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Saturday, January 12, 2008

A History of Hell, Part III

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In their exhaustive survey of human civilization, historian Will Durant and his wife Ariel introduce many topics, including some that touch upon matters of interest to the writer of horror fiction, such as hell. This post provides a brief summary of the points that Will Durant (not yet joined in his venture by his wife) makes concerning this rather otherworldly theme in Volume IV, The Age of Faith, of The Story of Civilization:

  • Al Ghazali claimed that theists considered heaven and hell to be “spiritual conditions only,” rather than actual places.
  • The Sufi Moslems held that hell is but temporary and that, ultimately, salvation is universal.
  • Arab descriptions served as part of the basis for Dante’s vision of hell in The Divine Comedy.
  • For their inspiration for hell, the Hebrews referred to He Hinnom or Sheol, a valley in which rubbish heaps were continuously ablaze to prevent the spread of disease. Sheol, Durant observes, “was conceived of as a subterranean region of darkness that received all the dead.” The Hebrew hell consisted of seven stories , “with graduated degrees of torment.” It was a place of temporary torment for all but adulterers, those who shamed others publicly, and those who slandered or libeled others.
  • Irishman Johannes Scotus Eringena believed that heaven and hell were spiritual conditions, not physical locations.
  • Pope Gregory the Great held that hell is a physical place, wherein fire eternally burns the damned, tormenting them without destroying them; their suffering is increased, he maintained, by their being made to witness the torment of any of their loved ones who have also been damned and by their despair at ever being liberated or delivered from their suffering.
  • Durant says that medieval Catholic men and women “hoped vaguely for heaven, but vividly feared hell.” The Bulgarian king, Boris, was converted, it is said, by seeing a mural of hell that an artist painted upon his palace wall. Mystics claimed to have visions in which they saw the “geography of hell.” Satan, chained upon “a burning gridiron,” was alleged to snatch suffering sinners and crush them in his teeth, swallowing “them down his burning throat,” as “assistant demons with hooks of iron plunged the damned alternately into fire or icy water, or hung them up by the tongue, or sliced them with a saw, or beat them flat on an anvil, or boiled them or strained them through a cloth.” A sumptuous stench permeated the damned and their environs, and the flames gave no light, the darkness adding to the terror and the suffering of the damned. Christ was feared in his aspect of the judge of the living and the dead, for he could send or deliver the souls of the dead to eternal bliss or to everlasting damnation. “The devil,” Durant points out, “was no figure of speech but a life and blood reality, prowling about everywhere, suggesting temptations and creating all kinds of evil.” He was also quite the ladies’ man, fathering monstrous children, one of whom is alleged to have had “a wolf’s head and a scorpion’s tail.” His many assistants also tempted people and liked to lie with women as incubi, or sex demons. Although the people feared the greater demons, “a saving sense of humor saved this demonology, and most healthy males looked upon the little devils rather as poltergeist mischief-makers than as objects of terror,” and one exhausted demon, resting “on a head of lettuce. . . was inadvertently eaten by a nun.” Limbo was introduced as the abode of the unapprised infant, although St. Augustine had believed that they also went to hell. There was debate as to whether more souls would be saved and go to heaven or more souls would be damned and go to hell, and Moslems believed most Christians would go to hell, while Christians believed the opposite. No soul could be saved, the Roman Catholic Church contended, except through itself. Volcanoes were assumed to be “the mouths of hell,” and “their rumbling was a faint echo of the moans of the damned.” According to Pope Gregory, “the crater of Etna was daily widening to receive the enormous number of souls that were fated to be damned.” Pope Gregory IX held as heretical Raymond Lully’s assertion that the greatness of Christ’s love ensured the salvation, rather than the damnation, of the vast majority of souls. “The last moment of life” was considered to be “decisive for all eternity,” which added to the terror of life that many felt. Purgatory offered slight hope to the living. According to a legend, St. Patrick had a great pit dug, into which monks descended; “some returned. . . And described purgatory and hell with discouraging vividness.” Many other travelogues of hell also existed. As Durant notes, “Apocalyptic literature describing tours or visions of heaven or hell abounded in Judaism and Christianity,” and priests, such as Peter Damian, delivered “fiery sermons on the pains of hell.” Nevertheless, some challenged these doctrines of the faith--and, indeed, the faith itself, asking, for example, why God should have created the devil if he’d known in advance that the devil would sin and fall, whether a just and loving God could “punish finite sin with infinite pain,” and whether hell-fire would not at some point render the damned insensitive to its pain.
  • The doctrine of original sin was a theological attempt to account for “the biological theory of primitive instincts” and “the preaching of this doctrine” led to a diminishing of the “fear of hell. . . till the Reformation,” when it was “to reappear with fresh terror among the Puritans.”
  • St. Anselm said that only the “infinite atonement” of Christ could atone for the “infinite offense” of Adam and Eve, their sin being “infinite” because it had been directed “against an infinite being,” God. Therefore, only “the death of God become man could ransom humanity from Satan and hell. . . . and restore the moral balance of the world.”
  • For medieval people, “the earth was the chosen home of Christ, and the shell of hell, and weather was the whim of God.”
  • Roger Bacon endorsed the study and use of mathematics because this subject “should aid us in ascertaining the position of paradise and hell.”
  • Dante used many Arab sources as inspirations for his descriptions of hell, including the Koran, “the story of Mohammed’s trip to heaven and hell in Abu-l-Ala a;-Ma’arri’s Irisalat al-Ghufran. . . . and Ibn Arabi’s Futubat.
  • The hell of Dante’s Inferno is entered through an opening in the earth near a forest. The opening leads to the gates of hell, where an inscription reads, in part, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” In the poem, “hell is a subterranean funnel, reaching down to the center of the earth,” imagined by the poet as featuring “dark and frightening abysses between gigantic murky rocks; steaming, stinking marshes, torrents, lakes, and streams; storms of rain, snow, hail, and brands of fire; howling winds and petrifying cold; tortured bodies, grimacing faces, blood-stilling shrieks and groans.” The funnel leads through nine levels. Nearer the surface, the lesser sinners reside, whereas the greater sinners dwell at the lower levels. At the lowest level, the ninth circle of hell, traitors are housed, and, at the lowest of all points, “Lucifer lies buried to the waist in ice, flapping enormous wings from his shoulders, weeping icy tears of blood from the three faces that divide his head, and chewing a traitors in each of three jaws--Brutus, Cassius, and Judas.” Dante included actual people among the damned, including, in addition to popes. His Divine Comedy also describes purgatory and heaven, or paradise.


