Fascinating lists!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bases for Fear, Part I

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

To paraphrase Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in this and the next couple of posts, we ask of life, “How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways.”

Animals. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re faster and stronger than we are; they have greater stamina than we have; they have teeth and fangs or other offensive weaponry; and, wild, they are unbothered by the niceties of civilization and culture. In addition, humanity’s relationship, as it were, with the beasts has been as much one of exploitation on our part as it has been one of faithful service on the part of those which we’ve been able, as we say, from our point of view, to “domesticate.” There may be, we fear, as much loathing as loving in the animals’ feelings toward us, their presumed “masters.” Among those that are not “domesticated,” there is not the least pretense of affection for us; there is but the “gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun” of William Butler Yeats’ “rough beast” that, “it’s hour come round at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” Occasionally, wild animals that circus performers or magicians believe they have “domesticated” cripple or kill their “masters,” as the white tiger mauled the Las Vegas magician Roy Horn, formerly of Siegfried and Roy. In one of The Chronicles of Narnia novels, one of C. S. Lewis’ characters warns others that Aslan “is not a tame lion.” The same may be said of all other wild animals as well. Exploitation, whether of nature, animals, or other human beings, is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Source: U .S. Government Photos and Graphics

Bats. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re faster than we are; they may have greater stamina than we have; they have talons and teeth; and, wild, they are unbothered by the niceties of civilization and culture. They’re associated, traditionally, with vampires. They’re also hybrid creatures--at least in the popular imagination--part mouse and part bird, as it seems, and, therefore, an anomaly, a perversion, as it were, of nature. They can’t even get the wings right: they’re leathery rather than feathery, and the damned things can’t see; they use a bizarre “radar sense.” Perversity, real or apparent, is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Source: U. S. Government Photos and Graphics

Cemeteries. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They are full of dead bodies, entombed or buried, but dead bodies, nevertheless, or ashes. Those buried are buried for a reason, which has little to do with public sanitation and everything to do with their designation as “human remains,” the physical decay of the corpse, and the revelation that, in the end, we may be nothing more than bones and dust, which makes life both rather horrible and absurd. Cemeteries, like the dead bodies or human ashes they contain, the remains or the cremains, are, as mementoes of death, a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Demons. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They represent the embodiment of evil. Whether they are legion or represent only a particular vice or depravity, they are malevolence incarnate. Often, they are depicted with claws and fangs. They may have fur and tails. They may have horns and hooves. Bestial in appearance, they are frightening because they’re faster and stronger than we are; they have greater stamina than we have; they have teeth and fangs or other offensive weaponry; and, wild, they are unbothered by the niceties of civilization and culture. They are enemies of God himself and tempt men and women to sin and, ultimately, to denounce God and to be damned for eternity to hell. Demons frighten because they represent the powerful temptation to defy God, surrendering one’s will to self-destructive impulses. The pursuit of the inner demons of self-destructive behavior is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Evil. Why does it frighten? The answer is simple. Evil is a mystery. It is an ambiguity and an inscrutability, and the incomprehensible and the irrational are seductive. Evil is a song sung by more than a few sirens. Evil is dark. It is fascinating. It is compelling. It is insistent and enchanting. It is hypnotic. It is spellbinding. It captivates because it has no center, no self, no soul, and its shape is ever changing, always shifting, becoming whatever one lacks but wants and should not have. Its root is pride, but it often puts forth tendrils of envy and leaves of spite. Evil’s protean ability to be all things to all people is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Frogs. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They don’t. That is, they don’t frighten many, but they do frighten some, and, if we let them represent not merely themselves but all amphibians (let’s throw in reptiles, too, for good measure), these creatures are frightening to the majority of people, for those who do not fear frogs are likely to fear lizards or turtles or snakes or eyes of newt. These creatures are primordial in appearance. They suggest the earliest of beasts, the hopping and crawling and creeping ones as much as the running ones, and, as such, they seem to suggest the least evolved life forms, those closest, as it were, to the primordial soup. They’re living embodiments of the days before we existed, suggesting that a world without us is possible--perhaps, someday, even probable. They’re also suggestions that we, who pride ourselves upon having evolved to the very pinnacle of nature, may perhaps regress to the level at which we are, once again, subhuman creatures whose only act of communication is the primal scream. Reptiles and amphibians (and imaginary and imaginative creatures derived from them), represented here as frogs, are reminders of our animal origins and of the possibility that we could regress instead of progressing and are, therefore, a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

In this drawing by Gustave Dore, God gets cranky, drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea he parted to facilitate Moses' escape with the Hebrews

God. Why does he frighten? The answer is simple. God is not only powerful, but he is also all-powerful. There is no recourse against his will. As Alexander Pope succinctly phrased the matter: “Man proposes; God disposes.” We are all in the hands of God, like it or not, and his will is our fate. Some fates, we understand, are more pleasant than others, but ours, whatever they may prove to be, are chosen for us, are, in fact, assigned to us from the foundation of the world. Free will is an absurdity and an illusion. God is sovereign, and we are his subjects. God is love, but, sometimes, from the human point of view, love can seem cruel, for the ways of God are not the ways of man. It can be, as Jonathan Edwards said, “a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and, if anything, it is his servants who suffer the most. God is executing his will, not ours. God is a transcendent and wholly other power against which nothing avails unless he suffers it to do so, and it can never be known with certainty what he will suffer and what he will not, and such uncertainty and dependency upon the omnipotent and wholly other is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Hell. Why does it frighten? The answer is simple. Hell is nowhere. It is the end of the line. It is endless and eternal futility. It is the “vanity of vanities,” the bottomless pit of despair, an existence apart from the ground of being, from being-itself, from God, the creator and the sustainer of life, of meaning, of purpose, of value, and of love. It is an outer darkness of death-in-life, of meaninglessness, of purposelessness, of worthlessness, of nothingness. “Abandon hope all ye who enter herein,” Dante’s portal to hell warned. Existential meaninglessness is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Source: U. S. Government Photos and Graphics

Ice. Why does it frighten? The answer is simple. It freezes. It makes frozen objects brittle. According to the History Channel’s series Ice Road Truckers, even steel, when it is frozen, can snap like a rubber band under pressure. One episode, in fact, shows a thick chain shatter. Truck engines, in the Alaskan wilderness, must be kept running overnight when the temperature is low enough, and equipment that is idle too long may refuse to start. Ice can also snap large branches from mighty oaks, and its weight can crush a roof. Although strong--the diesel big rigs of Ice Road Truckers travel upon highways that are, to a large extent, nothing more than rivers and an ocean that have become solid ice--ice remains treacherous. It can cause vehicles to skid out of control or to plummet through its thinner parts, into a watery grave. Ice can also cause a body to freeze to death, despite layered clothing, heavy boots and coats, and shelter from the storm. Ice is symbolic of a cold nature, of a hostile and inhospitable temperament, of a lack of love and compassion, of the inability or refusal to sympathize and empathize. For all these reasons, and, especially, because ice is treacherous, it is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

