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Friday, March 21, 2008

Buffy: More than Pastiche


copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a pastiche, as executive producer Marti Noxon freely admits in a comment on the series’ third season compact disc (CD). Most viewers believe the series was far superior during its first three seasons than it was thereafter. One reason for this, perhaps, is that the show based many of its earlier episodes upon classic horror monsters, offering Buffy’s take on them. If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” as Charles Caleb Cotton said, Buffy is positively sycophantic toward such artists and movies as:

  • Cat People (“The Pack”)
  • The Terminator, and (if only in the title) Tarzan the Ape Man (“I Robot, You Jane”)
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (“Nightmares”)
  • H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”)
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Some Assembly Required”)
  • The Mummy (“Inca Mummy Girl”)
  • The Terminator (“Ted”)
  • Werewolf films and folklore (“Phases” and others)
  • The Creature from the Black Lagoon (“Go Fish”)
  • Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, Night of the Living Dead and the Gorgons (Greek mythology) (“Dead Man’s Party”)
  • Hansel and Gretel (“Gingerbread”)
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (“Primeval” and other episodes featuring Adam)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (“Buffy vs. Dracula”)
  • Ground Hog Day (“Life Serial”)
  • Tremors (“Beneath You”)

It’s fine to be “inspired” by other writers and their works, as long as other writers’ ideas are treated differently in one’s own work--as long as, to paraphrase Noxon, one makes the other’s creature feature one’s own. Just by relating classic horror monsters to contemporary teens and the problems and issues that they face in their daily lives, Buffy goes a long way in doing this. Of course, the characters, the setting, the conflicts, the themes, and pretty much every other dramatic element also differs as a result of bringing the monsters into a new arena, just as these elements are drastically different in Bram Stoker’s Dracula as compared to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, despite the fact that both stories feature vampires.

It may be instructive to examine Buffy’s treatment of a couple of the classic horror monsters, so, in this post, we’ll take a look at the show’s use of three in the same episode: Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, Night of the Living Dead and the Gorgons of Greek mythology, all of which inform the plot of “Dead Man’s Party,” and at werewolf lore, which is developed in “Phases” and several of the series’ other episodes.

In “Dead Man’s Party,” Buffy Summers has just returned home to Sunnydale after running away to Los Angeles, where she’d been living in a motel and working as a waitress in Helen’s Kitchen (an allusion to New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen), calling herself by her middle name, Anne. Now that she’s returned, her friends and her mother, Joyce, insist upon throwing her a welcome-home party. Unfortunately, Buffy is still struggling with the “fallout” from her “love life,” as she characterizes her problematic relationship with Angel in “I Only Have Eyes for You”: in the episode previous to “Anne,” Buffy had to dispatch Angel to hell in order to prevent him from sucking the world into the same dimension, and, in an argument with her mother, who forbade her to leave the house, Joyce told Buffy not to come back if she left the house. Buffy’s attempts to repress her feelings are not working.

After Joyce, the owner of an art gallery, hangs a Nigerian mask on her bedroom wall, she announces to Buffy that she is hosting Buffy’s welcome-home party, and sends Buffy to the basement to retrieve their better dishes. As she does so, Buffy discovers the cadaver of a cat, which mother and daughter bury in the back yard. That night, the mask glows, and the cat is resurrected. The next day, it returns to the Summers’ house, shocking Buffy and Joyce, who call Buffy’s watcher (mentor), Rupert Giles, the high school librarian. Giles traps the animal in a cage and takes it to the library to study. The resurrection of the dead, buried cat is an allusion to Stephen King’s novel, Pet Sematary, in which a beloved pet is buried after being killed and returns (as, later, a dead child, buried in the same cemetery, does, as well).

During the party, it’s clear that Buffy is not coping well with her difficulties. She seems to have been avoiding her best friend and confidante, Willow Rosenberg. Xander, on the other hand, is too busy spending time with Cordelia Chase, his newfound girlfriend, to pay Buffy much attention. Buffy overhears Joyce confide in a friend as to how difficult it is for her to have Buffy back home again. Meanwhile, Buffy is surrounded by strangers who have crashed her party. Feeling alienated and alone, she packs her bags to run away again, but she’s caught by Joyce and Willow. In a confrontation between mother and daughter, in front of her friends and the other partygoers, Buffy is humiliated. Xander also confronts her, telling her that she must deal with her problems rather than trying to repress them: “You can’t just bury things, Buffy. They’ll come right back to get you.” They do just this, in the form of zombies.

In his research, Giles learns the secret of the Nigerian mask that Joyce has hung on her bedroom wall, and rushes to the Summers house to warn Joyce and Buffy, but, on the way, he’s attacked by the zombies.

As Joyce and Xander confront Buffy, the zombies crash Buffy’s party, attacking and killing guests in a scene reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead.

One drags Joyce’s friend, Pat, down a hallway. Buffy, Joyce, Xander, and Willow take refuge in Joyce’s bedroom, where they find Pat lying on the floor, while Willow’s boyfriend, Oz, and Cordelia hide in a closet downstairs. Checking her pulse, Willow confirms their fears: Pat is dead.
As Oz and Cordelia step out of the closet, they encounter Giles, who’s just arrived, and he explains that Joyce’s mask is imbued with the power of a zombie demon, Ovu Monabi, or Evil Eye. The zombies have come to retrieve it. Whoever dons the mask becomes the demon.

