U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Horror-show of History

horrorThe following is a guest post by Campbell F. Scribner, Ohio Wesleyan University.

In the fall I am teaching an undergraduate seminar that may interest readers of this blog. The course is called “History and Horror,” and I would like to use the following post to sketch out the syllabus and solicit reactions or suggested revisions.

The title of the seminar refers both to the history of horror and, as outlined below, what one might call the horror-show of history. I am framing these issues for students with two simple questions:

1)    What were the origins of horror in America?

Horror has a history. While various forms of madness and violence have always plagued mankind, their significance differs by era. Being buried alive was a common preoccupation at the turn of the twentieth century (see Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward) just as zombies seem to spark our interests today. Scholars have offered psychological, economic, and even environmental explanations for these tropes, and one goal of the course is to understand their basis.

The middle weeks of the seminar focus on a few particular types of horror. The most expansive article is Karen Halttunen’s “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain,” which contends that nineteenth-century conventions of the macabre were the result of earlier humanitarian crusades. Specifically, Halttunen argues that attempts to control or eliminate pain required one first to witness it, exposing members of the increasingly sheltered middle class to new sorts of illicit, voyeuristic pleasure in the form of sensationalistic newspaper stories or heart-pounding novels.

After discussing Halttunen’s article, which spans both sides of the Atlantic, students will explore uniquely American manifestations of the macabre. American letters came of age at the height of the Romantic movement, and it is no surprise that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and other lights of the American Renaissance were closely associated with mystery writing and gothic literature. Although the country lacked the ruins and pre-Enlightenment history that so enchanted European writers—making “American Gothic” almost a contradiction in terms—its rugged landscape, religious revivals, fluid social hierarchies, and ingrained traditions of slavery and land theft offered plenty of material for weird and violent stories, whether factual and fictional. Students will read about reactions to familicide following the Revolutionary War; the fascination with the occult during the 1830s; and attempts to make sense of death during the Civil War, all while discussing and trying to account for American conceptions of horror.

2)    How should historians incorporate subjective notions of horror (their subjects’ or their own) into their narratives?

History is by its nature a romantic enterprise, built on assumptions of empathy and understanding with people of the past. It is also to some degree humanistic, a literary genre with morals, storylines, and insights into human nature. This seminar asks whether historians should not indulge more fully in those approaches, stripping away some of their rationality and ironic detachment for a fuller recognition of the dark side of human nature; in short, whether (or how) they should incorporate horror in their narratives.

As a field, history often seems to favor rational actors, assuming that people in the past made the best decisions they could based on the information at hand (with appropriate concessions to their prejudices and worldviews). Even the mentalités approach pioneered by social historians recreates worlds of folk-thought strange to modern readers but logical according their own standards. Meanwhile, studies explicitly geared toward irrational behavior often emphasize its social construction, interpreting madness in terms of power—along familiar lines of race, class, and gender—rather than as a phenomenon in its own right. There is nothing wrong with those interpretations but they sometimes seem to diminish the emotional lives of their subjects, understating the role of irrationality in lived experience. One can imagine an alternative model, which accentuates the irrational for dramatic effect. The class begins and ends with histories that take that proposition seriously (perhaps too seriously) and invites students to think about the role of subjectivity in historical argumentation.

During our first meeting, the class will watch the documentary Wisconsin Death Trip, a delightfully dark sketch of small-town America in the 1890s. The film consists entirely of narrator reading newspaper headlines, together with reenactments or period photographs.

One would never claim that the murder, arson, and cocaine abuse in the film constitute a balanced view of rural Wisconsin. Indeed, the film misleadingly implies that it documents a single year in a single town, when in fact it draws headlines from around the state and covers almost a decade of economic depression and labor strife. All the same, the narrative would not work without lingering presumptions of small-town innocence, and it does force viewers to acknowledge the presence of strange and surreal behavior, even by the standards of the day.

