Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Underbelly of the Bug-Eyed Monster Movie

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


The 1950’s and 1960’s horror movies, in particular, frequently featured what have come to be known as BEM’s: bug-eyed monsters.

Let’s list a few of these films and the threats they boasted before seeing what, if anything, these movies were really all about.

Them! (1954) focused on gigantic ants. They were mutants, spawned, as it were, by the radiation of atomic bomb tests, which transformed them into enormous, man-eating monsters. The insects established nests--one in New Mexico, another in a ship at sea, and a third in Los Angeles.

A giant octopus, a giant bird, and giant bees appear in Mysterious Island (1961). Giant rats--and a giant chicken--attack human-size humans in The Food of the Gods (1976). The title of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) gives away its decapitating antagonists’ identity, as does the title of Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). The Florida swamps are full of the bloodsuckers, and they’re hungry!

Those who’ve seen The Beginning of the End (1957) know that the monsters to watch out for are really giant locusts--except in Mexico, where The Black Scorpion (1957) and its kin, recently escaped from volcanoes, ruled.

A huge gila monster, an enormous gopher, and a particularly unattractive, one-eyed fiancé (the Cyclops of the movie’s title) wreck havoc in The Cyclops (1957), whereas a colossal, deadly mantis makes its debut as a mega movie monster in The Deadly Mantis (1957).

We could go on. . . and on. . . and on, but, suffice it to say, many, many more bug-eyed monster movies debuted in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there have been a bevy more of them in the early years of the present decade, such as Arachnid (2001), in which, as the title implies, giant spiders are the culprits; Boa (2002), and its sequel, Boa vs. Python (2004); and Crocodile (2000), in which the croc attacks obnoxious teens. More interesting than simply listing such monsters, however, is asking (and attempting to answer) the question, Why? Why do such films exist? What do they represent? What’s going on behind or beneath these movies and their monsters?

One reason that animals are often the monsters of horror fiction, especially that of the big-eyed monster variety, is that we fear them, as Emily Dickinson’s poem about “a narrow fellow in the grass” clearly and dramatically indicates:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, did you not,
His notice sudden is. . . .

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
Of course, making something that we fear naturally hundreds or thousands of times its normal size makes it correspondingly fiercer and more fearsome.

Possibly, another, more important motive also accounts for our frantic, frenetic, frenzied concern for and obsession with the environment, with ecology, with the fate of the planet. Like the narrator of “When the Music’s Over,” a Doors’ song, we wonder:

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravished and plundered
And ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
In the side of the dawn
Tied her with fences
And dragged her down.
We--or some of us--have gone from believing, as Genesis assures us, that God gave us the earth and all its animals (and plants) to subject to our will to the belief that these creatures are not, and ought not to be, thought of as lesser animals but as our fellows. If that’s true--if there is no hierarchy of life forms, with us at the top and everything else below us, on one level or another, as the great chain of being concept held, and we are not the “crown of creation”--we’ve done an injustice to our animal (and plant) brothers and to “our fair sister” (or Mother), the Earth. Since animals are sharper of tooth and claw, move faster, and are far stronger than we, we may have cause to be troubled. Maybe we should be worried.

We have exercised “dominion over the earth” and all her inhabitants, commanding the sands of the shores to become the glass panes in our houses, automobiles, storefronts, and office buildings; ordering trees to become paper and wood and furniture; compelling ores to become the chasses of vehicles, tools, machines, and construction site skeletons. We have transformed animals into food and clothing and servants as well as companions. Some, we have put in cages or made to perform in circus acts for our own amusement. We have stripped them of their dignity, their nobility, their freedom.

Instead of considering them our fellows, as a “thou,” in the language of Martin Buber, we have regarded them as an “it,” alien and other, and have exploited them at every opportunity for our own advantage, convenience, and comfort, even using rats and monkeys and pigs as subjects of painful, often lethal research. Afterward, before discarding their cadavers, we have dissected and autopsied them. In some cases, we have not even waited until their deaths, but have, instead, performed vivisections on their live and functioning bodies.

In “The Tables Turned,“ William Wordsworth warns us, “We murder to dissect”:

Sweet is the lore that Nature brings,
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
D. H. Lawrence writes, in his poem, “The Snake,” of our tendency to regard the serpent as alien and other and to fear, rather than to honor, this fellow creature. The narrator of the poem, in obedience to the dictates of his education as a human being, drives the snake away. Then, he feels guilty, as though he has a “pettiness” to expiate:

. . . immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.
Part of the reason (blame?) for the state of affairs in which we find ourselves vis-à-vis our no-longer animal friends may be science and technology. Both Wordsworth (“we murder to dissect”) and Edgar Allan Poe suggest that this is the case. In “Sonnet to Science,” Poe contends that humanity’s scientific approach to nature has had the consequence of demystifying the world and of reducing it from having been viewed as a place full of wonder and divinity to its being considered a mere object among other objects.

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. . . .
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
In the days preceding science’s objectification of the world, hunters regarded the beasts they slew for food and clothing as fellows and apologized for having killed them. Animals were regarded as having souls, like people, and to kill one of them was no light matter. Rules governed the hunt and the kill, and the animal was slain only when necessary and, always, in a humane fashion. Sometimes, their spirits were adopted as the tribe’s totems, and animal spirits could be guides to shamans. In the world that Poe describes, there is no reason to apologize to animals or to treat them in a respectful or humane manner, for they are merely organisms that compete with other organisms for their survival, and we happen to occupy the highest levels of both the evolutionary and the food chains. We are predators, and animals are our prey, not our fellows.

On one hand, in the dim recesses of our memory as a species, we may retain the pesky, half-remembered notion of our ancestors, that animals are our brothers and sisters, so to speak. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Native Americans, and many other so-called primitive peoples envisioned half-human, half-animal creatures, regarding the gulf between they themselves and their animal “others” to be not so vast as to be an altogether unbridgeable chasm or abyss. There were apologies, rites and rituals, totems, and interspecies communication. There was respect.

Now, there is only an uneasy feeling that, in ravishing and plundering “our fair sister,” we are committing dishonorable, perhaps even irreverent, deeds, and deeds for which, one day, as, in The Birds and a hundred other cautionary tales we are warned, we may be repaid; the animals may exact revenge. This uneasy quiet, this silent dread, may be, as much as fear itself, the underbelly of the bug-eyed monster movie. Could the Industrial Revolution, in its military aspect as part of the "military-industrial complex," and its transformation of our world, have been the scientific and technological parents who spawned the ecology movement and, perhaps, even Al Gore's global warming warnings?

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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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