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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How to Haunt a House: Part I

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Ed Gein's house, a haunted residence if ever there was one!

Think of the haunted house stories and novels you’ve read and of the haunted house movies you’ve seen. Most have specific elements in common. In considering how to haunt the house in your story, novel, or movie script, you’ll want to learn from your predecessors as to what they (and their readers or viewers) found particularly effective. Then, you’ll want to emulate them, but by adding to, rather than simply copying, the conventions they employed.

Even a nodding familiarity with the haunted house as a horror story setting suggests that such a domicile needs to be spacious--the roomier, the better. In Gothic horror, from which contemporary horror fiction in large part originates, the original haunted house was a castle or a manor house. Often, it was of several stories, including an attic and a basement.

When castles and palaces became untenable in horror fiction (which, today, anyway, is written, after all, for the masses, not for the fortunate few), authors employed mansions and--in the case, at least, of Stephen King, hotels (The Shining, “1408”)--and, in the case of Bentley Little, both mansions (The House) and a resort (The Resort) (2004). King (and others) has even haunted entire towns, albeit not necessarily with ghosts per se: in Desperation (1996) and its companion volume, The Regulators (1996), the demon Tak haunts a Nevada mining town and a suburban community, respectively, and, in ‘Salem’s Lot, a vampire is the culprit who disturbs residents and brings down property values, whereas, in It, the haunt is a protean shape shifter.

The point is (and, yes, there is a point) that haunted houses must be big, spacious dwellings. Cottages and bungalows need not apply, nor should efficiencies, garden apartments, or small condos.

The Psycho house

Houses have to be palatial for a couple of reasons. First, if the ghost pops up in the same location all the time, he, she, or it soon becomes predictable, and a ghost whose actions are predictable isn’t all that scary. In addition, it’s pretty easily avoided unless, perhaps, it’s haunting the domicile’s one and only bathroom’s commode (an unlikely point of interest for even ghosts, it would seem). A ghost that has the run of the house--especially a palatial abode--can pop up unexpectedly, since he, she, or it is not restricted to one or two rooms. The resident is as likely to see the ghost in the basement as in the attic, in a closet, in a mirror at the end of the entrance hall, or on the staircase between floors.

Various rooms also allow it to do various things, all of which could (and should) be fairly horrific. In It, after building suspense for beaucoup pages, King lets his readers walk downstairs with one of his characters, and, entering the dark and clammy subterranean chamber to feed the furnace, the character, and readers along with him, sees, in its flooded interior, the bloated corpse of the character’s brother as it floats past among other debris when there’s no way in hell that the boy’s body (or the debris) should be there. The result? Readers, like the character in the scene, are horrified--and terrified. This scene wouldn’t play out as well in the pantry, the linen closet, or the attic.

Likewise butcher’s knives and meat cleavers, available in the kitchen, make frightful props for ghosts (especially poltergeists) to wield, and a bedroom pillow makes a handy smothering device in hostile ghostly hands. Foods in pantries can include nasty surprises--maggots are only one of the many things that squirm to mind. Anything can crawl out from under a bed or spring from a closet, and God only knows what sights may be seen in hallway mirrors. A drowned person’s ghost may appear in the shower (An American Haunting) or in the bathtub (The Shining).

A spacious house has space enough to house many rooms, and each room, as a good (or even a not-so-good) dream dictionary makes clear, is often symbolic of a particular aspect of the self. As Dream Moods’ “Online Guide to Dream Interpretation” points out:

To see a house in your dream, [sic] represents your own soul and self. Specific rooms in the house indicate a specific aspect of your psyche. In general, the attic represents your intellect, the basement represents the unconscious. . . .
To ascertain what each room represents in the iconography of dreamland, simply look up each room; “Online Guide to Dream Interpretation” will offer specific suggestions, and, as a writer, you make the connections between the character’s inner emotional or mental state and the room (and the condition of the room):

To dream that you are in a basement, [sic] symbolizes your unconscious mind and intuition. The appearance of the basement is an indication of your unconscious state of mind and level of satisfaction.

To dream that the basement is in disarray and messy, [sic] signifies. . . confusion . . . which you need to sort out. It may also represent your perceived faults and shortcomings.

Dream Moods’ dictionary indicates that various parts of the house and the condition in which these parts appear also represent aspects of the dreamer’s (or the haunted character’s) self:

To see a roof in your dream, [sic] symbolizes a barrier between two states of consciousness. It represents a protection of your consciousness, mentality, and beliefs. It is an overview of how you see yourself and who you think you are.

To dream that you are on a roof, [sic] symbolizes boundless success. If you fall off the roof, [sic] suggests that you do not have a firm grip and solid foundation on your advanced position.

To dream that the roof is leaking, [sic] represents distractions, annoyances, and unwanted influences in your life. It may also indicate that new information will dawn on you. Alternatively, it may suggest that something is finally getting through to you.

Perhaps someone is imposing and intruding their thoughts and opinions on you.

To dream that the roof is falling in, [sic] indicates that you high ideals are crashing down on you. Perhaps you are unable to live up to your own high expectations.

There are plenty of other entries (and punctuation errors) in the dictionary that suggest ways in which the rooms of a haunted house may be used to symbolize the haunted character’s (or other characters’) states of mind. Make a list of the rooms, the parts of a house, and even the furniture and other accoutrements of a residence, and look them up in this or another dream dictionary or a dictionary of symbols to see what such places and things have tended to suggest and symbolize concerning human minds and behavior. Your fiction can capitalize on such leads by using appropriate rooms to suggest specific characteristics and states of mind with respect to your characters, including the ghosts themselves.

