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Friday, May 2, 2008

Flowers of Evil: Horror Film Anthologies

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Although the anthology continues to appear among horror films, it hasn’t been seen much since Creepshow, Cat’s Eye, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. The formula for the anthology is simple, but effective. A common theme, cast of characters, or premise unifies the separate stories (often, three to five) which follow. Sometimes, the separate stories are directed by the same director; other times, each is directed by a different director. The technique allows the telling of several, rather than just one, story, permitting variations upon the same theme or a variety of perspectives concerning a single series of incidents.

Creepshow (1982) features five stories which are linked by the wind’s turning of the pages of a horror comic that a boy’s father makes him discard. As the wind flips the pages to a new story, the respective stories are dramatized on the screen. In “Father’s Day,” a murdered father returns from the grave on the anniversary of his murder to avenge himself upon his daughter, who killed him. In "The Lonely Death of Jordy Verill," Verill (played by Stephen King) is consumed by a parasitic fungus that arrives upon a meteorite that crashes into his farm. In “Something to Tide You Over,” a cuckolded husband seeks to avenge himself upon his unfaithful wife by burying her in the sand of a beach so that the rising tide will drown her, but things don’t go as planned, and he is the next to suffer the same fate. “The Crate” is a takeoff from the Pandora’s box myth: a woman opens a crate, unleashing the monster inside. In “They’re Sneaking Up On You!,” an employee gains revenge upon his employer by allowing the apartment in which his boss (who is terrified of germs and insects) lives become overrun with cockroaches. A final segment has the boy gain revenge upon his father for making him toss out his horror comic, using a voodoo doll he has ordered from an advertisement in the comic book to give his father a literal pain in the neck.

In Cat’s Eye (1985), which is also known as Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, General, a cat, roaming a city to locate a girl whom the animal seeks from a supernatural threat, becomes involved in the three stories that follow. Two of the three tales are based upon the short stories “Quitters, Inc.” and “The Ledge” from King’s anthology, Night Shift). In “Quitters,” an unscrupulous business makes sure its clients quit smoking by resorting to the cutting off of fingers whenever they light up after taking the pledge to quit, and, in “The Ledge,” an unfaithful man is allowed to live--if he can walk a five-inch ledge around a high-rise building; he succeeds, turning the table on the man he has cuckolded, and the bet, reversed, begins anew. The feline takes center stage, so to speak, in the last of the three stories in Cat’s Eye, as its valiant rescue of the girl who wants to adopt the stray convinces her mother to let her keep the animal, an idea that the mother had initially opposed.

An earlier example of the horror anthology includes The House That Dripped Blood (1971), in which a Scotland Yard detective investigates a series of bizarre deaths that occurred in the same house. Four segments make up the anthology. In “Method for Murder,” a writer, moving into the house, is haunted by one of his novel’s villains. In “Waxworks,” two men are obsessed with the figure in a wax museum that reminds them of a woman whom they both knew. In “Sweets to the Sweet,” a governess takes issue with her employers’ treatment of their daughter and their denial of permission to let her have a doll. In “The Cloak,” an actor acquires strange powers after buying a cloak from the proprietor of a weird costume shop.

As with any genre (or subgenre) of fiction, individual anthology films tend to be of lesser or greater artistic quality, one indication of which is the appropriateness of the frame story to the stories that follow it. A few of the more artistic of these films are described in Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide: A Topical Guide to 2500 Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy by Bryan Senn and John Johnson.

In Asylum (1972), a former psychiatrist, having gone mad, is now a patient in a mental asylum, wherein another doctor is challenged to interview patients and identify the former psychiatrist among them. The interviews result in the stories that follow. A frozen, dismembered corpse returns to life to attack an unfaithful, murdering husband. A tailor’s magical suit restores life to the dead. A dual personality leads to murder. Miniature robotic killer dolls go on a murder spree.
In the frame for After Midnight (1989), a psychology professor teaches his students the “psychology of fear” by relating three terror tales of psychotic killers. In one of the following stories, a terrifying frightening joke backfires; in the second story, a group of teenage girls encounters a psychotic murderere and his killer dogs; and, in the third story, a female employee of an all-night answering service is plagued by a maniacal telephone caller.

The plotting of a horror anthology is a good creative writing exercise which may be done in small groups or on an individual basis. The first task of such an enterprise would be deciding upon the opening and closing stories that would frame the segments between the them. After determining how the movie (or, for that matter, a print anthology) would open and close, the individual segments would then be plotted. Alternatively, the opening and closing stories could be provided by the instructor, and the students could then plot and write the segments between them. Another alternative would be for the instructor to provide the bare bones of the sandwiched stories and then have the students write the opening and closing tales that would frame the central stories. In any case, Dead of Night, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Night Gallery, and The Offspring offer set-ups that could be used, and the students’ follow-on stories could be compared with those that actually made the cut, as summarized in Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide.

In the set-up, or frame, for Dead of Night (1945) an architect has a recurring dream in which he enters a country cottage full of people whom he has met in a previous dream; while they gather to discuss his predicament, each relates a weird supernatural event in his own life. In Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Dr. Terror, a fortune teller, uses Tarot cards to reveal the deaths, from supernatural causes, of five men on a train. In the finale, five passengers aboard the train learn that the last card that Dr. Terror turned up was the Death card, and, upon disembarking from the train, they see a newspaper headline proclaiming that they were killed in a train wreck. In Night Gallery (1969), each painting is linked to a tale of terror. In The Offspring, a reporter visit’s a small town to hear four tales of evil from the local librarian.

It is fun and better, perhaps, to create one's own set-ups, or frames. Some possibilities, courtesy of yours truly, might be:

  • A series of actresses audition for the title role in a slasher movie, Scream Queen.
  • Seeking employment as a writer on a TV series concerning the paranormal and supernatural phenomena that occur in a small town, a scriptwriter pitches three stories to the show's producer. Various types of baseball pitches might suggest both the anthology's title and the storylines for its segments: Fast Pitch, Slow Pitch, and Slider.
  • On a twist on The Arabian Nights' set-up, a hitchhiker's life depends upon her amusing a psychotic driver with a series of horror stories.
  • A TV show's crew films what happens inside supposedly haunted houses.

There are as many possibilities as one can imagine for creating such set-ups for episodic movie segments which, together, comprise an anthology, which adds to the fun and the rehearsal value of such a creative writing exercise.

Source Cited

Senn, Bryan. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide: A Topical Index to 2500 Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 1962.

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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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