Trial and Error

By: Dayna Plehn

As our class has started studying works predating the official “birth” of the horror genre, I started thinking about other Renaissance literature that might fall into this same “pseudo-horror” category. One that came to mind immediately was Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, published in 1590 (around the same time that we think Shakespeare wrote his earliest play). It traces the story of a young man, newly knighted, named Redcrosse, and a beautiful noblewoman who accompanies him, named Una, as they travel on a mission to kill a dragon. At the beginning of their journey, Redcrosse is very inexperienced, but he is forced to learn quickly; within the first few pages, he encounters his first real monster: A Naga, a serpentfolk, “half like a serpent horribly displayed, / But th’other half did woman’s shape retain…” (Spencer 723). Her name is Error.

The Faerie Queen is what we might now call high fantasy. It is a completely fabricated world, in which we expect to see fantastical creatures such as goblins, trolls, or, perhaps, the occasional Naga. They belong in this universe; by this definition, our friend Noël Carroll would argue that The Faerie Queen is not horror, and he’d be right. We aren’t horrified in the same deep-seated psychological ways that we are when we watch, for example, The Exorcist, because in this poem, “monsters are part of the everyday furniture of the universe” (16). However, even if The Faerie Queene is not a horror story, individual scenes can be, in the same way that a piece of art on a canvas can be perfectly serviceable horror. This scene is one of those still-life moments; Spencer does his best to slice his readers apart with his vivid portrayal of the “most loathsome, filthy, foul” (723) monstrosity that is Error.

dpError is, obviously, a fusion monster, a creature that “[transgresses] categorical distinctions” (Carroll 43). She crosses the boundary of species, being part mammal and part snake (is she warm- or cold-blooded?) Snakes are also traditionally thought of as wicked and deceitful, and still the subject of phobias today. She is also huge, with a tail is long enough for coils to be piled everywhere in her den, and, if a giant snake wasn’t intimidating enough, that far-reaching tail is also “pointed with mortal sting” (Spencer 723). Error has both disgust and threat in her arsenal.

Since Error’s den is dark, Redcrosse can only see her vaguely in the shadows because of the light reflecting off his armor – but honestly, that view is more than enough, because Error is not alone, but “of her there bred / A thousand young ones…” (Spencer 723).

That’s right. This fiend has babies. Hundreds of wriggling, squirming, suckling babies, en masse. They disdain the light as much as their mother does and retreat from the dull glint of Redcrosse’s armor – and they all creep into Error’s mouth. Error isn’t happy about being intruded on, and after almost losing the fight, Redcrosse strangles her – and she vomits up her children again, except that they come out in the form of books, papers, and ink, all smelling rank.

Aside from the blatant “ick factor,” this consolidation of Error with her children seems to be a sort of horrific massification – especially since, in the allegory of the poem, Error and her children together represent teachings contrary to the dominant religion at the time (Anglicanism). The Faerie Queen was published in a time when the clash between Catholicism and Protestantism in England was at a head, and the printing press, invented just over a century before, was gaining quickly in popularity. It was easier than ever for alternative philosophies to be produced in large quantities (something we can relate to now). If Error reproduces through books, then more creatures like her can appear at an alarming rate – and Redcrosse had enough trouble dealing with just the one.

Error is scary on a physical level, but she also isn’t the sort of horror that a modern reader can get past by thinking about it long enough. This is because she represents ideas – and how do you kill an idea? For Redcrosse, the winning strategy was to “add faith unto [his] force” (Spencer 724) – i.e., trust in his original beliefs instead of letting himself be led astray by heretical texts. But in our day and age, we frown upon clinging to our beliefs when there is new information and reasoning available. While Redcrosse is able to defeat Error by more or less ignoring what her offspring have to say, we are more inclined to sift through and consider every one of her children – just to be sure they’re actually borne from Error. Our problem has gotten much more difficult with time, and in this way, Error is exponentially more dangerous.

