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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Buffy and Kendra: They Just Slay Me!

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In the “What’s My Line, Part I” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season, Kendra Young debuts as a second slayer. Neither Buffy Summers, the “real slayer,” as her friend Willow Rosenberg calls her, nor Buffy’s Watcher, Rupert Giles, knows of Kendra’s existence before her Watcher, Sam Zabuto, sends her to Buffy’s hometown, aware that “a very dark power is about to rise in Sunnydale.” Kendra also appears in the second part of the episode and in a third episode. “Becoming, Part I,” of the same season. She’s a foil to Buffy, and, as such, she highlights Buffy’s traits, but, at the same time, reveals both Buffy’s flaws and foibles and her own, suggesting that neither is the ideal slayer and that neither of them is more effective in the slayer’s role than the other.

Buffy and Kendra are evenly matched in age, strength, stamina, agility, speed, and fighting prowess, and both are adept in the use of weapons, wooden stakes and otherwise (although Kendra has trouble with a crossbow, destroying “an evil lamp”). Otherwise, the two slayers couldn’t be less alike.

Kendra takes orders from her Watcher; Buffy prefers to do things her way. Kendra reads her Slayer’s Handbook and conducts her own research concerning vampires, demons, and other monsters. Buffy lets others do the book learning. Kendra evaluates others on the bases of her studies and what she has been taught. Buffy judges others on the bases of her own experience and beliefs. Kendra has no friends, is not allowed to date, and was taken from her family at such a young age that she doesn’t remember them other than as images in photographs. Buffy is surrounded by friends who call themselves “The Scooby Gang” or “The Scoobies,” lives with her mother, and has a vampire boyfriend, Angel. Kendra is serious and single-minded about her duties as a slayer, whereas Buffy seems to be casual about her slayer’s responsibilities. Kendra is rational, Buffy romantic. Kendra believes in taking a deliberate, rational, and logical approach to slaying. Buffy says her emotions are “total assets” that empower her. While Kendra defers to men, Buffy is a modern, liberated young woman. Kendra considers her calling to be a slayer a privilege and an honor as well as a duty, but Buffy would rather lead a “normal” life.

Which of them makes the more effective slayer? Concerning Kendra’s death at the hands of the mesmerizing vampire Drusilla, who orders Kendra to look into her eyes so that she can hypnotize her, Jana Riess contends, in What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide, that Kendra’s willingness to follow orders without question leads to her death. However, as Kendra herself tells Buffy, when Buffy says “I don’t take orders; I do things my way,” “No wonder you died.” Buffy may act with autonomy and independence, but she is also headstrong at times and rash, and it may be argued that these traits led to her own death in her fight against The Master, at the end of the series’ first season. It seems that the show’s writers, in positing Buffy and Kendra as opposites, suggest that neither of them is the ideal, or more effective slayer, because each is too extreme and dogmatic, in her own way, insisting that hers is the better--indeed, the only true--way to discharge her duties as the slayer. The ideal slayer, the show implies, lies somewhere between these two extremes. Kendra is too dependent; Buffy, too self-reliant. Kendra is too academic; Buffy, too pragmatic. Kendra is too theoretical; Buffy, too empirical. Kendra is too staid and reserved; Buffy, too garrulous and affable. Kendra is insensitive; Buffy is oversensitive. Kendra is straightforward and honest; Buffy, although dutiful, pretends to be carefree. Kendra is too repressed; Buffy is too uninhibited. Kendra allows men to subjugate her; Buffy tends to be disrespectful and rude to men. Kendra is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her calling; Buffy is willing merely to do her duty. Neither is the ideal slayer, and neither is the more effective slayer, for each lacks balance. Both are too extreme in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

The writers intimate that the ideal slayer is the one who is self-reliant but also accepts assistance from others; participates in research rather than leaving it to others; has friends, including a boyfriend, if she likes, without letting her friendships interfere with her duties; understands that, as sacred as her calling as a slayer may be, it is no more hallowed than her family; uses both her learning and her own experience to evaluate situations and to judge others; takes her duties seriously and is not afraid to let others see how earnest she is about her role as a slayer; is neither overly repressed nor too unrestrained; interacts with men with respect but as an equal; and is willing to make sacrifices but also seeks to enjoy a personal life to the extent that it is possible to do so without shirking her responsibilities. Neither Kendra nor Buffy occupies the position between opposing extremes that Aristotle referred to as the “golden mean.” Therefore, they both show tremendous promise and potential, but neither is as effective a slayer as she could be were she the ideal slayer.

Since the ideal slayer doesn’t exist except as an ideal, one might conclude that both Buffy and Kendra are all that they can be--themselves--and, as such, are the most effective slayers that they can be. Kendra calls herself “the vampire slayer,” as does Buffy, and both are right: they are each a slayer and the most effective slayer that they, as themselves, with all their faults and strengths, can be. That’s all they have to offer. As it turns out, all they have to offer is both never sufficient and, at the same time, paradoxically, always enough.

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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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