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Reverse-mullet pedagogy: valuing horror fiction in the classroom

Are you familiar with the mullet? It’s a distinctive hairstyle—peculiarly popular in continental Europe in the 1980s—in which the hair is cut short on the top and sides but left long at the back. Whatever the aesthetic gravity of the mullet, it comes with a philosophy. The philosophy of the mullet is this: “Business in the front, party in the back.” I’ll argue that the reverse holds true for the horror genre, didactically speaking.

Horror fiction is sexy. Horror has zombies. It has ghosts and vampires. It has Hannibal Lecter and Jigsaw, Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Leatherface. It has cannibal hillbillies and crazed college kids. The genre brims with iconic content. Even folks who have never seen a horror film will have a distinct impression of the genre’s iconography. That’s because horror is uniquely suited for capturing our attention and sparking our imagination—we’re prey animals, keenly attuned to dangers in our environments, including our imaginative environments. The elements of horror simply hijack our minds, and that makes the genre well-suited for educational purposes—because it’s more than vampires and slasher villains and cannibal hillbillies.

For horror fiction as subject matter in higher education, the maxim is this: “Party in the front, business in the back.” The genre captures students’ attention, but underneath its bloody and monstrous (and often ridiculously far-fetched) exterior it brims with significance. A work of horror is a portal into reflections on, and scholarly discussions about, substantial topics within aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, history, theology, linguistics, politics, and the list goes on. It’s like a didactic Trojan horse. Students think they’re having fun with slasher killers and vampire apocalypses—and they are, but they’re also engaging with real topics, real theory, real substance. Let me illustrate the idea with some examples from one of my favorite horror novels, Richard Matheson’s vampire story I Am Legend from 1954.

For horror fiction as subject matter in higher education, the maxim is this: “Party in the front, business in the back.” The genre captures students’ attention, but underneath its bloody and monstrous exterior it brims with significance.

In I Am Legend, we follow the lone survivor of a vampire pandemic, Robert Neville. Neville has fortified his house against vampire attack and spends his time not only trying to survive, but to find meaning in a bleak world that seems to be stripped of meaning. As he muses, he is “a weird Robinson Crusoe, imprisoned on an island of night surrounded by oceans of death.” Eventually, he meets another survivor, Ruth, but she turns out to be a carrier of a mutated vampire germ, sent to spy on him by a new, violent society of infected who keep the germ at bay with drugs. Neville is captured and scheduled for execution, but he takes his own life. There is no place for him in the new society. That’s the basic plot. Sounds pretty exciting, right? There’s an apocalyptic pandemic and violent confrontations with the undead, there’s survival and horror, despair and hope. More than that, though, the story is about the quest for meaning in a radically disenchanted world. It’s about what makes us human. The short novel extrapolates on existential anxiety in the modern world and prompts us to confront tough questions: Why are we here? What’s our place in society? Which norms should we follow, and why?

Neville’s plight engages us because it resonates with basic evolved motives—the motive for survival in a hostile world, and the motive for establishing and maintaining meaningful, reciprocal social networks. Neville is preyed upon, and he is all alone. At one point, visiting his wife’s grave, he wonders about the point of going on: “Still alive, he thought, heart beating senselessly, veins running without point, bones and muscles and tissue all alive and functioning with no purpose at all.” If we’re biological mechanisms dropped into an indifferent world, “bones and muscles and tissue,” then what’s it all about? It’s about social connection, it’s about family. The human central nervous system evolved to connect with other human nervous systems, the brain evolved to connect with other brains. At another point in the novel, Neville visits an abandoned library in search of science books (he’s trying to figure out the cause of the vampire outbreak). He envisions a “maiden librarian” setting the library in order for the very last time:

 “To die, he thought, never knowing the fierce joy and attendant comfort of a loved one’s embrace. To sink into that hideous [vampire] coma, to sink then into death and, perhaps, return to sterile, awful wanderings. All without knowing what it was to love and be loved. That was a tragedy more terrible than becoming a vampire.”

The novel only ends when Neville realizes that there can never be a place for him in the new society. No meaningful social connections, no family. That’s when he ends his life, realizing that at least he, ironically, lives on as a terrifying legend in the mind of the infected.

I’ve taught I Am Legend many times, and in my experience, students really like the novel. They’re drawn in by its high premise, by the drama and the vivid depictions of horror. They’re taken with its stylistic elegance, moved by its penetrating portrait of its tortured protagonist. They are fascinated with the vampires and the post-apocalyptic scenery. But they also resonate to its meaning, its connotations. The novel allows students to engage in discussions about literary meaning, about contextual analysis—the novel is very much a product of its time, with the existentialist anxiety and the Cold War terror of global destruction—and about morality and psychology. We discuss genre—is it horror or sci-fi, or both?—and literary form; for instance, how Matheson builds empathy through free indirect discourse, which gives the reader crucial access to Neville’s thoughts and emotions. We talk about the meaning of it all, life and horror and literature. That is party in the front and business in the back.

Featured image credit: Hands by simonwijers. CC0 via Pixabay.

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