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Horror Canon

This is a blog post on a publisher’s website, so what I’m about to say may or may not seem that shocking. The majority of kids today profess a dislike of reading. I’m an English teacher. I hear this all the time. Of course part of my job is to make students read. 

There is a set course of study that every state has put in place. In English, this includes works that need to be read. Teachers have some leeway with what they pick, but boundaries still exist. Early American literature has to be covered. World literature is on the curriculum in certain grades. British literature is usually reserved for seniors. Within those boundaries, schools oftentimes have already chosen what is to be read. This selection is usually what is in the textbook. Sometimes English departments get together and decide novels or plays to be read by certain grade levels. 

What is lacking from most of those lists? Horror. It’s because of a variety of reasons. Horror literature in education has a stench about it. The odor of festering corpses permeates any room in which the idea of using horror to bring in reluctant readers is mentioned. 

In a rather old article, but education hangs out in the world of old research, Randi Dickson, who at the time was a doctoral student in education, wrote about how kids loved reading horror fiction, but that it provided nothing to edify them (Dickson, 1998). 

The ironic thing about this article is how often Dickson discusses children’s love of the Goosebumps series. Again, this is a 20-year-old article, but there is a fundamental issue overlooked then as it is now. If you want kids/students to read, they have to like to read. 

Forcing students to read stories they find boring can damage their relationship with reading for the rest of their lives. Once we lose them; we probably aren’t getting them back. This is where horror comes into play. Kids like a good safe scare like Goosebumps or Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Here in Alabama, kids devour “true” ghost stories recorded by the late Kathryn Tucker Windham. None of her books are under 30-years-old, but kids still love them because they have a spine tingling aspect to them. Adolescents love scary stuff too. There is a reason why slasher movies exist. It’s not because 40-somethings like me watch them. Teens like them. They buy the movie tickets. That’s why so many characters in those movies are teens, and why so many are no rated PG-13. Guess what, teens will like horror novels too.

Later in her article, Dickson mentions that reader choice, even if it’s horror, might be a way to lure kids into a love of reading that will translate into reading books that she says are edifying (1998). 

There it is. As an English teacher, I believe in letting students have some liberty in choosing what they wish to read. I still run into the kids who have no desire to read. This is when I mention graphic novels. (A blog for another day perhaps). When students have difficulty deciding what they might like to read, I suggest horror titles. 

A quick story. I had a student who was a notorious troublemaker. He was smart. He read well, but he was caught up in the whole I need to be bad to be cool mindset. It came time to select a book to read. He couldn’t come up with anything. I escorted him to the school’s library, and together, we looked through the shelves. I was not his main English teacher. I had him in a remedial course, which he didn’t need to be in. He was a fluent and thoughtful reader. His problem was motivation. I knew he didn’t like his actual English teacher very well.

On the bottom shelf in the part of the library where the horror, fantasy, and sci-fi novels were kept. I saw the perfect book for him: Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin. I grabbed it and told him to check it out. 

“What’s it about?” he asked.

“A group of kids kidnapping their English teacher,” I replied.

“All right.”

He read the book and loved. (No English teachers were harmed in the reading of that book.)

A student engaged by using horror novels. Did this kid go on to become the model student? Of course not, this isn’t fiction, but he may very well have learned to love books. So teachers, parents, etc. should encourage students to pick books they want to read. If it’s horror, good. They will get something out of it; even if, it’s just learning they like books. 

Now some technical stuff:

Work CitedDickson, R. (1998). Horror: to gratify not edify. Language Arts, 76, (2), 115-122.