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Friday, September 5, 2008

Femme Fatales

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman started it all. Or maybe it was Lilith or the lamia. Or the bride of Frankenstein.

Actually, it’s probably impossible to say just which female character became the world’s first female monster, but the ladies have proven that she can be the deadlier of the species when she’s of a mind to be. In fact, in Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia argues that civilization is a result of men’s attempt to resist the overwhelming influence and control of humanity’s chthonian nature, as represented by woman as Mother Nature (which is roughly the same, one might add, as that which Biblical writers are pleased to refer to as the “flesh,” which is eternally opposed to the spirit and often calls one to take a nasty fall. It should be understood that the “flesh” does not mean simply the sexual aspects of men and women but, rather, all that is implied by their immanent and temporal nature or their mortality.)

As we have argued in a previous post, horror fiction is all about significant loss and our attempts to survive it. There are many, many such types of such loss, some personal, some psychological, some social, and some theological. The greatest loss of all, perhaps, is that of life itself. Can death be survived? Most religions insist that it can, and some horror stories suggest the same. Of course, one’s position on such a matter, whether pro or con, is one of faith, for the world, if any, that lies beyond this earthly, mortal realm is an “undiscovered country from whose borne no one has returned.”

One type of loss of which horror fiction treats is the loss of order. Order can be the result of a formal political process in which laws are codified and enforced by a police or military force or, less often, of an informal social process in which unwritten laws are transmitted from one generation to the next and enforced by the stigma of the tribe. In other words, order among men and women is a product, so to speak, of law or of tradition. In many horror stories, such social control, such regulation of behavior, such organization of society, including the roles that men and women play within their larger groups, is either set aside or, more frequently, cast down, as Moses, in a fit of rage, cast down the stone tables upon which God had carved the Ten Commandments. Sometimes, horror fiction inverts order; it turns insides out and upsides down.

In the animal world, the males are the pretty ones. This state of affairs is inverted among humans, where men are not only stronger than women but are also smart enough to know it and to use their superior physical strength to their advantage, one effect of which is to make women compete among themselves for their attention. It may be argued that, ultimately, women gain control of the situation, in marriages at least, although most societies are now patriarchic and are likely to remain so, at least for the foreseeable future. Therefore, to assert themselves, women have had to adopt stratagems that allow men the pretense, at least, of being in charge and in control. Allowing men the ego salve of being the dominant “partners” in the marital relationship, women rule, largely because they are pretty (or, more crassly, but accurately, sexy), and they take great pains and spend small fortunes to stay that way.

Men, it may be suggested, symbolize strength, whereas women represent beauty. What if women’s figurative significance were inverted, though, some horror stories have asked, and they were understood, even if for but a moment, as suggesting strength rather, or more, than beauty? The answer, in a word, writers of such literature imply, is a monster.

Equipped with the strength to subject men to their will and to dominate them individually and collectively, woman would become not seductive Eve but demonic Lilith. She’d become Pandora, the lamia, the gorgon, a fury, a she-mantis, a reptilian thing covered in scales, a female Frankenstein’s monster, a fifty-foot woman on an estrogen-fueled rampage, a blood-sucking fiend, la belle sans merci. She would become a femme fatale.

Some movies and books depict women as monsters, females as femme fatales. Such movies and books suggest their creators’ reasons (or lack thereof) for fearing the women whom they depict as monsters. Most such creators are men. Whether their fears are representative of their whole sex is debatable, but their qualms and uncertainties, at least, reflect how some members of the male sex have viewed the opposite sex. (The classics of Western literature that feature female monsters, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Bible, The Metamorphoses and other sources of Greek and Roman mythology, European fairy tales, Beowulf, Christabel, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and others, are worthy of even more consideration, but they are not the topics of this post; here, we are concerned more with movies.)

What, then, do movies that feature female creatures suggest about women (or the moviemakers’ ideas about women)? Let’s consider a few of the more notable films to have threatened audiences with the dangerous doings of femme fatales:

  • The Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman
  • Species
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Teeth
In Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1958), Nancy Archer is mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore after her two-timing husband, Harry, having inherited $50 million, abandons her for another woman, Honey Parker. After a close encounter with visiting extraterrestrials, she is radiated, which makes her huge, and she kills Honey before reclaiming her wayward hubby. As she carries him through the streets, as if he were nothing more than a live doll, the police shoot an electrical transformer as she passes it, and she and Harry are both electrocuted. This movie’s horror derives from the fear that a wronged woman may exact vengeance and suggests that infidelity is a much larger problem (literally) than it may appear to the man who perpetrates it, since it is more than a merely physical or sexual betrayal, which can have an emotionally and, indeed, existentially devastating and destructive effect on both marriage partners, the victim as well as the victimizer.

In the original movie’s remake (1993), the femme fatale has come a long way, baby, and her growth represents her emancipation from chauvinistic and patriarchal dominance, and the aliens who increase her size also imprison her husband until he can be convinced of the errors of his sexist ways.

