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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Explanations For Evil

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Iniquity is a mystery.

Despite penis envy, the Oedipus complex, phallic women, and Rorschach inkblots, we really don’t know what makes people do evil.

A lot of theories have been advanced over the years: ignorance, sin, indifference, emotional instability or mental illness resulting from childhood trauma or abuse, genetic abnormalities, birth defects, and even the devil. Although these theories have shed some light on the mystery of iniquity, wickedness remains inscrutable.

Nevertheless, authors of horror stories, whether the stories appear in print or on film, must offer at least a plausible explanation for the evil that occurs in their narratives. We live in a cause-and-effect universe, after all (or so, at least, we want to believe). Therefore, there must be a cause of--an explanation for--all events, situations, and behaviors, including--and maybe especially--those that don’t make a whole lot of sense.

The explanations don’t have to hold water. Not well, anyway. They do have to fall this side of “impossible” on the plausibility continuum, though. They have to be believable if not provable, credible if not verifiable, acceptable if not certifiable. Since horror stories begin with bizarre incidents or situations that, at some point in the narrative (usually just before the turning point), must be explained in some way, the explanations are important, and audiences expect to read or hear something that doesn’t insult their intelligence.

Sure, they know that, should they examine the explanation carefully, it’s likely to explain away more than to explain, but, as long as it doesn’t sound too far-fetched at the moment it’s trotted out, they’ll be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s only when the explanation is vague and shifty and half-hearted (as in the otherwise-superb novels of Bentley Little) or inane (as in Night Shyamalan’s latest film, The Happening, that audiences will wonder why they ever plunked down their hard-earned money to read or see something so idiotic.

So the explanations may be just this side of ridiculous, as long as they’re there and don’t actually insult the audience’s intelligence, but they must also fit the bizarre situations or series of incidents that are supposedly their effects. There must be some discernable logic--or even emotional relationship--among the cause and its effects. There must be a sense, on the part of the readers or moviegoers, that the cause “fits” the effects, either logically or emotionally (or, ideally, both).

If the author can set up one explanation that seems both plausible and rationally or emotionally satisfying, only to replace it with a second, better (or, at least, not worse) explanation that accounts for everything, so mush the better. Dean Koontz does this in The Taking. The bizarre series of events that is initially suspected to result from an advance party of invading aliens’ attempts to reverse-terraform the earth so that its atmosphere and environment are friendly to the attacking species turns out to be the result of an attack upon the planet by none other than Satan and his demons--and, yes, Koontz manages to bring this rather incredible plot twist off.

The-devil-made-me-do-it is a popular explanation for the evil deeds of characters in horror stories, of course, and has been since the books of Genesis and Job. The devil stirs up trouble in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Stephen King’s Desperation and The Regulators, and such movies as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen. Aliens are other popular sources of the madness and mayhem in horror movies, as Alien and its sequels and many other horror movies, from Invaders from Mars, The Blob, and The Thing From Another World to Independence Day, and The War of the Worlds indicates. Vampires, witches, mummies, ghosts, werewolves, and zombies are other popular explanations for the occurrence of the horrific incidents and situations of horror stories.


Horror maestro Stephen King

One way to consider a lot of the explanations horror fiction has put forth for the evils that this genre of fiction depicts (and sometimes celebrates) is to consider some of the major novels of Stephen King (stories with identical causes are excluded, as are those for which no more than a mere mention is given on King’s website:


