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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Coffins

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Replica of Abraham Lincoln's Coffin

There’s no pleasant way to get rid of a dead body. Cremation, burial at sea, exposure to the elements and wild animals, burial in the earth, mummification--all these methods and others have been tried, but they all leave something, more or less, to be desired. If one opts for burial in the soil, rather than at sea, he or she will need a coffin, whether of pine or solid gold. Since most people do opt for burial in the soil, coffins are likely to remain everyday horrors. As such, they’re worthy of a post in this series.

Originally, the coffin was simply a simple pine box. Its purpose was simple, too: contain the corpse. Once buried, the coffin, if not the corpse, was soon forgotten. Now, it would be considered gauche, to say the very least, to bury a dearly departed in so simple (and cheap) a box. Nothing less than the finest mahogany, or even bronze, lined with satin or silk, will do. After all, the more expensive the coffin, the more its quality indicates the degree to which the loved one was loved.

Haraldskaer Woman's Coffin

Although many coffins are plain, some are fanciful, shaped like fish, bottles, or guitars, whereas others bear a glass cover that allows a glimpse of the body inside, such as that of the Haraldskaer woman on display in the Church of St. Nicolai in Vejle, Denmark or of S. P. Dinsmoor, the Civil War veteran who built a concrete Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas to showcase his political and religious beliefs.

S. P. Dinsmoor's Garden of Eden, where his glass-covered cement coffin is displayed, Dinsmoor, inside, looking a bit mouldy

In the nineteenth century, Americans and others were terrified of being buried alive, as Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial” suggests, and coffins were equipped with alarms that could be sounded by the coffin’s occupant, in the event that he or she had been mistakenly buried alive. Modern coffins (often called “caskets”) are frequently equipped with features that are supposed to protect the body from bacteria, insects, temperature changes, and other threats, but none do so indefinitely and caskets with air-tight seals actually promote the decay of the body rather than retarding or preventing it. An airtight casket expedites the decomposition of the corpse by bacteria that thrive in an oxygen-free environment.

Among models offered by most casket manufacturers are the 20-gauge steel coffin with or without an airtight gasket; a 16-gauge steel coffin; a stainless-steel coffin; a solid copper coffin, which may or may not attract grave robbers bent upon collecting the metal for resale; a solid bronze coffin ; and hardwood coffins of poplar, oak, maple, cherry, mahogany, and pine. There are also extra-large caskets and Jewish caskets, the male versions of which, presumably, are circumcised. The best value among one supplier’s metal coffins is the Hamilton DCM01, regularly selling at $1,395, but discounted for who-knows-how-long, at a mere $795. It’s a 20-gauge steel coffin, without the airtight seal (what does one expect for a paltry $795?), of sliver color, and has a white crepe interior. The company’s best value in wood coffins is the Montgomery DCTH50, which normally costs $2,195 but is discounted to $1,395. It has a hardwood mahogany finish on the outside and a white crepe interior. The supplier offers a quick course on how to select a coffin, Caskets 101. The course begins with some basic (one might say self-evident) information, and, in bold font, states the disclaimer, “No caskets or vaults protect human remains from decomposition, no matter how much you spend.” Instead, the purpose of the coffin is to serve as “a vehicle to place a loved one in for a ceremony and an interment.” The decomposition of the corpse, Caskets 101 stresses, is “inevitable,” no matter how much or how little one spends on the body's “vehicle.” The course also offers this interesting tidbit, in case student-customers are wondering: “Besides steel caskets, there are copper and bronze caskets. These caskets are measured by the ounce, meaning a 32 Oz. Bronze casket contains 32 ounces of bronze for every square foot of casket.” The purpose of the sealer is to prevent air and water from disturbing the loved one’s eternal rest, but “there is no guarantee that this won’t ever happen.” The course concludes by suggesting the economy of buying directly from a wholesaler: “funeral homes tend to triple the cost of their caskets and sometimes a lot more, we just mark ours up one time. . . . funeral homes can succeed with high markups because most people still buy their caskets from them.”

Many vampire stories, including Stephen King’s ’Salem’s Lot and Joss Whedon‘s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, feature coffins, as do stories populated with zombies. In The Amityville Horror, George Lutz graciously, if rather oddly, builds coffins for the members of his family. In Homecoming, the war dead rise from their flag-draped coffins to vote. The movie Ed Gein starts with the title character robbing a grave, and, real-life ghoul that he was, Gein actually did rob quite a few graves, both in Plainfield, Wisconsin and in Spirit Land Cemetery, a few miles to the north of his hometown.

As Homecoming suggests, the Veterans Administration will supply an American flag to the next-of-kin of any honorably discharged serviceman or woman, and, incidentally, now allows the Wicca symbol on military headstones. (Other approved emblems include a large variety of Christian crosses, the Buddhist wheel of righteousness, the Jewish Star of David, the angel Moroni, the arrow-and-teepee emblem of the Native American Church of North America, the atheist atom, the Muslim crescent and star, the Hindu religious emblem, and various others.)

At a recent trade show, China introduced the world to a paper coffin, which resembles hardwood, and can be decorated with paintings. It can be easily cremated or buried, and has been used in China for years.

Coffins are also available for pet animals. Some are rectangular pine boxes; others are hardwood miniature versions of adult humans’ coffins, complete with handles on either ides for pallbearers’ use.

“Everyday Horrors: Coffins” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

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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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