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.


Teaching Historical Context with E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime

Image resultOne of the major tensions I find myself wrestling with when teaching lower level literature classes is the balance between contextual understanding and close reading. Context helps my students wrap their heads around material that may seem distant or foreign to their own experiences, but it also can interrupt or subordinate their attention to close reading. As a teacher, I want them to look closely at text and use that to interpret, but I am also of the belief that a text never exists in a vacuum. It can be hard to strike a balance between the two, and I discovered this a particular challenge when teaching E.L. Doctorow’s historical revisionist novel, Ragtime. Ragtime is a 1975 novel that mixes historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and many others, with fictional figures and events primarily in NYC to investigate key moments during the United States’ Progressive Era.Related image

The first time I taught this novel my students came up with a general type of response to the text when developing literary interpretations that went something like this: Through the use of historical narrative, Doctorow shows how “X group” (African Americans, working class laborers, industrial powers, women) were treated/seen/acted in the Progressive Era. While this interpretation has some seeds of truth — Doctorow does look at historical and fictional figures across the racial and socioeconomic spectrum — these claims fall into the trap of linking specific narrative choices to generalized statements about the real world. As Jack Lynch says in his very helpful blog I use when teaching literary analysis papers: “Never forget that books are books and, if you’re in an English class, you’re being asked to talk about them. Many books are unreliable guides to the real world outside the texts, and it’s dangerous to talk about, say, Renaissance attitudes toward race based only on your reading of Othello. Talk about Othello.”

Image result for new york 1920sIn other words, while it’s important for students to engage in historical context to identify historical markers and allusions, it’s also important that they don’t see this book as a holistic representative of real world history. This is tricky to navigate, and I found that setting up Ragtime as a text that revises history can help them understand how Doctorow uses historical figures and events to make art. Doctorow calls this to mind in his own quote about rewriting history when he says, “History is a nightmare we can best survive by rewriting it.” The publication date (1975) becomes revealing once students investigate what is happening during that time period in the United States: Watergate, Kent State and Jackson shootings, Nixon re-elected, EPA, just to name a few. I ask students why they think Doctorow, living in the mid-1970s might have had an impulse to rewrite another time in history.

One way I lay this foundation for students when we’re moving towards interpretation and argumentation is to ask them to pay close attention to the diction of their argument. For example, instead of making a claim about the X (women, the Progressive Era, etc.) as a whole, I ask the students to think about what evidence in particular intrigues them about their topic. By asking them to move back into the book, I’m actually asking them to surrender context momentarily to consider the book as a work on its own terms — not a history but a revision of history. This isn’t asking them to forget about the importance of setting and time period, but to look closely at how Doctorow crafts his characters to function within those parameters, not as representatives of it. Doctorow makes all up kinds of things in his book, and takes a different approach than Truman Capote, who I’ve written about in a previous post. As journalist Mel Gussow notes in his 1975 New York Times article about Doctorow’s book, “Ragtime as fictive nonfiction. It’ s the reverse of Truman Capote.”

What follows are some resources I’ve cobbled together from various websites (yes, including Wikipedia) that helps set up historical context for students.

I’ve found that students know little of the Progressive Era, but they DO know John Green, and using Green’s Crash Course is a good way to get them engaged in a time period that feels far removed from their present experience.

Before I send students off to read the first section of the book, we spend some time learning about and listening to ragtime music.

I ask students to pay attention to the book’s pacing, as it echoes the syncopated rhythm of ragtime itself. At the end of the book, we revisit this idea and discuss why Doctorow may have chosen this as the book’s title.

I also distribute a rather lengthy background handout which I’ve below before students read the first part of the novel. This way, if they run into a name or event they are unaware of, they can get some quick grounding to make sense of what’s going on in the novel.

Historical Figures and Terms in Ragtime*

Anarchism – is a political philosophy that advocates stateless societies based on non-hierarchical free associations. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, or harmful

Theodore Dreiser – American novelist and journalist of the naturalist school.

Egyptology – the study of ancient Egypt

Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Archduke of Austria whose assassination precipitated World War I.

Henry Ford and the Model T – was an American industrialist, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, and sponsor of the development of the assembly line technique of mass production. The Model T revolutionized transportation in the United States.

