The unlearning: Horror and transformative theory

Michael A. Arnzen

Seton Hill University, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, USA

[0.1] Abstract—Building on the foundational concepts of transformative learning theory, I argue that horror fiction strongly encourages perspective transformation by challenging student assumptions about both genre writing and educational experience. I informally describe a specific creative writing class period focusing on the motif of the scream in diverse horror texts, and I illustrate how students learn to transform what they already bring to the classroom by employing a variety of particular in-class writing exercises and literary discussions. Among these, transformative writing exercises—such as the revision of an existing text by Stephen King—are highlighted as instructional techniques. As cautionary literature, horror especially dramatizes strategies of fight versus flight. I reveal how students can learn by transforming their knowledge through disorientation that is particular to reading and writing in the horror genre.

[0.2] Keywords—Adaptation; Adult learners; Brookfield; Classroom exercises; Creative writing; Fear and learning; Freewriting; Genre; Horror; King; Learning; McGonigal; Mezirow; Paradigm shift; Pedagogy; Revision; Rosenblatt; Scream; Student assumptions; Taboo; Teaching; Transformative learning; Undergraduate

Arnzen, Michael A. 2008. The unlearning: Horror and transformative theory. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1.


1. Introduction: Fear is never just itself

[1.1] The horror genre has many reasonable lessons to teach us, even though it is perhaps the literary genre most associated with irrationality. It is often construed around the emotional and physical responses it seeks to produce in its audience, from anxious fright to hair-raising chills, especially in the cinema, where aesthetic success is measured by the volume of spectator screams. The appeal of horror fiction and film lies in the ambivalent thrills associated with fear, suspense, and terror, no matter how significant its subtextual messages might be. Even when its practitioners mine the fields of philosophy, psychology, theology, and metaphysics in the deepest of intellectual ways, horror resists mastery by the intellect, privileges the emotional/physical response, and remains the primary venue for the literary expression of dread, anxiety, caution, shock, uncertainty, and the uncanny.

[1.2] One might wonder, then, what business horror fiction has in the college classroom. If the point of horror is to scare readers, what lessons can it possibly teach them? When does fear and shock serve a pedagogical function? Is it ethical to horrify students in the hopes of teaching them something?

[1.3] Most teachers in the language arts would address such questions the way they would any literary text. Horror stories document and illuminate the human condition across history and culture as much as any work of fiction. Horror lies at the very heritage of literature, from scary narratives in folklore and fairy tales to a long-standing tradition of fearful narration in a canon that includes Edgar Allan Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and a litany of other canonized authors who routinely appear in educational venues, from children's libraries to course syllabi to doctoral dissertations. Horror tales have always made for compelling reading, and works in the genre remain some of the best-selling and closely cherished books of all time. But what also makes horror so valuable for teachers is its inherent power to transform the way students think. By staging failures of intellectual mastery, challenging norms, and transgressing social boundaries, horror has the potential to revise and the potency to reshape the way its readers think.

[1.4] It is difficult to read a horror story and not in some way be changed by it, adapting its lessons and knowledge into our worldview. For instance, some horror stories and films can quite literally document and illustrate strategies for survival by dramatizing how a character deals with a life-threatening antagonist (Pinedo 1997). When horror tales explore and speculate about the unknown, they often also teach us about what we do know, even if only to point out the limits of cultural knowledge. Indeed, the thrill of horror fiction may very well be a response to that liminal space between what we know and what we need to know, but haven't yet acquired. The genre's reliance on uncertainty, provocation, and surprise can generate active learning because it can provoke a reconsideration of one's assumptions about life, spirit, and reality. A classroom can provide a context for reframing the emotional affects of the genre and prompting critical reflection on how horror—and more broadly, literature—changes us. If one of the grand goals of a liberal education is to reevaluate one's deeply held assumptions, then the popular genre of horror can effectively be employed to prompt serious student reflection and cultivate the classroom as an arena for emotional, perspectival, and ideological transformation.

