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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Leftover Plots: Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


As a result of considering “leftover plots” or plot-seeds or springboards or whatever we choose to call narrative motifs that occur in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we identified several additional storylines that could have been used in the series or (better yet, for us) that we ourselves, with some revision regarding characters, setting, and other narrative elements, could employ to write horror stories (or even novels) ourselves:

  • An imprisoned character can escape, causing more mischief or even a little death and destruction before being killed or imprisoned again.
  • Things that give rise to new organisms or liberate forces or entities, such as eggs, seeds, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, melting icebergs, shifting tectonic plates, earthbound meteors, and the like, can introduce new characters, including such worthy adversaries as hideous, horrible monsters.
  • Problematic characters, such as a naïve, incompetent, or foolish follower or sidekick can create havoc and endanger lives.
  • Physical objects, or artifacts, can function as inciting moments that spark a chain of narrative incidents, setting the rest of the story in motion.

We also learned some important factual matters pertaining to this technique:

  • Ideas cannot be copyrighted, so they are fair game as inspirations for plots.
  • The specific and unique ways in which ideas are developed can, and often are, copyrighted.
  • Using the characters, settings, and other elements of such treatments could constitute plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
  • Ideas must be given an original treatment in which characters, settings, and other elements are new, not derivative.
They’re lots more we can learn from considering other Buffy episodes, so let’s get started.

In “Angel” (episode 7, season 1), viewers are introduced to a mysterious stranger who comes to Buffy’s aid, helping her to defeat three vampires who attack her in the proverbial dark alley. Viewers wonder who this stranger is, what his interest in Buffy may be, and how he got the strength, agility, stamina, and fighting prowess to take on vampires alongside the supernaturally gifted slayer. Later, when, sharing a passionate kiss with Buffy, the stranger transforms into a vampire himself, one of these questions is answered, but the answer raises further, even more intriguing questions, one of which is why a vampire would be interested in (and apparently smitten with) his mortal enemy.

Willow Rosenberg, Buffy’s nerdy computer geek friend, starts an online romance with a stranger in “I Robot, You Jane” (episode 8, season 1). Buffy is concerned about the possible dangers of Internet dating, and, as it turns out, she has good cause to be concerned, for Willow’s newfound boyfriend turns out to be a demon that, once imprisoned in the text of a book, was liberated into cyberspace when the book was scanned into Sunnydale High School’s library database.

“The Puppet Show” (episode 9, season 1), which is one of the lamer stories in the series, is a takeoff upon the Chucky movies about a demon-possessed doll, except that this toy is a human who was cursed by having his soul confined to a ventriloquist’s dummy by the same brain-eating demon who’s been killing Sunnydale High School students and lunching upon their brains. (See! High school kids do have brains.)

Nightmares come true in “Nightmares” (episode 10, season 1). The bad dreams are products of an abused boy whose Little League baseball coach believed in making an example of him after blaming the boy for the team’s loss of a big game. Some of the dreams, although nightmares, are amusing--Xander’s fear of going to school in his underwear, his fear of the clown that performed at one of his childhood birthday parties, and Willow’s fear of theatrical performance--but others are truly terrifying, as when Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles, dreams that she has been killed or Buffy’s own dream that she has been transformed into a vampire.

Interesting because of one of the more transparent metaphors upon which Buffy plots are typically based, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (episode 11, season 1) equates being neglected and ignored with becoming invisible. In this episode, an invisible girl, Marcie Ross, uses her invisibility to gain revenge against Cordelia Chase and other Sunnydale students and, indeed, teachers who mistreated, neglected, ignored, and otherwise abused her before becoming a spy for the federal government.

