Fascinating lists!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Identifying Elements of the Horrific

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

What constitutes the horrific? While the answer to this question may depend to some degree upon the individual and may vary from one person to another, most people would agree that some features are horrific in general by their very nature. As an aspiring horror writer, one should be familiar with these elements. This post will consider some of things that most people believe to be horrific.

Anything that is subterranean or submarine is frightening: basements, caves, crawlspaces, hell, mines, the ocean bottom or river bottoms, submarine vessels, and tunnels. We know not where (and to what) they might lead. They are paths to mysterious regions that are yet unexplored and uncharted, where there may be monsters. Were we to follow their lead, we might become irretrievably lost. We might die of hunger and thirst and exposure, alone and far from friends, family, and the culture and civilization which, in large part, give meaning to our lives. Even our corpses might be lost, remaining unburied and, worse, unmarked and unremembered. It might be as if we'd never lived at all.

Anything that is close is frightening: narrow spaces of all kinds, many of which overlap with the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph: basements, caves, crawlspaces, submarines, and tunnels. To this list, in “Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe added the grave itself, as a place of absolute confinement, in the case of one who has been buried alive. We might add engines of torture in which the victim is confined, such as the iron maiden or walls that press in upon one, as they do in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” We might also add cages, cells, dungeons, and collapsed mines.

That which is of a hideous appearance alarms. Deformities and birth defects and mutations top the list in this category, but those whose faces have been destroyed by acid, disease, or fire are also ghastly and unsettling to those whose own countenances, if not lovely or handsome, are at least of normal appearance. The deformed body is as horrific as the misshapen face, as pitiful stories of the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Elephant Man attest.

Mementos mori frighten us because of what they are: reminders of our own looming deaths. The skull and the skeleton spring to mind as such reminders, but so also are catacombs, cemeteries, coffins, graves, headstones, morgues, mortuaries, tombs, and worms. As John Donne shows us, even the pealing of a bell can recall to us our imminent demise: we need not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you and me.

Vast spaces can be intimidating, as cornfields, deserts, forests, icebergs, jungles, mountains, oceans, pastures, planets, and outer space suggest. Many of these places are also isolated, which cuts characters off from society and culture and the defenses that each provides against both brutish nature and the animal nature within humanity. However, smaller places, such as total installations (boarding schools, camps, colleges and universities, forts, hotels, military installations, nursing homes, outposts, prisons, research facilities, resorts, or even trains) can also be remote and, therefore, can be not only lonely but also cut off from the larger world and its comforts, resources, and protections.

Some animals’ appearance is repulsive. Most amphibians and reptiles are, by nature as well as by their looks, abhorrent to many. God himself used a plague of frogs against ancient Egypt in his campaign to force pharaoh to release Moses and the Israelites from bondage. Insects are, likewise, revolting to many, as are worms and many other creepy crawlies. Some contend that amphibians and reptiles (and their eggs and spawn, especially) remind us of sex; others say they are mementos mori.

Wild animals, especially when their strength and abilities are magnified by conferring gigantic size upon them, frighten most people. Think of what the world would be like if it were still populated by dinosaurs and one was as likely to encounter a tyrannosaur as a hamburger at the golden arches.

Wildernesses are frightening, because they tend to be remote. Moreover, most such places are not only inhospitable in themselves, but they are also likely to be home to wild animals that will attack and, quite possibly, eat humans who, for whatever reason, trespass upon their domain. In addition to deserts, forests, islands jungles, mountains, and underwater environments, wildernesses may include the arctic, the Antarctic, hidden valleys, lost worlds, and swamps. Some may also offer dangers peculiar to themselves, such as animals that were thought to have become extinct but have somehow managed to survive in a remote area, pools of quicksand, or tribes of headhunting cannibals.

Anyone who is not only a danger to him- or herself but is also a danger to others, whether intentionally, as Leatherface or Jason might be, or unintentionally, as many teenagers tend to be, are also people to fear. Some people, just by their attitude or behavior, seem to dare the monster to spindle, fold, and mutilate them, and, of course, any monster worth the name is going to be more than happy to oblige.

Instruments of torture and death are also frightful devices, to be avoided at all costs. The number of such devices is many, and they needn’t be listed. Suffice it to say, if something looks as of it could cause pain, suffering, and/or death, most likely it can and it should, therefore, be avoided.

Of course, in a horror story, none of these persons, place, or things should be avoided forever or even for very long; if they are, the story won’t be horrific or even suspenseful. Sooner or later, characters must suffer one or more of these fates before succumbing, at last, to a hideous and ugly death:
  • Abduction
  • Battery
  • Being bound or fettered
  • Being chased or stalked
  • Being eaten alive
  • Being hit over the head with a blunt object
  • Being flayed alive
  • Being lost
  • Being roasted or otherwise cooked alive
  • Being shot with a pistol or a rifle (or even a crossbow)
  • Being smashed by a falling boulder or other heavy object
  • Cannibalism
  • Disfigurement
  • Dislocation of joints
  • Drowning
  • Electrocution
  • Explosion
  • Gassing
  • Hanging
  • Immolation
  • Imprisonment
  • Isolation
  • Kidnapping
  • Live burial
  • Mauling
  • Mutilation
  • Poisoning
  • Sexual assault
  • Stabbing
  • Starvation
  • Strangulation
  • Suffocation
  • Torture

No comments:

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.

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.

Popular Posts