Friday, July 18, 2014

"Large. . . and Startling Figures," Indeed

copyright 2014 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror hides inside us all, actually or potentially, taking many forms.

What horrifies us is our own demise.

We are horrified, too, by the measures we will take to survive.

In an us-against-them scenario, it is we who will survive—or will to survive—whatever the cost, including the destruction of another person. We are horrified that we may be killed, but we are horrified, also, that we may kill, even if we should be compelled to do so to prevent ourselves from being killed.

We kill or we are killed; therein lies our horror, the secret horror within, which assumes a multitude of disguises, but is always only the same fear, the same loathing.

Sometimes, though, the survival of the fittest is disguised. We compete for laurels and for jobs, for love and attention, for fame and devotion, for men and women, as well as for life and not death.

Each time we win, we kill; every time we lose, we die.

Horror fiction is horrible because it tells this truth about us: we are all both predator and prey, hunter and hunted, stalker and stalked, quick and dead.

Sometimes, we are, simultaneously, one and the same, as when, for example, we commit suicide.

There are several ways to kill oneself, to be both predator and prey, perpetrator and victim: morally, psychologically, and, yes, physically.

When we look the other way, introspectively or with extroversion; when we deny or reject the truth, we die.

Little by little, we die every day.

But slow death is often overlooked, in the moment, at least, when we are too busy with our lives:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me

Emily Dickinson tells us.

In the literature of horror, death stops for us, and, in doing so, he employs the strategy of Flannery O'Connor:

To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

Blood and gore, deformity and disfigurement, madness and mayhem, death and destruction, disease and pestilence, fear and trembling are “large” and “startling figures,” indeed, but even they may not succeed, in every case, to startle us out of the complacency of ourselves, and, when they are not, we are not.



Friday, July 11, 2014

The Monster as Sexual Menace

On one level, most horror fiction is about sex. Monsters are rapists. Monsters are penises. Monsters are sperm. Monsters assault, force their way in, invade. Their victims are vaginas, wombs, and ova, disguised as men and women or, less often, children. Because monsters are often of or related to body parts or their secretions—saliva, mucus, semen, blood—they themselves often produce visceral reactions and such dark emotions as fear and loathing, disgust and repulsion.

What is the Frankenstein monster but the womb bypassed? It is the embodiment of technological, rather than natural, reproduction and the denial and the dismissal of woman as a necessary participant in and contributor to the replenishment of the human species.

The vampire is an embodiment of non-procreative sex or, more specifically, oral sex. It's love bites represent its sex life. There is need for neither vagina nor penis, ovary nor testicle, ovum nor sperm. The end served by the vampire is not new life, however, but the end of life; it is death.

In some stories, such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the monster as sexual threat is merely suggested in its seeking out of female victims. In others, such as Species, the message is explicit and direct: the monster (whether male, as in Lagoon, or female, as in Species) is out to kill us, and its modus operandi is sexual, whether the scriptwriter is circumspect or in our faces about it.

It helps, in writing (and reading) horror fiction to remember the lesson of Freud: everything is sexual, because there are two forces, eros and thanatos, in conflict with one another, with human beings their battleground, no matter the shape and the name the monster, in its present disguise, takes, and whether the story being told is classic or contemporary, literary or popular. Such text (or subtext, as the case may be) enriches horror fiction, just as it grounds it in both the human anatomy and human experience.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Images of Horror as Not-So-Friendly Reminders


copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

Bodies severed at their waists. Eyes without irises or pupils. Furry faces full of fangs. Cheeks stitched from the corners of the mouth to the ears. Mouths devoid of lips. Decapitated bodies. Skulls showing through flesh. Bloody necks slashed and slashed. Faces streaming blood. Crowns of skulls cut away. Craniums transformed into slug-like monstrosities. Faces without noses. Eyes become fanged mouths. Flesh pockmarked and riddled with open sores.

The results of special effects, these images of violence horrify because they display death, dismemberment, injury, monstrous transformation, and disease. They are graphic reminders of our humanity—and, thus, our vulnerability—as much as they are mementos mori.

These pictures remind us of the facts: we are not only going to die someday, but we are, in fact, dying day by day.

