American Nightmares: The History of the Horror Film, 1922-2017
This course examines the development of the horror genre in American cinema from the early 1920s to the early twenty-first century. We will consider how the development of cinematic horror has been related to economic and structural changes in the film industry since the formation of Hollywood’s studio-era in the late silent period, as well as to changes in American culture and society. Since these cultural shifts often go unacknowledged in more general histories of the U.S., a careful study of this genre (a vast array of popular films often dismissed as “pure escapism”) is particularly illuminating. As critic Robin Wood notes, “One might say that the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its re-emergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror.” Rather than tout variations of the “American Dream,” as in political campaigns and advertising strategies, this cinematic tradition tracks its uncanny double: hence the course title, “American Nightmares.”
While the overall structure of the course will be historical (and chronological), our focus will be analytical as well, with special emphasis on genre theory and criticism, theories of gender and sexuality, and cinematic analysis. Films to be studied range from Nosferatu (1922), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Cat People (1942) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), through Psycho (1960), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and Halloween (1978), to The Shining (1980), Videodrome (1982), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Ring (2002), and Get Out (2017) among others. Assignments include quizzes, short writing assignments, an in-class mid-term, a final project (either written or video-based) and a final exam. All required films will be streamed for enrolled students through Canvas.