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Monday, February 18, 2008

A Sense of Horror

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman




Heard on The History Channel: “Why was Helen Keller a bad driver?” (long pause) “Because she was a woman.”




“We murder to dissect,” William Wordsworth observes, and, in “Sonnet: To Science,” Edgar Allan Poe pretty much agrees. Critics have been dissecting humor for a good many years now, and, as a result of their painstaking research, they’ve exposed much of the tissue--and, indeed, the viscera--of comedy. In short, they’ve gutted their subject so thoroughly that its pretty much a bloody mess. That’s fine, of course, with the horror buff.

As a result of their dissection of humor, critics now bandy about terms like “bathos” and “slapstick” and “irony.” They talk about “ambiguity” and “exaggeration” and “understatement” and “incongruity.” They pontificate about “timing,” and “nuance” and “setup.” They argue about “straight men” and “punch lines” and “context.” They quibble about the use and abuse of “language.” They use these learned words as if, in doing so, they’re talking a good deal of sense when, as often as not, perhaps, they’re talking nonsense. That’s also fine, of course, with the horror buff.

It’s not really that the critics are wrong in their assessments and the pronouncements that derive from them. It’s that they’re looking at humor from without, rather than from within. We can learn a great deal about things by taking an objective approach in our studies. Neil Armstrong is proof of that. However, despite the wealth of scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated since astrology became astronomy and alchemy transmuted itself into chemistry, we may say, with Soren Kierkegaard, that we ourselves are left over.

There’s a great deal of truth to be gleaned through observation and analysis, but there’s also some to be gained from introspection, from self-analysis, from one’s experience of his or her own subjectivity, and from the contents of his or her own consciousness. Women go to male gynecologists and obstetricians, but only the pregnant themselves can appreciate certain aspects of pregnancy and childbirth, because these aspects of the processes can be known only from within--from within the flesh and the soul. The same is true of humor.

Comedians know what’s funny, and they can explain, to some degree, why it’s funny. W. C. Fields attributed humor to a streak of cruelty, saying those who laughed most and hardest at his self-deprecating humor were the ones he’d turn to last, if at all, for help if he was in need, because their laughter at his misfortune, even if his suffering was staged, indicated that they were relatively sadistic. George Carlin declared that comedy is “distortion,” but he didn’t say how or why or what’s being distorted. Some of the comedian’s tricks of the trade, apparently, must remain tricks of the trade, just as magicians are loathe to let the public in on such secrets as how to saw a woman in half or how to make the Statue of Liberty disappear.

Carlin also said that he doesn’t try to make his audience think. “That would be the kiss of death” for him as a comedian, he maintains, but he does let them know that he’s thinking.

Sometimes comedians disagree as to what’s funny and what’s amusing. Most comedians think all is fair game for the comic, but Bill Cosby drew a line at profanity and encouraged Eddie Murphy to do likewise. Murphy didn’t, but his career as a comedian didn’t seem to suffer. Most comedians seem to agree, however, that some audiences are quicker than others and that they need to adjust their repertoire of material and their timing accordingly.

Are comedians born or made? Is a sense of humor a product of nature or nurture? This question is as old as comedy, with proponents of both sides arguing their cases ad infinitum. The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes, meaning that it’s both genetic and environmental. Some people are born with an affinity for the amusing, the droll, the comic, and the witty, but they can learn from other funnymen and women, as Mark Twain learned from lesser comic writers he knew in his early, formative years, such as Artemis Ward, Alexander Macfarlane, and Josh Billings. No doubt, comedians are also inspired by the greats who have gone before them.

By now (or probably way before now), you’ve no doubt thought that (a) the title for this post is erroneous or (b) the idiot who’s writing this stuff forgot to take his Prozac or (c) both of the above. Isn’t this article supposed to be about “A Sense of Horror”? Then, why is it about humor?

We’re used to the phrase “sense of humor,” but we don’t usually talk or hear about someone having a “sense of horror.” Nevertheless, just as musicians often have an ear for music and comedians can, in some sense of the word, “sense” humor, so, it may be argued, can horror writers discern the horrible in persons, places, and things that other people see as commonplace and everyday and not in the least horrible or even the least little bit unsettling. When Stephen King was asked what scares him, he replied, “Everything!”

If you read “Everyday Horrors: Cornfields,” you’ve seen how cornfields, to ordinary folk, are just cornfields. They’re mundane, ordinary, and commonplace. They’re vegetables. What’s scary about a crop of corn, for Pete’s sake, or even for Dave’s sake? It’s only after we recount how many horror stories, both in print and on film, are set, in full or in part, in cornfields that we think, Wow! Cornfields are scary! Of course, that’s because writers and filmmakers have shown us how and why cornfields are scary.

Nobody told them cornfields are scary, though. They knew it or they intuited it or they just felt the fear rolling out of those neatly spaced rows of corn that are knee high by the Fourth of July. Stephen King (Children of the Corn) and Dan Simmons (Summer of Night), Jonathan Maberry (Ghost Road Blues), Norman Partridge (Dark Harvest), and the makers of such movies as High Tension, Freddy vs. Jason: A Match Made in Hell, Hallowed Ground, The Silence of the Lambs, Scarecrow, Jeepers Creepers II, The Corn Stalker, I Walked with a Zombie, The Stand, Night of the Scarecrow, and Shallow Ground saw, and, seeing, knew that cornfields are inherently scary, despite their wholesome appearance, and, in their stories, they showed the rest of us the horror and the terror of these ranks of tall annual cereal grass with big ears.

So, is a sense of horror innate? Can it be learned? Like a sense of humor, it is likely both, and that’s a significant lesson for the aspiring horror writer.

Among the influences on his career as a writer, Stephen King lists authors as diverse as Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, H. P. Lovecraft, Richard Matheson, John D. MacDonald, Don Robertson, Thomas Hardy, Theodore Dreiser, John Fowles, Edgar Allan Poe, J. R. R. Tolkien, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Robert Browning (Dark Tower Series), Daphne du Maurier, and Alexandre Dumas. It’s quite a list. He’s taken something--an observation, a technique, an insight, a tip, an idea for a plot--from each and every one of them (and probably others as well, whom he’s forgotten to name). Each one of them has inspired him, just as they have each taught him how to be a better storyteller and, therefore, a better horror writer. Yes, writing, like comedy, can be learned.

But a sense of horror is also innate and, as such, it must also be nurtured from within. In looking, learn to see the horror implicit in the person, place, or thing that’s being seen. The post concerning “Everyday Horrors: Cornfields” does this (see the list of bullets), but after, not before, the fact. After horror writers suggested--in fact, showed--the horror of the corn, it was relatively easy to backtrack through the maize and determine what, exactly, is eerie and alarming about stand upon stand of 10- and 12-foot-tall annual cereal grass with big ears. The point, though, is to discern these qualities and features while one is observing the things themselves of which they are parts or effects.

So take a look at a German Shepherd, and see Cujo; a car, and see Christine; a dead cat, and see a twisted zombie child; a stranger’s arrival in town, and see an old-world vampire; an alcoholic writer, and see a man haunted, or even possessed, by the past.

Then, one’s sense of horror can prosper and grow until one is, like King and other masters of the macabre, afraid of “everything!”




Why did Ed Gein keep his house so warm? (long pause) So the furniture wouldn't get goose bumps.

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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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