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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Nightmares

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


We’re not sure why we dream or what, if anything, dreams mean. Some believe that they are nothing more than a venting of mental, or psychic, steam, so to speak. Others believe that they are attempts by a clumsy, rather inarticulate subconscious mind to communicate with the conscious mind, or ego, through such devices as figures of speech, symbolism, and puns. Still others believe that dreams are--or can be, at times--messages from God.

Dreams can be inspirational. The benzene molecule’s unusual structure came to a German chemist, Friedrich August Kekulé, in a dream in which he envisioned a snake forming a ring by biting its own tail. The dream showed him the circular structure of the molecule he’d long sought to decipher. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claims that the poem--or fragment of the poem--Kubla Khan came to him, fully complete, in a dream--one of which, it seems, was induced by opium.

Sometimes, dreams prove prophetic. During a journey by steamboat, Mark Twain and his younger brother Henry paused in their journey to stay at their sister’s house for the night. Twain dreamed that Henry had died. He saw him lying in his casket, which rested upon two chairs. The coffin was topped by a bouquet of white roses, a single red rose at its center. Rushing downstairs, Twain saw that his dream had been just that--a nightmare--as Henry was fine.

A week later, Twain, a riverboat pilot was transferred from the Pennsylvania, which he‘d shared with Henry until now, while Henry continued his trip aboard the other riverboat. Three days later, word reached Twain that the Pennsylvania’s boilers had exploded, just after the steamboat had passed Memphis, injuring or killing 150 people. Henry had been among those injured.

Twain made it to Memphis in time to sit by his dying brother’s side. The next morning, Twain went to the room in which the caskets of the dead awaited burial, and saw Henry’s coffin, resting upon two chairs, only the bouquet missing. However, as the grief-stricken Twain watched, a volunteer nurse approached Henry’s casket and set a bouquet of roses atop the casket. At its center was a single red rose.

In “Recollections of Abraham Lincoln,” Ward Hill Lamon describes a horrific prophetic dream that the president had:
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible.

I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break?

I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered.

There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. 'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers 'The President' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin!' Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which awoke me from my dream.
Soon thereafter, Lincoln, attending a production of the comedy Our American Cousin at the Ford’s Theater with his wife, Mary, was shot in the back of the head by the actor John Wilkes Booth. He was carried across the street to a private residence, where he died. His body, placed inside a casket, was placed upon a platform in the East Room of the White House and guarded by soldiers, just as Lincoln had dreamed.

Both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible records dreams which it declares to have been heaven-sent. One of the more memorable is Joseph’s dream, which came to him while he and his family were living in Egypt, under the rule of the pharaoh. He said that he was “binding sheaves of grain out in the field” with his brothers “when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers were jealous and angry, because they interpreted the dream to mean that Joseph would rule over them.

Joseph later had a second dream, in which “the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down” to him. This time, Joseph’s dream aggravated his father, for he interpreted the dream to indicate that both Joseph’s brothers as well as his parents would be subjects to Joseph’s reign.

At the age of thirty, the pharaoh made Joseph his second in command. Another memorable dream is that of Mary, Jesus’ mother, which was brought to her by the angel Gabriel. The angel informed her that the baby to whom she would give birth would be the Son of God. When Mary said that she was a virgin, and, as such, could not have conceived a child, the angel told her that the birth would be the result of a miracle. “With God, nothing is impossible,” the angel declared, and then told Mary that her elderly relative, Elizabeth, was pregnant with the baby who would be Jesus’ herald, John the Baptist. Gabriel, before visiting Mary, had already informed Elizabeth’s husband, Zacharias, that he would be the father of a boy named John.

Darker dreams--the dreams of terror and horror--are called nightmares, and they have inspired great literary art as well as adrenaline rushes and heart palpitations. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, dreamed the idea for her novel’s plot. After reading Phantasmagoria, a book of ghost stories, to divert themselves on a holiday to Lake Geneva, Switzerland, during rainy weather, it was suggested that their party participate in a contest to see which of their number could devise the most frightening horror story. Of those present--Mary, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidon--only Mary completed her story, which she published in 1831 as Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Perhaps as a result of having read of Luigi Galvani’s use of electricity to animate dead frogs’ legs, Mary had a nightmare in which she dreamed of a young scientist’s use of electricity to bring life to a body composed of parts of human cadavers he’d sewn together. She’d reasoned that her nightmare had frightened her; therefore, it was likely to frighten others as well.

Stephen King likewise cites nightmares as the muses that have inspired some of his fiction, one of which was the novel Misery:

The inspiration for Misery was a short story by Evelyn Waugh called “The Man Who Loved Dickens.” It came to me as I dozed off while on a New York-to-London Concorde flight. Waugh's short story was about a man in South America held prisoner by a chief who falls in love with the stories of Charles Dickens and makes the man read them to him. I wondered what it would be like if Dickens himself was held captive.
One wonders what sort of novel King might have written had he read O. Henry’s short story “The Ransom of Red Chief” before nodding off.

Not only have literary artists received inspiration from nightmares, but visual artists have also been inspired by these dark dreams. An oil painting by Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, features a sleeping woman dressed in a white nightgown, her head and arms dangling over the edge of her bed, dreaming of a horse (the nightmare) and an incubus (a demon in male guise who has sex with sleeping women) seated upon the woman’s breast. Copies sold with the accompanying inscription, by Erasmus Darwin, which he later expanded and included in a long poem, The Loves of the Plants:

So on his Nightmare through the evening fog
Flits the squab Fiend o'er fen, and lake, and bog;
Seeks some love-wilder'd maid with sleep oppress'd,
Alights, and grinning sits upon her breast.

Kathleen Russo believes that the painting may have been inspired by the painter’s own nightmares, which he related to folktales that claimed demons possessed lone sleepers, visiting them as hags on horseback, although the origin of the term “nightmare” is unrelated to horses, whether mares or stallions, having referred, originally, the Online Etymology Dictionary asserts, to “‘an evil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation,’ compounded from night + mare ‘goblin that causes nightmares, incubus,’ from O.E. mare ‘incubus.’”

One may agree or disagree with Freudians and neo-Freudians as to whether dreams have any actual significance. Perhaps they are nothing more than the effects of an undigested bit of potato, as Ebenezer Scrooge tried to claim, early on, at least. Maybe they are communications from the deeper self. Maybe they are divine messages, borne by angels. Maybe we will never know, for certain, what they are, but, it seems safe to say, whatever they are, we will be likely to remain fascinated by them and to find them inspirational to art if not to life.


“Everyday Horrors: Nightmares” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

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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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