What makes one explanation for the bizarre incidents and situations in a horror story acceptable to an audience while another explanation for such happenings is not? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Magical Thinking. No, we don’t live in a pre-scientific age during which magical thinking is part and parcel of one’s worldview, but, were we to be honest, we’d have to admit that, even in the twenty-first century, after having put a man on the moon, we still believe in magic, at least on a gut level. How else do we explain such notions as penis envy, the Oedipus complex, phallic women, and Rorschach inkblots? How else do we understand the way television signal transmissions and receptions operate or gravity or thermodynamics? The scientists among us may be able to answer some of the questions we have concerning the universe and our place in it, but they also admit that many of their statements are analogical or metaphorical, rather than literal, meaning that, beyond a certain level, they have no idea what they’re talking about. As Sir William Frazier points out in The Golden Bough, there are basically two types of magic: sympathetic, or imitative, magic and the magic of correspondence. Both rely upon magical thinking--the belief that non-scientific relationships among phenomena can be of such a nature that one somehow (mysteriously) affects or controls another. Sympathetic magic rests upon the premise that one can obtain the results that he or she imitates. Want to cause someone to suffer a heart attack? Stick a pin into voodoo doll’s chest. Correspondence rests upon the premise that one can influence what occurs to one person, place, or thing by manipulating another person, place, or thing to which the former is somehow related. Astrology (“as above, so below”) is a perfect example: the positions of heavenly bodies affect and determine one’s fate. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, sympathetic magic is probably behind such beliefs as those pertaining to “most forms of divination. . . voodoo. . . psychometry. . . psychic detectives. . . graphologists. . . karma. . . synchronicity. . . homeopathy” and, of course, magic itself. This list indicates that, pre-scientific age or not, ours is still one in which there are a great many believers in magic and the thinking that underlies it.
  • Recognition. Emotion, rather than logic, can be sufficient grounds for many of us to accept an explanation as appropriate and satisfying. To be emotionally acceptable to us, the explanation for the horror story’s uncanny events must suggest that the truth that the main character learns about him- or herself and/or the world, including others, is a natural, even inevitable, consequence of his or her experience. In other words, given what has happened to him or her, the protagonist has no other alternative but to draw the conclusions that he or she draws concerning the cause of these events--and the cause will have to do with his or her own behavior. Carrie’s explanation for the bizarre incidents that take place in the novel (and the movie based upon the novel) is acceptable to its readers (and viewers) because Stephen King ties the incidents to the existential and psychological states of the protagonist whose telekinesis, in service to her damaged emotions, self-image, and thinking, causes the murder and mayhem that she unleashes upon her tormentors, almost as an afterthought, once she realizes that, despite appearances to the contrary, nothing has changed, and she is still the target of other people’s prejudices and hatred.
  • Tradition, or Familiarity. Once a type of monster gains acceptance from the general public, usually as a result of its traditional use, its reference as the cause of the story’s eerie events is accepted for the sake of the narrative, even if (as is likely) it is rejected on the rational level. In other words, readers and viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief. This tendency on the part of readers and moviegoers to accept traditional monsters as the causes of bizarre incidents is the basis for the use of demons, ghosts, mummies, vampires, werewolves, and the like as causal agents in horror stories. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also generate a grudging acceptance of causality which, otherwise, would be summarily dismissed. “Oh, it’s a werewolf. Okay, then.”
  • Analogy. To be persuasive as a cause of the horror story’s horrific events, an explanation must be detailed. There must be a series of correspondences between the alleged cause and the alleged effects. In other words, one must be able to infer, on the basis of the similarities between two things that these same two things are alike in yet other ways (“A” is like “B.” “B” has property “C.” Therefore, “A” has property “C.”) Analogies are notoriously unreliable and often fallacious, but that doesn’t stop them from being persuasive to many, and, in fiction, what counts is their persuasiveness as causes. Writers of fiction are not especially concerned at all points (or maybe at any point) as to whether statements are true; they’re concerned with entertaining their audience, and, to this end, with whether their audience will “buy” a particular explanation of their action’s incidents and situations, bizarre and uncanny or otherwise.
  • Integrality. The explanation, whatever it is, must not be haphazard. It must not be tacked on, seemingly at the last minute, simply to explain (or to explain away) the story’s eerie occurrences. Instead, the explanation must be essential. Without the explanation, the series of odd incidents and situations would make no sense (not that they need to make a whole lot of sense, necessarily, even with the explanation in place). For the explanation to be acceptable or plausible, the writer must give hints early and often as to the nature of the cause behind the effects. In The Taking, Dean Koontz, early on, plants the idea that the bizarre actions in his novel may be the effect of Satan’s return to earth, and this possibility is repeated in the thoughts of the protagonist concerning her sorrow for past moral offenses she’s committed and her hope for forgiveness and reconciliation and by the narrative’s end, in which she becomes a new Eve, carrying within her womb the first of humanity’s new humanity. At the same time, however, the possibility that the novel’s bizarre events are the effects of reverse-terraforming by an advance party of invading aliens purposely detracts from this, the actual, cause. By contrast, in The Resort, Bentley Little merely mentions an older resort near the one in which his story’s action take place and implies, without ever saying exactly how, that the former resort is somehow associated with the contemporary one. There are no specific correspondences, no detailed links, between the two (the older one of which, in fact, has burned down). There is only the suggestion, without a supporting context supplied by a pertinent back story or other means of exposition. The result is the deux ex machina that Aristotle so much abhorred and rejects in his Poetics as emotionally and dramatically unconvincing.

Dean Koontz and Trixie

A horror story stands or falls, to a large extent, by its explanation for the evil, bizarre events and situations that occur during much of the story. The explanation may not pass scientific muster, but it must at least pass the emotional and dramatic smell tests of the audience if it is to be satisfying and, therefore, successful. In the final analysis, the inexplicable must be explained, if only in theory.

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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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