[1.5] In this essay, I want to explore how teaching horror fiction and having students write horror stories can create an environment for transformative learning by showing how I have employed some of the tenets of transformative learning theory in my own classes. This pedagogy is a progressive approach to teaching that emerged from Jack Mezirow's influential study of adult learners, Transformative Dimensions of Learning (1991), which aspires to empower students by making them more conscious of "the assumptions through which we understand our experiences. They shape and delimit expectations, perceptions, cognition, and feelings" (quoted in Schroeder 2005). At the center of transformative theory is a consideration of what students already know when they come to the classroom, and how educators are tasked to engage with their perspectives and previously held assumptions. Transformative educators seek not merely to add to a student's stockpile of knowledge (that is, assimilative learning), but also to revise and transform the knowledge and beliefs students rely on to process course content. The assumption behind transformative learning theory is that the reception of new knowledge often requires the subject to adjust their relationship to that new knowledge, rather than just to hammer it into preexisting structures (McGonigal 2005:2). Quite literally, the transformation theory of learning in praxis seeks to change one's mind, rather than just supplement a student's data bank with new information. At its best, transformative education is, as Lisa Baumgartner frames it, a process of learning that changes not only "what we know…but how we know" it (2001:16).

[1.6] However, the goal of transformative learning theory is not to force a student into adopting one way—especially not just the teacher's way—of seeing the world. Instead, teachers strive to raise a student's self-consciousness about their worldview and how they routinely process new information. The idea is to move away from instrumental or communicative knowledge into the realm of emancipatory knowledge that enhances student autonomy in the world (Cranton 2002:64). It "encourages learning through enhancing context awareness, critical reflection of assumptions, discourse and reflective action. It is not movement from a false belief to a true one but rather from an unexamined to a critically examined belief" (Mezirow 1999). Horror can instigate this movement by providing what transformative theorists term an activating event in a potent way, enabling a critical examination of assumptions as part of a larger process of learning and perspective transformation.

[1.7] To illustrate, I want to examine my own teaching in the context of a model of transformative teaching that I borrow from Kelly McGonigal's 2005 article, "Teaching for Transformation." In this essay, McGonigal boils down Mezirow's essential phases of transformation (1991:168–69) into five primary components of a process that ultimately aims to generate a paradigm shift (or what Mezirow terms a "perspective transformation") in the adult learner:

[1.8] 1. an activating event that exposes the limitations of a student's current knowledge/approach;

2. opportunities for the student to identify and articulate the underlying assumptions in the student's current knowledge/approach;

3. critical self-reflection as the student considers where these underlying assumptions come from, how these assumptions influenced or limited understanding;

4. critical discourse with other students and the instructor as the group examines alternative ideas and approaches;

5. opportunities to test and apply new perspectives. (emphasis added; McGonigal 2005:2)

[1.9] This pragmatic breakdown of the transformative process into five key phases is an excellent model for designing a unit of instruction. What is imperative in this model is the central role of the student in each phase—the teacher is more responsible for constructing a supportive environment that fosters intellectual openness and trust than they are in delivering content per se. But the environment cannot be too safe, too supportive, or it risks groupthink and conformity to already accepted ways of seeing. As McGonigal reminds us, "although student empowerment and support are important, an 'environment of challenge' is the central ingredient…students must have their assumptions and beliefs actively challenged…To be an agent of change, [teachers need to] provide both the catalyst and support necessary for transformative learning" (2005:4).

[1.10] Horror fiction can interestingly add to an "environment of challenge" within the safety of the campus classroom. Works of horror by student writers and famous authors alike can artfully be employed as activating events that trigger a reexamination in student thinking, through critical reflections, open discussions, and—via creative writing—applications that test new perspectives. In what follows, I want to share my own experiences in a particular creative writing course (a topics course in "Horror and Suspense Writing") that—although autobiographical and therefore subjective—well illustrates how horror material can catalyze and prompt perspective transformation among students and teacher alike.

