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Teaching Horror Literature in a Multicultural Classroom

Teaching Horror Literature in a Multicultural Classroom
© Photograph by Niko

When German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer asserted that there are “two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake”, he pinpointed the critical problem that presents itself before scholars, critics, teachers and students of literature who attempt to discern which, out of a myriad of published texts, are the ones worth reading and teaching. His essay on authorship illuminates the idea that the first group of writers write because they “have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating”, while others simply write for financial gain. The first, we could tentatively say, write high literature, while the others create trivial works.1 Horror literature is a typical disreputed genre, the works of which are often collectively, and quite unfairly, put into the category of trivial, which is why the notion of a literary representation of thoughts and experiences worth communicating becomes especially relevant when discussing horror literature as a means, among others, to decide whether a text is worth teaching or not. Horror texts typically aim at engaging the reader’s emotions, at scaring or horrifying the reader, thereby targeting the most basic of human instincts: the instinct for survival. To survive, every human needs a self-preservation mechanism which becomes activated thanks to the feelings of pain or fear. Taking that mechanism into account, this editorial aims to show that literature teachers can and should take advantage of this physiological fact in order to create a successful learning experience for racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse students in a multicultural classroom. By focusing on what is common to all, namely, the feeling of fear, they are able to unite their multicultural students under the joint flag of humanity. Moreover, the editorial shows that despite heavy prejudice against the genre, horror has its rightful place in the literature classroom, particularly a multicultural one, as it provides an adequate framework to develop students’ empathy for others as well as to dismantle prejudice against the Other(s).

The article focuses primarily on horror literature and its potential positive effect on achieving learning outcomes in a multicultural classroom,2 but before tackling horror, a few words are due concerning the dynamics and challenges of teaching in a multicultural classroom. In a globalized and globalizing world, a multicultural classroom is an inevitable reality. Whether we are talking about a classroom assembled from students of the same nationality but a different economic background and/or cultural and/or racial and ethnic background (such classrooms typically exist in the United States of America), or assembled from students of different nationalities, which inevitably implies a different cultural, ethnic and possibly racial background (examples of such classrooms are more common in Europe when students are assembled together under the auspices of The Erasmus Programme or similar exchange projects),3 cultural diversity presents teachers with specific dilemmas. Most notably, in line with Chesler, both teachers and students bring with them “in one way or another the racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic baggage that abounds in our culture,” which is why a teacher must find a way to overcome “patterns of racial and ethnic ideology and interaction” in order to create a safe environment which supports learning but also protects “moral sensibilities” of both the students and the teacher. Moreover, in such a classroom, even more than in a more homogenous one, the teacher must attempt to dismantle the existing stereotypes and prejudices, as otherwise he or she actually “permits these historical, cultural, and media-generated stereotypes and fears (or hostilities) about differences to persist”. Gerald Weinstein and Kathy Obear have noted that faculty themselves experience various issues in a culturally diverse classroom, such as the need to deal with their own biases, lack of knowledge or social and identity conflicts, and the need to respond properly to bias or discrimination when it occurs. Clearly, to overcome these problems and to handle these sensitive issues successfully (and thereby enable learning) both the teacher and the students need to be self-reflexive, and at the same time open for change. The typical strategy for overcoming bias in a literature classroom is exposing students to different voices. For instance, in her book ‘Thriving in the Multicultural Classroom; Principles and Practices for Effective Teaching, Dilg’ (2003) suggests the following strategy to compile a syllabus: “The works will be artistically intricate and demanding. The writers will be, among others, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, European Americans, and Middle Eastern Americans, as well as religiously diverse.“ While it undoubtedly seems like the proper approach, as insight into diverse experiences enables understanding and fosters sympathy (and possibly also empathy), this editorial offers another possibility, equally acceptable as the traditional one: to focus on texts that seem to be concerned with universal human issues, rather than specific cultural or ethnic ones, but nevertheless allow for many interpretations and offer a myriad of proofs that we are all the same: human and vulnerable.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a prominent figure in the history of literary horror, famously asserted that fear is the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind.” But already more than a century and a half before Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and before modern psychology, Edmund Burke found that passions which concern self-preservation, namely, those connected with pain and danger, are the most potent ones. According to him, whatever awakens the ideas of pain or danger is terrible and thus the source of the sublime. The sublime is, in turn, “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” because pain and the ideas connected to suffering have much stronger effects on both body and mind than any form or cause of pleasure. In fact, the role of aesthetic representations of the horrible is a topic considered already at the very dawn of literary theory. In his ‘Poetics’4, Aristotle notes that we thoroughly enjoy the mimesis of horror: “Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” Unlike the sights of actual violence, which people typically find abhorrent, mimesis of terrifying events and creatures garners much interest because literary representations of horror are realistic enough to stir our feelings and imagination (“what if…”), and yet we are at all times aware that this is fiction and this realization provides the necessary detachment needed for objective thinking. Scholarly and readerly interest in horror has not decreased despite the fact that it has been contemplated for millennia, which exemplifies the continuous relevance of horror. To illustrate, Ken Gelder makes it clear that horror is an integral part of the very fabric of our society: “the socio-political system needs these rhetorics, narratives and so on — that is, it needs horror itself — in order to be what it is and do what it does.” Precisely because horror is so essential to human existence, horror texts tend to be very engaging for the reader, and this is a quality that should be taken advantage of in a classroom environment. To achieve learning outcomes, it is beneficial to incorporate into the syllabi texts that will motivate the students to read and think about these outcomes.

