What can horror teach us?

Ghosts, goblins and vampires are frightening, but students in Joe Fletcher’s horror literature class say the ongoing pandemic is far scarier. Thankfully, lessons from literature show how fear can be productive.

An illustration of horror books including
“Hamlet,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Dracula” and “The Metamorphosis” span 400 years and multiple genres, but all contain elements of horror. (Illustration by Leighann Vinesett/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Why are we drawn to what frightens us? And how has our standard of “scary” changed throughout history? In Teaching Assistant Professor Joe Fletcher’s horror literature class, English 148: Horror, his students have spent the semester trying to define the genre and discover what frightened readers 400 years ago, what scares them today and why it matters.

The past 18 months have been a real-life horror story that reflects many themes found in the novels and short stories the students read: fear of death or disease, isolation, suspense and fear of the unknown.

“The premise of my class is to look at horror itself and frame it as a topic in our lives,” Fletcher says. “We address how horror creates fear, how prevalent it is in literature and the way it reveals the vulnerabilities of individuals and society.”

Fletcher believes studying horror not only helps his students track themes across centuries of literature, but also teaches them to examine what they find frightening and pull the proverbial sheet off the ghost to see what’s underneath.

Defining horror

On the first day of class, Fletcher told his students to throw out their preconceived notions of what horror is or isn’t, and instead think of the genre in relation to literature at large. While Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” might be the first titles that come to mind, horror has its twisted roots in much older works such as William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” written between 1599 and 1601, or Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 Gothic novel “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” which features crumbling castles, supernatural events and a scheming villain pursuing a heroine.

King Hamlet’s ghost floats onto the page several times, and mysterious figures flit through the shadows in “The Mysteries of Udolpho,” but there are more frightening themes in those stories, Fletcher says. Prince Hamlet experiences psychological trauma that drives him to violence. In Radcliffe’s work, mysteries are left ambiguous and unsolved, leaving the reader wondering if the supernatural does interfere in earthly events.

Fletcher is also hesitant to closely define horror because it is found in many classic works that might not typically be classified as horror, such as Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella “The Metamorphosis,” about an average salesman who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into a huge insect, and then struggles to accept the isolation and limitations of his new identity. That might not be the typical plotline in a slasher film, but the idea of feeling trapped or not recognizing yourself can be terrifying. Another not-so-typical modern horror story is Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” which features a group of strangers moving into a supposedly haunted house under the guidance of a paranormal researcher hoping to prove the existence of the supernatural.

Horror also can serve as a vehicle for wider cultural commentary, Fletcher says.

“Horror can provide lenses through which we view racist or harmful ideas. In many of the traditional ‘monster’ books, like “Frankenstein,” the authors create ‘others,’ whether that be other humans or creatures, that we’re meant to fear,” Fletcher says. “Sometimes those creatures are metaphors for the kind of othering that we perform sociologically on people who don’t look or behave like us.”

How the pandemic became horrific

When Fletcher’s students began naming things that frightened them, COVID-19 loomed larger than any ghost, vampire or demon.

“The students characterized COVID-19 as a horrific element — an unseen, mysterious force that invaded our lives and changed everything,” says Fletcher. “It feeds into one of the hallmarks of horror, which is something being beyond understanding that causes our imaginations to be overstimulated and create worst-case scenarios.”

Isolation is another common theme in horror, and quarantine tested people’s limitations on being alone. Disease, death and disfigurement also feature heavily in many horror stories, and COVID-19 is capable of causing all three.

“The supernatural isn’t a requirement for something to be considered horror,” says Fletcher. “Sometimes, reality is as frightening as fiction.”

Why do we enjoy horror?

Fletcher says the enduring appeal of horror is multifaceted: The reader can have harrowing experiences while safely removed from the situation, and there is a communal aspect to telling or reading a scary story together and learning from the characters’ mistakes. But he doesn’t want his students to leave the class more frightened than when they started.

“I want them to become finely tuned radars of their worlds,” says Fletcher. “After taking this course, they can be attentive to all the ways life can be horrific in productive ways. Those experiences inform the way we behave, think and form social circles.”

And the course reveals universal antidotes to horror: empathy, compassion and love.

“Horror is a disruptive force that emphasizes the positive forces we value: coming together as a community, putting others first or self-love,” says Fletcher. “Showing a stark absence of those values helps us remember that they keep us from becoming monsters.”

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