Terrence Rafferty was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island and received a B.A. in modern literature, philosophy, and creative writing from Cornell University in 1973. He attended Brown University for one year, in the MFA program in creative writing, then returned to Cornell for postgraduate studies in comparative literature; he received an M.A. in 1977, and taught as a lecturer in the department in 1978-79. Growing bored with his dissertation, he moved to New York and worked for Doubleday and Co. for five years, primarily editing genre fiction: mysteries, westerns, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He began to write reviews and essays about books, films, and television in the early 1980s, which appeared in such publications as Film Quarterly, Sight and Sound, The Atlantic, Vogue, Newsday, The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix, The Nation, and The New Yorker. In the mid-1980s he wrote a fiction column for The Nation, and later became its film critic. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in film studies in 1987. In 1988 he was hired as a staff writer by The New Yorker, reviewing books and films; most of his better than 200 pieces for the magazine appeared in the Current Cinema column. Rafferty left The New Yorker in 1997 to become critic at large for GQ magazine, where he wrote a monthly column on the arts for the next six years; he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2002. Since 2003, he has been a regular contributor to The New York Times, usually appearing in the Arts & Leisure section and the Book Review, to which he also contributes an occasional column on horror. He currently also contributes book reviews to Slate and writes booklet essays for the Criterion Collection, and is the East Coast correspondent for DGA Quarterly, the journal of the Directors Guild of America.
In 1996 Rafferty was the McGraw Fellow in writing at Princeton, teaching a seminar on critical writing in the Council of the Humanities; he offered a similar course in the writing program the following year. He has also taught at Columbia, and has lectured or presented films at many institutions, including Yale; Cornell; Ohio State; Wesleyan; the University of California, Berkeley; Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; High Art Museum, Atlanta; the American Museum of the Moving Image, Queens; and the Jacob Burns Film Center, Pleasantville, NY. A selection of his writings on film, The Thing Happens, was published by Grove/Atlantic in 1993; individual essays and reviews have appeared in several anthologies and textbooks, including The Princeton Anthology of Writing, Cinema Nation, Best American Movie Writing 1999, Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures, five anthologies compiled by the National Society of Film Critics, and the Norton Critical Edition of E.M. Forster’s Howards End.
As the Fall 2010 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in the Program in American Studies, Terrence Rafferty is teaching a course called “The Fear of God: American Horror from Jonathan Edwards to Cloverfield.”