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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Forensic Etomology and Putrefaction

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In the movie Ed Gein, the protagonist (one can’t really call Ed a “hero”) disgusts everyone else at the table of the family who’s invited him to dinner by explaining the phenomenon known as slippage, which is, basically, the flaking or sloughing off of skin from the cadaver as a result of the unimpeded activity of bacteria on the skin.

Scientists don't generally have the same sort of first-hand experience as Ed had, so, to investigate the rate of decomposition under various circumstances, they operate body farms in a number of states. On such farms, corpses are buried in different types of soil or half buried or left fully exposed to the elements so as to demonstrate the time that it takes for various states of decay to occur. Insect infestation of the corpse (known as the “colonization” of the body) is also studied (a field, should you or your children or grandchildren be interested in joining its ranks) which is known as forensic etomology.

According to the experts in this discipline, blowflies are the first to take an interest in the remains, arriving “within minutes of death.” Opportunists, these flies deposit their eggs in wounds and body orifices and cavities, including the dearly departed one’s eyes, nose, and mouth. Within three days, these eggs hatch into maggots, which feed upon the body’s banquet of “soft tissues.” Forensic etomologists use these insects as timepieces to determine the time of death, as “Forensic Etomology” points out:

Since each Calliphorid species has a characteristic temperature-dependent growth rate, the larvae can be regarded as a biological stopwatch that starts ticking shortly after the victim dies. Forensic entomologists learn to read this stopwatch by determining which insect species are present and how far they have progressed toward adulthood. With good records of ambient temperature, the post-mortem interval (time elapsed since death) can be calculated to within a few hours, even when death may have occurred 2-3 weeks previously.
Moreover, although neither blowflies nor their maggoty offspring are likely to have graduated from the Harvard School of Medicine, they can also tell scientists a thing or two about wounds and toxicology and offer even detectives a clue or two about whether the body was ambulatory--hopefully not under its own power--after its demise:

In addition to post-mortem interval, fly larvae can also reveal other important information about a crime:
    1. Wounds--blow fly larvae cannot penetrate undamaged skin. An infestation inside the chest or abdomen would suggest the possibility of a bullet hole or a stab wound.
    2. Movement--Since local conditions (e.g. sun or shade, urban or rural) affect which species will colonize a corpse, it may be possible to determine whether or not a body has been moved since its death.
    3. Toxicology--drugs or toxins from a corpse may be detectable in fly larvae even after the body tissues are too decomposed for standard toxicological tests (“Forensic Etomology”).
(Those who, in the interest of countering the problem of evil, take note: some insects, at least, maybe were put here as a result of intelligent design, serving a useful purpose.)

As the body continues to decompose, it puts on a spread for other insects with different, if not more discerning palates: “As a body continues to decay, it goes through successive stages of decomposition. Each stage is associated with a distinctive type of insect fauna.”

The body bloats from the gases that build up inside it as a result of the bacteria that are feasting upon its “moribund tissues,” until the maggots, penetrating “body cavities. . . release the gas,” in three to five days, after which “maggots, flies, ants, and carrion beetles are abundant.” Once they have stripped most of the flesh from the bones, slippage is no longer a problem, as decay really sets in, and, although “the insect fauna becomes fewer in number but there is greater species diversity: carpet beetles, ants, skipper flies, and mites are common,” at least until the body dries and “becomes skeleton zed,” after which only “ants an mites” remain as tenants, residing in the bones for another two to three years.

Other factors, such as temperature, weather, humidity, and quicklime (if it happens to be present) speed or slow the rate of decay, but, in general, on the average, for those of you who are writing a horror story or a detective story, here’s a handy, of not dandy, timeline chronicling the stages (fresh, putrefaction, black putrefaction, butyric fermentation, and skeletonization) and time intervals of decay (“Decomposition“):
    1. Fresh: the body cools to room temperature, allowing bacteria to digest carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. Insects are first attracted to the remains
      (“Decomposition”). Within a few hours of death, rigor mortis sets in, lasting about four days (Bellows).(First few days after death) “Decomposition”).
    2. Putrefaction: the body turns green as bacteria break down hemoglobin. Gases expel urine, other liquids, and feces from the body, and the mouth, lips, and tongue swell (Decomposition”). The abdomen and groin also swell (Bellows). The veins marbleize, red streaks along the vessels being succeeded by green streaks as bacteria cause the blood to hemolyze (“Decomposition”). Slippage occurs, and “over several days the spongy brain will liquefy and leak from the ears and mouth, while blisters form on the skin which eventually evolve into large, peeling sheets. Often the skin from the hand will slough off in one piece, an effect known as gloving” (Bellows). The green color darkens to brown. (First 10 days after death) (“Decomposition”).
    3. Black putrefaction: if “post-mortem flatulence” isn’t sufficient to release the gases inside the cadaver, the body cavity ruptures, releasing pent-up gases, and the corpse darkens further. Insects colonize the corpse (Bellows). This stage ends when the bones become apparent. (10 to 20 days after death) (“Decomposition”).
    4. Butyric fermentation: the body mummifies, drying out and loses its odor as adipocerous, or “grave wax,” a cheesy substance forms on the body. Insect activity has disposed of the internal organs (“Decomposition”).
    5. Skeletalization: this final period of decomposition may last years (“Decomposition”).
Sources cited:

Bellows, Allan. "The Remains of Doctor Bass." Damn Interesting 290102007 260042008 http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=924.

"Decomposition." Wikipedia. 2008. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.. 26 Apr 2008.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decomposition

Meyer, John R.. "Forensic Entomology." General Entomology. 210012007. North Carolina State University. 26 Apr 2008 http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/course/ent425/text01/forensic.html.

“Everyday Horrors: Forensic Etomology and Putrefaction” is part of the series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.

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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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