ENGL 3810: American Horror Stories

The George Washington University

Fall 2017

3:45-5:00 pm, Rome Hall 202


Course Description: American Horror Stories examines the significance of monsters and hauntings in American culture from the turn of the 20th century to the present. This course considers how Americans treat their ghosts and monsters: those elusive figures on which the desires, dark histories, and dreams that dwell within the national imaginary are projected. We begin with selected works from gothic literature and 1920s pulp fiction and film in order to establish a foundation for thinking about ghost stories in the 20th century, moving to the 1950s to analyze how such literature grapples with Cold War ideologies (i.e., the “normalization” of family patterns, gender roles and sexual practices, and the attendant sanitization of art and culture). This course ends with contemporary depictions of monstrosity in the U.S., examining how authors writing in the present re-conceptualize the end-of-the-world, monstrosity, and haunting.

Haunting will be treated in both its ghostly physical manifestations, and as the psychological experiences of those coming to terms with emerging worlds. Ultimately, we will explore the ways in which writers use images of ghosts, spectral hauntings, and otherworldly and demonic forces in order to ask larger questions shaped around notions of human identity and citizenship.

As we survey a variety of monstrous bodies, postapocalyptic landscapes, and dystopian fantasies, we will consider questions such as: Why is American culture so fascinated by the image of the monster and apocalyptic narratives? What identity groups have been deemed monstrous throughout American history and how is this monstrosity depicted in literature and cultural productions? And most importantly, why do we create monsters? What cultural function do they serve? These questions will inform the in-class conversations we will have throughout the semester, the papers we write and, importantly, our ongoing digital projects.

Course Objectives

By the end of the semester, students will be able to do the following:

  • Expect their written work and contributions to class discussion to demonstrate a nuanced appreciation for the form and content of the readings as well as the capacity to ask informed questions about them.
  • Develop an awareness of how cultural criticism addresses the concept of monsters and haunting.
  • Use readings, discussions, and assignments to refine their understanding of the terms monsters and haunting, but not necessarily to establish a fixed definition of either term.
  • Develop written and verbal skills in the study and interpretation of American literature.
  • Use primary source materials to develop original arguments about the cultural representation of haunting and ghostly matters in American literature.
  • Develop an understanding of how representations of haunting in literature play a central role in the development of a diverse American culture and identity.

Required texts:

Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, 978-0-14-303998-3

Toni Morrison, Beloved, 978-1-4000-3341-6

Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, 978-1-59448-329-5

Swifty Lang, Feeding Ground, 978-1-936393-02-2

Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex, 978-0-87286-440-5

*Other readings (Bb) under “Course Materials” on Blackboard

Assignments and Grading:

Participation (20%): Your presence and participation is essential to the success of this class! That means not only showing up on time, being attentive, and actively engaged in our meetings and coming to class having completed that day’s reading assignments. You may have three unexcused absences this semester. Accruing more than three unexcused absences will lead to the lowering of your final grade.

Midterm Position Paper (20%): 1000-1500 word paper in which you will be asked to apply the close reading skills developed in writing entries in your Monster Blog and present an argument about one or more texts. Using critical, cultural, historical, and/or theoretical materials, your analysis should explore a topic, issue, question, and/or theme within a specific text or group of texts, presenting a strong and clear argument. You will use the skills developed in blog posts to present a clear thesis, which will be explored by using textual examples about one or more texts.

Monster Blog & Presentation (60%): You will be required to maintain an academic blog throughout the semester that focuses on one particular monster and/or form of haunting. We will spend some in our introductory class period as a tutorial and set-up for these blogs. This tutorial will familiarize you with the basics of digital humanities and teach you how to use blogging sites such as WordPress and Blogger. The Monster Blog should comprise the following elements:

  • Using a Home Page, you will be required to post once a week, focusing on the course’s weekly readings. Your blog posts should include your personal reactions to the text, critical analysis or interpretation through close reading, and discussion questions for your classmates to consider and respond to. I encourage you to upload and use videos, images, news items, scholarly articles, etc. that are relevant and enhance the analysis of a text. You may include links to other sources that your classmates might find interesting in their own research. These weekly blog posts will also encourage you to make connections between the weekly readings and contemporary representations of haunting and monsters in literature, film, and television.
  • The Monster Blog will also function as a space through which you will research and present working arguments about particular monsters such as the vampire, zombie, ghost, or haunt. Students will create blog pages that explore the history, cultural presence, and representation of your chosen monster, culminating in a class presentation in which you will summarize your findings to your classmates in the form of an argument. Using peer reviewed journals, research texts, videos, images, web resources, etc., you will write a 10-minute presentation that accompanies your blog in order to present this research to the rest of the class.

Class Policies:

Late work & Extensions: I will only grant extensions upon prior approval. In order to receive an extension, you must request one via email or in person at least 48 hours prior to the assignment’s due date. Late work (i.e. work that has not been granted an extension by me) will automatically be docked half a letter grade each day past the due date.

University Policy on Religious Holidays: Students should notify faculty during the first week of the semester of their intention to be absent from class on their day(s) of religious observance. Faculty should extend to these students the courtesy of absence without penalty on such occasions, including permission to make up examinations. Faculty who intend to observe a religious holiday should arrange at the beginning of the semester to reschedule missed classes or to make other provisions for their course-related activities.

