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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Irreverently Teaching Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her

PALS Note: We welcome a guest post from Tiffany Austin. Austin is an Assistant Professor at the University of The Bahamas where she teaches academic and creative writing. This post looks at Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her in light of initial reactions that students often have about the text. At PALS, we have also written about Diaz here and here

I remember two conversations about Junot Diaz as I started to teach his works some years ago. A fellow poet argued if Diaz was him, a singular black man (read not “exotic”)—meaning non-Dominican, non-Caribbean, not-from the U.S.—he would not receive the same acclaim or be allowed the same license to write what he wrote, but would merely be considered a “hip hop” writer not writing anything out of the ordinary. This came after Diaz used profanity while interviewing Toni Morrison in 2013. The other conversation happened over a dinner talk about feminism, one woman arguing to her sympathetic boyfriend that Diaz “just got it” concerning machismo and we should be grateful for his comments on race and gender.

Junot Diaz

This night concluded with me, sitting on the floor, paraphrasing James Baldwin, commenting that racism would not cease to exist until “white” people stopped considering themselves as white.  Perhaps I stated this because I had similar thoughts about gender; sexism wouldn’t discontinue until men stopped believing they were men.  And I have found that these polar opposite responses to Diaz were paralleled in my students’ reactions to reading and discussing his novels and short stories during literature courses I taught. He either was too profane to be any good and his character Yunior disguised a misogynist writer, similar to a hip hop artist “keeping it real,” or he gave them freedom to be similarly profane and sensitive to the gender and ethnic/cultural/neo-colonial issues plaguing them as well.

Now I’m teaching This Is How You Lose Her to creative writing students to explore what could be done with character—the short stories perhaps revealing the opportunity to unfetter judgments and enter a character’s head and allow him or her to speak through mouth and movement—honestly. After reading the collection and beginning our class discussion, one student, astounded by the language and This is how you lose hersexuality pervading, expresses, “I hate this.” Another student, just as astounded by the honesty in that same discourse on language and sexuality, relates, “This is possible.”

And so beyond the themes of sex, love, identity, and naming, all colored by machismo and vulnerability, there is the ambiguity—the contradictory struggle of the voice and characters speaking of cultural tradition and residue, of present expectations regarding gender—and the language and tone at once vulgar and tender with the same or different hands, fingers, tetas, vaginas. The scene in “Nilda” shows it best. Rafa, after coupling with Nilda on the bus, tells his brother, Yunior, “Smell this…This is what’s wrong with women” (34). We experience the disdain and the struggle for Yunior to understand his brother’s actions and his thoughts, both brothers victims of “male privilege.” After Rafa is dead from cancer, and Nilda shows up at the funeral, Mami could only remember “she was the one who smelled good” (41). Here it is again, the empathetic side of Yunior, recognizing the feminine through Mami. This ambiguity shows up in my students’ views on how to write fiction, also. How autobiographical can it be? Am I exploiting myself, the people around me, culture, language, even?

One classroom exercise I employ has the students free write about a “real” person they have disdain for or simply “hate.”  Then they must become that character and write a short story from his/her perspective.  They start from the autobiographical experience, but they then must use empathy to see the world through that person’s experiences—experiences they must imagine and understand.  I find this exercise to be a difficult one for students.  They must throw “political correctness” out of the window, then usher in motivations for their own idiosyncrasies and impatience with others’ idiosyncrasies.  One student ends up writing about a philanderer, the other about her mother.  The ambiguity arises when they are forced to be that philanderer or mother—somehow ugliness becomes beauty in its awe-inspiring sense.

In my own personal practice, a friend and I pass the time by orally creating fiction at the airport whenever we travel together. We sit and observe the people passing by, choose one person, then create an imaginative narrative about the person: “He is returning to his family from a business trip (filled with golfing with colleagues), but he doesn’t want to return—he moves quickly because it has to be done and he would rather move quickly than think about it.” We know we are doing something eschew and being simply voyeuristic. But our “gaze” comes forth from a desire to know their stories, consciously knowing we are not “right” about their personal narratives. We wouldn’t mind the same being done to us as long as we wouldn’t come to know about it and it didn’t become the “truth” of who we are. The truth is in the desire to know some “being” about them.  I confess this to my students to show them not only that all imaginative work is some form of exploitation (if we’re relating the idea of taking advantage of, but not, if it’s being done unfairly) but also that there are many ways to know a character–the way she walks to her terminal, the way he laughs.  In studying Diaz, for them, the most highlighted form to know the character comes down to the way he speaks.

James BaldwinRather than paraphrase, I quote James Baldwin now: “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”  Accordingly, I teach my students to tell lives as near to contradictory honesty—eating peppermint and onion at the same time, I paraphrase Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, this time—as they can. Diaz, in his works, is the cheeky kid who confesses before a priest. We can either become the priest or the hidden listener there with him in the world he has recreated and created. When teaching Diaz, I invite my students to be both. Is the language necessary or partly meant to shock? Has Yunior been complicated enough so we can empathize with his dysfunction, his half-hearted attempt to start again? Not only do they learn empathy in terms of entering their characters’ minds and hearts, but they also become more astute observers of the anguish we all experience as beings.

And maybe to teach Diaz is to teach the struggle of expressing that masculinity simultaneously framed by cultural and familial mores and its vulnerability. In terms of Diaz’s work, maybe its profound importance is to focus on that—he smells.

Contributor Bio:

Tiffany Austin currently teaches rhetorical and creative writing at the University of The Bahamas while researching African Diaspora studies, including African American, Caribbean, Afro-Latino(a) and African literature. She has published poetry in African American Review, Callaloo, Obsidian, pluck!, Valley Voices, and Sycorax’s Daughters, a speculative literature anthology, along with a photo essay “A South in Sound” in TriQuarterly.