Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Explanations for Evil, Part II

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


In the previous post, we saw how the explanation for the evil that is at the root of the bizarre incidents of the typical horror plot is an essential part of such a story line. However, although there are a variety of possible and potential sources of evil from which to choose (ignorance, indifference, inhumanity, sin, madness, and others), these sources are not inexhaustible, and, eventually, vary them as he or she may, the horror writer is going to run out of new (that is, not used previously by him or her in his or her fiction) types fairly soon. Therefore, the horror writer needs a few more tricks up his or her sleeve to assist in the maintenance of suspense and reader interest. Since, by nature, the explanation depends upon knowledge, the writer will not only provide information in dibs and dabs, piecemeal, as it were, on an as-needed basis, but he or she will also enhance the delivery of these bits and pieces of exposition by adopting one or more techniques, some of which we have compiled here:

Introduce a red herring. In other words, suggest a cause for the events that is, although plausible and potentially explanatory, turns out to be false or erroneous. Dean Koontz is a master of this approach. For example, in Phantoms, he suggests (through the thoughts and declarations of one of his characters) that the cause of the disappearances, deaths, and dismemberments of a small town's residents are the effects (perhaps) of a secret biological or chemical warfare agent. In fact, the cause turns out to be an ancient, egocentric creature who periodically feeds upon humans and whose physical structure is based upon petrolatum, enabling the survivors of his attacks to destroy him with oil-eating bacteria (no, we're not making this up). There really are such bacteria, of course. Some were used to clean up oil spills. However, the likelihood of a petrolatum-based organism seems spurious to say the least. Nevertheless, if the story is horrific and suspenseful enough, the readers will overlook the ultimate explanation as long as there is one and it could, however unlikely, be a dim possibility (even if the alternate, red herring theory makes more sense from a scientific point of view). What appears to be a guardian angel in Lightning turns out to be a time traveler from Nazi Germany. Are the bizarre incidents in Midnight the work of aliens? No, politicians and scientists have cooperated in creating a computer system to "convert" citizens to their way of thinking. What appears to be the results of fugue states and amnesia in The Bad Place are actually the effects of genetic mutations that resulted from hermaphroditic self-fertilization. Incest can have negative effects, apparently, even when its practice is limited strictly to oneself. Likewise, murderous fugue states are not responsible for the mayhem in Mr. Murder, as it turns out; the death and d estruction is the result of the actions of a genetically engineered clone. the supposed SWAT team in Dark Rivers of the Heart turns out to be a clandestine paramilitary group. The use of the red herring explanation suggests that nothing is as it appears to be--or shouldn't be, at le

Complicate the search for answers. As the characters seek to make sense of their experiences--that is, of the odd incidents happening to and around them--they happen upon a situation even more bizarre, complicated, and seemingly impossible.

Make the answer man part of the problem. The character from whom the others learn the explanation (herein after called "the answer man," even if he's a she rather than a he) may be part of the problem or, worse yet, he may be the problem.

Use the jigsaw approach. The explanation may depend upon each member of a group of characters contributing some knowledge of the total answer. This jigsaw puzzle approach allows further complications of the plot's conflict. First, somehow, the individual members of the group must rendezvous (and there may be some or many who want to prevent one or more--or all--of them from doing so); one or more may actually be eliminated before he or she or they can add his or her or their missing piece or pieces of the puzzle to complete the big picture (that is, the explanation as to the cause of the strange incidents or bizarre situations); or one or more of the answer men may decide to provide false information or may report erroneous information without any conscious intent to deceive.

Give the answer man an alternative motive. The answer man may have an ulterior motive--a reason not to explain the cause or to explain it falsely (that is, explain it away).

Use the missing-in-action (MIA) appraoch. Someone may know the secret--may even have known it from the get-go--but the answer man may be missing and have to be tracked down or incarcerated and have to be sprung. Alternatively, he might have passed the answer on to someone else, before being killed, so, now, this surrogate answer man must be found.

Let repentance be the key. An answer man, possibly working for the enemy, may refuse to divulge the answer until, repenting (for some believable reason), he repents, confessing everything.

Use the repressed memories approach. The answer man may have repressed his memories of the cause of the extraordinary incidents or astonishing situations and, although the information returns, in bits and pieces, it may nort always be reliable and accurate; he may have a few false memories (red herrings) among the "facts" he recalls, whether on his own or as a result of hypnosis.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Explanations For Evil

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Iniquity is a mystery.

Despite penis envy, the Oedipus complex, phallic women, and Rorschach inkblots, we really don’t know what makes people do evil.

A lot of theories have been advanced over the years: ignorance, sin, indifference, emotional instability or mental illness resulting from childhood trauma or abuse, genetic abnormalities, birth defects, and even the devil. Although these theories have shed some light on the mystery of iniquity, wickedness remains inscrutable.

Nevertheless, authors of horror stories, whether the stories appear in print or on film, must offer at least a plausible explanation for the evil that occurs in their narratives. We live in a cause-and-effect universe, after all (or so, at least, we want to believe). Therefore, there must be a cause of--an explanation for--all events, situations, and behaviors, including--and maybe especially--those that don’t make a whole lot of sense.

The explanations don’t have to hold water. Not well, anyway. They do have to fall this side of “impossible” on the plausibility continuum, though. They have to be believable if not provable, credible if not verifiable, acceptable if not certifiable. Since horror stories begin with bizarre incidents or situations that, at some point in the narrative (usually just before the turning point), must be explained in some way, the explanations are important, and audiences expect to read or hear something that doesn’t insult their intelligence.

Sure, they know that, should they examine the explanation carefully, it’s likely to explain away more than to explain, but, as long as it doesn’t sound too far-fetched at the moment it’s trotted out, they’ll be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. It’s only when the explanation is vague and shifty and half-hearted (as in the otherwise-superb novels of Bentley Little) or inane (as in Night Shyamalan’s latest film, The Happening, that audiences will wonder why they ever plunked down their hard-earned money to read or see something so idiotic.

So the explanations may be just this side of ridiculous, as long as they’re there and don’t actually insult the audience’s intelligence, but they must also fit the bizarre situations or series of incidents that are supposedly their effects. There must be some discernable logic--or even emotional relationship--among the cause and its effects. There must be a sense, on the part of the readers or moviegoers, that the cause “fits” the effects, either logically or emotionally (or, ideally, both).

If the author can set up one explanation that seems both plausible and rationally or emotionally satisfying, only to replace it with a second, better (or, at least, not worse) explanation that accounts for everything, so mush the better. Dean Koontz does this in The Taking. The bizarre series of events that is initially suspected to result from an advance party of invading aliens’ attempts to reverse-terraform the earth so that its atmosphere and environment are friendly to the attacking species turns out to be the result of an attack upon the planet by none other than Satan and his demons--and, yes, Koontz manages to bring this rather incredible plot twist off.

The-devil-made-me-do-it is a popular explanation for the evil deeds of characters in horror stories, of course, and has been since the books of Genesis and Job. The devil stirs up trouble in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Stephen King’s Desperation and The Regulators, and such movies as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Omen. Aliens are other popular sources of the madness and mayhem in horror movies, as Alien and its sequels and many other horror movies, from Invaders from Mars, The Blob, and The Thing From Another World to Independence Day, and The War of the Worlds indicates. Vampires, witches, mummies, ghosts, werewolves, and zombies are other popular explanations for the occurrence of the horrific incidents and situations of horror stories.


Horror maestro Stephen King

One way to consider a lot of the explanations horror fiction has put forth for the evils that this genre of fiction depicts (and sometimes celebrates) is to consider some of the major novels of Stephen King (stories with identical causes are excluded, as are those for which no more than a mere mention is given on King’s website:


What makes one explanation for the bizarre incidents and situations in a horror story acceptable to an audience while another explanation for such happenings is not? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Magical Thinking. No, we don’t live in a pre-scientific age during which magical thinking is part and parcel of one’s worldview, but, were we to be honest, we’d have to admit that, even in the twenty-first century, after having put a man on the moon, we still believe in magic, at least on a gut level. How else do we explain such notions as penis envy, the Oedipus complex, phallic women, and Rorschach inkblots? How else do we understand the way television signal transmissions and receptions operate or gravity or thermodynamics? The scientists among us may be able to answer some of the questions we have concerning the universe and our place in it, but they also admit that many of their statements are analogical or metaphorical, rather than literal, meaning that, beyond a certain level, they have no idea what they’re talking about. As Sir William Frazier points out in The Golden Bough, there are basically two types of magic: sympathetic, or imitative, magic and the magic of correspondence. Both rely upon magical thinking--the belief that non-scientific relationships among phenomena can be of such a nature that one somehow (mysteriously) affects or controls another. Sympathetic magic rests upon the premise that one can obtain the results that he or she imitates. Want to cause someone to suffer a heart attack? Stick a pin into voodoo doll’s chest. Correspondence rests upon the premise that one can influence what occurs to one person, place, or thing by manipulating another person, place, or thing to which the former is somehow related. Astrology (“as above, so below”) is a perfect example: the positions of heavenly bodies affect and determine one’s fate. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, sympathetic magic is probably behind such beliefs as those pertaining to “most forms of divination. . . voodoo. . . psychometry. . . psychic detectives. . . graphologists. . . karma. . . synchronicity. . . homeopathy” and, of course, magic itself. This list indicates that, pre-scientific age or not, ours is still one in which there are a great many believers in magic and the thinking that underlies it.
  • Recognition. Emotion, rather than logic, can be sufficient grounds for many of us to accept an explanation as appropriate and satisfying. To be emotionally acceptable to us, the explanation for the horror story’s uncanny events must suggest that the truth that the main character learns about him- or herself and/or the world, including others, is a natural, even inevitable, consequence of his or her experience. In other words, given what has happened to him or her, the protagonist has no other alternative but to draw the conclusions that he or she draws concerning the cause of these events--and the cause will have to do with his or her own behavior. Carrie’s explanation for the bizarre incidents that take place in the novel (and the movie based upon the novel) is acceptable to its readers (and viewers) because Stephen King ties the incidents to the existential and psychological states of the protagonist whose telekinesis, in service to her damaged emotions, self-image, and thinking, causes the murder and mayhem that she unleashes upon her tormentors, almost as an afterthought, once she realizes that, despite appearances to the contrary, nothing has changed, and she is still the target of other people’s prejudices and hatred.
  • Tradition, or Familiarity. Once a type of monster gains acceptance from the general public, usually as a result of its traditional use, its reference as the cause of the story’s eerie events is accepted for the sake of the narrative, even if (as is likely) it is rejected on the rational level. In other words, readers and viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief. This tendency on the part of readers and moviegoers to accept traditional monsters as the causes of bizarre incidents is the basis for the use of demons, ghosts, mummies, vampires, werewolves, and the like as causal agents in horror stories. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also generate a grudging acceptance of causality which, otherwise, would be summarily dismissed. “Oh, it’s a werewolf. Okay, then.”
  • Analogy. To be persuasive as a cause of the horror story’s horrific events, an explanation must be detailed. There must be a series of correspondences between the alleged cause and the alleged effects. In other words, one must be able to infer, on the basis of the similarities between two things that these same two things are alike in yet other ways (“A” is like “B.” “B” has property “C.” Therefore, “A” has property “C.”) Analogies are notoriously unreliable and often fallacious, but that doesn’t stop them from being persuasive to many, and, in fiction, what counts is their persuasiveness as causes. Writers of fiction are not especially concerned at all points (or maybe at any point) as to whether statements are true; they’re concerned with entertaining their audience, and, to this end, with whether their audience will “buy” a particular explanation of their action’s incidents and situations, bizarre and uncanny or otherwise.
  • Integrality. The explanation, whatever it is, must not be haphazard. It must not be tacked on, seemingly at the last minute, simply to explain (or to explain away) the story’s eerie occurrences. Instead, the explanation must be essential. Without the explanation, the series of odd incidents and situations would make no sense (not that they need to make a whole lot of sense, necessarily, even with the explanation in place). For the explanation to be acceptable or plausible, the writer must give hints early and often as to the nature of the cause behind the effects. In The Taking, Dean Koontz, early on, plants the idea that the bizarre actions in his novel may be the effect of Satan’s return to earth, and this possibility is repeated in the thoughts of the protagonist concerning her sorrow for past moral offenses she’s committed and her hope for forgiveness and reconciliation and by the narrative’s end, in which she becomes a new Eve, carrying within her womb the first of humanity’s new humanity. At the same time, however, the possibility that the novel’s bizarre events are the effects of reverse-terraforming by an advance party of invading aliens purposely detracts from this, the actual, cause. By contrast, in The Resort, Bentley Little merely mentions an older resort near the one in which his story’s action take place and implies, without ever saying exactly how, that the former resort is somehow associated with the contemporary one. There are no specific correspondences, no detailed links, between the two (the older one of which, in fact, has burned down). There is only the suggestion, without a supporting context supplied by a pertinent back story or other means of exposition. The result is the deux ex machina that Aristotle so much abhorred and rejects in his Poetics as emotionally and dramatically unconvincing.

Dean Koontz and Trixie

A horror story stands or falls, to a large extent, by its explanation for the evil, bizarre events and situations that occur during much of the story. The explanation may not pass scientific muster, but it must at least pass the emotional and dramatic smell tests of the audience if it is to be satisfying and, therefore, successful. In the final analysis, the inexplicable must be explained, if only in theory.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Addams Family" Technique

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Cartoonist Charles Addams is the father of a truly bizarre family. “Dysfunctional” doesn’t begin to describe its dynamics. Headed by Gomez and Morticia, The Addams Family includes son Pugsley, daughter Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandmama, and the shaggy Cousin Itt. A disembodied hand, Thing, is a permanent houseguest. This unlikely cast of characters is waited upon hand and foot--in the case of Thing, literally--by a hulking butler named Lurch. They live on a weed-choked estate behind a wrought-iron fence in a Second Empire mansion, complete with a garden (of sorts). The cartoon appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine.

The one-panel strip was eventually translated into a television situation comedy (sitcom) of the same title starring John Astin (Gomez), Caroline Jones (Morticia), Ken Weatherwax (Pugsley), Lisa Loring (Wednesday), Jackie Cogan (Uncle Fester), Blossom Rock (Grandmama), Felix Silla (Cousin Itt), and Ted Cassidy (Lurch and Thing). The cartoon is also the basis of The Addams Family movie (1991) which starred Raul Julia (Gomez), Angelica Huston (Morticia), Jimmy Workman (Pugsley), Christina Ricci (Wednesday), Christopher Lloyd (Uncle Fester), Judith Malina (Grandmama), John Franklin (Cousin Itt), Carel Stricken (Lurch) and Christopher Hart (Thing). The screenplay for the motion picture is available at Movie Script Place.

In addition to featuring the same characters and setting, the cartoon, sitcom, and movie all parodied the contemporary American nuclear family, inverting traditional family and American values. The Addamses found ordinary people and their interests either repulsive, puzzling, dull, or offensive, preferring their own bizarre, macabre, and peculiar pursuits. Gomez never stopped courting his wife. Morticia was fond of raising roses, from which, snipping the buds, she would retain the thorny stems, immersing them in ornate vases of water, and tend to her carnivorous plant. Wednesday (who is, as her name suggests, “full of woe”) delights in executing her Marie Antoinette doll by guillotine and enjoys electrocuting her brother in the family’s electric chair. Pugsley’s passion is wrecking his electric train by derailing the engine and cars or blowing it up with a well-placed stick of miniature dynamite. Uncle Fester likes to impress others with his trick of illuminating a light bulb simply by placing it in his mouth, and he often chases intruders with his blunderbuss. Grandmama, a witch, is forever trying new spells or potions. Vertically challenged Cousin Itt’s face--or, indeed, his entire head and body--is never seen, because his hair extends from his scalp to the floor. He rides around the mansion in his three-wheeled car and speaks in shrill gibberish that only the rest of the family can understand. A childhood friend of Gomez’s, Thing is a severed hand that pops out of cigar boxes, urns, and other containers throughout the house to deliver the mail and do other assorted odd jobs. The butler, Lurch, is a giant. He wears a tuxedo, maintains an expression and a posture that suggests that rigor mortis has set in a little early, and rumbles rather than speaks. A Frankenstein-like servant, Lurch, Morticia reminds Gomez, is part of many families and has the heart of an Addams. Much of the cartoon’s, sitcom’s, and movie’s humor derives from Lurch’s unfriendly demeanor and the chores he performs in his ungainly and deadpan manner.

The Addams Family suggests that there is a fine line between horror and humor, as do such television shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Munsters, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. Literary critics have found humor--quite a bit of it, in fact--even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The difference between whether an incident or a situation will be humorous of horrific depends, of course, upon its treatment. Typically, humor will look for opportunities to exaggerate or understate the significance of ordinary incidents and situations, will seek the absurdity in daily activities and the pompous or inappropriate behavior of characters who are out of their depth or in an environment foreign to them, and so forth, whereas horror will seek the bizarre, the uncanny, the eerie, the frightening, and the incongruous in such incidents and situations with an eye not to how and why these incidents and situations are amusing but as to why they are in some way menacing.


It is menace that, ultimately, makes a situation horrific and dreadful. By applying The Addams Family technique to everyday situations and incidents and looking for the potential menace in them rather than for the potential humor in them, the horror writer can come up with plot material that might otherwise go unnoticed or unappreciated. The technique is simple, but effective: interpret commonplace incidents and situations from an out-of-kilter, offbeat, madcap point of view. Interpret figurative expressions literally and literal expressions figuratively. Imagine how the Addams family might interpret everyday events and occurrences or how they might understand the meaning of an innocuous phrase.

For example, were the Addams family to have a dinner party, the catered refreshments might include finger sandwiches that were truly finger sandwiches--severed human digits laid side by side between two slices of bread and garnished with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and the dressing of one’s choice. The whole meal, in fact, would be likely to comprise a feast fit for cannibals. Now, take the humor out of the situation, and replace it with horror. Make a few other adjustments, lending the storyline as much verisimilitude as possible within the conditions of the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, and viola!, The Addams Family principle has provided a plot for a horror story such as the maestro Stephen King might have written.

A bit of brainstorming--lovely word for horror writers!--may suggest other possibilities. The appetite among some Asians for dog flesh is well known. What better way to increase the stock of this delicacy in one’s freezer than to go to a large city park frequented by the owners of such pets and wait for one or more of them to walk their dogs past the perfect ambush site along the a woodland path?

Another idea? (Simply insert a 100-watt bulb into one’s mouth, Uncle Fester style.) How about this one? A vampire king’s five-hundredth “birthday” (that is, the night that he was transformed into one of the living dead) is approaching, and his followers want to get him something special to commemorate the occasion. They discuss various possibilities: blood bags from the local blood bank, the chorus girls from a popular Broadway (or Las Vegas) show, kindergartners from a local preschool or daycare center. Finally, they decide on five hundred virgins. The only problem is that they’re hard-pressed to locate such a vast number of this commodity. The story resulting from this premise would be partly funny and partly fiendish, much like The Addams Family itself, showing, once again, that it is possible to mix humor with horror (and even a little social commentary), as long as, if the story is to be considered horror rather than humor, the menace outweighs the clowning.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Thinking of Seeing "The Happening"? Save Your Money

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Okay.

Someone has to say it.

(Actually, quite a few people--critics and moviegoers alike--have said it, and more are saying it every day.)

Still, I feel compelled to say it, too:

The Happening (2008) is horrible (and not in a good way).