In the next post, additional bases for fear will be identified and considered, but, ‘ere we part, let’s summarize our findings with regard to the nine bases of fear that were listed in this post:

  • Exploitation, whether of nature, animals, or other human beings, is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • Perversity, real or apparent, is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • Cemeteries, like the dead bodies or human ashes they contain, the remains or the cremains, are, as mementoes of death, a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • The pursuit of the inner demons of self-destructive behavior is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • Evil’s protean ability to be all things to all people is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • Reptiles and amphibians (and imaginary and imaginative creatures derived from them), represented here as frogs, are reminders of our animal origins and of the possibility that we could regress instead of progressing and are, therefore, a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • God is a transcendent and wholly other power against which nothing avails unless he suffers it to do so, and it can never be known with certainty what he will suffer and what he will not, and such uncertainty and dependency upon the omnipotent and wholly other is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • Existential meaninglessness is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.
  • Because ice is treacherous, it is a basis, in horror fiction, as in life, for fear.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sexploitation Horror Films: Sexing It Up

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Perhaps after watching one too many horror movies while experimenting with LSD, Jim Morrison, late of The Doors, chanted, “Love is sex, and sex is death, and therein lies the ultimate high.”

It’s a perfect mantra for horror films in which a bit of hanky panky precedes the deaths of the participants, who usually expire in a particularly gruesome and ghastly way to show the mostly teen and young adult audiences of such motion pictures that, well, “love is sex, and sex is death, and therein lies the ultimate high.”

For those who aren’t happy unless a movie is more than just a story and for whom horror has to have some sort of justification for its mayhem, L. Vincent Poupard offers a Freudian take on horror films’ inclusion of bodies getting physical.

In his article, "The Symbolism of Sex in Horror Movies,” he argues that sex participants are rebels against parental authority and that they “are most vulnerable when they are having sex” because “hormones take complete control.” As a result, the sexual partners become “oblivious to the world around them,” making themselves perfect victims of a stealthy, possibly voyeuristic, and most likely envious, monster. That’s not why sex is “symbolic,” though. According to Poupard, it’s symbolic because it represents “not paying attention” to the dictates of one’s parents. It’s dangerous, too, he says, because it’s a minefield of “sexual diseases.”

Another reason that moviemakers put sex in their scenes is because sex sells. Especially in Europe, it seems, where the horror films of such directors as Jean Rollin (Zombie Lake [1980] and Oasis of Zombies [1981]); Jesus (“Jess”) Franco (Mansion of the Living Dead [1985], Nightmares Come At Night [1970], 99 Women [1969], Golden Temple Amazons [1986], Sadomania [1981]); and Joe D’Amato (Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals [1977]) are just opportunities to exploit their audiences with sleaze-disguised-as-horror. (Yes, of course, that may be all the more reason to have seen, or to see, them; that’s the whole point of sexploitation films.)

As difficult as it may seem to believe, there was sex before slasher films. Even as far back as the 1940’s and 1950’s, horror movies exploited youngsters’ urge to merge. The difference between earlier and more recent films is the manner in which sex is incorporated in the plot and shown (or not shown) on the screen. In the older films, sex was mostly suggested. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a good example. Instead of showing, close up and in person, so to speak, detailed sequences of Marion Crane making love to her paramour, the scene starts, not in media res, but after the fact, as Crane, wearing only her undies, dresses.

In a more recent film, Chuck Parello’s Ed Gein (2001), the opening sex scene is mild by today’s standards, with a pair of teenage lovebirds making out on a bench in the Plainfield (Wisconsin) cemetery. The action between them is restricted to some passionate kissing and to the youth’s unbuttoning of a button on his date’s blouse. They’re scared away by the sounds of Gein’s spade as he opens the grave of a recently deceased female citizen, and they hurry off, the young man zipping his fly as they vacate the premises. Most other contemporary horror films are far less circumspect, preferring to let it all hang out, as it were.

Sexploitation horror films are about the sins of the flesh and the wages of this particular sin, but, even so, they require at least some narrative pretense, which is to say, a plot. Here are those of the ones we’ve mentioned in this post, just so no one can say we aren’t being fair in trashing this trash:

  • Zombie Lake: Skinny dipping girls, some bikini-clad and others bare, entice a lake full of Nazi zombies. Huh? Nazi zombies?
  • Oasis of Zombies: “An expedition searching for treasure supposedly buried by the German army in the African desert during WW II comes up against an army of Nazi zombies guarding the fortune” (The Internet Movie Database [IMDb]). Huh? Nazi zombies?
  • Mansion of the Living Dead: Maximum nudity with minimum gore and a touch of anticlericalism thrown in for good (or bad) measure. No Nazi zombies, though.
  • Sadomania: Newlyweds Olga and Michael stumble upon a desert training camp in which the trainees are enslaved women who work at a variety of odd jobs, including prostitution. Olga becomes their latest recruit. Uh oh!
  • 99 Women: The movie’s tagline pretty much sums up its plot: “99 women behind bars. . . without men!”
  • Nightmares Come At Night: Two topless dancers become friends; then, one of them begins to have nightmares. In her dreams, she kills people. Voyeurs--or, rather, viewers--learn the reason for the murderous dreams: the dancer is influenced by a hypnotic jewel thief who's intent upon eliminating her partners, one by one.
  • Golden Temple Amazons: A woman avenges the murder of her parents by helping an expedition sack the tribe’s golden temple.
  • Emmanuelle and the Last Cannibals: Emmanuelle goes undercover. In a mental asylum. Where she finds a crazy girl. Who may or may not have been reared by cannibals. A visit to the Amazon will verify whether the patient is truly insane or just homesick.

Those who enjoy a bit of flesh (and necrophilia) with their blood and guts might also enjoy such sexploitation horror flicks as The Curse of Her Flesh, Vampiros Lesbos, The Kiss of Her Flesh, Tou Kui Wu Zui, Where the Truth Lies, Cannibal Ferox, Cannibal Terror, and--well, there are lots and lots of them.

