Horror Stories – Better When Read Together?

By: Rachel Wlock

As they say, “two heads are better than one.”

As they say, “two heads are better than one.”

Many of us probably think that the scariest way to watch a horror movie is alone, in the dark. I would have to agree with this statement. There’s no one there to help you when you hear footsteps down the hall or when you see the shadows of monsters that are creeping around in the dark. However, written horror stories are different. Because they cannot rely on jump-scare techniques, they often prey on the psyche and require more depth of thought. As with any story, it is easier to think through meanings when you have other people to bounce ideas off of.

Take for example, the story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” by Joyce Carol Oates. While reading it for class, I was somewhat put off. I didn’t enjoy it. Connie was one of the more boring and unlikeable main characters that I’ve ever read – though I would later realize this was a deliberate characterization. Even after reading it a few times, I still didn’t really understand what was going on in the narrative; it just seemed weird. I thought Arnold Friend and his odd companion Ellie might be aliens. Perhaps I should have done some background research into the story and into the creation of Arnold Friend’s character, but I didn’t. Instead, I went to class with my own interpretation, feeling slightly annoyed.

When I left class that day, I was surprised to find that my opinion of the story had done a complete 180° turn. I actually did like it now! Group discussion had opened my eyes to interpretations that I simply did not come up with on my own. Whereas before I had thought that Arnold Friend was just some weird omniscient figure who came to Connie’s house to attack her, I had suddenly been introduced to more possibilities. Perhaps he was actually just an exceptional stalker, based on a serial killer in real life. Or maybe he was the Devil, dressed up in a disguise to hide his horns and hooves. I prefer the Devil interpretation, though it may not have been what the author intended, simply because I’m partial to stories in which the Devil comes to Earth as a human. To me, talking about this story made it scarier because these other possibilities for the character seemed more terrifying than the idea of aliens that I had before. The fact that Arnold Friend was based on the real life Charles Schmid was particularly frightening because it was a reminder that sometimes horror isn’t just a figment of someone’s imagination; these are real threats to people’s lives. Discussing this with the class intensified the fear more, as often happens to emotions in a group setting.

Of course, this does not always happen. Sometimes bad stories are just bad. Regardless, there are many others like this one that only get better – and scarier – the deeper you think about them. Much research has been done on the impact of reading in groups, and although much of it is about children (and not horror stories), we can still apply the findings to our class. Group discussion facilitates making connections and understanding other points of view. This works particularly well for horror because as you think of more scary aspects of the stories and meanings behind them, it can only get more frightening.

This principle is valid for other media, as well as written stories. Consider this piece of horror art by Michael Whelan. A student of horror might analyze this work to understand what makes it scary. Maybe you imagine that the person responsible for the unfortunate situation of the victim is still on the loose and attacking others. Or possibly, you see this and you think that the subject of the painting is already dead, and has come back to life as a zombie. The thing about much of art (including writing and filmmaking as art forms) is that there are so many different ways to interpret one work. Because of this, discussion with others will almost certainly introduce a person to more ideas than they would have thought of on their own, giving them more things to fear.

A Haunted Hello to the Class of Fall 2017!

By: Gina Brandolino

Maybe you’ve found this blog before classes begin; maybe you’re visiting it for the first time after I showed it to you during our first class.  However you got here, I’m glad you have found the Course of Horror!  In case you want to know what’s ahead for us this semester—here’s a just a taste:

  • I’ve added the excellent film The Witch (which was just out in late 2015) to the course schedule; we’ll study it and three other horror films!
  • Are you a fan of online horror? We’ll study three online horror stories—Slenderman, Penpal, and Dionaea House!
  • Ghost hunter Tim Woolworth will visit our class on Halloween! Tim uses a modified radio called a Ghost Box to communicate with the other side, something he’s been doing a long time and has lots of experience with and stories about.

So there’s all that, and much, much more!  Also, this semester will be the fourth time this course will have a blog. For extra credit, you’ll have the chance to add posts of your own and comment on the posts that get put up over the course of the term, and we’ll also be fortunate enough to hear from several “Friends of the Course of Horror” guest bloggers who, while not enrolled in the course, will weigh in on a story we’re talking about or horror in general. Click around on the blog and take a look at past posts and, if you want to be notified when a new post goes up, sign up to receive notifications, which you can do on the menu to the right.

Here’s to a great semester!

Stone-cold Stare

By: Chris Ridolphi

Before this class, I had not experienced much horror in my life; never really read any stories or watched any movies, never had any paranormal experiences and never really had many nightmares in my life. However, the one nightmare I ever remember having in my entire life, I still remember vividly today. I can’t recall many other things from when I was 5 years old, but the fact that I can recall this so easily proves the impression it had on me. Growing up I didn’t have cable television, but my grandma just down the street did, so I would always be excited to go to her house because she had Cartoon Network. Unlike the Saturday morning cartoons I was typically stuck with, Cartoon Network had the TV series, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, my favorite TV show at the time. Little did I know, this particular day would be the last time I would ever watch Jonny Quest on a mission.

