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Friday, August 1, 2008

Bases for Fear, Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

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

Jails and prisons. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re full of psychopaths in with whom one is locked! There may also be brutal, sadistic guards and an apathetic warden. There are beatings, rapes, and murders, and one can never trust anyone. Parole board meetings are likely to end in a denial of parole and a continuation, for at least four more years, of one’s sentence. For those who are scheduled to be executed, the electric chair, the gas chamber, the lethal drugs, or the firing squad looms, with seemingly interminable appeals stretching between the present (life, after a fashion) and the future (death by execution). Neither family members nor true friends are present. The closest thing to hell on earth, jails and prisons both isolate and imprison, trapping men and women in hostile, potentially lethal environments from which, as a rule, there is no escape, for which reasons they are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.

Lamia. Why does it frighten? The answer is simple. A lamia, or snake-woman, is a fusion of two creatures that are never otherwise a synthesis--a reptile and a human being of the feminine persuasion. Such hybrids are, in themselves, horrible. However, they are horrible for more than the reason that they represent a being that defies natural law and the way things are supposed to be. In such hybridizations, the animal component benefits from its fusion with the human, gaining much greater intelligence (unless the woman with whom the snake is fused is Brittany Spears or Paris Hilton, perhaps), but the human component of this ungodly union is not as fortunate. His or (in the case of lamias, gorgons, mermaid, naiads, and similar creatures) her nature is compromised and reduced because it takes on bestial features and qualities. The hybrid is less, not more, human. She slithers, not walks, and hisses, not talks, and her desires and needs and goals are more those of the serpent than the woman. This crossing of species is a crossing, too, of lines of propriety, a defiance both of nature and its God, who has cast the canons of existence into categories which are not to be regarded as mere conveniences but as expressions of divine will and natural law. As a defiance of nature’s status quo and the will of God, the lamia is, in horror fiction, if not in life, a basis for fear.

Mazes. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. Mazes are difficult to navigate, because all but one of their many meandering corridors come to abrupt halts, or dead ends, against walls of brick, stone, or some other all-but-impenetrable substance, leaving the confused and distraught victim, once again, frustrated in his or her eager attempt at escape. The addition of a threat--a wild animal, a madman, or a monster--to the labyrinth, of course, ups the stakes considerably, making the maze, as a potential deathtrap, all the more horrifying. As symbols of the confusion and dangers of irrationality, mazes are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.

Night. Why does it frighten? The answer is simple. Night is darkness, and darkness is blindness. It robs one of his or her most-used sight, vision. Night transforms a safe and secure--or, at least, a seemingly safe and secure--environment into one in which nothing is certain and no one is safe. And night lasts a long time--hours, or, if one is at the Arctic Circle, even days--which is plenty of time during which the monstrous forces of darkness can execute their plans for the death and destruction of their diurnal foes, which is to say, you (but never me). At night, what one does not see is what one gets! The long-term blinding effect of night is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis for fear.

The ocean. Why does it frighten? The answer is simple. The ocean is vast. It is also deep. It is filled with strange, often deadly, life forms alien to landlubbers and odd even to seafaring folk: giant squid, octopi, man-eating sharks. If the “finny denizens of the deep” don’t get the shipwrecked fool, the elements or hunger or thirst will. Meanwhile, one’s skin will burn and one’s mind will play delusional tricks that could result in the death of oneself or another who shares the lifeboat or a bit of flotsam floating upon the face of the deep. Land is hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away, and the only hope of rescue is the chance passing of a ship, should its crew see one among waves of twenty feet and more. To be lost at sea is to be lost, indeed. The ocean, therefore, is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis for fear.

Pain. Why does it frightening? The answer is simple. It hurts! It also possesses. Rather like the demons of old were thought to be capable of possessing a person’s soul, pain can possess a person’s body and mind, filling a nerve--or a million nerves--with impulses that the brain will interpret as excruciating agony. Pain is a seizure. Although painkillers can kill pain, for a time, at least, and, sometimes banish it for good, new pains can seize one’s frame at any moment. Pain grabs hold, and, without--and often in spite of--painkillers, it does not release one until it is ready to subside. Pain can last seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, or a lifetime. It’s a symptom, too--but a symptom of what? That’s the truly terrifying question, for although pain can portend nothing more serious than a paper cut, it may also foretell a long, drawn-out, and agonizing demise. Because pain is both painful in itself and because it may also be a sign of even worse things to come, it is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis 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:

  • Jails and prisons isolate and imprison, trapping men and women in hostile, potentially lethal environments from which, as a rule, there is no escape, for which reasons they are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.
  • As a defiance of nature’s status quo and the will of God, the lamia is, in horror fiction, if not in life, a basis for fear.
  • As symbols of the confusion and dangers of irrationality, mazes are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.
  • The long-term blinding effect of night is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis for fear.
  • To be lost at sea is to be lost, indeed; the ocean, therefore, is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis for fear.
  • Because pain is both painful in itself and may be a sign of even worse things to come, it is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis for fear.

Source of photographs: U.S. Government Photos and Graphics

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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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