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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Not Everyone Loves A Victim

copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman

America loves victims. Being a victim excuses one from irresponsibility. Victims receive a free pass that excuses them from responsible behavior and from the consequences of their irresponsible actions. Victimization is a marvelous source of self-pity that helps to perpetuate one’s anger at the world and one’s belief that one is justified in doing whatever one likes, since, after all, one has been victimized. Something unjust has happened; therefore, one is entitled to act in whatever fashion he or she wishes to act.

Horror fiction takes issue with this stance. In horror stories, victims are frequently dispatched without mercy, violently and with finality, or are allowed to survive only to be further victimized, even more horribly, before they’re killed in some hideous manner or another, at an appropriately climactic moment.

In the past, most horror victims have been women, a fact that many feminists attribute to misogyny. There may be some truth to this charge, as witness the declaration of Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “The death. . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” However, there may be reasons other than simply misogyny. There may be practical considerations.

In American society, women are permitted to cry unashamedly, for pretty much any reason and under pretty much any circumstances, and they tend to do so with regularity, expressing a wide range of emotions that includes both happiness and sorrow as well as anger and fear. In general, women are allowed--indeed, encouraged--to be more emotionally expressive than men, and, again, they tend to do so. This tendency makes them ideal as emotional indicators. In movies (and, indeed, in literary texts), they show the audience (or the readers) how to feel about a situation. The audience, identifying with them, understands that they should feel the same way about what is happening to the characters as the emotive female character, or the emotional indicator, feels.

Although it is not a horror movie, Tank illustrates the use of this technique. At various moments, as circumstances warrant, Jenilee Harrison’s character, Sarah, traveling inside the tank driven by James Garner’s character, Sgt. Zack Carey, at various moments, expresses anxiety, concern, fear, and exultation. Seeing her convey these emotions, the audience understands that they, too, should feel the same way. She’s the film’s emotional indicator.

The same technique is used to good effect in horror films (and literary narratives), although the emotional range tends to be much more limited, restricted, pretty much, to horror and its related feelings, such as anxiety, fear, revulsion, and terror. (That’s why actresses who appear in horror movies are known as "scream queens.") Because American society allows women a freer exercise of emotion, horror fiction often makes women victims. Stalked by a mad killer, abducted by a lovelorn monster, or hunted or attacked by an unspeakable creature, female victims’ expressions of terror, disgust, and panic inspire the same feelings in audiences and readers.

Women are physically weaker than men. Therefore, chivalry demands that men protect them from threats to life, limb, and sanity. In other words, female characters motivate male characters to risk their lives when, otherwise, the men folk might find it more desirable to exercise the better part of valor. In newsreel footage of one of Bob Hope’s USO shows, he brings out a beautiful female celebrity--Ann-Margaret, perhaps--and says to the assembled troops, “I just wanted to remind you of what you’re fighting for.”

The same principle is behind horror fiction’s employment of the weak, but luscious, female victim. Whether she lives or dies, she’s an inspiration to the fighting man. If she survives, he succeeds. If she dies, he fails. Therefore, her survival (or death) is an indicator of the heroic male character’s success (or failure) as a hero as well. The female victim or potential victim, as the case may be, both inspires the protective male and shows the audience that he’s a winner or a loser, depending upon whether his intervention on her behalf merits her trust. If she lives, her trust was merited; if she dies, it was not. If her protector succeeds, and she lives, he earns the audience’s respect and, if he already has their respect, it increases. If the macho man is to triumph, ultimately, over the monster, his doing so will be more believable because he has been able to defend the life of the potential female victim. If he fails, the audience accepts his failure because, earlier, he was unable to protect the female victim. In either case, the question as to whether the female character will live or die (and whether the male character will win or lose) provides suspense.

Not only do women, as victims, suggest how the audience or the readers should feel, motivate male characters, and indicate the manliness (or lack thereof) of their masculine protectors, but, when they meet their doom, they also heighten the horror of the story. This is probably what Poe had in mind when he stated that “the death. . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” We want to believe that life has purpose, meaning, and value, and that all is not for naught. We want to believe that life is not “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” We feel that beauty indicates an interest on the part of the Creator in his creation, for beauty is not a quality that needs to be present in order for the universe to exist and operate. After all, despite the presence of any number of unattractive people, the universe seems to function according to impersonal “laws of nature.” Although most people would not want to do so, we could, if we had to, get by without beauty.

The death of a beautiful woman is a reminder that something we value highly--beauty (and not just beauty of any sort, but beauty in the flesh, or feminine beauty)--is unnecessary, perhaps even accidental. If it’s accidental, rather than bestowed, there may be no Creator. There may be no God. We may be on our own. If so, the world that seems, at times, at least, to be meaningful and purposeful and valuable may be simply absurd. We may be absurd! The death of a beautiful woman reminds us of this possibility. Therefore, the death of a beautiful woman is horrible, both in itself and beyond itself.

Of course, female victims also add a dimension of sexuality to horror stories, which, in the past and, to a large extent, even now, depict the monstrous as being male. The metaphor is simple: monsters (males) = rapists. The exclusive or primary victims of the creature of the black lagoon, King Kong, the xenomorphs in Alien and its sequels, Freddy Kreuger, Michael Myers, and even the devil in The Exorcist (and many other monsters with male appendages) were female rather than male. The implication is that the monsters were interested in women not solely because they’re good screamers. Critics have also seen the monster-as-disguised rapist as being an embodiment of a racist white patriarchal society’s fear of and revulsion toward miscegenation. It was because Rosemary’s baby is a “half-breed” of sorts, such critics contend, that makes him a devil’s child.

The sexualization of the male body that followed the feminist movement resulted in more than the Chippendales. Men became sexual objects. Therefore, they became potential victims of sexual predators. Not only did female high school teachers begin to sexually assault teenage boys, but female monsters began to rape and kill male victims in movies such as Species and Alien and in television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What had formerly been good only for the goose became good for the gander as well, as victimization became an equal opportunity condition. Likewise, the metaphor of monsters (females) = rapists entered the American and the international psyches. Accompanying this development was another role reversal. If men were now acceptable as victims, women were now acceptable as protective heroines. It is not only the male Marines in Alien and its successors who fight against the monster; Lt. Ripley also protects and defends her crew. The only difference is that she succeeds, whereas her male comrades fail.

The male victim is unsettling because of these role reversals. Sex and gender are basic to the human condition, and it is disturbing when assumptions that are taken for granted as being true are challenged or overturned. In a society that has regarded women as weaker and dependent upon men for protection, the depiction of men as weak and dependent upon women for protection runs counter to convention and is, therefore, distressing. Horror fiction capitalizes upon anything that is disturbing, and the use of the male victim provides another means of effecting disquiet that can, with a shove at the right moment, effect horror.

In horror fiction, weakness of any kind--physical, emotional, spiritual, or even of gender identity--is punished swiftly, violently, and, frequently, lethally. The implication that being a victim is not a good thing and that it does not give one immunity from personal responsibility or the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” whether the universe is of divine origin or not, is a censure to the permissiveness of a society that has come to all-but-idolize victims. In horror fiction, one had better not pout and had better not cry, for the Santa Claus who’s coming to town might just be a sociopathic killer in disguise.

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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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