The premise of the show is this teenager named Jonny Quest would go on excursions with some other friends and his father Dr. Quest and sometimes would enter a virtual reality called, “QuestWorld.” In Episode 18 of Season 1, called “Heroes,” their team makes a great archeological discovery of the statue of Apollo, but it is smashed to pieces. Using a computer program, they are able to piece the statue back together properly, but the evil villain, Surd, hacks their program in hopes of stealing the statue. Because of this, they all of a sudden cannot locate the file, so Jonny and his team go into QuestWorld to search for missing file.

medusaWhile inside the virtual reality, they end up at the temple of Zeus, who is the father of Apollo, so they believe they are on the right track. When they enter the temple, they are ambushed by the evil Surd, who is disguised as the goddess Medusa! She was a terrifying green creature, with deep, glowing red eyes and snakes for hair. Jonny shouts to not look in her eyes, but his friend is immediately turned into stone. She then turns to Jonny making squelching growling noises and yells, “look into my eyes, boy!” and releases snakes from her head to chase him, followed by, “I will give you eternal life…in stone!” in the same horrifying tone.

This was a pretty tame show up to this point; Jonny would always succeed in his missions and nobody had ever died before. Although Jonny would have surely ended up on top like he always did, I didn’t even give him close to a chance and ran out of my grandma’s house crying, leaving my mom and grandma very concerned. That night, and thankfully only for the rest of that week, I had a dream each night with the vision of Medusa’s snake-filled head staring at me with her creepy glowing eyes shouting, “look into my eyes, boy!” and then I would start to turn into stone. Needless to say…I never watched that show again.

Link to Episode

“Time Lapse”: A Monster Within All of Us

By: Julie Siefker

If you’re like me, you love movies with twisted plots, the kind that changes dynamic all the way until the end. Time Lapse is exactly that kind of movie. Being rather unimpressed with modern, commercialized horror movies and what seems to be their staples: gore, jump scares, and bad acting, I am always looking for a unique horror movie experience. I was pleasantly surprised with this one, especially the plot twists (my favorite) that catch you off guard almost the entire movie. The movie is a success because it takes advantage of the ideas everyone has in their head of a “normal” scary movie and defies the stereotypes with each plot twist.

It starts out with a seemingly normal group of friends, Callie and Finn who are in a relationship, and Jasper who lives with them. The beginning leads us to believe it will be a scary movie like all the others when Callie goes across the street to check on their neighbor, Mr. Bezzerides, as he has not been collecting his newspapers or paying his rent. When she returns with a shocking discovery, the audience prepares for the dead body, murder scene, or whatever other horrific event that usually opens a scary movie. Instead they find a large camera pointed at their front window and hundreds of pictures of them in their living room lining the walls. They realize the camera takes a picture every day at the same time, but each picture shows what will happen 24 hours into the future. More investigations about the curious machine lead them to find the body of Mr. Bezzerides. From reading his journal, the characters discover he saw his own death in one of the photos and died trying to change his fate. Armed with their new time-traveling camera, they decide to cover up the death of Mr. Bezzerides and use the camera for their own personal gain. The three conclude that they must replicate each photo for the plan to work otherwise they should experience the fate of Mr. Bezzerides. Each day they collect the photos, finding a painting Finn can create and results of races Jasper uses to win bets.

I know what you’re thinking, this movie does not sound scary at all. I thought the same thing. But, as the characters try to change things out of their control, their reality becomes increasingly more complicated. As things go wrong, they try to compensate, to change their fate, creating even more problems for themselves. The story gets progressively creepier and more mysterious as the pictures reveals more disturbing images. Jasper’s boss–a dangerous man–in their living room. Callie being unfaithful to Finn. A blood splatter on the wall. A warning painted onto Finn’s canvas. With every new photo, the characters begin to question each other. As motives become unclear and situations become more intense, the fragility of their relationships are revealed. Besides the intricate plot, what I really liked about this movie is that there is no monster. Classic scary stories involve the devil, ghosts, murderers, stalkers, aliens, vampires, what have you but this one does not contain any of these. All of the bad things that happen to the characters are a direct result of their own actions as they communicate with the future. This movie shows that you don’t need ghouls or ghosts to make a scary movie. Sometimes, monsters are just regular people like you and I who get a little too carried away, find out a little too much, and get just a little too greedy. Without spoilers, I’ll simply leave you with this note: the movie will not end how you think, the characters are not who they seem and the future is not a guarantee.

