Fascinating lists!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Adaptation and Survival: The Selection of Heroic Traits

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman
Laurie Strode, of the Halloween franchise, survived several times against her supernatural adversary Michael Myers (aka “The Shape”). As a final girl, she represents a character who possesses the fitness to adapt to her environment and, therefore, survive to pass her genes to her offspring (unlike those of her peers whose genetic inheritance wasn't sufficient to ensure their own survival). The question arises, What traits helped Laurie to survive against Myers? What was, in the Darwinian sense, special about her?

Her older sister Judith, the first of Myers's victims, was stabbed to death when Laurie was but a young girl. (At the time, Judith was in her teens, and Myers, her older brother, was six years old.) In January 1965, her parents were killed in a car accident, and four-year-old Laurie was adopted by Morgan and Pamela Strode, who changed her last name to theirs. The governor of Illinois ordered that the adoption records be sealed so that Myers would not be able to connect Laurie Strode to his surviving sister. Eventually, Laurie no longer recalled her original family.

By 1978, Laurie had developed into a shy, introverted, 17-year-old girl who preferred books to boys. The Strodes owned the Myers house, in which Laurie grew up, and Morgan asked her to return the keys to the house. On her way to do so, she spotted a male stranger who seemed to be shadowing her. She learned that one of her friends, Lynda, has also been followed by a mysterious man.

While babysitting Tommy Doyle, the son of neighbors, Laurie was visited by her fellow babysitter, Annie Brackett, who asked Laurie to babysit her charge, Linsdey Wallace, so Annie could be with her boyfriend, Paul Freedman. Reluctantly, Laurie agreed, after Annie promised to break the date she'd arranged, without Laurie's knowledge or consent, between Laurie and Bennett Tramer, a boy in whom Laurie was interested. 


When Laurie visited the Wallaces' house to check on Annie, Laurie discovered the bodies of Annie, Lynda Van Der Klok, and Lynda's boyfriend, Bob Simms, positioned throughout the house. Myers, who'd returned to Laurie's (and his own) hometown, Haddonfield, Illinois—he'd been the mysterious figure Laurie had spied following her—attacked Laurie, slicing her arm with his knife. Laurie fell off the second-story landing and down the stairs, fracturing her ankle. She managed to limp to the Doyles' house, calling for the children to admit her. When Tommy did so, she entered the house and locked the door. Myers slipped through a window, attacking Laurie again. 


She fended him off, stabbing him in the neck with a knitting needle, before running upstairs. Myers pursued her, cornering her in a bedroom closet. Although he attempted to stab her with his knife, Laurie straightened a clothes hanger, using it to jab Myers in the eye, and he dropped his knife. Laurie picked up the weapon, stabbing Myers in the stomach. He fell to the floor, and Laurie assumed she'd killed him. Leaving the closet, she ordered the children to flee the house. Soon thereafter, Myers began to strangle her, but Laurie pulled his mask away, exposing his face. Myers's former psychiatrist, Doctor Samuel Loomis, arrived and shot Myers six times, each bullet driving him backward, through the bedroom window, and he fell from the balcony. Loomis looked, but Myers was nowhere in sight.

Biographies of the victims in the original Halloween movie (Annie Brackett, Lynda Van Der Klok, and Lynda's boyfriend, Bob Simms) suggest that they have mostly negative traits which advance their needs and desires at the expense of the welfare of others, while the survivor, Laurie Strode's personality traits, which are mostly positive, tend to favor both her own welfare and that of others. As such, Laurie's characteristics allow her to unite with others against a common enemy (as she does in later films of the franchise or to act in support of both her own welfare and that of others, as she does throughout the franchise).

