Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Terror Television

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999, John Kenneth Muir describes the premises upon which many TV series that feature horror as a staple of their episodes’ plots rely. In doing so, he provides horror writers with a means of creating a basis by which to establish and broaden the structure of a continuing series of sequels or an anthology of related or, indeed, interrelated stories.

Let’s take a peek at some of the premises that Muir identifies:

Night Gallery: in an art gallery of bizarre portraits, every picture tells a story. For example, the show’s host, Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, introduces one portrait, from which proceeds a tale in which “a selfish young man yearns for the death of his rich old uncle so he can inherit the family’s incredible wealth,” as a result of which, “a painting in the old man’s estate becomes an instrument of the occult when it starts to reflect terrifying changes in the family graveyard.”

The Sixth Sense: an investigator with ESP experiences “visions and insights” as he investigates cases involving psychic experiences stored in a computerized catalogue. In one episode, a missing-in-action (MIA) soldier communicates by means of automatic writing--in Chinese, yet!--with his psychic sister, to let her know that he is still alive, but someone seeks, through arson and murder, to keep the MIA’s whereabouts secret.

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: the owner of a haunted house recounts guests’ stories. In the series’ pilot, or initial episode, the owners, having just purchased and moved into the house, hear strange noises; the house, as it turns out, was built upon the gallows upon which an “unrepentant thief” was “hanged,” and, as a consequence--the actual nature of the cause-and-effect link is, as is often the case in horror fiction, tenuous and vague--the house is, as the local librarian confirms--indeed haunted.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker: “Reporter Carl Kolchak” pursues “great news stories” involving “monsters and supernatural phenomena.” In one case, he suspects that the gruesome murders of a serial killer is, in fact, the handiwork of none other than the 130-year-old, original Jack the Ripper.

Twin Peaks: “In the tall, silent woods beyond the northwestern logging town Twin Peaks, an ancient evil dwells” in what the region’s native Americans called The Black Lodge, which may, in fact, be “another dimension,” the source of “pure evil.” The doorway to this dimension can be opened as a result of “planetary alignment” or potential victims’ fear. The Black Lodge’s counterpart, which is believed to be the home of gods, is The White Lodge. Strange characters inhabit Twin Peaks. According to Muir, the show’s writers developed the town, even creating a map of it, before creating its characters.

The X-Files: A psychologist and criminal profiler, FBI agent Fox Mulder believes in the paranormal and the supernatural, investigating the agency’s “backlog” of the X-Files (“inexplicable” cold cases), hoping to learn why his sister was abducted by aliens; his partner is the skeptical physician and fellow agent Dana Scully. Muir points out that the series is based upon ten horror themes: (1) “Trust No One” (government conspiracies and cover-ups), (2) “Freaks of Nature” (animals, mutants, and other monsters), (3) “Foreign Fears” (“ancient ethnic legends” prove to have “a basis in fact”), (4) From the Dawn of Time” (“ancient and prehistoric creatures” enter the present because of “climatic changes,” humans’ “encroachment on their territory,” or their discovery at “remote locations,” (5) “Aliens” (extraterrestrials are “encountered but never validated empirically”), (6) “God’s Masterplan” (elements of Christian belief are “explored as ‘real’ concepts”), (7) serial killers, (8) psychic phenomena, (9) “The Mytharc” (elements of various thematic subsets fuse into a narrative nucleus with a “coherent” story line, and (10) “The Standards” (stereotypical villains from the horror genre, such as vampires and werewolves).

Poltergeist: The Legacy: “Since the dawn of man, a secret organization, The Legacy, has existed to combat the forces of evil, and it’s ‘houses’ are all over the world,” each one of which is populated by heroes “with special skills” who are armed with high-tech weaponry. Poltergeist: The Legacy chronicles “the San Francisco house, a magnificent castle” on “Angel Island.”

Dark Skies: “American history as we know it is a lie to cover up” humans’ war, fought by Majestic-12, a covert agency established by President Truman, which is currently headed by Captain Frank Bach, against a horrific “alien collective consciousness known as The Hive.” The series examines Bach’s decisions and their consequences.

The Burning Zone: “an elite ‘bio-crisis’ team” is dedicated to eradicating ‘disease that threaten to strike quickly and endanger many innocent Americans” in a sequence of attacks known as The Plague Wars. This team also seeks to counter The New Dawn, “a villainous organization dedicated to the annihilation” or humanity and “the supremacy of the Earth’s original life form, a hive-mind,” representing a “sentient virus that has been ‘asleep’ for 15,000 years.” As the series progresses, two of the experts leave the team to “spearhead” important operations in Zimbabwe, “to be replaced by the ‘rebel’ doctor Brain Taft.”

Millennium: this “horror/crime series” featuring “paranormal and supernatural overtones” was based upon a blend of two movies, Seven and The Eyes of Laura Mars.

Man on the Run: a cross between The Fugitive and A Rebel Without a Cause, this series follows the exploits of a “motorcycle slacker who discovers he’s a failed government experiment with a built-in expiration date” in the form of a “computer chip in his brain” that will kill him in a year, when he turns 21, unless he can locate his creator, Dr. Heisenberg, and undergo special “medical treatment.” However, there’s a complication: he’s been framed for killing the man who shared “the truth” with him and, now, he’s pursued by a government agent who is bent upon bringing him to “justice.”

Now that we’ve had a peek at some of the premises that Muir details in his fascinating tour of Terror Television, let’s see whether we can discern a few principles that horror writers can derive from such an admittedly rather abbreviated review.

  1. The premise should establish an opportunity for the occurrence of bizarre and mysterious incidents (for example, extraordinary natural events or paranormal or supernatural proceedings) and the arrival and departure of extraordinary beings or forces.
  2. The premise should allow a recurrence of a cadre of characters and the ongoing development of one or more themes.
  3. The premise should unify fairly disparate elements of plot, setting, and theme.
  4. The premise should allow the exploration of diverse types and sources of narrative conflict and character development.
  5. The premise should link past and present (and, possibly, future) action.
  6. The premise should allow something that is lacking (for example, justice) to be supplied.
  7. The premise should suggest, if not explicitly identify, one or more causes for the mysterious and bizarre occurrences that take place within and between the stories or episodes.
  8. The premise may involve cover-ups by government agencies, overt or covert, or by private, but powerful and well-financed, organizations.
  9. The premise should allow for both natural and occult explanations for and causes of the mysterious and bizarre incidents, forces, and beings.
  10. The premise may address topical events or social, political, or moral issues and concerns.
  11. The premise may be inspired by a film’s concepts or by combined themes from several motion pictures.
  12. The premise should allow for new directions of plot. (For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes a new direction when Buffy Summers graduates from high school and enrolls in college, and The Burning Zone takes a new direction when two of its experts leave the group to head specialized operations related to the main line of investigation.)


Terror Television: American Series, 1970-1999 by John Kenneth Muir, McFarland and Company, Inc., Jefferson, NC, 2001.

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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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