2. Horror as a disorienting dilemma

[2.1] Transformation cannot transpire without the some discomfort and unease. McGonigal recommends that teachers "create a disorienting dilemma" as an activating event to stimulate learning (2005:2). Such a dilemma, as Connie Schroeder has argued, "typically exposes a discrepancy between what a person has always assumed to be true and what has just been experienced, heard or read and may contribute to a readiness for change" (2005). In order to activate a paradigm shift, the teacher simply needs to, in McGonigal's words, "challenge what students believe. You can do this with a case study, quote, experiment, picture, demonstration, or story that does not fit [student] expectations. The goal is to confuse and intrigue students and thus increase their motivation to learn" (2005:2). Learning via confusion sounds counterintuitive to most teachers (if not potentially sadistic), but the notion she's espousing is that one must push students out of stasis so that they can reorient, adjust, and realign their thinking, given new knowledge. It is an inherently active form of learning achieved by disorientation.

[2.2] Horror breaks student expectations in numerous ways. Depending on the context, the mere presence of a horror story in a college classroom can be disorienting to some students, if only by virtue of its novelty as popular literature in the college curriculum. But even when students see it coming, asking them to intellectually grapple with an entertaining text in a critical way rather than to use it as a portal for escape and thrills may also provide the intrigue and motivation that McGonigal advocates.

[2.3] The defamiliarizing approach of much horror fiction inherently challenges assumptions, but the text itself need not be the only approach to an activating event and class activities can also challenge students to rethink their assumptions. I want to turn now to analyzing the activities of one specific class period I ran in February 2008 that illustrates how I have tried to use horror to activate transformation and foster critical reflection and discourse in the classroom. About halfway through the semester in my course in "Horror Writing and Suspense"—when students had already acclimated to analyzing horror literature in the classroom—I decided to try something new at the beginning of the hour that would shake them out of their routines. The plan for the class period was to focus on the concept of catharsis in horror literature and film, particularly through a focus on the role of screaming in the genre. They had read a story involving a scream (King's "The Man Who Loved Flowers") for homework, and I had planned a cluster of discussions and creative writing assignments involving the scream. So when I took roll at the beginning of the hour, I asked them to not simply mutter "present" when I called their name, but—unexpectedly—required them to scream at the top of their lungs.

[2.4] I got the idea from a Weblog called Coyotebanjo, run by Chris Smith, a music teacher at Texas Tech University who allows his students to "shout out" to the class at the top of the hour every Friday with any announcements, gripes, or comments (Smith 2008). His "Friday shout-out" routine is a way of increasing participation and interactivity in his classroom. But I took the concept more literally than he intended, transforming it into what I termed a "scream out." And it paid off in unexpected ways.

[2.5] At first they timidly grunted, eyes on the door as if expecting an angry teacher or concerned student to rush in, and as I made my way down the roster, the screaming began to escalate. I laughed and teased and encouraged them to ignore their fears by hollering back at them like a drill sergeant: "Come on, belt it out! Rattle the windows! Make my blood curdle!" One student pounded the desk and growled like a caveman. A woman cried "Noooo!" as if leaping off a rooftop. The students laughed and enjoyed the exercise, hamming it up in good fun. But then one student—let's call her Flora, the quietest and most bashful girl in the class—surprised us all by erupting with a wail that would have put any cinematic scream queen instantly out of a job. We all froze and looked at her and then back at each other in utter surprise, trying to verify what we had witnessed. "I think she's been waiting to do that all term," I finally said, hoping to shatter the silence, and we continued to scream and laugh our way down the roster.

[2.6] Screaming in class is a simple example of what happens when the Dionysian aura of the horror genre enters the otherwise Apollonian hallways of academia. Students love this kind of disruption, this chance to rebel and act out, because it invokes a degree of social permissibility and the unknown potentiality that comes with it. Even outside of this particular horror class, I assign horror stories and employ similar strategies (like the "scream out") in contexts where one might not be conditioned to expect it, in order to tap into a sense that anything could happen, and to spark creativity and independent curiosity about the course content. And sometimes, students transform before my very eyes: the quiet one screams, the bored boys suddenly become interested, the passive student stirs to independent research, and those who never enjoyed reading suddenly develop an addiction to genre books. Even students who initially come to class with a strong loathing for the genre still find they enjoy the sheer novelty of horror in the classroom. It's popular entertainment, and that lends the promise of pleasure to the scholarly environment. But more importantly, I think, they learn from it, and they learn to rethink their assumptions about the arbitrary boundaries between stories taught in school and stories sold in commercial culture.