Note to director Shyamalan (or is that Shambling?): The use of your middle name (“Night’) in lieu of your first name is not enough to make a movie scary. You need a plot. And characters. And a little atmosphere. And some scary scenes. And a worthwhile theme.

The Happening has none of these basic elements of the successful horror movie. Instead, it is a simple-minded, self-parodying example of how not to make a scary movie.

The movie begins with random acts of violence: in Central Park, people start clawing at themselves, and one young woman--a blonde, naturally--uses a screwdriver or something to poke a hole through the side of her neck and let a little blood out of her jugular vein; construction workers jump off the roof of a high-rise they’re building; individuals use a police officer’s revolver to shoot themselves (suicide by cop). Supposedly, it’s a terrorist attack on the Big Apple, but it’s really plants.

Psychic plants.

Or something worse (i. e., even stinkier).

The protagonist, a high school science teacher, escapes with his wife (she admits to two-timing him by having dessert with a coworker without clearing it with hubby ahead of time), the math teacher, and the math teacher’s cute-as-a-button-I’m-only-in-this-putrid-movie-to-help-wrench-your-heart little girl, after surmising that whatever the hell is going on is going on only in the northeastern corner of the United States. Ninety miles away, all is well.

Every time the plants conspire (telepathically?), the wind blows, and it’s kind of cool to watch the grass run and the trees writhe, but it’s not scary. What’s scary about the wind blowing, even hard, through a field of treetops? Not much.

At the end, after being trapped inside a woman’s house, the surviving science teacher, his almost-unfaithful, will-do-anything-for-dessert wife, and their math teacher’s daughter (the math teacher is one of the early victims of the plants’ attack) go outdoors to discover that the vegetation is no longer mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

However, it’s France’s turn next, apparently.

Adjectives that come to mind in describing The Happening:

  • Amateurish
  • Banal
  • Boring
  • Clumsy
  • Derivative
  • Loser!
  • Stupid
  • Uninteresting
  • Unoriginal

--and those are the kinder ones.

Worst scene in the whole movie? The science teacher trying to apologize to a plant. (The fact that it turns out to be plastic was supposed to make this lame scene irresistibly funny instead of just plain stupid [but it didn't]). Discounting these problems, one might conclude, as Mark Twain did concerning "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," what remains is "pure art."

About the only good thing about The Happening is that it's so bad that it may forestall future politically correct diatribes about how we're ruining the environment.

Not recommended, even for a matinee.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Everyday Horrors: Psychopaths

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman


Psycho's Norman Bates meets victim Marion Crane

A sociopath suffers from an anti-social personality disorder. A psychopath is a conscienceless individual. According to a longer definition of the latter, the psychopath is “a person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, exploitiveness, heedlessness, arrogance, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses” (“Definition of Psychopath”).

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the anti-social personality disorder’s “essential feature. . . is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

The public tends to use these terms pretty much interchangeably to denote a seriously disturbed, dangerous person who is prone to mindless acts of rage and violence.

I know a psychopath. Fortunately, I haven’t seen him for many years. His name is Herbert, and, during our respective childhoods, he and the rest of his rather large family lived in the same neighborhood as the one in which I resided. His family was poor. Their father didn’t seem to be home much. Their grandmother lived with them and helped their mother rear the children. They lived upon a triangular, weed-choked lot in a two-story frame house. Inside, the furnishings and décor were minimal. Without carpeting, the wood floors were worn almost to sawdust. Their yard contained a collection of machine parts and rusted junk, and there was an outbuilding. A bare path led through what grass there was; there wasn’t a lawn in the proper sense of the word and no attempt at landscaping.

Herbert got into trouble on a few occasions. Once, when the school bus stopped, he jumped off and climbed a tree, refusing to come down. On another occasion, the local minister caught him holding a cat by the tail over an open fire “to see what it would do.” It was rumored that he stabbed a Boy Scout in the foot during a camping trip because the boy's foot “was sticking out of the tent.” Shortly before adolescence, Herbert moved with his family into the mountains, and we never saw him again until he’d become a young man. (According to psychologists, the anti-social personality disorder is often indicated by the so-called MacDonald triad, which consists of animal cruelty, arson, and bedwetting.)

Herbert returned in a late-model car with a friend. They stopped by our house and asked whether I’d like to go for a ride with them. Herbert said he’d bought the car for fifty dollars. Although I suspected he and his friend had stolen the vehicle, I agreed, against my better judgment, to go with them. As we left the driveway, I said, “So, what have you been up to, Herbert?”


NASA Photograph of Mars

Herbert told me, in a matter-of-fact way, that he’d just returned from Mars, describing the planet’s flora and fauna. Since he has limited intelligence and an inadequate imagination, it was obvious that he believed, on some level, that he had, in fact, just arrived home from the red planet. Maybe he’d read a science fiction magazine story or, more likely, had seen a science fiction movie about an expedition to Mars and had come to believe that he had been among those who’d visited the planet. I decided that the wisest course of action was to go along with him, and I said something on the order of “that’s nice.” He also told me that he’d tried to enlist in the army but had been refused admission on the grounds that he lacks a conscience. “They said I don’t know right from wrong,” was the way, I think, Herbert put it. He said, since, his ambition had changed, and he now aspired to end his days in prison.

As we pulled up to a tank at a filling station, Herbert, indicating his need for gasoline, asked me whether I had any money on me. “No,” I told him, “I’m broke.” It was after I’d replied that I saw Herbert’s friend nod toward a bank of nearby vending machines. Suspecting that they planned to rob the machines, I told Herbert I had to get home. Fortunately for me, he took me home without robbing the machines--or me--first.

I never saw Herbert again after that, but, occasionally, I wonder whether he’d ever realized his ambition, entering a prison somewhere.

At the time, Herbert hadn’t seemed especially scary, although I was wary around him. He’d always been strange, after all, and I’d known him, casually, most of my life. Mountaineering had built his body, and just his appearance showed that he’d become as strong as a bull. He could be dangerous, even deadly, if he wanted to be, I thought, and who knew what it would take to make him want to hurt, to maim, or to kill? It could have been nothing more than the desire to fill his gas tank or to secure enough money to buy a sandwich and a soda. I shouldn’t have gotten into his car, I shouldn’t have gone for a drive with him, and I am fortunate not to have incited him to anger by asserting my indigence. In retrospect, Herbert had been very scary, indeed.


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface

From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of the Amontillado” to Psycho and its sequels and The Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Red Dragon, the sociopath and the psychopath have been stock characters in horror fiction. Other horror stories in which madmen are the antagonists include:
  • Brimstone, Dance of Death, The Book of the Dead (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child trilogy novels): Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast investigates a series of bizarre deaths in which Lucifer himself seems to be the killer (Brimstone); Pendergast’s brother, the evil genius Diogenes, rescues him from certain death so that the FBI agent can stop him from committing the perfect crime--if Pendergast is able to do so (Dance of Death); and Diogenes implements his plan to commit the perfect crime (The Book of the Dead).
  • Good Guy, The (Dean Koontz novel): A stone mason mistaken for a mob hit man seeks to rescue the intended target from the real killers.
  • Husband (Dean Koontz novel): A husband’s wife is kidnapped; the husband must save her.
  • Icebound (Dean Koontz): An iceberg is the scene of this killer's horrific crimes.
  • Intensity (Dean Koontz novel): A sadistic killer chases his prey across country before the woman he’s chasing, to save herself and the child she’s protecting, sets him afire.
  • Misery (Stephen King novel): A romance novelist’s greatest fan is a nurse, but she has second thoughts about nursing him back to health after he wrecks his car in a blizzard when he kills off the woman’s favorite protagonist.
  • Psycho (Robert Bloch novel): A mommy’s boy becomes his mother, murdering young women to whom her son takes a shine.
  • Rose Madder (Stephen King novel): An abused wife escapes through a painting into the land of the minotaur (really).
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hunter film series): He’s armed and dangerous!
  • Velocity (Dean Koontz novel): A bartender has to rescue a targeted victim before she’s killed by the psychopath who hunts her (if this plot seems familiar, maybe you read Koontz’s The Good Guy).
  • Wheel of Darkness, The (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child): a sequel to the trilogy that pits the FBI’s Special Agent Pendergast against his evil genius brother Diogenes.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Horror and Magritte’s Visual Koans

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman



Imagine men in suits and ties, wearing bowler hats and holding valises and umbrellas, raining from the sky as they maintain the same stationary, upright posture that they might adopt while standing at a bus stop; behind them, there is an apartment building.


Imagine the leaves of a plant turning into birds or, if you prefer, birds becoming the leaves of a plant.


Imagine a man in a suit, his head replaced by a circle of radiance.

Imagine a bird, wings spread against a stormy sky--but, where its avian shape appears, the sky is azure rather than gray and the clouds are fleecy white, not overcast.

Imagine a locomotive engine steaming through a chimney, below a mantle piece occupied by candlesticks flanking a clock, a mirror on the wall above.


Imagine a glass of water balanced perfectly upon the canopy of an open, upright umbrella suspended in midair.

Imagine Napoleon Bonaparte’s head--or death mask--colored blue, with white clouds scattered across his head, his brow, his cheek, his chin, his jaw, and his throat.

Imagine a painter at his easel, an egg his model, painting a bird with its wings stretched wide in flight.

Imagine ankles and bare feet transformed into boots, complete with veins, nails, and shoelaces.

Imagine a diner with four arms and four hands known, rather than as The Glutton, as The Sorcerer.

Imagine.

In doing so, you have stepped, as it were, into the sometimes whimsical, sometimes horrifying world of the surrealist Rene Magritte.