Insider’s Tip: Check out your favorite scream queens on Chickipedia.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Subliminal Horror

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

“Subliminal” refers to text, images, auditory statements, or other objects or props that escape one’s conscious notice but (according to theory, at least) are recognized on a subconscious level. Supposedly, subliminal techniques are used to sell everything from movie theater popcorn to alcoholic beverages. Some even go so far as to say that governments, including that of the United States, use such messages to propagandize and brainwash their citizens.

Subliminal messages are also used in printed and filmed horror stories, albeit rarely, it would seem.

In fact, I’ve seen the use of a subliminal image in a horror movie. It occurred at the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho--not in the original film, but in a release of the movie on videotape or DVD (I don’t recall which now, as this experience occurred several years ago, but I believe it was a videotape.) As Norman Bates, at the end of his killing spree, sits in a jail cell, dressed as his mother, Norma, a human skull flashes over his face several times in rapid succession, timed to the swings of an overhead light bulb. I remember feeling especially uneasy during this scene, although it hadn’t seemed as frightening or eerie when I’d first witnessed the scene, as a child. On an impulse, I played the sequence again, in slow motion, and the skull, which I hadn’t noticed before (consciously, at least) was visible as it appeared briefly, over Norman’s face, and then vanished again, just as abruptly, the superimposition of the skull image over Norman’s face occupying only the space of a few frames. I’d heard of subliminal images, but this was the first time I’d ever seen one myself.

Apparently, subliminal images are used much more widely than one might suppose, not only in advertising, but also in popular entertainment media, including Walt Disney’s art and big-name comic books’ illustrations.

In Who Killed Roger Rabbit, Roger’s wife, Jessica, is shown, sans panties, exiting a taxicab.

The cover for the DVD release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid shows an erect phallus among the spires of a castle; a constellation of stars in The Lion King spells out S-E-X; and a nude painting is shown in a background setting in The Rescuers. It seems that, posthumously, Uncle Walt’s not nearly as family friendly as he was when he’d been among the living.

The “S” word also makes its appearance in New X-Men #118--at least 18 times, by one count

In horror fiction, it’s more likely to be the gruesome and the ghastly or the bloody and the gory that sells, rather than sex, and it’s just such subliminal texts and images that are occasionally found, as in Psycho. Another example of the use of such images occurs in the original Hitchcock version of the film itself. In three frames (equating to approximately 1/8 of a second) of the shower scene, in which Norman-as-Norma, attacks Marion Crane as she is showering, the knife thrust is reversed, so that it appears to penetrate her lower abdomen.

Although it’s questionable as to whether Hitchcock had any transcendent reason for including the subliminal images of penetration, he apparently did have a thematic purpose in mind for the shower scene itself besides mere titillation. According to Janet Leigh herself, who played Crane in the original film:
Marion had decided to go back to Phoenix, come clean, and take the consequence, so when she stepped into the bathtub it was as if she were stepping into the baptismal waters. The spray beating down on her was purifying the corruption from her mind, purging the evil from her soul. She was like a virgin again, tranquil, at peace.

(Well, as long as Leigh bought the line. . . .)

In The Exorcist, a demon’s face is flashed on the screen, but not so few times per foot of film that it can’t be seen, so this use of imagery doesn’t, strictly speaking, constitute the employment of a subliminal technique.

In a previous post, I showed how Bram Stoker’s deft use of description and innuendo creates what amounts to a sort of literary subliminal coding of the narrative’s text, heightening the story’s fear factor by suggesting that there is some astonishingly powerful force operating behind the scenes, so to speak. Subliminal text and images are today’s equivalents, in extremis, of yesterday’s rhetorical, literary, and cinematographic techniques and, yes, they can be effective. In fact, they can frighten the hell out of you!


Leigh, Janet. Psycho : Behind the Scenes of the Classic Thriller. Harmony Press, 1995.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Masks

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Hillary: A Mask the Democratic Party Rejected as Presidential Candidate

The mask that she wore,
My fingers would explore;
The costume of control--
Excitement soon unfolds. . . .

-- The Doors

In the factory, we make cosmetics; in the drugstore, we sell hope.

-- Charles Revlon

Masks. At the same time, they both conceal and reveal or, sometimes, protect. They link those who wear them to ancient superstitions and to their cultural heritage. They symbolize enterprises and aid in performances. They may even impart the powers and characteristics of those whom they represent to those who wear them.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, words the origins of which are associated with mask include mascara (meaning stain, or mask); larva (meaning ghost or mask, “applied in the biological sense. . . because immature forms of insects ‘mask’ the adult forms”); mummer (in part from momer, meaning mask oneself); mascot; person (“originally ‘character in a drama, mask”); masque; boycott (based upon the “Irish Land League ostracism of Capt. Charles C.
Boycott. . . land agent of Lough-Mask in County Mayo, who refused to lower rents for his tenant farmers”); masquerade (for masked party or dance); oscillation (“supposed to be from oscillum ‘little face,’ lit. ‘little mouth,’ a mask of open-mouthed Bacchus hung up in vineyards to swing in the breeze”); muskellunge (“long mask”); and mesh.

Comedy and tragedy, the two chief divisions of the drama by which human behavior and its significance are enacted upon a public stage before a live audience, are represented by masks--a smiling and a frowning mask, respectively. The faceless faces of everyman, they suggest that the proper response to human conduct is either humor or sorrow; drama--or, rather, the spectacle of human behavior that it represents--makes us laugh or cry.

Masks have been worn to protect fencers, athletes, and soldiers, but their chief use is to disguise those who wear them, the role that they serve in Alexander Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker’s Lone Ranger, and countless costumed superheroes and movie villains, including Darth Vader. A cursory examination of the masks of DC Comics and Marvel Comics characters discloses the almost infinite variety that is possible with regard to such coverings of one’s countenance. They range from the simple Zorro or Lone Ranger type mask that is little more than a strip of cloth with eyeholes cut into it to the helmet-style masks of Dr. Doom and Galactus. Occasionally, comic book characters’ masks are also equipped with weapons effects and, indeed, the mask that the X-Men’s Cyclops wears is a protective one, blocking the optical energy beam that, unleashed, can demolish a mountain.

Masks are associated with one’s traditions. In ancient Rome, the death masks of one’s ancestors, stored in the family’s shrine, or lararium, were evidence, albeit not living proof, of a citizen’s lineage. During funerals, surviving relatives would wear such masks as they enacted the feats of the deceased (Kak).

Halloween masks and costumes were donned, originally, to ward off evil spirits, who, it was believed, would be frightened by the masks’ and costumes’ hideous appearances.

