Hungry for Horror? UT Lecturer Says Supernatural Stories Serve a Purpose

News Sentinel, October 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

Hungry for Horror? UT Lecturer Says Supernatural Stories Serve a Purpose


Steve Sparks grew up in northern Alabama fascinated with ghosts and stories of the supernatural.

The University of Tennessee lecturer transformed that childhood fascination into a focus for his English writing classes. He's taught students how to write research papers by studying ghost stories, both fictional and "real." He's taught that English 102 class for seven years; this is the first year he's not teaching the sessions.

Half of class time is spent studying the supernatural in literature. Students read such classics as Henry James' 1898 "Turn of the Screw" and Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House," a 20th-century tale Sparks says is underappreciated. Students discuss the use of ghosts as literary characters, symbols Sparks say represent a "gray area when you think everything is black or white."

He assigns Victorian author Algernon Blackwood's "The Empty House." That tale asks, "'Do we really want to know if ghosts are real or not?' If we find they are or if we find that they are not, that changes the paradigm."

The class also delves into "real" ghost stories. Students read "The Amityville Horror," the still-debated story of evil in a suburban New York house. Sparks relates the early 19th-century story of The Bell Witch, a Middle Tennessee legend about a vengeful spirit whose actions are said to have killed a man. Classes also discuss would-be true Knoxville ghost tales, including those on the UT campus.

Students write one of their three papers about such a "real" ghost story. They research the tale's origin, interview at least four people about the story and visit the "haunted" location. "If you go to a place with scary stories, you come back with scary stories. Because you are predisposed to be scared. I do get to read a lot of interesting papers," says Sparks.

The classes don't aim to prove if ghosts exist but explore the stories' purpose. Why, Sparks asks, in a time of technological and scientific advances, does the fascination with ghosts continue? He sees the tales as having two functions. A story can represent an alternate side of more-accepted history. And it also can teach a lesson.

"The reason behind most contemporary myths or urban legends is that they teach us a story. …

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