What can we learn from this part of the survey of the ideas of the afterlife and the underworlds? Many sources have formed the idea of hell, including mythological, pagan, Jewish, and Christian ones.

For the first time, the idea is formed that hell may signify a spiritual condition, rather than a literal place. Theology seems to be losing out to psychology as an explanation of human behavior.

The idea that hell is permanent and eternal rubs some the wrong way, and the doctrine of universal salvation appears, both in Moslem and Christian faith, only to be condemned in Roman Catholicism as heretical. However, Limbo is allowed for unapprised infants, to spare their innocent souls from hell. For those who maintain faith in the existence of an actual, physical hell, the torment of the damned becomes more extreme, the imagination supplying many details as to the nature and effects of the suffering that the lost souls must endure there, forever, as if the catalogue of horrors somehow ensures their reality and, therefore, the reality of the hell in which they occur.

Many write of their supposed journeys to heaven and hell, as if they are reporting trips to foreign lands. Locating heaven and hell becomes a motive for the study of science and mathematics.

Satan and the lesser demons are believed to be incarnate and to be able, in fact, to have sexual relations with women, as incubi (and with men, as succubi). Lesser demons are considered mischievous rather than malignant.

Churchmen argue whether more souls will be saved or damned, with more supporting the latter over the former view.

Dante’s Inferno, borrowing from many earlier sources, Christian and otherwise, offers the most detailed geography of hell, populating it with both imaginary and actual historical figures, including popes, suggesting that hell is a real place to which anyone, including leaders of the church itself, may be tormented in a variety of real and agonizing ways.

Today, the imagining of hell continues in sermons and in books written by people who claim to have undergone near-death experiences, and the debate continues as well as to whether a literal hell exists or, whether, for that matter, literal demons live and stalk the earth.

Those who appear as damned in literary texts represent the values of the society or the poet or other writer in whose work the damned appear, for the values of the lost souls are the values that are rejected by these creators of hell. Therefore, hell can be thought of, in the Jungian sense, as representing a psychic reservoir, akin to the universal mind, in which humanity’s collective shadow archetype lives, in bits and pieces, disguised as this or that individual or type of person. For example, in Dante’s hell, from least (closest to the surface) to the greatest (farthest down), these are the damned; whose values represent the opposites of those embraced by the poet himself:

  1. Unbaptized infants
  2. Lustful
  3. Gluttonous
  4. Greedy and wasteful
  5. Wrathful and sullen
  6. Heretical
  7. Violent
  8. Fraudulent
  9. Treacherous

Plus, did anyone notice the historical references to "mouths of hell"? Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, apparently did, because at least two are mentioned in his television series, one of which was located beneath the Sunnydale High School library (or, in the high school later built on the same site, the principal's office)!

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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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