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Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Descent into the Horrors of Extreme Feminism

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Concerning The Descent (2205), it behooves one to ask who is descending and into what, precisely, the characters are descending. The “who” is a team of nubile young women, and the “what” is an underground cavern. Symbolically, a cavern represents the womb, and an underground world suggests the interiority of the person, an interiority that is not normally seen or surveyed--the unconscious mind. The idea of descending, of “going down,” also has, perhaps, a vaguely sexual--and, in the context of an all-female cast, a homosexual, or lesbian--connotation. Women are going down together, inside a giant womb symbol, just as they are undertaking an exploration of their unconscious mind.

Women often regard one another as rivals rather than as friends--or so it is said, at any rate. The Descent builds upon this idea of same-sex rivalry. Although they do encounter strange, fetus-like creatures, they discover, as their relatively superficial friendships falter, that they actually have more to fear from one another than from the monsters as they become as much their own enemies as the adversaries of the beasts that stalk them.

The cast of characters ranges across the spectrum of social roles available to contemporary women, and the women’s varied nationalities and ethnicities suggest that this movie is about all women everywhere, rather than just the five who actually make up the expedition’s party. Juno is the intrepid adventuress; Sarah, a Brit, is the wife and mother; the British Beth, her friend, is her confidante; and the European sisters, Rebecca and Sam (note the masculine name), are, respectively, the timid female and the competent professional woman. The only man in any of the women’s lives, Sarah’s husband, Paul, a role-reversed Mr. Mom who tends to their daughter, Jessica, is out of the picture, as is the child: father and daughter were killed in a car accident following a rafting adventure in which Sarah and her girlfriends participated.

Juno, the movie suggests, may be bisexual, for, just before their spelunking expedition begins, she and her team are joined by the reckless and obviously butch Holly, Juno’s friend. Wife-and-mother Sarah and her best friend, Beth, harbor resentment toward Juno, who abandoned them the previous year. Her abandonment of her friends haunts Juno’s dreams, and it is obvious that she feels guilty about her actions.

These dreams also set up the shifting themes of the character’s waking (conscious) and sleeping (unconscious) lives, heralding their descent into their unconscious, where they will confront their deepest, most secret fears, as embodied by the strange fetus-creatures who will hunt them.

The contours of the cave they explore resemble the shape of the womb. Wide at the entrance (vagina), it narrows toward the middle (cervix), and then opens again, into another wider space (uterus, or womb). As the women negotiate their way through the womb-cave, Sarah, the wife and mother, gets stuck and, suffering from claustrophobia, panics. As subtext, her becoming trapped seems to represent pregnancy, which causes a woman to get “stuck,” physically and, to some extent, both emotionally and socially, if not vocationally, as well, for nine months in a process that, for many, epitomizes femininity. Beth, her best friend, plays the role of the midwife, delivering Sarah, but the birth process represented by Beth’s freeing Sarah from the cave’s narrowed passageway goes awry: the womb-cave collapses, burying the women inside a womb-become-a-tomb. Their gender, especially as it is involved in pregnancy, has not only trapped them, but it has also, in fact, buried them alive.

Juno announces that she has duped her friends. In pretending that they would be exploring an already-charted cavern while taking them to an unexplored cave instead, she has betrayed her fellow women. Femininity, represented by the charted cavern, was once familiar and non-threatening, but, now, as represented by an unknown cave, it has become an alien, unknown, and possibly hazardous region. Juno has risked their lives along with her own to realize her ambition to have a cave named for her as a sort of shortcut to a symbolic or surrogate motherhood.

Juno seeks a new way by which women can generate and produce, if not reproduce, except that the way is not new. It is the age-old technological-masculine substitute for women’s natural ability to reproduce life through the feminine-exclusive means of pregnancy and childbirth, as men seek to create material artifacts through technological-masculine means in imitation of, and compensation for, women’s natural-feminine ability to have children. Juno seems to want to usurp these technological-masculine means by asserting her will over the other women and over the womb-cave to which she has brought them for this purpose. In the process, she has endangered the lives of both herself and the other members of the party, ostensibly her friends but really her rivals. None of them sees the other danger--the drooling mouth, a sort of vagina dentata--that appears, briefly, in the foreground of the scene. Playing the role of the midwife a second time, Beth points a way out of the womb-cave: art, in the form of a mural painted by Native Americans (Roseau’s “noble savages”), shows the trapped women a way out of their predicament, depicting a second exit from the womb-cave.

