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Monday, September 29, 2008

Hell on Earth

Copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In previous posts, we argued that horror fiction is about the survival of loss and that the monsters it features are often metaphors for various real (i. e., existential) threats. We also suggested that, for many contemporary horror writers, the evils which threaten us today are apathy and indifference, whether personal, social, or cosmic in nature. Evil, these writers seem to agree, flourishes when good men do nothing. Stephen King seems to be the odd man out in suggesting that modern evil should be considered more a threat against one’s community, on whatever scale, than apathy or indifference per se.


Writers--especially horror writers--are always Dante, creating hells, with or without various levels of iniquity and torment. The modern hell results from the evils of apathy and indifference, from the loss, in other words, of altruism and self-sacrifice. We are the waylaid traveler in a world in which there are few, if any, good Samaritans.


In past times, the threats of loss with which society was faced--the monsters of the moment, as it were--were different. After World War II, Japan, with good reason, feared the atomic bomb, and Godzilla arose, a towering monster born of underwater nuclear waste, to terrorize Tokyo as Fat Man and Little Boy had terrorized Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The monster represented the annihilation of the Japanese people, a sort of genocidal doom imposed by strangers from afar.


King Kong, if we are to believe Carl Denham, seems to represent the bestial component not of humanity as such, but of the male of the species, whom only female Beauty can tame. What is the giant ape but the uncivilized and the undomesticated, and, therefore, the hyper-masculine, male? He is masculinity unrestrained, a rampage of testosterone that has not, as yet, met its match in the humanizing effects of estrogen. Too large, to be sure, to be a rapist, Kong is nevertheless an abductor who, quite literally, carries Ann Darrow back to nature, a primitive world in which there is no law other than that of the survival of the fittest. It is only when, tempted, as it were, by Ann, that Kong is captured (emasculated) and taken to the concrete jungle that he is subdued, however temporarily, and, at last, killed. As Denham laments, “’Tis Beauty killed the Beast.” The lesson of this masterful cautionary tale is as simple as it is profound: The undomesticated male is a threat not only to the female but to society--indeed, to civilization--itself, and, if it cannot be tamed, it must be destroyed by the tribe.


Beowulf’s monster, Grendel, was an outcast. A descendent of Cain, who was sent into exile by God himself, Grendel envied the fellowship displayed by the Danish warriors who met over mead in their great hall, Heorot, for which reason he attacked and killed as many of their number as he could, until, at last, he himself was dispatched by the Geatish hero. Critics see him as representing the feuding principle which, like that among today’s street gangs, requires that an outrage, real or perceived, by one tribe against another, be avenged. The act of vengeance itself, of course, requires, in turn, another act of vengeance, ad infinitum, thereby threatening the social order that is the foundation of civilization. By defeating this principle, Beowulf introduced social stability and ended the threat to the status quo that continuous intertribal warfare, in the guise of the monster, represented.

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian hero overcomes the monster of his own--and of the rest of humanity’s--mortality. He does not defeat death itself, but the fear of it that immobilized his will and made life seem hardly worth the living. In other words, he learns to live with death, establishing the pagan alternative to Christian immortality: the name of the man of accomplishment, if not the man himself, will be remembered forever. To be forgotten is to be annihilated. However, the man of great accomplishment is apt to be memorialized both in stone monuments and in such poems as The Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf, so his memory is assured, and he need not fear being forgotten; in this sense, he will live forever.

Epic narratives, by definition, deal with civilizations, nations, or societies. Other types of fiction may, also, but they need not do so. Often, other genres do not. Sometimes, the focus is finer. The group is more select, and the context is more contracted. For example, according to its creator, Joss Whedon, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is based upon the simple premise that high school is hell. It is a place that one is compelled to attend. The day progresses according to a predetermined structure that is imposed upon one by others. The setting is a more-or-less self-contained, self-sufficient environment--in sociological terms, a total institution. One is forced to participate in activities, such as physical education and geometry and English class assignments, that are abhorrent and painful, emotionally if not always physically. One is made to keep company with others whose presence one finds undesirable or even repulsive. Certain behaviors that one enjoys, whether chewing gum or making out with a member of the opposite sex, are discouraged or even forbidden, and the manner in which one would dress may be restricted or dictated by adults with no fashion sense. Pretty much everything one does is controlled by one’s keepers--the teachers and administrators--and even a visit to the rest room must be approved by someone else. High school students suffer not only a loss of freedom, but they also experience losses of autonomy, dignity, and individuality. Moreover, attempts are made to “socialize” them and to make them think in certain ways about certain things--in a sense, to brainwash them. Maybe, in many ways, high school is hell, as Whedon and others (Carrie’s director, Brian De Palma, for example) have suggested.