Pat shocks everyone by recovering. She was dead, but, now, she lives. She’s also wearing the mask, having become the zombie demon. In a fight with Buffy, the slayer knocks the demon through Joyce’s bedroom window, and both combatants tumble off the roof, to land in the yard below. During the fight, Buffy learns that the demon can paralyze people, after the fashion of Medusa and the other Gorgons of Greek mythology, whose look could turn their victims into stone. When Oz distracts the demon, it paralyzes him, giving Buffy the chance she needs to attack the monster, and she shoves a shovel into its eyes, blinding it. Defenseless, the demon (and the body of Pat) vanishes, and those who were paralyzed recover.

The episode ends with Buffy and Willow bonding as life returns to as-close-to-normal as it gets in Sunnydale.

This episode fuses elements of the plots of King’s Pet Sematary, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the Greek myth of the Gorgons. However, these elements are synthesized in a way that makes them unique to the demands of Buffy’s continuing storyline. The resurrection of the dead cat foreshadows Pat’s resurrection, both of which are accomplished by virtue of the power of the mask; the zombies are associated with the mask, but they also represent the powerful negative emotions that Buffy has sought to repress, or bury; and the power of unresolved emotional trauma, represented by the demonic mask and the demon’s power to paralyze its victims, represents Buffy’s alienation, her inability to cope, and the destructiveness to others of her unwillingness to communicate. In using these elements, the Buffy writers have made them their own, as Noxon says, and, in doing so, have transformed them rather than simply copied them off from other writers and stories.

“Phases,” “Wild at Heart,” and other Buffy episodes use werewolf legends and folklore in a similar way to develop the TV show’s continuing storylines and themes.

There hasn’t been a definitive story about werewolves the way there has been, with Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, a definitive story about vampires. The closest that the literature of horror has come in distilling the legends and folklore regarding the hirsute horror is, perhaps, The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney. For the most part, however, the stories concerning werewolves remains fragmented and diverse, lacking a center. In the episodes of Buffy that concern the werewolf as an antagonist, the series provides a center, if not a definitive one, for this character, as it appears in the Buffy mythos.

The show’s writers cleverly play upon the idea that the creature is a monster only on the night preceding a full moon, on the night of the full moon, and on the night following the full moon, or three days out of a month. (Traditionally, a werewolf is a werewolf only on the night of the full moon, but the show’s writers wanted to suggests that their three-day period is equivalent to a woman’s menstrual period, as Willow tells her boyfriend, Oz, the show‘s sometime-werewolf, “Three days out of the month, I’m not much fun to be around, either.”)

Willow, Buffy, Giles, and the other members of their clique protect Oz from a poacher whose specialty is werewolves. (He makes necklaces of their teeth and sells their pelts.) To protect Oz and those whom he might kill and devour were he allowed to run free during his “period,” Oz is locked inside the library’s rare books cage. In another departure from most werewolf lore, Oz suffers guilt, in “Beauty and the Beasts,” when he escapes from the cage and believes that he may be responsible for the death of a human being. In the same episode, he says, after having devoured part of the actual killer after a fight with him, which Oz, in his werewolf avatar, wins, he says, that, oddly enough, he feels full although he hasn’t eaten. Oz doesn’t recall his actions as a werewolf when he reverts to human form. Such forgetfulness is in keeping with traditional werewolf lore. However, this will change, he is assured by a fellow werewolf, Veruca, whom he meets in “Wild at Heart.” Veruca has been a werewolf longer than Oz, and, after they are intimate as werewolves (if such creatures can in any real sense of the word be intimate), she tells him that she can recall some of her experiences as a werewolf, and relishes them, as he will do as well, eventually. The prospect horrifies Oz rather than delighting him.

When Veruca approaches Oz the next night, he locks her inside the library book cage with him, and Willow finds their naked bodies, there, the next morning. Later, Veruca attacks Willow, but is saved by Oz, who, in his werewolf state, attacks and kills Veruca. Next, he turns on Willow, but Buffy’s arrival saves the witch, and, the next day, distraught at the thought that he may have killed Willow, Oz leaves Sunnydale to seek a cure for his lycanthropy.

When he finds the cure, Oz returns, finding that Willow has become enamored of another woman, her fellow college student, Tara Maclay. Enraged, he reverts to his vampire self, and attacks Tara, but he is subdued by a military platoon led by Buffy’s new boyfriend, Riley Finn. When Oz escapes, he leaves Sunnydale for good, accepting the fact that Willow loves Tara rather than him.

The romantic relationship that Oz has with Willow is another departure from traditional werewolf lore. One reason that the legends concerning this monster may remain fragmented and diverse rather than having acquired coherence and a more cohesive structure is that the beast, rather than the human, aspects of the monster have been highlighted historically. When the protagonist is more animal than man, character development is unlikely. One of Buffy’s more creative innovations with regard to the show’s use of werewolf folklore is to reverse this treatment, showing the humanity of the monster rather than the bestiality of the human. Because Oz is allowed to be not only a beast but a man, the writers can more fully develop both his character and the tradition out of which it, in part, comes. After all, werewolf is motivated, primarily, by instincts, but a person, being far more complex, is motivated by many impulses, instinctive, emotional, rational, and otherwise. The show’s use of the werewolf motif, like its use of the zombie motif, is complex, but it is also unique, because it makes it serve its own narrative and dramatic purposes. In so doing, the show makes these classic monsters its own, rather than simply using them as the monster of the week or the creature feature of the moment.

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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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