By his own admission, his work is intended to convey ideas, which makes his art philosophical enough to have captured the attention of Michel Foucault, who offers this explanation concerning Magritte’s art--or some of it, at least:

Magritte knits verbal signs and plastic elements together, but without referring them to a prior isotopism. He skirts the base of affirmative discourse on which resemblance calmly reposes, and he brings pure similitudes and nonaffirmative verbal statements into play within the instability of a disoriented volume and an unmapped space (Foucault, “To Paint Is Not To Affirm”).
No one, perhaps, can offer a definitive understanding of the artist, one that captures the entirety of what the surrealist intends and accomplishes, nor, certainly, will this post.

Fortunately, that’s not our intention. What we mean to do is to look at Magritte’s art as representing a sort of visual koan the answer to which, inasmuch as koans can be answered, has to do with David Hume’s critique of causality.

A koan is a riddle or a fable that is meant to inspire satori, or enlightenment (that is, insight, as through an epiphany), by demonstrating the insufficiency of reason to provide understanding. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a brief example. The Online Dictionary, Language Guide, Foreign Language and Etymology website provides a longer example:
Zen master Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A young novice began to imitate him in this way. When Gutei was told about the novice’s imitation, he sent for him and asked him if it were true. The novice admitted it was so. Gutei asked him if he understood. In reply the novice held up his index finger. Gutei promptly cut it off. The novice ran from the room, howling in pain. As he reached the threshold, Gutei called, "Boy!" When the novice turned, Gutei raised his index finger. At that instant the novice was enlightened.
Magritte said that his paintings were attempts to inspire ideas from the perception of phenomena by divorcing them from their ordinary context. In other words, he meant to make objects that we’d come to take for granted so much that they had become familiar and understood in a specific, set way and make them present and visible to us again in a new context that denied them the familiarity we’d assigned them. As a result, we could recover both the mystery of existence and the ability, once again, actually to see that at which we look, much as a young child, looking at something for the first time, actually sees it.

Magritte understood that most of us have lost the ability to observe in any true sense of the word. It was his self-assigned task to cure our blindness, to make us see again. To this end, his paintings are visual koans. They depict riddles, demanding that we try to figure out the meaning of the puzzles. His titles, which were often made up--frequently by friends, rather than by the artist himself--after the paintings themselves had been created, usually bear only a tenuous relationship, if any, to the images that Magritte painted; sometimes, the titles are intentionally and entirely ambiguous. The answers to his visual koans, the artist said, must come from within the viewer’s mind. The art itself is a mere catalyst for epiphany, somewhat as Socrates’ questions were verbal midwives through which the philosopher brought to birth, as it were, the enlightenment of his students.

How does this apply to Hume’s critique of causality?

According to Hume, the idea of cause, like the idea of effect, is a thought in the mind, not an object in the world. Therefore, causality cannot be confirmed through observation. In observing a sequence which is alleged to involve cause-and-effect relationships, all one may actually observe is the occurrence of an incident, “A,” followed by the occurrence of another incident, “B.” We see a guillotine blade sever the neck of a condemned prisoner, and we ascertain that the person dies. Whether we watch this same event once or a million times, all we will ever see is incident “A,” the falling of the guillotine blade severing the head of the condemned prisoner, followed by incident “B,” the death of the executed person. Never do we see a cause or an effect as such, because they are in the mind, if anywhere, not in the incidents themselves--the phenomena--that we observe. Delusions, dreams, hallucinations, illusions, mistaken impressions--all show that perceptions and our interpretations of them are subject to doubt. The concept of causality is also subject to doubt.

What if there are uncaused phenomena? What if the very idea itself of cause and effect is bogus? The world of science comes crashing down around us. The impossible becomes possible. Order becomes chaos. Metamorphoses become likely, if not inevitable. We can imagine men in suits and ties, wearing bowler hats and holding valises and umbrellas, raining from the sky as they maintain the same stationary, upright posture that they might adopt at a bus stop, behind them an apartment building. Wonders can materialize; miracles can appear. Existence regains the mystery it had in pre-scientific times. Science’s “dull realities” are extinguished. The Hamadryad is back in the wood, the Naiad in “her flood,” the Elfin in the “green grass,” and Poe’s “summer dream beneath the tamarind tree” is restored!

We are no longer “unscientific postscripts,” and the world lies open before us, full of potential for discovery and pregnant with discoverable meaning. We no longer know it all (or think we know it all); we are humbled, having discovered, as Socrates and Albert Einstein knew, that we know virtually nothing. The world, returned to us, returns us to both the world and to ourselves. If we are not careful, we may entertain “Intimations of Immortality.”

Of course, in reality, Hume’s critique of causality did not overturn science. If anything, it applied the brakes to a then-runaway scientism. It made scientists more cautious and caused them to forego speaking of certainties in favor of probabilities. Weather phenomena were no longer certainties, and meteorologists would say not that rain was inevitable, for example, but, rather, that there was a 98 percent chance of rain. (One was still well advised to postpone the backyard barbecue.) Hume’s critique humbled the scientists of his day and of every day. Hume showed that there is doubt at the very root of the empirical method. If this is so, others have since argued (notably, most recently, Soren Kierkegaard) that there may be other ways by which to understand reality and by which to relate oneself to the world and to the cosmos. Art is such a way, the Danish thinker insists.

Art allows us to posit possibilities, to consider alternatives to the way things are--

--which brings us to horror.

Most horror stories start with the occurrence of a series of wonderful, albeit bizarre, incidents that could easily be portrayed in the images of a Magritte painting (or those of an Hieronymus Bosch, a Salvador Dali, or an H. R. Giger, for that matter). The reader (or moviegoer) wonders what is behind these mysterious incidents, what is causing them, so, yes, the concept of cause and effect is alive and well, even in the world of horror, but it is a concept that allows Samuel Taylor Cole ridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”; it is a much more loosely woven concept of causality than that which scientists are wont to claim. It is an embracing of the possibilities of otherness, of strangeness, of weirdness, and it is this openness to both the grotesque and the appalling that allows the types of forays into the unknown--and, perhaps, the unknowable--that scare the hell out of horror fans and delight such accomplished practitioners of the art as H. P. Lovecraft, who confessed:
My reason for writing stories is to give myself the satisfaction of visualising more clearly and detailedly and stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, and adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights (scenic, architectural, atmospheric, etc.), ideas, occurrences, and images encountered in art and literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best--one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or "outsideness" without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reason why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind as the most profoundly dramatic and grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.
The next time you read a narrative poem, a short story, or a novel or see a movie devoted to horror, its premise is apt to be the same as the basis for Magritte’s art, and, especially if it happens to be a narrative by the likes of an Edgar Allan Poe, a Stephen King, or an Alfred Hitchcock, it may also suggest, as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and Rene Magritte) does, that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”--some of them horrible, indeed.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Feminization of Horror: The Horror! The Horror!

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Traditionally, the monsters of horror stories have had masculine character traits--or, at least, more masculine than feminine characteristics. The monster was aggressive, dominant, forceful, strong, self-reliant, tough, daring, competitive, and, in its own way, athletic and courageous. Today’s monsters, however, following the contemporary trend in which males seem, more and more, to be undergoing feminization, are also adopting more and more of the traits that have been associated, traditionally, with women.

Often, before killing its prey, the predatory monster will stalk it. Whether the intended victim is male or (as is more commonly the case) female, the audience (or reader) will identify with the human, over the monster. Therefore, since the victim is seen through the eyes of the monster-as-stalker, the audience, despite the gender of the individual moviegoer or reader, will identify with the victim, seeing him- or herself in this role. Whether the victim has traditional feminine traits per se, he or she will be defined in opposition to the monster’s hyper-masculinity and will be seen as weak, vulnerable, defenseless, helpless, imperiled. In short, the victim, regardless of his or her gender, will be a damsel, as it were, in distress.

Not only does the feminization of the victim, regardless of his or her gender, result from the threat of the hyper-masculine monster, but the larger community is characterized as feminine as well in many contemporary horror stories. The lone hero of Beowulf seldom makes an appearance to take on the monster in single combat. Instead, the monster is defeated by committee. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a community to kill a monster. Traditionally, the characteristics that make community cooperation--like cooperation itself--possible are labeled feminine: unselfishness; sympathy; the affinity for establishing and maintaining interpersonal, familial, and communal relationships; yielding to others; helpfulness; loyalty; reliability; and sensitivity. Even such traditionally feminine qualities as secretiveness and understanding can help in the community’s cooperative effort to protect its members and to destroy the monster.


Although the monster itself retains many of the characteristics that, traditionally, are counted as masculine, it has also begun to be characterized, in some ways, as being feminine. In other words, it becomes a bestial sort of phallic woman. As such, it is often the antagonist of an equally hyper-masculinized phallic woman protagonist. Traditionally, the male body is considered to be normative. The female body has been labeled as not only derivative (Eve, after all is created from a rib taken from Adam), but also deviant: it is a deviation from the norm of the masculine physique. Possibly for this reason, some of the deviance of femininity is associated with the monster, as in Dracula’s ruby lips, the menstrual-like lunar cycles characteristic of the werewolf, and the wearing of feminine clothing by Norman Bates and even of female body parts and skin by The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill. Moreover, the monster is often a disguised phallic woman in the sense that it is intent upon emasculating the male characters, by forcing male audience members to adopt the feminine role of exhibitionistic victim rather than the male role of voyeuristic stalker and by, sometimes literally, castrating them (that is, by dismembering them). When, instead of a community's cooperating to kill the monster, it is a woman, such as Lieutenant Ripley, in Alien and its sequels, Xena the Warrior Princess, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who takes upon herself such a duty, the feminization of the male is complete, for not only are the male members of the audience forced to adopt a feminine role and a feminine point of view as potential victims of a hyper-masculine monster, but their rescuer is female, rather than male, inverting the traditional polarities of the masculine-feminine continuum by positing phallic women as the protectors and rescuers of feminized males.