Life itself reminds us of our mortality, but in much more subtle ways, ways that seem too small to disturb us more than a moment, if at all.

Our skin wrinkles and sags.

Our hair grays, recedes, or thins.

We put on a little weight.

Our joints ache and stiffen.

Our ears and noses sprout hair.

Our ears get bigger.

Age spots appear on our faces and hands.

Our bones become brittle.

Vision or hearing erode.

We become forgetful.

We wear dentures where, once, we had teeth.

We fall and we cannot get up.

But these signs of aging (and of eventual death) occur gradually, giving us time to adjust and to accept the inevitable. We say that we are getting older, not that we are dying.

And, yet, we are dying, day by day, a wrinkle here, an age spot there.

But we become accustomed to our fate.

Images of horror—of death and destruction, injury and pain, madness and loss of control—don't allow us such a luxury. Such depictions shock and frighten.

They get the blood running and the adrenaline flowing, preparing us to fight or to take flight.

In reminding us of death, they also remind us of life.

Such images remind us to stop, to think, to listen, and to smell the roses. . .

. . . while we can.

Before it's too late.

And the bogeyman hiding within emerges, born of blood and flesh, pain and bone, reducing us, at last, to food for worms.




Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The WHO?, WHAT?, WHEN?, WHERE?, HOW?, and WHY? of Horror: A Sampler


copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

WHO?: A motel owner; the devil; a writer—what is scary about some is what they are by nature, in and of themselves (the devil); what is scary about others is what they are secretly (Norman Bates), what they are incipiently (Jack Torrance), or what they become (Seth Brundle). Human beings gone bad, in other words, are frightening. The selves we present to others are our personas, masks that we wear to appear normal and rational and acceptable; horror fiction shows readers or audiences the true face behind these masks. We do what we are.

WHAT?: Madness, evil, experiments gone awry—what is scary about some is that they represent loss of control (madness); what is scary about others is that they represent helplessness in the face of merciless cruelty (evil); what is scary about still others is that they represent the unintended harm that can come of good intentions or mistakes (experiments gone awry). Actions are frightening because they show that human behavior is not insignificant, but causal. We are what we do.

WHEN/WHERE?: An isolated motel, a house in Georgetown, a vacant hotel in the middle of nowhere. Some settings are scary because they isolate (Bates' motel); others are scary because they show that evil can occur anywhere—and, therefore, everywhere—including the nation's capital); still others are scary because they combine two or more sources of fear, such as isolation and familial dysfunction). Places are frightening because they are the sites in which human behavior and its consequences are displayed. In building places, we reveal ourselves: the architect is visible in the buildings he or she designs.

HOW?: Rental, possession, experimentation. A motel room can be a motel room—or it can be a Venus flytrap-like chamber of death; the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but it can also become the devil's pig sty; scientific instruments can deliver us into evil as well as good. The means we use to achieve our ends depend upon our ends—or, sometimes, they have unanticipated results too horrible to have imagined. We are not only what we do, but we are also often the victims of what we, or others, so.

WHY?: To appease another, to assert the self or to defy God, to discover new possibilities or to control nature—what is scary about appeasing others is that, in doing so, we subject our wills—indeed, our very selves—to the wills of those whom we seek to appease; what is scary about one's assertion of will is that, as Shakespeare observes, “one can smile and smile and be a villain”; what is scary about attempts to discover new possibilities is that some possibilities are left alone, and what is scary about controlling nature is that doing so subverts or, at least, alters the effects of natural law. The “why” of behavior is, at bottom, a mystery, and this, too, makes motive and cause frightening in themselves; the unintended—or, sometimes, intended—consequences of such motives and causes make the whole cause-and-effect chain of events potentially even more horrible yet.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Techniques for Devising Plot Twists


copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

By analyzing movies which end with an unexpected twist, one may discern various techniques that writers have employed to accomplish this feat. With some overlap among a few instances, here is one classification of such techniques:


Denial: the apparent experience never happened. Example: April Fool's Day (1986): It seems that a serial killer is murdering people, but the apparent deaths are all results of practical jokes (it's April Fool's Day, after all) perpetuated by pranksters who could be gainfully employed, if they weren't so immature, as Hollywood special effects wizards.