Read from a male’s point of view, Species (1995) seems to depict women, in the guise of sexual predator (a role more often associated with men than with women). As such, women dehumanize men, seeing them (as men too often view women) as merely sex objects upon whom their own sexual needs may be satisfied. The product of an alien human hybridization experiment, Sil is both extraterrestrial and human. She’s also bent upon motherhood, and there are no candy or flowers in her courtship designs. There is just her beguiling appearance, with which she lures her prey, and her superior physical strength, which she uses to force herself upon them. Procreation is her purpose, and rape is her means to this end. Men are nothing to her but walking, talking sperm banks, and she can do without the walking and the talking very well, thank you. She rejects by killing those whom she finds unworthy of, or threatening, to her, and, after she finally mates successfully, she and her offspring are killed by the team of government scientists and military personnel who have been tracking her. The patriarchy, although threatened by their Galatea, resume the upper hand.

In her role as sexual predator, Sil is somewhat like Faith, a character in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). A sort of female Nietzschean superman, Faith has physical strength that far exceeds that of any man, and she uses it to satisfy her desires, sexual and otherwise, without regard to their effects, emotional or otherwise, on her victims. A love-him-and-leave-him sort of girl, she summarizes her philosophy succinctly, saying, “Get some, and get gone.” In “getting some,” she nearly kills Xander Harris, an ordinary teenage boy, after fornicating with him, but she is stopped by the timely arrival of Angel, a male vampire with a soul. That her views are horrible to the patriarchic society in which she lives is indicated by the more traditional, if rather liberated, lifestyle of her counterpart, the titular Buffy Summers, who is also possessed of superhuman strength but prefers to nail her lovers according to the much more traditional, socially acceptable rules that lesser women have been taught to use in the mating game. Buffy’s manner of dating and courtship highlight the aberrance of Faith’s sexual behavior and Faith’s nature as both a rogue vampire slayer and a femme fatale.

Teeth (2007) confronts viewers with an age-old fear among men--that of the castrating woman. In this film, the vagina of Dawn, the teenage cannibalistic protagonist, is equipped with teeth that respond to her anger or rage, biting off the genitals of a would-be rapist; those of a boy who had seemed to care about her but bedded her only so that he could brag about having done so to his adolescent friends, having bet with them that he could seduce Dawn; and those of her stepbrother, who’d hoped to have sex with her before their father ruined his hopes by marrying Dawn‘s mother. After these snacks, Dawn leaves town, finding self-confidence in her power to defend herself, and smiles at the elderly man who has stopped to give her a ride when, locking her inside his car, he insists that she have sex with him.

In the context of this film, the femme fatale is not a predator, but, rather, a young woman who is uniquely able to protect herself. She evens the playing field, so to speak, by being more than merely able to fend off unwanted advances or even intended sexual assaults. The organ which, in feminist thought, allows men to dominate women, becomes, in Teeth, the instrument, so to speak, of both liberation and vengeance. Talk about poetic justice! Women, who have been sexually assaulted by men, now have a means of defending themselves and of exacting a suitably ironic revenge upon would-be rapists or boyfriends who won’t take no for an answer. No doubt, some feminists believe that the makers of this movie corrected an error in nature’s or God’s work, equipping women with the very weapon they needed--a sort of dental chastity belt with (real) teeth--to be employed or not at the owner’s discretion.

The femme fatales we have considered in this post are not so much scary in themselves as they are scary to the men who watch them, for they represent what women would be like were they to act as men behave, as sexual predators who seek men only as a means to satisfy their own lusts. By turning the tables, as it were, on men, these movies’ femme fatales show men what it is like to be considered sex objects who are accounted as nothing more than things to be brutalized at will and discarded thereafter as having had their only value depleted.

To deny one his or her humanity is a horrible and monstrous thing, these films suggest, and the one who does so is a monster. Monsters may rampage for a time (every monster has its day), but, sooner or later, it will be exposed, understood, and, usually, terminated. Are these studies in feminine angst and rage reflections of men’s guilty consciences? Are they symbolic projections of rape fantasies? Are they nothing more than reinforcements--or, possibly, reassurances--of men’s superior status in nature and in society (as understood by the men who write and produce such films, of course)? All of the above? None of the above?

By turning the tables on men as sexual predators, movies like The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman show that sexual betrayal not only hurts the victim but also can have repercussions for the victimizer, since infidelity is destructive to both parties and to the marital relationship itself; Species and Buffy the Vampire Slayer show what it’s like, from the female’s perspective, to be the prey of such attackers; and Teeth, portraying women as able protectors of their own virtue, suggests that women are not irreducible to their body parts and that any man who attempts to dehumanize women by regarding them as mere sex objects may learn that he, as much as she, can be reduced to mere objectivity--in his case, by being deprived of the very type of organs that he insists are the only parts of women that are desirable by, and valuable to, men. After all, if he has no genitals of his own, hers are likely to become a lot less important to him. Femme fatales convey the message that women are not merely sex objects whose purpose it is to serve--or service--men and that they deserve dignity and respect. If they are ill treated, these movies suggest further, vengeance, of a poetically just sort, is sure to follow. After all, “hell hath no vengeance like a woman scorned,” and the disrespect of a person’s humanity is, perhaps, the very zenith (or nadir) of disdain.

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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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