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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Alternative Explanations, Part I: Demons and Ghosts

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In most horror stories which involve paranormal of supernatural forces or entities--which is to say, most horror stories--there’s a skeptical character whose purpose is to explain--or to explain away--the story’s apparently paranormal or supernatural incidents. To be convincing, such a character should know what he or she is talking about, at least as far as the science used to refute this or that apparent extraordinary incident. This article offers some tips concerning the type of debunker’s knowledge that skeptical characters ought to know and the sources in which the creators of these characters--namely, you--can find such information on tap, alas, not alongside the house brew.

The type of info you’ll need to know depends upon the type of paranormal or supernatural force or entity that is (allegedly) involved. Is it a demon? A ghost? A clairvoyant or a telekinetic person? Someone who’s adept at levitation whom other characters just don’t want hanging around all the time? Vampires? Werewolves? Zombies? An extraterrestrial species? Cthuthlu? Something else entirely?

Let’s take a look at some of the paranormal and supernatural classics and mainstays of the horror genre and the alternative explanations for them.


Okay, demons. First, what are they supposed to be? Evil spirits, right? But spirits of what? Dead animals? Dead people? Hats and shoes? Or are they a breed apart? Biblical traditions maintain that demons are fallen angels--angels, in other words, who rebelled against God, perhaps under the leadership of Satan, and were punished by being cast out of heaven and into hell. From time to time, they may visit the earth to tempt human beings for fun and profit (their victims’ eternal damnation, which would swell the population of hell).

Apparently, demons--or, quite a few of them, anyway--can possess people, and they may do so either individually or in groups. William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist and the movie based upon it are supposedly based upon a true exorcism. The movies The Possession of Emily Rose and Requiem are both allegedly based upon another real-life case. They are interesting to study because each suggests a different approach that the skeptic character in your story could take in debunking the existence of demons--at least those who possess people.

The case upon which The Exorcist is supposedly based is nothing more than the result of exaggerations of the incidents that are alleged to have occurred in the actual case or sheer inventions, some contend. According to “The Real Story Behind the Exorcist,” “virtually all of the gory and sensational details were embellished or made up. Simple spitting became Technicolor, projectile vomiting; (normal) shaking of a bed became thunderous quaking and levitation; the boy’s low growl became a gravelly, Satanic voice.”

The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Requiem rely upon mischaracterizing mental illness and its effects as being demonic possession and its effects, critics argue. Adopting this approach to debunk diagnoses of demonic possession, the horror story’s skeptical character would say that the supposedly possessed person is mentally ill and susceptible to suggestions on the part of the exorcist:

“. . . exorcisms have been (and continue to be) performed, often on emotionally and mentally disturbed people. . . . Most often, exorcisms are done on people of strong religious faith. To the extent that exorcisms ‘work,’ it is primarily due to the power of suggestion and the placebo effect. If you believe you are possessed, and that a given ritual will cleanse you, then it just might.”

Mark Opsasnick’s thorough, detailed debunking, “The Haunted Boy: The Cold, Hard Facts Behind the Story that Inspired The Exorcist,” explains the exaggeration-invention approach to creating demons and demonic possession. The Skeptic’s Dictionary lists it and numerous other books and articles that question, evaluate, and reject spurious claims to demonic possession. (The Skeptic’s Dictionary, by the way, is an excellent basic source for all alternative explanations of allegedly paranormal and supernatural and, indeed, otherworldly, or extraterrestrial, phenomena).

Thus, the horror story’s skeptical character can explain demons and demonic possession by suggesting that demons and demonic possession are concocted out of exaggerations and inventions, the misdiagnoses of mental illness as demonic possession and susceptibility of the apparently possessed religious victim, or both.

What about ghosts? How might our fictional skeptic debunk them and their ghostly deeds? Supposedly, a ghost is the spirit of a dead person. Over the years, ghosts have collected quite a list of characteristics:

  • They’re made of ectoplasm.
  • Their presence is discernable by psychics.
  • They make the air cold because they’re energy magnets, and thermal energy is energy. (One might say that ghosts were once environmental threats, except that, with global warming underway, they may now be ecological heroes.)
  • They tend to be rather camera shy, but other equipment seems to register phantom phenomena.
  • They sometimes haunt places or people or both with which or whom they were associated in the days of their incarnation, perhaps for revenge or for no other reason that they don’t know they’re dead (hard to imagine) or how to get to the great beyond.
  • They can walk through solid objects, such as walls or your Aunt Betty.
  • Some, known as poltergeists, are especially noisy and destructive.

What’s our skeptic’s likely answers to such claims? Ghosts may also be products of hallucinations, especially during sleep paralysis. Most ghost stories rely upon anecdotal evidence, which is “always incomplete and selective.” (For a critique of anecdotal evidence, check out “anecdotal [tensional] evidence”.)

According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, skeptics have found cheesecloth an excellent “ectoplasm” material for use at séances conducted by mediums (sort of psychic midwives), especially if the medium who delivered the ghosts, so to speak, was a woman. Scientific American established a committee to investigate one medium’s psychic abilities, Harvard psychology professor William McDougall summarizing one of his group’s findings: “There is good evidence that "ectoplasm" issues, or did issue on some and probably all occasions [from] one particular 'opening in the anatomy' (i.e., the vagina).” She refused to be strip-searched before séances and would not “perform in tights.” Another skeptic “offers a much simpler explanation for the production of ectoplasm. Have your husband sit next to you during the séance. Make sure he has stuffed his shirt or pants with stuff to slip to you under the table when the lights are out.”

