Environmental Literature, Film, & Culture course: Spring 2018

This coming spring, I am scheduled to teach an upper-level class called “The Literary Experience of Nature.” I hate this title and take issue with every significant word in it, but I’m excited about the class. I prefer to think of the class as Environmental Literature, Film, & Culture instead. I haven’t entirely decided what I’m doing with it yet, but I created a poster to put up around the building that will hopefully draw some students.

ENGL 300 poster-page-0


On Teaching While Pregnant

Last week was the first of the new semester, and I was 39 weeks pregnant. These two things do not fit comfortably together.

I’m not interested, in this post, in complaining about my situation; there are far harder jobs to have while pregnant than English professor, and I have been lucky to get to spend most of the huge and uncomfortable part of my pregnancy resting during the summer. Instead, I want to reflect on the experience of teaching while pregnant – and the conversation (or, really, the lack of conversation) about this experience. Women teach while pregnant all the time, but I still went into this having heard little of others’ experiences and having little idea hor it might feel or what particular issues might arise.

Some of this silence is, I suspect, a reaction to fears that if we (as pregnant women) talk about what it feels like to be pregnant and teaching, it will encourage others to see us primarily as our pregnant bodies. They may find us wanting or think of us as weakened by our pregnancies. We may miss out on important career opportunities or be sidelined – not maliciously, and perhaps out of intended kindness, but this is still something I feel pretty sure pregnant academics want to avoid.

And then there’s the question of how – or whether – to address it with students. This semester, my pregnancy is obvious, and I cannot hide it from students. On the contrary, it is one of the first things I have had to talk about with them, since I’ll be on leave for part of the semester and since my belly is very present in class. Last semester, however, I found out I was pregnant before the spring semester began and of course talked to my department head and some of my colleagues early on, but I never mentioned it to my students. Not once, all semester. I strongly suspect that although some of my students would have been interested and sympathetic, others would have instead pinned any weakness I showed on my pregnancy (as opposed to the weaknesses that come with basic humanity) and wondered why I was teaching while pregnant at all. They may have used my pregnancy to explain away my reactions to the topics we discussed in class and dismiss them instead of taking me seriously.

Of course, there were definitely days when I wished I could take advantage of all of the assumptions about pregnant women and say, “Hey, guys, I feel extra tired and sick, so we’re all just going to sit quietly for a bit now.” Or days when I wanted to say, “Even though I feel like vomiting, I’m teaching up a storm here. I’d like some credit.” But neither of those approaches really leads anywhere productive for the class. Best, I figured, to just pretend everything’s normal.

Having said that, pretending everything is normal ignores the fact that it is not normal. Pregnancy is a normal human experience, of course, but it is not representative of the vast majority of my life. It is unusual and demands physical and emotional energy that my non-pregnant life does not, and this change affects what I am capable of doing in class. I didn’t call in sick any more than usual; I showed up and did my job – teaching classes, meeting with students, etc. But I did so at a much lower energy level than usual. And I believe this affected my students’ response to me and to the class they were in. I noted a drop in my evaluation numbers (yeah, I know, such numbers are flawed (at the very least), but I have to look at them) in the spring semester, and I firmly believe that part of that drop can be explained by my pregnancy. One thing I usually have going for me in my teaching is that I am excited about the topics we discuss and clearly invested in what we are doing. Students comment on this regularly. During a semester when simply standing up for the entire class period was sometimes too much, I obviously wasn’t able to be so energetic. I still cared, but I couldn’t show it in the same way, and even without the ability to compare my performance across semesters, I think my students felt the drop in energy. They simply saw it as my normal, however, and judged me accordingly. Perhaps an acknowledgement of my circumstances could have changed that. Or perhaps not. I am still not sure what the best way to address this might have been.

I wonder how other pregnant professors have dealt with this. I have definitely heard stories of students negatively judging women for teaching while pregnant, but are there stories that show the opposite? I actually wouldn’t be surprised if those more positive stories are few and far between, given the judgment I’ve seen leveled at female professors and their female bodies for far less significant issues (dressing in ways the students disapprove of or dislike, dying or cutting their hair, being fat or short or whatever).  How do other pregnant professors balance the demands of teaching and growing a human being? What about balancing the desire to be seen as normal with the desire to recognize the specifics of the experience? And can this be done without pathologizing pregnancy? Can we be normal and pregnant at work at the same time? The answer to this should clearly be yes, but I’m not sure most departments or universities are at that point in practice.

I don’t have any answers to any of this. But I do think it’s something that should be discussed more broadly and acknowledged as an issue. Not just by people experiencing it or by people who do research on these topics, but by academics (and administrators) in general. After all, if universities want to hire human beings – many of whom, as it turns out, have or want to have families – and if they want those human beings to put down roots and stay a while, they need to be prepared for this eventuality, and, furthermore, the institutional and disciplinary culture regarding pregnant professors should go beyond tolerance (abiding by the law, etc.) to become welcoming.

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.

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.

Some Thoughts on the First Week of Class

School started up again this week and while I don’t have one cohesive thing to write about for the first week, I do have a few observations or comments.

  1. Every break I forget how tiring teaching is. Every first week is exhausting. It’s a good thing I really do like teaching and meeting new students.
  2. I’m teaching three sections of Composition I this semester, which means I get a lot of opportunities to compare student reactions across those sections. I’m always intrigued by the different responses to jokes and ideas. For instance, on Wednesday, I told the same joke in all three classes. It had the same delivery, same context, same enthusiasm from me. Two classes laughed. One class, however, just looked kind of uncomfortable. That was odd, especially since I’m not sure why the third class didn’t respond as expected. The joke involved me cursing, so maybe they’re secretly a more conservative class. Or maybe they all just got distracted in that moment and missed it. Who knows!
  3. I’m also fascinated by the way my initial expectations of each group of students is already being challenged as they get tired (one is an 8 am class), warm up to me, or start to gel as a group. One section began the semester eager and ready to talk. By this morning, they were much quieter and the tone of the class seems to have shifted. A different section was extremely quiet and reticent on day one and I was worried that I’d have to drag them along to get them through the semester. This morning, they were my most engaged class.
  4. My horror literature & film course is off to a good start. I have a group of students who are largely interested in the topic (only a small percentage seems to have enrolled because they needed the credit and no other reason). I am still waiting to see how their previous knowledge functions within the class. It could be great – and I am very hopeful. They can bring their previous to our conversations to provide more context and set up interesting questions. In past classes, however, I have had some trouble with students who already know – or think they know – the genre I’m teaching (science fiction, in that case) because they have their own ideas about what I should teach and how. When that happens, my failure to do what they expect can mean that they think I am not doing a good job, which then affects their performance in class as well as their evaluation of me and the course. So far, though, these students all seem pretty open.

I am also thinking a lot about questions of authority in the classroom and how to teach students to question my authority, the relationship between themselves and their teachers, their goals in college, etc., so I may have more to say on that at a later date.

Next week, my composition classes will discuss sex education, trigger warnings, female genital mutilation, purity balls, and masculinity. My horror class will read Poe and Lovecraft and look at some pre-Code horror comics. It should be a fun week!