Fascinating lists!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Monster Mash, or How To Create A Monster

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Believe it or not, there is a science, as it were, of monsters. Known as teratology, the study sought to ascertain the origins and the significance of monsters. Originally regarded as ill omens, expressive of God’s displeasure, monsters were believed to warn of the imminence of divine judgment, or the wrath of God, and, of course, the punishment that would follow.

According to Marie-Helene Huet’s Monstrous Imagination, monsters have been considered to have originated as the result of divine creation, of demonic creation, of astronomical influences, of interspecies fornication, of imperfections in parental anatomies, and of the maternal imagination, especially as it focused upon images during the mother’s conception or pregnancy (1); “defective sperm or a deformed womb,” she adds, could also have been the causes of the births of such human deformities (6).

Later, monsters went from being regarded as warnings from God to being considered the results of birth defects, and some teratologists dedicated themselves to attempting to create monsters in laboratories--or in what passed, at the time, for laboratories. One such person, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (called Isidore of Seville, for short), claims to have created them by the thousands in an early effort to comprehend “monstrous embryology,” a study that he termed “teratogeny” (Huet, 108).

Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, exemplifies the excrescence of body parts.

Isidore of Seville also devised a classification system, or taxonomy, of monsters that contemporary horror writers might find helpful in their creations of literary, if not actual, monsters. David Williams summarizes Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy in Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature, to which are added the examples in square brackets:

In Isidore’s structure, monstrosity is constituted in one of the following ways: (1) hypertrophy of the body [i. e. giants], (2) atrophy of the body [i. e., pygmies] (3) excrescence of body parts, (4) superfluity of body parts [Multicephalics (hydra), bicephalics (Janus), tricephalics (Cerberus), Argus] , (5) deprivation of body parts [Antipodes, Cyclops, Acephalic (i. e., Blemmye or Epifuge), Grylle, Baubo], (6) mixture of human and animal parts [Lamia, Mermaid, Satyr, Centaur, Minotaur, Cynocephail, Manticore], (7) animal births by human women, (8) mislocation of organs or parts in the body [Grylle, Baubo], (9) disturbed growth (being born old), (10) composite beings, (11) hermaphrodites, and (12) monstrous races [Sciapodes] (107).

The tricephalic Cerberus (courtesy of the poet-artist William Blake)

There was occasionally some overlap among the categories, but, in general, they manage to account for most, if not all, of the extant monsters of myth, legend, folklore, and modern literatures in which monsters still answer curtain calls, such as fantasy, science fiction, and, of course, the horror genre, such as pygmies, giants, Antipodes, shape-shifters, multicephalic animals and humans, blemmyes (also known as epifuges), plants which grow human heads instead of flowers; animals with human heads or humans with animal heads, the Cynocephali, and the Astomori, many of which Williams discusses in his book.

Shiva, an illustration of a superfluity of body parts

Other writers also compiled taxonomies of monsters, including, as Williams notes, Ambrose Paré and Claude Kappler (15).

In developing his taxonomy, Williams offers twelve ways by which writers may create monsters:

Rip Van Winkle, who suffered a condition analagous to disturbed growth culminating in premature aging
  1. Hypertrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be enlarged, to produce a giant of some kind. Example: Giants.
  2. Atrophy: One or more organs (or the whole body) may be shrunk, to produce a pygmy of some kind. Example: Pygmies.
  3. Excrescence: Abnormal outgrowths may appear upon the face, the body, or both, disfiguring a person and giving him or her a monstrous appearance. Example: the Elephant Man.
  4. Superfluity of body parts: One or more superfluous body parts--arms, breasts, eyes, legs, nipples, teeth--may form on (or inside) the body, often in unusual locations. Example: Multicephalic (many-headed), tricephalic (three-headed), or bicephalic (two-headed) creatures, such as the hydra, Cerberus, and Janus, respectively.
  5. Deprivation of parts: There may be an absence of one or more body parts that would normally appear on (or inside) the body. Example: One-eyed Cyclops.
  6. Mislocation of organs: Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).
  7. Mixture of human and animal parts: There may be a mix of human and animal body parts. Examples: Centaurs, mermaids, satyrs.
  8. Animal births by women: In a means of creating monsters that implies bestiality, women may give birth to animals. Example: Mixture of human and animal parts: Body parts may be incorrectly located or redistributed. Example: Blymmes, epifuges, grylles (creatures who lack a head and whose facial features are dispersed throughout their torsos).
  9. Disturbed growth: Normal growth may be “disturbed” in some way. Example: Premature aging, as with Rip Van Winkle (sort of).
  10. Composite beings: A creature may result from a composite of various body parts, animal, human, plant, mineral, and otherwise. Example: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Ents, griffins, Gorgons, Pegasus, and vegetable lambs.
  11. Hermaphroditic births: Births of infants with both sets of genitals. Example: Hermaphrodite.
  12. Monstrous races: The existence of “monstrous races” may be posited. Examples: Dog-headed Cynocephali or the Astomori, who lacking mouths, live upon the odors of apples.

(One must wonder whether Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy was descriptive or prescriptive--in other words, did he create it merely to describe monsters or as formulae by which to attempt their actual creation in his laboratory? In either case, his classification scheme is useful to contemporary writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction who want, for purposes of their own, to create such fabulous creatures).

Although Williams, quite rightly, does not include the provision, in his summary of Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy of monsters, that the monster should exist, but “far away, not here” so that its existence cannot be easily confirmed, if at all, the monster maker is well advised to add this to his or her list of principles for creating monsters, because, although it does not relate specifically to the types of monsters that exist, as it were, it does offer sound advice concerning the location of the environment in which they might best be placed.

Monsters must also be metaphorical in nature; that is, they must represent not merely themselves but also a real-life, or existential, and, usually, a cultural, threat of some kind, as Godzilla represents the Japanese’s reaction to, and humanity’s fear of, the atomic bomb and, more specifically, the long-term effects of nuclear radiation upon its human victims. We have discussed this topic in previous posts, so we shall not belabor it here, mentioning it solely as a reminder.

However, as narrators are wont to say in Infomercials, Wait! There’s more!

In Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers “seven theses” which, with some elucidation and modification, can, like Isidore of Seville’s taxonomy of monsters, assist writers in the creation of their own monsters:

Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body.
Thesis II: The monster always escapes.
Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis.
Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference.
Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible.
Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire.
Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold. . . of becoming.

Since Cohen’s theses require some explanation, we will save the task of elucidating (and modifying) them for a subsequent post.


Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Huet, Marie-Helene. Monstrous Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature. London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Location, Location, Location!

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In series of stories which are related to a central theme, a plot device for generating new types of antagonists and, therefore, conflicts, is necessary. Writers have come up with a large, and growing, variety of such devices, which tend to fall into a few categories, some of which may, occasionally, overlap. Horror writers, like authors of other types of fiction, should be acquainted with such devices and, when possible, create new ones of their own.

The plot device of which I speak, which we may call an “antagonist generator,” is based upon a simple, but irrefutable, truth. Either the main character occupies a relatively stationary position and antagonists come to him or her, or the protagonist travels, encountering antagonists in the process. Therefore, depending upon whether the generator moves or remains stationary, it is either a mobile or a fixed one.

Mobile Antagonist Generator

Vehicle: A vehicle is any moving object, mechanical or natural, that transports the protagonist (and usually other characters) to a place in (or upon) which he or she encounters an antagonist with whom to engage in a conflict. The vehicle could be an airplane, an automobile, a bicycle, a boat, a bus, a comet, a planet, a ship, a spaceship, a train, or even a wagon train. Various vehicles are used in horror fiction to transport protagonists to rendezvous with hostile antagonists, including an automobile (Stephen King’s Christine), a ship (Ghost Ship, directed by Steve Beck), a train (Terror Train, directed by Roger Spottiswoode), and a spaceship (Alien, directed by Ridley Scott).

Fixed Antagonist Generators

Station: The station stays in place; it doesn’t travel. It performs a specific task or mission of commercial use or military significance. Within these broad guidelines, the station can be almost anything: a dentist’s office, a factory, a fort, a hospital, a library, a museum, a nursing home, a store, or a space station. It can be terrestrial or extraterrestrial. It might be natural, but it could be paranormal or supernatural. Examples of stations in horror fiction include Jurassic Park in the film of the same name (directed by Steven Spielberg), the island in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, and the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (created by Joss Whedon). In these stories, the generator is stationary, and the protagonists, whether John Hammond and his guests, Edward Prendick, Jack Torrance and his family, or Buffy Summers, respectively, come to it, where they encounter their respective adversaries--dinosaurs, a mad scientist, ghosts, and whatever happens to crawl out of the Hellmouth on any given day.

Site: Like the station, the site is a fixed location; it does not move. Instead, it brings the antagonist to it--and, thus, to the protagonist. However, unlike the station, the site is not the location of any task or mission or, if it is, the task or mission is not commercial or military in nature and is, in and of itself, unrelated to the story’s conflict. An example of a site, as opposed to a station, is the body of young Regan McNeil, which is possessed by the devil in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Although Regan’s physiological processes may be considered tasks, her acts of ingestion, mastication, digestion, elimination, breathing, and so forth have nothing to do, in and of themselves, with the conflict that takes place between the devil and the story’s protagonist, Father Damien Karras, who comes to Regan’s house to exorcise the demon that possesses her. The jungle in Predator (directed by John McTiernan) is another example of a site, as is the Marsten House in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. The teleportation device on Star Trek (created by Gene Roddenberry) does not qualify as a vehicle, as it might seem to do, because it moves people, including Captain Kirk and his crew, but, remaining motionless, it does not move itself. Personnel can enter the teleportation device and leave it, and it serves a military mission, so it‘s not a platform (see below), but a station.

Platform: A platform is a stationary object (rather than a location). It may or may not perform a commercial task or serve a military mission, but, in any case, it is a thing which, as such, cannot be physically (that is, bodily) entered or exited by the protagonist, the antagonist, or any other character. An example of a station is the cellular telephone in Stephen King’s Cell, which performs a commercial task but doesn’t go anywhere--or, rather, it goes only where its owner is already going, under his or her own steam--but it brings antagonists to its user. It is a thing, which cannot be entered of exited. A trail or highway may also be a platform, since the path or the road itself does not move, although it is a means of facilitating the movement of the protagonist or the antagonist and may provide a commercial task or serve a military purpose. The trail is used to great effect in Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan’s Song. Both a trail, of sorts, and another object--a ring--are platforms in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Additional Examples

To identify other antagonist generators, think of specific, individual stories you have read or watched. They need not be exclusively horror stories. For example, in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia’s first volume, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, contains a magic wardrobe. The wardrobe's location is fixed, and it doesn’t perform a particular commercial task or serve a specific military mission. In other words, it’s a platform.

In Bentley Little’s novel The Resort, the family of victims comes to the resort mentioned in the book's title, which does perform a commercial task, making it a station.

Needful Things, the curio shop in Stephen King’s novel of the same name, attracts the protagonist and others, causing them to come to it, and it performs a commercial function, so it is also a station.

The Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland, which attract film students to film a documentary concerning the local legend of the Blair Witch is another example of a site (Blair Witch, directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez).

The museum in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic is a station.

The retreat to which Karen Beatty repairs to recuperate after being sexually assaulted and suffering a miscarriage in Gary Brandner’s novel The Howling is a fixed location that serves a commercial task and, incidentally, as it were, introduces her to her antagonists, a colony of werewolves, so the resort qualifies as a station.

Other categories

Other categories besides the (mobile) vehicle and the (fixed) station, site, and platform antagonist generators may well exist, and this post isn’t intended to be exhaustive. It’s intended simply to get the basic idea across and maybe crank the engine of one’s own generators.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Here, the Now, and the Eternal

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Paintings and illustrations are, of course, visual modes, whereas fiction is a narrative form. A painting or an illustration may suggest a story, but fiction must tell a tale. In the process, it will suggest images, through description. However, in doing so, its purpose will be ever the same: to tell a story. Paintings and illustrations are under no such obligation; they may or may not tell a story, as their creators please. For visual artists, the picture is the point; for writers, pictures are means, not ends, and the end that they do serve is to contribute to the tale’s overall effect and theme.

