Our Monsters, Ourselves

By: Gina Brandolino

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Class of 2015–you know what the pictures above are about!  For the rest of you reading here: this week in class, we’re talking about Charles Burns’s Black Hole, a graphic novel that tells the story of a group of teens passing around a sexually transmitted “bug” that gives those infected with it physically monstrous symptoms–take a look at the “before and after” high school yearbook examples below.


To get into the spirit of the book, we spent a little time today in class drawing monstrous versions of ourselves, what we imagine we might look like if infected.  Aside from being great blog eye candy, this is a really useful way to slow down and think about the artwork part of Burns’s graphic novel, which is intricate, moody, and vital to the story he has to tell.

I have my friend and colleague Angie Berkley to thank for providing the inspiration for this class activity; she lent me Lynda Barry’s excellent book Syllabusin particular her practice of having her students draw quick self-portraits. And thanks to Aaron Valdez, who possesses formidable tech skills, for helping upload all these self-portraits in very short order.

The Horror of the Ordinary

By: Perry Janes (friend of The Course of Horror)

Here’s the honest truth: when Gina first asked me to view and comment on the horror film IT FOLLOWS (directed by fellow Michigan native David Robert Mitchell) – I hesitated. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say here that I’m not a traditional follower (nor fan) of the genre. I typically eschew horror film releases in favor of almost any other genre. Put another way: I’m chicken. Nevertheless. I overcame my initial hesitation and decided to give the film a viewing. And then another, and another. Because what I found, and what makes IT FOLLOWS so deeply compelling, is a film that opens direct lines of dialogue with its formal predecessors only to deliberately veer away from their examples.

Before I get to specifics, I want to say: what distinguishes the horror genre from, say, its purely dramatic or comedic brethren is a constant interplay of references, archetypes, tropes, and influences being traded back-and-forth. Virtually every entry in the genre intentionally relies on (and nods to) films that came before it. And so I was not surprised to find that IT FOLLOWS quite literally (for lack of a better term) follows in this tradition. What I did not expect was a defiant upending or rebutting of the institution it claimed to be joining. In place of familiar genre conventions – most notably the use of the close-up, which fosters a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer and limits the audience’s field-of-vision (thereby concealing potential threats and thrills) – IT FOLLOWS creates a visual language almost entirely out of medium and long shots characterized by a deep depth of field. Put another way: nothing is hidden. Foreground and background are rendered in clear, crisp resolution; landscapes contextualize (even swallow) their characters; a subtly roving camera consumes increasing amounts of space; a tendency towards high key lighting that minimizes shadow underscores this acuity of vision. In short, the audience sees everything. There are no well-concealed dangers, here. Here, the menace lurks in plain sight.

The resulting visual language creates a sort of paranoia in the viewer, encouraging its audience to scan the horizon, to probe the background, to flit with the same anxious energy seen in Jay herself (the hunted) for what follows her (the hunter). This dynamic creates the tension around which IT FOLLOWS pivots. The camera, with its well-lit deep focus, promises transparency (and therefore safety) for both viewer and protagonist alike. The narrative bounds of the story, however, defy this sense of transparency, concealing its relentless antagonist right in plain sight.

Part of what makes this approach so interesting, however, is the film’s apparent homage to its genre. Reviewers from every corner have commented on the film’s idiosyncratic pastiche. Nostalgic referents make up the film’s entire mise-en-scene (with costume and set design that defy virtually any single time period), evoking both horror flicks (like FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH and HALLOWEEN) as well as supernatural thrillers (a la DAWN OF THE DEAD and CARRIE). The movie’s monster – itself inspired by THE THING – shares its shape-shifting attributes with a whole panoply of movie menaces (ranging from TERMINATOR 2 to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS). A synthy, 1980’s-inspired score hearkens back to an era of low-budget “slasher” films in which murderers of every ilk bloodily dispatch groups of suburban teens.

All this sounds like a lot of jargon. Mise-en-scene. Depth of field. Pastiche. But what does it mean, really? And why does anybody care?

