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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fear: A Cultural History: A Partial Review and Summary, Part 4

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman



Joanna Bourke, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, is the author of Fear: A Cultural History. Although she explores several other important aspects of this most basic emotion, Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear concludes its partial review and summary of Bourke’s book with a consideration of her chapter on “Nuclear Threats.”

As Bourke indicates, these threats resulted in a generation of children’ being “raised to fear.” There were the thermonuclear fireball and its resulting widespread, catastrophic physical destruction and the hideous deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of citizens, but there were also the long-term threat of radioactive fallout and lingering death from radiation sickness. Radiation could cause genetic mutations, too, so, if the explosion or radiation sickness didn’t kill one, he or she might undergo grotesque, painful, and eventually lethal mutations, becoming a monster before becoming a corpse.

Also disturbing was the fact that the wholesale slaughter of humanity--or a sizeable portion of the species--was in the hands of a few nations and, within those nations, a few individuals--and not the types of individuals in whom most people had confidence:

With the means of world devastation available to the elite of a few nations, fear became widespread. No longer were humanity’s primary enemies hidden in the
crevices of individual unconsciousness, capable of being lured out by a reassuring confidant. Instead, the fate of humankind seemed to rest with people no one trusted: soldiers, scientists and statesmen.
In fact, “fears about generals, scientists, super-computers, and terrorists,” Bourke states, “were a staple of this genre [science fiction], as was the argument that nuclear war was simply an inevitable consequence of paranoid Cold War animosities.” Another popular subject for such fiction were flying saucers: “It was no coincidence that sightings of UFOs began immediately after the Second World War, a tangible reflection of nuclear and Cold War fears.”

Worse yet, the oceans that lay between America’s east and west coasts were no longer reassuring to its citizens; “long-range aeroplanes and nuclear warheads destroyed this sense of security.”

Bourke points out that the post-war years gave rise to some important themes in the science fiction and horror genres. The most famous such example, she suggests, was Godzilla, “a prehistoric monster resurrected as a result of H-bomb experiments,” who appeared in 1956, starring in “at least sixteen feature films thereafter.” A line of dialogue in Them!, a movie about gigantic, mutated ants, suggests the metaphor that underlies the film: “Has the Cold War gotten hot?” As Bourke points out, the post-war era and the world’s newfound fear of nuclear threats inspired several novels as well, including Margot Bennett’s The Long Way Back (1954), Tyrone C. Barr’s The Last Fourteen (1959), Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (1969), as well as Jim Harman’s short story “The Place Where Chicago Was” (1962), and Philip Wylie’s Tomorrow “did not flinch from describing a woman sitting on some stairs after a nuclear attack, vainly trying to shove her unborn baby back inside her split belly.”

Overwhelmed by the many horrors and terrors associated with nuclear threats, psychologists warned government officials to expect people to “denial and avoidance,” which would require the use of special techniques of communication, command, and control.

The Civil Defense program that the United States sponsored during the years of the Cold War was never intended, despite its name, to defend civilians from nuclear attack or its consequences, Bourke says--not directly, anyway. Instead, its purpose was to convince the public that, even in the event of a nuclear war, many people could survive by following the procedures they’d learned as participants in the program. Convinced of their potential survival, the general populace, government officials believed--or hoped--would agree with attempts on the part of their leaders to maintain a mutual deterrence policy with the then-Soviet Union, despite the cost of such a policy. Meanwhile, government leaders also endeavored to get citizens to accept the need “to militarize society in the event of a nuclear attack,” to conform to policies and procedures (those who did not might be arrested and “neutralized”), and to accept restrictions upon personal privileges and legal rights. Even the Constitutional right to free speech might be curtailed. The media would likely be controlled by the government to suppress rumors. Leaders hoped that the people would follow the procedures they had been taught as participants in the nation’s longstanding Civil Defense program: “Familiarity with air-raid drills would ensure that people would passively fall into a familiar drill procedure, thus keeping their minds busy and reducing the likelihood of panic.” Meanwhile, radios and vehicles, including airplanes and helicopters, equipped with loudspeakers would transmit or broadcast reassuring messages:

Confusion foreshadowed panic. Irrespective of the veracity of the message, a ‘calm, authoritative voice’ broadcast on an ‘intact public address system’ was crucial. As the Bulletin for the Atomic Scientists put it in 1953: ‘The human being whose normal picture of the world around him is suddenly torn to pieces struggles to replace it with another picture so that he can steer his activity.’ Loudspeakers and radios in public shelters would reorient people, preparing them for a transformed world. Since many people would not have access to radios in the event of a nuclear attack, and since rubble and fires would prevent ground vehicles from getting information to them, disaster agencies would prevent ground vehicles from getting information to them, disaster agencies recommended the use of light planes, preferably helicopters, which would broadcast information and ‘counteract panics.’ All information had to be given
in a factual, calm and easily understood manner so that ‘depressed, fearful and
resentful victims of the disaster’ would be able to understand it.’
Bourke points out that experts admitted that they didn’t really know how people would react in the wake of such a terrible and extensive catastrophe, for nothing of such a scale had ever happened, especially to a civilian population. However, they did think that, possibly at the expense of strangers, family members would stay together and look out for the welfare of one another, and it was believed that men, having more survival skills than women, would be likely to do comparatively well, and women comparatively poorly, in the exercise of adaptive behavior (that is, behavior adapted to the crises at hand). Officials might discover that their greater problem might not be “preventing hysterical flight,” but “getting them to move at all.” Nevertheless, “to provide guidance, disaster experts identified four situations that predisposed people to panic when faced with danger”:

First, partial entrapment was liable to make people panic. . . . Secondly, when the threat was seen as imminent. . . people were likely to ‘freeze’. . . . Emotional extremes would be exacerbated if, thirdly, a blocked or jammed escape faced them. Fourth, confusion and uncertainty about the nature and intensity of threat was particularly distressing.

Never had the world, despite all the many wars its nations had waged, faced such a situation as was posed by nuclear threats. The situation would be characterized by confusion, mistrust, distrust, and fear, and human beings, for the first time in history, would be seen as having “more conclusive” powers than “God, in being bale to annihilate irredeemably and without possibility of redemption.”

In such a world as the disaster experts painted, the horrors of prehistoric monsters, gigantic ants, leveled cities, and even hostile visitors from beyond the stars were mild, even comical, threats, indeed. The horrors of the human technology had outpaced the horrors of the artistic imagination.



Bourke, Joanna, Fear: A Cultural History. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.

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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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