Laurie Strode (Final Girl)
(Green + socially sanctioned; red = socially condemned; uncolored = socially neutral)

Annie Brackett (Victim)
Lynda Van Der Klok (Victim)
Disorganized and unfocused
Bob Simms (Victim)

Laurie's positive values are those endorsed by her society and culture, the values of secular humanism, or what the philosopher Friedrich Nietsche calls (and condemns as) “herd morality.” According to Nietsche,

Herd morality is a development of the original slave morality which inherits most of its content, including a reinterpretation of various traits: impotence becomes goodness of heart, craven fear becomes humility, submission becomes ‘obedience’, [sic] cowardice and being forced to wait become patience, the inability to take revenge becomes forgiveness, the desire for revenge becomes a desire for justice, a hatred of one’s enemy becomes a hatred of injustice (Genealogy of Morals).

He condemns herd morality, because, he says,

Well-being’ in herd morality limits human beings, promoting people who are modest, submissive and conforming . And so it opposes the development of higher people, it slanders their will to power and labels them evil. Belief in its values limits people who could become higher people, leading them to self-doubt and self-loathing ( Genealogy of Morals).

If Laurie, the final girl, the survivor not only of the original Halloween movie, but also of the entire franchise to date, adheres to herd morality, the victims, those who fail to survive, must represent the opposing morality that Nietsche characterizes as a position “beyond good and evil,” the amoral stance of the superman, which reverses the tenets of the herd morality and could, thus be characterized as its opposite, an amoral position opposed to herd morality and to the original slave morality from which herd morality developed, based on the ideas that—

Heroic Amorality
Herd Morality
Goodness of heart
Craven fear
Cowardice and being forced to wait
The inability to take revenge
The desire for revenge
Hatred of one's enemy
Hatred of injustice

If we list Myers's personality traits, as they are presented or suggested by his behavior, we see a predator motivated by impulses that are considered, as Dr. Loomis later describes them, “pure evil.” In other words, Myers is everything civilized society condemns:

Michael Myers (Predator)
(Green + socially sanctioned; red = socially condemned; uncolored = socially neutral)


Superhuman stealth, strength, endurance, durability, survivability

For Nietzsche, the opposite of the herd is the Superman,” a “superior man [who] would not be a product of long evolution; rather, he would emerge when any man with superior potential completely masters himself and strikes off conventional Christian 'herd morality' to create his own values, which are completely rooted in life on this earth. Nietzsche was not forecasting the brutal superman of the German Nazis, for his goal was a “Caesar with Christ’s soul.”

Thus, we see that, although Myers may have some of the traits of the Nietzschean superman, Myers, lacking “Christ's soul,” is not such a figure, nor is he a type of Caesar, for Caesar conquered nations; he did not waste his life murdering individuals for no apparent motive, nor were his foes, for the most part, teenagers, women, children, and helpless men, as were Myers's victims.

If anything, he is a rogue figure, without any redeeming qualities, something neither human nor superhuman, but subhuman. Unless one is a Caesar, the herd is needed to resist such a creature, a herd energized by the traits that make up the final girl, Laurie Strode's character, although she might be better off with the defiance exhibited in her smoking marijuana, a substance which, at the time she used it, was illegal, set apart by society as forbidden and dangerous. (It does no good to argue that, today, the recreational use of marijuana is tolerated, if not accepted, by most of the population, as, ordinarily, a character must be judged by the moral standards—and, indeed, by the laws—of the society of the time; although an act or an institution—whether the smoking of marijuana or slavery—may be reckoned as having been right or wrong by later generations, it is a rare person who transcends a contemporary understanding of right and wrong during his or her own lifetime.)

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Darwinian Horror

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Frankly, no, I've never wondered what's in a Navy SEAL's survival kit until I saw Time's online article, “You're a SEAL Stranded in Hostile Territory: What's in Your Survival Kit?

