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Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Catalogue of Vulnerabilities

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

When one considers the variety of ways in which human beings are vulnerable, it’s a wonder that any of us manages to survive at all, to say nothing of the species itself. In horror fiction, such vulnerability is desirable, for it is the stuff of suspense, pathos, and dread. It behooves the writer of such fiction to keep handy, mentally or actually, a catalogue of vulnerabilities that he or she can call upon in times of dramatic need. This post represents a start of such a list, to which one may add any other vulnerabilities that may occur to him or her in the wee hours of the morning or when, within the deepening shadows of twilight, a mysterious sound is heard that sets the teeth upon edge and the hair upon end.

First, though, let’s consider what, precisely, we mean by the term “vulnerability.” What does it mean to say that someone is “vulnerable”? As is often the case, a simple list of synonyms and a bit of investigation as to the etymology of the resulting collection of terms sheds much light upon the matter. Let’s start with the synonyms:

Vulnerability: susceptibility, weakness (liability, flaw, fault, Achilles heel, failing, limitation, disadvantage, drawback), defenselessness (frailty, nakedness), helplessness, exposure.

This list suggests some examples from horror fiction and ideas for various situations that would put a victim--or even the protagonist--at risk. The shower scene in Psycho, for example, involves nakedness, exposing Marion Crane to not only the ogling eyes of Norman Bates but also to the disapproving inspection of a voyeur--Norman’s alter ego, the misogynistic, murderous mom within. Similar shower scenes have since appeared in such horror movies as Prowler, Friday the 13th (a rare guy-in-the-shower scene), Grudge, and others, as much because of the vulnerability of the victim--for obvious reasons, the victim is almost always a she--as for the gratuitous nudity that such scenes allow to voyeur--that is, the viewer.

The etymologies of these words also suggest profitable ways by which characters may become susceptible to horror villains' horrible villainy. “Vulnerable” is derived from the late Latin term vulnerabilis, which means “wounded.” A wounded character, naturally, is more likely to become monster food than one who is hale, hearty, and whole. “Weak” comes from an Old High German term that means “to bend,” and suggests that a victim could be such because of his or her emotional or moral as well as physical weakness, or ability to be “bent.” An emotionally crippled or morally twisted character makes a good potential villain. (Not all infirmities need to be literal ones; symbolism is always a welcome possibility in horror, as in other types of, fiction.) “Flaw” stems from the Old Norse word flaga, meaning “stone slab” or “flake,” and was probably used, in the sense of a defect, as “fragment.” Characters who are physically, emotionally, mentally, morally, socially, spiritually, or otherwise “fragmented” or “flawed” had better look over their shoulders frequently, for, no doubt, The Doors’ “cold, grinding grizzly bear jaws” will be “hot on. . . [their] heels.” Or maybe its not a grizzly bear, but a bogeyman, who’s pursuing them. “Frail” has an interesting etymology as well, suggesting, again, that vulnerabilities need not be limited to the physical aspects of a character’s constitution; more than bones may be broken, after all:
c.1340, "morally weak," from O.Fr. frele, from L. fragilis, "easily broken" (see fragility). Sense of "liable to break" is first recorded in Eng. 1382. The U.S. slang noun meaning "a woman" is attested from 1908.
Getting back to the list per se--susceptibility suggests that victims may succumb to germs, as they do in sci fi and horror movies that involve extraterrestrial bacteria or viruses or exotic earthly germs that have unexpectedly hideous symptoms. The Andromeda Strain, Cabin Fever, Dreamcatcher, The Invasion, Slither, and Warning Sign are examples of novels or films (or, in some cases, both) in which the culprit that threatens individuals (and, in some cases, the planet’s population as a whole) is a germ of some sort. (The infection can come through infected animals, too, such as mad cows or rabid dogs, and some diseases--elephantiasis or rabies, for instance--are horrible in themselves--which can add to the horror of the story’s situation, specific and general.) However, as we will see, humans are susceptible to more than microbes’ attacks.

