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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Total Institutions As Horror Story Settings

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


A total institution is a world unto itself. It is more or less self-contained and can function pretty much independently, without the need for an inordinate amount of outside assistance or support. These are examples of such institutions, many of which, for reasons we will consider in just a moment, are excellent as settings for horror stories:
  • Boarding schools
  • Colonies
  • Circuses and carnivals
  • Dude ranches
  • Labor and logging camps
  • Hospitals, medical and psychiatric
  • Hotels
  • Managed-care facilities and nursing homes
  • Military and certain other government installations
  • Monasteries and nunneries
  • Museums and art galleries
  • Prisons and reform schools
  • Religious cult facilities
  • Religious retreats
  • Resorts
  • Ships and submarines
  • Spaceships or space stations
  • Summer camps
  • Universities

These locations supply much of their own casts of characters. A boarding school will be populated by administrators, students, support staff, and teachers. They may be visited, occasionally, by parents. Dude ranches will feature administrators, guests, riding instructors, and support staff. Hotels will include managers, desk clerks, bellhops and other support staff, including cooks and bartenders, and, of course, guests. Managed-care facilities and nursing homes will be peopled with an activities director, nurses, orderlies, managers, and patients. Family members, doctors, and government officials may visit such facilities on occasion. Military installations will include officers and enlisted personnel and some civilian support staff and may be visited on occasion by other military and civilian personnel, such as government officials, media personnel, and scientists or other experts. Prisons include guards, prisoners, support staff (such as a doctor and nurses), and wardens. Resorts include many of the same personnel as are featured at such other total institutions as hotels and dude ranches. Summer camps feature administrators, camp counselors, support staff, and campers. Parents may visit the camps as well, usually at the beginning and the end of the season. Universities are populated by administrators, professors, students, and a variety of support personnel such as secretaries, cooks, custodians, maintenance personnel, landscapers, and security and police forces. Such personnel can become characters in a horror story that takes place in a total institution.

A total institution can be remote from the rest of civilization. Even those that are in or near cities are, by their very nature as total institutions, set off from the larger community. In most cases, their isolation cuts them--and their residents and workers--off from the organizations and systems of the larger world, such as large-scale medical support, firefighting capabilities, law enforcement and military forces, educational institutions, power companies, repair services, grocery stores, gasoline supplies, and so forth, making them, over time, vulnerable on many levels. These institutions also cut off their residents and workers from the cultural belief system that supports daily life. Over a long period of time, the people in such places could revert to a primitive state or set up a society of their own that is based on values and beliefs that are alien to those of the larger world. Such institutions can also lead to the brainwashing of their residents and workers, especially when their isolation cuts them off from other views and perspectives against which to measure the ideas and statements of the institution’s leaders, creating an “us against them” mentality. Isolated total institutions can be vulnerable from both within and without.

Finally, the use of a total institution as a setting makes escape difficult or impossible once the horrors begin and puts the courage and resources of the characters to the ultimate test, the penalty for the failing of which is death, and the reward for passing is survival.


A few of the many stories (novels and movies) in which the action takes place in a total institution are:

  • Alien (movie, by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, et. al.): The crew of the spaceship Nostromo investigates a signal from the moon of a nearby planet. On the moon, they discover a ruined and abandoned spaceship populated with monstrous aliens, one of which implants a fetus inside a Nostromo crew member, which is born aboard the crew’s vessel, where it rapidly attains adulthood. Total institution = spaceships.


  • The Butterfly Revolution (novel, by William Butler): Winston Weyn maintains a diary in which he recounts the experiences he has at High Pines, a summer camp. The boys rebel against the camp leader, Mr. Warren, when he insists that they undertake a butterfly hunt. Taking over, they then also take over Low Pines, the nearby girls’ summer camp. Totalitarianism, serious crimes, and brutality ensue. Total institution = tropical island


  • The Green Mile (novel, by Stephen King): A healer is convicted of sexually assaulting and killing two young girls whom he’d tried to cure and is sentenced to death. In the prison, he is tormented by a sadistic guard who ensures that the healer experiences a hideous death in the electric chair. Total institution = prison (and, later, a nursing home).


  • It, the Terror From Beyond Space (movie, by Jerome Bixby): In rescuing the sole survivor from an expedition to Mars, a ship picks up a stowaway--the monstrous alien that killed the explorers. Now, it attacks the rescuers, picking them off one by one. Total institution: spaceship.


  • Jurassic Park (novel, by Michael Crichton): Scientists use DNA recovered from the blood inside a mosquito preserved in amber to create dinosaurs, which they install in an island resort, but things go hideously wrong. Total institution = island resort.


  • The Lord of the Flies (novel, by William Golding): Boys being evacuated during a war are stranded on a tropical island after the airplane that is transporting them is shot down. In an effort to institute order, a conflict arises that causes death and destruction among the boys. Total institution: tropical island. (Note: Stephen King often speaks of how he admires this novel and wishes he had written it.)


  • The Relic (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child): A scientist undergoes a horrific transformation as a result of eating a strange jungle plant and terrorizes the employees and guests of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. Total institution = museum.


  • The Resort (Bentley Little): A haunted resort offers more fear and horror than fun in the sun for a vacationing family. Total institution = resort.


  • The Shining (novel, by Stephen King) and 1048 (movie based on a short story by Stephen King): Hotels are the scenes for ghostly and demonic terror in this novel and this short story, respectively. Total institution = hotels.


  • Something Wicked This Way Comes (novel, by Ray Bradbury): What’s coming is a carnival of horrible secrets and dark powers. Total institution = carnival


  • Taps (movie, by Devery Freeman, Robert Mark Kamen, James Lineberger, and Darryl Ponicsan): Rather than allow their military school to be razed and replaced by condominiums, a team of cadets takes over the academy, fighting for their alma mater and its leader’s honor. Total institution = military boarding school.


  • The Terror (novel, by Dan Simmons): A pair of ships become icebound in the Atlantic and are harassed by a strange creature that lives among the icebergs. Total institution: ships.

  • University (novel, by Bentley Little): A Grecian god returns, wrecking havoc at an American university campus. Total institution = university.

  • The Thing from Another World (movie, by Charles Lederer, based on a novella by John W. Campbell, Jr.): An alien shape shifter is discovered in a block of arctic ice; thawed out by scientists, it attacks and kills the staff of a remote research station. Total instution: arctic research station.

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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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