If you're a Navy SEAL, this is what's in your survival kit (contents change on occasion):

  • Mini-multi tool
  • Button compass
  • lED squeeze light
  • Fire-starting kit
  • Water-storage device
  • Water-purification tablets
  • Electrolyte tablets
  • Signal mirror
  • Thermal blanket
  • Kevlar line
  • safety pins
  • P-38 can opener
  • Stainless-steel wire
  • Duct tape
  • Fresbel magnifying glass
  • Waterproof notepaper
  • Ink pen
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotic ointment
  • Cotton pad
  • Hacksaw blade
  • Ceramic razor blade
  • Moleskin adhesive patch
  • Kevlar thread
  • Fishing leader and downrigger cable
  • Suspended navigation magnet
  • ferro cerium rod
  • Cotton ball
  • Bobby pins
  • Handcuff shim (pick)
  • Universal handcuff key
Of course, each item must conform to Navy specifications. To give you an idea of the nature of such specifications, here are the ones for a few of the items listed above:
Mini-multi Tool
  • Stainless-steel mini-multi tool that can function as pliers, wire cutters, a file, or an awl in a rattle-proof package.
  • A quality AA, 14-millimeter, liquid-dampened button compass with at least eight hours of luminous capability.
  • LED squeeze light equipped with a red lens and a switch that allows selection between continuous and momentary use.
  • A fire-starting kit which includes a ferro cerium rod no longer than three inches and no wider than eight millimeters packaged in a reclosing bag.
  • A two-inch by three-inch signaling mirror with an aiming hole, the non-mirrored side of which is covered with an infrared-reflective material and the mirror side of which is protected against scratches; the mirror's protective cover must be removable with one hand.
What goes into a survival kit depends on what sort of enemy, terrain, or other type of threat the kit's carrier is expected to encounter. Although the Navy SEALs' survival kits are doubtlessly helpful in assisting them in surviving the threats they are likely to encounter in the performance of their missions, the contents of their kits wouldn't probably be much aid for, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Instead her survival kit would likely contain such items as the nineteenth-century vampire kits that really did (and, in some cases, still do) exist. Although the contents varied somewhat from one kit to another, these items would have appeared in a fully stocked kit:
  • Wooden stakes
  • Mallet
  • Crucifix (for Roman Catholic vampires)
  • Cross (for Protestant vampires)
  • Bible
  • Derringer
  • Vials of garlic
  • Vials of holy water (again, for Roman Catholic vampires)
  • Knife or sword (presumably for beheading vampires)

Buffy, although as dutiful as any Navy SEAL, is sometimes lax in keeping rules, so, instead of a vampire kit, she often makes do only with a wooden stake or two, carried in her purse, or with whatever weapon she happens upon, conventional or not, during the course of a fight, and, instead of using a mallet, she simply stabs her prey, driving the stake into its heart with nothing more than her own superhuman strength. She is, after all, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (The stabbing tactic didn't work too well, at first, against Kakistos, though.)

Although Charles Darwin never used the term—Herbert Spencer introduced it, based on Darwinian concepts—“survival of the fittest” has been used to summarize the gist of evolution as it pertains to the continuance of species competing with one another for survival. Just as clarification concerning who originated the phrase is often needed, so is the definition of the phrase itself: “Survival of the fittest doesn’t mean ONLY the physically or mentally strongest survive. It means the organism with traits most fit for survival in a given environment survives, thrives, and procreates regardless of what trait makes it most fit.” (Notice the phrase “traits most fir for survival in a given environment”? This is a key qualification; upon it are many horror movies based, even if some of the filmmakers themselves were unaware of the Darwinian basis of their films. By definition, a film concerns itself with only one type of antagonist and with one dominant setting; these elements often determine the type of threat to which the hero or heroine is exposed, the type of threat that tests the survivability of his or her traits.)

Survivors survive against a specific type of threat—in horror fiction, usually this threat takes the form (or formlessness, as the case may be) of a monster. This threat tests the survivor's fitness; if the hero or heroine is fit enough, he or she survives; if not,
well . . . .

