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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Monster as the Mirror of the Protagonist’s Soul

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Monsters are often metaphors, as we saw in the “Metaphorical Monsters” post. However, monsters are often also foils to horror stories’ main characters. As Robert Louis Stevenson showed us, in The Strange Adventures of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the monster is, or can be, just an alter ego of oneself, one’s bitter half, rather than one’s better half. In Jungian terms, the monster is the shadow archetype, comprised of the collection of those aspects of oneself that an individual represses.

As a foil, the monster’s character traits are opposite to those of the monster’s attributes. They illuminate by contrast, showing readers or viewers more clearly what the main character is like. Usually, there is only a single foil, but there may be more than one. For example, in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Faith, the rogue slayer, is a foil to Buffy, and, because of Faith’s irresponsibility, we better discern Buffy’s reliability and trustworthiness; Faith’s narcissism allows us to better see Buffy’ altruism; Faith’s amorality lets us better perceive Buffy’s morality. Although Buffy is spontaneous and independent, she is not, like Faith, rash and reckless--well, not as a rule. The only other slayer whom viewers observe over several episodes, Kendra, is a foil to Buffy as well, although she’s not a monster, as Faith, at times, in a way, tends to be. Kendra contrasts sharply with Buffy in several ways, among which are:
Buffy is spontaneous; Kendra is inhibited.

  • Buffy is affable; Kendra is reserved.

  • Buffy lives with her mother; Kendra was removed from her parents’ home shortly after she was born and does not remember her parents.

  • Buffy has a boyfriend; Kendra is not allowed to date and is unsure even how she should act around members of the opposite sex.

  • Buffy is a modern, liberated young woman; Kendra is subservient to men.

  • Buffy blows off research (and homework); Kendra is more a bookworm than Buffy’s watcher, Rupert Giles.

  • Buffy is autonomous; Kendra is a follower.

  • Buffy is independent; Kendra is dependent.

  • Buffy is a fashion enthusiast; Kendra owns only one shirt.

  • Buffy shares her secret identity with her friends; Kendra keeps her identity as a slayer secret.

We could go on (and on), but you get the picture: both Faith and Kendra are foils to Buffy.

However, we begin, with Kendra, to digress. Let’s resume our consideration of how monsters can be foils to a main character.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, does not employ a foil, per se, as much as it does a symbol.

In Wilde’s story (which is surely a study of hypocrisy and false appearances), the protagonist, Dorian Gray, remains young and handsome while his portrait is aged by the sins he commits. Gray claims to love an actress, Sybil Vane, but, when, lovesick for her suitor, she loses her ability to act, he jilts her, causing her to commit suicide. Thereafter, for nearly two decades, inspired by a “poisonous” novel he receives as a gift, Gray undertakes a career in debauchery. The portrait continues to age and to become more and more repulsive, reflecting Gray’s inner state. Enraged, Gray murders the artist, Basil Hallward, who painted his likeness (and who gave him the novel). He blackmails a friend into disposing of his victim’s corpse. After a close call during which Sybil’s brother, James, seeks to murder him to avenge his sister, but is subsequently killed himself in hunting accident, Gray repents, vowing to reform. Hoping to see a change in his portrait, he finds that it is uglier and more aged than ever, whereupon, in a newfound capacity for self-reflection, he wonders whether curiosity or vanity prompted him to check on his portrait’s appearance. He tries to confess his sins and change his ways, before it is too late to save his soul, but he hasn’t the will to do so, and, instead, he plunges a knife--the same weapon with which he’d earlier dispatched Hallward, and is found by his servants, aged and shriveled, it being necessary to examine the rings he wears in order to identify his remains. The portrait is the picture of youth and health that it was when Hallward had first unveiled it.

Gray’s portrait is limited as a means of illustrating the temptations Gray faces and their specific effects on his own life and the lives of those he encounters. For this reason, perhaps, Wilde shows his protagonist’s behavior and its consequences directly, using the portrait to symbolize the effects of his treacherous behavior and his dedicated debauchery upon the protagonist’s inner man. Outwardly, he remains young and handsome, but his portrait shows the true state of his soul. It also indicates, from time to time, his emotional state, as when the picture sneers after Gray has treated Sybil in an abusive manner, thereby showing the contempt that he feels for her but does not show in his actual behavior toward her--not until he jilts her, at any rate. There is only so much that can be accomplished through the use of an inanimate object, after all.

Stevenson’s novel divides the good self from the bad, with Dr. Jekyll’s creation a potion that transforms him into the hideous Mr. Hyde. The monstrous alter ego differs from its creator in several important ways and, thus, serves as a true, if limited, foil:

  • Dr. Jekyll is moral; Mr. Hyde is without a conscience.

  • Dr. Jeckyll is socially respectable; Mr. Hyde freely indulges his passions, including his sexual lusts.

  • Dr. Jekyll is a cultivated man; Mr. Hyde is a little more than a wild animal.

  • Dr. Jekyll is a man of reason; Mr. Hyde is a sociopath.

  • Dr. Jekyll is law-abiding; Mr. Hyde is criminal.

