Fascinating lists!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Generating Horror Plots, Part III

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae.

1. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

2. Rescue a damsel in distress. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

3. Find the strange in the familiar. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

4. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

5. Conduct an experiment. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which we discussed in a previous post); Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, and many of H. G. Wells’ novels (e. g., The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau) and some of his short stories. Most readers are familiar with Frankenstein, although more so with the movie versions than with the expostulatory novel in which a student of science creates a monstrous human being from cadavers, from which he flees. The monster, seeking companionship, intends to kidnap a boy, but kills him instead, when he learns the boy is his maker’s younger brother, and implicates a girl in the murder. The monster then demands that Frankenstein create a wife for him, and, to protect his family, the student agrees, but, repenting, destroys his work before it is completed, whereupon the monster avenges himself by killing Frankenstein’s bride, his cousin Elizabeth, whose father died soon thereafter, of grief. The grieving groom pursues his creation to the north pole, where the monster commits suicide. In Wells’ The Food of the Gods, scientists Bensington and Redwood concoct Herakleophobia IV, a chemical growth agent that causes organisms, whether plants or animals, to grow to tremendous size. Their experiment commences with chickens, but the careless couple whom they hire to feed the fowl allow other animals to eat the food as well, with the result that giant rats, wasps, and even worms are soon terrorizing the countryside. Armed with rifles, the scientists hunt down the monstrous animals and burn down their farm. However, rather stupid for scientists, the researchers next feed children the chemical treat, producing giants whom the world fear and reject. After one of the giants is killed, the others, whom Wells labels “Children of the Food” square off for a showdown with the normal human beings who persecute them, whom Wells describes as the “Pygmies.” The hatred and fear with which the ostracized Children of the Food are treated by ordinary men and women is echoed by society’s treatment of the Marvel Comics mutant superheroes known as The X-Men. In The Invisible Man, Wells’ scientist is a man named Griffin, believing that a person might be rendered invisible by altering his refractive index to match those of the air so that his body no longer reflects light, puts his theory to the test on himself, with the result that he becomes invisible. Thereafter, he goes insane, threatening and attacking others, until he is beaten to death by a mob. His invisibility formula is lost to posterity because of indecipherable pages in his journal. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked survivor, is brought ashore by natives of a remote, uncharted island, where he discovers Dr. Moreau’s experimental attempts to create man-animal hybrids, the so-called Beast Folk. Moreau is killed by an escaped puma, and, after Moreau’s assistant, Dr. Montgomery, is later killed by the Beast Folk, Prendick lives among the hybrid creatures until he is able to escape the island aboard a ship that washes ashore, is picked up by a ship that is returning to England, and returns to homeland, having learned by the reaction of the rescuers to his tale not to tell of his experiences to others, lest he be thought insane, and adopts the pretense of having acquired amnesia concerning the time he spent as a castaway. The theme of the mad scientist has become a favorite among both science fiction and horror writers, and it underlies such additional stories as Jurassic Park (1993), Metropolis (1927), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), The Mysterious Island (1974), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Carnosaur (1993), Re-Animator (1985), The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984), and many others.

6. Invade paradise. In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale comes to appreciate the home that she first disparaged, taking her Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and life on their Kansas farm for granted. This is a theme common to many horror films as well, in which the true value of a person, place, or thing, be it ever so humble, is first taken for granted but, after it is threatened, (often, in the case of places, by invasion) is appreciated for, if not exactly paradise, comes to be valued. Invaders From Mars, The War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers are some of the science fiction-cum-horror films that are based upon this there’s-no-place-like-home theme. The haunted house can be an example of an invaded paradise, as it is in Poltergeist, which is invaded by demonic spirits, and another twist on this motif is that of demonic possession in which it is not a place, but a person, who is threatened or, as it were, invaded, as in The Exorcist and The Possession of Emily Rose.

7. Dig up that which has been buried (repressed). Besides concerning himself with such matters as boys’ fears of castration which he believed the sight of a vagina created in males and girls’ supposed “envy” of boys’ penises, the eclectic theorist Sigmund Freud suggested that the uncanny has a déjà vu element that is caused by the fact that unpleasant feelings which have been repressed by a person return in somewhat disguised form and seems at once both familiar and strange, and both attractive and repulsive. Be that as it may, some find the idea of repressed memories a useful springboard for the introduction of horrible and horrific incidents. Xander Harris, a character in the televisions series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sums up this view in his typically zany, but apt, “Xanderspeak,” when he tells the protagonist, Buffy Summers, in the “Dead Man’s Party” episode, “You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get you,” just before their party is attacked by zombies. The Others (2001) is another example of this approach. After she and her children experience a series of bizarre incidents, Grace Stewart believes that her house is haunted, only to find out that the ghosts are living people and that she and her children are the true ghosts who are haunting the house. Grace had repressed the memory of having killed her own children before committing suicide. Hide and Seek (2005) also employs this tactic. Following the murder of her mother, Emily Callaway adopts an imaginary playmate named Charlie, who is actually the alter ego of her father, the murderer, who has a split personality. Emily witnessed her father’s murder of her mother, but repressed the memory of this experience by positing the existence of Charlie as her mother’s actual killer.

In subsequent posts, we will continue our consideration of basic horror storylines.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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