5 Questions with Dracula, Gothic Horror Scholar Carol Senf

Posted October 15, 2021

It’s October, and for many of us, that means dialing up a classic monster movie or pulling an old horror novel off the shelf. That’s certainly an option, says Carol Senf, an award-winning scholar who has written books on Dracula and taught on Victorian and Gothic fiction at Georgia Tech since 1981. But these days, it’s books like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead that leave her on edge. As we creep toward Halloween, we asked Senf to talk a bit about horror — both imagined and real.

How have Gothic literature and the horror genre changed since you began studying them?

Gothic literature and the whole horror genre have become more acceptable, both in academic circles and in popular culture. I’ve been following the recent films of Jordan Peele such as Get Out, Us, and Candyman, and have observed the positive attention they’ve gotten. Gone are the days when horror films were almost always regarded as second-rate.

One of the things you’re known for is studying and writing about Dracula, but you say it’s true-life writing that scares you more now. Why is that?

About 50 years ago, I read The Family by Ed Sanders, a book about the Charles Manson family. I remember walking around for several weeks looking over my shoulder because it made me realize that real life is more terrifying than anything a Gothic writer can come up with. The original Gothic was a way for authors to come to terms with their relationship to the past as well as a way to address some pretty negative aspects of the family dynamic. Gothic and horror today allow us to address what we see going on around us. One way of seeing Dracula is to see him as the literal embodiment of a violent medieval past. I don’t for a minute believe that a long undead creature is going to rise from his coffin to suck my blood, but I am concerned that some supposedly dead beliefs from the past are going to rise up and destroy my democracy.

Lovecraft Country fits that description to a T.

Lovecraft Country, which was published in 2017, takes us back to the time when Lovecraft and the people he wrote for were shameless bigots.

There’s a scene early in the novel where one of the main characters is a young Black man traveling through a desolate area when he encounters a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy tells him he has a limited amount of time to get out of the county, which he calls a Sundown County. Now, of course, that’s a relic of the Jim Crow South, where Black residents and travelers were warned to be off the streets before dark or risk dying at the hands of white people. That encounter, and the chase that ensues, is terrifying in a way that Dracula never could be, because it actually happened to people, in this country, not that long ago.

Lovecraft Country is steeped in horror tradition. Nickel Boys tells a hellish, but true-to-life story. What is it about that book that resonates with you?

Like The Family, which scared the daylights out of me, Colson Whitehead’s 2019 novel depicts real and terrible events. Set in a Florida reform school, it is based on the state-run Dozier School for Boys that operated for over a hundred years and where students were buried in unmarked graves. Once again, I realize that nothing beats real life for horror: the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Jim Crow South.

Why teach, or read, works like this?

At Georgia Tech, we live in a bubble. I’m constantly reminded how nice most students and faculty are. I think sometimes we need to be reminded that there is a whole world that exists outside, and that we have not done away with the problems of race, white supremacy, and some of the things that Lovecraft Country and The Nickel Boys bring up.

When I teach, I really feel like I’m talking to the future Nobel Prize winners, the heavyweight entrepreneurs, the people who will have an enormous impact on the world. Research says that reading fiction makes us more empathetic. And we need to remember that the science and technology we create, that’s so often discussed in horror and science fiction contexts, is applied to real humans in the real world. In the Biomedicine and Culture class that I’m teaching, we just finished reading Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman, which talks about her encounter with ovarian cancer, and then Margaret Edson’s W;t. In both of those cases, the women feel that they are treated as research. Those are perspectives these students need to hear.

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Carol Senf, professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, in her office. Senf, a noted scholar on Dracula and Gothic fiction, says real life is scarier than any horror novel could hope to be.

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Michael Pearson