Inversion: life is but a dream (or an hallucination). Example: When a Stranger Calls (1979): A babysitter is terrorized by a psychotic killer who calls her repeatedly on the family's telephone—and the killer is in the house! The Descent (2005) also relies upon inversion for its plot twist, as does High Tension (2005) and Identity (2003).

Substitution: one person, place, or thing is replaced by another person, place, or thing. Example: Fallen (1998): The hero says he almost died in an ordeal, but he is possessed by the killer while he's speaking, so, in fact, it's the killer who almost dies, while the hero is already dead. Friday the 13th (1980) also uses this technique to generate its plot twist.


Marvelous: that which seems, in Tzvetan Todorov's terms, to be uncanny actually turns out to be marvelous (in other words, that which appears to be natural is really supernatural). Example: Carnival of Souls (1962): A woman who believes she is the lone survivor of a car crash sees strange ghouls chasing her, but she's dead all the while. The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001) also employ the marvelous to create their plot twists.

Multiplication: e pluribus unum, reversed. Example: Scream (1986): A serial killer who stalks teens turns out to be two killers.

Impersonation: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920): A man relates his tale of madman Dr. Caligari, who along with his zombie-like henchman, committed a string of murders, but the narrator is the real madman, and he's telling his tale in an insane asylum; Caligari is, in fact, his doctor in the asylum. Angel Heart (1987), Sleepaway Camp and Saw (2004) also use impersonation to generate their plot twists.

Impersonation via split personality: a character masquerades as someone else. Example: Psycho (1960): Norman Bates seeks to cover up his mother's murders. The problem is that, years earlier, Norman killed his mother and developed a split personality: he has become both himself and his mother. This same technique generates the plot twist in Hide and Seek (2005).


Mistaken identity and Irony: through mistaken identity, something happens that is other than that which the audience has been led to expect. Example: Black Christmas (1974): When a sorority house must deal with a series of threatening telephone calls and the disappearances of some of their sisters, it is discovered that the man who dies, who is assumed to have been the killer, was not the murderer; the actual killer is still inside the house.

Duplicity: an actual situation is misrepresented to deceive someone. Example: The Wicker Man (1973): A policeman investigates a missing child on a British isle that celebrates pagan customs, but the story of the missing girl was fabricated to lure the cop to the island so that he could be sacrificed to the gods after being enclosed inside a burning "wicker man." Diabolique (1964) also uses duplicity to create its plot twist.

Jumped Conclusion: someone other than the suspect is guilty of a crime. Example: Friday the 13th (1980): In 1957, Jason drowns at Camp Crystal Lake; a year later, two counselors are murdered and the camp is closed. In 1979, the camp reopens, and a mysterious killer—possibly Jason, whose body was never found—begins to stalk the camp's counselors once again, but it's not Jason; it's his mother, Mrs. Vorhees. Substitution also creates the plot twist in Fallen (1998).

Unanticipated consequences: an act that is believed to effect a specific result has unanticipated consequences. Example: The Ring (2000): Rachel, a reporter investigating a video tape rumored to bring death to anyone who watches it, finds out that it is somehow tied to a mysterious young girl named Samara, whose body Rachel retrieves from a well, thereby freeing her spirit to kill again, rather than putting the ghost to rest, as Rachel believed would happen.


Irony: something happens that is other than that which the audience has been led to expect. (In a sense, most twist endings are ironic in one way or another. However, this category is reserved for plots that are intrinsically ironic: the irony results from the very nature of the storyline, rather than an element added at the end.) Example: When a Stranger Calls (1979): A babysitter is terrorized by a psychotic killer who calls her repeatedly on the family's telephone, and the killer is calling from within the house. The Mist (2007) also uses irony to create its plot twist.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

"The Cabin in the Woods": A Review


Okay, Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) is the producer, and the film, The Cabin in the Woods, was scheduled to open on Friday the 13th. So far, so good. Moreover, the poster advertising the movie promises something different, a new twist, an unexpected spin on a familiar story: “You think you know the story.” But, of course, we don't know the story. We only think we do. Surprises—probably shocks, even—are in store. We've been warned.