Another source worth checking out is Fantasy and Science Fiction's Dictionary of Symbolism, which offers this entry concerning “house”:
Just like the city, the TEMPLE, the palace, and the MOUNTAIN, the house is one of the centers of the world. It is a sacred place, and it is an image of the universe. It parallels the sheltering aspect of the Great Mother, and it is the center of civilization. In Jungian psychology, what happens inside a house happens inside ourselves. Freudian psychology associates the house with the WOMAN, in a sexual sense; a house is undoubtedly a feminine symbol. Shelter and security are words commonly used surrounding house. [It] has a correspondence with the universe, [with] the roof as heaven, the windows as deities and the body as the earth. [It is] the repository of all wisdom.
One is also advised to study Edgar Allan Poe’s masterful use of a house, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), to represent the emotional and mental states of his protagonist, Roderick Usher.

Other haunted house stories (listed chronologically) you’ll want to read are:

  • Castle of Otranto, The (1764), by Horace Walpole: Conrad Manfred’s decision to divorce and remarry causes horrifying events to occur within his family’s castle.
  • Mysteries of Udolpho, The (1794), by Ann Radcliffe: After the death of her father, Emily St. Aubert moves in with her aunt, who marries Montoni; the women go to Udolpho to live, and Emily is separated from her suitor, Valancourt, as Montoni seeks to force Emily’s aunt to sign over the estate which Emily would otherwise inherit.
  • Haunted and the Haunters, The (1857), by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Mesmerism and magnetism combine with alchemy and Rosicrucian mysticism as the protagonist seeks immortality.
  • “Red Room, The” (1894), by H. G. Wells: A skeptic discovers that an allegedly haunted room really is haunted, but not by ghosts.
  • Turn of the Screw, The (1898), by Henry James: Is the governess seeing ghosts or is something even more horrible happening to her (and the children in her charge)?
  • House on the Borderland, The (1908), by William Hope Hodgson: Two men investigate a house that seems linked to an identical dwelling in the very pit of hell.
  • “Rats in the Walls, The” (1924), by H. P. Lovecraft: Investigating the sound of rats in the walls of his ancestral estate, the protagonist discovers that his family lived in a subterranean city, feeding upon their fellow humans.
  • Stir of Echoes, A (1958), by Richard Matheson: This novel inspired the movie of the same title.
  • Haunting of Hill House, The (1959), by Shirley Jackson: Psychics investigate an allegedly haunted house, and one of them, Eleanor, is possessed by the supernatural entity they encounter there.
  • Hell House (1971), by Richard Matheson: A millionaire hires psychics to explore the possibility of life after death.
  • Shining, The (1977), by Stephen King: An alcoholic writer’s descent into madness ends on a bad note when he takes on the duties of caretaker during a hotel’s off season.
  • “1408” (1999) by Stephen King: A skeptical writer learns the errors of his ways after he stays in a hotel room that is supposedly haunted.
  • House, The (1997), by Bentley Little: Five strangers discover they all grew up in an identical house situated on the gateway between this world and another, far darker place.

These movies, featuring haunted houses, are also worth a peek, preferably between one’s fingers:

  • Uninvited, The (1944): A couple buys a haunted house.
  • Ghost Ship (1952, 2002): A salvage crew, towing a lost passenger ship to harbor, finds it is haunted.
  • House on Haunted Hill, The (1958, 1999): Partygoers will receive a cash reward, if they can survive a night in a haunted house.
  • House That Dripped Blood, The (1970): A Scotland yard investigator investigates mysterious disappearances related to a vacant house.
  • Amityville Horror, The (1979, 2005): In this movie, based upon an actual hoax, newlyweds move into a house in which a murder was committed.
  • Changeling, The (1980): A man’s isolated country estate is haunted by a ghost.
  • Shining, The (1980): An alcoholic writer’s descent into madness ends on a bad note when he takes on the duties of caretaker during a hotel’s off season.
  • Poltergeist (1982): Ghosts haunt a family in their new house.
  • Sixth Sense, The (1999): Cole, a boy who sees ghosts, helps a depressed child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe. Coincidence?
  • Stir of Echoes, A (1999): A hypnotized skeptic, Tom Witzky, begins to see a ghost, which leads to the solution to a murder.
  • What Lies Beneath (2000): A woman starts seeing things--and hearing things--or does she?
  • Others, The (2001): The residents of a house turn out to be the ghosts who haunt the residence.
  • Rose Red (2002): Psychics investigate an allegedly haunted house.
  • Grudge, The (2004): A ghost, born of a grudge, haunts a nurse who cares for a housebound invalid.
  • Skeleton Key, The (2005): A hospice worker decides to risk it all on what lies behind a locked attic door.
  • American Haunting, An (2006): A girl’s father has a split personality, one of which she mistakes for an evil ghost.
  • 1408 (2007): A skeptical writer learns the errors of his ways after he stays in a hotel room that is supposedly haunted.

In this post, we learned two rules about how to haunt a house. The first rule in haunting a house is to make the residence a big house (but not necessarily a prison). The second rule is to make sure that your haunted house houses many rooms, or, as many writers would say, chambers, each of which is an appropriate and handy opportunity to present a different ghost or a different aspect of the same ghost (or the protagonist’s own inner ghosts).

In our next post, before going outside, we’ll examine another rule or two concerning how to haunt a house.

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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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