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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Psychopaths

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Psycho's Norman Bates meets victim Marion Crane

A sociopath suffers from an anti-social personality disorder. A psychopath is a conscienceless individual. According to a longer definition of the latter, the psychopath is “a person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, exploitiveness, heedlessness, arrogance, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses” (“Definition of Psychopath”).

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the anti-social personality disorder’s “essential feature. . . is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

The public tends to use these terms pretty much interchangeably to denote a seriously disturbed, dangerous person who is prone to mindless acts of rage and violence.

I know a psychopath. Fortunately, I haven’t seen him for many years. His name is Herbert, and, during our respective childhoods, he and the rest of his rather large family lived in the same neighborhood as the one in which I resided. His family was poor. Their father didn’t seem to be home much. Their grandmother lived with them and helped their mother rear the children. They lived upon a triangular, weed-choked lot in a two-story frame house. Inside, the furnishings and décor were minimal. Without carpeting, the wood floors were worn almost to sawdust. Their yard contained a collection of machine parts and rusted junk, and there was an outbuilding. A bare path led through what grass there was; there wasn’t a lawn in the proper sense of the word and no attempt at landscaping.

Herbert got into trouble on a few occasions. Once, when the school bus stopped, he jumped off and climbed a tree, refusing to come down. On another occasion, the local minister caught him holding a cat by the tail over an open fire “to see what it would do.” It was rumored that he stabbed a Boy Scout in the foot during a camping trip because the boy's foot “was sticking out of the tent.” Shortly before adolescence, Herbert moved with his family into the mountains, and we never saw him again until he’d become a young man. (According to psychologists, the anti-social personality disorder is often indicated by the so-called MacDonald triad, which consists of animal cruelty, arson, and bedwetting.)

Herbert returned in a late-model car with a friend. They stopped by our house and asked whether I’d like to go for a ride with them. Herbert said he’d bought the car for fifty dollars. Although I suspected he and his friend had stolen the vehicle, I agreed, against my better judgment, to go with them. As we left the driveway, I said, “So, what have you been up to, Herbert?”

NASA Photograph of Mars

Herbert told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he’d just returned from Mars, describing the planet’s flora and fauna. Since he has limited intelligence and an inadequate imagination, it was obvious that he believed, on some level, that he had, in fact, just arrived home from the red planet. Maybe he’d read a science fiction magazine story or, more likely, had seen a science fiction movie about an expedition to Mars and had come to believe that he had been among those who’d visited the planet. I decided that the wisest course of action was to go along with him, and I said something on the order of “that’s nice.” He also told me that he’d tried to enlist in the army but had been refused admission on the grounds that he lacks a conscience. “They said I don’t know right from wrong,” was the way, I think, Herbert put it. He said, since, his ambition had changed, and he now aspired to end his days in prison.

As we pulled up to a tank at a filling station, Herbert, indicating his need for gasoline, asked me whether I had any money on me. “No,” I told him, “I’m broke.” It was after I’d replied that I saw Herbert’s friend nod toward a bank of nearby vending machines. Suspecting that they planned to rob the machines, I told Herbert I had to get home. Fortunately for me, he took me home without robbing the machines--or me--first.

I never saw Herbert again after that, but, occasionally, I wonder whether he’d ever realized his ambition, entering a prison somewhere.

At the time, Herbert hadn’t seemed especially scary, although I was wary around him. He’d always been strange, after all, and I’d known him, casually, most of my life. Mountaineering had built his body, and just his appearance showed that he’d become as strong as a bull. He could be dangerous, even deadly, if he wanted to be, I thought, and who knew what it would take to make him want to hurt, to maim, or to kill? It could have been nothing more than the desire to fill his gas tank or to secure enough money to buy a sandwich and a soda. I shouldn’t have gotten into his car, I shouldn’t have gone for a drive with him, and I am fortunate not to have incited him to anger by asserting my indigence. In retrospect, Herbert had been very scary, indeed.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface

From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of the Amontillado” to Psycho and its sequels and The Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Red Dragon, the sociopath and the psychopath have been stock characters in horror fiction. Other horror stories in which madmen are the antagonists include:
  • Brimstone, Dance of Death, The Book of the Dead (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child trilogy novels): Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast investigates a series of bizarre deaths in which Lucifer himself seems to be the killer (Brimstone); Pendergast’s brother, the evil genius Diogenes, rescues him from certain death so that the FBI agent can stop him from committing the perfect crime--if Pendergast is able to do so (Dance of Death); and Diogenes implements his plan to commit the perfect crime (The Book of the Dead).
  • Good Guy, The (Dean Koontz novel): A stone mason mistaken for a mob hit man seeks to rescue the intended target from the real killers.
  • Husband (Dean Koontz novel): A husband’s wife is kidnapped; the husband must save her.
  • Icebound (Dean Koontz): An iceberg is the scene of this killer's horrific crimes.
  • Intensity (Dean Koontz novel): A sadistic killer chases his prey across country before the woman he’s chasing, to save herself and the child she’s protecting, sets him afire.
  • Misery (Stephen King novel): A romance novelist’s greatest fan is a nurse, but she has second thoughts about nursing him back to health after he wrecks his car in a blizzard when he kills off the woman’s favorite protagonist.
  • Psycho (Robert Bloch novel): A mommy’s boy becomes his mother, murdering young women to whom her son takes a shine.
  • Rose Madder (Stephen King novel): An abused wife escapes through a painting into the land of the minotaur (really).
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hunter film series): He’s armed and dangerous!
  • Velocity (Dean Koontz novel): A bartender has to rescue a targeted victim before she’s killed by the psychopath who hunts her (if this plot seems familiar, maybe you read Koontz’s The Good Guy).
  • Wheel of Darkness, The (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child): a sequel to the trilogy that pits the FBI’s Special Agent Pendergast against his evil genius brother Diogenes.

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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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