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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.

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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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