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A Case for Supernatural Literature and Communication

Robert E. Beck
Departmentof English John Swett High School Crockett, California the opening day of school, students enter a darkened classroom where a candle flickers on the teacher's desk. Settling into their chairs, they become aware of the scent of burning incense. A motion picture begins. Its title is Mrs. Winchester's House. It tells the strange, eerie story of the widowed rifle heiress who acted upon the advice of a medium who said she must keep carpenters continuously occupied adding rooms to her San Jose, California, house to accommodate the spirits of those whose lives had been shortened by the gun her father-in-law had invented. At the conclusion of the film, each student receives a fortune cookie. Upon comparing the contents, members of the class laugh to find that all the predictions are identical: "You will enjoy Supernatural Literature if you work hard every day!"
Editor's Note: This paper was presented at the annual NCTE Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, November 1971.

ON

Supernatural Literature and Communication does not have to depend upon gimmicks of this sort for its student appeal. The title alone gives it a head start on a high school elective course list. When word gets around that activities include palmistry, Tarot readings, experiments with mental telepathy, "water witching," and the like, registration swells. But popularity is scarcely enough to justify or sustain a subject as an elective English offering. What, then, could legitimatize this course in academic terms? First of all, there is a substantial body of significant literature dealing with one aspect or another of the subject: Milton's Paradise Lost alludes to the civil war in heaven which resulted in the transformation of many angels into spirits of evil; Dante's Divine Comedy offers an imaginative projection of worlds hereafter; Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale," Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and any number of other classics belong to this body of works for even more obvious reasons.
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If these works are thought to be too ambitious to undertake, there remain innumerable other easier ones. Just to scratch the surface, one might consider Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," Arthur Miller's The Crucible, H. G. Wells' "Pollock and the Porroh Man." Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Body-Snatchers," Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "The Haunted and the Haunters," O. Henry's "The Furnished Room," Rudyard Kipling's "The Phantom 'Rickshaw," Charles Dickens' "The Signal Man," Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover," Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Ambrose Bierce's "The Damned Thing," selected works of Ray Bradbury and John Collier, and, of course, almost everything ever written by Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, or Algernon Blackwood. The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature serves as a key to both purported and genuine nonfiction articles dealing with subjects appropriate to the course. More general library reference works, thoughtfully and imaginatively employed, offer an abundance of additional resources.

or Hopi Indian superstitions; such scientific considerations as the progression from astrology to astronomy or from alchemy to chemistry; such elements of psychology as perception and "mental set." The list can be extended indefinitely. Out of the wealth of literary pieces and other relevant materials arise numerous questions for discussion and both expository and creative writing: Is there a life awaiting us beyond the one we are now experiencing? If so, does it reward the good in heaven and punish the wicked in hell (and how?)-or does it bring with it a new birth in the form of, say, a cricket or a sparrow? If a person's natural life span is cut short, will he return like the elder Hamlet, seeking someone on earth to help him rest in peace? Are our lives controlled by outside forces, whether these be of stars or atoms? To what extent is the power of our wills really free? Are there ways to exert our willpower to bring either benefit or harm to ourselves or to others? Can the stars, our palms, a deck of cards, or even our dreams give us clues to our own identity and a clearer realization of our own being? Can they help us follow Socrates' dictum, "Know thyself"? Instead of being a bore, vocabulary study becomes a source of considerable excitement when it helps a student interTEACHERS who wish to take a humanities approach to English instruc- pret his own numerological chart to detion may introduce their students to such termine whether or not he is, indeed, parand sensuous. The operas as Gian Carlo Menotti's The Me- simonious, versatile, of semantics takes on appeal when dium or Mozart's Don Giovanni; such study other musical works as Berlioz' Sym- students examine their own horoscopes and weigh the nuances of words supphonie Fantastique or Moussorgsky's born under to Night on Bald Mountain; such works of posedly applicable thepersons zodiac. their own signs of art as Bruegel's Triumph of Death or The teacher who considers it profitable Bosch's Last Judgment; motion pictures in quality and sophistication for his students to perform drills in Enranging from the 1931 version of Dracula, featur- glish usage can as productively offer ing Bela Lugosi, to Ingmar Bergman's exercises dealing with supernatural sub"The Magician; such aspects of anthro- ject matter as with more prosaic considpology as ancient Egyptian burial rites erations:

A CASE

FOR

SUPERNATURAL

LITERATURE

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Which of the two witches (is/are) which? When the prestidigitatormet the wizard, he had to admit that he could not reproduce his effects. From whatever angle one chooses to view it, language, literature, and composition can be served as least as well by Supernatural Literature and Communication as by a more conventional English course.