The imagery suggests a mystery, too, or a difficult puzzle. The cabin floats (or falls) before an indistinct, rather sketchy forest, and, like a Rubik's Cube, it's turned this way and that. In fact, there are three cabins, none of which are actually in the forest (in the poster, at least), and they're stacked atop one another, the topmost right-side up, the middle one set on its side, the lower one upside down. We're disoriented; we're confused; we don't know which way is “up” (or “down” or “sideways,” for that matter). This movie's going to turn us every way but loose.

Those in the know know that Whedon is to movies what Dean Koontz is to novels: a genre bender who throws in a little of everything: comedy, tragedy, romance, adventure, mystery, horror, and the kitchen sink, and, from what reviewers have said about this film, Cabin in the Woods was meant to be no exception to the Whedon formula: it's satire; it's pastiche; it's filmed in Vancouver, of all places. According to the A. V. Club, the script, which took Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard a whole three days to write, exhibits ”Whedon’s love of subverting clichés while embracing them and teasing out their deeper meaning,” if any. (The film was produced in only three months, too, by the way.) The authors themselves claim that their masterpiece is intended to “revitalize” the slasher film, a genre that so deserves such effort.

It cost about $30 million to make and grossed $65 million worldwide, so it's judged a “financial success.” Critical reviews were mixed, but generally favorable. It seems that the whole thing is a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Whedon has the talent to offer more—much more—than a revitalization of death warmed over.

Perhaps the best thing about the movie, though, is the poster that promoted it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Dramatistic Pentad in Five Acts


copyright 2013 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror fiction, like all other genres of literature, popular and otherwise, is concerned with the following questions”

Literary critic Kenneth Burke's analysis of dramatic structure, known as dramatism, identifies a “pentad” of rhetorical elements that underlies all drama and narrative:

  1. Who?, which is associated with the agent, or the doer of the deed
  2. What?, which links to the act, or deed, and is expressed by an action verb
  3. When? and Where?, which refers to the setting in which the deed is done
  4. How?, which alludes to the agency, or method, by which the deed was done
  5. Why?, which explains the purpose (or the cause or the motive) for which the deed was done
These questions are recursive; they recur, as the writer works his or her way through the development of the narrative, and they may be related to the protagonist, the antagonist, or to any other characters; to various deeds; to different settings; to a variety of methods; and even to more than one purpose—or cause or motive. In fact, it is a good idea to develop a storyline from the points of view of as many relevant characters as possible, which would typically include, as a minimum, both the protagonist and his o her adversary, the antagonist (often, in horror fiction, the monster), bearing in mind that each of the elements of agent, act, setting, agency, and purpose.

Using Gustav Freytag's analysis of classic and Shakespearean drama, which divides a play into five acts, a writer can structure his or her narrative so that each part introduces or develops Burke's rhetorical elements.

Act I, the exposition, provides the background information that the audience (or reader) needs to know in order to understand the story as a whole. Typically, as a minimum, the protagonist, the setting, and the basic conflict of the story are introduced, which equate to Burke's agent, setting, and purpose (the protagonist's purpose, in general, is to resolve the conflict, usually by obtaining an objective).

Act II, the rising action, complicates the conflict by introducing successively more difficult obstacles to the protagonist's achievement of his or her objective. Typically, this is the act in which the antagonist competes against the protagonist, so this act will revisit the rhetorical elements of agent and purpose, from the points of view of both the protagonist and the antagonist, adding act to the mix as both characters vie to obtain the same objective and to prevent the other from obtaining it.

Act III, the climax, or turning point, spins the action into a new direction; if things have been going relatively well for the protagonist up to this point, he or she now suffers a significant setback; if things have, overall, not been going well for the protagonist, he or she will now enjoy significant progress, with opposite results occurring with regard to the antagonist. Act III, while continuing to focus upon agent, agency, and purpose, stresses act, while setting remains a constant throughout the story.

