Fascinating lists!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Fandom Wikis: Suspense through Cliffhanger

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Fandom wikis are only as good as the typically anonymous fans who compose the site's articles. For this reason, they shouldn't be used unless one has seen the series—and the particular episode of the series—about which an article comments and knows, therefore, whether the information the fan-writer provides is reliable. (I have found that, in most of the articles I've read, the articles' contents are reliable.)

I mention Fandom wikis because, for writers, these websites can be a gold mine. For example, my wife and I are late to the party in watching Blacklist, a series I suspect I enjoy more than she does. Currently, we're in the middle of season three. One of the features I like about the Blacklist Fandom wiki is the list of questions that appears at the end of many of the articles on the series's episodes. From a writer's point of view, these lists suggest how, whether in writing a stand-alone novel or a series of novels, a writer can maintain suspense by leaving questions he or she has developed open (i. e., unanswered) at the end of a chapter or a section of chapters of a stand-alone novel or at the end of a volume in a series of novels, much as television series leave such questions open at the end of each episode and at the conclusion of each season.

In effect, such open questions are examples of the cliffhanger, a plot device that leaves readers hanging alongside protagonists at the edge of a precipice, literal or figurative. Charles Dickens popularized the cliffhanger, but it's been around since ancient times.

The wiki provides both a synopsis and a detailed summary of each episode, and then lists a series of “Unanswered Questions” that keep viewers in suspense, motivating them to return again next week (or, if one is binge-watching on Netflix, to watch the next episode as soon as possible).

Here is the synopsis of the first episode of season one, “Pilot”:

Ex-government agent and one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives, Raymond "Red" Reddington mysteriously turns himself in to the FBI and offers to give up everyone he has ever worked with including a long-thought-dead terrorist but under one condition – he’ll only talk to newly-minted female FBI profiler, Elizabeth Keen with whom he seemingly has no connection. For Liz, it’s going to be one hell of a first day on the job and what follows is a twisting series of events as the race to stop a terrorist begins.

By clicking on the title, a hotlink, one accesses the page of the site that's dedicated to this particular episode, which offers a detailed summary of the episode and the “Unanswered Questions” it implies. Here are the “Unanswered Questions” that “Pilot” suggests:

  1. Why did Red refer to the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list as a “publicity campaign” and a “popularity contest”? He was/is on the list and deserved the listing.
  2. What was in Red’s briefcase?
  3. Why did Red surrender his aliases?
  4. Why was Donald Ressler, an FBI agent, involved in an operation to assassinate Raymond Reddington? Even for the CIA, the chance of such an illegal operation being exposed would make it risky. Even if the foreign government approved the assassination, why include an FBI agent? Why did Harold Cooper not know of the assassination attempt?
  5. How did Ranko Zamani fake his death so that the FBI believed he was dead? Was Eric Trettel involved?
  6. How much does Red know about Cooper? He sensed Cooper’s presence because of the “hubris.”
  7. Why is Red helping the FBI now?
  8. How will Red make Elizabeth Keen famous?
  9. What will be the aftermath of the Innkeeper's arrest? Will his network of safe houses be shut down?
  10. How many of the Innkeeper's clients will be arrested?
  11. How many of the Chemist's clients will be arrested?
  12. What number was Zamani on The Blacklist?
  13. Why will Red only [sic] talk to Liz?
  14. How is Red linked to Tom?
  15. Who and/or what is Tom?
  16. Why did one of the FBI techs wheeling in the cartons of files on Red have a kippah on?

Some of the questions are complex, others trivial. The answers to the former are likely to unravel over several episodes (if they are answered at all), while the latter may be answered in the next episode (if at all).

The same device, cliffhangers in the form of “unanswered questions,” can work for a novelist just as they do for a screenwriter. Of course, a novelist might have to jog his or her reader's memory from time to time, if the answers to some of the questions are postponed for more than a few chapters or books.

