science fiction

Can Sci-Fi and Horror Save High School English?

toserveman

“IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!” An image from the Twilight Zone adaptation of “To Serve Man.”

A flying saucer lands on Earth and the alien race the Kanamit bring world peace and turn Earth into a paradise.  But they have a hidden agenda and it’s all contained in a book entitled, “To Serve Man.”

Little Anthony Freemont has psychic powers and uses them to make everyone who crosses him go away … or even worse.  People just have to constantly believe that “It’s a Good Life!”

Our narrator gets a call to get his snowplow truck out and along the way picks up a hitchhiker who initiates a conversation about a serial killer on the loose who has been killing hitchhikers.  He does this “Time and Again.”

A mysterious man who has been living alone in a castle for as long as he can remember decides to break free in search of human contact and light.  He is “The Outsider.”

George Hadley and his wife live in the perfect customized, automated home of the future.  Their children spend their time in a virtual reality room called “the nursery” and are very attached to it.  George thinks that they might be too attached to “The Veldt.”

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea that what I just listed are short summaries of science fiction and horror short stories, each with a plot that has its fair share of twists and turns, sometimes even waiting until the end to reveal that twist.  They’re also stories I have either used or considered using in my English classes.

A couple of months ago, as part of the work I’m doing for my adolescent literacy class, I gave two of my classes an interest survey that asked them about when they read, how often they read, and what they read, as well as what types of movies and television shows they like to watch.  You’d think that by January I would have known this by now, but aside from talking about superhero movies and the occasional blockbuster that most of us have seen or heard of, my students seem to talk more about what they’ve seen from friends on Snapchat lately than anything they happen to be watching or what video game they were playing.

When we did get a conversation going about television or movies, the subject would often turn to science fiction or horror, especially horror.  A number of them watched Stranger Things last fall (as did I) and a few had started watching it.  Many of them had seen the Purge films, and lately have been recommending Get Out (which I think my wife and I plan on seeing once we have a child-free night).  The survey results reflected that–teenagers like horror.

And everyone who was a teenager between 1979 and now just went “Uh … DUH.”

Now, I’ll confess that I’m not a horror aficionado, but I do like a good scary movie from time to time and I’ve seen all of the classics of my youth:  Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th as well as straight-up classics like Night of the Living Dead.  I think I’d also put Psycho in that box, although I can’t tell if that’s a suspense flick or horror.  Anyway, there’s something that’s been universal about being a teenager and plunking down your hard-earned lawn-mowing money to see whatever splatter-fest is in the theater.  To a lesser extent the same can be said for science fiction, as in some cases you’ve got your blockbuster sci-fic/fantasy/action movie (Star Wars, for instance) that a large number of students will go see, but not all of them will sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, or some other “hard” science fiction.

Anyway, that led me to ask why there isn’t more sci-fi and horror on my curriculum.

There’s definitely some dystopian sci-fi; specifically, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which I personally think is even more relevant in 2017 than it was in 1951 and not just because of the politics contained within (seriously, go reread it and tell me that it’s not a tech nightmare).  But beyond that, I didn’t have much, and when I took a course in YA lit last semester, we read a little sci-fi but completely skipped over horror, to the point where I wondered aloud why we weren’t really touching on the genre.  Oh wait … there’s Poe.  But Poe is well-covered territory in English classes other than mine, so with the exception of the poem “To Helen,” I don’t really touch the guy.  Frankenstein is taught in the twelfth grade course (in fact, when I taught twelfth grade, we read it), and Dracula is another text that is more AP-level.  And Stephen King I’d reserve for options on independent reading because of the pearl clutching that tends to go on during the more dirty parts of The Catcher in the Rye.

As a way to find whole-class reads in the science fiction/horror stable, I started looking for short stories, novels, or stand-alone excerpts from novels.  I tried to find things that were contemporary and found some great stuff (“Patient Zero” by Tanarive Due is freaking amazing), but as I kept looking, the stuff I found was either too sexually explicit or was way too above their level.  So I went to a place where I, as a teenager, found some great science fiction stories:  The Twilight Zone.

I asked “What Zone episodes were adaptations of short stories?”  After all, it seemed to work for “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. That’s where I found, at a first glance, “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby and “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight.  And I know that what I did was a classic “read the story”/”watch the movie” bit, but it worked pretty well–the class found those stories to be “creepy” or “weird” and liked the twist at the end of “To Serve Man.”  They were able to handle the black and white of those old TV episodes and we even watched the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of The Simpsons  (the one based on “It’s a Good Life” also features adaptations of “The Monkey’s Paw” and Frankenstein and has one of the best lines of the show–“Dammit, Smithers, this isn’t rocket science; it’s brain surgery!”).  And I have been slowly compiling stories that I may or may not use, plus looking into a couple of novels that might be worth it, including The War of the Worlds (which I have to reread anyway).

But, after 1000 words already, I don’t think I’ve really addressed my topic or thesis or whatever I’m supposed to be calling it (people stopped reading long ago anyway), which is why science fiction and horror are good genres besides their being in my students’ wheelhouse.  Well, if you look at even the laziest-written sci-fi/horror, you’ll see a host of literary devices: allegory, symbolism, metaphor, and universal themes about humanity and human nature.  You can even use them as mentor texts for descriptive writing, like I did with the first chapter of Peter Benchley’s Jaws (h/t to my father, who used to read it aloud to his marine biology class while playing the John Williams music).

None of these strategies, by the way, are anything new, but I think that when English teachers think like English teachers, we have a tendency to think that any short story used in class has to have “literary merit.”  Many of us have been moving away from this mentality in recent years, but I think that it lingers in the back of our minds, especially because so many of us love literature.  But science fiction and horror, with some few exceptions, has been marginalized for decades and never been raised to the level of “literary,” just as sci-fi/horror films rarely, if ever, win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  Yet some of the best discussions I’ve ever had, especially ones that border on philosophical, have come when talking about the consequences of actions in the context of a sci-fi/horror plot.

So as you’re planning for the next semester or year, dive into the realm of scary or weird.  Try out some short stories.  Find some old episodes of The Twilight Zone (which is streaming in various places), The Outer Limits, or even Star Trek (I kinda want to show “The City on the Edge of Forever” but need to build a lesson plan first).  Grab some old pre-code sci-fi/horror comics (you’d be surprised how many tackle important issues, such as prejudice), or simply start a conversation about horror movies in class and see what happens.  You might find it to be more engaging than A Doll’s House.

Oh, btw, there is a twist ending to this post.  High school English doesn’t need saving.  I just put that title there so people would read it.

This has been bad twist ending theater.  Good night.