What’s fascinating about IT FOLLOWS, its formal conventions and its relative popularity as a horror film, is the suggestion that what scares us has begun to change. Classic conventions of the horror-film – taken at a glance – might include: a dark (or high-contrast) color palette with opaque shadows that obscures the landscape; close framing that articulates a character’s emotional subjectivity while restricting the viewer’s field of vision; sudden thrills that surprise or shock the audience; aural spikes (see: screaming) that similarly create panic and/or surprise in the viewer. Now consider IT FOLLOWS. With its slow-moving (but constantly advancing) monster, its wide-shots and deep focus, its well-lit landscapes, the film runs counter to almost everything we, as viewers, have come to expect from the genre. This, in turn, suggests a shift in what we find culturally or personally frightening. In an era rife with new social concerns – of privacy and identity in a digital age – IT FOLLOWS preys upon insecurities and paradigms that are fundamentally contemporary. It is the plainness of the film – the apparent familiarity and safeness of its presentation – that (much like its shape-shifting monster) makes it so horrifying.

The Fangs of Motherhood: Love and Terror in 2014

Blogmaster’s note: this post was written in December of 2014, at the end of the 2014 Horror class. I kept it safely tucked away for the 2015 Horror class.

By: Karen McConnell (friend of The Course of Horror)

I recently became a mother for the first time. The love I immediately felt was overpowering.

So was the fear.

As my spouse snored in the roll-away bed in the hospital room, I sat a vigil of the damned, night after night, as terrible images, scenarios, and narratives (torture porn’s greatest hits!) played and replayed in my mind’s eye over and over and over again. I was consumed—almost paralyzed—by the possibility that something terrible was going to happen to my daughter, and a memory bank of horror novels and films was all too happy to provide the endless ways in which that something terrible could occur. I was also reluctant to tell people about this because they might think I was going full-blown yellow wallpaper even to have such thoughts. Concerns about post-partum depression and its rarer but more serious cousin, post-partum psychosis, are valid and should be openly discussed, but most of the time I was overcome by happiness, so these diagnoses didn’t seem like an entirely accurate way to describe what was happening. I wondered if my always over-active imagination had turned against me. It wasn’t the first time, but this was different than the occasional, almost-pleasurable fear of the dark, the self-indulgent frisson that comes from playing the “what if?” game from the safety of a warm bed in a locked house in a safe neighborhood mostly inoculated against the real-life terrors experienced by so many. Now, I could see—actually see!—these graphic scenes played out in front of me, with the six-pound little girl I loved with every fiber of my being starring the central role. These images generally hibernated during daylight hours, but the exhaustion of caring for an infant on two or three hours of fragmented sleep took an accumulative toll, and as night crept in so did the fear, worming its way into my psyche and polluting what was otherwise a magical time.

If I were a more committed writer, I might be able to describe the gruesome stories on feedback loop in my brain. It would be a mash-up of hills having eyes, of letting the right one in, of the True Knot’s need for steam. I would make you see the things that you can’t un-see…the things that go bump in the night but don’t stop there, prying your eyelids back to examine every last speck of blood, viscera, and gore. I can’t do that, though, because magical thinking appears to be a close companion of these waking terrors, and I’ve discovered a streak of superstition I didn’t know I had: to describe these thoughts might invite their realization—to turn them from hauntings to reality. Fantastical nonsense, of course, but powerful fantastical nonsense all the same.

In recent weeks, as my daughter’s sleep has begun to regulate, mine has also improved, and these disturbances have retreated to the now thankfully rare sleepless night. You might chalk it all up to the heady combination of severe sleep deprivation and the neuroses of a seriously anxious first-time mom. After all, it’s not unique for new parents to worry excessively about their children, even when that worry is patently irrational. But I have to wonder: to what degree has a lifetime of reading and viewing these texts played a role in my reaction to the stresses of motherhood? In other words, a version of the old, simplistic “bad art leads to bad thoughts/acts” position that I’ve always been quick to dismiss? Or has it just given me a broader range of images and fears to draw on in order to feed a pathological tendency toward anxiety that would exist independent of my aesthetic choices? I simply don’t know…over the years, I’ve frequently made the argument that the genre gives us a healthy way to work through the fears attendant to everyday life, but this experience has challenged that position. Not necessarily in a way that discounts the underlying premise, but it’s much less neat a process than I had previously believed. I once could engage these works with a degree of detachment that I now no longer enjoy. Becoming a parent has made me vulnerable as never before, and it’s made me rethink just how much I took for granted prior to this life change. How much of my taste for horror was made possible by my privileged, relatively trauma-less past? How much was it due to my unconscious expectation of a trauma-less future? What a luxury to be so insulated from direct experience of the horrors of the everyday, to be able to set aside the fear this genre explores at the last page or closing credits and return to “normal” life. Post child, though, has been a different story, and now every act of violence I read or hear about packs a raw, emotional punch. A jolting, wrenching twist deep between my stomach and spine as I compulsively wonder, “what if that had been my child?” I’m not convinced that my new perspective is any more admirable than my previous one, though. Like many writing and literature teachers, I’ve often bemoaned the scourge of “relatability”—students’ lack of interest in characters or themes that are not “relatable” to their own lives—but what happens when an almost narcissistic empathy takes hold and suddenly everything becomes relatable? How might this lead to a solipsism that is just as problematic as detachment? Because even though I might feel as though I am more vulnerable now, I am—objectively—just as insulated from direct experience of most of life’s terror as I was before.

