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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tag! You’re It!

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Occupy the seats. These three words summarize the box office imperative of movie theaters across the country. Since motion picture studios are in business to make money and, in their industry, making money is based upon selling tickets, movies, to be, must be perceived. To entice potential audience members, trailers or previews of movies are shown. Another tactic, besides advertising in general and the movie poster in particular, is the use of the movie tagline.

A tagline is a short, sometimes witty, slogan that focuses readers’ attention upon specific features of the film--often its storyline. As we will see, though, a well-written tagline can intimate much more than simply the basic plot of its film. Since Chillers and Thrillers is concerned with the theory and practice of writing horror fiction, we’ll consider the taglines for movies in this genre. Makes sense, right?

Some taglines suggest the identities of the protagonist and the antagonist and intimate the nature of the basic conflict between them. Of course, the antagonist is going to be in some way horrific, as is the struggle that takes place between the two main characters--we’re talking horror, after all, not romance--and, no, they’re not the same thing (not always, or necessarily, at any rate). Here’s an example:

His mind is her prison (The Cell).
This tagline suggests that the antagonist is likely to be a stalker. The tagline tells us that he is a male, and his prisoner is a female. His thoughts about the protagonist somehow imprison her. Apparently, he is obsessed with her. He is likely to have stalked her. Whether he has, in fact, kidnapped her is unspecified, but possible--even likely.

This tagline is effective. In only five words, it identifies the type of protagonist (a victim) and antagonist (a stalker or a kidnapper) and the nature of the struggle between them. It also raises a few tantalizing questions.

If she has been adducted, where is she being held captive (other than in his mind)? If “his mind is her prison,” is he a control freak and, perhaps, a sadist? If she is literally a captive, will she escape? If so, how? If not, why not? Does her captor kill her? In what manner, and why? Is torture involved?

The title of the movie, The Cell, constitutes an effective play on words, for a cell can be a compartment in a jail or prison, but it is also the tiny, constituent structure of body organs, including the brain. “Mind” and “brain,” while not necessarily synonymous (depending upon one’s worldview), are often used more or less interchangeably. Therefore, the play on words links the mental state of the antagonist and the physical prison in which the antagonist is likely to be incarcerated, reinforcing the tagline’s message, “His mind is her prison.”

The next tagline lacks a context (until one reads the title of the movie to which the tagline refers):
Bigger. Smarter. Faster. Meaner. (Deep Blue Sea)
What’s “bigger, smarter, faster, and meaner”? We aren’t told. Therefore, we’re free to imagine what these adjectives refer to. They could refer to a machine, to a new species resulting from bioengineering or eugenics, or to a robot or cyborg assassin. In fact, it’s a maritime threat, and the comparative forms of the adjectives in the tagline compare it, favorably, against the great white shark that appeared as the monster in Jaws. This tagline, in alluding to a previous movie, appeals to the fans of the Steven Spielberg film, but suggests that the movie to which it refers, Deep Blue Sea, will be even more chilling and thrilling than Jaws was. “If you liked Jaws,” it suggests, “you’ll love Deep Blue Sea.” After all, this movie, like its monster, will be “bigger, smarter, faster, and meaner” than Jaws.

We can get out of most difficulties by using a variety of Freudian defense mechanisms or even simpler techniques such as lying, rationalizing, excusing, and blaming others (not that any of these tactics is justifiable or recommended). In fact, an aphorism suggests that there are but two things that one cannot avoid: death and taxes. This tagline offers a similar observation:
Death doesn’t take “no” for an answer (Final Destination).
Death is unavoidable; it “doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Therefore, the grave is our “final destination,” as the title of the movie, in the context supplied to it by its tagline, suggests. Of course, the tagline also suggests that we’re in imminent danger: death has asked us to join him (or it), and he (or it) is awaiting our answer--which had better be “yes,” since “Death doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Is there a fate worse than death? Hamlet thought so:

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the
rub, For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. . . .

