Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Most of us, if we survive our childhoods--no easy task, often--develop the ability to distinguish threatening situations, plants, animals, and other people from their non-threatening counterparts. How do we manage to do such a feat, within seconds or less, as often as necessary (except during naps)? Most people would probably attribute this ability to “instinct,” and, certainly, instinct (whatever is meant by this word) could have be one way--maybe the only way--by which this feat is accomplished. However, it seems reasonable that there may be something more to it than just the action of a genetic automatic target-recognition sixth sense or gut feeling. In this post, we offer a few additional possibilities, leaving it to the psychologists to determine whether any of these ideas seem worth the time and trouble of writing a multi-million-dollar grant proposal. (If it is, and the proposal is successful, remember who made the whole thing possible!)
Predators, scientists tell us, whether they (the predators, not the scientists) are lions, tigers, bears, or your Aunt Matilda, have binocular vision, with their eyes facing forward to look straight ahead, rather than having sideways-oriented oracular organs as do, for example, wildebeests, impalas, deer, and Uncle Henry. Doesn’t it seem possible--or even probable--that, over the centuries prey might come to understand that if the eyes face forward, danger threatens?
Likewise, anything that’s bigger than oneself, whether oneself is a shrimp, a slug, a sparrow, a bunny rabbit, or Cousin Bertha, is likely to be able to kill one and should be, at least until proper introductions are made and a chaperone armed with a 12-gauge shotgun is present, avoided.
Speed, too, may be a red flag, even though many prey animals are fairly fleet-footed themselves. There’s probably a reason that snakes are lightning quick and cheetahs run as fast as a lot of Mustangs--over a short distance, anyway. A fast animal, especially if it’s also relatively large, like a lion or a bear or a shark, ought to be avoided. Likewise, anything that just looks weird or scary, such as a snake or a puffer fish, should generally be kept at bay.
Most plants look harmless (although the Venus flytrap’s pretty scary looking, with all those thorny--or toothy--things along the edges of their leaves). Prey animals can learn something from them and their bright-colored animal friends (or foes), too, though. Some plants, like some animals, mimic dangerous cousins (and, sometimes, grandparents). Bright colors, scientists tell us (possibly as a result of a little too much experimentation) often indicate poison, in both plants and animals, and some harmless ones imitate the dangerous ones by assuming the deadly varieties’ coloration. Anything that’s imitated--female impersonators, for instance--are best avoided.
Persons, places, or things that move--things that move?--Sure, we’re talking horror, right?--in numbers (killer bees, a school of piranhas, a pack or wolves or hyenas, a graveyard full of zombies--should, it goes without saying, be avoided, evaded, and otherwise eluded. (Remember The Birds?)
Sen. John McCain, a Republican in name only (RINO)
Anything that has something you don’t have--armor-quality skin, fangs, claws, spines, quills, thorns, rabies, or whatever--is also a no-no when it comes to even casual dating. Avoid these creatures; they are armed and dangerous.
By knowing what constitutes a potential threat, horror writers can lend verisimilitude to their stories by describing threats in reference to the features that may, to the plants and animals that have learned, as the victims of such bullies, what clues to look for, which, again, includes straight-ahead binocular vision, large size, fast speed, Technicolor apparel, a pack mentality, or some sort of organic weapon.
If the threat’s not human or animal or vegetable--if it’s some kind of machine, for example--a website such as that of Federation of American Scientists (listed among our “Recommended Sites” at the bottom of this column) can shed more light than heat, we hope, upon threat-recognition as it applies to enemy aircraft, artillery, poisons, and other weapons systems, at least.
In other words, you’re pretty safe with roses and daises--unless you’re allergic to pollen or there are killer bees about.
Remember, knowing what constitutes a threat--or the appearance of one--helps you to keep it real as a writer. Who knows? It may even save a life.
Note: The photographs that appear in this post are from the U.S. Government Photos and Graphics website. (In other words, you paid for them.)