In “The Premature Burial,” Edgar Allan Poe describes, from the point of view of one who has suffered the fate suggested by his story’s title, what it would feel like to be buried alive. In doing so, Poe puts his reader alongside his living corpse, as it were, heightening the horror and the terror of the protagonist’s situation. Before reading his story, one may have dimly understood the horror and the terror of such a situation, but Poe ensures that his reader shall comprehend, in full, the emotional and even the visceral significance of such a situation. The author makes the reader live, as it were, inside the coffin for much of the duration of his story.

The tale is horrific, and its great fear deepens as one returns to the tale when he or she has advanced in years and the story’s potential threat looms larger--or closer. The victim’s struggle inside the coffin seems to suggest the ordinary person’s fear that life may be ultimately without meaning or value, that eternity reduces a life lived in time to insignificance. (Art, as represented by “The Premature Burial” itself, it may be argued, transcends time and, thereby, may give value and significance to temporal human existence.)

A visual artist might depict the living corpse’s situation, as, for example, Buffy Summers’ having been buried alive is depicted in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which, having died, she is brought back to life by a spell cast by her friend, the witch named Willow Rosenberg: the viewer sees Buffy’s somewhat skeletal remains take on flesh, as it were, as her corpse reverts to life, and her eyes, having reformed, snap wide in abject terror.

It’s a disturbing scene, to be sure, but it’s over almost as soon as it begins, Buffy’s reversion to life taking but a few seconds, and, thereafter, we only hear of her sustaining lacerations and bruises to her hands (and, presumably, a few broken nails) as she clawed her way out of her premature grave. In a couple of later episodes, Buffy performs in a mechanical fashion, merely going through the motions of living, before finally confiding to the vampire Spike that Willow’s spell had snatched her out of heaven, returning her to this world, which seems, by contrast to the bliss she’d experienced, rather like hell to her. Nice touches, but they are far removed from her plight as one who has been, as it were, buried alive. Poe keeps the pressure on his reader by focusing his entire story on the trauma that his story’s victim experiences as one who has been buried alive.

A story, as Aristotle taught us, long ago, is a sequence of causally-related incidents which comprise a single, unified action theoretically divisible into a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a destination, in other words; having started somewhere, it goes somewhere, that it might, as it were, arrive somewhere. It moves (as do our eyes, from left to right, as we track the text down the page). A painting or an illustration may suggests a sort of narrative flow, but, of course, it is not going anywhere; it is, even if it does draw and move the eye, a static picture, a snapshot of life, eternally memorializing a moment rather than an experience.

The significance of the painting or the illustration is the moment which it captures in paint or ink. The significance, in fiction, is not in the momentary image, but in the relationships among a series of such images and the incidents which give rise to these images. It is as if the visual artist is saying, “Behold the moment; in it is the meaning of life,” whereas the author is proclaiming, “Behold the experience; in it, is the meaning of life.” One artist is seized by the particular moment; the other, by the relationships among a series of moments in which he or she discerns a cause-and effect or a logical sequence.

For the visual artist, meaning is fragmented and brief, here one moment, in this or that instance, and gone the next. Life is a transitory and temporal affair. For the literary artist, meaning is whole and long-lasting, if not permanent. Life is enduring and eternal. One artistic form is not necessarily better than the other, for painters and illustrators remind us that the here and the now are important, that much of life is lived in the instant, and that what happens today shall happen just this once and, therefore, should be appreciated and, where possible, enjoyed and prized, and writers remind us that it is important to understand relationships among the momentary and fleeting parade of sensations and perceptions, to interpret them together, whenever possible, and to take away from our experience an understanding that transcends the moment and can be recalled again, in some sense, independent of the moments themselves, out of which the understanding arose.

Visual art immerses us in the moment; narrative art lifts us above the present. To remain immersed forever in the present would cause one to tire of the assault of impressions upon his or her flooded senses, but to remain, as it were, on the dock, looking out to sea, would be never to bathe one’s soul in the refreshing ebb and flow of life and to be as much alive as one of the stationary planks or posts of which the pier is built.

In horror fiction, a series of seemingly unrelated incidents of a bizarre and horrific nature occur, and the protagonist seeks to understand the reason or the cause of these incidents. In other words, he or she seeks to fathom their meaning, their significance, their importance. When something--even something horrible--can be understood in such terms, it may remain horrible, but it also becomes consequential; its importance recognized, it becomes known and familiar, and it may also be understood to have some benefit, despite the pain and suffering it causes in the moment, in the here and now. An early narrative of such a theme is the story of Job, who learns, as a result of the horrific and undeserved suffering he undergoes, that “the just shall live by faith.”

But let’s have an example from the horror genre. In The Exorcist, the protagonist, Father Damien Karras, has come to doubt his faith because of the suffering that his dying mother endured before her death. Since, in Christianity, an unbeliever goes to hell after dying, the priest is in danger of losing his immortal soul. According to William Peter Blatty, the author of the novel, it is in the hope of bringing about the priest’s damnation that the demon possesses the soul of young Regan MacNeil.

In doing so, the demon sets up the occasion of the exorcism which involves Father Karras and so now has the opportunity to tempt the priest to renounce his faith by showing him the work of the devil, up close and personal, so to speak, as the demon torments the innocent girl whom it has possessed. Father Karras’ suffering now has meaning. It has importance beyond itself. It has value, for it has become the means by which, in the exercise of his own free will, he will retain or lose his faith and, thereby, his soul.

Other horror stories depict sets of circumstances or series of incidents which also find meaning and value by pointing beyond themselves, to the eternal realm of value, of reason, of faith, of beauty, and, in doing so, point the way to something like the possibility of Platonic forms or (less abstractly) the enduring value of life, or, for the religious reader, the reality of God. (“The just shall live by faith,” as both Job and Father Karras learn.) Along the way, such stories often also criticize many of the fallacies and idols, philosophical, theological, personal, cultural, and otherwise, that we hold in false esteem or false reverence.

The good life, horror fiction suggests, lies not in misery, madness, mayhem, suffering, and sin, but in the significance that such experiences may have beyond themselves, as stories, so to speak, that lead one from the temporal to the eternal. Without the hope of meaning within and beyond the moment, we would be mired only in sensual and perceptual experience; we would be lost among the phenomena of subjective experience, forever an image among images in a painting or a drawing of the here and now.