[2.7] For example, the opening scream exercise—although a bit juvenile and potentially upsetting to my colleagues down the hall—was a success because it asked students to rethink their assumptions about the passive and routine action of roll call. Screaming to be marked "present" had obviously—if not mandatorily—increased student participation; but Flora's surprising revelation also illustrates how an activating event can trigger a genuine transformation. Later that day, Flora revealed to us that she had regularly worked at a haunted house attraction during Halloween season, where she'd cultivated her talent for screaming—and I encouraged her to tap into those experiences and "write what you know." From that point forward in the term, I noticed Flora became more vocal in literature discussions, was more critical of other students during workshops, and was more freely creative in her horror writing. I cannot say with conviction that this one liberating scream alone launched her into this trajectory, but it certainly gave her an unexpected means toward expressing herself that she probably would not have otherwise had. And it also changed the way the entire class thought about the hidden talents of the students in the seats beside them.

3. Approach and avoidance strategies

[3.1] Flora's banshee scream was unique, and—to tell the truth—not everyone in my class that day screamed as loudly as they could have. Some, in fact, tried to keep their voices as low as possible or covered their mouths to mute their shouting. It pays for a teacher to consider the reactions that students might have to an activating event because some students will respond habitually, rather than with critical awareness. Irvin Roth explains that adult learners generally employ habits that routinely begin in one of two directions when they are confronted with something new: "When they scan their experience for a cue to start a sequence of thought or behavior," he writes, "do they seek something to approach or something to avoid?" (1990:121) These two directions—approach and avoidance—explain the pathways of learning that students will take toward learning new information. But they can become habitual and fixed if the learner does not develop strategies for switching between the two directions in a well-modulated way, informed by experience. Thus, Roth explains, if one is too eager to always "approach" a problem, it can lead to "incaution"—and "too strong an approach style will lead to uncritical acceptance of any idea, research report or other academic product with a modicum (sometimes barely discernible) of credibility," whereas a "strong avoidance style" produces "an inability to accept new ideas" and "a strong inhibition against generating" new ones (1990:122). Teachers who can transform adult learners, Roth suggests, foster a critical-minded balance between the two directions by exercising various choices and comprehending them through a process of open reflection.

[3.2] Horror, with its cautionary tales, literally engages readers in narratives of approach and avoidance. Indeed, I find it fascinating that Roth uses the terms approach and avoidance to describe learning styles, because these are synonyms for the psychological responses to anxiety that we popularly refer to as fight versus flight. Fear, in other words, has a great deal to do with learning. Horror, as the genre of fear, overtly depicts characters engaging in fight and flight strategies—and it also often covertly attempts to engender these same strategies in the reader's response. Thus, horror fiction of any kind can offer students a vicarious experience that might challenge their habitual learning style, to the degree that they identify with the choices a character makes, and to the degree that they feel their instincts toward approach and avoidance are contradicted by the emotions generated by the text.

[3.3] Prompting a student into reassessing their worldview can be a difficult enterprise, particularly because students are often already dependent on established habits of learning that have enabled them to succeed for years in the classroom. Moreover, perspective transformations can be, in Mezirow's words, "painful [because] they often call into question deeply held personal values and threaten our very sense of self" (1991:168). As a defense mechanism, some students adopt habits that feel safe (for example, always writing the same kind of arguments, always memorizing for the test) but that are ultimately unchallenging, leading to pathologies that inhibit actual learning. One of the challenges of teaching horror is to risk challenging students to move beyond their instinctive desire for safety and comfort, while at the same time constructing an environment that is the nonetheless safe and kind by offering "seasoned guidance and compassionate criticism" (McGonigal 2005:4) that sometimes requires "intuitive, holistic, and contextually based" assistance in a "mythical procedure during which a mentor guides students in a learning journey affected by the student's social environment" (Baumgartner 2001:17).