As they continue their descent, Holly, thinking she sees sunlight, rushes along the cavern, heedless of Juno’s command to slow down, and falls, breaking a leg. Lesbianism, with a patina of machismo, as an alternative means of satisfying one’s sexual desires, is crippled, and it hinders women in their explorations of themselves as individuals and of their femininity as women. As the sisterhood tends to their injured comrade, the traditional wife-and mother, Sarah, wanders off, on her own, encountering one of the womb-cave’s misshapen, aborted-fetus-like monsters, which seem to represent her (and her companions’) forsaking of traditional and biological maternal roles. The creatures are an army, it seems, of outraged fetuses or, perhaps, could-have-been fetuses, who were aborted by virtue of the women’s decision to renounce their baby-making capability in favor of pursuing the more traditionally masculine role of explorer. Things quickly go from bad to worse.

The lesbian has been crippled, but now she is killed by one of the creatures, and her ostensible lover, Juno, the leader of the women’s group, struggles with the murderous monster for the remains of the slain woman. The monster, as an aborted fetus, perhaps, represents the traditional role of women or, at least, its outcome, but it is a role that has been thwarted by the women’s will--their choice--to engage in spelunking.

By using a tool--a pickaxe, representing an artifact of the technological-masculine order--Juno scars the fetus-monster’s face, but it drags Holly’s body off as a second monster attacks Juno. The women’s leader manages to kill her attacker, with the man-made pickaxe, but she also mortally wounds the timid member of their sisterhood, the wife-and-mother’s best friend, Beth. In denying one’s femininity, an alpha woman like Juno, it appears, can have a negative, even a fatal, effect on the lives of lesser (read, more traditional) women. Feminism, especially in its extreme form, may not be good for all ladies. As Beth begs Juno to help her, Juno, as if confirming the prophetic nature of her earlier nightmares, abandons Beth to her fate. Sarah dreams of her daughter, but, this time, Jessica has the face of one of the aborted-fetus-monsters, the imagery establishing the thematic connection between children (or would-be children) and their abandonment (or abortion).

As if crippling and then killing the renegade woman-lesbian were not enough for the outraged, vengeful fetus-monsters, the creatures fall upon Holly’s corpse, consuming it, as Sarah, rescued by Juno, flees. The women discover that the creatures are blind and rely upon their heightened sense of hearing to hunt their prey.

The masculine-named Sam is embracing her sister, the distraught, timid girly girl, Rebecca; however Sam, emasculated with fear at the sight of a monster, is unable to protect or to defend her sister, and it is up to heroic Juno, armed with the man-made pickaxe, once again, to save a damsel in distress.

In her retreat from the feeding pit in which the monsters are devouring the remains of the lesbian, Sarah encounters Beth, telling her friend how Juno had abandoned her, and Sarah fulfills Beth’s request that she kill her to put her out of her misery. The wife-mother has killed her midwife, but, it appears, not soon enough, for a child-like monster attacks Sarah, forcing her to kill (abort) the fetus-creature. Nature, through its exercise of the biological imperative, reasserts its will, as another fetus-monster --the slain creature’s mother (or the mother role itself, which has been thwarted by Sarah’s murder of the child)--attacks Sarah.

In fending off the female monster’s attack, Sarah falls into a pool of (menstrual?) blood, where the female monster (maternal instinct) pins her. Using a sharp bone fragment (symbolic, it seems, of the death instinct, which, in Freudian psychology, is opposed to eros, the life instinct), Sarah kills the monster, but its mate, the male of the species, then attacks her. She manages to kill it with the bone fragment as well.

Sam and Rebecca are next to be dispatched by the monsters, before the creatures force Juno to jump into a pit of water. After killing a creature lurking in the water, Juno climbs the side of pit, but loses her grip and slides back into the crater. Sarah, appearing above, grabs her, hauling her out of the depression. It’s obvious from her expression that she scorns Juno for having abandoned Beth to her fate. However, her contempt is forgotten for the moment when they are again attacked by the fetus-creatures. They kill their attackers, and, when Juno is distracted by additional creatures, Sarah stabs Juno in the leg, abandoning her to her fate, as Juno had earlier abandoned Beth.

As the monsters descend upon Juno, Sarah flees, escapes through an exit in the cave, and drives off--or so she thinks. As Juno’s bloodied corpse appears beside her in the car’s passenger seat, she realizes that she is merely daydreaming; her escape was just an illusion, and the exit she thought she’d seen was nothing. She’s fled into a dead-end arm (a Fallopian tube) of the cavern. She thinks of her daughter, who offers her birthday cake. The monsters--fetus-like creatures representing, perhaps, her abandonment of her role as a mother--are heard, descending upon her, as the film ends.

The Descent may be regarded as a repudiation of extreme feminism’s demand that women, to become authentic individuals, abandon the roles of mother and wife, forsaking family and even the childbearing role that nature and biology, no less than society, have assigned to them. This is the lesson that the women learn, too late, from their exploration of their unconscious minds that is represented by the cave, which also doubles as the ultimate symbol of femininity, the womb itself.

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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.

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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