Leopold Sedar Senghor’s poem, “Prayer to the Masks,” conveys something of the communal ties that were believed to exist between family masks and tribe:

Masks! O Masks!
Black mask, red mask, you white-and-black masks
Masks of the four cardinal points where the Spirit blows
I greet you in silence!
And you, not the least of all, Ancestor with the lion head.
You keep this place safe from women’s laughter
And any wry, profane smiles
You exude the immortal air where I inhale
The breath of my Fathers. . . .

Before the advent of the camera, death masks (plaster casts of the deceased’s face) were made to preserve the appearance of famous people, including such luminaries as Blaise Pascal, King Henry VIII, Dante Alighieri, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederic Chopin, Czar Peter the Great, and Abraham Lincoln. For photographs of famous death masks, visit the online Lauren Hutton Collection of Life and Death Masks.

In Gaston Leroux’s play, The Phantom of the Opera, Erik wears a mask to hide a physical deformity. Other characters’ reactions to his deformed appearance, once he is unmasked, reveal their own spiritual deformity or the beauty.

The example of the man in the iron mask, who became the subject of Dumas’ novel, shows how a mask often creates mystery. Many books have been written in the attempt, as it were, to unmask the mysterious prisoner who was supposed to have worn the iron mask at all times to conceal his identity and to fathom the motives of the one who ordered this extreme measure, with such candidates as the illegitimate son of Mazarin and Anne of Austria (and, therefore, a half-brother to King Louis XIV) being named by Voltaire and Alexander Dumas; Luis XIV’s father being named by Hugh Ross Williamson; General Vivien de Bulonde; a composite of a valet and Ercole Antonio Mattioli, named by Roux Fazaillac (a variation of which theory was also advanced by Andrew Lange); the bastard son James de la Cloche of England’s King Charles II, named by Arthur Barnes; and others (“The Man in the Iron Mask”).

Masks, not surprisingly, have appeared in a number of horror stories, novels, and films. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” involves a masquerade party at Prince Prospero’s castellated abbey, during which the Red Death makes his appearance. The masks and costumes seem to suggest the outwardly merry demeanor that people effect in the face of tragedy and death in their attempts to deny the reality and the inevitability of their own imminent demise, whether as a result of disease or some other means.

In “Dead Man’s Party,” an episode of the televisions series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers’ mother, Joyce, the owner of a local art gallery, hangs a ceremonial mask on her bedroom wall, causing the resurrection of the dead. First a cat, and then quite a few human zombies, appear, the latter attacking Buffy, her mother, and friends during a coming-home party in Buffy’s honor.

In another Buffy episode, “Halloween,“ the masks (and costumes) that teenagers and younger children buy at an occult Halloween costume shop cause them to become the characters that their masks and costumes represent. Buffy becomes an aristocratic lady, and her friends Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris become a ghost and a pirate, respectively, while children become demons and various other monsters.

Masks in horror films are used both to conceal identities and simply to frighten moviegoers. Thanks to the magic of special effects, masks can be both gruesome and realistic--at least on the silver screen. Movies in which characters (often the human monster) wear masks include Halloween, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Scream.

In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the villain, Leatherface, wears a mask fashioned of human flesh, a takeoff on the masks that Ed Gein, the so-called “Butcher of Plainfield” (Wisconsin) wore, which were the faces he removed from corpses he’d dug up in the town’s cemetery or the graveyard, known as Spirit Land, a few miles north of Plainfield. Also the basis of Norma Bates (Psycho) and Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs), Gein’s wearing of literal facemasks (and leggings, labia, and a “mammary vest”) were attempts by him to resurrect his mother, with whom, despite her death, he maintained a love-hate relationship.

Horror stories’ use of masks plays upon the notions that masks both conceal and reveal, disclosing the horrors of custom, tradition, family history, individual trauma, and a host of other influences that make up who (and what) we are, whether we happen to be heroes or horrors. What really lies behind the social mask, or persona, that each of us wears? The face of Norman Bates? Michael Myers? Leatherface? Ed Gein? In “Halloween,” Buffy tells Willow, “Halloween is come-as-you-aren’t night.” Let’s hope she’s right!


Ritual, Masks, and Sacrifice; Subhash Kak, Studies in Humanities and Social Services, vol.11, Indian Institute of Advance Study, Shimla 2004.
“The Man in the Iron Mask.” Wikipedia. 2008.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Verizon’s Version of Horror: The Dead Zone Advertisements

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Advertisers are a creative bunch. They use all sorts of persons, places, and things to sell us everything from aardvarks to zoo trips. Well, maybe not aardvarks. Not yet, anyway. More-or-less captured audiences hate most “commercial breaks,” although they are somewhat fond of a select few “messages from our sponsors.” One commercial that is apt to be tolerable, if not actually fun, for horror fans is Verizon’s latest series of advertisements that feature areas of poor or non-existent cellular telephone transmission and reception, known, in the commercials, as “dead zones.”

In one such ad, as a man heads from his apartment to the laundry room in his building, basket in hand, walking along a dimly lit hallway, a pair of young boys, dressed in nineteenth-century-style suits, speak in an eerie monotone: “Hey, mister, are you going to the laundry room?"

Looking hesitant, he replies, "I was."

The boys then say, "It’s a dead zone. Reception is terrible."

The man replies, “I have the Verizon network,” whereupon a host of the company’s employees appears behind the man, one assuring their customer, “You’re good.”

The boys exchange an uneasy look before turning, they walk away, down the corridor.

The text, “Don’t Be Afraid of DEAD ZONES” appears over the backs of the retreating boys.

The scene is reminiscent of The Shining, and its use of the phrase “dead zone” recalls another of Stephen King’s novels, The Dead Zone.

The host of Verizon company’s employees plays on the idea of there being safety in numbers. Their service neutralizes the threat of “dead zones.” Who wouldn’t want such heroes around in such a threatening environment?

A number of similar ads, using horror themes or allusions to horror movies, appear as installments in the series. A family moves into a creepy neighborhood, only to be warned by their neighbor (a woman who looks as if she’s just stepped out of her coffin) that they’ve moved into a “dead zone.” The last occupants of their new house, she warns them, “went crazy trying to find a signal there.” The Verizon team appears, and she looks frightened. All she can warn them against, now, is the crabgrass growing in their yard.

The ads are designed, it seems, to resemble theatrical trailers, which certainly gets television viewers’ interest, especially if such audience members also happen to enjoy horror movies.

Sex, it has long been established, sells. So, apparently, does horror.

Kudos to a company for creating ads that are both eerie and enjoyable.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Guest Speaker: Robert Bloch

Poe & Lovecraft

Robert Bloch, author of Psycho

Comparisons between Edgar Allan Poe and Howard Phillips Lovecraft are, I suppose, inevitable; seemingly, in recent years they are also interminable.

