A 10-minute scene in “The Exorcist” combined with rumors that a serial killer was lurking in her suburb hooked 12-year-old Gina Brandolino on horror forever.

She recalled turning on the TV in her Joliet, Illinois, home and watching a scene in “The Exorcist” when the main character, a girl named Regan, was possessed. Terrified, she quickly turned it off and said her mother took her to get ice cream to calm her fears.

“I remember sort of looking off across the street into some trees and thinking, ‘What is out there?’” said Brandolino, a lecturer IV in the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English, LSA. “And I’ve never stopped thinking like that.”

Though she’d been interested in horror before that night, it changed the way she approached life.

Gina Brandolino, a lecturer IV in the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English, LSA, engages students through horror courses she has taught for the past 10 years. (Photo courtesy of Doug Coombe)
Gina Brandolino, a lecturer IV in the Sweetland Center for Writing and the Department of English, LSA, engages students through horror courses she has taught for the past 10 years. (Photo courtesy of Doug Coombe)

“In terms of the movie and in terms of the real-life story of (the serial killer), I sort of got embedded and the stories got embedded in me,” she said. “They simultaneously claimed me, and I claimed them.”

She studied English at the University of Francis in Joliet before completing her Master of Fine Arts degree at DePaul University in Chicago and her Ph.D. at Indiana University in Bloomington. She was appointed a lecturer at the University of Michigan in 2009.

As a lecturer IV, she leads one-on-one writing workshops and teaches a variety of topics, such as medieval literature, horror, comics and working-class literature.

Undoubtedly, her favorite genre to teach is horror. She said the course draws students from all majors and each student engages with the material unlike other genres she teaches.

“It’s an intensely personal genre. That’s another thing I like about it,” she said. “It really depends on what gets inside you and freaks you out as a person. For me, that was ‘The Exorcist.’ It represents a story in which someone loses themselves, loses control over themselves, and is controlled by a sinister force.”

She has taught horror courses for the past 10 years, one centered on the genre’s literary history and the other concentrated on contemporary works that span across different media like blockbuster films, short stories and comics. She likes that the two balance each other in a way that feels complementary.

“A horror movie has a lot better chance at grabbing more people and making a mark on them. It’s more of a visceral experience,” she said. “A novel can do that too, but a novel requires your buy-in, your participation and your imagination to engage in ways that a movie doesn’t necessarily ask of you.”

With the changing digital landscape, she has found horror in new places, like eerie Reddit thread stories and podcasts. In her contemporary horror class, they look at creepypasta, a type of online horror.

She also created a blog to introduce new digital platforms into her horror course. She launched The Course of Horror in 2013 to give students a place to share stories of the paranormal or personal anecdotes that relate to course material.

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 “I think that it gives students the opportunity to tell a story. And just the experience of getting that story out gives more contact points to that student when it comes to encountering a horror story in class,” she said.

The Course of Horror now has hundreds of posts with tags ranging from “clowns” to “haunted toilet.” The posts are mostly student-generated and count for extra credit.

Before the blog, students would spend sometimes the entire class discussing their own personal accounts and connections instead of the assigned readings. The blog allowed them to discuss their own supernatural encounters, review new horror movies, and share ways that the readings have connected to their lives.

“I wanted a place to catch these stories,” Brandolino said. “It was a receptacle to catch all the excitement that my students had about horror that wouldn’t fit into the class, which is one of the pleasures of teaching that class. It exceeds the bounds of the classroom.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Not one memorable moment, but a thing that occasionally happens: When a student from years ago who has graduated and is out in the world writes to me and says, “You know that book we read? It’s still my favorite and I make everyone I know read it.” When students carry things from class in their hearts years later, that’s nice to hear. 

What can’t you live without?

Stories. They’re what I teach but it’s more than that. They’re elementally comforting to me. I call my evening TV watching “narrative therapy” because a good story (even a bad one, actually) is the only way I can unwind after a hard day.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

I love to hang out in in-between places — busy spots where people are constantly passing through. The entryway of Angell Hall up the stairs off State Street is probably my favorite.

What inspires you?

Narrow visions of what counts as “literature,” that is, what counts to people as stories worth studying. When I encounter them, I’m driven to show how exclusive and snobbish they are, to give space and time to other kinds of stories just as complex, just as important to understanding culture and ourselves, and often sorely overlooked.

What are you currently reading?

An amazing comic called “The Butcher of Paris,” which is based on the true story of Marcel Petiot, a serial killer from France during World War II whose victims were all people trying to escape from the Nazis; and a collection of old-school ghost stories called “Someone in the Room” by early British writer A.M. Burrage.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My teachers in college. I enrolled in a local college (as a commuter student) and had such wonderful, mindful teachers. I got a stellar education in American and English literature from them.

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