The Horror of The Stalker: Two Film Recommendations

By: Nina Muller

I cannot be the only one who found the readings in this course that involved stalkers (or embodied certain arguable elements of stalkers, as in Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) to be among those that have terrified me the most thus far. Without question, Penpal ranks pretty high on my list. Reading, discussing, and analyzing these particular texts as well as writing my first pass earlier in the semester got me thinking about the often overlooked yet truly horrifying aspects of the stalker. When asked what ‘monsters’ or entities scare them the most, few would think immediately of a stalker. I think this is a mistake and an oversight due to the lack of recognition within the genre of horror for such predatory people. To demonstrate, I provide film reviews and recommendations of two excellent thrillers — one new and one old (ish) — that convey just how truly terrifying a stalker can be.

  1. Cape Fear (1991):

I will start with the older of the two films and one of my all-time favorite movies across every genre: Cape Fear. Starring Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, and Robert De Niro (as the stalker) and directed by Martin Scorsese, this film is a remake of the earlier original version that was released in 1962 and directed by J. Lee Thompson. I have seen both versions, and although the original is also extremely noteworthy and worth seeing, I chose to recommend the remake because Robert De Niro’s portrayal of a deranged and maniacal ex-convict is among one of the most terrifying performances I have ever seen. The basic gist of the film (without giving anything away) is that a convicted rapist named Max Cady – De Niro – is released from prison after serving a fourteen-year sentence for his crimes, and returns to meticulously haunt the family of the lawyer who represented him during his trial many years before. With a mercilessly heavy plotline, the film grabs the audience’s attention from the very beginning and refuses to let go, rather steadily and increasingly tightening its grip upon the viewer’s emotions and well-being. It challenges every assumption we have made about human nature and capabilities to reassure ourselves of the inherent morality and humanity of mankind. It breaks down our natural trust in familial relationships and motivations by presenting a deeply flawed protagonist as well as a demonic and almost super-human antagonist with a barbaric yet intelligent and calculating predatory nature. This film will have you constantly checking over your shoulder, fearing that someone is out there seeking retribution for every decision you have ever made.

  • Rotten Tomatoes Critic Score: 76%
  • Rotten Tomatoes User Score: 77%
  • Terrified Nina’s Score: 90%

*Keep in mind that old trailers are not as good as newer ones!*

  1. The Gift (2015):

This film, which came out this summer, is written and directed by Joel Edgerton and stars Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton. I saw this movie in theaters just a couple days after it came out, and left thoroughly terrified despite a relatively slow-moving plot for much of the film. In this thriller, everything culminates in the final few scenes — and you will not be disappointed with the turn of events. In some ways, The Gift reminded me of Cape Fear, particularly in the carefully planned and meticulous methods of the stalker, Gordo (played by Joel Edgerton). Gordo’s deeply rooted motivations and painstaking patience are deeply reminiscent of De Niro’s Max Cady, and leads to a similar blurred distinction between the antagonist and protagonist as is seen in Scorsese’s work. However, the two are markedly different in many aspects as well, with The Gift utilizing an incredibly psychologically tormenting and slow-burning horror tactic with a dramatic and highly unpredictable turn of events in the end. If you are a fan of unforeseen twists and teeth-grinding suspense — or perhaps just want to see Bateman break out from his traditionally funny guy roles — then this is the film for you.

  • Rotten Tomatoes Critic Score: 93%
  • Rotten Tomatoes User Score: 77%
  • Terrified Nina Score: 85%

Scared Straight

By: Maia Zvetan

Horror is a perpetually evolving genre and is not limited to a specific medium. Every year there are new horror video games, novels, movies and even PSAs. Although the way the PSAs are presented don’t exactly conform to the same standard as the other mediums, they still present their audience with a monster, us. Everyone’s seen at least one of these types of PSAs: the sad and painful decent catalogued by the Meth Project PSAs, the horrifying (literally pulling out teeth and off pieces of skin) dangers of smoking PSAs, etc.

Recently the trend has been to shock audiences into taking preventative measures, not doing drugs or showing people the horrors of human rights violations like sex trafficking. With this type of PSA popping up left and right in recent years they’ve become more and more graphic in nature, denoting that previous, infomercial type approaches have not worked. The result is a PSA that presents its audience with not only horrifying visuals or connotations, but with the very real, very monstrous side effects. These regularly played PSAs ultimately serve as a confrontation between its audience and the harsh reality that they refuse to acknowledge.