Works Cited

Carrol, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or, Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.

Spencer, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Eds.

Stephen Greenblatt et al. Vol 1. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006. 719-902. Print.


1920’s Video Game Horror (And All That Jazz)

By: AJ Shapiro

Everyone loves the 1920’s. What’s not to love? Jazz, liquor, nightclubs, flappers… giant oceanic robo-monsters???

Released in August of 2007, the video game “Bioshock” took the player beneath the Atlantic Ocean to the undersea city of Rapture, a once-great metropolis turned zombie-infested nightmare. The city’s discovery and cultivation of a substance called ADAM endowed its denizens with supernatural abilities, like telekinesis and pyrokinesis, but also destroyed their minds, turning them into mindless “Splicers,” murderous creatures concerned only with obtaining more ADAM.

So what? What separates Bioshock from every other horror video game? While I can attest navigating the sunken ruin of Rapture is terrifying to me, personally, a young adult born at the end of the twentieth century, I can’t help but feel a 1920’s audience would get a great deal more horror out of playing the game than I did, had they the opportunity to play it.

First, the primary antagonist of the game (SPOILER ALERT) is revealed to be Frank Fontaine, a gangster and a thug who made his blood-spattered rise to power through bootlegging. People living during the brief period where we thought prohibition was possible would certainly find Fontaine terrifying as a villain, especially since the disguise he wears most of the game is that of Atlas, a family man, more in-keeping with the notions of 1920’s “good.”

But wait, what about the robo-monsters? Along with the zombified Splicers, scattered amongst the city are the Big Daddies, along with their Little Sisters. As seen in the pictures, the hulking Big Daddies provide protection to the Little Sisters, who wander Rapture and extract ADAM from the corpses of enemies. The Little Sisters are strikingly similar in appearance to that of Regan in the 1973 film The Exorcist, complete with pallid skin and demonic eyes, but minus the pea soup. Like the film, the freaky appearance of the Little Sisters in “Bioshock” is at odds with both a contemporary and a 1920’s audiences’ conception of an innocent little girl. The result? Even though Big Daddies can drill through our character’s brain and leave them a smoking puddle on the ground, we’re more disturbed by these forlorn little zombie girls than the metallic goliaths that accompany them.

Disturbing imagery accompanies the physical characteristics of the Little Sisters, and the nature of their relationships with the Big Daddies is suggestive and unsettling. The girls, for example, wield syringes to extract ADAM from the fallen, and while they’re not entirely phallic in appearance, the syringes definitely provoke thoughts of “penetration,” similar to the kind of horror we experience when Regan shouts horrendous sexual obscenities at her mother. In a society with two immensely powerful women’s movements happening, suffrage and prohibition, to reduce the Little Sisters to subservient and sexualized slaves to the Big Daddies would leave a 20’s audience feeling more terror than the haunted city of Rapture would itself.

And indeed, much of the gameplay of slaughtering the undead and shooting sparks from your fingertips is done to the tune of jazz music! One could argue this is merely a flavorful decision in-keeping with the games 20’s theme, but then again…
The 1920’s metonymy around the game, from bars to nightclubs to the overarching jazz music, makes the player unconsciously associate the themes of the game with the time period. For one, scientific advancement beyond the scope of humanity’s control bringing about apocalyptic ruin was a concept that certainly might’ve scared people in the 20’s. For another, Frank Fontaine’s ability to conceal his identity as a criminal while profiting immensely was exactly what men like Al Capone were doing, until they were caught, which would leave a 20’s audience wondering just how many criminals are hiding out there.

So, while many horror video games would scare just about anyone who played them, Bioshock’s profound ability to horrify a 1920’s audience informs the kind of horrific elements which would’ve most effectively played on their fears. By the conclusion of the game, sure, we’re scared. But a 1920’s audience would need some ice cream and a hug….