Another benefit of adding horror texts to a literature syllabus is the fact that horror’s ambition is not mere titillation of the senses. On the contrary, to skilled readers, or those aided by skilled teachers, horror gives the opportunity to ponder upon different, often taboo, issues of human existence, and the intricacies of the human mind and desire as they are presented in literary texts. They can think about them, learn from them, and finally create their own thoughts on the subject. The fact that violent or macabre subjects should be considered taboo in a classroom is rather odd, as life is, among other things, made up of various unpleasant or violent events which everyone must learn to deal with in a socially acceptable way. In a multicultural classroom, this allows everyone to focus on our essential sameness, a realization that can typically be lost in such contexts where we tend to focus on differences. What is more, the effect of the horrible and scary in literature is such that it may produce thoughts which have a strong emotional impact on the reader. And it is this emotional response that the teacher should be able to take advantage of in teaching not only about literature, but also about life.

Because of its ability to scare (and sometimes to be repulsive), horror has always been quite popular, and therefore considered “trivial”. The misconception that popular texts necessarily have to be trivial is somewhat understandable, as many popular texts indeed display atrocious characterizations, poor diction, predictable plots and other unseemly features that make a literary text trivial.5 But even more than that, horror’s controversial position typically originates from the misconceptions connected with its topics and motifs, as well as the readers’ doubts concerning the authors’ motivation to write about horrific situations and events. Horror stories seem to be superficial (especially when connected with the supernatural), undignified, and lacking in ambition to signify anything beyond mere depictions of carnage. Or, as Adam Schwartz and Eliane Rubinstein-Avila have put it, the highest concern with regard to horror as a popular genre is the fear that young people cannot “make meaning” from such texts, which is not true.

According to Dawes, horror engages both our emotional and cognitive facilities as the readers’ problem-solving cognitive structures utilise the readers’ previous knowledge and their attitudes and values to create alternative solutions to the story at hand. For a successful literature class, students have to be motivated to search for a deeper meaning, and it is horror texts that very often “envelop the students into a new way of thinking, understanding, and conceptualising the world around them.” Dilg has a similar idea when she claims that to create a supportive environment, “we need to design a curriculum that appeals to students from multiple cultures and that aids them in understanding and constructing meaning in their world.” In other words, a text that has already intrigued the student with its content is more likely to make the student accept the responsibility for their own learning and persist in their classroom and out-of-class engagement, even if the search for meaning, that is, the learning process, becomes more demanding or challenging. In fact, with motivated students, the student-teacher relationship assumes a quality of complicity which is extremely rewarding for both sides as students feel that the class is not “useless” or annoying and that the teacher is offering them something they can relate to and understand, even if it is demanding, which is a necessary prerequisite for successful teaching and learning.

Gothic Studies on the Horror of Things

Of course, the problem is much more complicated in reality and Arthur Schopenhauer himself admits that writing just for the sake of covering paper can also be recognized in the best of authors. Thus, rather than labelling specific authors’ entire oeuvre or entire genres as trivial or not, we should be talking about and evaluating individual texts.
With respect to teaching in a multicultural classroom as opposed to teaching in a non-multicultural classroom, two points should be made clear. A separate paper, following adequate research, could elucidate whether there are significant differences between teaching horror to students in a multicultural versus non-multicultural classroom. However, this would demand a very clear definition of what we take to be a culturally homogenous classroom. My teaching experience so far has shown that it is hardly possible to find a non-multicultural classroom if we take culture to include not just race and ethnicity, but also gender, religion and class background, as well as membership of a particular subculture, which is a frequent situation with young people/students.
In cases like this, we are typically talking about TEFL or teaching English literature to non-English students. This means that teaching and studying is in an English-mediated environment and that most (or all) of the students are not native speakers of English. This adds an additional dimension to the unifying classroom experience as it makes all students similar in the sense of having to deal with the language barrier.
This and the subsequent translations of Aristotle’s work are by Samuel Henry Butcher.
But trivial texts have been produced within the realm of other genres — love stories, autobiographies, adventure stories, among all the others. Triviality is not inherently connected specifically with horror, a fact that tends to be disregarded. Objectively, of course, a horror text may be as well (or as badly) written as any other literary text which deals with less macabre topics and is therefore spared the initial prejudice and misgiving.


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