August 29, 2017
Our first meeting of ENGL 3810: American Horror Stories was used for introductory purposes. Students were asked to tell each other a little about themselves: their major and year, reasons for taking the course, and the best book they read this summer or the best TV show and/or film they watched. I was thrilled not only to see so many English majors in the class, but also hearing the variety of texts they read during their summer break. Students spoke of novels from a diverse tradition, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Milan Kundera’s The Joke, and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods; contemporary TV and film such as Game of Thrones, Dunkirk, and Planet of the Apes. It was wonderful to hear “genre” fiction and film spoken about in glowing terms–a shift in the academy that considers science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, fantasy, etc. to be aesthetic projects with important contributions to the “Arts.”
More importantly, students spoke of their love of ghost stories and horror fiction and film. After introductions we spent some time brainstorming “What is a monster?” and students used fantastic language in order to describe their preconceptions of monsters, ghosts, and hauntings: “depraved”; “morality”; “the grotesque”; “fear of death”; “mysterious.” As we read through the syllabus, I described how each text spoke to and/or expanded the notions of monstrosity and haunting we had brainstormed earlier. Indeed, our course this semester asks students to expand these notions and be able to find the monstrous in unexpected places.
In preparation for our readings on Thursday (Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Theory (Seven Theses)”) I spoke to the class about the importance of keeping the etymology of “monster” in mind as a basis for all our readings. From the Latin “monstrum”––a portent or unnatural event––monsters signify a warning, they point to contemporary anxieties and say “look at that!” As they read throughout the semester, I asked students to consider, What is the monster warning us about? Why is he warning us? What does he point to and why?
Finally, we reviewed in detail the “Monster Blogs” students will be curating this semester, and I’m excited to see what they come up with!