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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Skeletons

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Be honest! Would you feel a bit squeamish touching a human skull or handling a human skeleton? If you’re normal (which is to say, like most people), you’d find such an experience creepy, not delightful. In fact, if you enjoyed handling the bones of a dead person, you’d definitely be more than a little creepy yourself.

Ed Gein, the Plainfield, Wisconsin serial killer upon whose antics the characters of Norman Bates (Psycho), Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs) are based, collected human skulls. He’d upend them, cut them in half, and, using the lower jaw as a stand of sorts, employ them as soup bowls. (He also fashioned a belt of female nipples, wore a bodysuit made of women’s flesh, wore a mask of female skin, and maintained a collection of women’s noses, among other artifacts of the graveyard, but that’s another story).

Ray Bradbury wrote an interesting little chiller about a character who was obsessessed with the idea that a skeleton inside him was just dying to get out.

Most of us find skeletons horrific because they are mementos mori, reminders of death. However, Dream Moods, an online dream dictionary, suggests that skeletons can symbolize other things, too:

To see a skeleton in your dream, [sic] represents something that is not fully developed. You may still in be the planning stages of some situation or project.

Alternatively, it may suggest that you need to get to the bottom of some matter. You need to stand up for yourself and your rights. To see someone depicted as a skeleton, signifies that your relationship with them [sic] is long dead.
Forensic scientists often turn to skeletons, when corpses are no longer available, in their attempts to solve crimes. For example, they can use the bones to determine whether the person of whom they were once a part was male or female. The male skull has a more prominent bony ridge over its eye sockets, and the female skeleton has wider hips. No, Genesis notwithstanding, female skeletons do not have one fewer rib than their male counterparts. Each has the same dozen pairs. Although the sex chromosomes determine the basic model, male or female, that the skeleton will follow, hormones are also determinants in the size and shape of the skeleton.

Testosterone causes the male model to grow longer and thicker bones and a narrower set of hips. This hormone is almost absent in the female skeleton, so it is typically shorter, more delicate, and has wider hips that give the skeleton a knock-kneed appearance. Other differences are subtler: the male skeleton has wider shoulders, a longer ribcage, and a pelvic girdle that facilitates walking and running.

According to “Male and Female Skeletons,” male and female skulls also exhibit a few differences. The former tends to be rugged and square-shaped, with bony ridges over the eye sockets; a larger, broader nose; and a bigger jaw, with larger teeth, whereas the latter is more often of lighter construction, having an oval or triangular shape; minimal bony ridges over the eye sockets; a higher, more vertical forehead; a smaller nose; smaller teeth; and a pointed chin.

Skeletons are strange enough in themselves, when you think of it, but some are stranger than others. One, found in Concepción, Chile, has no upper limbs, but its lower legs show what appear to be talons. The wildest guess as to the identity of the creature? It was supposed to have been an extraterrestrial! As it turns out, scientists identified it as the skeleton of (drum roll, please) a cat! (crashing cymbals).

Some strange skeletons are man-made, such as the “Fiji mermaid’s” skeleton that showman P. T. Barnum pieced together. It was part monkey and part fish, but Barnum passed it off as a siren such as those who harassed and tempted poor Odysseus. Another such skeleton, Live Science’s “Scientists Build 'Frankenstein' Neanderthal Skeleton” article explains, is one that anthropologists are assembling as “the first and only full-body reconstruction” of the Neanderthal “species.” The fossilized skeletal remains of two actual Neanderthals donated most of the bones for the project, the few missing bits and pieces coming from a half-dozen of their peers and a few lucky modern humans' skeletons. As a result of assembling their bony Frankenstein’s skeleton, the scientists learned a thing or two about Neanderthals that they hadn’t known before:

The biggest surprise by all means is that they have a rib cage radically different than a modern human's rib cage. . . . As we stood back, we noticed one interesting thing was that these are kind of a short, squat people. These guys had no waist at all--they were compact, dwarfy-like beings.

The anthropologists also confirmed the scientific belief that modern humans couldn’t have descended from their Neanderthal cousins: “There is no way that modern humans. . . could have evolved from a species like Neanderthal. . . . They're certainly a cousin--they're human--but they're one of those strange little offshoots.

One other fact that the scientists learned is that the Neanderthals were amazingly strong, despite their Hobbit-like appearance: “"If you shook hands with one, he would turn your hand to pulp."

Scientists believe that the discovery of dinosaurs by the ancients resulted in many of the legendary and mythical tales of fabulous and fantastic creatures, as the post on "How to Create Monstrous Monsters" explains. Such beasts are studied by cryptozoologists, whom no one appears to take seriously.

Occasionally, skeletons appear as antagonists in short stories and novels, including Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey” (1908), George MacDonald’s Lilith (1985), and Ray Bradbury’s “Skeleton” (1943).

Skeletons have been featured in fantasy movies such as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad [1958], Jason and the Argonauts [1963], and The Mummy [1999]. A few horror movies also feature skeletons (House on Haunted Hill [1959], The Horror of Party Beach [1964], Return of the Living Dead [1985], A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors [1987], Army of Darkness [1993], Skeleton Warriors [1993], and Skeleton Man [2005].)

“Everyday Horrors: Skeletons” 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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