Act IV, the falling action, unravels the conflict. If, at the turning point, the protagonist has suffered a setback, his or her purpose may be energized, as a result, as he or she resolves to redouble his or her efforts to achieve his or her objective. If he or she has made progress, his or her hard-won moment of success may likewise energize him or her, reinforcing the main character's purpose. The same, however, in either case, is likely to be rue of the antagonist as well. Although the conflict unravels during Act IV, the adversarial contest between the protagonist and the antagonist continues, but with one or the other clearly gaining the upper hand and increasing his or her dominance over his or her rival. Throughout this act, agent, act, purpose, and agency interact with one another with setting, as always, the constant variable (although one setting may have given way to another).

Act V constitutes the resolution of a comedy (a story in which the protagonist ends up better off than he or she was at the beginning of the story) or in a catastrophe in a tragedy (a story in which the protagonist ends up worse off than he or she was at the beginning of the story). Either all's well that ends well (comedy), or everything falls apart (tragedy). This act resolves the conflict once and for all (purpose), as the protagonist (agent) wins or loses (purpose), based, to a large extent, upon what he or she has done and how he or she has done it (act and agency). Again, setting is a constant element.

Freytag's analysis, it should be stressed, is based not upon modern drama, and certainly not upon the novel or the short story, and does not take into consideration such modern tendencies as beginning a work in media res, employing flashbacks and prolepses (flash-forwards), and allowing the exposition to be revealed piecemeal, throughout much of the work, rather than restricting it to the first act. Nevertheless, in general, Freytag's ideas, if not rigid formulation of them, remains influential in narratology and dramatism. Therefore, it is useful as a means of illustrating how Burke's pentad can be applied in the plotting of a film or a novel. After the elements are in place, the author can always rearrange them to suit his or her own dramatic or narrative purposes.

Here is an example of the application of Burke vis-a-vis Freytag; the summary is taken, with slight modifications, from Wikipedia's article, “Psycho (1960 film)”:

Act I: Exposition

Marion Crane [agent] and her boyfriend Sam Loomis [agent] meet for a secret romantic rendezvous [act] during lunch hour at a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona [setting]. They [agents] then talk about how they can barely afford to get married [act]. Upon Marion's [agent] return to work [act] at a realtor's office [setting], a client [agent] comes in with $40,000 in cash [act] to purchase a house for his daughter [purpose]. The money is entrusted to Marion [act], who decides to steal it and skip town [act; with the implied purpose of using the stolen money to finance her marriage to Loomis].

Act II: Rising Action

On the road [setting], she [agent] pulls over [act] to sleep [purpose]and a suspicious [purpose] policeman [agent] awakens her [act]. The policeman [agent] lets her go [act], but upon arriving in another town [act; setting], Marion [agent] pulls into a used car dealership [act; setting] and hastily exchanges her car for another one [act]. Driving [act] during a rainy night [setting], Marion [agent] pulls up [act, with the implied purpose of seeking shelter from the storm]to the Bates Motel, a remote lodging [setting] that has recently lost business due to a diversion of the main highway.

The proprietor, youthful but nervous Norman Bates [agent], invites her [act] to a light dinner in the parlor [setting]. Norman [agent] tells her that his mother is mentally ill [act], but he [agent] becomes irate and bristles [act] when Marion [agent] suggests that she should be institutionalized [act]. The conversation [agency] induces [act] Marion [agent] to decide [act] to return to Phoenix [act] and return the stolen money [purpose].

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Marion [agent] later takes a shower [act] in her room [setting], during which a shadowy figure [agent] comes in and stabs her [act] to death [purpose]. Norman [agent] bursts into the bathroom [act; setting] and discovers Marion's dead body [act]. He [agent] wraps the body in the shower curtain and cleans up the bathroom [act]. He [agent] puts Marion's body in the trunk of her car and sinks it in a nearby swamp [act; setting].

Act IV: Falling Action

In Phoenix [setting], Marion's sister Lila [agent] and Marion's boyfriend Sam Loomis [agent] are concerned [act] about her disappearance [purpose]. A detective named Arbogast [agent] confirms that Marion is suspected of having stolen $40,000 from her employer [act]. Arbogast [agent] eventually finds the Bates Motel [act; setting], where Norman's [agent] evasiveness and stammering arouse his suspicions [act]. Arbogast [agent] later enters the Bates' residence [act; setting], looking for Norman's mother [purpose]. A figure [agent] emerges [act] from her room [setting] and murders Arbogast [act; purpose].