Buffy offers a convenient way of examining hell on earth, because it confines itself pretty much (for the first three of its seasons, anyway) to the microcosm of high school (and thereafter to the microcosm of college); because it ran for seven seasons before its demise; and because it frequently features a monster of the week, which supplies quite a bestiary of monsters, beastly, demonic, and otherwise, which suggests how horror writers are always Dante, creating hells, with or without various levels of iniquity and torment.


In “The Witch,” the third episode of season one, a high school cheerleader’s mother, who is also a witch, uses her magic to eliminate her daughter’s rivals so that she, the mother, can relive her glory days as a head cheerleader through her daughter, once the latter gains a spot on the squad. Although this plot may seem ludicrous, it has a real-life precedent in which a woman murdered the rivals of her daughter to ensure her win. The hell of high school, it seems, is home to abusive parents who, seeking to live vicariously through their children, represent real dangers to their offspring’s health and welfare.


“The Pack,” the sixth episode of the same season, examines the threats of peer pressure and mindless conformity to individuals’ personal integrity. Buffy Summers’ friend, Xander Harris, bitten by a hyena, becomes more and more feral and predatory, both socially and sexually, turning against his best friend Willow Rosenberg and his romantic interest, the Slayer herself. High school’s hell includes the demons of groupthink and the lockstep behavior that attends it.

The eighth episode of this season, “I Robot, You Jane,” takes on the dangers of the anonymous predators of Internet chat rooms: Willow meets a seemingly sweet suitor who is actually a demon that was released from the book in which its spirit was magically bound when the school’s librarian, Rupert Giles, orders the text to be scanned into the library’s electronic database and the demon escapes into cyberspace.

“Out of Sight, Out of Mind” shows the psychologically destructive effects of cliques who ignore all others but their own members: a girl who is ignored by students and teachers alike gradually becomes invisible and seeks to avenge herself upon her passive-aggressive tormentors before, defeated by Buffy, she finds a home, of sorts, with a covert government organization (most likely the Central Intelligence Agency) that performs espionage activities.
Other episodes in this and other seasons of the show provide plenty of other examples of the types of loss that high school students face and the types of monsters that threaten them with these losses. Many have to do with matters of identity, multiculturalism and cultural assimilation, sexism and chauvinism, attempts to avoid personal responsibility and duty, the effects of past deeds upon one’s present life, the consequences of refusing or being unable to repress instincts and primitive impulses, the emotional manipulation of others, unrestrained passion, child abuse, unresolved guilt, misogyny, adolescent behavior, social ostracism, service to others, and autonomy. In other words, high school hell, as it is depicted in this series for teens and young adults, is layered with personal, social, and political strata, much like the world of adults. The difference is that many of the concerns are adolescent. Adults, for the most part, have survived the losses associated with adolescence and have moved on to face other dragons. The new monsters are not necessarily bigger and more terrible (although some may be), but they’re different, for different ages, whether with respect to the individual or his or her society, nation, or culture, differ over time. In every age, however, the rejected and the exiled, the repressed and the banished, become the condemned, or the damned, and new hells are created, with or without various levels of iniquity and torment. The demons are the threats of loss; the effects that follow such losses make up the atmosphere of hell. In the hell that is high school, the blessed are the ones who, surviving these losses, ascend to new levels of knowledge and wisdom.

Of course, that’s just the hell of high school. Once writers realized that there is not one world, but worlds within worlds, the numbers and kinds of hell, like the number and types of demons, multiplied significantly. There is the hell of school, of the workplace, of the home, of the place of worship, of places of leisure, and some hells are not places at all, but states of existence, such as illness, or situations, such as a loveless marriage, or events, such as the death of a loved one. Truly, as Edgar Allan Poe observed, “misery is manifold.” Hell is on earth because, as Jean Paul Sartre points out, in No Exit, hell is other people. It is also ourselves. As John Milton observes, Satan carries hell within himself, for it is a state of mind in which he has alienated himself from God. The same is true of us as well.

One might say of this post what some critics said of Milton’s poem. Much has been said of hell, but little of heaven. That’s because, too often, we count our curses, so to speak, rather than our blessings, seeing the bad and ignoring the good. By identifying the hellish, we have, by implication, also identified its opposite, the heavenly, which is why, as we have argued in a previous post, horror fiction is a guide to the good life as well as a body of cautionary tales. Whatever we fear to lose, we value, and heaven is the realm wherein we have stored up the things we deem to be valuable beyond all else, very little of which, as it turns out, is comprised of physical or material objects.

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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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