In horror fiction, women have been the traditional victims of the hyper-masculine monster. Some remain such. More and more often, however, their ranks are increased by male characters. While female characters, by definition as well as by reference to the traditional traits of femininity, are female, males as victims are not. Their being cast, as it were, into this role, therefore, constitutes a feminization of them and not merely a role reversal. They retain the male physique, but psychologically they are transformed. They become, as it were, women trapped in men’s bodies, or psychological hermaphrodites, or transsexuals.


By feminizing both male audience members-as-victims, their larger communities, and the monster itself (as well as, occasionally, the slayer of the monster), contemporary horror movies are part of the ongoing feminization of American (and, indeed, international) culture. Although some may find such a metamorphosis to be desirable, many others find it--in a word--horrific. It seems that all is grist for the mill, after all. Hence, the feminization of the contemporary male is another of the many themes and topics that writers of horror have adopted recently, as such television series as Xena, Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and such movies as Psycho, Dressed To Kill, Alien and its sequels, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (starring none other than Renee Zellweger!), The Silence of the Lambs, Species, Sleepaway Camp, The Descent, and others suggest.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Endings: How Would You Finish The Story?

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, “Beginnings: How Would You Finish the Story?,” we reminded you that a story, after presenting background information, begins with an inciting moment--an incident that sparks the action that follows (the story proper). Following this moment, the story’s conflict is complicated as increasingly difficult obstacles are thrown into the protagonist’s path until a turning point is reached and the story starts in the opposite direction, ending in a resolution (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy). Then, we provided summaries of the way that three well-known horror stories begin and invited you to create your own middles and endings for these stories, alternative to the actual ones that the writers of these stories wrote. We suggested that you then consult an Internet source to see how the actual stories developed their middles and endings. The stories are Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Stephen King’s Needful Things, and The Thing From Another World. In “Middles: How Would You Finish the Story?,” we summarized the ways in which the writers of these stories actually did develop the stories’ middle portions. In this post, we summarize how these writers ended their stories and offer a few comments concerning these endings. We invite you to consider how you might have ended them, reminding you that alternate endings actually are filmed for some motion pictures, which shows that there is more than one effective way to bring one’s narrative to a close.
Toward the end of the middle of Psycho, Marion Crane’s sister Lila has rented a room with Marion’s boyfriend, Sam, to investigate Marion’s disappearance, and, while Sam distracts Norman, Lila enters the fruit cellar in Norman’s house, which overlooks the motel, and discovers Norman’s secret: the mother with whom he converses--and argues--is actually a half-rotten, mummified corpse! After knocking Sam unconscious, Norman, wearing his mother’s clothes and wielding a knife and calling himself “Norma,” attacks Lila with a knife, but Sam, having recovered, saves Lila.
Let’s see how the writers ended their story:

The end of the story explains the bizarre incidents which have taken place in the middle of the story. After Sam disarms Norman, he is arrested. A psychiatrist, having examined Norman, explains that he has a split personality, and that the dominant one, that of his deceased mother, Norma, has taken over completely. Besides the murder of Marion and the detective who came to the Bates Motel in search of her, Norman is likely responsible for the murders of two additional missing women. His identity crisis began, the doctor says, ten years ago. Norman was already seriously disturbed. When his father died, he was left alone with only his mother. They two developed an unusually close relationship. When Norma met another man, Norman felt as if she had rejected him in favor of her newfound suitor. He reacted by killing them both. His guilt at having killed his mother caused him to resurrect her, first by stealing her body from its grave and using his knowledge of taxidermy to preserve it as much as possible and by transforming himself--or part of himself--into her. He also assumed that his mother was as jealous of him as she was of her. He forbade himself from becoming intimate with any other woman, and, when he was attracted to Marion, his mother killed her. Norman covered up his mother’s crime.

The film ends with Norma, thinking her private thoughts. She had no alternative, she tells herself, except to tell the truth about her son’s murder of the women and the
detective. She thinks that the police and psychiatrist may still suspect her of having killed the victims, so she intends to sit quietly, even after a fly lands on her nose. That way, they will see that she is incapable of hurting even a fly.

As she thinks these thoughts, her smile becomes the grin of his mother’s corpse and Marion’s car, containing Marion’s corpse and other incriminating evidence, is pulled from the swamp.

The ending neatly ties up the loose ends of the plot and explains the cause of the bizarre incidents that occurred during the middle of the story, maintaining the logic of the storyline and satisfying the audience’s curiosity as to what lies behind the chain of events they’ve witnessed. The psychiatrist’s explanation reassures the audience that reason can explain even the irrational and that sanity, therefore, is able to comprehend insanity. All may not be right with the world, but human rationality can at least explain, making the mysterious knowable. In addition, of course, justice triumphs, and Norma’s incarceration will protect society from her jealousy and rage. Norman himself is no longer a threat, for he has ceased to exist (in the framework of this story, at least--he makes a reappearance, supposedly cured, in subsequent sequels that Alfred Hitchcock, now deceased, did not direct).


Stephen King’s novel, Needful Things, ends with a showdown between Castle Rock’s sheriff, Alan Pangborn, and Leland Gaunt, the proprietor of the curiosity shop, Needful Things, whose wares have caused so much murder and mayhem:

In their final confrontation, Alan forces Leland to leave town, much as the frontier marshal often compels gunfighters to do, Leland’s car transforming itself into a nineteenth-century wagon, such as those that snake oil salesmen used in traveling from one Western town to another. On the side of the wagon, the cautionary declaration as that which was displayed in Leleand’s shop warns, “Caveat Emptor."

At the outset of the novel, a first-person narrator welcomed the reader, as a newcomer, to Castle Rock, Maine, drawing his or her attention to a new store, Needful Things. Now, far away from Castle Rock, Maine, in Junction City, Iowa, the narrator, again welcoming a new resident, points out a store that has just opened--Answered Prayers. Leland has apparently opened a new shop, in a new location, under a new name. One suspects, however, that he will conduct business as usual.:

The ends of stories are often the places in which their themes are made explicit or are given a more forceful suggestion. As we observed in the previous post, King says that this novel was inspired by the greed he saw in the behavior of televangelist Jim Bakker and his late ex-wife Tammy Faye Messner. In the end of his novel, he offers a remedy for such greed. Instead of an avaricious drive to secure for oneself those material goods that one considers “needful things” or “answered prayers,” one should value others, acting out of love, as the novel’s sheriff does in protecting society and caring for his girlfriend. In loving others and acting for the welfare of the community, King implies, one will have, as the sheriff tells Leland, all that he or she needs.


In the middle of The Thing From Another World, a scientist, Dr. Carrington, suggested that the vegetative humanoid creature they’d recovered from a block of ice near their arctic research laboratory was able to communicate with them. The Air Force personnel at the outpost disagreed. Having escaped from the greenhouse in which it had been trapped, the thing from another world, attacking the compound, now puts these conflicting theories to the test as the story comes to an end:

The scientists and airmen lured the creature into the facility’s generator shack, where they ambush it with high-voltage electricity. Twice, Dr. Carrington tries to save the creature. First, he turns of the electricity. When the current is restored, he rushes forward, trying to reason with the monster. The creature knocks him aside, but it--and the seedlings that grow from its body--are electrocuted. The journalist among the team wires the story, warning radio listeners to “watch the skies!”
Obviously (Barack Obama, take notice!), the airmen’s theory proves to have been the true one. Either the creature was unable or unwilling to communicate with the humans and, perhaps driven by its hunger for blood, remained intent upon attacking and killing them. The situation, as the military mind had anticipated, came down to one of killing or being killed. This story, incidentally, also makes use of a convention that is common in horror fiction, but effective, nevertheless--the isolated setting in which characters are cut off from the rest of society, from culture, and, indeed, from civilization itself and are stranded to survive (or not) on their own.

Xenophobia reigns, with foreigners (represented by the humanoid plant-thing) are hostile and intent upon murder and mayhem. Only by banding together can society (represented by the scientists--Dr. Carrington excepted--and airmen) triumph against an invasion from beyond. As we pointed out in the previous post, the isolation of the remote arctic outpost cuts the team off from society at large, from civilization, and from culture, forcing them to act on their own in the interest of their survival. It’s up to them, and them alone, whether they live or die. The impulse to communicate, to reach out, to establish a relationship of some kind with the stranger is shown to be counterproductive; it could have been the deaths of all concerned. “Watch the skies!” the reporter warns the movie’s 1950’s audience. A threat--perhaps in the form of Soviet missiles, armed with nuclear warheads rather than flying saucers manned with extraterrestrial plant-creatures--might appear at any time. The monster seems to have been a stand-in for Americans’ real fear of the Soviet Union and its ongoing, ever-present threat of the annihilation of society, civilization, and culture. This story ends in the same way that King’s Needful Things concludes, by suggesting more strongly the theme.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Middles: How Would You Finish The Story?

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post, “Beginnings: How Would You Finish the Story?,” we reminded you that a story, after presenting background information, begins with an inciting moment--an incident that sparks the action that follows (the story proper). Following this moment, the story’s conflict is complicated as increasingly difficult obstacles are thrown into the protagonist’s path until a turning point is reached and the story starts in the opposite direction, ending in a resolution (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy). Then, we provided summaries of the way that three well-known horror stories begin and invited you to create your own middles and endings for these stories, alternative to the actual ones that the writers of these stories wrote. We suggested that you then consult an Internet source to see how the actual stories developed their middles and endings. The stories are Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Stephen King’s Needful Things, and The Thing From Another World.

Since you may not remember, in detail, how these stories developed their middles and endings, even after consulting an online summary of them, we’ll summarize their middles in this post and offer some comments upon them. In a later post, we’ll do the same with regard to these stories’ endings.

Let’s start with Psycho:

Norman panics upon discovering Marion’s bloody corpse. However, he manages to wrap her body inside the shower curtain and cleans up the mess. Placing her body and all her belongings, including the stolen money, which Marion had hidden in a folded newspaper, into the trunk of her car, he pushes it down a slope, into a swamp.

