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Monday, December 8, 2008

What’s So Scary About. . . .

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Too often, writers write the way people too often speak: without thinking or, more specifically, without planning. They hope for inspiration as they put pen to paper or (more typically fingertips to keyboard). However, a bit of forethought could go a long way, in horror writing or in the writing of any other genre of fiction. By brainstorming as to what’s so scary about a potential or chosen setting, the horror writer is better able to capitalize upon features of the locale that are uniquely or especially eerie, frightening, or repulsive. Here are a few key settings for horror stories. The aspiring horror writer can add more of his or her own and update the list as new elements of the horrible and the terrible occur to him or her concerning such places.


It is seldom visited, and its contents, to some extent, are apt to be forgotten; therefore, the attic is more or less unfamiliar and may house dangers, such as bats, rats, spiders, rabid squirrels, or human intruders.

It is unlit or dimly lit and full of shadows in which dangers may lurk or be concealed.

Its contents may be old or unused and may, therefore, represent mementos of death.

It is not spacious, and it lacks headroom, making one feel trapped.

Depending upon the weather, it could be hot, humid, musty, or damp.

It could smell of mold decay (if the body of an animal that has died in the attic’s walls or elsewhere has begun to rot).

Because of the boxes, crates, and other containers it often contains, the attic features many potential hiding places from which one may be ambushed.

It may lack continuous flooring, which impedes movement and escape.

Its being little visited and kept locked suggests that the attic is a “forbidden” place.

It seems unnaturally quiet.

Noises, lights, and smells, in a closed or locked attic suggests that something is amiss (i. e., that the attic is occupied by an animal, a human intruder, or a ghost, perhaps).

The ladder or the narrow, steep flight of steps leading to the attic suggests the unusual character of the attic.

It is isolated from the rest of the house and, therefore, from the rest of the family.

Its floorboards and hinges may creak.

It is likely to be unfurnished, undecorated, and unadorned; it may be unfinished as well, suggesting a place that has been abandoned and lacks the typical comforts of home.

Note: Flowers in the Attic is set, in large part, in an attic.


Many of the eerie elements associated with an attic are also associated with a basement, making a basement scary for the same reasons that an attic may be frightening. In addition, these other eerie elements are often specifically associated with a basement:

The knowledge that, in descending a ladder or a flight of steps, one is going underground (where things are often buried) enhances the uneasiness one may feel
in entering a basement.

Its windows, if any, are apt to be small, perhaps mere vertical slits, which obscures one’s vision to the outside world and makes escape impossible.

It may contain a furnace, the fiery grate or interior of which, in the otherwise relative darkness, may appear eerie or even hellish.

Its cupboards, if any, may contain unusual odds and ends or “secrets” that are better left unknown.

Its walls may be stained or discolored or in disrepair.

Note: The movie The People Under the Stairs is set mostly in a family’s basement.


Many of the eerie elements associated with an attic are also associated with a basement, making a basement scary for the same reasons that an attic may be frightening. In addition, these other eerie elements are often specifically associated with a basement:

It is even more cramped and inspires claustrophobia even more than an attic or a
basement, reducing movement to a slow, even potentially painful, crawl.

It is dirty and may be stuffy or musty.

Its pipes, joists, beams, and other obstructions impede movement and/or escape.

Animal carcasses could be present or their bones may be scattered inside the crawlspace. (John Wayne Gacy buried the bodies of many of his victims in his house’s crawlspace, and a lesbian stalker lived in her victim’s crawlspace.)

Tunnels from the crawlspace could lead elsewhere.

Note: As its title implies, the movie Crawlspace featured this setting.


It is large, both in space and in the number of rooms, allowing multiple possibilities of ambush, for being trapped, or for having one’s escape cut off.

It is full of strangers, some or all of whom may be hostile or untrustworthy.

As a guest, one is in a dependent role.

Others have keys to one’s room or suite.

It could be haunted.

It operates on a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week basis, even while one is asleep and, therefore, vulnerable).

One could get stuck in an elevator, between floors.

Who knows what extra ingredients could be added to a drink in the hotel’s cocktail lounge or to a meal served in the hotel’s restaurant or delivered by room service?

One or more of its employees could be replaced by imposters.

Any weakness in its security could be exploited.

Its surveillance cameras are watching guests all the time, everywhere.

It could be isolated; even when it is not, it is a self-contained and relatively self-sufficient world unto itself (a total institution) of great resources.

It can feature fountains or statues in its lobby and courtyards or grounds.

It can harbor strange sights and sounds (and smells).

Its floor plans could be like a mazes, and, behind each door, a possible threat could wait to ambush a guest.

Power may fail.

Fog or other atmospheric or meteorological effects may occur.

Insects, animals, or humans may intrude.

Note: Stephen King’s short story “1408” takes place in a hotel, as does the movie, 1408, based upon it; King’s novel (and the movie based upon it), The Shining also takes place in a hotel.


Many of the eerie elements associated with a hotel are also associated with a mansion, making a mansion scary for the same reasons that a hotel may be frightening. In addition, these other eerie elements are often specifically associated with a mansion:

Things look different in the dark than they do in the light.

It is isolated behind walls and iron gates, obscured by trees and other vegetation.

Its ornamentation and decoration may be odd (demon doorknockers, gargoyles,
bizarre statues or portraits).

It is associated with an ancestry and heirs (in other words, the house has a past, as it were, which may be filled with guilty secrets).

Its library may contain forbidden books.

“What are they doing in the Hyacinth House?” What, indeed!

It may have an evil-looking façade or aura (as does the House of Usher, the
Amityville house, and Ed Gein’s house).

Its grounds may contain the family’s private cemetery.

It can be personified (“if these walls could only talk!”).

Almost by definition, abandoned houses are scary (they suggest the fragility of life, or relationships, of stability, and a person, too, as a former resident, may be fragile, unstable, or abandoned.)

It could be really haunted or it could become “haunted” (e. g., as a Halloween fund-raiser), attracting real ghosts or demons.

Its various rooms symbolize various aspects of the personality, as dream dictionaries indicate.

An ascent can become a descent.

What was left behind in an abandoned mansion (a mirror, a birdcage, a cabinet, an organ) could be demonic.

Abandoned and in a state of disrepair, it is apt to be unsafe because of weak floors or stairs or crumbling ceilings or walls.

Note: Many horror stories, both in print and on film, including The Amityville Horror, Rose Red, ‘Salem’s Lot, Psycho, and The Haunting of Hill House being but a few of the better known among them, are set, in full or in large part, in mansions.


It is remote and inaccessible.

It may be inhabited by “savages” and/or strange and dangerous plants and animals.

It is at the “mercy” of the sea.

It may contain caverns, mountains, or forests that are habitats for unusual, or even bizarre, and threatening menaces of a vegetative, animal, or human nature.

It may have an odd shape (Skull Island) that is frightening in itself.

It may have been used for nefarious purposes.

It may be volcanic.

It may suggest an alternative evolutionary origin.

Note: The Island of Dr. Moreau, King Kong, Jurassic Park, and many other novels and movies take place upon islands.

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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.

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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