See the source image

Laurie Strode,  Halloween's final girl

In many horror movies, though, survivors don't have any ready-to-hand weapons except those which nature or nature's God (depending upon one's point of view) equipped him or her or traits and skills he or she acquired along the way: brains, brawn, courage, decency, loyalty, and so forth. In such cases, fitness, Darwin's sole prerequisite for survival, is a matter of physical, intellectual, and emotional suitability. One character, in particular, has what it takes to survive against monsters and pretty much all other odds, even without ready-to-hand weapons or survival kits: the final girl.

The good girl (and other horror movie survivors) makes it possible to analyze and evaluate horror movies from a Darwinian point of view. These movies' settings and the monsters who originate or dwell therein represent the environments that test the hero's or heroine's traits, determining whether the traits are such as would survive in such an environment.

Note: just because a survivor is shown to possess the traits that enable him or her to survive against the threats of one environment does not necessarily mean that he or she would survive in another horror movie's environment. Take Buffy, for instance. She does well in Sunnydale, against the minions of the Hellmouth, but how would she make out against Pennywise, the dreaded Dormammu, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Anti-Monitor, Doomsday, or Mister Mxyzptlk?)

With mixed results, scientists can use computer models to test hypotheses when it's impractical or impossible to test them through actual experiments. It's too bad that human experience is too complex to be tested in the same way. The best we can do, perhaps, at present, is to envision situations, characters, and settings which, at least in theory, allow us to see which traits might sustain us in struggles to survive against specific, albeit fictional, threats in a variety of particular environments. One of the problems with such an approach was pointed out by Edgar Allan Poe, in a different context, well over a century ago: by definition, fiction's plots are inescapably tautological, their beginnings predetermined by their ends, which, we might add, is not at all how evolution works. Do we see because we have eyes, or do we have eyes because we see? Which is cause, and which is effect?

This article lists some of horror movie characters who have survived against all odds; each is a version of the final girl.

Just as the Navy SEALs' and the nineteenth-century vampire hunters' kits (and Buffy's wooden stakes) give their owners tools and abilities they don't have naturally, so does human culture, with its emphases on such traits as brains, brawn, courage, decency, loyalty, and so forth. By nurturing these traits, by emphasizing them with role models (may of whom are fictitious), and awarding their expression, we, as a society, seek to ensure their survival, because they have helped to ensure our own. With human beings, humanity itself has become a factor in evolution, human and otherwise, because we have learned that our actions influence our fate. If we are not yet fully masters of our own destiny, we are members of a crew sailing upon the cosmic sea in which our survival as a species is determined not only by the blind forces of evolution but by the contributions we make to the direction these forces may take. Nature or nature's God has given us a part to play in the cosmic play unfolding before us each moment, every day.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Title and Caption: The Horror of the Evocative

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

Often, the titles and captions of horror movie posters are suggestive. They're enticing. They invite their viewers' minds to wander, to speculate, to imagine—and, of course, we imagine much worse things, much worse monsters, than those even the most talented special effects wizards and screenwriters are apt to show us. There's no substitute, when it comes to fear, for the human imagination itself, as H. G. Wells implies in his masterful short story “The Red Room.”

But this post isn't about short stories or novels or horror movies. It's about the suggestiveness of words combined with images, which together explain nothing, state little, and evoke much.

The poster for Dark Was the Night evokes terror, the fear of the unknown, both with its title (notice the use of the past tense), which refers to “dark” and “night,” which can be understood both literally and figuratively, suggesting both nocturnal hours and evil, and the poster's caption, “Evil's Roots Run Deep. . . .”

The text is accompanied by an image of a man wearing a uniform, probably that of a local police department, alone in a forest. Alone, he holds a flashlight in one hand, a rifle in the other, the tool parallel to the weapon. Technology and nature are thus symbolically juxtaposed.