As Buffy’s Watcher, Rupert Giles, once quipped, concerning his protégé, “Buffy lives very much in the now.” Her philosophy, as Buffy herself tells Willow, is carpe diem, or seize the day--that is, live for the moment--because life is short. The series itself, however, rises above the discrete incidents of pain and suffering, of beauty and joy, that make up the protagonist’s day-to-day existence to show the series’ viewer that the meaning of life lies (as it is understood in the context of the series as a whole) in the acceptance of responsibility and the answer of the call of duty, even when doing so requires the sacrifice of oneself. Life may be short, but the consequences of one’s behavior can have lasting effects on others, including those generations which are yet to come.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Demons Old and New

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In the old days, demons were personifications of destructive natural forces. Later, these evil external spirits became inner demons. After the cosmos filled up with demons, many of whom entered Christian thought, for example, as deposed gods and goddesses from other religions, theologians sought to classify and catalogue them, and the science, as it were, of demonology arose. Demons, some such cataloguers believed, formed a hierarchical social structure that essentially parodied that of the angelic order.

According to one such system--that of Sebastian Michaelis--there are three hierarchies. The highest, or first, hierarchy consists of Beelzebub (arrogance), Leviathan (heresy), Asmodai (lust), Berith (murder and blasphemy), Astaroth (laziness and vanity), Verrin (impatience), Gressil (impurity, uncleanness, and malice), and Sonneillon (hatred). The second tier is composed of Lilith (Adam’s first wife and a succubus) and Azazel, the angel of death. Three demons make up the third hierarchy: Belial (arrogance and adversity), Olivier (fierceness, greediness, and envy), and Jouvart (sexuality).

There are additional demonologies, including those of The Testament of Solomon, of Michael Psellus, of Alfonso de Spina, of Peter Binsfeld, of Francesco Maria Guazzo, of Francis Barrett, and others. Some give to their demons such worldly titles as great marshal, knight, president, great president, earl, great earl, duke, great duke, and the like, up to emperor. Those who do not warrant inclusion among the demonic nobility make up the peasantry, as it were, which divides into numerous legions. The ranking demons typically rule over one or more emotional or attitudinal element or elements.

Many demons come from pagan religions, but others are supplied by Jewish folklore, Gnosticism, and various mythologies. Most have specific adversaries against whom fight continuing cosmic battles.

Frequently, demons are depicted as monstrous entities, with eyes instead of nipples in their breasts, with bats’ wings on their backs, with mouths in their bellies, with horns growing from their skulls, and so forth. The imagination is free to run wild in its conception of these evil spirits, and artists give full vent to their most outrageous fancies in giving form to these demonic beings, as the following gallery suggests.












Times have changed since the ancient and medieval demonologies were compiled, and the demonic has gained new forms to supplement the largely bestial and insect shapes that demons previously often took. Many of these new forms are hybrids of men (or women) and machines, reflecting the dehumanization of today’s people in terms not so much bestial as mechanical. To be demonic is seen, increasingly, as not so much a matter of being animalistic as it is of being artificial. The demonic is the perfunctory and the robotic, the mechanized and the programmed, the automatic rather than the autonomous. Painters such as biomechanical artists H. R. Giger, fantasy artists such as Frank Frazetta and Julie Bell, and filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Joss Whedon depict the contemporary demon, just as, in previous terms, such artists as Hieronymus Bosch, Gustave Dore, and others depicted the demon as he, she, and it was understood in their days.

Birth Machine by H. R. Giger

Whether insect-like, animalistic, or mechanical, the demon always depicts the worst aspects of the human personality, for it is the demonic which leads human beings downward, toward the carnal and the sensual or the otherwise blasphemous and idolatrous, and only God can lead them upward, toward self-transcendence and the sacred realm of the transpersonal divine. No doubt, as something replaces the machine, the mechanical demon will be joined by new expressions of evil.

Jar Jar Binks

Perhaps, as with the demon Moloch the Corruptor, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “I Robot, You Jane,” the latest transformation is already underway, for, in this episode’s contribution to demonic lore, before the demon appears as a robot, it is simply a spirit that escapes from a book as it is scanned into a computer’s memory, whereupon it gains unfettered access to cyberspace. The electronic demon, it seems, has already arrived. In this episode of Buffy, it symbolizes the dangers to teens of Internet chat rooms.

New demons should represent new threats, not old, for, otherwise, what need have we of new ones? The mechanical--and biomechanical--as well as the electronic demons that have begun to emerge from artists’ exercise of their imaginations seem to represent such menaces as the dehumanizing effects of rampant industrialism and the near-omnipresence of surveillance and control mechanisms that the Internet provides or seems to provide the government, the depraved, the faceless stalker, and other menaces especially representative of our time and day.

Note: All illustrations are from Wikipedia, which takes most of them from Creative Commons.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Imagining Hell

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The Christian Hell is named for the Norse goddess who ruled the Aesir’s underworld, Hel. The ancient Israelites did not have a hell in the sense that their underworld, Sheol, was a place of eternal punishment. Sheol was much more like the ancient Greeks’ Hades or, for that matter, the Norsemen’s Hel, a place of shadowy existence wherein ghostly “shades” went about the business of postmortem existence. Dante imagined his own hell, in The Inferno, and, for the atheistic French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, hell was “other people.” Perhaps the closest place to hell in the modern world is prison--or, possibly, Detroit, Michigan. (Michael Moore would have us think hell on earth is neighboring Flint.)

Hell is the garbage dump of eternity. It’s a cosmic prison. It’s the place of “wailing” and the “gnashing of teeth,” wherein the “fire is not quenched” and the “worm dieth not.” It’s the place that Mark Twain would go for “company,” preferring heaven for its “scenery.” For some, hell is a state of mind or a state of the soul, the opposite of the “kingdom of heaven,” which Jesus said “is within you.”

If anyone should be able to imagine hell, it is the writer of horror fiction. How to begin such a--well, hellish--task? Picture the condemned, which is to say, the types of individuals whose lifestyles or behaviors seem to warrant condemnation, banishment, and/or punishment, not just for a day, but for all eternity. Characterize them. What are the attributes of their personalities? What attitudes do they express? What do they believe? What do they imagine? What do they fear? What hopes, if any, do they have? What do they love, better than God or mankind--in other words, what idol do they worship? What is their besetting sin, and what lesser, but related, sins are associated with it, and why? What do they do all day?