Not All [Wicker] Men Are Created Equal

By: Ryan Lakin

As we have moved through the horror genre reverse-chronologically, one thing I have noticed is how much context (both historical and cultural) determines what we, as readers, find scary or not scary. The more recent texts we have studied, like The Haunting of Hill House or The Exorcist, are often the ones in which the horror feels the most visceral and immediate. The older a text is, or the farther removed it is from our own cultural context, the harder we have to work to determine what its original audience found frightening about it. As a history buff, I love reading older texts for this reason. Nothing evokes the cultural anxieties specific to a certain place and time period better than its monsters.

rl.jpgThis sense of cultural specificity is what makes The Wicker Man (1973) so effective, and the 2006 remake, starring Nicolas Cage, not at all. The original film is prototypically British, drawing on Celtic folklore, and the cultural anxieties surrounding it, as a potent source of horror. The film revolves around Sargent Howie, a British detective who travels to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, only to have his religious, conservative worldview violently clash with the pagan beliefs and traditions of the island’s inhabitants. In her article “Fear of Folk: Why folk art and ritual horrifies in Britain”, Alexa Galea contextualizes The Wicker Man within the larger debates over British national identity, and the contentious role of Celtic folklore therein, which were taking place in the mid-twentieth century. During a time in which other nations were establishing museums and other tributes to their folk traditions, Galea explains that, up until this time period, the history of Celtic folklore and traditions in Britain were suppressed, as they were deemed at odds with a British cultural identity based around “civilized,” Enlightenment values. In her words, “the horrific rendering of British folk traditions in The Wicker Man speaks of an anxiety of their affirmations – that mankind is subject to the sublime chaos of nature and that society and nature are entwined” (Galea). The horror of the film is drawn not only from the folklore of the country that produced it, but the cultural anxieties surrounding it at the time if its release.

As motion picture properties are remade and mined for material decades after their original popularity, we see how these historical and cultural shifts change the stories that once proved effectively scary. The Wicker Man remake is especially egregious because of just how specifically the original worked for its intended audience, and thus how conclusively the remake fails to recapture any of that power. The Nicholas Cage remake tries to build on American cultural cachet, positioning the pagan group as descendants of the Salem Witch Trials, now settled in the Pacific Northwest. This loose grab bag of generic witch stuff (as well as possible confusion on the part of the screenwriters as to which Salem hosted the Witch Trials) serves to rob the story of any specificity. Lacking a clear folklore on which to build a horror story, the end result is a generic story without teeth.

Work Cited

Galea, Alexa. “Fear of Folk: Why Folk Art and Ritual Horrifies in Britain.” Journal of Illustration, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 77–100.

Horrific Longevity

By: Alexis Low

al.jpgChina Mieville’s short story, “The Foundation”, is the most horrifying story I’ve ever read. The story is about a very lonely unnamed man and his job as a house whisperer. As a house whisperer, he speaks to the “foundation”, which turns out to be a mass amount of select human corpses, who tell him what is wrong with every house or building he has been in; that information is then relayed to the inquisitor of such faults within the building. This is not inherently scary, but this “foundation” also acts as a haunting entity to the man, that arises from a horrible deed he committed. It is innately horrific as there is an evident haunting presence of a mass amount of select corpses speaking, which “no one can hear”(Mieville 25), but him. But after every time I read this, I always wondered what exactly horrified or amplified the horror for me? And one day it clicked. It is something rather not greatly present in the horror genre–horrific longevity, which is a daily isolated terror to a specific group or person for an unlimited amount of time, that also defies space. The longevity in the overwhelming nature of the select corpses in their being and unknown desire is the truly terrifying and sole creator of the distinct horror the story creates within the narrative.

