Frankenstudents: Experimenting with Horror Narratives

Warning: Students may have a hard time grappling with the difficult emotions that horror evokes.

This is a warning that I frequently hear when I ask other instructors about their experiences teaching horror narratives. Horror often strikes a deeply personal, intimate chord that can make students feel uncomfortable when reading, discussing, and writing about horror. Strong feelings of discomfort, as we all know, can potentially poison a course.

This semester, I’m teaching an upper level class on the horror novel. Like many of my fellow instructors, I work to make my classroom a safe environment, but the nature of horror challenges that safety, sometimes resulting in student pushback. While I have a number of students who consider themselves “fans” of the genre, I also have students who don’t. Furthermore, even some of my self-proclaimed “fans,” especially those whose fandom is grounded in popular horror tv series like The Walking Dead or The Strain, find themselves unprepared, at times, to deal with the graphic nature of certain texts like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) or Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1986).

Pet SemataryThe Hellbound Heart

Therefore, it’s important to find a methodology that allows students to engage with difficult emotions that they otherwise wouldn’t want to discuss in ways that are productive and non-alienating.

Developing My Methodology

According to Allison Whitney, “[Student] resistance is particularly strong when dealing with a genre like horror, one that trades in the baser emotions of fear, disgust, shock, and arousal, and which many perceive (sometimes justifiably) as exploitative, sadistic, or motivated by prurient interest” (38). Of course, we can’t just ignore or avoid discussing these difficult emotions because they are, as Whitney asserts, “central to human experience” (38). Focusing on such emotions, she argues, is “crucial to understanding [a horror narrative’s] rhetorical, social, political, and aesthetic properties” (38), and I agree.

I find that the best method to help students meaningfully work through their emotional reactions to horror narratives is initially to put some objective distance between themselves and their emotions. In other words, students should step back from their emotions and examine them “clinically”—as if they were analyzing someone else’s emotions and not their own.

Instead of treating emotions as subjective and personal, my students are the observers of an “experiment” in which emotions are “lab specimens” to be dissected and analyzed. As weird as it sounds—this method really works.

To get students thinking “clinically” about their emotional responses to horror narratives, they read several critical essays by Noël Carroll, a foundational horror scholar who pulled the genre out of the trash and into the realm of academia. According to Carroll, horror texts “cue” the audience’s emotional responses. More specifically, the emotional reactions of audience members generally run parallel to the emotional reactions of the character(s) the audience members identify with.

Carroll writes, “This mirroring-effect…is a key feature of the horror genre. For it is not the case for every genre that the audience response is supposed to repeat certain of the elements of the emotional state of characters” (18). For example, Carroll explains, “When a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous, though we do. And though we feel suspense when the hero rushes to save the heroine tied to the railroad tracks he cannot afford to indulge in such an emotion” (18). On the contrary, in horror, “emotions of the characters and those of the audience are synchronized in certain pertinent respects” (18).

The parallel between character emotions and audience emotions thus, according to Carroll, “suggests a way in which we can formulate an objective, as opposed to an introspective, picture of emotion…rather than characterizing art-horror solely on the basis of our own subjective responses, we can ground our conjectures on observations of the way in which characters respond to the monsters in works of horror” (18).

By studying the emotional responses of characters, Carroll concludes, “Works of horror…teach us, in large measure, the appropriate way to respond to them. Unearthing those cues or instructions is an empirical matter, not an exercise in subjective projection” (31).

To facilitate “clinically” reading, discussing, and writing about horror, I use Allison Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment. A “segmentation,” Whitney explains, “provides a scene-by-scene outline of [a] film, noting its major narrative events” (51). Although Whitney’s assignment is intended for the analysis of horror films, it is highly adaptable to horror literature. A literary segmentation still requires a unit-by-unit breakdown of a text in which the beginning and end of a unit is marked by a shift in space, time, and/or action. Whitney also has her students read Carroll’s commentary on horror cuing audience emotions, which serves as the assignment’s theoretical foundation.

The Assignment

The “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” consists of three stages. I explain these stages as I have adapted them for literary analysis:

Stage 1: The Narrative Segmentation. In the form of a chart, students break down a text (either a complete short story or a chapter from a novel) into its major narrative units. In their brief descriptions of narrative events, students must identify the emotional states of characters. This segmentation anticipates how character emotions may cue reader response in the next stage.