[3.4] Often, I employ creative and critical writing assignments that send students into making choices that might contradict their instincts. In the class when my students screamed out their name (as an activating event), we openly discussed the function of the scream as both an animal signal and a stock element of the horror genre. I shared Edvard Munch's expressionistic painting of "The Scream" with them and then led an open dialogue littered with probing "why" questions: "Why do actors scream in the movies? Why do people scream in the audience?" I wanted to reframe their guttural experience of the scream in intellectual ways, appealing to the aesthetic history of the genre. But to get them to really take these concepts in a critical direction, I tried to move them to consider strategies of approach and avoidance by imagining their own instinctive response to a brutal scene, by writing a creative response to a passage of writing I recited aloud.

[3.5] I read to the class from "Screams From Somewhere Else," an article from Time Magazine rather than a horror story, in which Roger Rosenblatt (1987) muses about the inhumane ways we often react to the sound of the human voice, screaming. Violent crimes can occur in a crowded city street, yet astoundingly, few will rush to aid a screaming victim. When a scream sounds out, he writes, "One has the choice to hear or not to hear; to detect location or not to detect location; to discover cause; to help or not to help. Along the many lines of choice, excuses and mistakes are possible, even reasonable. One is left with oneself and the screams, like two opponents." Rosenblatt here uses the language of the fight or flight response to describe the way a scream tests civilization by forcing a choice. He recognizes the conflict between primitive instincts and the rational act of decision making. But in his conclusion, he suddenly shifts into a second-person direct address that levels civilized man to his animal instincts:

[3.6] You never know how you will react to a scream until you hear one. I can tell you how you will react at first. You will freeze. Your head will snap like an alarmed bird's and your eyes will swell, long before any practical choices begin to form between hiding under the bed and leaping to the rescue. You will freeze because you will recognize the sound. It comes from you; all the panic and the pain; all the screams of one's life, uttered and quashed, there in that dreadful eruption that has scattered the air. All yours. The scream that comes from somewhere else comes from you.

[3.7] After reading Rosenblatt's passage aloud to my class, I asked students to write from the point of view of a character who is walking down a street and then suddenly overhears a scream in a dark and foggy alleyway. "And then…What happens next?" I did not need to prompt them further; they all set to writing immediately, eager to thaw the "freeze"—the delayed response to the scream—that Rosenblatt had built up in their emotions and their imaginations. The decision to approach or avoid the scream was entirely their own. Like Rosenblatt, the moral judgment about the best course of action would be something they worked out through revising the scenario and bending it to their own ends. They had to react to what they heard in their imagination, and try to solve the problem of the scream, but I think the conditions of the classroom activity caused them to do so in a highly self-conscious and critical way.

[3.8] I polled a random sampling of students to read what they wrote aloud to the class because I knew that listening to each other's choices would "help people examine their assumptions and provide a structure for reflection on practice" (Cranton 2002:68). What I heard wasn't quite what I expected, however. In the first instance, a man tried to rescue a woman from being attacked by a Jack the Ripper figure in the dark alleyway, only to find he was being baited there on purpose to begin with, and was subsequently murdered; in another, a student wrote about the dark fog, revealing itself to be a revenant who had just committed murder in the alley. In yet another, a narrator witnesses a brutal act of murder, makes eye contact with the killer, and is then ultimately permitted to walk away. In each case, students both approached and avoided the source of the imaginary scream, but they responded with generative creativity, as well as surprise. What surprised me about this outcome was that the victim was not at the center of the story; the point-of-view character, engaged in a process of discovery, dominated their focus. I took this as a sign that the writers were responding to the "you" that Rosenblatt had addressed them with. This "you" forced responsibility on the audience-as-writer—and it was simultaneously the viewpoint of a learner, engaged in inquiry, considering the validity of a battery of ethical and rational choices, seeking meaning in the shadows and creating it out of thin air.

