The 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)
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!