RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — Despite growing up in what he described as a “financially challenged” home in rural Mississippi, John Jennings never wanted for books.
The son of a mother who majored in literature and passed along her passion for fantasy and mythology, Jennings has fond memories of devouring the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne before moving on to those of Stephen King and Clive Barker.
Now a professor in the media and cultural studies department at the University of California, Riverside, he continues to stoke his interest in speculative fiction, a subset of literature that encompasses fantasy, science fiction, and horror, among other genres.
Inspired by Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated directorial debut, ‘Get Out,’ Jennings recently launched a a course that approaches a contemporary medium — horror films — from the perspective of Afrofuturism. In the vein of speculative fiction, Afrofuturism draws on fantastical elements to explore the black experience in the wake of the African diaspora, often pointing toward a more hopeful future.
“Once I saw ‘Get Out,’ I knew I wanted to teach a class about it,” Jennings said of the origins of the course, titled “Afrofuturism and the Visual Cultures of Horror.” “It really resonated with me because I’m so fascinated by how speculative fiction deals with social issues.”
Building on the idea of the black experience as “haunted” by the weight of centuries of historical violence, “Afrofuturism and the Visual Cultures of Horror” incorporates screenings and seminar-style discussions of 14 short and feature films. The selection runs the gamut from “Sugar Hill” (1994) to “White Zombie” (1932) to “Candyman” (1992).
In lieu of a traditional final exam, students will map out their own versions of the “sunken place,” the space of psychological imprisonment navigated by the protagonist in “Get Out” while under hypnosis. According to the course’s syllabus, students are expected to create “a manifestation of their racialized fears or things that they find unsettling around race and its visualization” through video, collage, or any other mode of image making.
“Going to see a horror movie in a controlled space isn’t unlike riding a roller coaster,” Jennings said. “These movies give us monsters we can defeat, and I think we like that.”
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