4. Perspective transformation in horror narrative

[4.1] After this creative exercise, my students discussed (and would later adapt and revise) "The Man Who Loved Flowers," a short story by Stephen King (1978) that literally dramatizes not just the fight versus flight fear response, but more importantly the act of frame shifting so important to perspective transformation. The narrator describes a man in love, walking in the beautiful springtime city streets of the late 1960s, purchasing flowers for his romantic interest, the beautiful Norma. Only, when he finally meets a woman he believes to be Norma, but isn't, we discover that Norma has actually been dead for about a decade, and when the woman who is not Norma screams at his approach, he bashes her in the head with a hammer to put a stop to it, like he has so many others who frustrate him by both being and not being Norma. What makes this story fascinating is the way that King has withheld the truth and misdirected our attention away from the fact that the man is mentally disturbed, driven by a pathology we are forced to misread as being "crazy in love." Much as he does in his novel, Misery (1987), King transforms the conventions of the popular romance genre in interesting ways, but the status of the story as a horror story catches readers off-guard. In the classic trick ending of so much horror fiction, our perspective, too, has been tricked into a retrospective analysis that must account for the disorienting new details we are presented with in the tale's conclusion. One cannot comprehend this story, and its endgame shift in mode, from romance to horror, without accounting for the change in the protagonist's status from springtime lover to serial hammer murderer. As Mezirow puts it, "Our interpretations are fallible and often are predicated upon unreliable assumptions. Examining critically the justification for our interpretations and the meaning schemes and perspectives they express is the major imperative of modern adulthood" (1991:35). Horror fiction like King's forces us to reexamine our "meaning schemes" time and again in order to more fully understand both the fiction, and ourselves.

[4.2] While turning the conventions of both romance and horror fiction on their head, King at the same time literally shifts the entire frame of reference for his main character in a way that moves one step beyond most horror stories. Near the conclusion, King finally reveals the hammer killer's name: "His name was Love." Such a simple change—nominalizing the concept of love—cagily renders the entire tale an allegory for the violent nature of passion and the obsession we attach to our objects of desire. Readers are forced to return to the beginning of the story to reread—or at the very least reinterpret—what they have already read, in order to seek meaning.

[4.3] One of my goals as a teacher of writing and literature is to get students to process their reactions to such paradigm shifts in an open forum. In class, I hand out discussion prompts to small groups that push students to raise and explore critical questions (which I define as "how" and "why" questions) about this story: (1) Describe how King plays off our expectations of romantic love in this story. What is the theme or lesson of this tale? (2) What point of view does King choose to tell this tale? Is it effective? Would the story work in another one? How so—or why not? (3) What do you think the narrator means by the statement on the last page, "His name was Love"?

[4.4] Obviously, these questions encourage critical discourse and analytical reading among students. For McGonigal (2005:3), focused group discussions are the most social forms of transformation and can lead to argument where students will have to explain and defend their viewpoint while being exposed to the views of others. I also allow my students to pursue answers in their journals as a sort of after-class critical reflection, which usually responds to things teacher and student alike have said about the text. In addition, research can expand the range of discourse in which students test and validate their learning. In the case of "Flowers," I asked students to consider how Rosenblatt's ideas might relate to King's story. Ultimately, by engaging my creative writing students in the same sort of dialogue they might get in, say, an American literature course, I am able to treat transformational learning as not only a solitary and a social process that applies to more than just the genre of horror stories, but also to the world outside the text, so that students can apply what they are learning to alternative contexts.

[4.5] This is common enough praxis in most English classes where any fiction is taught. But what made "The Man Who Loved Flowers" a particularly worthy tale to teach on this day in my horror writing course wasn't just the fact that a passage in the story deals with a scream. Despite its horrific affect, like all good works of literature, King's story also raises social issues and directly invites interpretation. The story rewards rereading, reinterpreting and critically reflecting. By overtly shifting its status to allegory in its final passages, the story literally shifts the paradigm of reading, and it also makes a claim to literary value that many horror stories do not usually, so overtly, make. Being exposed to that shift—being disoriented by King's trickery and caught off-guard by one's misreading—potentially transforms the way a student will read all horror, if not all literature, because from this point forward, all stories could be allegorical in nature. The existential lesson is that one never knows what another person is thinking, and that the assumed rules surrounding an interpretive event are often not what they appear to be. Classroom discussion and student journal writing that focuses on the paradigm shifts at work in a tale invite active learning, but also work to promote a transformation of the student's approach to (or avoidance of ) reading fiction while also asking them to remain alert for future shifts in context that a writer might unexpectedly make.

