copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? -- Edgar Allan PoeWhen it comes to fashion and beauty, women don’t explain themselves. Perhaps, their practices in these areas are sometimes inexplicable--to men, at least, for whom there seems no reason to pierce one’s earlobes merely to make of them fixtures from which to dangle or otherwise display bright baubles, any more than there appears to be a reason for them to mask themselves in cosmetics or to wear the sex organs of plants, otherwise known as flowers, in their hair.
There is no reason per se. An effect, however, is accomplished by such bizarre affectations. This effect might be called “borrowed beauty”: by associating oneself with loveliness, whether by the beautification derived from the use of cosmetics, the ornamentation that results from the employment of jewelry, or the decoration that ensues from the wearing of fashion, women borrow from these accoutrements the beauty inherent in eye shadows, eyeliners, mascara, powders, lipsticks, and blush; in diamonds and rubies and pearls; and in clothing cut of floral prints, polka dots, stripes, and fabrics ranging from cotton to satin and silk. As anyone knows who’s visited a site such as Petite Fashion or Paula D Jewelry, there are virtually endless means by which women may embellish and enhance their own natural charms.
Like fashion designers and other artists, photographers know and use this technique, lending beauty to their beautiful models by associating them with things that are in themselves beautiful. The next time one peruses a photograph, especially if it is a “glamour shot,” he or she should give some thought to the scenery of the setting, including the colors, the props, and the model’s costume, including her makeup, jewelry, and whatever clothing, if any, she is wearing, remembering that nothing in the photograph is present by accident; all is there by design, to enhance the “glamour” of the model, which is to say, to embellish her own natural charms by associating them--and her--with objects that are, in and of themselves, beautiful.
Let’s look at an example of such a portrait. In glamour shots, the emphasis of the photograph is, of course, upon the model, and anything and everything else, although minimal in number or amount, is there to enhance her appeal. In the case of Playboy Playmates’ photographs, the background and props are often associated with opulence and luxury as well as with the model’s own beauty, so as to reflect the lifestyle of the Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, if not the typical Playboy subscriber himself: many such portraits are shot indoors, in richly appointed mansions, often in the houses’ bedrooms. (We have tried to use as family friendly a picture as possible, which required some research on our part, but no sacrifice is too great to provide excellence in the service of Chillers and Thriller’s noble enterprise.) Meet Tiffany, an artificial blonde of undeniable and, one might say, full-blown beauty.
Her facial features are enhanced by lighting and by perfectly applied makeup. (No doubt, a bit of airbrushing was employed as well.) Her matching bra and thong panties are pale yellow and printed with vaguely floral patterns that sometimes resemble confetti as much as flowers, imparting to her both borrowed beauty and the sense that she has a carefree and fun-loving frame of mind. The pale yellow color of her unmentionables complements her hair color and may thus be understood to be “accessories” to her own beauty rather than items of apparel per se.
She is a party girl, the photograph suggests, and she is accessible (the clasp of her bra is in the front, rather than in the back, an aid to male lovers intent upon demonstrating their love for, if not of, her.) As is often the case with regard to Playboy’s models, Tiffany is in a bedroom that is richly appointed, as one can readily discern by the great fleur-de-lis, or stylized lily, carvings of the enormous bed’s oversize headboard (the bedposts are replicas of Greek columns, as one can see in the second photograph); the elegant lampshade; the silk-and-satin pillows; and the comforter embroidered in golden thread. It could be that Tiffany herself is a woman of wealth, or she might be only the playmate of a man of means. In either case, the photograph suggests, as a party girl, she is a real treasure.
The beauty and elegance of her surroundings lend their qualities to the model, enhancing her natural charms by suggesting that she shares the attributes of the props with which she is associated, which is probably not actually the case, since Playboy is known to seek its photographic subjects from all walks of life, but particularly from middle-class backgrounds, wanting to feature a wholesome-looking, but sexy, sort of fantasy girl next door.
Horror artists and writers can, and do, accomplish an effect similar to that of glamour photographers. By associating their characters, whether they are victims, monsters, heroes, or others, with horrific props and inserting them, so to speak, into “brooding atmospheres,” they enhance the horrific effects of their illustrations or descriptions, imparting to them a “borrowed malice,” as it were.
In the opening paragraph of his short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe associates a mansion with a human being, or, more specifically, with a human face, in his use of the twice-repeated phrase “eye-like windows,” but his description of the house also associates the edifice with such negative emotions as “melancholy,” “a sense of insufferable gloom,” “an utter depression of soul,” and an “iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought.” The countryside in which the estate is laid is characterized as “singularly dreary,” and the house is described as being equipped with “bleak walls” and “vacant eye-like windows.” Even the landscaping of the grounds is unrelieved by beauty and is, in fact, associated with images of death and decay: there are nothing more than “a few rank sedges” and “a few white trunks of decayed trees,” which are “gray” and “ghastly,” and the reader wonders, at the very outset of the story, whether the atmosphere is truly this horrific or whether it is the narrator--or even the house itself, casting a spell, as it were, upon the narrator--that makes the property seem so appalling:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was; but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me--upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain--upon the bleak walls--upon the vacant eye-like windows--upon a few rank sedges--and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees--with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium--the bitter lapse into every-day life--the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart--an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down--but with a shudder even more thrilling than before--upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Poe’s description of Usher’s dwelling is the prototypical picture of the haunted house, and other artists, both literary and visual, have followed his lead, as can be seen both by the house that Psycho’s Norman Bates calls home and the domicile that houses the Amityville horrors (notice its “vacant, eyelike windows”).
The aspiring writer, whether of romance or horror, does well to remember and to employ the same tactics that artists as diverse as glamour photographers and masters of the macabre use, albeit for vastly different purposes, to enhance, in the former’s case, the beauty of a beautiful model and, in the latter’s case, to embellish the horror of the horrific subject: associate the character with beauty to make her more beautiful still or with the grotesque to make him even more bizarre and horrible. Whether by borrowed beauty or borrowed malice, a character can be made to seem all the lovelier or more malevolent, as the case may be.