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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Hyperfeminine Monster: What Does She Look Like?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Some hypermasculine fictional characters are good guys (of a sort, at least), among whose ranks we may count The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine or, on a slightly more realistic level, James Bond or Dirty Harry. More often, however, especially in horror fiction, such characters tend to be the heavies, the Predators and the Xenomorphs or, on the slightly more realistic level of the espionage and the police dramas, the Odd Jobs and the Scorpios. In real-life, the hypermasculine good guy might be a cowboy, a policeman, a soldier, or a mercenary, and the hypermasculine bad guy might be a gunfighter, a sociopath, an enemy commando, or an outlaw biker.

Whether comic book super villain, horror story monster, or police drama bad guy, the hypermasculine character is fairly familiar, but what does his counterpart, the hyperfeminine monster, look like, and how does she act?

Hyperfeminine characters exhibit exaggeration of feminine qualities. Typically, they stroke the male ego, are passive, naïve, innocent, flirty, graceful, nurturing, and accepting, even, sometimes, of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They want to be seen as all-woman women, and they are drawn to hypermasculine men (men who exaggerate masculine traits).

If the aliens of Predator and Alien represent horror fiction’s image of the hypermasculine monster, does Sil, of Species (1995), represent the female equivalent, the hyperfeminine monster, or are we talking something more along the lines of another extraterrestrial creature, the Blob?

“Sil” is the name given to a female alien-human hybrid produced by scientists, using instructions transmitted to them from the alien species, by splicing human and alien DNA together. When she reaches adolescence in only three months, breaking free of her confinement, the scientists view her as a potential menace, and the government seeks to hunt her down and destroy her before she can mate with a man or men. Able to revert to her alien form at will, Sil is extremely strong, agile, and intelligent. She also has incredible regenerative abilities.

She seeks a mate, killing two men, the first because he is a diabetic and, therefore, unworthy of her, the second because the couple are interrupted as they’re about to, uh, couple. Disguised, she does mate with one of the scientists in the hunting party, killing him when he recognizes her. Ultimately, she and her offspring are killed in a cave. (The monstrous Sil was created by H. R. Giger, the same superb biomechanical artist who designed the xenomorph that appears in Alien and its sequels.)

Although in her human guise, Sil is beautiful (Michelle Williams plays her as an adolescent, and Natasha Henstridge portrays her as an adult) and she is adept at turning men’s heads (both literally and figuratively), Sil seems to have too many traits that are traditionally categorized as masculine (or, indeed, as hypermasculine) to qualify as a hyperfeminine monster: she is aggressive, physically powerful, and violent.

Although she becomes a mother, she doesn’t appear to be the nurturing type, and she most definitely is not at all concerned with stroking the male ego, is not passive, is not naïve, is not innocent, is flirty only in a clumsy fashion, and is anything but accepting of others’ flaws. It’s hard to imagine any female creature that is less likely to tolerate physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In fact, if anything, she is the predator and the abuser.

A more recent movie, Teeth (2007), may offer us the image of the hyperfeminine monster. The premise seems promising: Dawn O’Keefe, a young woman, has teeth in her vagina. She’s certainly able to defend herself: when a new acquaintance refuses to take no for an answer, forcing himself upon her in a cave after a quick swim, she--or her vagina dentata (vagina with teeth)--bites off the offensive offender’s penis, and she flees the scene of the crime, leaving him to bleed to death.

After researching the topic of the vagina dentata, Dawn visits her gynecologist to see whether her condition qualifies. When the doctor, pretending to examine her, molests Dawn, she--or her vagina--responds, biting off his fingers. Later, learning that her classmate Ryan has bet that he can seduce Dawn, her vagina dentata bites off his penis.

She recalls an earlier victim of sorts: her stepbrother, who molested her when she was younger. It wasn’t with her mouth, as she had remembered until now, that she’d bitten his finger at the time; it was with her vaginal teeth.

She leaves home on her bicycle, but, when it has a flat tire, she accepts a ride with a male driver. He locks the car’s doors when she tries to get out at a gas station, and intimates that he wants to have sex with her. Dawn responds with a sinister smile.

Both aggressive and violent, Dawn isn’t really a predator as such, attacking only those who have or would molest or otherwise harm her, so it seems difficult to imagine her as a hyperfeminine monster.

Maybe the much earlier movie, The Blob (1958), offers a better idea of the hyperfeminine. Although the alien’s sex, if it has one, is not identified in the story, it does seem to have some traits that are traditionally identified as feminine, and it seems extreme in its exercise of these qualities. An alien, the Blob is a formless creature resembling a colossal ameba. Able to envelope its prey, incorporating animals and human beings into its jelly-like mass, it is repelled by cold temperatures, and the military dispatches it to the arctic after it is frozen in carbon dioxide, where it remains until the movie’s sequel, Beware! The Blob (1972).

In the latter film, Chester, a construction worker who is helping to lay the Alaska oil pipeline, brings home a mysterious, jelly-like substance. When it thaws on his kitchen countertop, it is hungry, after being frozen for fourteen years, and appeases its appetite by devouring increasingly bigger prey: a fly, a kitten, Chester’s wife, and Chester himself.

Afterward, the monster attacks and eats hippies, police, a barber and his customer, homeless people, a Scout master, bowlers, skaters, and even chickens, before it is frozen inside the ice skating rink. The 1988 movie is a remake of the original, rather than another sequel.

The Blob is aggressive (in a somewhat passive manner) and, in its own way, violent, which are attributes that are traditionally associated with males. However, its ability to envelop its prey; its passive-aggressive nature; its aversion to cold (i. e., its preference for warmth, which, symbolically, might signify a desire for sociable contact, if not affection; its open acceptance of all; and its womblike “smothering” of others are qualities that are traditionally linked to females.

It seems, then, that the Blob is more hyperfeminine than either Sil or Dawn O’Keefe and, for the present, at any rate, earns the title of horror fiction’s most nearly hyperfeminine monster.

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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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