Disability Support Services (DSS): Any student who may need an accommodation based on the potential impact of a disability should contact the Disability Support Services office at 202-994-8250 in the Rome Hall, Suite 102, to establish eligibility and to coordinate reasonable accommodations. For additional information please refer to:

Academic Integrity: The code states, in part, that “[a]cademic dishonesty is defined as cheating of any kind, including misrepresenting one’s own work, taking credit for the work of others without crediting them and without appropriate authorization, and the fabrication of information.” Such activity will result in failing the particular assignment and, very likely, the course.

Schedule of Readings & Assignments


T 08/29           Introductions & Blogs

TR 08/31         Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Bb); Jeffrey Jerome           Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” (Bb)

Recommended: Carol Clover, “Introduction: Carrie and the Boys” (Bb); Washington Irvin, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (Bb); Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Birthmark” (Bb)

The Haunted House

T 09/05          Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (Bb); Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (Bb)

TR 09/07         Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, pp. 1- (Bb)

***Monster Blog due by 09/11***

T 09/12           James, The Turn of the Screw, pp. -85 (Bb

TR 09/14         Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (pp. 1-120)

Recommended: David Robert Mitchell (Dir.), It Follows; Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” (Bb)

***Monster Blog 2 due by 09/18***

The Haunted House & Ghosts of the Past

T 09/19           Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (pp. 121-182)

TR 09/21         Toni Morrison, Beloved (Part I, pp. 1-100)

Recommended: Sharon Marcus, “B-Sides: Shirley Jackson’s Domestic Farce” (Bb); Charles McGrath, “The Case for Shirley Jackson” (Bb)

***Monster Blog 3 due by 09/25***

Ghosts of the Past

T 09/26           Toni Morrison, Beloved (Part II, pp. 101-195)

TR 09/28         Beloved (Part II, pp. 199-277)

Recommended: Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts” (Bb); Avery Gordon, “the other door, it’s floods of tears with consolation enclosed” (Bb); Sharon Patricia Holland, “‘Bakulu Discourse: Bodies Made ‘Flesh’ in Toni Morrison’s Beloved” (Bb);

*** Monster Blog 4 due by 10/02***

T 10/03           Beloved (Part III, pp. 281-324)

W 10/04          Movie Night, Get Out (optional)

TR 10/05         Jordan Peele (Dir.), Get Out

Recommended: Zadie Smith, “Getting In and Out: Who Owns Black Pain?” (Bb); Glenda R. Carpio, Irvin J. Hunt, and Namwali Serpell, “Virtual Roundtable on ‘Get Out’” (Bb); Sherronda J. Brown, “‘Listen to the Ancestors, Run!’: Get Out, Zombification, and Pathologizing Escape from the Plantation” (Bb)

***Monster Blog 5 due by 10/09***

T 10/10           Fall Break, No Classes

TR 10/12         Phillip Roth, “Eli, the Fanatic” (Bb); George Saunders, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (Bb)

*** Midterm Position Paper due by 10/13***

T 10/17           Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (pp. 1-75)

TR 10/19         The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (pp. 77-165)

***Monster Blog 6 due by 10/23***

T 10/24           The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (pp. 167-261)

TR 10/26         The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (pp. 263-335)

Recommended: Junot Díaz, “Apocalypse” (Bb); Christina Sharpe, “Black Studies: In the Wake”; Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh) (Bb)

***Monster Blog 7 due by 10/30***

T 10/31           Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex (pp. 1-62)

TR 11/02         Atomik Aztex (pp. 62-110)

***Monster Blog 8 due by 11/06***

T 11/07           Atomik Aztex (pp. 111-166)

TR 11/09         Atomik Aztex (pp. 167-203)


Recommended: Ramón Saldívar, “Imagining Cultures: The Transnational Imaginary in Postrace America” (Bb); Kate Mashall, “What Are the Novels of the Anthropocene?: American Fiction in Geological Time” (Bb); Colson Whitehead, “The Year of Living Postracially” (Bb)

***Monster Blog 9 due by 11/13***

Bodily Transformations 

T 11/14           Walter Mosely, “The Nig in Me” (Bb)

TR 11/16         Junot Díaz, “Monstro” (Bb)

Recommended: Madhu Dubey, “Speculative Fictions of Slavery”; Jeffrey Cohen, “Undead (An Ontology)”; Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry, “Zombie Manifesto” (Bb)

***Monster Blog 10 due by 11/20***

T 11/21            Swifty Lang, Feeding Ground, Part 1-3

TR 11/23         Thanksgiving, No Classes      

T 11/28           Feeding Ground (Part 4-6)

W 11/29          Movie Night, From Dusk Till Dawn (optional)

TR 11/30         Robert Rodriguez (Dir.), From Dusk Till Dawn

Recommended: Gloria Anzaldúa, from Borderland/La Frontera (Bb); Mary Pat Brady, “Introduction” (Bb); Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, “Introduction” (Bb); Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” (Bb)


T 12/05           Monster Blog Presentations

TR 12/07         Monster Blog Presentations