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Friday, January 18, 2008

The Appeal of the Esoteric

Copyright 2008 by Gray L. Pullman


Your fingers weave quick minarets,
Speaking secret alphabets

--Doors, “Ship of Fools”

Everyone likes secrets. We all want to know them, harbor them, divulge them. Secrets make us powerful. They put us, and not others, “in the know.” They generate curiosity, envy, fear, and a host of other, not always subtle or decent, emotions. They also make us holy, in the literal sense of the word, which is “set apart.” Secrets set us apart from others. Secrets make us stand out. They make us special, in our own minds if not in the minds of others. This is the appeal of the esoteric--or part of it.

But in horror fiction, the esoteric takes on another dimension as well. In horror fiction, the esoteric is dangerous. It threatens. It could harm or even kill. It is, therefore, in some sense, evil. The esoteric is blasphemous or heretical or treasonous, and it--and its devotees--must be put down, must be put to the stake, if necessary; they must be crushed that we may stand; they must be slain that we may live. The esoteric separates those who know, the initiates and the masters or adepts, from those who want to know, the uninitiated, the ignorant, the unenlightened.

The esoteric has been with us always. In Judaism, the Cabbalists claimed secret knowledge. They alone, they said, understood the true, the mystical, the actual meanings of the Hebrew scriptures. In Christianity, mystics and others also claimed to know what others of the faith did not know. The Gnostics crippled, and nearly killed, the early church by insisting that only they knew the secrets of the Gospels and, therefore, how to be saved from death and damnation. Even Jesus, in the Gospels, says that the knowledge of some scriptures are hidden and may be revealed only to those he elects to know and understand them. Some have ears, but they may not hear, and some have eyes but they may not see.

Throughout the Middle Ages, secret societies organized around esoteric doctrines and texts; many, perhaps in altered forms, are with us still: the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Although many may laugh at the absurdity of such secret orders, others are curious about them, or envy their members, or are afraid of them. They fear their secret alphabets, their hidden texts, their clandestine meetings, their strange symbols and rites and rituals. In many cases, outsiders, peering in, see Satan in their midst and conclude that these cults are composed of devil worshipers.

When one examines many of the esoteric texts of secret societies, one finds not so much doctrines to fear as teachings that amuse. It is difficult to read many of these sects’ secret writings without smiling or even laughing out loud. For example, “The Esoteric Philosophy Homepage” offers its visitors a perplexing welter of strange ideas, half-baked notions, and assorted trivia, perhaps with a few lotions and potions thrown into the pot--or cauldron--for good measure, offering tips on such seemingly profound matters as:

  • “Esotericism: Energy in the Universe” (something conventional physicists will want to read, no doubt)
  • “The Nature of Consciousness” (answers to age-old questions about which psychologists admit continued confusion)
  • “Education in the New Age” (for staid professors, perhaps, who still labor under the influences of Benjamin Bloom, John Dewey, and their ilk)
  • “Esoteric Healing” (for physicians who’ve yet to heal themselves)
  • “Esoteric Laws” (for lawyers to argue about)
  • “The Process of Evolution” (for neo-Darwinists)
  • “The Nature of Illusion” (for the David Copperfields among us)
  • “Reincarnation, Karma, and Past Lives” (written, perhaps, by Shirley McLaine)
  • “The Christ and the Buddha” (for two-thirds or so of the planet’s faithful)--

and dozens of more articles concerning claptrap and nonsense. The site truly offers something for everyone--and that, it seems, is another appeal of the esoteric. It’s all things to all people. As the Freemasons say, one’s faith doesn’t really matter among lodge members; anyone of any religious background, or none, may be a member of the Craft. The esoteric is something like the child (or puppet) in the Pinocchio song:

When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

However, such fulfillment is available only to the members of the cult, the sect, the inner circle, the secret society. To others--namely, the world at large--the opposite conditions apply: ignorance, disappointment, failure, despair, death, and destruction.

As one might suspect, horror fiction makes good use of secret societies.

A hooded figure scurrying about dark, subterranean chambers among shifting shadows in pursuit of God-only-knows-what are frightening because, well, they’re nameless, they’re faceless, and theyre hip to God-only-knows-what dark secrets and may, who knows?, be hell-bent on taking over the world. Often, their haunts are the dungeons of medieval castles, catacombs, caverns by the sea, or mountaintop retreats, protected and remote, situated, at times, upon unhallowed ground whereupon even angels fear to tread.

In most cases, cults, sects, and secret societies don’t really threaten society (as far as we know, anyway) (although Germany has outlawed Scientology), but, occasionally, as in the cases of the Jim Jones mass suicide at Jonestown, Ghana, the FBI’s murder of the Branch Davidians in the massacre at Waco, Texas, and the Heaven’s Gate members’ mass suicide in San Diego, California, such secret orders do do harm, albeit mostly to themselves--to date, at least. They have proven that they can be dangerous, even deadly. By not being open about who they are, what they believe, and what they are about, secret societies perpetuate the mystique that makes them feel special and unique, a self-appointed elect.

As long as the devotees of such organizations skulk about among rats and bats and cats, or whatever it is that they do skulk about among (the imagination is one’s only limit when one considers secret societies and their doings), they will appeal to outsiders and to horror fiction, which, more often than not, is concerned with the plight or the perspective, or both, of the outsider. Their mystery is their appeal, and their secrecy makes them mysterious. They have a secret, and they won’t tell. We want to know what they know, to know their secrets. It’s as simple, and complex, as that.

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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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