questions asked which of the texts we’ve covered so far they liked best and least. Candyman appears to be a class favorite so far (although I wouldn’t have guessed that from our discussion – people seemed in class to think it was kind of silly) while Night of the Living Dead got a much more divided response. It and Rosemary’s Baby got the most mentions as least favorite, but several students really liked it, too.

This week’s music: For Tuesday, I played Jonathan Coulton’s “Re Your Brains” as a fun nod to more contemporary zombie stories; for Thursday, I played Jolie Holland’s “Dark Days.” I love this song and it just felt right for Candyman, but I’m not sure I can articulate how. Something about its hopelessness, its loss of a lover, its reiteration of the sweetness of that lover… I don’t know. It’s a great song, though.

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.

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.

Powers of Horror Film: Or, Why My Horror Literature & Film Course Has So Many Movies

Except for a couple of school-specific details that may have to be tweaked before the semester begins, my horror literature & film syllabus for this fall is complete.

Now that I’ve finished planning the course, I realize that instead of teaching horror literature & film, I would have preferred to just cover film. I find myself gravitating more toward film than written texts within this genre and I had a much harder time coming up with solid novels and short stories to assign than I did movies. We will be reading four novels (and some short fiction) and watching at least 11 movies during the semester. We’ll be moving quickly this semester; my goals are more oriented toward coverage of a range of issues and subgenres within horror and students’ ability to make connections between them than they are toward depth in any given subgenre or text. Even so, there were many movies that I had to leave out both in order to maintain some semblance of balance between literature and film throughout the semester and for lack of time in general.

This emphasis on film isn’t just about my personal preference, however. This genre, more than others I’ve taught, seems to be particularly well suited for film. This is not to say that there’s not great horror literature to be read. There is. Unfortunately, some of my favorites were too long to fit into a course where I’m trying to cover a lot of subgenres and approaches to the genre. Stephen King’s The Shining and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves are two of the longer works that wouldn’t quite fit. It doesn’t help that King’s novel is more racist than I’d really prefer it to be, but the real concern is its length, not the casual racism of a white author in the 1970s.

Shining coverHoL cover

But even while acknowledging that great horror literature exists, I believe horror may be at its best in film. Film is more visceral and less malleable than literature. It’s harder to escape or avoid the unpleasant bits when watching a movie than while reading a book. The reader can skim a passage in a book and still get the gist, but short of actually skipping a scene in a movie it’s really hard to entirely shut out its upsetting effects. And as viewers, we have less freedom to imagine horrific scenes in ways we are comfortable with in a film than we might have in a book. In fact, in written descriptions of violent or scary scenes, there will always be less detail than there is in representations of those same scenes on the screen. The written text needs us as readers to fill in the gaps; film doesn’t need us for that. It fills the scene with more details than we can probably take in, actually, and then it demands that we watch.

Horror revels in the visual representation of fear and violence – a monster suddenly appearing in the darkness, a knife cutting into an eyeball or some other fleshy bit. You can close your eyes, of course, but then it’s hard to know what’s happening and so there’s not much point in watching the movie at all.

What’s more, even when you close your eyes, you can hear what’s happening. And that might be worse. Revisit the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London or the fingernail scene in The Fly. If you watch them with the sound off, they’re not so bad, but even with your eyes closed, hearing those scenes is disturbing.

And then there’s the music. Horror film music plays on our bodily reactions to sound by mimicking heartbeats, by vibrating our bodies with bass lines, by shocking us with bursts of horn or string music. Goblin’s soundtrack for Dawn of the Dead is synth-y and very ’70s, but it’s extremely effective. For instance, it includes a heartbeat-like rhythm alongside washes of sound to physically draw the viewer into the film. Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s films are dramatically different from Dawn of the Dead in style, but they are also emotionally powerful. The theme from the shower scene in Psycho is iconic for a reason.

Finally, horror is primarily about an emotional response, not an intellectual one. Horror plays into some fascinating cultural narratives and develops interesting ideas about these narratives (which we will definitely discuss in class), but it does so through our bodies and through our feelings, not through our rational selves. In other words, unlike some other genres, horror doesn’t need us to think. This is not the same thing as saying that horror is dumb. I don’t believe that to be true. It simply means that horror functions differently than science fiction or mysteries do, for example. Science fiction grows out of rational ideas and speculation and then includes emotions; mysteries require their viewers or readers to be thinking rationally at least enough to be interested in solving the mystery. Horror, however, wants to scare us – on one level or another. As Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre (1981), “I recognize terror as the finest emotion . . . and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” He also notes that what horror is “looking for is the place where, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level. The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.” Through its visual and sonic effects, film taps into our senses and emotions more directly – for most people – than written texts do, and this direct line is just what horror is looking for.

This is both good and bad. It means that works of art and entertainment in this genre are powerful. We can easily immerse ourselves in them and enjoy them; we can also easily be influenced by them.

This also just means that I really wish I had a whole semester to devote to horror film alone.

Horror Course: Extra Film Assignment

This fall I’m teaching an upper level course on horror film and literature for the first time.* In addition to what we watch and read as a class, I also want each student to watch one movie outside of class on his/her own and write about it. Students will also have the option to watch a second movie outside of class and write about it for extra credit.** To help keep things focused and to make sure students have a range of films to choose from that are significant to the genre for one reason or another and that they may not know about or choose on their own, I will be providing a list that they will choose from.***

With this list, I’m aiming for chronological coverage, international range, and representations of many subgenres of horror. So the list starts at the very beginning of film and ends with new releases; it includes not only American and British films but also films from several other nations (although it still leans mostly Anglophone); and it includes vampires, werewolves, zombies, body horror, slasher films, psychological horror, religious horror, ghost stories, as well as other subgenres.