Weakness puts a character at risk, which is one reason that female characters and children, who are generally weaker than men, have traditionally been victims more often than male characters, although, lately, monsters are increasingly becoming equal-opportunity killers. Of course, there are other ways to be weak. A character can be mentally or emotionally vulnerable or unstable. Monsters are no respecters of infirmities, and will as readily slice and dice a character who is mentally ill as it will attack a character who is physically sick. Other forms or weakness may be derived from physical conditions that are not, in themselves, types of weakness or sickness but which are debilitating nonetheless, such as mental retardation, physical deformity, or being crippled or paralyzed. A bedfast or wheelchair-bound character is as enticing to a murderous monster as an hors d’oeuvre is to a party crasher.

Frailty applies to some aged characters. The loss of flexibility in one’s joints, the presence of arthritis or rheumatism, the depletion of calcium in the bones, the atrophy of muscles, the attenuation of eyesight and hearing, a tendency toward forgetfulness, and the general depletion of one’s energy and physical strength combine to make some seniors ideal snacks for attacking monsters, so much so that it’s a wonder that more horror stories are not set in nursing homes or managed-care facilities.

Exposure to the elements, to scientific experiments, and to radioactive substances creates both monsters and victims in many sci fi and horror stories, including Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Food of the Gods, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Attack of the Fifty-foot Woman, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Omega Man, Damnation Alley, and a host of others.

Other situations and conditions also render a character a potential victim, including sleep (Nightmare on Elm Street) (it’s hard to fight or to take flight while one is asleep unless, perhaps, he or she is a dream warrior), being lost (Wrong Turn), darkness (virtually every horror movie ever filmed, and a good many novels as well), isolation (The Howling), sex (almost every slasher movie) (especially if the couple are underage and in a lonely spot, such as a forest) stupidity (a terminal state, if ever there was one), insanity (madness hampers one’s ability to think rationally or at all), envy (since the days of Cain and Abel, this emotion--and many others, for that matter--have brought characters to a bad, sometimes untimely, end), youth (or, more specifically, inexperience or naiveté), unwarranted trust (especially in the kindness of strangers), the pursuit of forbidden, usually occult knowledge (Frankenstein and most stories involving ill-advised scientific experimentation or research or apprenticing oneself to a sorcerer or shaman of some kind), close-mindedness (skeptics, such as the protagonists of “The Red Room” and 1408 tend to come to harm), and a host of others--as we said, when one considers the variety of ways in which human beings are vulnerable, it’s a wonder that any of us manages to survive at all, to say nothing of the species itself.

What most of these states, conditions, and situations have in common is their interference with or prevention of the exercise either of the senses themselves or the body (the negation of physical abilities) or of the exercise of the mind (the negation of rational abilities). These circumstances, whether they originate in blindness, deafness, infirmity, paralysis, madness, naiveté, isolation, or otherwise, limit or eliminate a character’s ability to act and react, physically, mentally, or both, thereby inhibiting the fight-or-flight instinct and making victims of the vulnerable.

In most cases, something unpleasant--disease, sickness, dismemberment, torture, injury, disfigurement, and/or death--is apt to follow, individually or collectively. An exception occurs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the stereotypically weak and helpless teenage girl turns out to be imbued with supernatural strength and fighting prowess and, instead of being slain by the monsters that stalk her, is their slayer. In Hollywood, standing a cliché upon its head is enough, sometimes, to pass for creativity and to land one a series that lasts for seven years. (In fairness, the series had a lot more going for it than merely its iconoclasm.)

This catalogue is by no means complete--as we said, when one considers the variety of ways in which human beings are vulnerable, it’s a wonder that any of us manages to survive at all, to say nothing of the species itself--but it is a start. Writers, wannabe writers, and would-be writers alike are encouraged to update this list and to keep it handy. Victims are as much a necessity to horror fiction as the monster itself, and the monster is hungry; it’s always hungry.

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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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