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Friday, March 7, 2008

Visualizing Horror: Movie Posters

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman




For writers, horror is primarily a matter of action described in words. For illustrators, horror is primarily a matter of image depicted in color and shape. A writer has a few sentences with which to snare the unwary reader’s attention, plunging him or her into the action of the story, an illustrator a few seconds in which to ambush the wandering eye. To do so, creators of horror posters, in addition to traditional design techniques and artistic principles, rely upon creating both a sense of the bizarre and an air of mystery. Their pictures pose more questions than answers, arousing viewers’ curiosity and, their creators hope, make them want to see the films that the posters advertise.

In the early days of horror movies, posters were more verbose, as wordy as they were pictorial. Mostly, adjectives suggested the traits of the featured creature and, perhaps, how the moviegoer should feel about the monster. A poster for The Blob read “Indescribable. . . Indestructible. . . Nothing Can Stop it. . . THE BLOB!” The picture showed a massive, blood-red gelatinous mass enveloping a passenger train from which horrified travelers seek to escape on foot while one of them, a woman, screams in the foreground.

Another early poster, even more loquacious, shows a young blonde woman, lying supine. Facing the viewer, she reaches out with her right hand while she attempts to fend off a monster with her left, a look of abject horror upon her face. Although the text suggests she is being raped, the monster is depicted only as a demonic head, out of which tentacles grow, Gorgon like, some ending in suckers, others in animal skulls, and still others in the heads of bizarre beasts. The text reads, “A few years ago in Dunwich a half-witted girl bore illegitimate twins. One of them was almost human! THE DUNWICH HORROR.”

For films that are associated with a particular person, place or thing, such as The Amityville Horror, the action of which takes place inside a haunted house of sorts which is of a distinctive design, the poster depicts the house, with its eyelike windows looming in the background while, at the center of the foreground, the silhouette of a male figure approaches the viewer, carrying an object that is difficult to identify clearly but may be a rifle. Clearly, the gunman and the spooky-looking mansion are related in some way, but how? Why is he armed, and what sway does the apparently haunted house hold over him?

A more recent film, The Descent, shows six women, the characters who explore the movie’s uncharted cave, who, by the unlikely postures they’ve adopted, form a human skull. “Scream your last breath,” the text advises. How are the women related, and why, collectively, are they posed to depict a human skull? Will they be the deaths of one another? If so, how? And why? And into what will they descend?

A poster for Friday the 13th is divided in half horizontally. The left side of the upper half shows the close-up of a young woman’s head as she screams. The right side of this same half of the poster shows a cabin, lit from within, at the edge of a deep woods; a full moon glides across a partly cloudy, starlit sky. The upper and lower halves of the poster are divided by paper, perhaps representing a diary. Words, in red, on the folded-down sheet of paper on the right read, “On Friday the 13th they begin to die horribly. One. . . by one.” The left side of the lower half of the poster depicts typical events at Camp Crystal Lake, and, thrusting in from the right edge of the same portion of the poster, a hand holds a sharp-edged hunting knife. The juxtaposition of innocent fun at a summer camp with an image of brutal death creates a sense of dread.

A poster for Hellraiser shows the close-up of a man’s head into which, porcupine-style, many nails have been hammered, all to the same relatively shallow depth so that he resembles a human pincushion, giving literal expression to the term “pinhead.” Between the nails, lines of blood are visible, dividing his face into a grid pattern. Who hammered the nails into the man’s head and cut the gridlines into his face, and why? Who is this mysterious “hell raiser”?

For The Hills Have Eyes 2, a vaguely feminine body, trussed up inside a sheet of canvas, and secured by a rope, is being dragged across the desert by a male figure, dressed somewhat like a mummy, whose back is all the viewer sees. Directly behind the dragged figure, a hand pushes through the soil, clawing at the ground. What the hell is going on here?

A film called simply Horror shows a white-collared priest wearing a cross, except that, in place of a human head, he has the head of a long-horned goat, which is emblematic of the devil. The poster’s text reads, “Expect nothing less than sheer. . . HORROR.” The picture is as humorous as it is horrible, suggesting that the movie may be a bit campy, but it does make the viewer wonder what the satanic priest’s motive is and what plan of action he hopes to execute. Is he merely a deceiver--a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were--or is he something much worse?

Jeepers Creepers 2, a film in which a serial killer collects his victims’ eyes, shows what appears to be an orange sky in which a series of crimson lightning bolts flash and out of which emerges the suggestion of a human face, the most distinctive feature of which is its open mouth and teeth. Under the movie’s title, the caption reads, “Feed your fear.” Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that the orange sky and red lightning bolts are really an image such as is produced by a retinal scan--the poster’s viewer is looking at his or her own eyeball and, at the same time, into the face of the serial killer who collects just such trophies. The design for this poster seems to take into consideration the old wives’ tale that the last image that a murder victim sees--that of his or her killer--is imprinted upon his or her retina forever. This poster creates a sense of immediacy, once one sees that the outer world--the sky and lightning--is really the inner world and that, consequently, one might be viewing what will soon become one’s own death

Alfred Hitchcock showed Psycho audiences just how frightening vulnerability can be when he had knife-wielding Norman Bates attack a hotel guest as she was showering in her bathroom. The movie Slither capitalizes upon this same sense of vulnerability. A bather has left her bathroom door ajar, and the viewer--or voyeur--sees her bent knee, rising above the side of the tub in which she bathes, presumably relaxed, unaware of the large, wormlike creature that, poised upon the rim of the tub, is about to plunge into her bathwater while, behind it, others ascend the side of the bathtub--and still more of the loathsome slug-like monstrosities, gathered at the base of the tub, await their turn to join their ilk. The phallic significance of the large worms hardly needs to be mentioned. This poster evokes the fear of both physical and sexual assault.

Sometimes, the movies that such posters advertise actually contain the scenes that the posters depict. For example, the Slither poster suggests that the antagonist--the monster--is going to be a mass of monstrous worms symbolizing, perhaps, the violence of sexual assault, or rape. There is a parasitic worm--a bunch of them, actually--courtesy of a fallen meteorite, which transforms its host--the bathing beauty’s husband, Grant--into a zombie-like monster. There’s sex, too--or a lack thereof--for Grant becomes infected after, refused sex by his wife, Starla, he goes to a local tavern to drown his sorrows, meets a female acquaintance who’s smitten with him, and goes into the woods with her, where, before anything further can happen between them, Grant becomes a host to the alien parasite. At home, he builds a nest for the larvae and, hatching, they possess the townspeople, turning them into zombies as well. Suggesting sexual assault by wormlike creatures, the poster is accurate on a figurative, if not a literal, level.

Of course, it’s not really the task of the poster to provide a faithful and accurate depiction of the movie’s scene; the poster’s task is to sell tickets. To do so, in a few images, digestible by instinct more than reason, within a few seconds, the artwork must create a sense of horror and of fear, and it must also appeal to its viewer’s curiosity by creating an air of mystery that leaves questions unanswered.

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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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