I shall not, therefore, repeat the usual recital of similarities to be found within their work--there will be no mention of black cats, revenants, or Antarctic settings per se.

But at the same time I have no intention of making a calculated bid for attention by deliberately asserting, as some have also declared, that no real resemblance exists aside from superficial employment of stock characters and themes common to virtually all stories in the genre.

To me, this is an untenable statement: Lovecraft, like every writer of fantasy and horror fiction subsequent to Poe, was necessarily influenced by the work of his predecessor--and to certain extent his work needs must be derivative in some slight sense. Actually, Lovecraft's homage to Poe in his essay "Supernatural Horror In Literature," indicates a degree of appreciation and admiration which leaves no doubt as to the profound impression made upon him by the earlier master.

But to me the most fruitful area of comparison lies within an examination of the backgrounds and personalities of the writers themselves.

Consider the facts. Both Poe and Lovecraft were New England born. Both were, to all intents and purposes, fatherless at an early age. Both developed a lifelong affinity for poetry and the elements of a classical education. Both utilized archaisms in their writing styles and affected personal eccentricities which in time became consciously cultivated.

Although Poe spent a part of his youth in England and traveled along the Atlantic seaboard in later life--and while Lovecraft ventured up into Canada and down into Florida on vacations a few years prior to his death--neither man ever ventured west of the Alleghenies. Lovecraft, on one occasion, did skirt them to visit E. Hoffman Price briefly in his New Orleans home, but essentially he and Poe were Easterners. Their outlook was, to a marked degree, provincial; even parochial.

Both men distrusted "foreigners" in the mass: both retained a profound admiration for the English. These attitudes are plainly evident in their work, which is many particulars removed and remote form the main current of American life.

A reader attempting to capture some glimpse of the United States in the 1830-1850 period would gain small enlightenment from the poetry and fiction of Poe.

At a time when the entire nation was engaged in a westward thrust, beginning with the peregrinations of the mountain men and ending with the Gold Rush in the year of Poe's death, one searches in vain for a wet which does not seemingly even exist in his literary compass.

Byronic heroes sequestered in British and continental locales scarcely reflect the American attitudes or aptitudes in the era of Old Hickory, Davy Crockett, the fall of the Alamo, the Mexican War and the growing turmoil over slavery.

Nor would a reader find more typically American protagonists amongst the pendants, professors and regionally-oriented recluses of Lovecraft's tales, in which there's scarcely a hint of the manners and mores of the Roaring Twenties or the Great Depression which followed in the ensuing decade. Aside from a few remarks regarding the influx of immigrants and concomitant destruction of old folkways and landmarks, plus brief mentions of the (intellectually) "wild" college set, Lovecraft ignores the post WW1 Jazz Age in its entirety: Coolidge, Hoover, FDR, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Valentino, Mencken and the prototypes of Babbit have no existence in HPL's realm. It is difficult to believe that Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a literary contemporary of Ernest Hemingway.

And yet a further comparison between Lovecraft and Poe remains; one of profound importance in any consideration of their work, because it softens any charge that two writers were totally unaware of the actual world and unrealistic in their treatment of their times.

I refer, of course, to their mutual interest in science. Both Poe and Lovecraft were acute observers of the scientific and pseudo-scientific developments of their respective days, and both men utilized thee latest theories and discoveries in their writing. It is only necessary to cite Poe's use of mesmerism, his employment of the balloon hoax, his detailing of data in the Arthur Gordon Pym novella, to prove the point.

Lovecraft, for his part, relies on scientific background material in his Pym-like At the Mountains of Madness, "The Shadow Out of Time" and other efforts; notable is his immediate adoption of the newly discovered "ninth planet" in "The Whisperer in Darkness."

Lovecraft's interest in astronomy undoubtedly led to his increasing interest in other fields of scientific endeavor, just as Poe's early experiences at West Point must have fostered his preoccupation with codes an ciphers. And both men, as professional writers, were well and widely-read in the contemporary work of their day: Poe as a working critic, demonstrates his knowledge in his nonfictional efforts and Lovecraft, in his correspondence, proves himself no stranger to Proust, Joyce, Spengler and Freud.

But the point is that Poe and Lovecraft deliberately chose to turn their backs on contemporary styles and subject-matter and created their own individual worlds of fantasy. In this above all else they were similar.

And in this, above all else, we readers of Poe and Lovecraft are fortunate indeed.

We shall never know, and never care, what Edgar Allan Poe though of Andy Jackson's "kitchen cabinet" or how H. P. Lovecraft regarded the Teapot Dome scandal. Small loss, when both have given us glimpses of worlds peculiarly and provocatively their very own.

For the final similarity is this--Poe and Lovecraft are our two American geniuses of fantasy, comparable each to the other, but incomparably superior to all the rest who follow in their wake.

This article was first published in Ambrosia #2 (August, 1973), © 1973 Alan Gullette and Robert Bloch. It was subsequently revised slightly by the author and reprinted in H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, ed. S. T. Joshi (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1980), pp. 158-160, © 1980 Ohio University Press.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Fatal Flaw, Part the Second

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In the previous post, we saw how one character trait, the fatal flaw, brings about the tragic protagonist’s downfall, using, as an example, the irresponsibility of the teenage characters in I Know What You Did Last Summer.
In this post, continuing to use irresponsibility as our example, we’re going to see how to exploit this trait in developing character.

To do so, you’ll need a thesaurus. Fortunately, almost every word processor has one, and, if you are without a computer, they’re readily available at your local bookstore or public library. Although they’re classified as reference works, many libraries allow previous editions to be checked out.

Using the thesaurus feature in the Microsoft Works word processing program obtained this list of synonyms for irresponsible (always use the adjectival, rather than the nominal, form of the word--the adjective, in other words, not the noun):


That’s not a bad list, but it’s only the beginning.

Next, for each of the synonyms that resulted from the initial use of the thesaurus, we use the thesaurus again, ignoring redundancies, until it seems that we‘ve exhausted all useful additions to our list of synonyms:







We’ve accumulated quite a list of traits (adjectives name traits, as we saw in our previous post). We could add still more by repeating this process for the synonyms that we just added to the roster, but, for our purposes, we have enough. Our total list, now, is (alphabetized):


Okay. So what. We have a list of adjectives, or character traits.

Such a list can provide a lot of fodder for characterization--to the discerning eye.

