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

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.