Many TV shows have their own Fandom wikis. By examining them, whether in regard to "unanswered questions" that create and maintain suspense or for other storytelling techniques, writers can continue to hone their own narrative and dramatic skills.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Horror, Past and Present

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

According to Jib Fowles, professor emeritus of communications at the University of Houston, three “stylistic features” influence the presentation of the fifteen “basic needs” he identifies in Mass Advertising as Social Forecast: “humor . . . celebrities . . . [and] time imagery, past and future.” History, traditions, and nostalgia, he says, are rich sources of such imagery, often tying in with such basic needs as the need to achieve, the need for guidance, the need for aesthetic sensations, and the need for guidance. This post discusses the use of past and future imagery in horror fiction.

Typically, imagery of the past and future are featured, mainly for two reasons.

Certain horror stories fit a five-part plot paradigm:

  1. A relatively peaceful, sometimes pleasant, everyday setting is explored.
  2. A series of bizarre incidents occur.
  3. The protagonist learns the cause of these incidents.
  4. Armed with this knowledge, he or she eliminates the source of the bizarre incidents.
  5. The status quo returns.

In presenting images of the past and future, the relatively peaceful, sometimes pleasant, everyday setting of the present is explored. Stephen King adopts this approach in 'Salem's Lot, as readers follow a newspaper delivery boy through the town as he negotiates his route, the narrator offering comments upon the residents of the community. Not only does this approach describe the normal routines of everyday life in 'Salem's Lot, but it also allows King to introduce both his novel's setting and a good number of the characters who will appear in his story.

In motion pictures, novels, and short stories alike, as opposed to the still images which occur in print advertisements, time is fluid, rather than static. The present is always becoming the past, just as the future is always slipping into the present and then into the past. In movies, time is a stream, not a puddle.

In 'Salem's Lot, as the action is described, the scene occurs in the present, but, of course, as the story progresses, this opening scene has occurred in the past.

In addition to using past-future imagery to show the relatively peaceful, sometimes pleasant, everyday setting of the present, horror fiction also often uses imagery of the past and the future to imply cause-and-effect relationships between present and past events. This use of such imagery is widespread in horror novels and movies, as it is in every other narrative and dramatic genre.

Pyscho starts with imagery of the present, as the audience is introduced to Marion Crane, who, having absconded with her employer's money, is forced by a downpour to rent a room at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel. She attracts the attention of motel keeper Norman Bates, which arouses his mother's ire, and she stabs Crane to death as the motel guest takes a shower in her room. Bates cleans up the murder scene and disposes of Crane's body.

In a future scene, near the end of the movie, the audience learns that, in the past (i. e., before the events shown in the movie), Bates developed a split personality as a result of his mother's psychotic emotional manipulation of her son. She'd projected her own sexual insecurities onto her Bates, whom she punishes, even after her death, as a personality whom he's internalized to the point of dressing, speaking, and acting as she did, as, in his mind, he becomes her. In a sense, it's she who committed Crane's murder (and that of a detective investigating Crane's disappearance); Bates covers up “her' crimes, an accessory after the fact.

Although psychologists continue to debate the true nature of Bates's mental illness (as though he were a real person), the murderer upon whom he is based, Ed Gein, was described, by the psychologists and psychiatrists who examined Gein, as a “schizophrenic” and a “sexual psychopath” who suffered from an 'abnormally magnified attachment to his mother.” After his arrest, Gein was ruled “legally insane” and spent the rest of his life in mental institutions, first Wisconsin's Central State Hospital and then the Mendota Mental Institute in Madison.

Michael Myers, the “Shape” in the Halloween film franchise, is psychotic as well, claiming to hear voices which command him to “hate people.” He dreams of centuries-old incidents that took place during the Celtic feast of Samhain, during which “a disfigured fifteen-year-old boy named Enda who, after being rejected by his true love Deirdre, brutally murdered her . . . on what would later be called Halloween night.”

In the original movie's opening scene, as present events unfold, Myers murders his older sister, Judith, while she has sex with her boyfriend, Danny, instead of babysitting Michael.