“Prophecy Girl” (episode 12, season 1) is the two-part finale of Buffy’s first season. The slayer learns that a prophecy foretells her death at the hands of an ancient vampire king known as The Master. She tries to quit, but, when The Master’s minions attack and kill several of her fellow students, traumatizing Willow, Buffy reluctantly accepts her destiny and is first bitten and then, unconscious, cast into a pool of water, in which she drowns--only to be resuscitated by her friend Xander, who arrives in the nick of time with Buffy’s vampire lover, Angel. Revived, Buffy finds that she has taken on some of The Master’s strength--and darkness--becoming stronger and is now immune from his mesmerizing gaze. A fight, to The Master’s death--ensues.

Okay, so what have we learned?

Most of these episodes deal with xenophobia, an irrational fear of strangers, except that, as it turns out in most cases, the fear doesn’t seem all that unwarranted when one is residing atop a Hellmouth. The introduction of a stranger who is mysterious in some ways is a universal and well-used plot device. When used adroitly, the mysterious stranger creates and maintains suspense because his or her sudden introduction into the setting and circumstances of the larger story naturally arouses curiosity on the reader’s (or viewer’s) part, especially when the entrance is a grand one, dramatic and--in the case of the horror genre, at least--unsettling. In Buffy, to enhance the mystique of the stranger, the series’ writers used such techniques--okay, they can be called “tricks,” if one prefers to think of them in this way--as these:
  • A possible threat. (Is the mysterious Angel stalking Buffy?)
  • Romantic intrigue AND star-crossed love. (Buffy no sooner meets Angel than they’ve become a couple, but, since he is, as she soon learns, a vampire, and she’s the slayer, theirs will be star-crossed, to say the least.)
  • Juxtapositions. The past (as represented by print-bound books) and the present (as represented by computers and cyberspace) meet, and they don’t get along all that well. Good (Buffy) and evil (Angel and the other vampires) represent two moral extremes. The natural, everyday world of Sunnydale and its citizens’ mundane lives are set against the supernatural world of their vampire foes. Life, as it is lived by Buffy and her friends, is contrasted with the life-in-death state in which the vampires exist, a hedonistic world of the senses and of passions that are cut off from such roots as love and compassion.
  • Similarity of themes. Buffy often explores a theme from several perspectives. For example, Willow, whose love for Xander remains unrequited because of his love for Buffy, which is also unrequited because Buffy loves Angel, leaves Willow lonely, as does Marcie’s neglect by her peers. In each instance, the characters’ loneliness leads them to foolish actions. In Willow’s case, she is saved by her friends, to whose circle she returns. Marcie, having no friends, becomes a ward of the state, so to speak, after Buffy rescues Cordelia and defeats Marcie. Although it may not cure one’s loneliness altogether, friendship, such thematic treatments suggest, is the tie that not only binds but also saves one from a perfunctory, institutional existence as a ward of, and a servant to, the state.
  • Animation of inanimate objects. This is a motif that is popular in fantasy fiction, including the horror and the science fiction genres. The animation of inanimate objects, whether through magical or technological means, is a subtype of the artifact plot device, in which an object, whether a ring (Lord of the Rings), a crystal (The Dark Crystal), or even a spaceship (Rendezvous with Rama) or some other object is the artifact.
  • Trauma’s consequences. As child abuse, spousal abuse, torture, combat and other mistreatment or crisis situations have shown, trauma has long-, if not life-long, consequences and can cause recurring nightmares, acts of violence, and other disturbed behavior.
  • Duty’s duty. Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons which reason does not know.” So has duty. Even when there is no logically defensible reason to do so, the claim of duty often holds, especially when altruism, or even self-sacrifice, are directed at protecting others, more helpless than oneself, about whom one cares. Buffy dies that others may live, and, in doing so, she underscores the supreme values of brotherly love, courage, and that pesky pest, duty.
So, these episodes provide quite a bit of fodder for horror story writers, with regard to characters’ usefulness to plot, popular narrative motifs and techniques, and popular themes. With modification to suit one’s own interests and the demands of one’s own story, they can enrich and enhance a narrative. As such, they are useful tools--or tricks--to have in one’s authorial kit.


Having considered only a few of the lessons to be learned from a consideration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, we’ll revisit the topic of “Leftover Plots” in future installments.

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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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