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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Fear: A Cultural History: A Partial Review and Summary, Part 3

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In Fear: A Cultural History, Joanna Bourke distinguishes between fear, as a reference to “an immediate, objective threat” and anxiety, as a reference to “an anticipated, subjective threat,” but cautions her readers that, however useful psychologists may find this distinction, “historians must be extremely wary about imposing such distinctions on emotional states in the past,” because what may be feared by some may not be feared by others. In an interesting side note, she also suggests that scapegoating is a means of converting anxiety into fear, because, in creating a scapegoat, a society creates an “immediate, objective threat” as a substitute for their previously “anticipated, subjective threat,” thereby gaining an adversary whom they can confront. This is a tactic widely used in politics, Bourke says, “influencing. . . voting preferences against an ‘outsider’ group.” (It may be recalled that this was a frequent tactic during the American civil rights movements, during which representatives of the status quo referred to activists and protesters as “outside agitators” who had come to their towns to “stir up trouble.”) The opposite is also true, Bourke notes: “If anxiety can be turned into fear, and thus provide an enemy to engage. . . fear can, similarly, be converted into anxiety,” an effect of which is to reduce collective, participatory behavior and isolate individuals with their own misgivings: “Anxiety states tend to make people withdraw from one another, unlike fear states, which are more likely to draw people together, either for comfort or to defend themselves more effectively against the danger.” Once again, politicians use this tendency as a tactic, pitting one group against another:

The political implications of this are evident, with groups ‘playing off’ fear and anxiety, according to their aim. Between the 1950s and 1970s governments tried to convince people that their fears of nuclear war were ‘irrational’ anxieties rather than ‘rational’ fears, thus discouraging the impulse to unite with other fearful persons against the common threat.
The same tactic is at work in the invention of new “phobias,” such as “homophobia,” as a defense against debate by those--the statistical majority, as it turns out--who do not share the ideas, beliefs, and values of this community or in the labeling of those who oppose open borders as “racists” simply because they believe in and endorse national sovereignty and the integrity of their homeland’s borders.

The isolation of the individual from his or her larger society so that the person is alone with his of her fears and must cope with them as best he or she can is a characteristic of contemporary culture and society, Bourke observes, which seems to have increased anxiety:

Whereas in the past the frightened individual might turn to the community or a religious institution for advice and comfort--a process that often involved the delineation of an evil ‘other’--as the twentieth century progressed, the emotion became increasingly individualized, appropriated by the therapist or, in the most isolated fashion, the contemporary ‘self-help’ movement. . . . As a consequence, anxiety may have been higher. . . .
The information in this part of her book (and the chapter on “Combat”) are especially fertile for horror writers who wish to develop credible scenes in which the fear and anxiety derive from situations and behavioral tendencies that have been subjected to psychological scrutiny.

The “Combat” chapter of Bourke’s book offers these observations, many of which will help horror writers to create believable characters and realistic situations:
. . . [In combat] fear was beneficial, so long as it did not spill over into
hysteria or anxiety neuroses. . . .

. . . in battle ‘normal’ was always pathological. In the words of the author of ‘Psychiatric Observations in the Tunisian Campaign’ (1943): ‘A state of tension and anxiety is so prevalent in the front lines that it must be regarded as a normal reaction to this grossly abnormal situation. Where ordinary psychological signs of fear end, and where signs and symptoms of a clinical syndrome begin, is often difficult to decide.’

[Lieutenant Colonel Stephen W. Ransom considered] “it. . . perfectly normal for combatants to suffer muscular tension, freezing, shaking and tremor, excessive perspiration, anorexia, nausea, abdominal distress, diarrhea, urinary frequency, incontinence of urine or faeces, abnormal heartbeat, breathlessness, a burning sense of weight oppressing the chest, faintness and giddiness.”

. . . the technology of long-distance killing, with its emphasis on anonymous agency and random aggression, placed an intolerable strain on men’s physiological inheritance.

. . . this physiological crisis was exacerbated by a cognitive problem: too many modern soldiers were educated, and thus resistant to rationalizations and primitive conversions (such as the psychological process of ‘converting’ fear into a physical symptom like mutism or paralysis).