5. Ground shifting to epiphany

[5.1] The final phase of transformative learning that McGonigal (2005) describes is giving students the opportunity to test a new paradigm or apply a newly revised perspective. For Mezirow, the ability to apply what one learns is a necessary condition of transformation because it actualizes or realizes one's independent agency (Brookfield 2000:142). "Action on the new perspective," Baumgartner writes, "is imperative. In other words, not only seeing, but living the new perspective is necessary" (2001:17). If students can test their new perspective, it is empowering, sharing much with the emancipatory values of transformative works in general. Asking students to rewrite a story passage or revise a tale's ending are always options for a creative teacher to employ in this regard because they give students a chance to "live" the new perspective from inside the act of writing, rather than from outside the text as a reader. But McGonigal also encourages teachers to "return to the disorienting dilemma…and have students approach it with their new knowledge" (2005:4), and I find this tactic useful for teaching with horror fiction.

[5.2] I returned to "The Man Who Loved Flowers" in a follow-up class meeting by having students recap their thoughts about the story, but I also obliquely returned to the disorienting dilemma that the story posed through a surprising in-class writing exercise. In a freewriting session, I asked students to channel the stream of consciousness of a man who loves not flowers or even a woman, but tools, and is fixated on killing a woman with a treasured hammer. Here, the perspectival shift seemed obvious: I was inviting students to reproduce King's story as a fetishistic love relation with an object (tools), rather than a subject (a woman). Although I knew the students might be thinking about the tools allegorically this time, I still fully anticipated they would rely on the typical clichéd slasher narrative, with all the usual sexist power fantasies such stories employ.

[5.3] But I had an unexpected trick up my sleeve. As the class rapidly wrote, I waited until I felt the majority had completed a full page of text. Then I unexpectedly called out a new rule: "Stop what you're doing—midsentence—leaving a dash if you need to—and begin a new paragraph…Ready? You have just been writing the thoughts of a 5-year-boy playing with a toy hammer, whose mother has just entered the room and distracted him. Keep writing until the scene is over."

[5.4] Students tilted their heads. Some furrowed their eyebrows with confusion. Some leaned forward with intensity. Some giggled. The pens continued to scribble. Then one of the students in my class audibly moaned while he wrote. "Oh no. That just isn't right," he said to no one in particular. "Oh my god, that's just so wrong." I just smiled, not wanting to interrupt the creative flow of the class—but I noticed that the most vocal student was smiling, too, lasciviously.

[5.5] I was pleased that students responded to my prompting so viscerally. This exercise was a guided experiment in paradigm shift. I had asked them to slide out of the assumed point of view of the narrator, midprocess, into a new perspective—something they weren't anticipating because it wasn't part of the initial ground rules for the exercise. This was a simple exercise that in my view returned us to the disorienting dilemma of King's story via the live application of a last-minute narrative rule change similar to King's shifty ending, when we learn the lover is actually a hammer-wielding killer. Here they literally "lived" the authorship of the trick ending as writers, rather than receiving the trick ending as readers. Whether successful or not, this exercise in shifting the ground gave my students permission to break storytelling rules for unity and linearity in a way they had not anticipated, potentially transforming their thoughts about point of view and the ground rules of fiction—if not the constructed nature of identity—altogether.

[5.6] The goal of transformative learning may very well be embodied in the moaning utterances I overheard while students were writing about the hammer-killer-turned-child. I perceive these noises not as pain but as vocalized experiences of epiphany—and signs of a successful in-class writing exercise. But one never really knows.