Later, (i. e., in the future) his psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis, seems to believe that Michael is a sociopath full of “evil”:

I met him fifteen years ago. I was told there was nothing left: no reason, no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this . . . six-year-old child with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and . . . the blackest eyes—the devil's eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply . . . evil.

The odd “diagnosis,” part psychological, part theological, and grounded in a strange mix of social science and religion, captures Loomis's own inability to account for the boy's murderous ways. In the case of Myers, the psychiatric expert, reviewing his patient's past, seems unable, in the present, to explain the nature or origin of Myers's psychopathology.

Some of the moviemakers associated with the franchise seem to have understood Myers better than Dr. Loomis. Daniel Farrands, who wrote The Curse of Michael Myers, regards the character as a sexually repressed, incestuous “deviant” who, in having killed Judith and in killing other women who resemble his older sister, seeks to murder her again and again. However, unable to stop at this point, because of Myers's seeming ability to return from the dead, Farrands also describes Myers as somehow “supernatural.”

Rob Zombie focused on the development of Myers's psychopathic personality disorder, including the boy's penchant for torturing animals, one of the three factors, according to psychiatrist J. M. Macdonald, indicate violent tendencies which could be related to repeated criminal offenses, such as serial murder. (The other two factors are arson and bedwetting, or enuresis.) When two or all three factors appear, Macdonald considers them to indicate such violent tendencies. However, Macdonald's theory is controversial, some researchers suggesting it is more indicative of past parental neglect or abuse, and John Carpenter, who created the Halloween franchise, directing the original, 1978 film.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the science fiction and horror genres were sometimes combined as gigantic insects, animals, monsters, or aliens threatened the earth. Scientists were the true heroes of these movies, because it was their knowledge that empowered the protagonists to hunt down and destroy or otherwise neutralize the menaces. In these movies, the present typically showed the predatory or invasive creatures' attacks. As the stories unfolded, however, these present moments became past incidents, as the “new” present showed how scientists discovered the origin or nature of the threat and the means to eliminate it. Armed with this knowledge, the movies' protagonists then defeated the attackers and saved the planet.

One example of such a film is The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. At the outset of the film, the audience learns that an experimental explosion of an atomic bomb north of the Arctic Circle has awakened a 200-foot-long carnivore, the Rhedosaurus. Scientists later speculate (i. e., in a subsequent, “future” scene) that the animal, moving south along the Canadian-US eastern seaboard, is returning to the site at which fossils of its species were first located. Army troops' attempts to kill the beast are ineffective, although a rocket burns a hole through the predator's throat, causing it to retreat into the ocean. During its flight into the sea, its blood infects the population of New York City with a deadly disease. Unable to kill the dinosaur with an explosion or by fire, without further spreading its disease, the military fires a radioactive isotope into its wound, and the poisoned Rhedosaurus dies.

The use of imagery of the past and present appeals to several of the basic needs Fowles identifies, including the need to satisfy curiosity, the need to escape, the need to feel safe, and the need for guidance. It seems highly likely that such appeals attract horror movie audiences and horror novel readers as much they do consumers who peruse the print advertisements in which these same appeals are evoked.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Horror of Star Power

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

In MassAdvertising as Social Forecast, Jib Fowles, a professor of communications at the University of Houston, identifies three “stylistic features” of ads that influence “the way a basic appeal is presented”: humor, celebrities, and images of the past and present. This post concerns how horror novels and movies use celebrities as a way to enhance horror.

Of course, almost every movie features celebrities—the actors who star in the film. However, the use of the celebrities “stylistic feature” Fowles identifies could be interpreted as referring to actors who play celebrities in horror movies. In other words, one or more of the characters in the film is a famous person. Such is the case, for example, with fictional actress Ann Darrow, played by actual actress Fay Wray, who appears in King Kong. It is in thus sense that Fowles's celebrities 'stylistic feature” is understood in this post.

By being identified as a celebrity, a character receives an elevated status, because, in the United States and elsewhere, celebrities are revered; for many, they are the equivalent, in the world of popular entertainment, to royalty, and this is true not only of actors, but of other performers, including singers, athletes, comedians, bestselling authors, politicians, and other entertainers and public figures.

