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Horror Fiction

Course Overview

Do you like scary stories? Do you enjoy being creeped out by nefarious characters and eerie settings? If so, you are in the right place…welcome to Horror Fiction! In this class we will explore the genre of Supernatural Horror, reading and watching many examples of the gothic, the macabre, and the downright frightening. We will begin with a brief overview of the history of horror fiction before moving on to a wide selection of short stories, poems, novellas, and films that reflect the last 200 years of the genre in Western culture. We will end the semester with a creative project that will allow you to take a stab (pun intended) at creating your own horror fiction! Our guiding questions this semester will be: Why do we enjoy being scared? What scares us? What do scary stories have to teach us? Objectives for this course include:

  • Evaluating the underlying psychology behind the human desire to seek out fear-inducing situations and entertainment.
  • Identifying elements of the horror genre while considering where “horror” falls within the wider concept of “speculative fiction”; classify some of the important sub-genres that make up the body of horror fiction.
  • Charting the history of the genre from ancient folktales to contemporary fiction and film; recognize the work of famous authors and filmmakers associated with horror.
  • Analyzing horror texts through the literary lenses of character, setting, tone, symbolism, conflict, and theme (and also consider mise-en-scène when analyzing films).
  • Creating a work of short horror fiction, drawing upon the techniques studied throughout the semester.
  • Discussing texts with peers in ways that reflect thoughtful engagement—both in writing (on online forums) and in person (during live sessions).

Course Content

Unit 1: Intro to Horror

In our introductory unit we will work to define horror as a genre, examining its history in our culture and literature as well as charting where horror falls under the broader category of speculative fiction. We will begin with some fundamental questions about what scares us and why we seek out fear as entertainment. We will then explore how horror has evolved in English literature, from folk tales to gothic fiction to the “weird tales” of 20th-century pulp fiction and film. We will consider what literary elements are common in horror fiction and how we distinguish “horror” from other suspense genres (thrillers, mysteries) or other speculative genres (fantasy, science fiction). We will end the unit with a focused analysis of literary archetypes that are prevalent in horror fiction, with an emphasis on The Devil Figure and The Creature of Nightmare.

Unit 2: The Bad Place

The second unit will focus on the role of setting in horror fiction, drawing from Stephen King’s archetypal construct “The Bad Place.” Such places, he argues, are terrifying not just because they may be haunted, but because we fear the intrusion of unknown and uninvited elements into those environments that should otherwise feel safe. We will begin by reading a few short pieces that exemplify this trope while focusing on the literary techniques the authors use to create mood, atmosphere, and a sense of the uncanny. With these techniques in mind, we will then move on to our first long work, Henry James’ classic gothic tale The Turn of the Screw, as well as our first feature-length film, The Others. We will practice our own descriptive writing techniques throughout the unit, writing about a place that gives us a sense of unease.

Unit 3: Infection

In this unit we will explore how our very pragmatic fear of plague and pandemic has become a source of endless inspiration for horror writers. The first set of readings will focus on more traditional plague and infection narratives before we move on to the popular genre of zombie plague/apocalypse stories. This topic provides us with an interesting opportunity to discuss how fiction may influence our reality, and we will take debate how our cultural obsession with plague and zombie narratives may have influenced people’s response to a true pandemic. Because zombie fiction is most prevalent in film, we will be emphasizing more film analysis skills this unit, culminating in a viewing of the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead.

Unit 4: Cosmic Indifference and Racial Justice

We begin this unit with an introduction to Lovecraftian horror and the Cthulhu mythos, a course of study that is complicated by the fact that Lovecraft himself was a virulent racist, forcing us to confront the question of how we handle works of literature with such a problematic history. We will then explore some of the ways that contemporary authors have worked to “reclaim” Lovecraftian horror by rewriting or reimagining this mythos through a more diverse perspective, leading us to our second novella of the class, The Ballad of Black Tom. From there we will consider other ways that modern horror writers and filmmakers are using the genre to as a platform for social criticism, culminating in the viewing of Jordan Peele’s 2017 masterwork, Get Out.

Unit 5: Creating Horror

For the final unit of the semester, YOU will be the one doing the scaring! Utilizing the ideas and techniques learned over the semester, you will create your own work of horror flash-fiction. You can work in any medium you choose, so students might choose to write a short-short story, shoot a quick video, create a comic—whatever you can come up with is fair game! Our final for this class will be to present these masterpieces to the class and scare the socks off each other. (As if finals aren’t horrifying enough.????)