The overwhelming and never ending nature of the corpses is exhibited through their consistent presence continuously built upon to create the lurking fear about the corpses, which is only amplified by the longevity of it. The story sets up the horrific overwhelming nature in the first page as  “no one can hear” (Mieville 25)the corpses, but the unnamed man. This doesn’t immediately set the reader in fear, but one may feel unsettled for this is isolated to one man, which can be more unsettling than shared horror. Then, one finds out that the corpses don’t just say what is wrong with the building, but speak the same words over and over again, “we stay” or “we are hungry” or “we are alone”(Mieville 26-27) . Next one finds out how how the corpses are positioned “in all foundations”, which is wherever there is terrain–everywhere. Moreover, he “hears the foundation speak to him in his dreams” (Mieville 26) . The corpses are interstitial in their haunting in the physical and dream realm, haunting him holistically, making the main character unable to escape this haunting and facing their horrific mistake every single day. Holistic haunting is something that is common in horror, which can be found in Morrison’s novel Beloved, as Beloved haunts in the mental and physical realm, but in the physical she is isolated to one area, the house and forest, and only haunts for a small amount of time. This has been hearing corpses speaking the same words over and over again and cannot get away as he is surrounded by these dead everywhere, in an overwhelming way that creates an unshakeable and irrevocable fear for what has been present, for ten years. The longevity of the overwhelming haunting shakes the core of any human and presents greater horror than present in Beloved.

As one can imagine one would like to be rid of the existence of this horrific mass amount of creatures. But how does one be rid of the corpses, who are dead and omnipotent. There is no expert, like Van Helsing in Dracula, nor known way of killing them. The main character decides that if he cannot kill then he must appease the corpses, and pay the price for the horrible act he committed. The only way to appease the corpses, is what the main character thinks, is to feed them as they “are hungry” (Mieville 26), but with what? The lack of knowledge or epistemic gap creates a fear, for we like to think we know everything or that everything is knowable, and this is consistently disrupted. This is akin, again, to Beloved, as Beloved’s identity and unearthly presence creates epistemic gaps. In this narrative, when the main character appeases the monster, it doesn’t work, as they continue to repeat “we are hungry”(Mieville 34) . This presents longevity of the epistemic destruction and gaps for the main character, and no destruction of the corpses. No escape is available from these corpses as the epistemic gap will continue to grow and won’t fill, therefore no way to get rid of them, unlike Beloved, creating more horror. He will forever suffer endless chatter and omnipotence in a horrifying unending and overwhelming way.

In short, horrific longevity in this narrative erupts to a truly unsettling and terrifying conclusion about horror–it doesn’t stop. Horror doesn’t stop when one says stop. Horror can’t always be killed. Horror is never appeased. Horror is forever, and this unsettles all.


Works Cited

Mieville, China. “The Foundation.” Looking for Jake: Stories. N.p.: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2005. N. pag. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bram Stoker, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Signet Classics:Frankenstein; Dracula ; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Print. 1978.

Don’t Turn Out the Lights

By: Nikola Jaksic

Horror works in many different ways, often largely dependent on genre. One great way all genres create horror, however, is by not giving the audience everything, and playing to the sense of uncertainty even within the genre, unbalancing the frame. It plays on our expectations in the narrative and in many ways punishes us for having them. In books, this can be done through the use of points of view, but it often works differently in film. A great way film creates uncertainty is through the presence, or lack, of light. A great example of this is The Witch, in which the use of natural lighting not only makes it a well done period piece, but also adds to the feeling of visual uncertainty that creates horror.

One of the ways natural lighting is used in the movie to create uncertainty is in the story is by taking away comfort at many points in the story. One of the most noteworthy places this can be seen is during the family’s prayer at their table (26:45) in which the room is dimly lit by a candle, giving us very few clear looks at the family. Here, even though they are together and praying, the lack of adequate light makes it seem hollow, like their company and prayer are no protection for the forces acting against them. It also uses the natural light to play on our notions of darkness in horror movies. As an audience, we have been primed to expect certain parts of horror movies. The lights dim, the music starts to play in the background, and we know to expect something bad to happen. But in this scene, nothing horrifying happens. The devil does not jump out of the darkness to snatch the family, and though there is some tense dialogue, we can chalk this up to Puritan misgivings and not active horror. This refusal to follow along with conventions of the genre and give the audience what they are expecting unbalances the frame and makes the audience uneasy, like we cannot know what is coming next. This makes all of us, even those familiar with the genre, more susceptible to the directors implementation of horror in the novel.