My down-to-earth, optimistic mother has never been able to understand my preference for those types of novels (you can hear the disapproving italics in her voice), and has grilled me a number of times about what it is that I see in them. If she had her way, she’d likely slap a Tipper Gore-approved warning label on each and every one of them, broadcasting their danger to unsuspecting readers. I don’t think she’s wrong to worry about their capacity to harm, but maybe harm is what they need to do. Maybe others’ terrors are too easily ignored when I don’t get a dose often enough myself. Though imperfect, maybe narcissistic empathy is preferable to intellectual detachment. Outside these brutal fantasies, my daily life is strikingly vanilla. I can walk down the middle of a street and expect not to be shot. I can break minor laws and expect a slap on the wrist, not a summary execution.­ I’ve grown inadvertently complacent about my own position in this world. But my daughter’s position? That I’m less sure of, and less able to take for granted. That’s my vulnerability now, and horror pounced.

Losing Your Head

By Maia Zvetan

Creepypasta is becoming a fixture in the modern horror scene, with its growing popularity certain “classics” have emerged from the medium. The hallmark of a good creepypasta lies in the reasons we feel so unsettled or frightened by what we’re reading. Usually, these stories play off of not only our childhood fears but also our fears of the unknown.

Abandoned by Disney is the story of someone who decided to explore an abandoned Disney theme park. The creepypasta is structured like a blog post, with the narrator trying to recount what they found; the theme park in question is a fictional park in North Carolina called “Mowgli’s Palace”. The park was supposedly wildly protested against, but was built regardless in the 90s. Eventually the park closed down and Disney attempted to erase its existence as much as possible; according to the narrator there is very little remaining information on the place but they were inspired to make the trip by someone who had visited another derelict Disney Park, Treasure Island. The descriptions of what is contained within is unsettling; the narrator describes how it looks like the park’s patrons and employees were evacuated. The rooms are dark and mostly destroyed: items are strewn about, the place has been ransacked and for some strange reason both the lights and the water are still turned on. As a sense of dread creeps into both the narrator and the reader, they continue deeper. The discovery of the character room sets off a chain reaction. For the reader there’s a sense of something watching you, or standing just behind you as the narrator ventures in. The abandoned, molding costumes that line the closets and the lone character, who is sprawled “like a murder victim”, on the floor is almost like something out of an old childhood nightmare.

Discovery Island

Discovery Island

Part of the effectiveness of this creepypasta is the fact that even without the belief of the supernatural, there is an underlying sense that the following events could have taken place. This is because of the excellent use of relatively factual events. Disney actually built an amusement park/animal observatory that was named Discovery Island and was eventually abandoned. Discovery Island has a similar sort of description as both Mowgli’s Palace and Treasure Island. It was not only on an island outside of a heavily populated area but was also abandoned for unknown reasons. A few brave souls ventured over to the park to take pictures and explore. The discoveries made eerily echo the creepypasta: the lights still turn on in the park at night, old employee photos scattered about and reptile remains in jars. The park itself is slowly being returned to nature, thanks to the uncontrolled growth of plant life on the island, resulting in an area that looks like its straight out of a horror movie. These facts only contribute to the idea that this story could at the very least be plausible. Our belief in the plausibility of the story results in a significant amount of creep factor.

maia 2The creepypasta plays off of our inherent distrust of the character costumes and animatronics we were exposed to as kids through not only Disney but other places like Chuck E. Cheese. Although more often than not, especially with Disney characters, we aren’t entirely unnerved by seeing the people in the costumes as we grow older it’s partially due to the fact that we know they are people in costumes. Children seem to have polar opposite reactions to the characters, they either are lost in the fantasy that they are talking to their favorite Disney princess or are disillusioned by the whole ordeal. The story allows for us to tap into the latter and makes our imagination run wild; we read the description of Donald Duck’s molding and patchy costume head and instead of a kind of gross former costume we see a grotesque mass of rotting fake fur and soulless, vacant eyes staring back at us. This, coupled with the overall believability of the creepypasta makes for a read that sends chills down your spine once you’re finished. It’ll also make you think twice about that vacation to Disney World.