Sigmund Freud – Austrian neurologist who became known as the founding father of psychoanalysis.

Henry Frick – American industrialist, financier, and art patron. Chairmen of Carnegie Steel Company.

Emma Goldman – famed anarchist known for her political activism, speeches, and writing.

Grand Narrative –A story that is supposed to be a comprehensive explanation of history and knowledge.

Harry Houdini – Hungarian-American illusionist, stunt performer, and escape artist.

Scott Joplin – African American composer and pianist who achieved fame for his ragtime Compositions.

Carl Jung – Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist whose theories include extraversion and introversion, archetypes, and the collective unconscious.

Lusitania – British ocean liner that was struck by torpedoes launched by German U-boats in 1915. Sinking of the boat hastened war involvement of Americans.

Mexican Revolution – as a major armed struggle that started in 1910, with an uprising led by Francisco I. Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz, and lasted for the better part of a decade until around 1920. Over time the Revolution changed from a revolt against the established order to a multi-sided civil war with frequently shifting power struggles. This armed conflict is often categorized as the most important sociopolitical event in Mexico and one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century, which saw important experimentation and reformation in social organization.

J.P. Morgan – was an American financier, banker, philanthropist and art collector who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his time

Evelyn Nesbit – Popular model and celebrity made famous nearly overnight by famed architect Stanford White.

Peary’s expeditions – American explorer Robert Peary claimed he was the first to reach the North Pole.

Progressive Era – a period from the 1890s – 1920s that resulted from economic and social problems due to rapid industrialization introduced to America. Progressivism began as a social movement and grew into a political movement. The early progressives rejected Social Darwinism. In other words, they were people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace.

Radicalism – the holding or following of radical or extreme views or principles, especially in Politics.

Ragtime – a musical genre that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. Its main characteristic trait is its syncopated, or “ragged,” rhythm. It began as dance music in the red-light districts of African American communities in St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published as popular sheet music for piano. Ernest Hogan was an innovator and key pioneer who helped develop the musical genre, and is credited with coining the term ragtime. Ragtime was also a modification of the march made popular by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. The ragtime composer Scott Joplin became famous through the publication in 1899 of the “Maple Leaf Rag” and a string of ragtime hits such as “The Entertainer” that followed, although he was later forgotten by all but a small, dedicated community of ragtime aficionados until the major ragtime revival in the early 1970s. For at least 12 years after its publication, the “Maple Leaf Rag” heavily influenced subsequent ragtime composers with its melody lines, harmonic progressions or metric patterns.

Revisionism – Advocacy of the revision of an accepted, usually long-standing view, theory, or doctrine, especially a revision of historical events and movements.

Jacob Riis – A Danish-born police reporter with a knack of publicity and an abiding Christian faith, Jacob Riis won international recognition for his 1890 bestseller, “How the Other Half Lives,” which exposed the desperate and squalid conditions of New York City’s tenement slums and gave momentum to a sanitary reform movement that started in the 1840s and culminated in New York State’s landmark Tenement House Act of 1901.

Theodore Roosevelt – President from 1901-1909

Socialism – the theory of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution of capital in the community as a whole.

William Howard Taft – President from 1909-1913

Harry K. Thaw – Son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw, Sr. Husband of Evelyn Nesbit and murderer of Stanford White.

Booker T. Washington – African-American author, educator, orator, and advisor to presidents of the United States.

Stanford White – American architect. Among his more important commissions in New York City were the Madison Square Garden (1891), the Washington Memorial Arch (1891), the New York Herald Building (1892), and the Madison Square Presbyterian Church (1906). He had a love affair with Evelyn Nesbit and was shot to death by her husband.

Emiliano Zapata – Mexican revolutionary

Zapatista – Mexican armed insurgent groups that began during the Mexican Revolution.

*Much of this information is taken from wikipedia
Lastly, this is one of those texts where there are many online teaching guides. I always find it helpful to see how others frame a text I’m teaching and have used this particular resource to come up with some in class discussion questions: Random House Guide to Teaching Ragtime

Overall, Ragtime is a fun and complex book to teach. It is a great way to introduce students to revisionist narratives and to learn some history along the way. It’s a fast read, but one that brings up so many interesting layers of conversation that it’s easy to run out of time in class because of lively conversation, which is really what lit classes are all about.