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Friday, August 1, 2008

Bases for Fear, Part III

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


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




Rats. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re rodents. Oops. That’s circular reasoning. Okay. Try this. Rats are furtive. They hide, and they slink. They have beady eyes, and they’ll eat almost anything, from garbage to a newborn baby. They carry disease. They infected Europe with the bubonic plague that decimated a quarter of the continent’s population--or the fleas on them did. That’s right; rats have fleas, which is another reason they’re feared and detested. They eat crops. They have a reputation for cowardice and opportunism, which may or may not be deserved--attributing human characteristics to animals, even rats, is risky business except for figurative purposes. For all these reasons, and because they have sharp claws and teeth, and are fast on their feet, rats are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases of fear.




Snakes. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. Snakes are in a class by themselves when it comes to objects of fear. They seem utterly alien, having neither limbs nor wings nor horns nor tusks nor even ears or snouts, and their eyes are, to borrow an apt phrase from William Butler Yeats, “as blank and pitiless as the sun.” Their gaze looks evil. It is penetrating, and it lacks not only humanity but any sort of emotion. A cat or a dog can express sentiments, but not a snake. Its vocabulary is limited to hissing, just as its locomotion is restricted to slithering. It lives in the ground, hidden, and conceals itself in swamps or grasslands, where, unseen, it may strike, embedding its fangs in the foot or leg of an unsuspecting traveler. Many are poisonous, and most have painful bites. Serpents have presence. Their very existence, and even their graceful, sinuous movements, seems to embody evil. The absolutely alien, glaring-eyed snake is, in horror fiction, as in life, bases of fear.




Tarantulas. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re spiders. Oops. Another tautology. Spiders are hideous in appearance. What’s with all those legs, and why would an innocent creature need to have compound eyes or spin webs to catch unwary insects, wrapping them in silk cocoons for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks? They spin, and they wait, wary, silent predators, to take the unwary by surprise, ambushing them or trapping them for food. Tarantulas are BIG spiders, as big as a man’s fist. The damned things are furry, too--and poisonous! Their gigantic statures multiplies the spider traits that people fear, making tarantulas, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.


Underground places. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re underground. And they’re dark. Most likely, they’re also clammy. They may be inhabited by creepy creeping things: spiders and lizards and snakes. A tunnel may swarm with bats or rats. A cavern may be haunted by a ghost or a monster or a whole subhuman species of nasty cannibals, headhunters, or mutant thingamajigs. Caverns can be mazes, too. Finding one’s way out may be much more difficult than finding one’s way in--in fact, it might be downright impossible (which could account for the occasional human skull or skeleton one passes along the way through these dark, subterranean labyrinths). Catacombs are creepy and ghastly, because they’re full of skeletal remains, some clothed, others dressed in rags, and still others--the majority, perhaps--naked bones. There are men, women, and, alas, children. Some sleep upon low, narrow berths, others sit slumped in corners or along tunnel walls, and still others are used as decorations, their skulls adorning the arch of a doorway. Think of yourself in an ancient Egyptian pyramid, with all those massive tons of tomb overhead. If that doesn’t make you claustrophobic, you’re ready to join the pharaoh in his or her sarcophagus. Underground places are reminders, too, of graves and tombs, and are, therefore, mementos mori. Because underground places are close, dark, isolated, and damp, and they remind us of our eventual final resting places, they are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.


Vultures. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They eat the dead. As children, when we chanced to spot vultures, we’d lie still on the ground, with our eyes open. The ungainly birds would start circling, descending with each revolution of their narrowing and narrowing gyre. When they’d descended to a height of about 20 feet, their salivary glands no doubt activated by what the birds hoped would be a feast, we’d leap to our feet and frighten these carrion feeders away. What a turn we must have given them! They’d thought we were dead, which is to say, from their perspective, food. Instead, they could have become our food (not that we ever wanted a snack bad enough to eat these particular eaters of the dead). Vultures have a reputation of being unclean (probably because of their fondness for road kill). They’re clumsy, and, let’s face it, these fowl are ugly. Because of their appearance and their eating habits, vultures are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.


Witches. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They’re in league with the devil himself, who empowers them to do his bidding. They are also his paramours. Medieval literature and Inquisition trials transcripts report witches--or women, at least, who were accused of being witches--as having testified that demon semen is ice cold and chilling to the very marrow of the bone. Demon seed causes bizarre offspring, too, legends claim. Some of the children of demons are feral; others are true imps. Rosemary’s baby had hooves and a tail and horns, and the union of a mortal woman with the devil is supposed to result, by some accounts, in the birth of the antichrist, who may or may not already be in our midst, waiting to usher in Armageddon. Because witches are the sexual and spiritual paramours of demons, they are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.

Zombies. Why do they frighten? The answer is simple. They are dead men walking, the living dead, the recipients of a curse much like that which was laid upon the Wandering Jew of legend or the ancient mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s celebrated poem. Fleshly automatons, they are just going through the paces of living, much like many of the living during the weekdays from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (or whenever these working stiffs work their shifts). They are people without souls. They are the spiritually dead. True, according to legend and cinema, they’re not too bright, especially for creatures whose only sustenance is human brains, and they’re more than a little slow, both mentally and physically, and a whole lot clumsy. Still, there are apt to be hundreds of them, as cemeteries are repositories of many corpses. Worse yet, some among their hordes might have been a friend or a family member before they turned zombie creep. Zombies symbolize spiritual death, and they suggest that such a soulless state is possible for anyone--stranger, friend, family member, or, God forbid, even oneself; for these reasons, zombies, in horror fiction, are, as in life, bases of fear.

'Ere we part, let’s summarize our findings with regard to the nine bases of fear that were listed in this post:

  • For many reasons, but especially because they have sharp claws and teeth and are fast on their feet, rats are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases of fear.
  • The absolutely alien, glaring-eyed snake is, in horror fiction, as in life, a basis of fear.
  • Gigantic stature multiplies the spider traits that people fear, making tarantulas, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.
  • Because underground places are close, dark, isolated, damp, and remind us of our eventual final resting places, they are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.
  • Because of their appearance and the eating habits, vultures are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.
  • Because witches are the sexual and spiritual paramours of demons, they are, in horror fiction, as in life, bases for fear.
  • Zombies symbolize spiritual death, and they suggest that such a soulless state is possible for anyone--stranger, friend, family member, or, God forbid, even oneself; for these reasons, zombies, in horror fiction, are, as in life, bases of 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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