Many people are stars in their own childhood stories that their parents will embarrassingly tell to anyone who will listen. I have one that is perhaps a bit uncommon. My parents had left me and my little brother in my grandmother’s care while they took a night to themselves. Upon returning to the house, they overheard her telling us a story. At first pleased, they snuck a look in the door to see five-year-old me and my two-year-old brother sitting fascinated on our grandmother’s lap as she graphically described how the killer in her story hacked off the heads of his victims. Needless to say, they were a bit mortified. It was too late, though; horror stories became a regular part of my family experience. Many people would not approve of this, as horror is often regarded with derision.
An objective look at the history of storytelling, however, reveals a significant proliferation of themes now identifiable as being related to this most stigmatized of genres. Despite the general discomfort that seems to arise at the mention of the horror genre—particularly in the fields of education—it clearly offers a unique opportunity for not only engaging young people in reading, but also for sparking the discussion of difficult topics that tend to lurk beneath horror’s metaphorical surface.
In this article, I will look at the existence of horror in literature, both classical and contemporary, and how parents, librarians, and teachers can use the engaging power of the genre to encourage a lifelong love of reading that transcends genre. To begin, it is probably necessary that I define horror as I see it. Historically, the term “horror” was probably first used as a genre nomenclature in 1934 after Universal Studios’ successful first round of monster movies packed theater houses. Many people seem to have an extremely narrow set of criteria when assigning the horror label to a work of art, film, or literature. One will often hear such utterances as “That’s more of a thriller than a horror,” or “I think it’s really more of a comedy than a horror film.” Personally, I find such compartmentalization painfully limiting. My definition of horror is extremely broad: it is any form of expression that seeks to explain, exhibit, or otherwise explore the darker side of human nature.
By this definition, horror of all kinds can not only be elevated to the level of viable art form, but it can be used to help us understand ourselves better. Indeed, that is the very purpose of storytelling in the first place. Fear, paranoia, hubris, greed, avarice, and even awe have been a primary theme in people’s need to tell their stories since dangerous and threatening wildlife was first painted on cave walls. Sculptures, temples, and other tributes to awesome deities were constructed as much out of fear as for any other reason.
In the Western tradition, both the heroic epics and the dramatic tragedies of Ancient Greece and Rome are absolutely filled with elements both horrific and terrifying. From the gory battle eviscerations of Homer’s Iliad, to the visceral Bacchae described by Euripides, to the monstrous and frightening transformation found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, horrific situations, monsters, Gods, and tortures were used to make sense of the chaos of a sometimes terrifying world with earthquakes, volcanoes, war, and other unexplained dangers.
Horror elements are also found in the morality tales, poetry, and literature of the middle ages. Of Dante’s Divine Comedy, it is perhaps Inferno that is more widely read and quoted than either Purgatory or Paradise. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Milton’s Paradise Lost are also full of content that would delight any horror fan. Catholicism seems to be a potent source of horror material, containing many terrors meant either to show the consequences of poor choices or to encourage a virtuous lifestyle. One need not look much further than the Old and New Testaments themselves for scenes of violence, fear, and monsters. One of my favorite horror stories of all time comes from the later Elizabethan era, and that is Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In Enlightenment, Victorian and Post-Industrial times, horror found contemporary endurance in the hands of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, and more. The stories created by these craftsmen and women have been mainstays even in modern horror adaptations. The advancement of science and progress opened up whole new avenues in terms of how artists could express what frightened them. Unchecked scientific study, psychology and the dual nature of humankind, as well as classic religious themes were all explored through the veneer of fear, violence, or tragedy—key horror elements.
Throughout these eras, there were many purposes for the darkness in story. It could be a simple exploration of the darkness that lives in human nature. It could be a didactic means of communicating how people should behave. It could be an attempt to explain why bad things can happen to good people. It is important to remember that the stories I’ve mentioned were never really called “horror stories” because horror as a genre is essentially a ploy to make certain properties more marketable to a segment of the population. When horror is thought of in a broader, more enriching sense, one can see it has been with us for a long time. In any case, it is a method of expression and an attempt to understand our place in this world. I believe this holds true even in today’s horror films, TV shows, pop literature, comic books, and other storytelling media. However crass the material, or whatever motivates the author, these are still forms of storytelling that can hold value when approached a certain way.
Parents, teachers, and particularly librarians can be instrumental in fostering critical and thoughtful reading by including horror or scary stories in their suggested reading lists. For elementary-aged kids, there are the books of R.L. Stine, Bunnicula, some of the works of Roald Dahl, and abridged versions of classics such as War of the Worlds or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For middle school-aged students, there are the horrors found in Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Stephen King’s Eyes of the Dragon, and more. In high school there is of course Macbeth, not to mention that the young adult horror category seems to be the fastest growing section of the library in recent years. The important thing, I think, is to encourage choice in reading, and not to worry when a student chooses material from the horror genre. This goes a long way toward fostering life-long readers!
[Please stay tuned for a follow-up to this post wherein Mr. Rodriguez will provide numerous practical suggestions for incorporating the horror genre into teaching and learning opportunities. -Peter]