[5.7] Curious about whether students were "living" their learning, shortly after midterms, I asked students enrolled in my Horror and Suspense Writing course to e-mail me a quick reflection in answer to the blatant question, "How has reading and writing horror changed your life?" Surprisingly, most students answered this question in a way that merged a new worldview with the active practice of creative writing. "I've found that things I would usually just shrug off as nothing cause me to start thinking instead," Flora wrote, before explaining how "a large, bubbling crack on the wall" of a classroom triggered a story idea about a crack into another dimension. Another student reported that "because of my class in horror fiction I see everyday aspects of life in different and twisted ways." Similarly, the student illustrated this change by describing a partially deflated helium balloon leftover from Valentine's Day, still "floating ominously around my room…I attach an evil entity to the movement." Another student wrote that the class "changed how I look at daily events…I pay attention to my own senses now…when we write about our fears, we become more aware of possibilities. Overall I'm becoming more observant and open to new ideas." Another articulately reported, "A dozen 'what if' questions parade through my mind. Horror has opened my imagination to all the natural, and unnatural, images that find their way across my path. Horror forces me to ask questions concerning the possible and impossible. Horror has helped me regain the wonder in simplicity that I had as a child."

[5.8] Students reported seeing the potential for horror and the uncanny in everyday life—which in any other context might be understood as a paranoiac worldview, but which here I perceive as pleasure in the imaginative play—and a positive outcome of the course. But what strikes me about these student reports is not simply that they feel more confident in imagining horrific scenarios, but that they are able to autonomously connect the fictive to the reality of their everyday lives, deriving meaning from images and concrete details that they otherwise would have ignored. In other words, they see the world differently—transformed.

[5.9] But the teacher cannot ultimately know whether such epiphanies are real or merely reported. In fact, there is a degree to which transformational learning is always irrational, sometimes spiritual, but always, ultimately, private. The transformative learner is caught in "a tension" between two layers: he "moves in and out of the cognitive and the intuitive, of the rational and the imaginative, of the subjective and the objective, or the personal and the social" on his journey toward change (Grabove 1997:95). Horror lies in this liminal space, in the tension between the figurative and the real, the conscious and the unconscious. It is sometimes disturbing to a horror writer, for example, to unearth a repressed desire or unconscious wish—but this is what horror fiction seeks to do, because most assumptions are unconscious. I tend to agree with Stephen Brookfield when he describes the discoveries we happen upon when we write and learn from horror in terms that sound like a disaster film: "No matter how much it might be described as an incremental process, transformative learning has for me connotations of an epiphanic, or apocalyptic, cognitive event—a shift in the tectonic plates of one's assumptive clusters" (2000:139). Although Brookfield's description is grandiose, it reflects the grand goals of any teacher, I think: to radically change student perspectives, particularly in regards to making a subject more conscious of the ideological forces that oppress and restrict them in their everyday lives. Transformative learning strategies like the methods I have been describing create potentials for the "epiphanic" in the everyday world of the classroom, just as a great horror novel can radically change the way a person thinks about everything from the world, the natural order, the boy next door, or even the infinite possibility of meaning behind any communicative act, from silence to scream.

[5.10] I have tried to show how elements of the horror genre are congruent with the process of transformative learning, and I have shared a handful of strategies for teaching that try to move students toward emancipatory knowledge and educational autonomy—clearly an ethical goal in the liberal arts. Those who argue that horror has no place in the hallways of academe may be guilty of uncritically focusing on the element of fear in the genre, or they may themselves fear its transgressive potency; they may be trying to avoid what good teachers otherwise instinctively understand how to approach. Fear is inherent to change, and it is only one component of what horror fiction offers a learner. We discredit our students by assuming that their first emotional response is all that fiction can mean for them, and we discredit our educators if we assume they cannot lead students into new ways of understanding and interpreting literature, no matter how scary it might be. As I have tried to show, a college classroom offers a safe harbor for posing dilemmas and other activating events that challenge students into thinking more critically about thrilling entertainment. All it takes is "unlearning"—that is, a process "of weaning oneself away from an uncritical adherence to ideas and beliefs…that are oversimplified, distorted by context, or just plain wrong" (Brookfield 1990:12). The horror genre ultimately holds great potential for changing the way our students see—and behave in—the scariest of fun houses: the world at large.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] An early version of this essay was first delivered at a panel on "Horror and Pedagogy" at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts 29 (March 2008), Orlando, Florida. I am grateful to Douglas Ford, Frances Auld, Gina Wisker, and Stephanie Moss for their insightful feedback and help.

7. Works cited

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