Open Your Textbooks and Scream!
In 2004 I discovered Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws and my life hasn’t been the same since. The combination of Clover’s deep academic dive into horror films and the support of a community college professor broadened my view of what I could do as a career. Heavy critical thinking about horror movies and literature was just something I did for fun before Clover manifested before me. Prior to that, I didn’t have the research skills to lead me to work like Clover’s. As a high school dropout returning to school after five years, I didn’t know what was possible.
The first edition of the book came out in 1992, and I would argue that it was the vanguard of all modern horror scholarship. Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu’s In Search of Dracula (1972) certainly predate Clover’s work, but those single-text explorations felt more like attempts at finding final questions rather than asking questions across a spectrum of film and literature in the way Clover did. Instead of saying “let’s watch a movie,” Clover essentially says, “let’s look at a pattern across multiple movies.” And thus, horror scholarship was truly born.
If Clover is the mother (and I reckon many of the writers I discuss here will eschew such typical heteronormative metaphors and I am all for that), then David J. Skal is the father. The Monster Show’s first edition came quickly on the heels of Clover’s book in 1993. While Clover focused on a phenomenon within a set of films, Skal’s book attempts to cover the entire history — up to that point — of horror cinema. I had been a monster kid from birth, but Skal introduced me to Tod Browning’s Freaks, the Spanish-language Dracula that was filmed on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi movie, and the idea that western horror films grew from the tragedies of World War I. I was enlightened by the darkness, as it were. These two books told me that my love of the things that go bump in the night was worth my time and academic focus.
Some texts take scientific approaches. Margee Kerr’s Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear (2015) follows Kerr as she experiences fear in a variety of ways, not just in movies. She rides rollercoasters, she goes to haunted houses, she spends a night in the allegedly haunted Eastern State Prison, she visits the suicide forest in Japan. Like Skal and Clover, Kerr invites us on the journey and tells us it’s okay to be scared. More recently, Nina Nesseth released Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films (2022). Nesseth quantifies the fear response to horror films that occurs in the brain and the body. These two books use science to validate horror films in the same way Clover and Skal use history and sociology to legitimize the genre.
I’ve been lucky to read many of these books. Some come in the form of regular books for consumer consumption. Others come in hard-to-find hardback tomes published by university presses and at prices most readers can’t afford. I’ve also been lucky enough to befriend some of these writers. W. Scott Poole, for example, teaches history at a university in South Carolina. His book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting (2011) serves as a poignant follow-up to Skal’s The Monster Show. Rather than just focusing on film, Poole goes back to the colonization of North and South America, delineating Columbus’s monstrous actions before getting into the Salem Witch trials, early fears of sea monsters, and — again like Skal — early 20th century carnival sideshows. Poole’s latest widens that metaphor into a look at the rise and fall of the American Empire in Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire (2022).
I would be remiss to leave this look at horror scholarship without mentioning two books that delve into similar territory but are not what we would call scholarly in a traditional sense: Stephen King’s Danse Macabre (1981) and Brian Keene’s End of the Road (2020). These two books spend more time discussing horror literature than the previously mentioned texts do, although King also gets deep into horror films and TV. But they come at horror from the perspectives of fans and creators. They don’t have the advantage of clinical distance. They are both still in the thick of the genre and therefore seem to have more at stake. Their livelihoods are dependent on readers and viewers continuing to be scared. So, while they do analyze the films, books, and stories at hand, they also tend to steer away from revealing any secrets as to how things work. Sure, they love to talk about why, but they leave the how of it to the scientists.
Each of these writers — and so many more — come to write about horror for different reasons. And sometimes reading these books can seem like a magician pulling back the curtain and telling the audience how the tricks are done. The books aren’t for every reader. For someone like me who has made horror a career — as a scholar, a journalist, a teacher, and an author — these books provide insight into why horror continues to matter and reveal the untold depths of the genre. 🩸
T.J. Tranchell was born on Halloween and grew up in Utah. He has published the novella Cry Down Dark and the collections Asleep in the Nightmare Room and The Private Lives of Nightmares with Blysster Press and Tell No Man, a novella with Last Days Books. In October 2020, The New York Times called Cry Down Dark the scariest book set in Utah. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature from Central Washington University and attended the Borderlands Press Writers Boot Camp in 2017. He currently lives in Washington State with his wife and son. Follow him at www.tjtranchell.net or on Twitter @TJ_Tranchell.
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