Marion’s sister, Lila, worried that Marion is missing, contacts her lover, Sam, as does a private detective, Milton Arbogast, whom Mr. Lowery has hired to recover the money Marion has stolen. The detective suspects that Lila or Sam knows Marion’s whereabouts. Tracing Marion to the Bates Motel, Milton questions Norman and insists upon interviewing his mother, which Norman forbids. The detective calls Lila, telling her that Norman is not being truthful. Milton then sneaks into Norman’s house, but he is pushed down the stairs, backward, as he climbs them toward the second floor. To finish him off, he’s stabbed to death.

When Lila alerts the local deputy sheriff, Al Chambers, of Milton’s claim to have seen Norman’s mother, the lawman is baffled: the woman was buried 10 years ago, after she’d poisoned herself and her lover.

At home, Norman confronts his mother, urging her to hide out in the house’s fruit cellar to prevent herself from being discovered by those who are hunting for the missing woman, Marion, whom Mrs. Bates has murdered. She refuses to do so, irate as she recalls Norman’s having persuaded her to stay there previously, for a long time. Nevertheless, Norman carries her there, against her will, as she screams, “Put me down! I can walk!”

Sam and Lila conduct an undercover operation of their own. Pretending to be married, they rent a room at the Bates Motel. Norman is careful to assign them to one that is far from the one he’d rented to Marion, but they sneak into Marion’s former room and discover that the shower curtain is missing. Peering into the toilet bowl, Lila notices a bit of paper on the edge, with “$40,000” written on it--proof that her sister had been a guest at the Bates Motel.

Lila sneaks into Norman’s house to talk to Norman’s mother while Sam distracts him in the motel office by accusing Norman of having murdered Marion for the money she’d stolen. However, soon after they begin to argue, Norman discovers that Lila is absent. He knocks Sam out and flees to his house, but Lila, seeing his approach, takes refuge in the fruit cellar, where she finds Norman’s mother. She is horrified to learn that Mrs. Bates is a mummified corpse.

Wearing his mother's clothes and a wig, Norman bursts into the cellar, armed with a knife, identifying himself as his mother, Norma. Sam, having regained consciousness, disarms Norman, tearing his dress in the process.

Let’s see how the screenwriters, Joseph Stefano and Samuel A. Taylor (unaccredited), developed the middle of this story.

The middle of the story deals with the aftereffects of Norman’s murder of Marion. This portion of the story includes his murder of several other victims, and the revelation of his secret identity as his deceased mother (and thus his severe mental illness), which is accompanied by his cross dressing. It ends with Norman’s being disarmed by Sam as he attacks Lila, dressed as his mother, Norma. In other words, the middle of the story is logically connected to the beginning and explains the bizarre incidents that were suggested at the outset of the movie more than they were shown. The middle of the story also transitions to the ending, which we’ll look at in a later post. In the process, additional characters are introduced (often victims) as the initial conflict is complicated and the story moves toward its climax, or turning point. This approach is typical to horror story plots. After describing a number of bizarre incidents, the plot explains the cause or reason for these incidents as the main character discovers why such odd things are afoot. This knowledge allows him or her to solve the problem represented by these incidents and to restore order or the status quo, which takes place at the end of the story.


The beginning of Needful Things seems too slight for much development, but, as we mentioned in our previous post, Stephen King manages to get 792 pages out of it, and the movie based upon his novel has a running time of 120 minutes. How does King manage to get so much mileage out of the simple situation of a man with supernatural powers’ opening of a curiosity shop in small-town Castle Rock, Maine?

Let’s start by summarizing the middle of the story:
After the shop opens, the townspeople visit Needful Things, each to buy that which he or she wants more than anything else. Brian Rusk wants a Sandy Koufax baseball card on which the player has signed his (Brian’s) name; Danforth (“Buster“) Keeton wants a machine that forecasts the winners of horse races; others want things that have a special meaning for them. All agree to do a “favor” for the store’s kindly owner, Leland Gaunt, ignoring the warning, “Caveat emptor” (“Let the buyer beware”) posted in his shop. The favor is always a seemingly harmless, if sometimes mean-spirited, prank that is played upon a casual acquaintance. However, the pranks turn out to be anything but harmless, causing the townspeople to turn upon one another in an escalating series of violent acts that threatens to destroy the entire town.

The only person in town who is not susceptible to Leland’s powers, because he already has everything he needs, is Castle Rock’s sheriff, Alan Pangborn. During the course of the story, Alan suspects that the series of violent acts can all be attributed to the same source, or cause: Leland Gaunt. The story climaxes when Leland seduces the sheriff’s girlfriend, Polly, by presenting her with a necklace that relieves the pain she suffers as a result of her arthritic hands. Leland’s seduction of Polly forces a showdown between him and the sheriff.
King says that this novel was inspired by the greed he saw in the behavior of televangelist Jim Bakker and his late ex-wife Tammy Faye Messner.

The middle of the story is an outgrowth of its beginning, showing what many of the residents of Castle Rock value above all else and the consequences of their willingness to do harm to others to acquire these material objects. Therefore, it is a logical development of the story’s initial situation and, like Psycho’s middle, the middle of King’s novel also explains the cause of the bizarre incidents that occur in and around the town. Ironically, it is the man who values someone else, his girlfriend, above all merely material objects who can stand against Leland’s powers, and it is when Leland threatens the one whom Alan loves that the shopkeeper sets up the final showdown between the force of good and the force of evil that is played out at the end of the story. In the process, King also introduces more characters (mostly victims), and, by delving into the back stories of the many residents of Castle Rock who appear in this novel, King gives depth (and length) to the narrative. In addition, he provides the motives of, and insights into, his characters, making their choices of Leland’s wares and their willingness to harm others understandable if not always entirely believable.


Finally, we will summarize and comment upon the third story whose beginning we summarized in our previous post, The Thing From Another World, a 1951 science fiction classic film which qualifies as a horror flick, too, because of its chills and thrills:

A team of scientists at a remote arctic research laboratory, investigating a possible aircraft crash, find the wreckage of a flying saucer, covered in ice. Using explosives to free the ship, they accidentally destroy it, but they recover a body frozen in the ice.

As they return to their outpost, a major storm approaches, making communication with their headquarters in Anchorage problematic. Some scientists want to thaw out the creature, but the commanding officer, Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry forbids them from doing so until he receives orders from Anchorage.

Nervous in the presence of the alien body he guards, an airman uses an electric blanket to cover the ice block in which the extraterrestrial being reposes, causing the creature to thaw out, and it revives. Sled dogs attack the escaping alien, biting off one of its arms, which the scientists recover. As the limb warms, it absorbs the canine blood and returns to life. The scientists, examining the arm, conclude that, although the creature seems to be an animal of human-like appearance, it is actually a plant. (Yes, this twist stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.) Despite the creature’s obvious handicap to communication, one of the scientists (probably not a Nobel laureate) believes that they can reason with the creature. By contrast, the Air Force personnel do not believe that the plant can think or communicate with them, and they assume that it could be dangerous. (See, there is such a thing as military intelligence, on rare occasions.)

To survive, the plant-man attacks and kills other sled dogs, living upon their blood. When Dr. Carrington discovers a sled dog’s body, devoid of blood, hidden in the outpost’s greenhouse, he has volunteers among his team stand guard. The creature later kills several of them before it is lured into a trap inside the greenhouse.

Having determined that the creature needs human blood to reproduce, Dr. Carrington sneaks plasma from the base infirmary, using it to incubate the seeds he’s extracted from the creature’s severed arm.
The middle of this story is also logically connected to its opening situation, as the characters seek both to understand the nature of the creature they’ve recovered and to eliminate it as a threat after an Air Force guard inadvertently thaws the ice in which the creature reposes and it attacks sled dogs and humans. They learn the secret as to its true nature (a plant in human form) and the reason that it needs blood (to survive and to reproduce). Several characters become the monster’s victims. There is a conflict between a scientist’s desire to learn the secrets of nature, as represented by the alien plant-creature, and ordinary humans’ instinct for self-preservation, or survival. The former impulse is shown as being in opposition with the latter--at least when an extraterrestrial plant, capable of moving under its own power, is involved. The middle also transitions toward the story’s end, which we will consider in a later post. This story, incidentally, also makes use of a convention that is common in horror fiction, but effective, nevertheless--the isolated setting in which characters are cut off from the rest of society, from culture, and, indeed, from civilization itself and are stranded to survive (or not) on their own.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Beginnings: How Would You Finish The Story?

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

It’s relatively easy to start a story. More challenging than the beginning are the middle and the end. As we mentioned in previous posts, a story, after presenting background information, begins with an inciting moment--an incident that sparks the action that follows (the story proper). Following this moment, the story’s conflict is complicated as increasingly difficult obstacles are thrown into the protagonist’s path until a turning point is reached and the story starts in the opposite direction, ending in a resolution (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy).

In this post, we’re reviewing the beginnings of stories to provide an opportunity for aspiring writers to map out possible middles and endings for them.

Let’s start with a classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho:

Marion Crane has a problem. She wants to marry her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, but, in the wake of a divorce, he’s having financial problems. He’s paying alimony to his ex-wife while he pays his late father’s outstanding debts. Her employer, Mr. Lowery, a real estate agent, receives a cash payment from a wealthy client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s buying a house for his daughter’s wedding present. When Mr. Lowery asks her to deposit the money, she absconds with it instead, driving until she becomes exhausted. After a highway patrolman stops to check on her as she sleeps in her car, parked alongside the highway, taking note of her license plate, she trades in her car for another model. However, the patrolman witnesses the sale. Afraid that the patrolman will remember her once the theft is reported, Marion drives from Arizona into California, where Sam lives. However, as night deepens, a downpour occurs, and she is forced to rent a room in an out-of-the-way auto court, Bates Motel. Norman Bates, a shy, nervous young man, rents her a room. He offers to cook her a meal, but when he returns to the Victorian house on a hill overlooking the motel, Marion hears him argue with his mother, who forbids him to bring her into the house. He takes her a tray of food, which they share. She learns that his hobby is taxidermy; he enjoys stuffing dead animals, especially birds. Thereafter, Marion, who divulges her real name, goes to her room and hides the stolen money. She plans to return to Arizona the next day and make things right, if she can. After she leaves, Norman checks the motel register and sees that she has signed in under an assumed name. Ogling her through a peephole in his office, Norman watches Marion undress in her bathroom. The sight of her angers him, and he returns to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen. As Marion showers, a woman, armed with a butcher’s knife, enters the motel room bathroom, and stabs her to death.