But there is another juxtaposition, too: that of man and beast. Despite his flashlight and his rifle—despite his technological advantages—the hunter has become the hunted, his prey, a gigantic creature that looks simultaneously both fleshly and earthborn, has become the hunter. The creature, which may or may not have a head (if it does, it is low, below chest level, as if the creature crouches, although its body appears to be erect), is behind the human. In the wilderness, technology has its limits; in the forest primeval, engineering and its effects count but little, if at all.

The poster suggests that, in hunting the creature of the woods, the human may, in fact, be hunting himself, or the beast within himself, for its placement suggests that it could be rising from the man, a shadowy figure as much flesh and blood as leaf and dirt. It is the beast within, his on bestial nature, perhaps, that the man hunts, and it is this bestial element of himself which hunts him.

The poster recalls Friedrich Nietzsche's warning, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” This idea of the beast within is reinforced by the letter “i” in “Night,” which is an image of a stunted tree, its branches superimposed upon the limbs of the forest's trees, its roots forming a clawed hand reaching down, into the portrait of man and beast.

By explaining nothing, but evoking much, the poster invites viewers to form their own explanations, to make the text and image mean whatever they think or want them to mean. In this sense, movie posters become Rorschach inkblots or a sort, by which, in projecting one's own thoughts and feelings upon the poster, viewers identify the monster in themselves (just as I myself have done, no doubt, in explaining such posters as Rorschach tests).

A review of the movie shows a few of my interpretations of the poster's significance are false in terms of what actually happens in the film. However, there is a lawman—two in fact: Deputy Donny Saunders and Sheriff Paul Shields, and technology is represented by the tools the victims, a group of loggers, use, who do encounter a monster. The movie makes plain some of the monster's characteristics and behaviors: it snatches the local townspeople's cattle, so, presumably, it's a carnivore, and it “leaves hoof prints in the dirt” and “scratch marks on metals,” suggesting it has powerful, sharp claws.

What about my supposition that the monster arises from the lawman (or from human beings in general)? A couple of the characters suffer from chronic guilt concerning a child for whose lose they blame themselves, but the film doesn't play on their guilt as a symbolic root of the monster and the evil it does; instead, New York Times critic Andy Webster points out, it's a sort ofecologically minded demon that’s some kind of godless instrument of the Devil, as is suggested by the tree dweller['s] . . . fighting encroaching overdevelopment on its habitat (attacking those who don’t 'respect the land,' says a part-Shawnee bartender)” and its subsequent attack upon huddled citizens seeking refuge in a church, as if to assault their faith.”

For Webster, this implicit explanation of the creature's motives, if not its nature, doesn't work well: Even in a horror movie, that’s hard to believe. ” My own idea, that the lawman's own character is the source in which the monster is rooted, seems a better explanation. It worked well for Robert Louis Stevenson, after all.

The creature seems to remain mysterious, although some suggest it might be the devil or a demon, and one reviewer sees it as a contemporary version of Spring-heeled Jack, “as similar creature” that terrorized the population of Devon, England, in the mid 1800s. This same creature, “or something similar,” apparently “made its way to America,” where it became “known as the Jersey Devil.”

Both creatures have interesting (and varied) histories, but neither seems to have arisen, Mr. Hyde fashion, out of their human, Dr. Jekyll, counterparts, so, here, my imagination doesn't dovetail with the movie's plot, but, then, the imagination often doesn't, which is one reason, perhaps, that we often say the imagination provides images not only different from, but superior to, many a movie and, for that matter, many a monster.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Scenic Posters

Copyright 2019 by Gary L. Pullman

A common formula for many horror stories, whether written on the page or enacted on the soundstage, consists of five acts:

  1. The status quo is portrayed.
  2. A series of bizarre incidents occur.
  3. The protagonist discovers the cause of these incidents.
  4. The protagonist, often aided by friends, uses his or her knowledge of the cause of the incidents to put things right.
  5. A return to the status quo is shown (although the ending may also hint at a possible sequel).
As in describing a scene in order both to represent and to dramatize it, it can be helpful to draw inspiration from a horror movie poster (the book cover, as it were, of a film), this same process can be useful in generating scenes which comprise the bizarre incidents which occur in act two (and, perhaps, later as well). Remember that the scenes so created must be causally related, although their ultimate cause will be withheld until act three.