Having imagined the denizens of your hell, picture the lay of the land, or “scenery,” that would be appropriate for such residents. Are there mountains and valleys, molten seas, volcanoes in endless eruption, frozen wastelands, deserts, underworlds within--or below--underworlds? Is your hell multileveled like Dante’s Inferno? Perhaps your hell is unlike anything familiar to mortal men and women, something like, but unlike, the mystical worlds of Marvel Comics’ Dr. Strange?

When you’ve finished peopling and landscaping your inferno, ask yourself what symbolic significance the landscape’s features have. In doing so, you might ask yourself what the images of the Christian hell represent figuratively. What is the symbolic significance of the “fire [that] is not quenched” and the “worm [that] dieth not”? Apply the same process of analysis and interpretation to the images of your own hell.

Remember this, too: now that you’ve gone to all the time and trouble of imagining a hell of your own, your stories may sometimes take place in this infernal abode, or its residents may occasionally escape and visit the world of humanity. Angels, by definition, are, after all, messengers of God, and, in the Bible, even “fallen angels,“ or demons, do sometimes visit--and afflict--ordinary men and women and, if The Exorcist is any guide to infernal behavior, children, too. Their chief, Satan, had the audacity to tempt even Christ! What “message” might one of your accursed bring to one or more of your story’s characters?

In another application of your hell, the residents may be seen as “inner,” rather than as outer demons--as psychological defects and disorders, or diseased elements of the soul, with lives of their own, so to speak, along the lines of BTK’s “Factor X” or Ted Bundy’s “entity.” Of course, they may also be both inner and outer demons, as any particular story’s plot dictates. By imagining a hell of your own, you will be more apt to put your own spin on the action you narrate, making an original contribution, perhaps, to the iconography of the damned and offer a few new insights into the hellish behavior of the demonic soul.

For those who are interested in more information about hell, “Hell in the Old Testament” offers quite a bit.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Green Graves

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

The greening of America promises to alter the appearance of future cemeteries. Tomorrow’s burial grounds won’t be anything like the ones which feature the crypts and graves that were popular in many of yesterday’s horror books and films, nor will they look much like the park-like cemeteries, with their flat headstones, which, in recent years, have replaced the more traditional necropolises. Instead, they will look much like young forests. Footpaths will lead through stands of trees, and the markers of those who are buried therein will be set among vegetation indigenous to the region.

Here is the cemetery of tomorrow, as described by Earth Artist Cemetery and Planning’s website:

One of the most dramatic changes in cemetery design is the growing trend of “Green Burial.” These modern cemeteries use native plants over the grave, with footpaths connecting memorial structures located within the emerging forest. Green Burial Grounds help establish and protect natural habitat while providing a spiritually fulfilling burial ritual.
Likewise, the markers will undergo, if not a sea change, a significant transformation as well, according to the same site:
Small intimate memorial areas located throughout the developing forest facilitate outdoor funeral ceremonies and provide a quiet respectful place to visit.
Based upon the photographs and illustrations that accompany these articles, the headstone of the future will resemble wall plaques in which the decedent’s name and the dates of his or her birth and death are carved, in rustic letters befitting the “emergent forest” in which he or she is to find eternal repose, and decorated with acorns, vines, and other images appropriate to the natural, woodland surroundings.

Horror writers need to keep up with such changes. A reader’s willing suspension of disbelief can stretch only so far, after all, and a writer who persists, too long into the green revolution, in depicting the types of graveyards in which there are—well, graves—and tombs—is one who will be called, if the reader is feeling charitable, “old-fashioned” or, if the reader is not, simply out of touch.

Meanwhile, perhaps the makers of markers can create, for the cremated, receptacles which resemble benches rather than urns, that they may be placed at intervals along the footpath that leads through the “emerging forest” that the cemetery has become, as all that walking through the woods and searching among the underbrush for the final resting place of one’s dearly departed could be rather tiring after a mile or two.

They also better start thinking about how they can make such cemeteries seem scary, both on film and on the page. It seems unlikely that a little artificial fog and spooky music will be enough, not when, at any moment, Bambi or Thumper might step out from behind a majestic oak or pine to graze upon the “native plants over the grave” of one’s Aunty Em or Uncle Henry.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Horror of the Double

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do./ Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:19-20)
According to psychologists, we repress many of our desires. Sigmund Freud suggests that these repressed urges can reappear in disguised versions of themselves, often as instances of the uncanny. Apparently, such thinkers suppose, we are much like a computer: the data we delete—that is, those which we intend to delete and believe that we have deleted—are actually erased only when the computer needs the hard drive space upon which the “deleted” data are stored, awaiting the moment (if it ever comes) that they are overwritten with new data. Until this happens, the “deleted” data remain, rather as a body remains, even after it has died, until, eventually, nature, in her own sweet time, recycles the cadaver’s no-longer-living constituents.

In other words, we are all doubles. There is the persona, or public face, and there is the secret self, known, sometimes, not even by our conscious selves, consisting of those impulses and interests which we have rejected (repressed and suppressed), usually because the collective voice of society—or maybe only our parents or our friends—suggested that these desires are asocial, criminal, deviant, perverse, unnatural, or otherwise undesirable.

A Casper Milquetoast could harbor an Attila the Hun (or vice versa), just as the well-mannered, well-spoken Dr. Jekyll harbored the hideous Mr. Hyde. It’s not only Peter Parker, after all, who has a secret identity. We all have skeletons in our closets—in fact, we ourselves might be those very skeletons—or, at least, the repressed self within might be.

Horror stories, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray—or, for that matter, Stephen King’s The Dark Half or Dean Koontz’s Mr. Murder—are horrifying, in part, because they threaten to reveal the secret, not-so-nice second self which we have hidden away in the basements of our unconscious minds. It wouldn’t do to let anyone see the repulsive, slimy, deviant thing we harbor within, which is an unseemly and unacceptable caricature of who we truly are (or appear to be).