expected sources at any time, as most teachers of experience have learned to their dismay. But if a course is both sensibly and sensitively taught, students themselves will provide its best defense. That point is vividly illustrated by the following excerpts from an editorial which appeared in a high school newspaper: At a recent [school] board meeting, it was suggested that the "Black Magic" course being taught at this high school be abandonedto make room for a course for the educationally handicapped.I think a program or course for the educationally handicappedis a great idea; however, I feel that before anyone can suggest that a course be dropped he/she should know what that course is about and not prejudge. In the first place, it is not a "Black Magic" course but rather "Supernatural Literature."It is plain to see that there is quite a difference. I have taken this class and I feel it can be very rewarding. Above all, it should be one of the farthest back in the list of "drops." The course is not designed to make you believe in ghosts, voodoo, black magic, etc., but to present to the student various supernatural readings, recordings, and happenings of the past and present.....

O national survey has been taken to determine how many high schools already list this type of course among their elective English course offerings. A couple of dozen high schools in California and several in the Mid-West have volunteered the information that they do so. As the already wide interest in the subject continues to grow at the college and university level, it seems safe to assume that the respectability of supernatural literature at earlier academic levels will follow suit. Some teachers who might otherwise want to suggest this addition to their own high school elective English programs are deterred by the fear of a negative community reaction. Naturally, if one teaches in a town where fervent commitment to either superstition or hard-core religious fundamentalism holds sway, he would be wise to wait until the offering becomes more commonplace. However, only one instance has been reported of a teacher's actually being called upon to abandon the course once it was instituted. In this case, according to newspaper accounts, the teacher had encouraged or at least permitted his students to conduct a Black Mass in the classroom. If this assertion is actually true, it suggests an incredible lack of judgment on the teacher's part, since one of the traditional requirements of the ceremony is a naked virgin. Of course, criticism of any sort concerning any subject can come from un-

Various reports are given by students on such topics as seances, devils, witches, dreams, numerology, astrology, palm reading, phrenology, and others too numerous to mention. Naturally, black magic is among these topics, but no one is taught methods or forced to believe. I feel that the students do become aware, however, of the growing belief in the supernatural. They also become aware of the many "fakes"who take advantage, or at least try to take advantage, of the believers..... There are marvelous writers who specialize in writing about the supernatural. events may (Sometimes) the supernatural not be explainedas such in the story but could be interpreted as coincidence or
illusion. ...

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In conclusion, I would like to say that ... I don't understandhow anyone who knows about the school, and knows how popular this course is among the students, or who even cares about what the students want could possibly suggest that a course be dropped that he/she doesn't even know the name of!' To obviate needless criticism, an English department contemplating the addition of a course such as Supernatural Literature and Communication to the curriculum would do well to observe three commonsense rules: 1. Offer the course only as an elective, not as a requirement. 2. Include among the major purposes of the course the encouragementof students' speculation and the release of their imagination. 3. Select the teacher for the course with exceptional care. A person who rejects the possibility of supernatural phenomena is likely to destroy his students' interest in the subject; on the other hand, a teacher who uses the class to share his own supernatural experiences or beliefs is probably too committed to handle the course with the objectivity it requires.

As a sage once wrote: "The only thing you can do without being criticized is
die. And even then there will be some

people who complain about the day chosen for your funeral." HE acid test of the success of an educational idea in America is whether

publisherswill risk money to implement


it. As of this writing, there is no high

school textbookavailableon supernatural tional publisherhas revealedthat his next series of high school textbooks will include a sizeable supernatural unit, and another is contemplating the introducschool year, of a new classroom periodinatural. literature; however, one major educa-

tion, probably as early as the 1972-73 cal at leastpartiallydevotedto the superwait for these publications before beginning one's own elective offering in this field. Here is a short basic bibliography putting such a course together:

It is obviously unnecessary, though, to

of paperbackbooks especially useful in


Arthur, Robert A., ed., Monster Mix (Dell, 5797). Cerf, Bennett, ed., Famous Ghost Stories (Vintage, 140). Gibson, Walter and Litzka R. Gibson, The Complete IllustratedBook of the
Psychic Sciences (Pocket Books, 671-

There may be many reasons besides those cited here for omitting supernatural literature from the curriculum of a given district; but ordinary, moderate criticism does not deserve a place among them. The Hunt,"Black Magic"(editorial), 1Sandy Karkin, April 30, 1971 (John Swett High
School, Crockett, California).

12509). Hoopes, Ned E., ed., Speak of the Devil Lovecraft, H. P., The Dunwich Horror (Lancer, 74-502). Ward, Don, Black Magic (Dell, 0627).
(Dell, 8184).