Fearing that something has happened to Arbogast [act; purpose], Sam [agent] and Lila [agent] go to the town of Fairvale and talk with the local sheriff [act]. He [agent] is puzzled by the detective's claim that he was planning to talk to Norman's mother [act], stating that Mrs. Bates died years ago, along with her lover, in a murder-suicide [act].

Norman [agent], seen from above, carries his mother down to the cellar [act] of their house [setting] as she [agent] verbally protests the arrangement [act].
Sam [agent] and Lila [agent] rent a room [act] at the Bates Motel [search] and search the cabin [act] that Marion [agent] stayed [act] in [setting]. Lila [agent] finds a scrap of paper with "$40,000" written on it [act], while Sam [agent] notes that the bathtub has no shower curtain [act]. Sam [agent] distracts Norman [act] while Lila [agent] sneaks [act] into the house [setting], looking for Mrs. Bates [act, with the implied purpose of locating her]. Norman [agent] subdues Sam and chases Lila [act]. Seeing Norman approaching [act], Lila [agent] hides [act, with the implied purpose of evading Norman] in the cellar [setting] and discovers Mrs. Bates' body [act], sitting in a rocking chair [setting]. The chair [agent] rotates [act] to reveal a desiccated corpse, the preserved body of Mrs. Bates [purpose]. A figure [agent] enters [act] the basement [setting], wearing a dress and wig while wielding a large knife [act], revealing Norman to be the murderer all along [purpose]. Sam [agent] enters and saves Lila [act].

Act V: Catastrophe

After Norman's arrest [act], a psychiatrist [agent] who interviewed Norman [act] reveals that Norman [agent] had murdered his mother and her lover years ago [act], and he [agent] later developed a split personality [act] to erase the crime from his memory [purpose]. At times, he [agent] is able to function [act] as Norman [agency], but other times the mother personality [agent] completely dominates him [act].

Norman [agent] is now locked into his mother's identity permanently [act]. Mrs. Bates [agent], in a voice-over [agency], talks about how harmless she is [act], and how it was really Norman [agent], not she [agent], who committed the murders [act].

The final scene [agent] shows Marion's car being recovered [act] from the swamp [setting].

Although this approach has some difficulties—the ambiguity, for instance, inherent in how one summarizes the story, selecting, arranging, and emphasizing its incidents; of labeling the incidents according to Burke's pentad {for example, as when determining when to count an element as significant and when not to do so (for instance, should a shift of scene be counted as a new setting or as merely a continuation of an already-identified setting in which a different aspect of this setting is featured). (My solution has been to allow the summary to determine these matters as much as possible. However, if this approach is to be taken, it ought to use the shooting script, not a secondary source's understanding of the plot, as the basis for summarizing the movie's action). This approach, nevertheless, a potentially fruitful approach to analyzing the structure of a work, whether the work in question is one's own monster or that of another. Such an analysis, combining Burke's five-element dramatistic pentad with Freytag's analysis of five-act dramatic structure, suggests the extent of the use of each of Burke's elements, their interrelation to one another, and the way in which non-human techniques (that is, cinematographic agencies) can take the role, as it were, of agents. It is clear that, regarded as a mimetic medium, fiction simplifies the true complexity of human behavior by occasionally representing natural events or omniscient points of view as causal in order to express purpose which would not, otherwise, be communicated, as when the chair, acting as an agent, acts in order to accomplish a purpose that is really the screenwriter's, not that of the imaginary world (that is, the setting) in which the drama unfolds: he chair [agent] rotates [act] to reveal a desiccated corpse, the preserved body of Mrs. Bates [purpose]. Likewise, it is easy to see that purpose, as the cause or motive of the character's behavior, is typically suggested, rather than overtly stated, and often pertains to not only one or two, but to a whole series, of a character's acts. However, purpose is implied in each and every act of the drama and is, therefore, like the other of Burke's rhetorical elements, a unifying principle.

Removing the specific contents of each of the rhetorical elements, while retaining their grouping according to Freytag's acts, discloses the appearance of these rhetorical elements, their arrangement, and their relative importance—or, at least, the degree to which each element is emphasized within and among the various acts of the drama; each sentence of the synopsis is included, with the periods representing the respective ends of each.