For different folks, the secret self is—well, different folk. For Stevenson, Mr. Hyde might have been the consequences of an unresolved moral dualism; for Wilde, homosexuality; for King, his public image as a popular writer; for Koontz, some version of his abusive, half-mad father. Whatever—or whoever—we’re hiding deep inside ourselves is apt to be partially or fully monstrous, as were the inner demons that inhabited Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Son of Sam. It’s best that they be kept under psychic lock and key. Unfortunately, sometimes the mental jails and prisons—the dungeons of the mind—fail in their mission to keep these beastly secret selves incarcerated, and they escape.

If Ed Gein’s or Charles Manson’s inner demons could get away, why not our own, someday? The possibility is more then frightening; it’s terrifying, and it is this fear of being revealed—fully revealed—for who—and what—we are that is the rock-solid foundation of stories in which the horror stems from the fear of the exposure of one’s secret, hidden doppelganger.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Calm Before the Storm

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In previous posts, we have advanced the claim that the general formula for the horror story consists of three phases:

  1. Bizarre incidents occur.
  2. The protagonist learns the cause of these incidents.
  3. The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to end the incidents.

What we omitted is that the first phase presupposes a period of quiescence or normality to contrast with the bizarre incidents. Although the bizarre is apt to be seen as such even without a preceding period of serenity or normality, it is also true that a prior state of peace and order will make the subsequent pandemonium all the stranger and more horrific than it might be otherwise. We might call this period of quiescence or normality the calm before the storm.

This period of calm can be presented in almost any terms, as long as the terms are commonplace and ordinary. The everyday will be the state of affairs that is disturbed by the eruption of the bizarre. Most writers take the opportunity to characterize their protagonists and, sometimes, other characters during the calm before the storm, making them likeable, or at least understandable, to their readers before imperiling them, as Dean Koontz does in The Taking and most of his other novels and Stephen King does in Carrie and may of his other works. Writers may also take advantage of the peace and quiet to show the reader around town, as it were, as King does in ‘Salem’s Lot. Of course, writers also establish the story’s basic conflict, although, in doing so, they may also introduce a red herring, as it were, to distract from the true conflict that will later be revealed. Koontz takes this approach in The Taking, implying that the forces of evil represent an advance force of aliens who have come to Earth to reverse-terraform the planet, making it hospitable for their species’ invading army, which is on its way. In reality, the aliens turn out to be Satan and his army of demons, come to destroy humanity. The calm before the storm, in effect, equals the story’s exposition, during which, while things have yet to get out of hand, writers lay the groundwork for the grand story to follow, providing much of the background information that makes the story as a whole intelligible to their readers.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Surrealism and Horror

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Michael Gould’s Surrealism and the Cinema (Open-Eyed Screening) offers several insights concerning surrealism that apply not only to movies, but also to products of the horror genre, whether in print or on film. He says, “The image is the basic element of surrealism for it is an image-conscious sensibility (21).”

Seeing represents consciousness; to be is to be perceived, and to see is to perceive. However, surrealism is interested in challenging accepted perceptions, interpretations, understandings, and meanings. To do so, it must dissociate or expunge familiar readings and views, that it might make the familiar strange and novel again; it is only by alienating the viewer from the things that he or she views that the surrealist can renew the objects of perception. For this reason, surrealists are generally more concerned with the representative, or the type, rather than with the individual, because the type is a distillation of individuals which stands for the essence, as it were, of the group that the type represents. In this sense, types are symbols, and symbols obliterate the perception of new truths, or understandings, of the things that, collectively, constitute the world or “reality.” This seems to be Gould’s meaning, when he writes:
For Rene Magritte. . . the bowler hat is the symbol of the bourgeois European man, and Magritte’s men in bowlers are all types, without individual personalities. It is the man-in-the-bowler-hat image that excites Magritte, not the man himself (21).
Surrealists deal with types because the artists want to subvert their meaning in order to make them potentially meaningful again, to make them, as it were, pregnant with meaning. Flannery O’Connor suggested something similar, in a different context, when she wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures,” as did Walker Percy, in his use of a dung beetle, in The Moviegoer, to awaken his protagonist Binx Bolling to the wonder of things when they are no longer taken for granted and overlooked. When the world becomes too familiar to us, it is as if it is lost to sight. We have eyes, but we do not see. To be is to be perceived, but we have forgotten how to perceive; therefore, much of the world’s being is lost to us. Surrealists attempt to restore our sight by making the familiar world appear strange again to us, as it is to a young child who lacks adults’ experience:
Surrealism. . . seeks always the. . . revelatory. . . . This calls for a child-like sense of wonderment. Children are so easily surprised because they have so little experience in life. . . (28-29).
How does horror serve the same end? How does horror renew our perceptions of the things of this world, so that we see again that which has become invisible to our jaded eyes? It does so in at least three ways, by offering readers (or viewers) a parade of the bizarre, by confronting them with the monstrous Other, and by whisking them off to a remote, often confining, unfamiliar place.