Many others, both fictional and living, believe the same thing, more or less, and are afraid that there may very well be “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in. . . [their] philosophy,” including, perhaps, hell. The fear of damnation, which still beats within the breasts of many, is the wellspring of terror upon which the following tagline depends for its gush of dread, implying that, as great as it may be to lose one’s life, the loss of one’s eternal soul is unimaginably worse:
You have nothing to lose but your soul (Lost Souls)

The next tagline refers to a game, and a common metaphor compares life to a game:

The game is far from over (Along Came a Spider)
Other types of games may spring to mind, too, such as the rather sadistic “game of cat and mouse,” wherein a predator amuses itself by tormenting its prey. If the game in question is life--and life, perhaps, spent in misery, as the victim of a sadist who amuses himself by tormenting his victim--and “the game is far from over,” a sense of horror asserts itself readily enough.

(We were much more frightened when we thought that the tagline might refer to Hillary Clinton’s winning the White House! After all, she’s always assuring us--or herself, perhaps--that the Democratic primary, a game if ever there was one, “is far from over.”)

Like most taglines, this one lacks a context--until the title of the movie with which it is associated is read. Along Came a Spider is taken from the “Little Miss Muffet” nursery rhyme:

Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

Therefore, this tagline comprises a literary allusion. After describing a picture of innocence and everyday comfort (a little girl, dining), the tagline introduces a threat--the spider, an unwelcome intruder, which violates the heroine’s personal space, sitting “down beside her,” and frightens her. The tagline also suggests that the nursery rhyme has some bearing upon the movie’s plot, theme or, perhaps, its protagonist or antagonist (or both). If we haven’t yet seen the film, we may not be sure of the exact nature of the significance the nursery rhyme has in regard to the film, but we can be pretty certain that, whatever it is, it will be horrendous, and that it will involve the frightening intrusion of a threat upon an innocent. (In fact, the allusion is a bit more tenuous than we might anticipate; the movie turns out to be more of a thriller than a chiller, the Little Miss Muffet of which is a congressman’s daughter who is abducted from a private school by the kidnapper, or “spider.”)

It seems that, everyday, we seek to impose our wills upon others or others attempt to impose their wills upon us. We seek constantly to make others do our bidding or to take upon themselves our likeness, just as others seek to do the same with regard to us. Sometimes, we acquiesce willingly. Other times, we allow ourselves to be used or changed or manipulated or controlled only under protest and duress. The next tagline suggests that the latter is likely to be the case in regard to those who may now be less than perfect (according to someone else’s standards) but need not worry, for, after all, they are about to undergo a metamorphosis, most likely against their will:
It doesn’t matter if you’re perfect. You will be (Disturbing Behavior).
Sure enough, the movie involves a plot by townspeople to transform their rebellious teens into perfect citizens. (Ironically, what’s “disturbing” about the teens’ behavior is that it’s literally too good to be true.)

Personification (the attribution of human characteristics or behaviors to animals or inanimate objects) is not uncommon in taglines, and this one makes use of this literary device, assigning “appetite” to the “night,” and transforming the darkness at day’s end, therefore, into something that is like to be beastly or monstrous (for, again, we’re talking horror movies here, not romances):

The night has an appetite (The Forsaken).
Most likely, the veterans of horror movie madness will think, this movie, The Forsaken (short, perhaps for The Godforsaken), deals with something on the order of vampires or werewolves. (In fact, the film’s antagonists are the undead.)

Mothers, God bless them, are more full of cautionary tales and aphorisms than the Bible. With their children’s best interests and welfare always at heart, they have a wise word for every occasion. They also have some verbal pearls to cast even when there is nothing particular about an upcoming event. These all-purpose pearls, of course, tend to be more general in scope than the occasion-specific gems. Here’s one of the more inclusive Mom Maxims:
Be careful who you trust (The Glass House).
Pretty sound advice, even if it’s a tad general--especially in a horror movie. Some people, we learn, are not worthy of our trust. The movie’s title calls to mind another aphorism: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” meaning that the pot is ill-advised to call the kettle black, since it takes one to know one or something like that. In this movie, the glass house, however, turns out to be the home of the Glasses, Terrence and Erin, who are the former Malibu neighbors of two siblings whose parents are killed in a car crash. After their parents’ deaths, the children, Ruby and Rhett Baker, are taken in by the Glasses, who treat them well--at first. Ruby then finds some evidence that suggests that the Glasses, motivated by the chance to get their greedy hands on their new wards’ four-million-dollar trust fund, may have been responsible for her parents’ deaths. The Glasses are not as transparent as they seem; they have some dark secrets. Once again, Mom’s Maxims prove to be right on the money. (An alternate tagline for this movie is “It’s time to kick some Glass.”)