Not only do such characters have fame (and often fortune), but they're also typically regarded as glamorous and charismatic, living the types of lives many believe they themselves would enjoy living. They are treated with adulation by fans, but, at the same time, they may be envied, and their fall, if their careers should fail for some reason, is often as intriguing as their rise.

Horror movies that include fictional celebrities among their casts of characters include, in addition to King Kong, Misery, and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

In King Kong, Darrow's celebrity as an actress allows her to represent Beauty in a way and on a scale denied to ordinary women, despite the beauty many of them undoubtedly possess. As a celebrity, she is herself a representative of the beautiful woman, of Beauty personified. She is both a flesh-and-blood woman and a type, or idea, of woman, the ideal woman, the Beautiful Woman. It is because of her that Carl Denham, the man who hopes to produce a documentary film, has a star who can deliver the box office appeal he needs to market his production.

Darrow also contrasts with Kong: she is a beautiful woman, while he is a gigantic ape. The colossal gorilla's wild nature and prodigious strength makes Darrow's helplessness all the more apparent, as she frequently struggles in his grasp. He takes her where he will, pursues her like a bestial stalker, and finally, according to Denham, at least, dies because of the pint-size femme fatale: “It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

As a human being, Darrow is also obviously a representative of humanity. As such, it is with her plight that moviegoers will identify. Through their identification with her, they will feel her helplessness and her terror. In Kong's hand, they will be grasped as the gigantic ape navigates the jungle on Skull Island. From her vantage point atop cliffs and in caves, where Kong deposits her temporarily for safekeeping, as he battles dinosaurs, she will witness Kong's titanic struggles. The audience will see Kong's pursuit by Darrow's defenders as the gigantic beast views the chase. They will ascend the Empire State Building, in Kong's hand, as he climbs the skyscraper, clutching the actress in his immense, furry fist. From her perspective atop the edifice, they will witness the airplanes' attacks.

When Kong succumbs to technology, falling, mortally wounded, from the building upon which he took his last stand in defense of Darrow as much as himself, audiences will see the difference between Beauty and the Beast and be reminded that, despite certain similarities between the human human and the lower animals, despite their kinship, there is also a huge chasm between the two, an abyss that cannot be overcome. Darrow, despite her “courtship” by Kong, remains a human being, and the two, human and animal, must ever remain distinct.

Paul Sheldon, the bestselling romance writer in Stephen King's Misery, is also a celebrity character. His romance series has made him famous, if not immensely wealthy; his success as a popular writer has set him apart from others. However, his success is predicated upon the interests of his readers. If they sour on his work, he can quickly become a has-been or, as Misery makes clear, a victim of his formerly “number one fan.”

Of course, King's notion that a fan would capture, assault, and attempt to kill a writer simply for killing off a favorite fictional character is over the top. Most fantastic literature, whether of the horror or another genre, is, by definition, exaggerated, which is why Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the need for a reader to “suspend” his or her 'disbelief” as a condition for enjoying such literature.

Annie Wilkes, the psychotic serial killer-cum-nurse who rescues Sheldon after crashing while driving during a snowstorm, attempts to force the writer to resurrect Misery Chastain, the character whom Sheldon killed off in the last novel of his romance series, which he has abandoned in the hope of becoming a serious writer. The presence in the novel of a celebrity character affords King the opportunity of commenting upon relationship between a famous writer and his or her fans—a relationship which, in Misery, becomes more predatory than symbiotic.

According to Grady Hendrix, King's own fans reacted negatively to the novel, seeing it as an expression of King's “contempt” for his readers, and some see the novel as, indeed, a “love/hate letter to his fans.” King apparently tried to mend fences with his “outraged fans” during a “publicity tour” for the book, but it's hard to imagine he succeeded given the fact that he describes the psychotic Wilkes, his self-described “number one fan” as a soulless monster who literally reeks.