I won’t put anything on the list that I won’t watch (so no Saw, for instance) or that I haven’t watched, and I haven’t seen all of these films yet (hello, summer project!), so the list may well change, but this is the list I’m currently working from.

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920)
  • Nosferatu, dir. F. W. Murnau (1922)
  • Dracula, dir. Tod Browning (1931)
  • Frankenstein, dir. James Whale (1931)
  • Freaks, dir. Tod Browning (1932)
  • Cat People, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1942)
  • I Walked with a Zombie, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1943)
  • Gojira, dir. Ishirô Honda (1954)
  • Diabolique, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Don Siegel (1956)
  • House on Haunted Hill, dir. William Castle (1959)
  • Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1960)
  • Eyes Without a Face, dir. Georges Franju (1960)
  • The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961)
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, dir. Robert Aldrich (1962)
  • The Birds, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1963)
  • Onibaba, dir. Kaneto Shindô (1964)
  • Repulsion, dir. Roman Polanski (1965)
  • Kill, Baby, Kill, dir. Mario Bava (1966)
  • Kuroneko, dir. Kaneto Shindo (1968)
  • The Last House on the Left, dir. Wes Craven (1972)
  • Deliverance, dir. John Boorman (1972)
  • The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin (1973)
  • The Wicker Man, dir. Robin Hardy (1973)
  • Deathdream, dir. Bob Clark (1974)
  • Hausu (House), dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi (1977)
  • Carrie, dir. Brian De Palma (1976)
  • The Omen, dir. Richard Donner (1976)
  • Suspiria, dir. Dario Argento (1977)
  • The Hills Have Eyes, dir. Wes Craven (1977)
  • Dawn of the Dead, dir. George Romero (1978)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers, dir. Philip Kaufman (1978)
  • Alien, dir. Ridley Scott (1979)
  • Phantasm, dir. Don Coscarelli (1979)
  • Zombie, dir. Lucio Fulci (1979)
  • Nosferatu the Vampyre, dir. Werner Herzog (1979)
  • The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1980)
  • Friday the 13th, dir. Sean S. Cunningham (1980)
  • An American Werewolf in London, dir. John Landis (1981)
  • The Howling, dir. Joe Dante (1981)
  • The Evil Dead, dir. Sam Raimi (1981) or Evil Dead II (1987)
  • Poltergeist, dir. Tobe Hooper (1982)
  • The Thing, dir. John Carpenter (1982)
  • Videodrome, dir. David Cronenberg (1983)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street, dir. Wes Craven (1984)
  • Re-Animator, dir. Stuart Gordon (1985)
  • Blue Velvet, dir. David Lynch (1986)
  • Hellraiser, dir. Clive Barker (1987)
  • Near Dark, dir. Kathryn Bigelow (1987)
  • They Live, dir. John Carpenter (1988)
  • Santa Sangre, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (1989)
  • The Silence of the Lambs, dir. Jonathan Demme (1991)
  • Man Bites Dog, dir. Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poelvoorde (1992)
  • Scream, dir. Wes Craven (1996)
  • Mimic, dir. Guillermo del Toro (1997)
  • The Blair Witch Project, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez (1998)
  • Ringu, dir. Hideo Nakata (1998) or The Ring, dir. Gore Verbinski (2002)
  • Audition, dir. Takashi Miike (1999)
  • Ginger Snaps, dir. John Fawcett (2000)
  • The Devil’s Backbone, dir. Guillermo del Toro (2001)
  • Dagon, dir. Stuart Gordon (2001)
  • 28 Days Later, dir. Danny Boyle (2002)
  • A Tale of Two Sisters, dir. Kim Jee-woon (2003)
  • Willard, dir. Glen Morgan (2003)
  • Bubba Ho-Tep, dir. Don Coscarelli (2003)
  • Shaun of the Dead, dir. Edgar Wright (2004)
  • Dumplings, dir. Fruit Chan (2004)
  • The Call of Cthulhu, dir. Andrew Leman (2005)
  • The Descent, dir. Neil Marshall (2005)
  • Slither, dir. James Gunn (2006)
  • [REC], dir. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (2007)
  • Let the Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008)
  • Jennifer’s Body, dir. Karyn Kusama (2009)
  • Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009)
  • Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, dir. Eli Craig (2010)
  • Maniac, dir. Franck Khalfoun (2012)
  • Black Rock, dir. Katie Aselton (2012)
  • John Dies at the End, dir. Don Coscarelli (2012)
  • The Green Inferno, dir. Eli Roth (2013)
  • Creep, dir. Patrick Brice (2014)
  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, dir. Ana Lily Amirpour (2014)
  • It Follows, dir. David Robert Mitchell (2015)
  • Spring, dir. Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (2015)

Students will write a brief review of the film they watch as well as an analysis connecting the film to our discussions and the texts/films assigned in class that they can post to D2L for the rest of the class to see. They will present an argument for reading the film as horror (or not) to show their understanding of both the film and the genre. They may also discuss the movie’s response to debates within the genre (e.g., the place of women in horror).

I’ve still got time to watch more horror films this summer, so if anyone has suggestions for significant horror films that aren’t already on the list or for subgenres that have been neglected, please let me know!

Horror Poster*The syllabus is still under construction, but I’ll post it under Current & Future Courses when it’s finished, and I may write another post about the plan before the semester begins, too.
**The second movie must be approved by me to ensure students cover a variety of movies and don’t just stay in their comfort zone.
***I’ll let them go off-list if they propose something to me and make a solid argument for it.