Notice that these synonyms suggest some traits that we often think of as neutral or even positive, despite the fact that they were all derived from the same root, as it were, irresponsibility: casual, happy-go-lucky, impulsive. It is only when such traits as these are extreme that they could cause problems (which, transformed into conflict, are just what the writer of fiction lives for). Indeed, the idea that a harmless trait, when it is extreme, can cause problems could itself be the theme of a story. This list allows us to flesh out the flat, static character, making him or her round (or at least more nearly round) and possibly even dynamic. It also lets us to mix a few positive, or at least neutral, traits in with one or more negative ones associated with the root characteristic, irresponsibility.

But, wait! There’s more! as the sales folks are wont to say in infomercials.

Our list also shows how a neutral or even a positive trait can edge into something negative and potentially dangerous, even deadly.

Often, we praise impetuosity as a positive trait. We seek someone who is impulsive, rather than sedate, spontaneous instead of predictable, spur-of-the-moment rather than cautious, because, we imagine, such an individual is apt to be more fun. (He or she may turn out to be only more exciting, and not in a pleasurable way.) For example, the impulsive person may be only a few steps away from being an irresponsible person; the spontaneous individual perhaps but a stone’s throw from being reckless; and the spur-of-the-moment man or woman could verge upon being negligent. There’s a story in such proximities, in such deterioration, and a believable one at that. We’re closer to the abyss of negative behavior than we might think, even when such conduct stems from neutral or positive character traits rather than those that are largely or universally regarded as negative. There’s a fine line between miserliness and thriftiness. Were Ebenezer Scrooge to have been merely frugal, rather than stingy, there would have been no ghosts of Christmas past. Similarly, in horror fiction, were characters simply spontaneous, rather than irresponsible, there’d be no I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, and the host of other horror stories, in print and on film, in which the protagonist is one or more of the following: adolescent, careless, casual, childish, foolish, forgetful, happy-go-lucky, hasty, idiotic, immature, imprudent, impudent, impulsive, inattentive, injudicious, irrational, irresponsible, juvenile, lackadaisical, lax, neglectful, negligent, rash, reckless, remiss, silly, slack, slapdash, sloppy, stupid, thoughtless, uncontrolled, undeveloped, unripe, unwise, wild, young.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Fatal Flaw, Part the First

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Four teens. Drinking and driving. A mountain road. Steep, winding curves. Night. A figure bolts across the road, illuminated for a horrifying moment in the headlights of the teens’ car. In an instant of irresponsible behavior, the lives of the four occupants of the automobile, Barry William Cox (Ryan Phillippe), Julie James (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Helen Shivers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and Ray Bronson (Freddie Prinze, Jr.), are changed forever, for they have killed a man.

Such is the beginning of the nightmare, I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Faced with the loss of a promising football career (Barry), law school (Julie), and a trip to New York City (Helen and Ray), the teens follow the counsel of the alpha male of their group, Barry The Sociopath, who recommends that they dispose of the evidence by dumping the corpse of the man they’ve killed into a nearby lake. Although the others, especially Julie, are reluctant to do so, preferring to report the accident to the police, they ultimately follow Barry’s lead, adding obstruction of justice (and leaving the scene of an accident) to the crime of manslaughter and (for Barry) driving while intoxicated. Because Julie shows more tenacity in her desire to do the right thing, she becomes the film’s stereotypical final girl, the female character who survives the carnage unleashed by the antagonist and who may (or may not) turn out to be the death of the monster. (In I Know What You Did Last Summer, whether she survives is unclear, as the last scene has the killer burst through her shower stall, and the movie ends without a resolution to this last-minute home invasion.)

In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman tells his son Biff, “Spite is the word of your undoing.” Willy is wrong about this, as he is wrong about so much of everything else, of course, but he is right about something, too. In fiction, the character often succeeds or fails because of one character trait, or flaw. Sometimes, this flaw is hubris, or overweening pride. Other times, it may be poor judgment or timidity. In fact, the fatal flaw can be any character trait that is grave enough to tempt fate, annoy the gods, or inspire vengeance on the part of a wronged third party. In I Know What You Did Last Summer, the fatal flaw is irresponsibility.

The teens drive drunk at night along a winding mountain road. That’s irresponsible! They opt to dispose of the victim’s body rather than to notify the authorities. That’s irresponsible! When Helen loses the tiara that she’s won in her county’s beauty contest, Barry dives into the lake to retrieve it so that it cannot be linked to the victim’s remains once they are discovered (as they will be, once the gases from the body’s decomposition cause it to float to the surface, where it will be beached or found by boaters, fishermen, or swimmers). When he does so, Barry sees the body’s eyes open, a clear indication that the man whom they’d presumed to be dead is still alive. Nevertheless, he leaves him to drown. That’s irresponsible! (It’s also a conscienceless act that makes Barry ripe for an especially brutal act of retribution.)

Without concern for whether the theory is true or not, writers base their characterization of the dramatic personae who people their stories upon the trait theory of personality, which, in one way or another, contends that human personality is made up of a collection of qualities that differs from one individual to another. These traits, in turn, more or less determine behavior. The idea is as ancient as the theory of the four humors, which suggests that people do what they do on the basis of whether one or another of four body fluids, or humors, happens to overwhelm the other three:
  • Black bile = pessimism, sleeplessness, irritability
  • Blood = courage, hope, passion
  • Phlegm = calmness, unemotional demeanor
  • Yellow bile =angry disposition
Personality traits, as the above list shows, can be represented by adjectives. Therefore, by making a list of adjectives that summarizes the nature of this, that, or the other character, a writer has a basic “personality” for his or her character. One of these traits (for example, arrogance, spite, poor judgment, timidity, irresponsibility) is the fatal flaw that brings the main character of the story (and possibly others as well) to ruin (or, if the narrative is a comedy, as some horror stories are, to victory).

Ancient and medieval philosophers and writers were masters at developing character sketches of stereotypical moral (and later, literary) stereotypes. An early practitioner of the process was Aristotle’s student Theophrastus, whose method was to use personification to describe the character trait. Here is his description, by way of personification, of the trait of stupidity:
You may define Stupidity as a slowness of mind in word or deed. But the Stupid Man is one who, sitting at his counters, and having made all his calculations and worked out his sum, asks one who sits by him how much it comes to. When any one has a suit against him, and he has come to the day when the cause must be decided, he forgets it and walks out into his field. Often also when he sits to see a play, the rest go out and he is left, fallen asleep in the theatre. The same man, having eaten too much, will go out in the night to relieve himself, and fall over the neighbor’s dog, who bites him. The same man, having hidden away what he has received, is always searching for it, and never finds it. And when it is announced to him that one of his intimate friends is dead, and he is asked to the funeral, then, with a face set to sadness and tears, he says, "Good luck to it!" When he receives money owing to him he calls in witnesses, and in midwinter he scolds his man for not having gathered cucumbers. To train his boys for wrestling he makes them race till they are tired. Cooking his own lentils in the field, he throws salt twice into the pot and makes them uneatable. When it rains he says, "How sweet I find this water of the stars." And when some one asks, "How many have passed the gates of death?" [proverbial phrase for a great number] answers, "As many, I hope, as will be enough for you and me" (Morley).
This method may be regarded as a bit laborious (and as unnecessary) today, but it shows the effectiveness of the use of the trait theory of personality to envision and develop fictional characters.

