Two books that have captured imaginations and inspired countless thought-provoking discussions, theses, and even classroom curricula have been the stylishly dark and abstract The Trial and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Both these stories reveal an intense scrutiny of our postindustrial lives that has been ruminated upon and borrowed by other artists, musicians, philosophers, and teachers over the decades. Most librarians would jump at the chance to recommend these books, and discuss the importance of their contents with anyone who is interested. What makes this all the more interesting is that Kafka himself went to the grave never knowing another human being would read a word of his prose. Before expiring of tuberculosis in 1924, Kafka attempted to ensure his writing died with him by asking a friend to reduce his manuscripts to ash.
Should that friend, Max Brod, have complied with Kafka’s dying wish, humankind would have forever been robbed of these rare intellectual treasures. I mention this anecdote not only because I believe the work of Kafka is included in my definition of horror literature, but also because it is a perfect example of something I deeply believe—that the wishes or intentions of an author, as well as the books that he or she writes, are secondary in value to the years of conversation (both internal and external) that they offer to generations of readers. Librarians and teachers know how to foster these conversations about literature with younger readers, but knowing how to generate engaging and enriching conversations around horror literature may not be as obvious. In my last post, I discussed how horror has been present in storytelling since before it was a genre label. Here I’d like to offer some suggestions as to how adults can use contemporary horror literature to prompt critical thinking and inspire life-long reading in young people.
The most obvious question about the popularity of horror is one in which we question ourselves: why do people gravitate toward dark content? What is it about fear, violence, cruelty, survival, or dread that keeps people reading or watching… and coming back for more? These are good questions, and they are difficult to answer. Unfortunately, they are often asked like this by people who don’t understand the genre: “Why on Earth are you reading that garbage?” Unfortunately, this inspires little other than spite and undue shame. I have come to recognize the general good intention behind this line of questioning, but it serves only to stifle conversation at best, and destroy the joy of reading at worst.
When one fails to understand the allure of horror, and purports to question a reader about his or her choices, it is best to start the discussion in a less accusatory fashion: “This is an extremely popular title. Isn’t it interesting how much people like to read such scary (or dark, or violent) material?” The discussion can become more about the elements of human nature or history that lead to darker artistic choices. Starting a discussion in this way also hints that the reader is simply reading a title enjoyed by many, rather than inadvertently pegging that reader as a social deviant.
More thoughtful than the question of the popularity and human fascination with horror is the notion of horror as a dark and metaphorical mirror.
- Can we see bits of the monster in ourselves? Have we ever felt impulses that we are not proud of, but can recognize as the actions of the villains in horror stories?
- Can we be honest about feeling those impulses, and can the consequences in dark tales help us learn to be better people?
- Which characters do we most care about, the people or the monsters?
- Are the actions of the characters more wicked than the actions of the monsters?
All of these questions can elevate even the simplest horror tale to something greater than a thrill ride, while simultaneously offering that thrill that will keep readers reading.
Because of the visceral, psychological, or emotional nature of the horror tale, it offers readers the ability to put themselves into the world created by the author. If a certain passage gives a reader a bad dream, or even a subtle feeling of dread, the question of how and why that was possible comes up. When a reader feels a base thrill at a particular kill scene or an act of violence, the question looms as to why, and whether or not other people feel the same way. If thought is put into these particular effects that horror literature can have on us, we are using keen metacognitive processes that elevate the words on the page and even elevate whatever effects were directly intended by the author. These processes can be encouraged and nurtured by librarians or teachers who wish to discuss literary choices with readers and suggest further reading.
When I was in middle school, I was absolutely shocked when a librarian at a small branch talked to me about the issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing that I was reading. I recall talking to her about monster in that story, the grief of his discovery that he wasn’t originally human as he had believed, and his violent reaction following that discovery. At that point, I had never had a similar discussion with any teachers about my preferred reading material, and was delighted to be encouraged and told that I seemed bright beyond my years. It is that and similar experiences that have led to me becoming an educator, writer, and scholar in storytelling. For that, I am forever grateful.
Do Pet Semetary or World War Z or even Dracula have the same depth to offer as Lolita or The Brothers Karamazov? Perhaps not, but what I do think they offer is the possibility of a conversation that is at once personal and uniquely honest. If a person is drawn in by something visceral or primal, the conversation can open understanding about the fundamentals of what makes us who we are in a way that something more ostensibly “intellectual” may not do, or even desire to do. The demonization of the horror genre leaves us bereft of one of our most valuable tools in engaging others in the act of reading, listening and understanding. Even those who personally feel an aversion to darker material should make an effort to better understand its place in history, art, and literature, as well as what the genre has to offer those who prefer it. This understanding can breed rich discussion and perhaps prevent us from alienating future readers.
Miguel Rodriguez works for the San Diego Unified School District providing professional development training and support services in educational technology to K12 teachers. He also directs and programs the annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival and hosts the Monster Island Resort Podcast in order to share his passion for genre art and film. These projects have led to his monthly Schlockfest film night for the San Diego Public Library and the Shot by Shot film series at Whistlestop Bar. The third annual Horrible Imaginings Film Festival storms San Diego on Saturday, November 10th and Sunday, November 11th. Visit www.hifilmfest.com for more information!