Fear the Freddy

boe 1

By Allyson Boe

When I was in elementary school, I spent a majority of my free time on what I thought to be the coolest video game website ever, addictinggames.com. There are thousands of games to choose from, created by over thousands of developers, but somehow I made the mistake of thinking that an “addicting game” with the title, Escape from 1428 Elm Street, would be a good idea. I wound up playing what has scarred me for the past seven years.

I’m not a big fan of anything terrifying to begin with, so I’m not even sure how I made it past the title screen. I had heard the name Freddy Krueger before, and so had my best friend, Jenna, who played by my side, but I never knew his story until we managed to spend an entire day over our summer break trying to beat the game.

When you begin the game, you type in your name and your birthday (which you later see on your tomb stone in Freddy’s backyard). Your friends supposedly dare you to go into the ominous house on Elm Street and you think, “what could possibly go wrong?” but once you walk through the front door of the house, there’s no turning back. Until you can defeat Freddy, you’re trapped, and trust me this isn’t easy.

Boe 2Boe 3Take your time and explore the creepy, old house, picking up strange objects that you will need later on. As you move from room to room, search for anything that will help you escape Elm Street. Don’t be surprised by the excessive amounts of blood you will find in each area you enter (and no, the graphics don’t get any better either). But whatever you do, be careful not to fall asleep in the bedroom that looks oh so comfortable (well, not really). If you do, Freddy might just make his way into your dreams where you must defeat him before you can even wake up and escape from the house.

On top of all of that, even after you think you’ve made it out of the house, you have to defeat Freddy one last time in his yard. Look out; he will be coming at you with his claws. Use the gun you picked up from his house to hold him off. Once he’s down, douse him in holy water. Maybe, just maybe, you might make it out alive.

To tell you the truth I haven’t played Escape from 1428 Elm Street since that summer going into fifth grade. I can still remember Jenna and I sitting in front of my computer monitor for all those hours, wondering if we would ever make it out of the house alive. When we finally stopped playing (no, we never actually beat it), I couldn’t stop thinking about Freddy Krueger. Somewhere in my ten-year-old mind I was convinced that if I went to bed that night, or any night at that, he would make his way into my dreams. For the remainder of that summer, I slept with all the lights on in my bedroom. And when that didn’t work, I found myself retreating to my brother’s bedroom or my parent’s bedroom where I slept until school began up again in the fall.

But when it comes down to it, the choice is yours. Will you choose to play? Or won’t you? You don’t believe in urban legends now, do you?


The Last Game of Hide-and-Seek

By: Jaclyn Peraino

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I should preface this “encounter” by saying that I don’t believe in ghosts or demons or anything haunting. I’ve never really been a fan of horror because I never understood it to be entertaining. I believe anyone who has been “possessed” or adamantly claims to have had numerous supernatural occurrences is probably suffering from psychosis. For anyone else who has had maybe a few experiences with the supernatural, it’s all a trick your mind plays on you, or at least that’s what I’ve always told myself. But there was a time a few years back that I had a “ghostly” encounter challenging this idea.

It was the summer before sixth grade, and my cousins, Leah and Anna, were sleeping over at my house. Every time we had a sleepover, we played hide-and-seek in the dark in the basement. We were especially dedicated to the dark part, so even at night we would put blankets and pillows up to cover the small glass-block windows. We usually played for hours, but on this night, I cut the game short. I prided myself on how well I could hide, so I was rarely ever it. But, of course, on this night, I was found and had to be the seeker. After counting to thirty and searching around the basement for a few minutes, I found Anna hiding behind the dryer. As I turned around to the office, I saw Leah.

“Leah, I see you! You’re it!”
She didn’t respond.
“Come on Leah! I can see you right there!”
Still no response…
Then Leah’s voice came out from the toy room behind me, “No you didn’t! I’m right here! Stop cheating.”

It was then that I realized the girl standing in the office doorway was not my cousin. When I turned back around, she was gone. I hastily flicked on all of the lights in the basement and told my cousins what I saw. We ran up the stairs of the basement and never played hide-and-seek in the dark again.

