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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

How to Haunt a House: Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Even Victorians can intimidate.

In the previous post, we considered two rules concerning how to haunt a house:
  1. Make it spacious--the bigger, the better.
  2. Fill it with rooms.
In this post, we’re going to look at the ways in which haunted houses often symbolize characters and their states of mind or serve as a gateway to a darker realm. As is often the case with regard to fiction, fact gives us a direction. In particular, we’re thinking of Ed Gein, the schizophrenic murderer upon whom such characters as Psycho’s Norman Bates, Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface, and The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill are based.

If ever a home was a reflection of its resident, Gein’s house certainly indicated his mental state. The house was a veritable garbage dump. The floors were littered and strewn with old magazines and newspapers, and boxes stood in precarious stacks along the walls and among piles of assorted materials that should have been discarded but weren’t. Among the rubbish were the trophies, consisting of human body parts, that Gein collected from the female corpses he robbed from the cemetery in his hometown, Plainfield, Wisconsin, and from Spirit Land, a graveyard located a few miles to the north. One box contained a bag, inside which, police found, was a mask that had once been the face of Mary Hogan, the owner and operator of a tavern that Gein had once frequented. The walls of some rooms were decorated with other such masks, and Gein ate soup from bowls he’d fashioned from the upper halves of human skulls. He also kept a torso, or mammary, vest; a collection of women’s noses; female genitals; and a belt made of women’s nipples.

After his mother died, Gein, who was a momma’s boy, missed her so much that the psychiatrist who examined the killer after his arrest concluded that Gein collected cadavers and female body parts in an attempt to fill the loss of female companionship that ensued his mother’s death and burial. In some ways, he was thought to be trying to bring home a bride (or parts thereof) or, perhaps, his dearly departed mother. Gein also kept part of the farmhouse he inherited upon his mother’s demise sealed off from the rest of the residence as a sort of shrine to his mother’s memory.

From Gein’s example, we see that haunted houses may be cluttered, and that the clutter may include some grisly, ghastly artifacts--perhaps human body parts--and that the resident of such a house might keep a door locked or even part of the house sealed off, either as a shrine or for some other purpose (hiding a body, an insane relative, or a secret of some sort, perhaps). In A Winter’s Haunting (2002), Dan Simmons’ sequel to Summer of Night (1991), the protagonist, Dale Stewart, keeps the upper floors of the house he rents--it belonged to a childhood friend who was murdered, years ago--sealed off from the lower floor, where he resides. Likewise, there’s a locked attic in The Skeleton Key (2005). After hearing voices from inside the locked room, the movie’s protagonist, Caroline Ellis, becomes curious. When she finally manages a look inside, she finds evidence that maybe demons do cause illness, and, in fact, maybe the invalid she’s been hired to care for may be a victim of dark magic. We all know what’s said about curiosity and the cats it lures. Other horror stories, both in print and on film, make use of the locked room motif as well.

Other novels suggest other approaches.

Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, suggests that it may be the individual within a house, rather than the house itself, who is haunted or (depending upon one’s reading of her story) that a haunted house may, in turn, haunt its residents. This novel, like Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and many lesser narratives, drives home the relationship--indeed, the interrelationship--between resident and residence. A home is a reflection of its owners or occupants. The disorderly state of Gein’s house reflected the disordered (confused) state of his mind, because normal people not only do not live among filth and clutter, but they also do not reside among human body parts and eat out of human skulls. Often, ghost stories are symbolic of past sins, of guilt, and of remorse or of past trauma and its continuing, present-day effects.

Therefore, many ghost stories connect with past events, and the incidents that occur within haunted houses represent such sins, such guilt, and such trauma. In The Others, the mother keeps her house dark because her children suffer from photophobia, a fear of light. Her concern with keeping them in the dark represents her love for them, but the darkness of the house also represents her ignorance of--and her refusal to see--the truth about her past. She has killed her children, and they, like her, are the ghosts who actually haunt the house in which they reside, not the residents of the house whom she imagines are its ghosts.

In an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, college students transform a fraternity house into a haunted house as a setting for a Halloween party. The partygoers become more than amorous, all but having sex in front of one another. Buffy stays in bed with her boyfriend, Riley Finn, from the time they arrive until their friends rescue them. When the partygoers touch a wall, they experience an orgasm, and playing a game of spin-the-bottle becomes the occasion for more than a friendly kiss between players. Buffy’s mentor and friends discover that the house is haunted by the souls of adolescents who’d lived in the house under the stern and disapproving tyranny of a foster mother who feared and hated sex and severely punished her charges when, at the onset of puberty, they began to experiment with sex, murdering at least one boy by drowning him in her bathtub. The dead child--or, perhaps, children--having been abused, now, as ghosts, become the abusers.


The Winchester mansion is allegedly haunted.

The furniture and décor in a haunted house also often reflect the resident’s state of mind. Bizarre images in a mirror which are seen only by one character suggest that these images are not real. Rather, they are likely to be but the contents of his or her own mind, projected onto his or her environment--the looking glass sees within, rather than reflecting that which truly exists. Therefore, only the one who sees such images can perceive them. The mirror mirrors his or her own thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. If a character ascends a staircase (or, for that matter, descends one), what type of revelation does he or she experience as a result? What happens at the top or the bottom of the stairs is indicative of what this character believes, feels, or thinks, and it is likely to be either transcendent or reductive in nature, depending upon whether the stairs lead upward or downward. An ascent into the attic is apt to represent an elevation to consciousness and knowledge; a descent into the basement is likely to symbolize a decline into the subconscious and the unknown.

When a locked room or a shut-off part of the house is part of a haunted house, the secret it contains will probably be the heart of the narrative’s mystery and, most likely, it will represent a great truth about the haunted character’s nature, behavior, goal, past, or present. Unlocked, the door may admit the resident to madness--or to revelation. The secret within the locked or sealed-off room or suite may deliver or destroy.

H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” show that basements can be portals, as it were, to other, darker places, such as subterranean cities or dwellings in which cannibalistic mutants reside. His example reminds us that haunted houses often contain secret passageways, hidden rooms, and trapdoors to subterranean chambers or tunnels that allow villains to come and go in secret or to conduct clandestine operations. Sometimes, dungeons are accessed through trapdoors, wherein sadists torture, dismember, and kill victims. Such portals may even be gateways to another dimension or to hell itself, as in William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderlands and Bentley Little’s The House.

From this consideration of how to haunt a house, we may deduce three additional rules:
  1. A haunted house often symbolizes its resident’s state of mind.
  2. A haunted house is often associated with the resident’s past.
  3. A haunted house may be the portal to another dimension or to hell itself.
In our next post, we’ll take a look at what might be called the special effects that are typical of haunted houses.

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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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