A similar but more balanced example is Peter Silver’s Our Savage Neighbors, about the existential terror of Indian attacks that pervaded the Pennsylvania frontier during the 1700s and eventually sparked a populist, genocidal campaign against native peoples. In one of the book’s more memorable scenes, a boy recalls an incident thirty years after the massacre of an Indian settlement at Gnadenhutten, Ohio.

A pleased crowd was ringed around a drunken old man, called Uncle Sol by those closest in. Uncle Sol was singing embarrassing songs. Then someone called: ‘show us how they killed the Indians.’ At this his face changed, the boy remembered, and he started to cry. Uncle Sol began going through an elaborate series of actions, ‘making motions’ from his memories.

At first the boy didn’t really understand what he was seeing. Uncle Sol ran forward and pretended to throw a rope over an unseen person just in front of him. Then he hauled this ‘imaginary object’ backward by the neck. He had a stick in his hands, and he used it to club the air, ‘all the time howling and cursing,’ the boy remembered, ‘like a demon.’ This wasn’t funny. Perhaps by now the people watching him had stopped talking. After a bit, ‘somebody pulled him away, saying it was a shame.’” (Silver, 279).

Silver gives innumerable examples of psychic damage resulting from attacks on (and by) Indians, and does an excellent job connecting individual emotions to political decision-making. But most satisfying is the fact that he does not define terror solely in terms of its political impact, nor does he medicalize outbursts like Uncle Sol’s as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Rather, Our Savage Neighbors leaves unmitigated fear at the center of its narrative, creating a haunting, almost gothic history of colonial America.

The last few weeks of the course try to provoke a broader discussion about the interplay between history and the humanities, and ask whether art and literature can capture horror in ways that conventional history cannot. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which Andrew Hartman recently reviewed) opens an extended discussion of what one could call “moral frontiers,” focused on the role of civilization in constraining cruelty. The massacres that McCarthy depicts accompany an excerpt about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis and “redemption through violence,” followed by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the classic allegory of imperialism’s corrosive effects. In a disturbing instance of art imitating reality, the students will also watch “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the novel, of which Coppola famously said, “We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane….My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.” Again, no one would mistake Apocalypse Now for an objective history of American involvement in Southeast Asia, but based on Eleanor Coppola’s journals and documentary recordings, one could be forgiven for thinking that the drugs, typhoons, and Marxist guerrillas threatening the movie’s production hold some lesson about the war itself.

It seems appropriate to end with Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s American Nietzsche and James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault, each of which examines attempts at self-discovery through moral transcendence or transgression, as well as public anxieties about the perceived effects of such deviance. More importantly, both books interpret their subjects’ systems of thought by linking their understanding of history with their own deaths—of insanity and sadomasochistic suicide, respectively—further blurring the distinction between theory and subjective experience.

Here is the full schedule of readings:

Week #1: Are Historians Afraid of the Dark?

[Film: Wisconsin Death Trip]

Week #2: Into the Woods

Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America

Week #3: Origins of the Macabre

Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain”

Week #4: Monsters

Asma, “Monsters and the Moral Imagination”

Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in 18th Century England (excerpts)

Bierce, “The Damned Thing”

Week #5: Family Troubles

Brown, Wieland (or, The Transformation)

Thomas, “A ‘monster of a man’ Plagues the Nation”

Week #6: Svengalis

Johnson and Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in Nineteenth-Century America

Week #7: Righteous Slaughter

Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Weeks #8-9: Moral Frontiers

McCarthy, Blood Meridian; Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation (excerpts)

Week #10: Nihilism, Fear, and Freedom

Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche (excerpts)

[Film: Rope]

Week #11: The Mushroom Cloud

Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove’s America (excerpts)

[Film: Atomic Café]

Week #12: Hearts of Darkness

Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Coppola, Notes on Apocalypse Now

[Film: Apocalypse Now]

Weeks #13-14: Orgies of Death

Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault

So, I would welcome your thoughts about the course, as well as any suggestions of other books or articles I might use. (A few that jumped to mind included Cohen, The Murder of Helen Jewett; Boyer and Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed; and Delbanco, The Death of Satan).

Many thanks for your time and your help! 