An inspiration for a scene might be the poster for Annabelle: Creation (2017). (In writing from movie posters, I usually select posters for movies I haven't seen, and I don't read a synopsis of the film. I want to be inspired by the poster's art; I don't want to steal the screenwriters' original treatment.) With this in mind, let's look at the way NOT to do this:

My senses on high alert, I stole glances to either side and over my shoulder, as I crept along the cold, damp corridor, feeling trapped by the ancient basement's gray stone walls, stone floor, and stone ceiling.

I was conscious of the tons of massive rock above me and of the cataclysm which would ensue should all that weight come tumbling down (not that it should), and I imagined the terrors that likely befell the poor lost souls shut away inside the subterranean chambers which opened off the warren of intersecting hallways—or would have opened, had they not been locked.

As I continued along the maze, I heard the grating of rusty hinges, as a great, thick iron door opened of its own accord. Its loud, high-pitched creaking noise made my heart shrink, even as I turned, staring with horror at the sight within the chamber thus revealed.

A girl stood, her arms raised and extended at shoulder level; her body limp; her legs, one of which wore a brace, together. She was pale, and her eyes were closed. Perhaps she was not standing, after all. She seemed to have recently died—after having been crucified. However, no nails had been driven through her wrists or ankles.

A chill of horror iced my spine, as I saw another disturbing anomaly: a doll seemed to float before her, positioned as though it were seated upon the girl's lap, although, of course, her hanging vertically from the wall precluded such a possibility. The doll must be pinned to the girl's dress.

But why would someone go to such trouble? The scene seemed some sort of bizarre tableau, but, if so, to what end? Or did it have a purpose? Perhaps the hole mise-en-scene was nothing more than the whim of a mind gone mad.

Run! For God's sake, flee this damned place!

At my peril, in my foolishness, my curiosity greater than my wisdom, I stayed, gazing at the figure of torment within the chamber to which the open door admitted my horrified gaze.

At the girl's feet, a small table had been overturned. I squinted, focusing my gaze, and drew back, horrified anew: the table, like the chair beside it, the doll, and, indeed, the girl herself floated! Suspended in midair, they were held stationary and aloft by a power both unseen and unknown.

The girl wore patent-leather shoes, which were all but invisible in the darkness of what, I realized now, was a window—or a long, narrow rectangular opening, without glass, within the chamber's wall, behind the female figure, unlit and indistinct. Its shape had added to the illusion that the girl had been crucified, for, in the dim light, it looked like a plank of wood to which her ankles might have been nailed, as her wrists, at first, had seemed to be fixed to the stone wall.

Aghast, I stumbled away from the open doorway, realizing my retreat only when my back encountered the immovable resistance of the corridor's opposite wall. As I continued to stare at the girl afloat against her chamber's wall, her eyes opened, revealing yet another horror: the whites were blood-red, her pupils elliptical and golden, as if ablaze with the fire of hell, an effect strengthened by the appearance, between her soft, pink lips of a split serpent's tongue!

The doll, the countenance of which was of a decidedly malevolent character, opened its mouth, and, in a voice more suitable to a demon than to a toy in the shape of a babe in arms, harshly croaked a plea both pathetic and horrendous: Help us!

Turning, I ran along the stony floor, the doll's croaking supplication seeming to reverberate throughout the underground hallways and subterranean chambers as if the labyrinth were the many mouths and throats of hell's damned souls crying in unison, Help us!

