Guest Blogger: Gina Brandolino

Gina Brandolino earned a Ph.D. in English literature with a specialty in medieval studies at Indiana University Bloomington.  Since 2009, she has been a Lecturer at the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English at the University of Michigan. She teaches freshman writing and serves as a writing consultant at Sweetland and teaches medieval literature courses as well as a variety of topics courses in English. 

Gina's connection to horror was forged not through study or school, but during a particularly evil summer weekend in 1983, when she was 11 years old.  She, like everyone in her hometown of Joliet, Illinois, knew and was horrified that a serial killer was at large in the area; and flipping through channels trying to find something to watch with her younger sister, she had the misfortune of seeing part of The Exorcist, which was on network television.  That same evening, Gina remembers going with her family to an ice cream stand.  Eating her chocolate sundae at a picnic table as dusk fell, she had an overwhelming sense of dread about what might be lurking in the shadows.  Ever since, she has been compelled to peer into shadows, both out in the world and even—perhaps especially—in stories.

Lessons in Horror

This semester, I'm teaching a course called "Horror." It's an English course—one I have taught several times before in recent years—and in many ways, this semester's course is like it has been in previous years, and like all the other English courses I've taught.  I make lesson plans, lead class discussions, and assign and grade papers. 

But I'm not ashamed to say that something is different about this semester's course, different in what is for me an unsettling way: I don't have the kind of mastery over the stories we study that I am used to having. When I first conceived of this course, I populated it with very literary terrors: Grendel from Beowulf, the fearsome Green Knight from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, the goblins of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, and the like.

These are undoubtedly frightening figures, but to me, they're sort of like animals in a zoo: years of scholarly interpretation haven't exactly made them docile, but did allow me to observe their motives and to understand their actions—and maybe most importantly, made it possible for me to judge them at a safe distance. I knew how to modulate and manage the horror in these stories with the tools of my trade, literary analysis. And my students saw this and called me out on it. They told me I needed to include more truly terrifying stories in the course. 

To make a long story short (you can read more about how the course has changed through student suggestions here), I listened to them, and the course gets scarier every time I teach it. This semester, the characters in the stories we're studying seem to me less like animals in carefully constructed habitats that I can observe and walk away from and more like predators. I don't have control over the stories I'm teaching right now; the tools of literary analysis give me a start in understanding these figures and the terror they evoke, but only a start. It's not enough to explain away the horror.

An example of this is my class's recent discussion of the fantastic Stephen King short story The Man in the Black Suit.  It won't spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it for me to say that while the primary horror isn't bees, they play a pretty compelling supporting role. Talking about the story, my class and I got to a point at which we wondered, what's with the bees? I mentioned that another story we had not yet read, Don Chaon's haunting story "The Bees," also made use of bees in this sort of secondary way. (And in the back of my mind was lurking my memory of the infamous trailer for The Shining—itself a sort of mini-manifesto we will consider in class—the soundtrack of which includes the increasing buzzing of bees.) In no time, we had a list of a half-dozen more stories that used bees in this way—as not the primary horror, but something that insidiously helps whatever that horror is along somehow. 

This only made our initial question more adamant: why bees

We came up with some excellent ideas, but none that really completely answered the question in a satisfying way. A couple of class sessions later, just as we were getting started, a bee somehow found its way to horror class and careened around our classroom, making many of us feel, well, unnerved.  Remember that scene in Hitchcock's The Birds when the crows attack the students? It wasn't exactly like that, but cooler heads did not prevail. I killed the bee that day; it unsettles me to report that since then, I have had to kill yet another bee that found its way to our classroom a week or so later.

The night I killed that first bee, my brain collected up a variety of words beginning with the letter B that had been parts of my days recently—I had talked to my friend about her husband Barry; I had watched an episode of the British detective show in which bourbon played an important role; the grocery store at which I do most of my shopping had started selling bales of straw as Halloween decorations; I had seen an old Volkswagon Beetle drive by when I was at the bus-stop; etc.—and stitched them together into a nightmare. I will spare you all the vagaries of the nightmare; it is enough to say that it concluded with my riding shotgun with Barry while he crashed the Beetle into a gigantic beehive. I'm not making this up; I really did have this dream. I was tormented in my sleep by bees (Bs)! I thought this was a pretty cheap shot on the part of my unconscious, and also a clear sign that I'm not in control of the stories we're studying in the horror course; indeed, the stories are threatening to master me. 

Horror stories refuse to respect their own boundaries; they are themselves out of control. They are prone to spill over, to spread. Every semester I've taught this course, students have regularly come up to me after class to say something sparked by discussion but that didn't quite fit into class. Sometimes it's an interpretative point, sometimes it's a question about belief in the supernatural; most often, it's a story about the time they were in a haunted house or felt a sinister presence follow them as they walked home in the dark.  I realized that these stories, inspired by the ones we studied in class, needed to somehow be a part of the course, too. 

So, this semester, I launched the course blog. Writing for the blog is not a requirement—it's totally voluntary.  It's an outlet for the horror begotten by the horror we study and discuss in class. Anyone at all is welcome to follow blog and post comments; it isn't just for students. Go have a look and read my students' stories about haunted hotels, ghost trains, and unfriendly nocturnal visitors; learn an ancient Asian spirit conjuring method; consider what my students have to say about how horror movies work when they work well. All the student posts on the blog contain their own particular harrowing details or commentaries on terror, but they also all demonstrate the truth of the lesson that I'm learning for the first time this semester: if you are—or even feel—in control, it's not real horror.