However, the dichotomies aren’t really this simple, for, after all, it is Dr. Jekyll who invents the potion, and it is he who, of his own, free will, drinks it. Mr. Hyde is not another; as an adversary, he is not an external “other,” but the repressed aspects of Dr. Jekyll’s own personality. The conflict in Stevenson’s story is psychological and moral, not social (although the conflict does have social implications). Mr. Hyde is the self whom Dr. Jeckyll desperately wants to be, at intervals and for a time, at least; he is, in Jungian terms, Dr. Jekyll’s shadow, the repressed, largely unconscious part of his personality. In the end, Mr. Hyde takes over completely, killing himself and, as a result, Dr. Jekyll as well. Stevenson suggests that social norms and personal restraints, or morality and conscience, may not be sufficient, in the end, to control the beast within. When they are not, the result is not only crime and sin, but also death and destruction. The use of Mr. Hyde as a foil to Dr. Jekyll allows readers to see a greater, and, indeed, a hidden dimension of the protagonist, suggesting that, appearances to the contrary, Dr. Jekyll may not be as moral, respectable, cultivated, reasonable, and law-abiding as he seems, and, of course, he also allows Dr, Jekyll to discover this same truth about himself.

Other horror characters also have alter egos, or second selves. Count Dracula appears to be a cultivated, cosmopolitan, suave, and sophisticated man of refined tastes, capable of witty repartee and hospitality. He seems to be a well educated man of reason, and, in fact, he can be downright charming. However, he is also a vampire, and, as such, harbors all the attributes of the fiend that shares his body. He is parasitic, secretive, cunning, treacherous, deceitful, hypocritical, and narcissistic--all the things that, secretly, the count longs to be. The fact that man and demon inhabit the same body suggests that they are the same person, and that the vampire’s behavior represents the expression and enactment of temptations that the count normally represses. There is a fine line between the acceptable and the forbidden, at times, and the more political and economic power one has, the more opportunity he or she also has to do that which remains unthinkable to men and women who occupy lesser social positions. As a count, Dracula can be forgiven much more than a peasant would be forgiven.

He is a victim, however, of changing times, as another character, as his foil, suggests. Just as science and technology are beginning to replace religious faith and superstitious beliefs as the dominant worldview, so are nobles being replaced by a growing middle class, a member of which, Dr. Abraham van Helsing, a professor, summoned by his former student, a psychologist, proves to be the death of Dracula. The vampire’s supernatural power is no match against the professor’s use of hypnotism and medical science. Part philosopher and part “metaphysician,” van Helsing is also “one of the most advanced scientists of his day,” Steward informs the reader, and, as such, has one foot in the old, and the other in the new, world. He is a transitional figure. As such, he is a fitting antagonist and foil to the noble Count Dracula, whose world of monarchy and mysticism are coming to their ends. As with Buffy, whose foils are Kendra and Faith, Dracula has more than one opposite: the vampire is a foil to the count, just as is the professor.

Scientists have identified several possible origins for legends of werewolves, including the tendencies of some serial killers to engage in “cannibalism, mutilation, and cyclical attacks,” and have contended that the bizarre behavior of such wolf-men might have been caused by a variety of actual diseases, including “ergot poisoning” and “rabies, hypertrichosis. . . porphyria. . . . congenital erythropoietic porphria. . . . photosensitivity. . . . clinical lycanthropy” and “psychosis,” many of which conditions involve hallucinations and bizarre behavior. Be that as it may, werewolves represent another instance of a character with an alter ego, since, except during full moons, the wolf is a man (or a woman). However, this possibility for an innate, or built-in, foil that shows the opposite traits of the same character and represents a dichotomy within the same character’s personality hasn’t been well developed, probably because, although there is a long and voluminous body of folklore involving werewolves, there has been no definitive story about one, which integrates and centers the tradition on a single, well-developed, memorable character like Count Dracula, Dr. Jekyll, or Dorian Gray. However, since a foil has traits which are opposite to those of the protagonist (even when the main character and his or her foil are, in effect, the same character, as when the foil is an alter ego rather than a separate character), it would not be difficult to identify the characteristics that such a protagonist would possess, whenever he or she comes along. All one needs to do is to identify the traits of the werewolf and then list opposite attributes:

  • The werewolf is bestial; the protagonist will be humane.

  • The werewolf is fierce; the protagonist will be gentle.

  • The werewolf is driven by its instincts; the protagonist will be cautious and deliberate.

  • The werewolf is wild; the protagonist will be cultivated.

  • The werewolf is destructive; the protagonist will be creative.

  • The werewolf seeks sanctuary among the trees of the forest; the protagonist will find refuge in a society of his or her peers.

  • The werewolf fears humans; the protagonist will be sociable and altruistic.

In such a fashion, we could go on, listing character traits and their opposites until we had the basis for constructing a protagonist for whom his or her werewolf avatar would be an appropriate and effective foil. Some day, a writer may pen the werewolf equivalent to Dracula. At such a time, the novel’s (or film’s) main character will most likely resemble the character we’ve delineated, for the monster is likely to be his foil and, thus, alert us to the hidden impulses and temptations within the protagonist whom he or she replaces whenever the monster within escapes the bounds of repression.

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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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