This description is too close to the picture on the poster to be used in a story of one's own, but, in writing it, I conceived an idea for a novel, or part of one, so the effort isn't necessarily lost, even though it didn't achieved its intended goal, which was to develop a scene that is inspired by, rather than merely repeats, a scene painted for a movie poster. It would be a mistake—and a significant, perhaps costly, one—to use the description I wrote of the Annabelle: Creation poster's picture in a story of my own; it is too close to the scene depicted by the poster and could, therefore, represent plagiarized content were it to be used as is in an independent work.

However, all may not be lost, even now, in this exercise.

Returning to my description (and to the poster), I can isolate the elements that are horrific and uncanny and repeat them in a new description that is sufficiently different to avoid copying the Annabelle: Creation artwork. So what are the poster's elements of horror and the uncanny? As I see them:

  • isolation
  • innocence mocked through parody
  • religious faith mocked through parody
  • victimization
  • perversions of the Christian concepts of the crucifixion and the creation
  • confusion created by a maze of underground corridors and chambers
  • supernatural power displayed

With these elements in mind, a rewrite of the original description can perhaps salvage the scene, allowing it to be used in a work of one's own:

My senses on high alert, I stole glances to either side and over my shoulder, as I crept along the cold, damp corridor, feeling trapped by the ancient basement's gray stone walls, stone floor, and stone ceiling.

I was conscious of the tons of massive rock above me and of the cataclysm which would ensue should all that weight come tumbling down (not that it should), and I imagined the terrors that likely befell the poor lost souls shut away inside the subterranean chambers which opened off the warren of intersecting hallways—or would have opened, had they not been locked.

As I continued along the maze, I heard the grating of rusty hinges, as a great, thick iron door opened of its own accord. Its loud, high-pitched creaking noise made my heart shrink, even as I turned, staring with horror at the sight within the chamber thus revealed.

A boy lay upon an elevated stone slab inside a room resembling a tomb cut from a rock. He was naked but for a cloth laid over his groin. His arms were extended straight out, from his shoulders; his body was limp, his legs together. He was pale, and his eyes were closed. He seemed to have recently died—after having been crucified. Wounds from spikes driven through his wrists and ankles were crusted with the blood staining the altar upon which the body lay.

What had I stumbled upon? The result of the crucifixion of a child? What recent madness had happened here, in the bowels of a castle thought long deserted? Were the villains who'd committed this blasphemous murder still in secret residence? Was I being watched by the madmen who'd committed this unspeakable sacrilege?

Run! For God's sake, flee this damned place!

At my peril, in my foolishness, my curiosity greater than my wisdom, I stayed, gazing at the figure of torment within the chamber to which the open door had admitted my horrified gaze, until, aghast in contemplating the sight, I stumbled away from the open doorway, realizing my retreat had been underway only when my back encountered the immovable resistance of the corridor's opposite wall.

Now, as I continued to stare at the unfortunate boy, his eyes opened, revealing yet another horror: the whites were blood-red, his pupils elliptical and golden, as if ablaze with the fire of hell, an effect strengthened by the appearance, between his soft, pink lips, of a split serpent's tongue!

The features of his handsome face distorted, as a malevolent hatred akin to rage animated the corpse, its mouth opening as a voice more suitable to a demon than to a child, harshly croaked a plea both pathetic and horrendous: Help us!

Turning, I ran, finally, in headlong flight, along the stony floor, the demon-child's croaking supplication seeming to reverberate throughout the underground hallways and subterranean chambers, as if the labyrinth were the many mouths and throats of hell's damned souls, crying in unison, Help us! although, in their infernal state, neither deliverance nor succor was possible. All that was left them was this tableau of the damned, by which they not only tormented the living, but also continued their unholy protests against the Almighty whom, even in thethroes of their eternal torment, to curse and vilify.

This second description, inspired by the poster and by the unsuccessful attempt to capture in words, while avoiding copying, which would result, if included, as originally written, in my own, otherwise original work, in plagiarism, now works, for it is different enough to be my own, a work inspired by, rather than merely copied from, the original poster. It is itself original, instead of simply derivative.

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.

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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