Aside from the few days following, I didn’t think much about that night. I had fully convinced myself it was all in my head: ghosts aren’t real. The “encounter” was behind me. That is, until I moved into my new house on Mary Street. Our basement (shown in the pictures above) is definitely something straight out of a horror film, but that’s not what brought back my memories from that summer. It was the strange dreams I had the first few nights in the house. I’m sure they were just from the stress of senior year. I’m sure there is no supernatural explanation for these dreams. But my roommates, they claimed to have had weird dreams too. I’m still not sure how to rationalize that… After a few nights, the weird dreams passed, and I quickly forgot about them. A couple days later, while doing laundry in our unsettling basement, I turned over my shoulder to see the same girl just standing in the corner. I blinked and she was gone.

Perhaps knowing I am enrolled in a horror class made my imagination run wild. Perhaps realizing how eerie the basement is made me remember that night many years ago. I know it’s not real. I know it’s my mind playing tricks on me. But a small part of me still wonders what if it’s not a trick? What if it’s real?

Don’t Move: A New Take on Horror in Video Games

By: Brianna Autrey

Like horror? Great. Like video games? Perfect. Like horror video games that force you to choose a characters unpredictable (but surely gruesome) death? Even better! A PlayStation 4 exclusive game, Until Dawn, might catch your interest.

Many people question horror in video games as a duo; they’re typically more hit or miss than horror movies are. There are some well-known horror games that have broken the mold, such as Amnesia and Outlast (which by the way, Outlast is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already – but that’s another blog post for another time). These games were more than just cheap jump scares, the gripping plot and well executed elements of horror made them stand out. Until Dawn deserves a part of that spotlight, too.

The plot of the game revolves around eight friends who return to a cabin in the mountains (typical but bear with me) where two of their former friends have tragically died. Boring? Turns out there are supernatural creatures that live in the mountains and, long story short, things hit the fan and they have to wait until dawn for help to come and rescue them. What makes Until Dawn stand out is that it’s an interactive horror game with a butterfly effect system. As you play as different characters, you will make the dialogue choices in the game you are presented with, find clues about future deaths that can be prevented; that’s where the butterfly effect comes in. Whatever choice you make will change the course of the game. You also don’t have much time to make that choice (maybe twenty seconds?) until the game makes the choice for you.

For example, let’s say a wolf aggressively approached you in the mountains, would you attack it before it attacked you or would you stand still to let it know you’re defenseless? Keep in mind, you don’t know how this decision will affect the game later and now you have about ten seconds left to pick because the countdown starts immediately. If you chose to stand defenseless, then the wolf will return later in the game to help you fight off one of the creatures. If you chose to attack it, the wolf will injure your leg before running off, the commotion attracted the attention of the creatures, and because your leg is injured you can’t outrun them so they capture you and your eyes are gouged out before the creature decides to eat your head whole. That kind of stuff.

The butterfly affect in the game isn’t the only noteworthy feature. The PlayStation 4 uses a motion sensor controller, and some video games take advantage of that. Until Dawn is, to much approval, one of those games. When your character is hiding from the creature, the words “DON’T MOVE!” will spontaneously pop up on your screen and damn it, you better not move because the creature will hear you and you will die. Your job as the player is to keep the controller as still as possible while you watch the ugly, blood dripping from their teeth and claws creatures sniff around looking for you. Needless to say, those are some of the most intense moments of the game. I also find the fact that you can’t tell what decisions you make will affect everyone’s mortality incredibly tense and pressuring.

Until Dawn is willing to make fun of itself, which makes the game even more enjoyable. The game and plot are purposely using cliché horror movie themes. There’s the classic teens who can’t control their hormones, some dumbass who insists on using a Ouija board and the dumbasses that agree to it, the one or two characters that you like and hope make it to the end (which is totally in your hands if they do), and those characters that insist on investigating every single weird noise even though they know there’s death around every corner. Those are the best. The silver lining is, even though that character was stupid and went to investigate the deathly sound, you as the player can still make choices that can get them out of that situation alive (or not if you really hate a character and want to kill them, I’ve done that).

I’ve refrained from going too into detail about the plot and characters of the game but I highly suggest watching a gameplay video or two of the game on YouTube, or read spoilers about it if you’d prefer. Until Dawn is steadily becoming one of those video games you just have to talk about.