Fascinating lists!

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.

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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.

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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