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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!

Sources

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.

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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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