Act I: Exposition

Agent / agent / act / setting. Agent / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Act / act / purpose.

Act II: Rising Action

Setting / agent / act / purpose/ purpose / agent / act. Agent / act / act / setting / agent/ act / setting / act. Act / setting / agent / act / purpose / setting.
Agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act / agent/ act. Agency / act / agent / act / purpose.

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting.

Act IV: Falling Action

Setting / agent / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose.
Act / purpose/ agent / agent / act. Agent /act / act.
Agent / act / setting / agent / act.
Agent / agent / act / setting / act / agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act. Agent / act / agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act. Act / agent / act / purpose / setting / act / setting. Agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act.

Act V: Catastrophe

Act / agent / act / agent / act / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / agent / act.
Agent / act. Agent / agency / act / agent / agent / act.
Agent / act / setting.

Simply by tallying each of the times that an element is used, it is possible to determine the relative emphasis of each, both by dramatic act and in total:

Act I: Exposition

Agent / agent / act / setting. Agent / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Act / act / purpose.

Agent = 6
Act = 6
Setting = 2
Purpose = 2

Act II: Rising Action

Setting / agent / act / purpose/ purpose / agent / act. Agent / act / act / setting / agent/ act / setting / act. Act / setting / agent / act / purpose / setting.
Agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act / agent/ act. Agency / act / agent / act / purpose.

Act = 14
Agent = 11
Setting = 6
Purpose = 4
Agency = 1

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting.

Act = 6
Agent = 5
Setting = 3
Purpose = 1

Act IV: Falling Action

Setting / agent / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose.
Act / purpose/ agent / agent / act. Agent /act / act.
Agent / act / setting / agent / act.

Agent / agent / act / setting / act / agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act. Agent / act / agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act. Act / agent / act / purpose / setting / act / setting. Agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act.

Act = 29
Agent = 24
Setting = 11
Purpose = 8

Act V: Catastrophe

Act / agent / act / agent / act / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / agent / act.
Agent / act. Agent / agency / act / agent / agent / act.
Agent / act / setting.

Act = 10
Agent = 10
Purpose = 1
Setting = 1
Agency = 1

This statistical analysis shows that, in Act I, agent and act dominate to the same degree; that, in Act II, act dominates; that in Act III, act dominates; that, in Act IV, act dominates; and, that in Act V, act dominates. Overall, as a whole, act dominates over all of the other of Burke's rhetorical elements; therefore, it is evident that, rhetorically, Psycho is an action movie, the tone of which is horror.

After converting the incidents of the story's plot, as indicated by the plot's synopsis, into discrete rhetorical elements, in accordance with Burke's pentad, it is an easy matter to transpose the results into the questions that are associated with these elements, even while retaining Freytag's structure, if desirable:

Act I: Exposition

Who? / Who? / What? / When? Where?. Who? / Who? / What? / Who? / What? / setting / Who? / What? / Why?. What? / What? / Why?.

Act II: Rising Action

When? and Where? / Who? / What? / purpose/ purpose / Who? / What?. Who? / What? / What? / When? and Where? / Who?/ What? / When? and Where? / What?. What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What? / purpose / When? and Where?.

Who? / What? / When? and Where?. Who? / What? / Who? / What? / Who?/ What?. Agency / What? / Who? / What? / purpose.

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Who? / What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What?. Who? / What?. Who? / What? / When? and Where?.

Act IV: Falling Action

When? and Where? / Who? / Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What?. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What?. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / purpose. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / purpose.
What? / purpose/ Who? / Who? / What?. Who? /What? / What?.

Who? / What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What?.

Who? / Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / Who? / What? / When? and Where?. Who? / What? / Who? / What?. Who? / What? / Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / purpose. Who? / What?. What? / Who? / What? / purpose / When? and Where? / What? / When? and Where?. Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / purpose. Who? / What?.

Act V: Catastrophe

What? / Who? / What? / Who? / What? / Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What? / Who? / What?.

Who? / What?. Who? / agency / What? / Who? / Who? / What?.
Who? / What? / When? and Where?.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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