According to Bourke’s survey of fear in combat situations, officers were less likely to suffer from incapacitating cowardice, because they have a greater “ego ideal” and feel responsible for not only their own welfare but for that of many others as well. Women are less likely to suffer hysterical breakdowns in combat situations than men are likely to suffer because men fear exhibiting cowardice more than they fear death itself and because society allows women to express their emotions, including their fears, directly and openly; consequently, many discuss these feelings with their peers, whereas men, for the most part, deal--or try to deal--with their fears by themselves. There is also a racial element to white officers’ characterizing black men as being especially prone to fear, anxiety, and panic, despite these officers’ own admissions that black soldiers fight every bit as valiantly as the most gallant white soldier. Physically, blacks, as soldiers, are the equals of their counterparts, such critics contend, but they are weaker mentally and lack the white soldier’s confidence and autonomy.

The prolonged uncertainty, apparent randomness, and fear associated with military combat takes a toll on soldiers’ ability to think and act in a consciously purposeful manner, converting them to “automatons” who go through the motions of defensive and offensive operations. In addition, it was found that “if a combatant could not act, he was more susceptible to fear.” Likewise, soldiers feared most the advantages that indirect fire or long-distance enemy weapons gave them, for, again, it was impossible for the attacked to fight attackers that were not physically present before them and that they could not see: “It was a feeling of ‘inequality’--often described as ‘injustice’ by the men--which was at the heart of fear. When asked why they were afraid of a particular weapon, the ‘inability to retaliate,’ the ‘feeling of vulnerability,’ and the ‘speed and surprise of the attack’ were all as important as ’effectiveness’ or ’accuracy.’”

Recognizing that “The only difference between a brave man and a coward is the fear of the one is controlled whilst the fear of the other is uncontrolled,” as the author of Psychology and the Soldier declares, the military seeks to reduce this tendency in various ways. Since soldiers were found to fear most that which they couldn’t fight against directly, such as passivity (for example, “crew in medium bombers” that “were forced to keep to course irrespective of danger” or to take cover in trenches during enemy artillery attacks which sometimes buried them alive), officers were encouraged to assign their troops busy work to occupy them during breaks between combat and to keep their minds off their fears. They were allowed to expend ammunition even after a target had moved beyond the range of their weapons so as to expend their fear. Men were trained “to respond automatically to orders, to ignore rumours, to focus on the leaders and comrades and to be accustomed to the fog and noise of battle,” but “automatic training” was found to be “less important than training men to obey orders immediately. . . . realism training” being seen as “crucial. . . because it taught men to think under terrifying conditions and it developed their self-confidence” and because not every contingency could be imagined and rehearsed in advance: “only a limited number of routine actions could be taught.” Officers were expected to be models of confidence themselves, keeping any reservations or concerns about their missions to themselves and always exhibiting a calm sense of purpose, on basis of “the belief that people were innately imitative, so fear could be reduced through witnessing the fearlessness of superiors or comrades.”

Of course, the reality of war itself helped, gradually, to harden soldiers to combat and its lethal consequences. Eventually, the sights of massive casualties seemed commonplace, which helped to reduce soldiers’ fears of their own demise.

Anyone who has seen Alien has seen many of these principles dramatized on the silver screen, and anyone who has seen The Descent has seen their opposites on display. The information that Bourke supplies in her “Combat” chapter enables aspiring horror writers to characterize survivors in the former manner and to fashion victims in the latter’s mode. In addition, Bourke’s review of the literature pertaining to the effects of long-term combat on combatants offers a storehouse of other tips for maintaining and heightening suspense, characterizing various dramatic personae, and representing various themes associated with violence, death, and destruction. There are quite a few suggestions, too, concerning the psychology of terror and horror and the motivations of behaviors which, in normal situations, would be classified as psychotic but, in extreme situations, such as combat (or a monster’s attack) might well be simply normal. Perhaps this is the true horror of horror fiction--that we create such situations in the first place. Mark Twain once opined, “If the human race isn’t damned, it ought to be”; war in being not only hell, shows us, as such, that we are the damned.

On that note, we will pause, taking up the last of our review and summary of Bourke’s survey of the subject of fear again in the next post.

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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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