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Talking Horror with Wytovich

If you are a horror fan and do not know who Stephanie Wytovich is, learn—quickly. You will not be disappointed. I’ve known her for years, and after I read her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection Brothel, I’ve never been able to look at her the same. 

Besides being an award-winning poet, Wytovich is also a novelist, editor, and educator. She teaches creative writing at two universities and literature and composition at a third. Like me, Wytovich believes in using horror literature in the classroom. For her, teaching horror literature goes hand-in-hand with why she writes horror. 

“One of the reasons why I write horror is because to me, it’s all about survival and learning how to overcome obstacles, whether they be political, physical, mental, or emotional. I think this translates well into why it’s important to analyze horror in the classroom because it builds a foundation for students to tackle difficult and sometimes taboo topics in a way that’s framed in a speculative manner while still being applicable to current events.”

When discussing the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American literature course favorite, Wytovich brings in a discussion of the Salem Witch Trials, classic Hawthorne short stories such as “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and Robert Egger’s 2015 film The VVitch. This blending of history, literature, and film helps drive home the meaning of Hawthorne’s work, while dealing with contemporary issues as well. Wytovich mentions doing something similar when discussing Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” pairing it with Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This movie discusses, among other things, the racism that is still alive and well in our country and the cheapness of human life. Pairing the movie and story, allows students to see how people have dealt with such subjects throughout time. It further gives the student the ability to process the truth of the world in a safer manner. 

Wytovich has found that the pairings of classic horror stories and modern movies helps show how the classic stories discussed difficult issues of the time but also how they still reflect modern concerns. The movies are often a redressing of the story. She mentions watching The Purge after reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in class. 

Of this particular pairing, she says, “This allows us to talk about the dangers of mob mentality and societal violence, which then triages into current events dealing with police brutality, media consumption, etc.”

Students have been receptive to Wytovich’s use of horror literature and movies in the classroom. She says that allowing the students to choose the material gives her and the students the ability to find the relevance in studying a particular piece of fiction. Even if the student has no interest in horror, they still come away with a better understanding. She says that one semester her class read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and voted to watch the Tim Burton interpretation of the work—Sleepy Hollow. Wytovich said that students enjoyed the ability to compare and contrast the two works. 

According to her, some students have started taking a greater interest in making comparisons and contrasts between classic horror literature and modern day movies. She relayed this recent interaction.

“[T]his past semester when Jordan Peele’s Us came out, the students ran into class asking if we could put time aside to talk about how Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” could have inspired the doppelganger trope in the film. Needless to say, I was very proud of them.”

One of the reasons that many teachers refuse to use horror literature in the classroom is fear of negative feedback or worse from students, administration, or parents. (Parents should only be a concern in primary and secondary schools, but with helicopter parents, even college isn’t immune.) Wytovich has not had a problem. She, as any good teacher should, has alternate assignments for students who do not wish to participate in the horror stories or movies. She also said that she works for universities that welcome her approach. Two of the schools have creative writing programs focused on genre writing and approached her because of her background as a horror writer. The third school offers a course in zombie studies so a teacher using horror fiction isn’t very shocking. 

When looking at using horror literature in the classroom, Wytovich appears to have found a very good approach. She pairs the stories with modern movies and makes sure that everyone is comfortable with the material, but maybe uncomfortable enough to draw from it and use that discomfort to overcome other fears. 

In between classes, Wytovich is currently editing the sixth installment of the HWA’s Poetry Showcase. Her next collection of poetry, The Apocalyptic Mannequin, will be out in August from Raw Dog Screaming Press. You can pre-order it here

Note:This is a two part discussion I had with Stephanie. I will post the other part of our discussion about diversity in horror upcoming.  

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