According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, the big chill that is said to accompany the presence of ghosts is likely to result from drafts of air. Some noise may also be attributed to such ventilation. The activity of mechanical equipment, such as extraction fans, may also create air currents that produce odd sounds. Ghosts supposedly prefer night to day and darkness to light because it’s easier to see them in the dark than in daylight, since their ectoplasm is supposedly see-through. Our skeptic might counter this claim by suggesting another reason for ghosts’ alleged preference for darkness: it’s much easier to deceive others under conditions of darkness, too, than it is in broad daylight or in a well-lighted room.

While few ghosts worthy of the film have appeared on camera, some ghost hunters claim to have caught evidence of them on such equipment as “tape recorders, EMF detectors, video cameras with night vision, metal detectors.” Skeptics might question whether this--or any--equipment has been designed to detect ghosts, noting that, just because such equipment may look scientific, doesn’t mean that it is, and that certainly “tape recorders, EMF detectors, video cameras with night vision, metal detectors.” are not designed to detect the spirits of the deceased. Live Science finds ghost hunters’ supposedly scientific equipment questionable and challenges the claims its users have made concerning the equipment’s detection of ghosts. After pointing out that “the equipment is only as scientific as the person using it,” Benjamin Radford, the author of “The Shady Science of Ghost Hunting,” queried an equipment supplier as to the “scientific rationale. . . behind the equipment he sold” and received this surprisingly candid answer:

“At a haunted location," Cook said, "strong, erratic fluctuating EMFs are commonly found. It seems these energy fields have some definite connection to the presence of ghosts. The exact nature of that connection is still a mystery. However, the anomalous fields are easy to find. Whenever you locate one, a ghost might be present.... any erratic EMF fluctuations you may detect may indicate ghostly activity. . . . There exists no device that can conclusively detect ghosts."

Radford observes, with logic fatal to ghost hunting, “The supposed links between ghosts and electromagnetic fields, low temperatures, radiation, odd photographic images, and so on are based on nothing more than guesses, unproven theories, and wild conjecture. If a device could reliably determine the presence or absence of ghosts, then by definition, ghosts would be proven to exist.”

As Radford points out in the same article, statistics also cast doubt upon ghosts who are said to haunt their murderers: “If murder victims whose killings remains unsolved are truly destined to walk the earth and haunt the living, then we should expect to encounter ghosts nearly everywhere. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly a quarter of all homicides remains unsolved each year,” and “There are about 30,000 homicides in America each year.”

He also questions how it is that ghosts wear clothing: “Do shoes, coats, hats, and belts also have souls? Logically, ghosts should appear naked.”

On the Subject of Ghosts,” an article by Michael LaPointe, the “laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton” make it “impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without falling through the floor.” One has a choice, it seems. He or she can believe the anecdotal evidence of a haunted soul who sees ghosts do such things or the eminent scientist Isaac Newton, who says that neither ghosts nor anything else in the universe can perform such impossible feats. The party with whose claim one sides suggests much about his or her faith, whether it’s in the supernatural or the scientific.

As The Skeptic’s Dictionary points out, poltergeists generally turn out to be not mischievous, noisy nuisances of the spirit world but, rather, flesh-and-blood pranksters of a juvenile nature, whose antics are coupled, perhaps, with “perceptual misinterpretations, e. g., seeing things move that never moved or attributing sounds or movement of inanimate objects to spirits when one can't detect the source” or air drafts and other natural causes.

In one case, a woman named Mrs. Connolly found:

“A imitation fireplace and a couple of chairs overturned in the living room. Such things went on for four days. A building inspector suggested the problem might be coming from the fireplace, so Mrs. Connolly hired someone to put a protective covering over the chimney top. "From that moment on, the objects stayed put". . . . Mrs. Connolly was not a superstitious woman and attributed the events to powerful drafts swirling down the chimney and disturbing objects in their path. When confronted with poltergeist activity one should not rule out such natural factors as drafts of wind.”

Children are the poltergeists in another account of alleged poltergeist activity that is recounted in The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

“William Roll investigated the Resch case and declared it authentic. In 1984, Tina was 14 years old and living in Columbus, Ohio. Newspaper reports testified to her chaotic household where telephones would fly, lamps would swing and fall, all accompanied by loud noises. James Randi also investigated the case and found that Tina was hoaxing her adoptive parents and using the media attention to assist her quest to find her biological parents.

A video camera from a visiting TV crew that was inadvertently left running, recorded Tina cheating by surreptitiously pulling over a lamp while unobserved. The other occurrences were shown to be inventions of the press or highly exaggerated descriptions of quite explainable events. (Randi 1995).”

Even mere forgetfulness can explain the movement of objects by ghosts. People sometimes move an object, such as a set of keys, from one location, such as their bedroom dresser, to another, such as the kitchen counter, and, forgetting having done so, attribute the object’s relocation to the ghost that they believe must be haunting their homes.

But what about well-known accounts of ghostly visitations and haunted houses, such as Amityville? A couple of articles have appeared on the Live Science website that debunk Amityville: “The Truth Behind Amityville” and “The Truth Behind the Amityville Horror.” They’re a bit too involved and lengthy to summarize here; that’s why you’re directed there.

In Part II of “Alternative Explanations,” we’ll consider how your horror story’s skeptical character might debunk claims about other paranormal and supernatural phenomena.

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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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