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.