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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Cliffhanger

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Charles Dickens

As we mentioned in a previous post, Charles Dickens invented the cliffhanger as a way to get his readers to buy the next issue of the magazine in which his current story was running. It worked, and it’s been used ever since, both in novels and in films. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, divided each episode into a teaser and three acts. The teaser is a cliffhanger in and of itself, but acts one through three also each end with a cliffhanger. The last may also end on a cliffhanger, especially if the episode is to be continued in the next installment. Otherwise, it typically ends on a poignant note or, sometimes, by expressing the episode’s theme. The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, said that he and the writers would work out the basic story, complete with cliffhangers, and then fill in the action between these points.

Joss Whedon

Using the episode “Angel,“ from the series’ first season, here’s the way it works:

Teaser: Buffy Summers is attacked by three vampires.

Act I: Buffy discovers that Angel is a vampire.

Act II: Buffy finds Angel kneeling beside her unconscious mother.

Act III: Buffy aims a crossbow at Angel.

Act IV: Buffy and Angel kiss, and her cross leaves its shape burned into his chest.

Between these endings, the episode’s plot is segmented:

Teaser: Buffy is attacked by three vampires.

Frustrated at Buffy Summers’ killing of his minions, The Master, a vampire-king, sends “The Three,” especially proficient vampire assassins, to slay the slayer. At the local teenage nightclub, the Bronze, the annual pre-fumigation party is underway. Willow Rosenberg consoles Buffy about not having a boyfriend, while Xander Harris narrowly avoids being beaten up after he tries to impress a girl with a big boyfriend. Buffy leaves the club and is attacked by The Three.

Act I: Buffy discovers that Angel is a vampire.

Angel appears and helps Buffy fight The Three. When they get the chance to do so, they run, taking refuge in Buffy’s house. They will be safe inside, Angel says, because a vampire cannot come inside unless invited. Her mother, Joyce, catches him there. Buffy says he’s a college student who’s been helping her with her history class. Joyce suggests that it’s time for Angel to leave and for Buffy to go to bed. Joyce goes upstairs, to bed, and Buffy pretends to say goodnight, but he follows her upstairs, to her bedroom. The next day, at school, Buffy tells her watcher (mentor), Rupert Giles, and Willow and Xander about her fight and how Angel spent the night, making Xander jealous. Giles identifies the vampires as special warriors and says that, having failed, they will now offer their lives to The Master in penance. The assassins do so, and The Master, pretending he will spare them, allows the vampire Darla, one of his favorite followers, to kill them on his behalf. Joyce cautions Buffy not to rush into a relationship with Angel. He’s still in her room, and she sneaks food upstairs to him. They kiss, and he transforms into a vampire.

Act II: Buffy finds Angel kneeling beside her unconscious mother.

Buffy tells Giles, Willow, and Xander that Angel’s a vampire. Darla visits Angel in his above-ground apartment and tells him and tries to interest him in her, but he’s not interested. At the Sunnydale High School library, Giles fills the teens in as to Angel’s history: “he’s a vicious, violent animal.” Darla visit’s the library, where Buffy and Willow, taking a break from studying, talk about Angel. Buffy admits she is fond of him, and Willow tells Buffy she likes Xander. As Buffy tells Willow how she felt when Angel kissed her, Darla eavesdrops on their conversation. As Joyce works on her taxes, someone knocks at the door. She opens it, and sees Darla, who claims to be Buffy’s classmate, come to study with Buffy. Joyce invites her into the house. Angel, stopping by Buffy’s house, is about to leave without knocking when he hears Joyce scream. Darla has bitten her, and she tosses her body to Angel, inviting him to feed. Angel transforms into a vampire. Darla slips out of the house, and Buffy, arriving home from the library, sees her mother’s throat punctured and Angel, as a vampire, seeming about to feed upon her mother.

Act III: Buffy aims a crossbow at Angel.

Angel flees, and Buffy calls an ambulance. At the hospital, Giles, Willow, and Xander join Buffy in visiting Joyce, who tells them that a “friend” of Buffy’s stopped by and that Joyce was going to make a sandwich for her when she must have slipped and fallen, cutting herself. After they leave Joyce’s room, Buffy tells the others she plans to kill Angel, who, she suspects, lives near the Bronze. Giles tells her she may need more than a stake to accomplish the task, and she retrieves the crossbow from the library. Darla tries to persuade Angel to rejoin her and The Master. Joyce talks to Giles, and he learns the identity of the friend who visited her--Darla. He leaves, telling Willow and Xander that they have a problem with which to deal. At the Bronze, Buffy finds Angel, aiming the crossbow at him.

Act IV: Buffy and Angel kiss, and her cross leaves its shape burned into his chest.

Angel reverts to his human form, and Buffy can’t kill him. He confesses to the terrible deeds he’s committed in the past and tells her of the Gypsy curse that restored his soul, making him feel remorse for his misdeeds and want to repent. He denies having bitten Joyce and cannot bring himself to bite Buffy when she offers him her neck. Darla arrives, carrying revolvers, which she uses against Buffy and her crossbow. Giles, Willow, and Xander also arrive, and, to distract Darla as she’s about to kill Buffy, Willow blurts out that it was Darla, not Angel, who bit Joyce. Darla is standing on top of a pool table. Buffy jerks her feet out from under her, and she falls on her back atop the table, still firing her weapons at Buffy. To distract Darla again, Giles turns on the club’s strobe lights. As Darla, recovering, stalks Buffy, Angel sneaks up behind her and stabs her with an arrow. She bursts into dust, and Angel leaves. The
Master reacts with rage upon learning that Angel has killed Darla, but his disciple, the Anointed One, comforts him. Buffy brings Joyce a plate of vegetables, telling her she must eat them to build up the iron in her blood. At the Bronze’s post-fumigation party, Buffy, Willow, and Xander joke, but Buffy looks for someone she’s expecting. She sees Angel and goes to meet him. Angel has come to tell Buffy that their love can never be, and she agrees. They kiss, and Buffy returns to Willow and Xander. The smoking imprint of Buffy’s cross is imprinted in Angel’s chest.

Note: This summary is based upon the original shooting script for this episode, by Joss Whedon.

The cliffhanger is so successful that most novelists routinely use it to end many, if not all, chapters, and virtually all television shows and motion pictures employ the device as a matter of course, even, as Whedon does, using the cliffhangers themselves as a means of moving the story’s action forward, from key moment to key moment, making each key moment especially dramatic, and filling in the spaces between these points. The method is a refinement of the strategy outlined by Gustave Freytag, in which an inciting moment gives rise to the action, a turning point sets the plot off in the opposite direction it has previously taken, and a moment of final suspense leaves audiences wondering how the story will end. Obviously, a cliffhanger can be much more than simply a way to tease the reader into coming back (or staying tuned) for more.

As a side note, some writers, of horror and otherwise, also employ the teaser. Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond thrillers, started many chapters of his spy novels with a teaser, consisting of a line, often of dialogue, from the chapter that the teaser introduced. The dialogue was always intriguing and compelling, creating suspense or curiosity.

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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.

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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