The portrait of King's fans is nothing if not ambiguous and begs the question, What sort of writer writes for such admirers? The answer appears to be Sheldon, but how much of the fictional bestselling romance author is a true likeness of King himself? There are similarities: both writers, the real and the imagined, suffered shattered legs; both became prescription pain killer addicts; and both apparently have ambiguous, “love/hate” relationships with their fans. As Hendrix observes,

King has said numerous times, the fans put food on his table. He hates them, but he owes them his life. And there are moments when Paul is waiting for Annie to react to something in the manuscript he’s writing that he knows will thrill her, or upset her, when it feels like her reaction is vital for his continued existence. He imagines her reaction and then revels in it when it comes, and one can imagine this is how King felt too. He has written for his readers (Constant reader as he calls them in his introductions) for so long that to some extent his books are collaborative: if a book is released to the public and no one reads it, does it even exist at all?

Although there are exceptions, celebrities don't typically start life as celebrities. Like everything else, fame must usually be earned. The biographies of most famous people show they paid their dues. Michael Landon, a star of the television series Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Highway to Heaven, not to mention the movie I Was a Teenage Werewolf, began his career as an extra. Clint Eastwood started out as a laboratory technician in Revenge of the Creature. Although they may have appeared in earlier films, many actresses, including Fay Wray (King Kong), Janet Leigh (Psycho), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Jennifer Love Hewitt (I Know What You Did Last Summer), and Kate Beckinsale (Underworld: Evolution), established their Hollywood careers “scream queens.”

In I Know What You Did Last Summer, Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a “D”-list celebrity, local beauty queen Helen Shivers, who hopes to leave her small town and establish herself in New York City as a major player in the entertainment industry. She finds fame elusive, and returns to her hometown, Southport, North Carolina, where she must settle for work as a “fragrance girl” in her father's department store, her show business aspirations confined to the local beauty pageant and a master of ceremonies spot for the Croaker Queen Pageant. She meets her death at the hands of the serial killer who stalks her and her friends. As far as her part in the film is concerned, the movie seems to suggest that small-town girls typically remain small-town girls, despite their hopes and dreams for something bigger and better than the lives they live as, well, small-town girls.

As with most other aspects of life in horror fiction, celebrity isn't all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, it makes a character stand out from the crowd, and that can be dangerous, indeed. Coming to the attention of—becoming, in fact, the center of attention for—a giant gorilla, a psychotic “fan,” or a serial killer bent on gruesome revenge isn't likely to promote one's career, whether as an actress, a bestselling author, or a beauty queen who wants to break out, both in the theater and from her small-town life. In fact, celebrity, in horror fiction, is likely to be brief, ending in a painful, violent, and bloody death. It's better, perhaps, to be a “nobody” than a Somebody, or, as military personnel learn, in their struggles to survive, to “keep a low profile.”

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Humor and Horror: An Unlikely Mix

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Jib Fowles, a professor of communications at the University of Houston, wrote several books on advertising. In Mass Advertising as Social Forecast, he lists the fifteen “basic needs” to which advertisements often appeal in promoting goods and services. In addition, he identifies three “stylistic features” of ads that influence “the way a basic appeal is presented”: humor, celebrities, and images of the past and present. This post concerns how horror novels and movies use humor as a way to enhance horror.

A good example of the unlikely mix of humor and horror occurs in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic, Psycho. After Norman Bates's alter ego, “Mother,” murders Marion Crane, a guest at the Bates Motel, he disposes of her body by placing it in the trunk of her car and pushing the automobile into a nearby pond. As he looks on, eating seeds or nuts, the vehicle begins to sink. When it's half-submerged, the car seems to settle, as it stops sinking. Bates looks horrified. He glances to his right, looks back at the car, then darts his gaze to his left. As he next looks at the automobile, it begins to sink again. Bates hazards a slight smile. The car vanishes completely, the water converging over its roof. It is altogether lost to sight. Bates's smile broadens. He has succeeded in covering up “Mother's” crime.