The next post will explain how to take this process a step further, exploiting it to its fullest extent, and the aspiring writer will see how he or she can make even flat, static characters seem as lifelike as one’s own Aunt Martha or the pesky neighbor next door, Gladys Kravitz.

Source cited
Morley, ed., Henry. Character Writings of the 17th Century. London: University College, 1891.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Perennial Favorites

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The ingredients of the horror plot are relatively few and relatively simple:

  • A series of bizarre incidents or situations (or both).
  • An explanation for the bizarre incidents or situations (or both).
  • A battle with the monster in which the monster is defeated (using the knowledge gained by the explanation of the bizarre incidents or situations [or both]).

Usually, such a simple formula results in boredom pretty quickly. Even great literature, such as Voltaire’s Candide and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, built, as they are, on repetitions of the same plot device (the discovery of evil and suffering in various situations and the misunderstandings of incidents and situations because of a special species of madness, respectively) soon become rather tiresome. Why doesn’t horror fiction?

The answer, of course, is that quite a bit, even of the best of it, does become tiresome, sooner or later. Some stories don’t seem to wear out their welcome as quickly as other stories do or, another way of putting the same thing, some writers don’t seem to wear out their welcome as soon as others do. A few--Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Shirley Jackson, Dean Koontz, Stephen King--are perennial favorites, some even long after their demise. (Those who regard Wells as strictly a science fiction writer haven’t read such novels as The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Food of the Gods or such short stories as “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” and “The Red Room”.)

So what makes a horror story (or its author) a perennial favorite? There are lots of ingredients, but these are some of the more noticeable and longstanding

Mystery, especially when it is coupled with menace, is one of the secret ingredients of the perennial favorite. A sense of foreboding, communicated by the story’s tone and mood--its atmosphere--gets under the skin and stays under the skin sooner and longer than most of the story’s other elements, including, when there is an overt one present, the monster. The vehicle for the creation of such atmosphere is description. The writer who can write powerful descriptions is likely to write powerful fiction, and, when the fiction that he or she writes is horror, it will be horrific. The description of Poe’s House of Usher alerts the reader that the decaying mansion is likely, in some sense, to be haunted, even, perhaps, conscious and aware of itself and others, intentionally evil. Stoker’s description of the countryside through which Dracula’s guest wanders on Walpurgis Night suggests that a tremendously powerful force is operating behind the scenes of natural incidents. H. P. Lovecraft’s varied descriptions of the type of monster that menaces the protagonist and the villagers of the small town in his story, “The Lurking Fear,” takes place keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat and the protagonist’s teeth on edge. The treatment of a horrendous game of chance as commonplace makes Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a haunting tale. H. G. Wells’ descriptions of the mysterious incidents upon the remote jungle island upon which Dr. Moreau performs experiments as immoral as they are cruel and vicious keeps readers turning the pages, especially when the protagonist, Edward Prendick, believes he may be the doctor’s next victim. Mary Shelley’s description of the pitiful, but also terrifying and repulsive, creation of Victor von Frankenstein hooks her readers and keeps them hooked.

The knowledge that the hyper-masculine monster is much stronger, faster, and inhuman than the human characters adds to the suspense. How can a band of men and women survive against madmen, monsters, and supernatural threats that, too often, are motivated by impulses foreign to the vast majority of people and are not only dangerous but also frequently lethal? “It is a terrible thing,” Jonathan Edwards warned his congregation, “for a sinner to fall into the hands of the living God.” It is also a “terrible thing,” it seems, for a horror story protagonist to “fall into the hands of a living” madman, monster, or supernatural force or entity. How can a mere man or woman be expected to fight that which is far stronger and faster, but much less human, than they are? A boy told a news anchor what it was like to be picked up and flung by a tornado. It was terrifying, he said, because it made him feel helpless. The wind simply lifted and threw him as if he were nothing more than a rag doll. The same sense of terror and vulnerability would apply were a monster to attack, whether its victim was female or male.

The betrayal by a familiar and trusted family member, friend, or neighbor, or even a dog or everyday object, such as a toy, makes a story or an author popular and memorable, as Stephen King proves with such novels as Cujo, Christine, From a Buick 8, ‘Salem’s Lot, Desperation, The Regulators, and others, and as William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Dean Koontz’s The Good Guy and The Taking, and Dan Simmon’s Season of Night, to name but a few, indicate.

Mystery, menace, atmosphere, a powerful monster, and betrayal by one who is familiar and trusted are all ingredients of those horror stories, whether short stories or novels, that become perennial favorites, but one that stands out even more, perhaps, is these narratives’ worlds. The best of these writers have the gift of creating not only intriguing and eerie incidents and situations, sympathetic characters, and zigzagging plots, but each also creates a specific, self-contained world unto itself, full of memorable persons, places, and things. Whether this world is Elm Haven, Castle Rock, Derry, Desperation, Wentworth, a university campus (as in Bentley Little’s University), Dunwich, Arkham, Innsmouth, Kingsport, Moonlight Bay, or some other God-forsaken place, the perennial favorites among horror fiction and authors create their own worlds, replete with all the accoutrements of town, suburbs, or city, even, at times, maps of the streets, complete with the designations of the place’s residents’ houses. These writers make their readers part of a bigger community, giving them a home, no matter how humble and (eventually) dangerous, and the reader, becoming, as it were, him- or herself a fellow resident, at the very least, and possibly a friend, as it were, to one or more of the inhabitants of the story’s town, have themselves a stake in the incidents that occur there and in the outcome of these incidents and situations. It is unfortunate that another person’s house or town or state or country is attacked; it is catastrophic when one's own house, town, state, or country is the one that's attacked--and by a monster, at that! Therefore, to mystery, atmosphere, a powerful monster, and betrayal by one who is familiar, we must add the worst of all possible threats--the one to hearth and home, to family and friend. Look for this sense of community in the stories and novels of horror that have most struck your own fancy and which continue to enthrall and entertain you. It’s one of the horror writer’s most dependable and effective narrative techniques. Hillary Clinton was right about something, after all (sort of); it takes a village to raise the hackles.