Stage 2: The Emotional Segmentation. In a second chart, students document the various emotional responses they felt in relation to material on the narrative segmentation.

For this segmentation, my student scientists—even the mad scientists!—need effective tools of analysis. Students work with Carl Plantinga’s classification of “spectator emotions,” developed in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Again, although Plantinga developed his taxonomy for film, I find six of the emotional categories he presents applicable to literature. Here’s how I have adapted Plantinga’s classification system (69) for literary application:

1) Global Emotions: Emotions that span all or much of a text’s duration, such as anticipation or suspense.
2) Direct Emotions: Emotions that concern narrative events and the unfolding of the story, such as curiosity about what will happen or confusion after an unexpected turn of events.
3) Local Emotions: Emotions that are typically brief, such as being startled by a graphic image or surprised by something a character says.
4) Sympathetic/Antipathetic Emotions: Emotions that take as their object the condition of characters, such as worrying about a character in danger or feeling disdain for a villain.
5) Meta-Emotions: Responses to one’s own emotions, such as feeling guilty for misjudging a character or feeling proud that you anticipated a plot twist.
6) Artifact Emotions: Responses to the text as a “constructed artifact.” These emotions are not preoccupied with elements of the fiction, but rather with the text as a product of creative activity. For example, one might feel admiration for a writer’s use of various literary devices or annoyance at a writer’s use of a cliché.

Stage 3: The Emotional Analysis Essay: Based on the narrative and emotional segmentations, students must develop an argument about a text’s emotional structure. In the analysis, students must comment on how the text cues their emotional responses and explain how these emotional responses contribute to the text’s overall meaning.

Important questions students must consider when writing the emotional analysis include:

How do your emotional reactions influence your interpretations? What are the similarities and differences between character emotions and your emotions? Are you surprised by any of your emotional reactions? How does the author solicit emotional states to build suspense, encourage or discourage character identification, or produce reactions of fright, shock, and/or disgust? Are there any moments in the text where you experience multiple emotions or conflicting emotions?

Students’ Work

The Birds

For the first “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, my students wrote about Daphne Du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” (1952). I was impressed with the diverse range of arguments they developed for the emotional structure of the text. Here are some of my students’ intriguing thesis claims:

“While the characters must fight through fear and prioritize their survival, readers have the ability to scrutinize the actions of characters and revisit character responses with judgement. It is this ability to reflect which helped form my emotional response as I am more empathetic when the characters involuntarily experience trauma and less compassionate when they voluntarily place themselves in jeopardy.”

“Throughout ‘The Birds,’ I found myself wanting to have Nat Hocken’s logical mindset, but I struggled because I identified with Nat’s unnamed wife who is more emotional. Since Nat remains calm and rational, I found him more trustworthy and reliable than his emotional wife, which means that under the same circumstances, I might be unreliable.”

“In ‘The Birds,’ the main character Nat Hocken champions the idea that the avian enemy is motivated by hunger and changes in the season. During my segmentation, I was surprised at the number of emotions I had dedicated to an alternate answer: that, in fact, the birds were more nefarious than Nat presumes. Certain passages contrast emotion and reasoning to challenge the idea that the birds are motivated by pure instinct, and, in some cases, suggest a self-awareness or sentience in the birds. This conflict creates an uncomfortable air of anxiety.”

“Once I reread the ending of ‘The Birds’ for the emotional segmentation, I realized that Nat demonstrates how using intelligence and rationality in uncontrollable circumstances is sometimes just as futile as acting on emotion and not thinking at all.”

For those interested in Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, she discusses it thoroughly, including the assignment prompt itself and a sample segmentation in the article “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.”

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. U of
California P, 2009.

Whitney, Allison. “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.” The CEA Forum, Winter/Spring 2014, pp. 37-61.

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What’s in a Composition?

PALS Note: We are delighted to have a guest post from Jacinta Yanders. Yanders is working her PhD in TV and Film Studies at The Ohio State University. Here Yanders explains how she incorporates student production of various digital media in her “Digital Media Composing” and “Documentary in the US Experience” writing courses.