The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer also mixes horror with humor. Examples abound; here are a few:

In the episode “Helpless,” The Council of Watchers deliberately strips Buffy Summers of her supernatural powers so she can be “tested” in a confrontation with Kralik, a psychotic vampire who kidnaps Buffy's mother, Joyce. At one point, Buffy has trouble opening a jar of peanut butter. Her friend, Xander Harris, who's often overlooked because of his lack of superhuman abilities, seizes the opportunity to show his superior strength, as he smugly offers to open the jar for her. However, he humiliates himself instead, when, after several attempts, he is unable to open the jar, and his attempt to impress Buffy backfires.

In an encounter with Count Dracula, in “Buffy vs. Dracula,” Buffy dispatches the vampire with a wooden stake, causing him to burst into dust; a few moments later, smoke swirls, as he reappears, as good—or evil—as new. She dispatches him a second time. “Don't you think I watch your movies?” she asks. “You always come back.” When Dracula attempts a second comeback, as she waits, stake in hand, she warns him, “I'm standing right here,” at which point, the swirling smoke vanishes.

Buffy episodes are metaphors for the experiences that young adults often undergo. One such episode, “Living Conditions,” finds its humor in the metaphor itself, which likens the experience of sharing a dorm room with another person, whose interests and personality are nothing like one's own, to living with a demon. Almost everything one roommate does annoys the other. Buffy doesn't like Kathy's cutting her toenails in their room, she doesn't appreciate her taste in music, and she disapproves of her roommate's Celine Dion poster. Kathy doesn't like Buffy's desire to sleep with a window open, her gadding about campus, or her carelessness about leaving her chewed gum on shared surfaces. Buffy doesn't accept Kathy's suggestion that they each pay for their own respective telephone calls, nor does she like Kathy's labeling of the food items in their shared refrigerator or her borrowing clothes without permission.

In Psycho, the humor springs from two sources: situational irony and Bates's (i. e., actor Anthony Perkins's) reactions to the situation. The irony results from the unexpected apparent overturn of Bates's intentions, as the car containing Marion's body seems to come to rest before it's entirely submerged. As a result, instead of concealing the evidence of “Mother's” crime, the car, remaining not only visible but in the middle of the pond, would call attention to itself, and investigators would soon find Marion's corpse. Bates's shock and worry, followed by his relief and satisfaction, expressed through his nervousness, his fear of being discovered (suggested by his glancing about), and his smiles, show the emotions he feels as his plan is first threatened and then succeeds.

The humor of Xander's comeuppance, as he attempts to display his superior masculine strength as he helps the “helpless” vampire slayer, who normally possesses many times the might of even the strongest man, backfires, stems from the deflation of his smug attitude and his chauvinism. It is one of several examples of humor in Buffy that is based on deflating unbecoming character traits.

Dracula vs. Buffy” parodies the trope of the returning villain. In many horror movies, the menacing character returns, despite having been killed, sometimes in particularly brutal, seemingly definitive, ways. Michael Meyers, the antagonist of the Halloween series of films, returns, as does A Nightmare on Elm Street's franchise villain, Freddy Krueger. In some cases, as in Buffy's own “Bad Eggs,” something remains through which the monster's offspring may return. The humor of “Dracula vs. Buffy” relies on viewers' familiarity with the trope and their recognition that it is being spoofed.

LivingConditions” exaggerates the conflicts that arise between people who have different, if not opposing, attitudes, beliefs, habits, interests, perceptions, principles, and lifestyles. As roommates, Buffy and Kathy are an odd couple whose differences, thanks to the influence of the Hellmouth, finally escalate to violence.

Although for some horror fiction fans, touches of humor can enhance horror the way salt, added to sweet treats, heightens the taste of sugar, too much humor or its use at the wrong time can be detrimental to the story's effect, and it takes an experienced writer to mix humor with horror in such a way as to add to, rather than to subtract from, the story as a whole. Both Hitchcock and Buffy's creator, Joss Whedon, are able to pull it off. 

As Fowles warns with regard to the use of humor in advertising, humor must be used cautiously. “Humor can be treacherous,” Fowles cautions, “because it can get out of hand and smother the product information.” It can also overwhelm the horror of a horror novel or movie.

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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