This comes full circle later in the movie. After everyone but Thomasine is dead, and she finally is alone in the cabin, she signs her contract with Black Peter, sealing her fate (1:25:00). In this scene, the lack of clarity that natural light gives us is an important connection to earlier in the movie. There, the lack of light brought us no horrific conclusion, unbalancing the frame in a really interesting way, and so in some sense we expect the same thing here. When we hear a voice respond, however, and a shape move just out of the glow of the candle, we realize how wrong we were to imagine that we would get away without something awful happening. Not only does the scene terrify us because we realize the chain of events that helped turn Thomasine into a witch, but we also never fully get the satisfaction we want in the reveal of the monster. Instead of revealing Black Peter to us, the light (or lack of it) keeps the audience in the dark, literally and figuratively. We know he is responsible for what happened, but what form does he take?

This final unbalancing of the frame sticks with us as an audience. One of the most recognizable parts of horror are the monsters we associate with the stories. What would the imagination of Dracula be without the creepy Count, or Frankenstein without the monster so recognizable that we confuse the name of the creator and creation? The Witch, however, refuses to give us even that. Sure, we saw a witch or two throughout the story, but the ringleader, the architect of the family’s horror? It will always remain a voice in the dark, something we can’t quite see. And if we can’t see it, how are we supposed to stop it?


What Genre is it Anyway?

By: Brandy Clymer

“The Fisher Queen” by Alyssa Wong is a disturbing read to say the least, filled with mermaids, secrets, and hard truths, but by the end I wasn’t sure what to think of it. The most confusing aspect was that it was assigned in my Fantasy class, when I feel it could have been assigned in Literary Horror instead. It is indisputable that the genres of horror and fantasy can overlap, include characteristics of each other in their respective stories, but the question that came to mind after reading “The Fisher Queen” was: What is the line between horror and fantasy?

In The Philosophy of Horror, Carroll is specific in his definition for horror and its difference compared to fantasy; discussing Beauty and the Beast as an example, Carroll states, “The universe of the fairy tale accommodates such creatures as the Beast as part and parcel of nature.” (54) The most important distinction is the role of monsters in the genres, but what about when the fantasy monster possesses Carroll’s 2 traits of horror monsters: threatening and impurity. The introduced monster of this story is a deep-sea mermaid, blatantly different in appearance and intelligence to the “common” mermaids. The fact that there are “common” mermaids in the story falls directly into the prescribed characteristics of a fantasy story, but the mermaid that is described as “dark brown, its lower body thick, blobby, and inelegant, tapering to a blunt point instead of a single fin. Its entire body is glazed with a slimy coating, covered in spines and frondlike appendages. Rounded, skeletal pods hang from its waist, each about the size of an infant,” is different and described with adjectives that lend themselves to horrific description. (Wong) In regard to Carroll’s definition of a monster, I believe it qualifies, bringing the question of the story’s classification back around. The more I read, the more horrifying it became, but it is really a horror or just a dark fantasy?

By the end of the story, the mermaid is no longer the villain. In fact, the role of the villain is constantly changing throughout the story; first on the main character’s mother who abandoned her family, then the deep-sea mermaid, then the men of the ship’s crew, then, possibly, the main character herself. This back-and-forth of the story’s “monster”, from human, creature, and back again, would not constitute as a horror in Carroll’s eyes, but neither do the movies Psycho or Jaws, both of which have overwhelmingly been accepted as within the horror genre. Like in Psycho, the psychological issues of “The Fisher Queen” amplify the horror of the story, the turning point being the main character’s realization that the crew has been having sex with the mermaids they catch, with the act being even more disgusting as the mermaids are considered fish, animals, in the story’s reality. This act holds explicit horror for the character, but it also disgusts and horrifies readers. This introduces the existence of real-life horror, sexual abuse/bestiality, into a situation of potential art horror, the deep sea mermaid and its dangerous potential. This same use of juxtaposition is in Beloved with the respective types of horror, a ghost and slavery, building on each other to make the story more effective. The final blow of horror comes with the deep sea mermaid granting the girl a wish in exchange for her release, a wish that results in the deaths of all the men of the crew.