Cliché as it may sound, I decided to become an educator when I was seven years old, courtesy of having a fantastic second grade teacher. I recognized the importance of what was happening in that classroom, and I wanted to be able to provide a similar learning experience to others. As such, my undergraduate degree is in English Education, and even now, though I am currently mired in the weeds of the dissertation, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about improving my teaching.

Given that I’m in an English Department, I often think about how, why, and where students are expected to compose. Part of my interest here has been spurred by my involvement with the Digital Media and Composition Institute (first, as an attendee, and later, as an employee) here at The Ohio State University. Each May, DMAC welcomes scholars from everywhere to come together for instruction on how and why educators can, and should, incorporate digital media in the classroom. After attending in 2015, my mind began pinging with possibilities of how I could incorporate what I was learning into my teaching.

I had my first chance to really focus on this last fall when I taught a course called “Digital Media Composing.” As the title suggests, this class requires students to primarily create digital compositions. Because one of my primary research areas is Television Studies, my students used Twitter, Storify, WordPress, Audacity, and iMovie to produce compositions that reflected the intertwining of television and digital media. For their most significant productions, they each composed their own podcasts and digital transmedia extensions. I don’t mean to retread the “The Essay is Dead/Fine” argument (though here are Exhibit A and Exhibit B if you’re interested), but I will say that challenging students to compose in these various formats, to analyze the formats, and to think rhetorically about how the different formats necessarily required them to engage with audiences differently was an invaluable experience.

This spring, I taught a special section of composition. The catalog title for the class is “Documentary in the U.S. Experience.” The following are a selection of the desired learning outcomes assigned to the course:

  1. Rhetorical Knowledge
  2. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing
  3. Knowledge of Composing Processes
  4. Collaboration
  5. Knowledge of Conventions
  6. Composing in Electronic Environments

13thThroughout the semester, we watched several documentaries relating to my chosen course theme (“Documenting Crime, Justice, and Power”), such as The Thin Blue Line, 13th, Shenandoah, and The Hunting Ground. Students wrote analyses of readings, presented weekly on the viewings, took film quizzes, and completed what I called the Critical Analysis Project. This project required students to write a series of essays on a documentary of their choosing from the first half of the semester, with each essay approaching the film differently (scene analysis, thematic analysis, argument). Via these assignments, I feel confident that I could argue that students were provided with various opportunities to work toward the learning outcomes.

But I wanted to see if I could challenge students in addition in other ways. Since it was a documentary class, I decided the students would make short documentaries. I thought that there would be no better way to get sense of the extent to which students had grasped what we’d been working on throughout the semester. In a way, I was abiding by the evergreen directive to “Show. Don’t Tell.” I wanted them to show that they could apply what they’d learned in a concrete fashion. They would have to think like the documentary filmmakers we’d studied, bearing in mind the many facets of documentary rhetoric that would shape their compositions. Additionally, the documentary project would allow them to move toward all of the aforementioned learning outcomes in one assignment.

So how did we make this happen?

I will say upfront that if I could go back and change anything about this, I would start earlier. We started working on this project about a month and a half before the end of the semester, which break had seemed like plenty of time. I hadn’t wanted to start too early because I wanted the students have seen enough films and completed enough readings so that they had a solid foundation to build from. But upon reflection, I think that I would start the project a few weeks earlier to relieve some of the pressure going into the end of the semester.

Beyond that, I kept the specifics of the assignment fairly loose. In groups, students had to compose short documentaries (7-15 minutes) that related to our course theme. How they ultimately decided to make that connection was up to each group. The documentaries also had to have credits providing information about where their materials came from. In preparation for beginning, I spent one class session showing and discussing a selection of short documentaries so that they could get a sense of how they could structure their work, how much could be accomplished in a short span of time, etc. Then each group had to turn in a proposal, a rough draft, and have a group conference with me before finally turning in their final draft. We ended the semester with a showcase of their documentaries where people outside of the class were invited to view the documentaries because I wanted to find ways for students to think of their audience beyond just me.

What about the technical requirements?

