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Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Addams Family" Technique

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Cartoonist Charles Addams is the father of a truly bizarre family. “Dysfunctional” doesn’t begin to describe its dynamics. Headed by Gomez and Morticia, The Addams Family includes son Pugsley, daughter Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandmama, and the shaggy Cousin Itt. A disembodied hand, Thing, is a permanent houseguest. This unlikely cast of characters is waited upon hand and foot--in the case of Thing, literally--by a hulking butler named Lurch. They live on a weed-choked estate behind a wrought-iron fence in a Second Empire mansion, complete with a garden (of sorts). The cartoon appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine.

The one-panel strip was eventually translated into a television situation comedy (sitcom) of the same title starring John Astin (Gomez), Caroline Jones (Morticia), Ken Weatherwax (Pugsley), Lisa Loring (Wednesday), Jackie Cogan (Uncle Fester), Blossom Rock (Grandmama), Felix Silla (Cousin Itt), and Ted Cassidy (Lurch and Thing). The cartoon is also the basis of The Addams Family movie (1991) which starred Raul Julia (Gomez), Angelica Huston (Morticia), Jimmy Workman (Pugsley), Christina Ricci (Wednesday), Christopher Lloyd (Uncle Fester), Judith Malina (Grandmama), John Franklin (Cousin Itt), Carel Stricken (Lurch) and Christopher Hart (Thing). The screenplay for the motion picture is available at Movie Script Place.

In addition to featuring the same characters and setting, the cartoon, sitcom, and movie all parodied the contemporary American nuclear family, inverting traditional family and American values. The Addamses found ordinary people and their interests either repulsive, puzzling, dull, or offensive, preferring their own bizarre, macabre, and peculiar pursuits. Gomez never stopped courting his wife. Morticia was fond of raising roses, from which, snipping the buds, she would retain the thorny stems, immersing them in ornate vases of water, and tend to her carnivorous plant. Wednesday (who is, as her name suggests, “full of woe”) delights in executing her Marie Antoinette doll by guillotine and enjoys electrocuting her brother in the family’s electric chair. Pugsley’s passion is wrecking his electric train by derailing the engine and cars or blowing it up with a well-placed stick of miniature dynamite. Uncle Fester likes to impress others with his trick of illuminating a light bulb simply by placing it in his mouth, and he often chases intruders with his blunderbuss. Grandmama, a witch, is forever trying new spells or potions. Vertically challenged Cousin Itt’s face--or, indeed, his entire head and body--is never seen, because his hair extends from his scalp to the floor. He rides around the mansion in his three-wheeled car and speaks in shrill gibberish that only the rest of the family can understand. A childhood friend of Gomez’s, Thing is a severed hand that pops out of cigar boxes, urns, and other containers throughout the house to deliver the mail and do other assorted odd jobs. The butler, Lurch, is a giant. He wears a tuxedo, maintains an expression and a posture that suggests that rigor mortis has set in a little early, and rumbles rather than speaks. A Frankenstein-like servant, Lurch, Morticia reminds Gomez, is part of many families and has the heart of an Addams. Much of the cartoon’s, sitcom’s, and movie’s humor derives from Lurch’s unfriendly demeanor and the chores he performs in his ungainly and deadpan manner.

The Addams Family suggests that there is a fine line between horror and humor, as do such television shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Munsters, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. Literary critics have found humor--quite a bit of it, in fact--even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The difference between whether an incident or a situation will be humorous of horrific depends, of course, upon its treatment. Typically, humor will look for opportunities to exaggerate or understate the significance of ordinary incidents and situations, will seek the absurdity in daily activities and the pompous or inappropriate behavior of characters who are out of their depth or in an environment foreign to them, and so forth, whereas horror will seek the bizarre, the uncanny, the eerie, the frightening, and the incongruous in such incidents and situations with an eye not to how and why these incidents and situations are amusing but as to why they are in some way menacing.

It is menace that, ultimately, makes a situation horrific and dreadful. By applying The Addams Family technique to everyday situations and incidents and looking for the potential menace in them rather than for the potential humor in them, the horror writer can come up with plot material that might otherwise go unnoticed or unappreciated. The technique is simple, but effective: interpret commonplace incidents and situations from an out-of-kilter, offbeat, madcap point of view. Interpret figurative expressions literally and literal expressions figuratively. Imagine how the Addams family might interpret everyday events and occurrences or how they might understand the meaning of an innocuous phrase.

For example, were the Addams family to have a dinner party, the catered refreshments might include finger sandwiches that were truly finger sandwiches--severed human digits laid side by side between two slices of bread and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and the dressing of one’s choice. The whole meal, in fact, would be likely to comprise a feast fit for cannibals. Now, take the humor out of the situation, and replace it with horror. Make a few other adjustments, lending the storyline as much verisimilitude as possible within the conditions of the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, and viola!, The Addams Family principle has provided a plot for a horror story such as the maestro Stephen King might have written.

A bit of brainstorming--lovely word for horror writers!--may suggest other possibilities. The appetite among some Asians for dog flesh is well known. What better way to increase the stock of this delicacy in one’s freezer than to go to a large city park frequented by the owners of such pets and wait for one or more of them to walk their dogs past the perfect ambush site along the a woodland path?

Another idea? (Simply insert a 100-watt bulb into one’s mouth, Uncle Fester style.) How about this one? A vampire king’s five-hundredth “birthday” (that is, the night that he was transformed into one of the living dead) is approaching, and his followers want to get him something special to commemorate the occasion. They discuss various possibilities: blood bags from the local blood bank, the chorus girls from a popular Broadway (or Las Vegas) show, kindergartners from a local preschool or daycare center. Finally, they decide on five hundred virgins. The only problem is that they’re hard-pressed to locate such a vast number of this commodity. The story resulting from this premise would be partly funny and partly fiendish, much like The Addams Family itself, showing, once again, that it is possible to mix humor with horror (and even a little social commentary), as long as, if the story is to be considered horror rather than humor, the menace outweighs the clowning.

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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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