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Here’s what caught my eye:

    History is by its nature a romantic enterprise, built on assumptions of empathy and understanding with people of the past. It is also to some degree humanistic, a literary genre with morals, storylines, and insights into human nature.

    There’s a lot of historiographic/philosophic heavy lifting going on there. I’m still trying to figure out what all is in that cargo, but would be interested in others’ perspectives — especially the OPs — on the juxtaposition and implicit contrast of the romantic and the humanistic as undergirding tensions within the discipline. What is (happily!) missing, its absence a sign that what history is is not what history has always been, is the suggestion of history as a “scientific” enterprise.


  2. Random thoughts:

    1. How does gender play into this? Could you incorporate something by the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley, and/or Alcott? On how is gender treated in horror-gothic literature (i.e. source for power/disempowering). On a related note…

    2. What of philosophical considerations and term differences? For instance, how do terms like ‘macabre’, ‘odious’, ‘dread’, ‘fright’, and ‘thriller’ fit into your taxonomy of horror? It seems that if ‘thriller’ can sneak into your course, then you’ve opened a door for Hitchcock. And if ‘dread’ is allowed, well, you’ve jammed door open for some complex intellectual history and philosophy (e.g. existentialism). – TL


  3. What a juicy post! I love how you posit these problems of over-historicizing and under-historicizing; trying to imagine what might be the appropriate balance between the two is, despite being somewhat always in vain, one of the more personally compelling puzzles I think historians can engage with.

    I’m often reminded of an NYT article from several years back, called “The Americanization of Mental Illness,” that gets at some of the questions you are asking in an interesting way. Of course, concerned as it with the frame of mental illness, it does “medicalize” its subject, but with a heavy dose of considering cultural context.

    I’m often pulled towards a reflection which, as convinced (somewhat obviously, since I am a historian) as I am by the incredible power of culture and context to shape our subjective experiences, nonetheless compels me; which is simply that we are, at the end of the day, human beings with, on the whole (but not universally) a large host of things in common across time and space, even in terms of subjective experience, despite how variously these might be interpreted. The picture you use for this post, for example, is widely interpreted to be a depiction of sleep paralysis, or, as it was understood at the time of the painting, visitations from the devil or demons sitting on your chest as night. There have also been arguments from the likes of Carl Sagan and others that contemporary accounts of alien abductions and other phenomena are the present-day modes of interpreting sleep paralysis. As someone who has experienced sleep paralysis — and when it first happened to me, I had never heard of it, and actually thought I might be dead or dying, which was severely unpleasant, of course — I find these intersections between the persistence of physical experience and the variability of cultural interpretation deeply compelling. Because here you get the best of both worlds: both a reflection on the diversity and flexibility of human experience and interpretation, but also a reminder that despite it all, there are some persistent similarities born of a basic human condition — i.e., waking up unable to move is fucking terrifying. Sometimes that gets lost in the historian’s quest for the specifics of time, space, ideology, I think….

    But then again, as a hopeless materialist (i.e., atheist and what not) at the end of the day, I have a hard time understanding the constants in human experience outside of basic, bodily based realities; to me, the qualities of human experience which show up, in various forms, over and over again ultimately have their root in the fact that we are bounded, biological beings with, therefore, some constraints and consistencies. I imagine this tendency may be very unsatisfying to some, who seem to want to base these larger basic human experiences in some framework other than the physical world; but what can I say, no other framework really makes sense to me so, this is where I always end up.

    Anyway, great post, thanks!

  4. Great post, great project.

    The Freudian literature on horror is vast, and very useful.

    There are, broadly speaking, two different strains of Freudian thought on horror (complementary, not antagonistic)–one that sees horror as “unheimlich”–creepy, eerie, like the sudden realization that one’s home that is suddenly not one’s home (or Goethe’s story of the rider who approaches another riding in the opposite direction, realizing that it is himself as they pass each other), the other that sees horror as a question of “Das Ding”–the encounter with some abject “Thing” (for Lacanians, an encounter that is too close to the Real). Each has a different political valence–early Slavoj Zizek is very good on this.