In my department, we have what’s known as the Digital Media Project. Via the DMP, students are able to rent cameras, microphones, audio recorders, etc. Employees of the DMP also come to classes to put on workshops, which I had them do in this class for both Audacity and iMovie. Audacity is a free audio program, and it’s available to students regardless of what kind of computer they might be working on. iMovie is Mac-specific, but I chose to have it shown to students because it’s the video software that I’m most familiar with and because we have Mac labs in our department that the students can access for class work.

Importantly, I emphasized to the students that I was less concerned with their technical finesse than I was with their ability to display their understanding of documentary filmmaking. For example, we spent a significant portion of the class focusing on the subjectivity inherThe THin Blue Lineent in documentaries, even though they’re often broadly perceived to be objective. I wanted to see how they would grapple “truth” (or lack thereof) in their compositions. We also spent multiple weeks studying different styles of documentaries and the details of how they’re constructed, which allowed us to consider how specific choices influence reception. For example, how does Nick Broomfield’s constant on-screen presence shape our interpretation in his Aileen Wuornos documentaries? And what difference does it make that Errol Morris’ final interview with David Harris in The Thin Blue Line occurs via audio rather than video? Students would have to make similar choices in their compositions keeping in mind that their choices would necessarily influence the reception.

How did the students respond?

To me, this is probably the most important question. And my answer is that their responses were…mixed. There’s a lot of debate about what we Millennials (and the generation after us) know/don’t know about and can/can’t do with technology inherently. I will say that the typical structure of our education system is set in such way that prompting a student to compose something that’s not an essay, especially in an English class, can be jarring. Unlike the Digital Media Composing class, in which there was an explicit buy-in about the type of work we’d be doing from the start, the students in the documentary class were not necessarily as primed to complete that type of work.

They weren’t necessarily resistant, but there was some hesitancy at times. I tried to assuage those concerns and provided several resources. But I could tell that the nervousness remained for some students. Aside from starting to work on the project earlier, one additional thing I would do in the future is have an extended conversation about the project at the beginning of the semester, so that we can have the opportunity to think through some of those concerns earlier before they’re faced with starting the work.

The other difficulty about this assignment is that it’s a group project. Most groups seemed to get along fine, but there were a couple occasions in which issues arose. I’d tried to preempt this a bit by surveying students about the qualities they look for in group members before assigning them to groups, and they knew that in the end, they’d be required to evaluate their own performances as well as the performances of their fellow group members. I found that students were often quite honest in those evaluations. They admitted when they believed they hadn’t been contributing as much, and if one person in the group had gone above and beyond, I often saw that reflected in the evaluations from their group members. The tensions that arose were not to extent that there was an issue with a group actually finishing the project, but some of them definitely had a more difficult time than others. In the Digital Media Composing class, I gave students the option to work solo or in groups for the final transmedia project (they all chose the solo option). I’d thought that the documentary project would be too much work for a person to effectively handle on their own, but I might consider instituting the option in the future.

Final Products

Ultimately, my students put together thoughtful, rhetorically-engaging documentaries on subjects such as the conflict between Wendy’s and the Center for Immokalee Workers, off-campus crime, distrust of the media, and a violent incident that occurred on campus last year. In pursuit of these topics, students compiled various news articles and videos, shot their own footages, attended protests, conducted interviews, contacted administrators, and surveyed fellow students. On a fundamental level, they’d begun to understand how and why documentaries are made. As one student said on an end of the semester reflection, “I learned about how hard it is to make a documentary. I’ve learned to respect the process.” While they had written multiple essays about documentaries, I think it was this project that clarified their understanding the most. One thing that I’m thinking about now is if/how I can create and structure writing assignments that lead to the same clarity about written compositions.

This was not a perfect learning experience (I’m not sure those really exist), and there are definitely elements I would change going forward, but I think that if the resources are available and if you’re thinking of other ways to have students compose, then a project such as this could very well be worth your time.

Contributor Bio

jJacinta Yanders is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. Her primary areas of research are Television Studies, Film Studies, and Popular Culture. Jacinta is currently working on her dissertation, which analyzes the impact on narrative construction and audience reception that occurs when television remakes change key elements of characters’ identities. Her previous work addresses topics such as the intertwining of television and social media, representations of the Black Lives Matter Movement and police brutality on television, and the reconfiguration of the Syfy network as a potential space for progressive representations.