The following has been contributed by MEST alumna Gina Brandolino (PhD English, 2007). Dr. Brandolino is a lecturer in the Department of English and Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan. She teaches several different horror courses in addition to courses focused on medieval literature, working class literature, and comics. Visit the student-powered horror blog she maintains at courseofhorror.wordpress.com. She also co-hosts a podcast about teaching writing; listen at behindthescaffolding.com.
Every other fall, I teach a course called Classic Horror. In it, my students and I study just what you’d expect: the classics of horror in English literature, plus classics from that other medium so important to horror, film. So, in reverse chronological order (which is how I teach them): Beloved, The Exorcist, Alien, The Haunting of Hill House, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, stories by Poe and Hawthorne, Frankenstein—and most people would expect the list to stop there, Frankenstein being by general scholarly consensus the beginning of the horror genre. Mine continues through the Graveyard Poets and Macbeth to some medieval stories, ultimately ending with Beowulf.
My reading list surprises most people, including my students: isn’t horror a modern genre?
Indeed, if I taught my course in chronological order, few of my students would see the horror in texts earlier than Frankenstein. But working our way backwards through horror, students see connections: motifs emerge, tropes show themselves. We read Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, which features a female protagonist assailed by the devil in her own bed just as Regan in The Exorcist is (I have an article forthcoming on this remarkable similarity). We dig into an exemplum from Robert Manning’s Handlyng Synne in which we meet a bloody and badly injured infant Jesus, his wounds the result of people taking his name in vain, a story not unlike Hawthorne’s heavily allegorical “Young Goodman Brown” or “The Minister’s Black Veil.” And Beowulf’s Heorot is essentially a haunted house like Hill House or The Turn of the Screw’s Bly; or you might consider it more like Alien’s spaceship Nostromo, under siege by a deadly invader. These are just a few examples.
Some might protest that Beowulf is a hero’s story, not a horror story, and that the Shewings and Handlyng Synne are even further from being works of horror, and I might not disagree with all that. But I’ll argue back that these texts use the same strategies horror does to command readers’ attention. They’re texts that have undeniable moments of horror, though those moments aren’t often acknowledged by those of us best positioned to show off what’s so compelling about medieval texts, by which of course I mean scholars and teachers of medieval studies. Why we as a field shy away from horror is complex and more than I can adequately address here, but certainly it has a lot to do with the stigma that the horror genre carries for those who see it as a low-brow and trashy with little to offer us intellectually.
It’s a lamentable oversight, especially in a time when medieval studies struggles to be relevant, because as I have discovered with my students again and again as they see the connections between modern and medieval stories we study, horror is one of the most vital and abiding through-lines from the Middle Ages to our times. The scream, the shiver, the feeling of dread—they’re not the same today as they were in the Middle Ages or any other era, but the similarities they present allow us a unique window into another time—and, my students would tell you, into ourselves as well.