Taking all of this into consideration, a clear conclusion is hard to come to. I have come to realize through my reading and experience over the semester with both of these genres that horror is exceptionally relative. As everyone holds their own perspective of the truth, they also hold their own perspective of horror. Carroll’s entire argument is essentially, an opinion, and so, mine is that while fantasy and horror as their own distinct genres, this story belongs to both.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge, 1990.

Wong, Alyssa. “The Fisher Queen.” Fantasy & Science Fiction, 2014.

Growing Up with the Ghost in the Graveyard

By: Colleen Grogan

Nancy S.’s house was the place to be for students in my elementary school. I spent countless hours of my most important developmental years around her house tie dying, holding cooking competitions, or jumping on her trampoline. Her house became the place where I grew up and learned about being a girl. With two older brothers, I was forever impacted by the important female friendships I forged at Nancy’s house. Her house holds a place of tenderness in my heart and something more ominous, as well. In the dark, her house becomes the haunted house of my childhood.

cg.pngNancy’s cul de sac was in the middle of the rural part of our school district and was surrounded by cornfields on one side and woods on the other; when it was dark, it was deep-dark. The scary moments of her house all blend together in my mind. The main portion of my friendship with Nancy was over a decade ago and the memories are confused together. I do not know the chronology of the events. I am sure my memory distorts them and confuses them, but that doesn’t matter to me. I remember these scary images in almost a dream sequence, something that recurs in my mind but is never quite the same. These are the images of horror at Nancy’s house I identify with growing up: a large, unidentifiable animal disappearing when we approached; walking into a fog filled garage on Halloween; Nancy forbidding us to go outside during the “Witching Hour” between three and four in the morning.

But the most impactful, scary memories of Nancy’s house came when she would hold sleepovers for all of the girls in our class. They were outrageous affairs where we would glutton ourselves, gossip, and chat about the new freedom that sixth grade would have to offer us that coming September. Then, when it was dark enough and her parents were asleep, we would go outside and our big group of young girls would play Ghost in the Graveyard.

The ghost would hide somewhere within the neighborhood and the other girls would stalk around to find her. When she was spotted, the neighborhood would echo with the cry of a young girl screaming “GHOST IN THE GRAVEYARD!” We would run for our lives back home, only safe once on Nancy’s trampoline. Ghost in the Graveyard put me as a child into a horror movie. I had to remove myself from my safe place to locate a monster only to try to avoid the monster. And when the monster found me, I turned into the monster. Ghost in the Graveyard, I now realize, is a horror game. It placed us as young girls into the role of victim and monster. The game brought out my most fundamental urge to run away from something that is trying to get me. Just like the reader of a horror text, I became a participant in the horror rather than an audience member. It was not a game to me, but a very real fear.

This fear was only amplified by the real anxieties of being a girl alone at night. We would giggle at our game but there were real implications in our play. For the game we would hide in ditches, drainage pipes, and of course, the cornfield. We played with horror when we were on the cusp of adolescence. We were entering into a part of our lives that seemed horrific. A time when we were allowed, for the first time, to go out in public by ourselves. A time when our parents told us strangers were a very real threat to us, especially as girls.

In a time of real anxieties about being taken advantage of, my friends and I defied that fear. We embraced it by making a game out of it. At my childhood haunted house, I battled new horrors by chasing ghosts.