As we have remarked in previous posts, most horror stories start with a series of apparently unrelated, bizarre incidents. This series comprises a break with the ordinary and the everyday, immersing the reader in a topsy-turvy world in which he or she, along with the protagonist, is alienated from the mundane and the familiar. Everyday objects, scenes, and experiences are juxtaposed to the wild, the incongruous, and the bizarre, which shakes up one’s world--or, at least, one’s experience of the world. The alien alienates; the strange estranges; the weird cuts one off from the familiar and the complacency that often derives from an immersion in the ordinary. The world is no longer safe; it has become dangerous, because, suddenly, the old rules don’t apply, and anything is possible. In a previous post, we cited, as an example of the opening parade of the bizarre, the incidents that comprise the beginning of Stephen King’s novel, Desperation, which we repeat here:
In Nevada, a dead cat is seen nailed to a highway sign. An abandoned recreation vehicle (RV) sits alongside a lonely stretch of highway, its door flapping in the breeze. A sheriff, acting crazy, arrests a couple on trumped-up drug charges, threatening to kill them on their way to jail. The nearest town, Desperation, seems abandoned, except for the corpses that litter the streets. The sheriff has arrested several other individuals, also on false charges; among his prisoners are the members of the RV family, whom he supposedly rescued from (non-existent) gunmen. Vultures, scorpions, wolves, and other animals, under the sheriff’s telepathic control, attack people. A preteen prisoner, David Carver, miraculously escapes from jail, afterward performing additional miracles (using a cell phone with a dead battery and multiplying a supply of sardines and crackers). The demon Tak, who is behind the series of bizarre incidents, serially possessing the sheriff and others as he wears out their bodies, fears the preteen. Strange idols cause sexually perverse thoughts and feelings in those who touch them.
This parade of the bizarre--this freak show, comprised of incidents as well as performers--takes us as fully out of the normal, everyday world as the tornado removed Dorothy Gale from the comforts of home, dropping her in Oz. King lets us know, by exposing us to the uncanny and the eerie, apparently unrelated events that have begun, for no apparent reason, that, in having entered Desperation, we are no more in Nevada than Dorothy was in Kansas after she landed in Oz. In other words, the series of bizarre incidents that begin his story alienate us from our ordinary lives and estrange us from our everyday selves. As if we were inside a gigantic existential kaleidoscope, reality has shifted and sifted, and the mundane world is fragmented and redistributed into unrecognizable shards that are no longer known and familiar. Reality, as we have understood it, has become unreal; therefore, it has become pregnant with the possibilities that result from a renewal--or a newness--of perception.

If a confrontation with a series of bizarre incidents reawakens us to the things of the world by shocking us into awareness as a result of a transformation of the familiar into the strange, a confrontation with the monstrous Other reawakens us to the astonishment of things--or of some things--in themselves, without first making them strange. We tend to ignore most of the sensations and perceptions that our bodies and senses relay to our minds. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed by the experience of life that inundates us from every direction at every waking moment. We become not only selective, but highly selective. Therefore, our chances of survival may be heightened, but at the cost of losing sight and sound and scent and taste and touch of many of the things that comprise our environment. We reduce the size of our perceived world so that we can deal with it; in doing so, we obliterate from our consciousness most of existence. However, certain things are undeniable; they have presence, even when other things are absent, and they demand to be perceived and, therefore, to be (to be is to be perceived). No one ignores the sight or sound of a rattlesnake, for example, or a bear or a shark. Threats have immediate and vivid presence, a quality that Emily Dickinson captures well in her poem about a snake; the narrator’s shock is evident in her twisted syntax:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides--
You may have met Him--
did you not
His notice sudden is--

The Grass divides as with a Comb--
A spotted shaft is seen--
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on--

He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn--
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot--
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone--

Several of Nature's People
I know, and they know me--
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality--
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone--

Whatever its shape, the monster is always the snake; it is insistently and undeniably present, demanding to be seen and heard (and, possibly, to be smelled and touched or even tasted). Threats stand out to us when nothing else does. By associating the monster with the Other (who is always some rejected aspect of the Self), horror writers confront readers (or viewers) with repressed aspects of their inner selves, with the inner demons of injurious attitudes, self-destructive beliefs, and harmful behaviors. We do not want to look, afraid of what we may see; by embodying those aspects of our inner beings in the forms of monsters that will not be denied, we are confronted with our inner demons; we see them again, and, face to face with the ghost of childhood trauma or a guilty past, with the beast of adulterous desire, or with the vampiric lust for others’ blood, we have the opportunity to see ourselves anew and, perhaps, to overcome the monster within.

The horror film, like surrealist art, breaks the world into fragments in order to make it present and visible to us as something strange and wonderful (or terrible). A series of bizarre incidents leading to a monstrous Other are two ways by which writers of such stories accomplish this feat. The third is the use of a remote, usually confining, setting, which has the effect of cutting the protagonist off from the security of his or her greater community, whether this community is represented by the character’s home, neighborhood, region, nation, or even planet. The protagonist is alone (or possibly with members of a small group), cut off from the police, from military forces, from medical personnel, from fire and rescue teams, from supplies of food and utility services, from communication equipment. He or she is on his or her own, with no one to advise, assist, or intercede. Whether the protagonist lives or dies depends exclusively upon what he or she believes, chooses, thinks, knows, learns, and, in short, does. Moreover, if the isolated space is also sparsely furnished, it may represent a state of existence akin to death, for “clutter,” according to Gould, suggests the opposite state, that of the abundance that is associated with life. In this context, the words of Arthur Schopenhauer, in “Parega und Paralipomena,” as quoted in Surrealism and the Cinema, are extremely evocative:
To have original, extraordinary, and perhaps even immortal ideas, one has but to isolate oneself from the world for a few moments so completely that the commonplace happenings appear to be new and unfamiliar, and in this way reveal their true essence (36).
According to Gould’s assessment, the effects of such isolation will result in the isolated surrealist’s attempt to “fill” the resulting “void” in his or her knowledge with his or her own “subject-being”:
Once our old attitudes to the reality around us are removed, the confronting pablum of their presence is also gone, leaving us with new fears, which appear in the form of a lack of definitive answers (a fear of the unknown). It is with his own subject-being that the surrealist tries to fill that void. . . (37).
The fragmentation of, and estrangement from, ordinary, everyday “reality” that surrealism accomplishes is only its first, preliminary work; its task, like that of horror fiction, is completed when it then allows the reader or the viewer to synthesize his or her experience, creating a new interpretation, a new impression, or a new understanding of his or her world and of his or her place in the world, or, as Gould puts it:

Because surrealism makes the mind puzzle and search, it is basically a constructive sensibility, which is bent on tearing down old values and opening up new horizons, and as such, it is a political sensibility (38).
Surrealism and the Cinema (Open-Eyed Screening) by Michael Gould, A. S. Barnes and Company, New York, 1976.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Horror Story Survival Tactics