Finally, horror fiction offers what no other type of genre can: a unique perspective. The world of horror is not safe (it’s full of monsters and menace, after all), but it’s unsafe in a way unlike the worlds of any other genre. Horror fiction’s ultimate theme is that, in the great roulette wheel in the sky upon which our lives are played out, there is the red (blood) and the black (death), and any spin of the wheel will land us on one or the other. Life, in short, is brutal, full of suffering, and ends, sooner or later (usually sooner, in horror fiction) in death, which may or may not be the end of it. (There could be, as Hamlet supposes, a worse place than the grave.) Life is painful. Life is harsh. Life is grievous. And then we die. However, life has its moments, mostly while the ball is still in motion and hasn’t lit, yet, on the red or the black, and, while the ball is hurtling round and round, we survive; perhaps, we even thrive. We go places, we see things, we might, on occasion, between the halt of the wheel and the jolting hops and skips that end on blood or death, even enjoy ourselves. In addition, since the game of chance that is our lives is viewed, in fiction, from the outside, vicariously through our identification with the little silver ball called the protagonist, we ourselves (although the same may not be said, always, for the protagonist) survive the trauma and the destruction of the red and the black, learning that we can endure despite pain and suffering and death. Meanwhile, the wheel spins, and the silver ball goes round and round, and where she will stop, no one knows (except that it will be on either the red or the black).

Monday, July 7, 2008

Scientists: Ghosts and Vampires Need Not Apply

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Physicists have lowered the boom on ghosts and, while they were at it, vampires.

According to Professor Costas Efthimiou of the University of Central Florida, a theoretical physicist, ghosts can’t both walk and pass through solid objects, such as walls, any more than, presumably, they can talk and chew gum at the same time. To walk requires the exertion of force to propel oneself forward, because a stationary object will remain stationary unless an exterior force is exerted upon it.

When we (and, presumably, ghosts) walk, we exert force on the floor or ground, and this downward-directed force (an action) causes an opposite and equal reaction, the lifting of our foot, which propels us forward.

The exertion of such a force requires a material body (here, represented by the foot, which is attached to the ankle bone, which is attached to the shin bone, and so forth), and material bodies, alas, cannot pass through solid objects. However, if ghosts are spirits and, as such, have no material form, they cannot exert the force necessary to walk.

Dr. Richard Lord, a British acoustic scientist has also come up with a way to explain (or explain away) haunted houses. Low-frequency sound, which is usually inaudible to humans, can cause people to experience anxiety, grief, chills, and other bizarre sensations. He theorizes that such sound may be associated with allegedly haunted sites.

Mathematics proves vampires are impossible, because, if they were real, and they went around biting people to turn their victims into fellow vamps, even at the rate of one victim per month, in two and a half years, their whole supply of victims (the human race) would have been converted into pantry (or maybe freezer) items.

Fortunately, horror writers, fans, and critics have a powerful counter to these eggheads: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous law of counterphysics: the willing suspension of disbelief, so there!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Horror is (Undesirable) Otherness

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror is . . . .

What? Disfigurement. Dismemberment. Death.

Loss of innocence.

A journey truncated, or even bisected, by violence or madness (or both).

A girl (or boy) interrupted.

Blood. Guts. Gore.


The needle’s drip.

The headless doll.

All of this, and much more.

As Stephen King implies in It (and the ancient Greeks, long before), horror--or the monster, at any rate--is one’s worst fear, one’s most terrible nightmare, come true, come to life. . . as the bogeyman, who’s after you!

Horror’s many monsters, as we have observed, are metaphorical. This (evil thing) = that (existential threat). Like all fiction, in this sense, the horror genre is formulaic (for equations are formulaic). As Emily taught us, “The differences are where the meanings are.”

Life is what we make it, what we want it to be, more or less, whether we consciously and deliberately intend it to be or just follow the paths of least resistance. (We are what we do, and we do what we are.) It is a journey, life, the middle way between extremes. Conflict is mediation: in the collision of opposites, the bearing away of (and the baring away by) the violent, we are taken by force. The Tao of horror is the middle way between the extremes of being and nothingness and of everydayness and the divine (or, more often, since it’s horror we’re talking about, the demonic). We create ourselves by reconciling (or avoiding the reconciliation of) the polar opposites of our being or of our becoming.

We are surrounded by foils (and by fools, but that’s a different story). If we don’t want to become the monster, we must become its slayer; if we don’t want to turn into a demon, we must turn into an angel--or, more often, something between these two extremes. Of course, the other may be anyone or anything we are not, any opposite to ourselves or to the directions we are taking in our journeys through life. Sometimes, the other is anima or animus; sometimes, shadow; sometimes, wise old man; sometimes something new and unnamed, a monster born of our own individual (rather than a communal) existential and personal crisis. This is a rarity, indeed, however: most of our monsters are readymade, waiting for the scripts we are writing by virtue of our living out our lives to call for some off-the-rack monster from central casting that will fill the bill. In horror fiction, the fashionable monster is the rare exception to the rule.

In short, horror is undesirable otherness. It is that which we are not (at least, not yet) but are in danger of becoming.

Horror is envy. It is greed. It is gluttony. It is lust. It is pride. It is sloth. It is wrath.

Horror is ignorance. It is moral weakness, or timidity. It is indifference. It is threat to the local community. It is loss of life, of limb, of mind. It is despair. It is fear of the dark.

We would envy; we would be greedy; we would be gluttonous. We would be proud. We would be full of wrath. We would be ignorant. We would be timid. We would be indifferent. We would threaten family or town or nation or world. We would lose ourselves, part by part, or a mind at a time. We would despair. We would fear the dark.

Therefore, these are “others,” sirens calling to us from the deeps, bidding us to come to them.

Horror stories are cautionary tales.

In lucid dreams, believers in dream analysis and dream therapy believe, a dreamer can confront the stalking monster and demand to know its name. Names are powers. They can be used against the one who is known by them. Identified, a monster loses its mystique and becomes knowable, if not known; it has stepped out of the darkness, into the light. Who are you? we may ask our dreaming selves’ monsters (for all monsters are aspects of ourselves or our species), and the monster must reply.

In the truest nightmare, the monster’s name is Legion, for he or she is many.

The worst nightmare of humanity is humanity, and humanity is protean. We undergo metamorphoses, becoming, always becoming, that which we are not (or avoiding such becoming at all costs when the change isn‘t desirable).


In which phase are you?

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.

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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