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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Monsters Within

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Most of us think of monsters as external threats which take familiar forms: bats and cats and dogs and frogs; vampires and werewolves; witches and zombies; and nameless, faceless things that go bump in the night. These are the creatures of which many of us first think when we recall the monsters that send shivers down our spines. There are others, though, of a whole different kind. Internal monsters. They may be visible or not, objective or not, but, whatever form, if any, they take, they have this in common: they are the monsters within.

Some inner demons are mental states, conditions, or disorders that the rest of us (who don’t suffer from them) label as “abnormal” or “aberrant.” Psychology textbooks are full of the names, symptoms, and supposed treatments of these states and conditions and disorders. We classify, categorize, and divide them, adding some, subtracting others, and voting on which should be included or excluded from this or that particular edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM:


  • Developmental disorders

  • Disruptive behavior disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Gender identity disorders

  • Tic disorders

  • Elimination disorders

  • Speech disorders

  • Disorders of infancy, childhood, or adolescence

  • Dementias

  • Psychoactive substance-induced organic mental disorders

  • Organic mental disorders

  • Psychoactive substance use disorders

  • Schizophrenia

  • Delusional (paranoid) disorders

  • Psychotic disorders

  • Mood disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Somatoform disorders

  • Dissociative disorders

  • Sexual disorders

  • Sleep disorders

  • Factitious disorders

  • Impulse control disorders

  • Adjustment disorders

  • Personality disorders

While the more cynical among us claim that the DSM represents, more than anything, the psychiatric and psychological professions’ attempts to maintain and extend their own self-interests, it seems difficult to deny that at least some of these states, conditions, and disorders have an objective or factual basis. Some people--Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind--are hard to get along with, no doubt about it, and their problems seem to be self-generated, to come, whether organic or otherwise, from within. Even when they speak of an “entity” who directs them, as Bundy did, or a voice that speaks to them, as David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) contended, most of us are reluctant to let these killers off on the grounds that the devil made them do it. We insist that they take responsibility for their actions. We incarcerate them, treat them, and/or kill them.


We also write about them and make movies about them. Some of these books and films are fictional, some are biographical, and some are a hybrid of the two. Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories and poems, such as “The Cask of the Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” that had, at the bases of their plots, “madness and sin”; Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs are based, in part, upon the exploits of Ed Gein; The Stranger Beside Me is inspired by Bundy; and In Cold Blood details, in a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional manner, the murders of a Kansas farm family by Perry Smith and his fellow sociopath-partner, Dick Hickock


Psychology started out as the study of the soul or mind. In more materialistic times, the discipline, losing its soul or mind, became a study of human behavior and its motives. Along the way, its practitioners discovered that pretty much whatever can go wrong with the soul or the mind or human behavior and its motives or whatever psychiatrists and psychologists claim, at any time or another, to study will, at some point, with some people, go wrong.


Medical doctors have learned, likewise, that whatever can go wrong with the body often will do so, whether it is diabetes, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, jaundice, paralysis, or worse. These physical conditions and diseases are also real or potential demons within. For the purposes of horror fiction, however, as horrible as they are in reality, they must be dramatized. Therefore, a germ may be given an extraterrestrial origin, as in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, or a microbe may be created in the laboratory, most likely by a mad scientist. (In H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds, the microbe is this-worldly and brings about the deaths of the novel’s Martian invaders.)


Another way to glamorize germs is to strengthen them to the point that they represent the microscopic world’s equivalent of the comic book super villain. In other words, they are super-resistant. Ordinary antibiotics don’t work. The germ maybe mutates, almost by the split second, becoming ever more robust. As scientists learn more and more about microbes, representing one as being super virulent and resistant may become increasingly difficult. Fiction may be hard put to keep up with fact. For example, “The World’s Toughest Microbe” is “a bacterium first discovered in spoiled beef and believed sterilized by radiation turned out to be ‘Conan the Bacterium’ (aka Superbug)--the most radiation-resistant life form ever found. Deinococcus radiodurans is highly resistant to genotoxic chemicals, oxidative damage, high levels of ionizing and ultraviolet radiation, and desiccation; it can survive 3,000 times the radiation dose that is lethal to humans.”


Writers shouldn’t forget to exploit the human aspect of microbes. There’s fertile material for fiction in the amoral, immoral, and criminal behavior of people who deal with microscopic villains, after all. Perhaps the germs were mishandled, so an element of government incompetence or even corruption is introduced and the resulting story becomes as much a cautionary tale about ineptitude, laziness, greed, and the abuses of personal and political power as it does about the bug itself. Alternatively, maybe the story’s theme concerns negligence. Could the people we trust to look out for us be asleep at the switch rather than simply looking out for their own interests? Maybe the Centers for Disease Control needs a wakeup call. A number of movies are also based on the killer-microbe-from-space theme, including the film version of Crichton’s novel and The Omega Man.


Before long, there will probably be a germ that causes mental disorders or aberrant behavior (or both). Oops! Too late! Don’t we have this in Stephen King’s The Stand? Meanwhile, these writers’ treatment of not-so-sexy inner demons in a sexy manner offers tips as to how to jazz up these types of threats to make them more palatable, as it were, to readers.


Dramatize them: make the germs bigger and badder than those that routinely threaten human life.


Make them exotic: have them come from the rain forest, an uncharted island, the ocean floor, an abandoned spaceship (or a spaceship full of dead aliens), or another planet.


Relate them to human nature: Tie them in to something social, political, religious, or historical--basic human emotions such as greed and lust for power (or just lust) and fear are good.


Make them criticize something related to human beings, such as politics, folkways, mores, or customs.

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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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