Let’s try another:

A new shop opens in Castle Rock, Maine, attracting local residents who seek “needful things”--merchandise that they want worse than anything else, merchandise for which they are willing to do anything.

Does this opening seem to slight for a full-fledged novel or motion picture? The novel is a whopping 792 pages, and the film runs 120 minutes!

And another:

Scientists at an arctic research outpost discover an extraterrestrial pilot frozen in a block of ice. Taking “The Thing From Another World” back to their laboratory, the alien is thawed out; wackiness ensues.
How do the writers of these stories flesh them out? In other words, how do they get from their beginnings to their middles and from their middles to their ends? To find out, simply read a good summary of each of them on a reliable Internet site: Psycho, Needful Things, and The Thing From Another World.

The ways in which these beginnings were developed are not the only ways they could have been developed. However, they do show the ways that several professional writers chose to develop them. If you took this exercise seriously, you should have created an alternate middle and end for each of these beginnings. Sometimes, movies are packaged with alternate endings so viewers who don’t like the “official” ending are free to select a different one.

Regardless of how a beginning is developed, one should be careful to ensure that there is a cause-and-effect relationship among the incidents of the plot so that everything that happens does so for a reason. To ensure such causal relationships, you might actually use such transitions in your summary of the plot as because, since, therefore, as a result, due to, and so forth.
One further warning: surprise your reader. Make sure your plot has lots of unexpected twists and turns. A plot can (and should be) both logical and unpredictable.

Purposeful, Frightening Scenes

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

The largest part of a story is an act. Acts are made up of scenes. Scenes, in turn, are made up of incidents.

A good analogy is to think of an act as a chapter, a scene as a paragraph, and an incident as a sentence. Using this analogy, we can say that the first act of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, is comprised of the following scenes (our designation of the scenes is our own; the transcript of the screenplay we consulted as the basis for the summary does not divide the action into scenes):


  1. In a Phoenix, Arizona, hotel room, during her lunch break, Marion Crane and Sam Loomis discuss their frustration at wanting to marry one another but being unable to do so because of the heavy financial drain caused by Sam’s alimony payments to his ex-wife and his payment of his deceased father’s outstanding debts.

  2. Marion returns to work at Lowery Real Estate and learns that her employer, Mr. Lowery, is also late returning from lunch. As she chats with Caroline, a clerk, Mr. Lowery enters with a client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s had one drink too many. Mr. Lowery asks Marion to bring a deed into his office. Showing Marion a picture of his daughter, who’s to marry tomorrow, Cassidy makes a pass at Marion, but she deflects his flirtation. Then, he shows her the $40,000 in cash he’s brought to buy a house as his daughter’s wedding present. After Mr. Cassidy goes into his office, Mr. Lowery tells Marion to deposit the cash in the bank; he will get his client to write him a check for the money instead on Monday, when Mr. Cassidy is sober. Marion takes the deed into Mr. Lowery’s office and, complaining of a headache, asks permission to go home after depositing the money at the bank.

  3. Instead of depositing the money, Marion has gone home, where, having packed a suitcase, she dresses. She steals the bank deposit.

  4. As she drives through the city, she hears Sam’s voice greeting her upon her arrival and sees Mr. Lowery and Mr. Cassidy, exchanging waves with her befuddled employer.

  5. She continues to drive until night falls. Tired, she pulls off the road to sleep. She is awakened by a highway patrolman, who makes note of her license plate number. After she returns to the road, the patrolman follows her.

  6. Because the patrolman has her license plate number, she fears that he will connect her car with the money she’s stolen, once the theft is reported, so she trades in her car for a different model with different license plates.

  7. As she drives away, Marion imagines the highway patrolman talking to California Charlie, the car salesman, about her. Because she has acted suspiciously, the patrolman is likely to want to examine the sales papers, she thinks. She then imagines conversations between Mr. Lowery and Caroline, between him and Marion’s sister, and between him and Mr. Lowery, in which they figure out that she has absconded with the bank deposit.

  8. As a downpour begins, Marion sees a neon sign announcing “Bate’s Motel, Vacancy.” She stops to rent a room, but no one is tending the office. She sees a Victorian house atop a hill, in the front of an upstairs window of which the silhouette of a female figure moves past an illuminated window shade.

  9. Returning to her car, she honks, and, a little later, a young man joins her. As they exchange small talk, Norman telling her that all the rooms are vacant, the new interstate having bypassed the motel. The motel is relatively isolated, the nearest town, Fairvale, being 15 miles away. Norman returns to the house atop the hill to prepare a dinner for them.

  10. Marion hides the stolen money in a newspaper cradled in a magazine rack in her room. From the house on the hill, she hears Norman arguing with an elderly woman, who says, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper--by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!”

  11. Norman brings a tray of food, suggesting that he and Marion share it in his office. The office is decorated with stuffed birds, a result of Norman’s hobby as a taxidermist. Norman tells Marion that he’s trapped by having to care for his aged mother, who’s mentally ill after her husband died when Norman was five and a lover (before suffering a violent death) talked her into building the motel. Marion’s suggestion that Norman commit his mother to an asylum angers him. After he calms down, Marion returns to her room, saying she’s driving back to Phoenix the next day to try to extract herself from “a private trap” she’d “stepped into” there. In parting, Marion slips, telling Norman her real name, and he sees that, on the register, she’s signed under the assumed name of “Marie Samuels.”

  12. Norman peeps through a hole in the wall and sees Marion undressing in the bathroom.

  13. He retreats to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen.

  14. In her room, Marion calculates the money she’s spent and will have to repay, flushes this potentially incriminating evidence down the toilet, and takes a shower. As she showers, a woman wielding a knife stabs her repeatedly, killing her.

According to our analysis, each of the above sentences is an incident of the story’s plot. Together, one or more of these incidents make up a scene. (Note: a scene involves conflict regarding at least one character--and usually two or more characters--and, often, dialogue, and it moves the story forward in a specific way, according to a predetermine purpose). In regard to horror stories, we might add that a scene also should scare the audience whenever possible.) Several scenes, in turn, make up an act.


As we indicated in a previous post, dramas (and other types of narratives, such as novels), often consist of five acts: (1) exposition, ending with an inciting moment that sets the (2) rising action in motion, leading to a (3) turning point, or climax, which gives way to the (4) falling action, which leads to (5) a resolution (if the story is a comedy) or to a catastrophe (if the story is a tragedy). (We won’t repeat our discussion of dramatic structure in detail in this post, but if you haven’t read it or don’t remember the details, you should refresh your memory by rereading “XXX.”)


As we have summarized the first act of Psycho, the first scene of this act consists of one incident:

In a Phoenix, Arizona, hotel room, during her lunch break, Marion Crane and Sam Loomis discuss their frustration at wanting to marry one another but being unable to do so because of the heavy financial drain caused by Sam’s alimony payments to his ex-wife and his payment of his deceased father’s outstanding debts.
The second scene of this act also consists of seven incidents:

Marion returns to work at Lowery Real Estate and learns that her employer, Mr. Lowery, is also late returning from lunch. As she chats with Caroline, a clerk, Mr. Lowery enters with a client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s had one drink too many. Mr. Lowery asks Marion to bring a deed into his office. Showing Marion a picture of his daughter, who’s to marry tomorrow, Cassidy makes a pass at Marion, but she deflects his flirtation. Then, he shows her the $40,000 in cash he’s brought to buy a house as his daughter’s wedding present. After Mr. Cassidy goes into his office, Mr. Lowery tells Marion to deposit the cash in the bank; he will get his client to write him a check for the money instead on Monday, when Mr. Cassidy is sober. Marion takes the deed into Mr. Lowery’s office and, complaining of a headache, asks permission to go home after depositing the money at the bank.
The third scene of this act is made up of one incident:

Instead of depositing the money, Marion has gone home, where, having packed a suitcase, she dresses. She steals the bank deposit.
Two incidents make up the fourth scene (each is underlined in its own color to better distinguish the two):

As she drives through the city, she hears Sam’s voice greeting her upon her arrival in California. She sees Mr. Lowery and Mr. Cassidy, exchanging waves with her befuddled employer.
The fifth scene is comprised of four incidents (each shown in a different color for emphasis):

She continues to drive until night falls. Tired, she pulls off the road to sleep. She is awakened by a highway patrolman, who makes note of her license plate number. After she returns to the road, the patrolman follows her.
Scene six consists of one incident:

Because the patrolman has her license plate number, she fears that he will connect her car with the money she’s stolen, once the theft is reported, so she trades in her car for a different model with different license plates.
The seventh scene is comprised of three incidents (each of which is underlined in a different color for emphasis):

As she drives away, Marion imagines the highway patrolman talking to California Charlie, the car salesman, about her. Because she has acted suspiciously, the patrolman is likely to want to examine the sales papers, she thinks. She then imagines conversations between Mr. Lowery and Caroline, between him and Marion’s sister, and between him and Mr. Lowery, in which they figure out that she has absconded with the bank deposit.
Three incidents make up scene eight (and are underlined in different colors to better distinguish each of them:

As a downpour begins, Marion sees a neon sign announcing “Bate’s Motel, Vacancy.” She stops to rent a room, but no one is tending the office. She sees a Victorian house atop a hill, in the front of an upstairs window of which the silhouette of a female figure moves past an illuminated window shade.
The ninth scene? Four incidents (again, each in its own color):

Returning to her car, she honks, and, a little later, a young man joins her. As they exchange small talk, Norman telling her that all the rooms are vacant, the new interstate having bypassed the motel. The motel is relatively isolated, the nearest town, Fairvale, being 15 miles away. Norman returns to the house atop the hill to prepare a dinner for them.
Scene 10 is made up of two incidents (colored individually):

Marion hides the stolen money in a newspaper cradled in a magazine rack in her room. From the house on the hill, she hears Norman arguing with an elderly woman, who says, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper--by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!”
Different colors indicate that scene 11 contains incidents:

Norman brings a tray of food, suggesting that he and Marion share it in his office. The office is decorated with stuffed birds, a result of Norman’s hobby as a taxidermist. Norman tells Marion that he’s trapped by having to care for his aged mother, who’s mentally ill after her husband died when Norman was five and a lover (before suffering a violent death) talked her into building the motel. Marion’s suggestion that Norman commit his mother to an asylum angers him. After he calms down, Marion returns to her room, saying she’s driving back to Phoenix the next day to try to extract herself from “a private trap” she’d “stepped into” there. In parting, Marion slips, telling Norman her real name, and he sees that, on the register, she’s signed under the assumed name of “Marie Samuels.”
Scene 12 = one incident:

Norman peeps through a hole in the wall and sees Marion undressing in the bathroom.
Scene 13 = one incident:

He retreats to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen.

Scene 14 is made up of two incidents (shown, again, in distinguishing colors):

In her room, Marion calculates the money she’s spent and will have to repay, flushes this potentially incriminating evidence down the toilet, and takes a shower. As she
showers, a woman wielding a knife stabs her repeatedly, killing her.




We said that each scene should advance the story in some way, so let's see how each of the four opening scenes of Psycho do so:

  1. In a Phoenix, Arizona, hotel room, during her lunch break, Marion Crane and Sam Loomis discuss their frustration at wanting to marry one another but being unable to do so because of the heavy financial drain caused by Sam’s alimony payments to his ex-wife and his payment of his deceased father’s outstanding debts. (This scene provides the antagonist’s motivation.)

  2. Marion returns to work at Lowery Real Estate and learns that her employer, Mr. Lowery, is also late returning from lunch. As she chats with Caroline, a clerk, Mr. Lowery enters with a client, Mr. Cassidy, who’s had one drink too many. Mr. Lowery asks Marion to bring a deed into his office. Showing Marion a picture of his daughter, who’s to marry tomorrow, Cassidy makes a pass at Marion, but she deflects his flirtation. Then, he shows her the $40,000 in cash he’s brought to buy a house as his daughter’s wedding present. After Mr. Cassidy goes into his office, Mr. Lowery tells Marion to deposit the cash in the bank; he will get his client to write him a check for the money instead on Monday, when Mr. Cassidy is sober. Marion takes the deed into Mr. Lowery’s office and, complaining of a headache, asks permission to go home after depositing the money at the bank. (This scene sets up the next one, creating the situation that allows Marion to commit a crime.)

  3. Instead of depositing the money, Marion has gone home, where, having packed a suitcase, she dresses. She steals the bank deposit. (This scene shows the antagonist perform an action--commit a crime; she forces herself, by her own behavior, to leave her job and her home, and to leave town, never to return; her crime makes her less sympathetic, or entirely unsympathetic, to audience.)

  4. As she drives through the city, she hears Sam’s voice greeting her upon her arrival and sees Mr. Lowery and Mr. Cassidy, exchanging waves with her befuddled employer. (This scene restores some sympathy for Marion, showing her to have a conscience, but it also allows her a chance to reconsider her scheme and to forego stealing the money. When she goes through with the crime, the audience may feel that she is weak, rather than evil.)

  5. Scenes 5, 6, and 7 force Marion’s hand, and her attempts to thwart justice also makes her even more unsympathetic to the audience: She continues to drive until night falls. Tired, she pulls off the road to sleep. She is awakened by a highway patrolman, who makes note of her license plate number. After she returns to the road, the patrolman follows her.

  6. Because the patrolman has her license plate number, she fears that he will connect her car with the money she’s stolen, once the theft is reported, so she trades in her car for a different model with different license plates.

  7. As she drives away, Marion imagines the highway patrolman talking to California Charlie, the car salesman, about her. Because she has acted suspiciously, the patrolman is likely to want to examine the sales papers, she thinks. She then imagines conversations between Mr. Lowery and Caroline, between him and Marion’s sister, and between him and Mr. Lowery, in which they figure out that she as absconded with the bank deposit.

  8. As a downpour begins, Marion sees a neon sign announcing “Bate’s Motel, Vacancy.” She stops to rent a room, but no one is tending the office. She sees a Victorian house atop a hill, in the front of an upstairs window of which the silhouette of a female figure moves past an illuminated window shade. (This scene offers Marion a respite from the physical storm and from the storm of her emotions--the guilt and fear she feels--and introduces the idea that a woman lives in the house at the top of the hill that overlooks Bates Motel.)

  9. Returning to her car, she honks, and, a little later, a young man joins her. As they exchange small talk, shy, awkward Norman telling her that all the rooms are vacant, the new interstate having bypassed the motel. The motel is relatively isolated, the nearest town, Fairvale, being 15 miles away. Norman returns to the house atop the hill to prepare a dinner for them. (This scene brings the movie’s antagonist face to face with its protagonist and shows Norman to be a shy and awkward young man who, although attracted to the opposite sex, is uncomfortable in the presence of women.)

  10. Marion hides the stolen money in a newspaper cradled in a magazine rack in her room. From the house on the hill, she hears Norman arguing with an elderly woman, who says, “I won’t have you bringing strange young girls in here for supper--by candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds!” (This scene shows the conflict between Norman and his mother--up to this point, the audience has only heard of it, not overheard it.)

  11. Norman brings a tray of food, suggesting that he and Marion share it in his office. The office is decorated with stuffed birds, a result of Norman’s hobby as a taxidermist. Norman tells Marion that he’s trapped by having to care for his aged mother, who’s mentally ill after her husband died when Norman was five and a lover (before suffering a violent death) talked her into building the motel. Marion’s suggestion that Norman commit his mother to an asylum angers him. After he calms down, Marion returns to her room, saying she’s driving back to Phoenix the next day to try to extract herself from “a private trap” she’d “stepped into” there. In parting, Marion slips, telling Norman her real name, and he sees that, on the register, she’s signed under the assumed name of “Marie Samuels.” (This scene provides the background information that Norman knows how to stuff dead bodies, further develops the conflict between Norman and his mother, further characterizes Norman--the audience sees him as strange, understands that he feels “trapped” by his circumstances, shows he’s quick to anger, suggests he has a psychologically unhealthy relationship with his mother--intimates that violence has occurred in the past--in the death of Norman’s mother’s lover--makes Marion somewhat more sympathetic--because she has decided to try to make matters right concerning her theft of the money--and allows Norman to see that his suspicion that Marion is running from something is accurate, since she has signed in under an assumed name.)

  12. Norman peeps through a hole in the wall and sees Marion undressing in the bathroom. (This scene shows that Norman is a voyeur.)

  13. He retreats to the house atop the hill, sulking in the kitchen. (This scene shows that Marion is conflicted concerning Marion and the sexuality that her nudity represents.)

  14. In her room, Marion calculates the money she’s spent and will have to repay, flushes this potentially incriminating evidence down the toilet, and takes a shower. As she showers, a woman wielding a knife stabs her repeatedly, killing her. (This scene restores a large measure of the audience’s sympathy for Marion, showing her as repentant, but ends with the story’s inciting moment as the protagonist, Norman Bates, commits a crime that will result in his ultimate undoing.)

We said that, in a horror movie, scenes must also frighten whenever possible. What’s frightening about the four scenes we identified as making up the first act of this film?



Even when a scene accomplishes a definite, predetermined purpose--motivating a character, for example--it can, and should, in horror stories, frighten the audience. Therefore, a horror story writer must discern what is horrific, implicitly or explicitly, about each of our plot’s incidents. Not every scene, especially of the earlier ones, frightens viewers, but several do, the types of fears varying, as do their intensities, building toward the shower scene’s climactic terror:

  • We fear that Marion may do something rash.
  • When she does so, we fear that Marion may get caught.
  • When she does not, we fear that Marion may get arrested.
  • We fear that Norman may not be trustworthy and, in fact, may be mentally unstable.
  • We fear that Marion may be raped.
  • We fear that Marion will be killed (which, of course, she is).

Since this has been a fairly long post, let’s summarize its key points:

  • The largest part of a story is an act. Acts are made up of scenes. Scenes, in turn, are made up of incidents.
  • A scene involves conflict regarding at least one character--and usually two or more characters--and, often, dialogue, and it moves the story forward in a specific way, according to a predetermine purpose. In regard to horror stories, we might add that a scene also should scare the audience whenever possible.
  • Various ways in which the scenes in Psycho move the story forward are to motivate characters; to set up subsequent scenes; to establish points of no return that force a character to continue to behave according to a specific course of action; to characterize the protagonist, the antagonist, or another character; to establish or heighten conflict within or between characters; and to provide background (expository) information about the story’s characters or situations.
  • A drama often consists of five acts: (1) exposition, ending with an inciting moment that sets the (2) rising action in motion, leading to a (3) turning point, or climax, which gives way to the (4) falling action, which leads to (5) a resolution (if the story is a comedy) or to a catastrophe (if the story is a tragedy).

Note: The summary of Psycho is based upon the screenplay, available at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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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