My first real experience with one of these PSAs occurred when I was five, unfortunately for me I had managed to finagle my way around my mother’s strict TV rules and came face to face with a PSA that I still remember vividly fifteen years later. The rules of British advertisement, and consequently what can be broadcasted during daytime TV in the EU are very different, as a result I found myself watching a PSA about walking and texting. The PSA shows a teenage boy texting his potential love interest from across the street, stepping into oncoming traffic while looking at his phone. The next thing the audience, and five year old me, knows is that this kid is dead, and they show his death. His limp body goes flying, bouncing off of the truck’s windshield and landing, crumpled in the streets. This PSA stayed with me for fifteen years of my life and affected me to the point where I still can’t bring myself to look at my phone if I’m walking anywhere near the street. The question is: why did it affect me so much?

It can easily be argued that since I was five and that, and Jurassic Park, were the only two real horror experiences I’d had at that point it was bound to affect me. However, if that was true, then the aforementioned meth and smoking PSAs wouldn’t affect me nearly as much. The reality is: they do. Since there are so many more PSAs done in this style since 2000 (when that walking and texting PSA came out), the trend seems to indicate that I’m not the only one. All of the subjects of these PSAs are instances where people typically say something along the lines of “that will never happen to me”, when the reality is that it could and it has happened or is happening to someone. These PSAs are horrifying because they refuse to let us ignore the subject. It’s not sugar coated, sure it may be a little exaggerated but they work well. They scare the audience into caring more; at the very least they scare the audience into absorbing the information, regardless of how far down it may get buried. Horror, especially real life horror, stays with people because it is near impossible to separate yourself or the people you love from the situation presented. One advertisement in Ireland has been banned from regular rotation until 9 pm because of its effectiveness. Although this Irish speeding PSA seems like it is pandering heavily for shock value, it works. The PSA proves effective because the image of 31 kids dying in one fell swoop by something easily preventable is jarring and extremely alarming.

Ultimately the trend continues and escalates because of how effective they are. It seems very likely that these types of PSAs can be expected to stay because the horror genre is a very effective way of getting people to pay attention or to scare them into avoiding a behavior. Humans are creatures of habit, but the easiest way to get them to stop doing something is to make them afraid of it.

Thriller vs. Horror- Is There A Difference?

By: Matthew Holland

When Gina first recommended the film Martha Marcy May Marlene, I went in expecting to be disturbed by the time the end credits rolled. The film did not disappoint in this respect; however, when the credits rolled, I was definitely disturbed, but not in the sense that I normally feel after watching a “horror” movie. Why did the film fail to affect me in that way? It certainly wasn’t a bad movie, but something was off about it. If I called it a horror movie, it didn’t do the film justice. But if I called it a thriller…

Genre is an important study when discussing films. It has become a common part of the vocabulary surrounding films, allowing us to easily classify a film, and for Hollywood to easily market one. But as film canon has grown over the years, we’ve added to our list of genres: action, noir, sci-fi, fantasy, drama, comedy, and horror. All of these can be broken down into subcategories as well. For example, in horror we have “slasher” films, monster movies, haunted house stories, body horror, etc.

I differentiate between thrillers and horror. When I think of “horror,” I think of Poltergeist, The Exorcist, The Babadook, etc. When I think of “thriller,” I associate it with films such as Psycho (or any Hitchcock film), Black Swan, and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

But who cares? Why is genre so important? Well when we go to see a film, we like to know the genre, as it gives us a certain set of expectations. Genre helps define a film. When I see a horror film, I expect to be scared out of my wits that I will have trouble closing my eyes at night as the graphic images come flooding back to me. When I see a thriller, I expect to be disturbed for a while, but it doesn’t scare me so much as it fills me with a sense of anxiety or dread.

Perhaps this is just my own classification. Perhaps you do not differentiate between thriller and horror. Or perhaps you believe thriller to be a subgenre of horror. Genre is not a clearly defined study, and it is made even more difficult since our definitions of a genre are always in flux, constantly evolving.

The important thing to take away is that genre gives us a set of preconceived notions about a film. When a film meets these criteria, fails to meet them, or challenges them, it will alter our reception of the movie (whether or not we enjoyed it.) But the genre we choose can also alter our understanding of a film, as if we put the movie through a different filter. For example, you may get a different reading of the movie The Terminator if you see it as a monster or horror movie rather than a sci-fi action flick. We can use genre to defy expectations by crossing over genres, like horror and comedy in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004). In this clip, Shaun and Ed fight zombies while arguing which vinyl records to throw at them. It’s an excellent example of a cross-genre movie.

Or perhaps genre is a study best left forgotten as it holds too much of an influence over our reception of a film- why do you think you will rarely find a comedy nominated for “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards?

Personally, I don’t think genre is a system we need to overhaul. However, I do believe that it is often overlooked since it is so commonplace. So the next time you see a film, take into consideration the genre and how important it is to you.