    I definitely would recommend Noel Carroll’s classic stuff on horror movies, Kristeva, Bakhtin on Rabelais, J. Jack Halberstam’s Skin Shows.

    The literary/aesthetic category that always hovers around horror is the “grotesque”–so Michael Denning on the “proletarian grotesque” in The Cultural Front might be useful–especially on “Strange Fruit,” as is Susan Stewart On Longing and Mary Russo’s The Female Grotesque.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments and suggested titles. It looks like I have some reading to do. Most of the books you list seem to be social theory, media studies, and the like. At the moment, my syllabus tries to stay closer to the discipline of history itself, but I recognize that I have already opened the floodgates by using literature and movies, so I might need to rethink how narrowly or broadly I want to define history in choosing the readings, and whether some shorter conceptual pieces might profitably replace some of the longer books currently on the syllabus.

    In response to LD’s question: It seems to me that we have reached a consensus (even a complacency?) when it comes to history’s status as a humanities discipline. Post-modernism has been beaten back, and I think most of us accept that while we can never know exactly what happened in the past, we can arrive at operative approximations; and that while we are less scientists than storytellers, our stories derive meaning from their fidelity to facts.

    Nevertheless, as Robin Marie notes, the balance between substance and style is never perfect, and that is why I mentioned romanticism. Our stories also derive meaning from their ability to spark imagination, instill empathy, and incite wonder (or, in this case, dread). Historians seem to interpret these qualities as aesthetic rather than substantive, but they still see them as integral to analysis and argument. If that is the case, then I am not exactly sure where one draws the line on subjectivity in historical interpretation. For instance, Wisconsin Death Trip cherry-picks its facts for dramatic effect, but so does every other historical narrative. If it is simply the amount of evidence amassed that makes one story truer than another, then history leans back toward the social sciences. Conversely, if it is the skill with which evidence is arranged, then history seems to illuminate the human condition in the same way that literature does. We will never settle that debate and I am willing to live with the ambiguity, but the goal of my class is to provoke some thought about the emotions of our subjects, our readers, and ourselves, and to explore the boundaries of acceptable history.

  6. This looks like a fascinating project and course. I do have a suggestion, though, and that is to include at least one section exploring the popular–and populist–manifestations of the horror genre in America. Your reading and screening list seems to lean predominantly toward the accepted literary and cinematic canons, but student interest in horror is likely to be rooted in their own pop culture experiences of the genre, which will include many extra-canonical written works and films (i.e., King, Barker, Straub, Ptacek, Craven, Wan) which contribute to the genre’s widespread appeal among the populace and, often, to its widespread disrepute among intellectuals and aesthetes. Covering some of these pop culture figures and the political, philosophical, etc. concerns of their work in connection with the more established literary and cinematic figures on your list may help provide useful genre links for students between the “academic” and the “familiar”–in other words, students may be more appreciative of and open to “high-end” Gothic when they see how it is directly related to the popular writers and films in which they already have a vested interest. I’ve taught a number of undergrad courses in American Gothic lit and American horror cinema, and my students provide strong positive feedback regarding the manner in which I situate the popular with respect to the canonical, because doing so helps facilitate a fresh, inclusive understanding of the genre’s origins, traditions, influences, themes, theoretical issues, subtexts, etc. Here are a few books I’ve found beneficial in supplementing these courses and ideas: Levine’s “Highbrow / Lowbrow,” Edmundson’s “A Nightmare on Main Street,” Davenport-Hines’ “Gothic,” Clover’s “Men, Women, and Chainsaws,” King’s “Danse Macabre.”

  7. Oh, also, check out Livingston’s World Turned Inside Out on horror movies, and especially the section on I Spit On Your Grave, (which Livingston does screen in full for his classes, to which I doff my hat)…

  8. The Delbanco is just so wonderful. It’s also a fantastic model for undergrads (well, for ANYBODY, really) re: accessible research based critical writing. Teaching it this Spring.

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