The next tagline speaks for itself:

What’s eating you? (Jeepers Creepers)
It doesn’t, really, of course. It’s only a rhetorical question, after all. Isn’t it? As it turns out, it can be taken literally: in the film, a pair of siblings, Darry and Patricia Jenner, on their way home through an isolated stretch of countryside during spring break, encounter a cannibalistic creature known as The Creeper. (The “What’s” part of the question suggests, on a figurative level, that there’s something the matter, emotionally, perhaps, with the person being eaten, as it were. On the literal level, the same part of the question implies that the identity of the devourer is unknown, perhaps mysterious or even monstrous, as though one were really asking “What in hell is eating you?”)

The movie’s title derives from part of a 1938 jazz song:

Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those peepers?
Jeepers Creepers, where’d you get those eyes?
Gosh, all get up! How’d they get so lit up?
Gosh, all get up! How’d they get that size?
Golly gee! When you turn those heaters on, woe is me!
Got to get my cheaters on. Jeepers Creepers,
Where’d you get those peepers? Oh, those weepers!
How they hypnotize! Where’d you get those eyes?
Where’d you get those eyes? Where’d you get those eyes?
The tagline for Jeepers Creepers II maintains the allusion to eating, but defines the moviegoer as the monster’s food: “He can taste your fear.”

Shamelessly, the tagline for The Fly--in which fly DNA gets scrambled with the human DNA of a mad scientist who, having too much time on his hands, is working out the kinks of a teleportation device that disassembles matter and reassembles it elsewhere--tells the potential audience just how they should feel while whiling away the hours in front of the screen showing this movie:

Be afraid. Be very afraid (The Fly).

The next tagline identifies the setting--a place far more remote than the locales in which the action of most horror movies takes place--and suggests that something dreadful is going to take place therein, something that would make its victims scream:

In space, no one can hear you scream (Alien).
Why do people scream when they’re afraid? “Duh! Because they’re afraid!” is the obvious answer, but, according to evolutionary biologists there’s another, somewhat more profound reason for this unseemly behavior. Screaming is the human equivalent of an air-raid siren, a car alarm, or an emergency vehicle siren: to annoy the hell out of everyone who hears it’s incessant, screeching wail. No, really, the purpose is to alert, to alarm, to warn, to get others’ attention. It’s a cry for help. The fact that “in space, no one can hear you scream” adds another layer to the distress of the victim, heightening the horror of the injured party’s fate, because screaming, as an attention-getter, is of no avail: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

There are many, many other taglines, and we may analyze a few more in other posts, but, for now, let’s consider what these slogan-like ad pitches teach us about writing horror:
  • They describe a basic situation that lacks a context, the context being provided by the title of the film for which the tagline is a pitch, making a sort of game out of the two elements (title and tagline).
  • They pique our interest by identifying the main characters (protagonist and antagonist) and suggesting the nature of the conflict between them.
  • They include plays on words that associate literal with figurative meanings, relating physical actions to emotional states.
  • They allude to similar films, suggesting that they are better (read scarier) than their competitors.
  • They confront their audience with a powerful, apparently unstoppable foe.
  • They personify non-human threats.
  • They place characters in nearly impossible situations that are likely to get them dismembered or killed (or both).

An opening paragraph in a short story, the first chapter of a novel, or the first fifteen minutes or so of a movie that accomplishes one of these feats is likely to hook its reader or viewer, too.

The aspiring writer isn’t--or shouldn’t be--too proud to beg, borrow, or steal--well, not steal, maybe--effective techniques wherever he or she may find them, including the lowly motion picture tagline. Nothing succeeds like success, after all, and, yes, sometimes “brevity” certainly is “the soul of wit,” as Shakespeare’s Polonius advised.

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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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