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.

Advertisements

Fulbright Workshop: Fake News

I’m reporting back from Norway, where I am about two months into the Fulbright program. (Information about my Fulbright & my introductory thoughts upon arriving in Norway.) Here are some gratuitous shots of mountains and fjords in case you were worried that Norway is boring.

Back to actual work: there has been a lot to consider and digest while I spend time in Norwegian schools. I have thoughts about the differences between Norwegian schools and American schools and where this differences matter and where they do not. I am still parsing out a lot of these things and what they mean–if they mean anything at all. I will write again later about some larger trends that I have observed and what conclusions I think we can draw from them, but first, I wanted to go through one of my workshops and discuss the responses that I have gotten to it so far.

The Fulbright that I have is unique to Norway. Instead of doing a research project or teaching in a university, I am traveling around the country meeting with students and teachers in upper secondary schools (ages 16-18) and giving workshops on American culture and history. I have to have at least five workshops that I can rotate so schools can pick between subjects that might be of interest to them or fit in with the curriculum they are currently teaching. I currently have seven workshops and one of them that I added towards the end–fake news has been one of the most popular.

It is not a huge surprise that fake news is a popular workshop. It is a big topic of interest not only in the U.S. right now but also across the world. I have found that Norwegian students are good at reading the news i.e. not just absorbing it but applying their critical thinking skills to what they are reading. However, many students I have talked to also get their information from social media, particularly Youtube commentators. While they have good answers about how to spot fake news on the internet–check your sources, find supporting information, etc.–the fact that they get so much information from Youtube makes me think that this lesson is worthwhile for them.

The Lesson 

I usually start by asking for their examples of fake news. Many students will have an example in mind, and this can be a nice ice breaker. Often students think of funny examples, which get the room laughing. If they can’t think of any I usually throw out one that is reoccurring, like so and so celebrity is dead, or give them an example from the U.S. election last year, such as the Pope endorsed Donald Trump.

We discuss how fake news is stories that are posted to deliberately mislead the audience. I point out to them though that this is often done on purpose it is also important to consider that some posters and authors, for that matter, post things that are fake because they are unaware of the truth themselves. That is, while some people are trying to spread misinformation, other are just confused about the truth. I, then, mention the fact that there are fake news sites that generate fake news on purpose to parody or satirize the news. I use The Onion as an example (just in case you are wondering Norwegian students have no idea what The Onion is) and then ask them for their own examples.

Next, we look at examples of fake news. I start with this example of the shark that was spotted on the freeway in Houston.

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 5.21.24 PM

This example works well because students can actually analyze the picture. Ask them: why does this not seem plausible? and they will have many answers: from sharks don’t live in fresh water to when someone says, “believe it or not,” don’t believe them. Students are also interested to know that this picture has been used before the hurricane in Houston. I like to say that this shark has been to multiple natural disasters. This is important to hear because it shows that fake news is not just about an isolated incident but a culture of misinformation.

I also talk about Russian interference in the U.S. election. It has been such big news that it would be hard to talk about fake news without mentioning it. I have been using this article, “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election,” from the New York Times about fake Facebook profiles. I picked it because it allows us to consider the role of social media in spreading both real news and fake news. While students confirm that Facebook isn’t cool to use, they still use it and many other social media sites. It helps to connect in a clear way fake news and their social media use. Fake news can seem like other people’s problems: “I wouldn’t fall for fake news,” most students are probably thinking during this lesson. But when we examine this fake profile, I often get more examples of fake stories, fake information, and fake profiles they have seen online. It helps make an abstract problem concrete.

Screen Shot 2017-10-15 at 6.06.00 PM

So far we have a lot of information for students, but you might be wondering what students do with this information. Don’t worry I have an answer. And I am just going to pat myself on the back here for one second, because it takes a lot of work to 1) introduce yourself to students 2) introduce them to a concept and 3) get them to put those ideas to use in 90 minutes. This is especially true when they have never met this strange native English speaker before and aren’t so sure that they should trust her. What I have students do is to use the skills we talk about to decide whether an news article is real or fake news.

Before we work on an article, I discuss the concept of news literacy, which I explain as not only being able to literally read the news but being about to read it in a critical manner. I use information from the Center for News Literary (@NewsLiteracy) at Stony Brook University, the News Literacy Project, this NPR article by Steve Inskeep, and this excellent chart from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (available in English & Norsk).

 

To find an easily digestable article, I turned to the website Factitious, which I read about in this NPR article. Factitious gives players a series of articles, and they have to register if the article is real or fake news by swiping left and right. I pick one article from the website and have students work in groups to decided if it is real or fake. This allows students to put all of what we have talked about to use. They have to decide if the article is real or fake and give at least one reason as to why. This is successful regardless of if students get the answers right or wrong because it encourages them to use their critical thinking skills. Working in groups usually helps here because often students don’t want to make a grand declaration of it is right or wrong on their own.

The whole lesson moves quickly, but I think that students have been getting something out of it. If nothing else, they are exposed to the definition of fake news and the idea of using news literacy to combat it. I always tell them that we can’t solve fake news issues on our own, but I do think that being informed consumers and talking to others about fake news can at least make a minor dent in our fake news world.

Feel free to use these ideas for yourself, and if you do, please let me know how it goes. Below I have a few ideas that expand this lesson and some resources related to fake news.

 Ideas for Future Lessons 

  1. I’m increasingly interested in how to present topics to students that encourage them to think beyond their own positions. What I mean by this, is that it is easy for Norwegian students to understand the fake news that is at play in the U.S.–they read a lot about the U.S. and are familiar with what is going on there, and it is easy for them to see how their news system is very tame compared to U.S. news. If I had them for more than one class period though, I would try to get them to see fake news at work in even more places. Two possible examples that this could be done with are 1) This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee about how fake news was combated in Finland. 2) The podcast from Rough Translation on fake news in Ukraine. The point of incorporating examples like these into a further lesson would not just be to add more instances but to interrogate how increasingly global our issues are. Both American and Norwegian students I have taught have trouble seeing outside of themselves and the concerns of their day-to-day lives. It is easy for Norwegians to critique the U.S. because the U.S. because it makes so much news in Norway that it becomes part of their daily experience. But the world is bigger than the U.S. and Norway. And it is also smaller in that many countries and entities are dealing with the issue of fake news around the globe. Presenting a more global view would help students learn to make critiques on a larger scale.
  2. This article from Buzzfeed on the difference between a conservative and a liberal news feed is quite something. It enters my mind a lot when I think of fake news, and it would be really useful to use in a lesson that focused entirely on social media. It would work great in a class or series of lessons that focused on the 2016 election also.
  3. I almost end the fake news class with this chart by Vanessa Otero. A few times I have asked Norwegian students to make a chart for their own news sources. Their chart is less, well, all over the place, but it can still be a useful exercise to think of the way that sources work in relation to each other. Another interesting thing might be to cover alternate charts made by outlets like InfoWars as discussed in this MarketWatch piece. kP4Yax1

Resources 

There are new stories almost everyday about fake news. Here are a few that I have used to build my lesson with the caveat that the information around fake news is so prolific that this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.