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

One would suppose that, to a demon that has taken up residence in the corpse of a recently deceased man or woman and has a penchant both for sucking the blood of the living and transforming as many of them into fellow vampires as possible, a clove of garlic would be the least of its concerns. Such is not the case. To vampires, as such bloodsuckers are more commonly known--to devotees of horror, if no one else--a bit of garlic is itself a horror, ranking with the cross of Christ or holy water, to be avoided at all costs. Sure, garlic, after it’s eaten, can be pretty funky, but, then again, so can a body that’s been buried for a few days, especially when, as during the days of Dracula, the deceased wasn’t extended the courtesy of having been embalmed first. Nevertheless, it seems that it was the vampire’s fear of the stench that led to garlic’s use as a means among the living to ward off the unwelcome advances of the undead. According to “Garlic and Vampires”:
Garlic has been used in Romania for centuries to ward off evil. In Romania, garlic is a weapon of choice against vampires. Romanians used to make certain that they ate some garlic every day for their personal protection. . . . They also smeared garlic on the windows. . . [and the] doors of their houses, on the gates to their farmyards, and even on the horns of their cattle. They believed that the undead had a great fear of garlic. . . . The stuff tastes divine but smells awful! In Romania if a corpse was thought to be in danger of becoming a vampire, one of the most common [means of] protection was stuffing some pieces of garlic into the orifices of the corpse, especially the mouth. This was done in order to prevent evil spirits from entering the dead body. . . . Another interesting vampire practice is smearing the corpse with a mixture of oil, fat, incense, gunpowder and--of course--garlic. That was probably a pretty good embalming method.

Garlic was also used, according to “Vampires and Werewolves,” as a means of identifying suspected vampires:
People would hang it outside their doorways to keep evil spirits from entering their homes. The ancient societies got a little carried away with garlic[,] condemning anyone who had an aversion to garlic as a vampire. Garlic was also passed out during church ceremonies so that church official could be sure that no evil spirits were attending.

For demon-possessed cadavers, vampires are, in many ways, a rather timid lot, fearing not only garlic but also sunlight, fire, crucifixes, holy water, and mirrors.

“Vampires and Werewolves” points out that vampires’ alleged fear of ultraviolet radiation is a recent addition to the lore concerning these creatures of the night, as is the idea itself that vampires, like werewolves, are necessarily nocturnal:
It's believed that sunlight will destroy vampires. It burns and scares [sic; no doubt, the writer means “scars“] their flesh. If they stay in the light long enough it will burn them completely to ashes. This is not a traditional belief of early cultures. This belief that sunlight kills vampires caught on less than sixty years ago in pop culture and movies and has since become a standard way of destroying a vampire. In traditional times vampires could come out in the sunlight without fear of being harmed by the light itself. However, their powers would be severely weakened in the daytime hours so most vampires probably wouldn't risk being exposed in the day. Smart vampires would stay hidden and sleep until nightfall when they would have all their supernatural powers at their disposal.

It seems that vampires fear the Roman Catholic, rather than the Protestant, idea of God, for they are frightened by the crucifix, not the cross--but only if, as humans, they were God-fearing members of the Christian community; crucifixes didn’t faze Buddhist, Jewish, or Muslim vampires, as “Vampires and Werewolves” makes clear:
A crucifix, not a cross! There is a difference. A crucifix has the likeness of Jesus Christ on it while the cross is just a cross. The power of the crucifix comes from the Christian religion and Jesus Christ's ability to combat and force out evil. Vampires are considered to be demonic agents. The crucifix will only have power over evil if you believe in its power. If you don't believe in the power of the Christian faith then the crucifix will have little use.

It’s pretty obvious as to why vampires fear fire. It burns. Apparently, they fear holy water for the same reason; blessed by a clergyman, it has the same effect upon vampire flesh as acid has upon human skin. As “Vampires and Werewolves” observes, wine can have the same effect as holy water upon vampire epidermises, since wine symbolizes Christ’s blood.

If sunlight, fire, crucifixes, holy water, or mirrors happen to be unavailable, one can slow down a vampire by throwing seeds at it or a rope tied with a lot of knots, preferably in a variety of styles:

Vampires are said to have personality defects that most of us regular mortals would consider odd or even crazy. Vampires are known to have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is a neurobiological disorder where the affected have recurrent, intrusive thoughts, impulses, and obsessions of repetitive behaviors and mental acts.

Common symptoms of vampire OCD include bizarre checking and counting rituals. For example, a traditional method of escaping from a vampire was to throw down a handful of seeds. The vampire is powerless against its obsession to stop, pick up and count every single seed that was thrown down before doing anything else. An ancient method of stopping a vampire involved filling up its coffin with seeds. The vampire would never be able to escape from it's own impulses [to]. . . check and [count]
. . . the seeds.

Vampires also have [to] . . . [untie] every single knot that they come across. If you were to tie one thousand knots on one thousand strings a vampire would have to stop and untie all one thousand knots. It's sounds crazy to many people, but OCD is a real disorder that affects millions of people and vampires all over the world (“Vampires and Werewolves”).

Although authorities disagree, some claim that vampires also fear looking-glasses, because of a phobic dread of mirrors. As “Holiday Insights: Halloween Vampires” observes, “the phobia is known as eisoptrophobia.” Perhaps it springs from the fact that vampires have no reflections and they would give themselves away if they stood before a mirror.

Since the protagonist (or any other character) in a horror story might be accosted by a vampire, a werewolf, or some other sort of monster at any time, it is better to be safe than sorry. A little research could save one’s life, as Rupert Giles, mentor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, often reminded his protégé, albeit to little or no avail (Buffy was killed--three times--after all.)

Most of us know that werewolves can be killed by a silver bullet, so it’s doubtful that the Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick Tonto had much to fear from wolfmen. Perhaps that’s the real reason that the Indian brave followed the masked man around; maybe the Wild West was wilder than we realize, with hirsute werefolk running around the plains and prairies. With regard to werewolves, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, to be sure, and, fortunately, as “Vampires and Werewolves” points out, there are a number of signs by which one can identify these beastly beasties, including “pale skin,” “excessive thirst,” “howling until dawn,” “obsession with walking in cemeteries,” “excessive hair,” “unpleasant odors,” “skin that gradually changes color,” and “the mark of the werewolf,” which is “the pentagram, a five[-]pointed star and magical symbol. . . found somewhere on the werewolf. . . . usually found on the chest or hand (palm) of the werewolf.”

We’ve given you the dirt, so to speak, on vampires and werewolves. There are many other otherworldly, paranormal, and supernatural monsters abroad in horror fiction, many as bad, of not worse, than one’s mother-in-law, as hard as that may be to believe, so a textbook or two in the subject of how to survive these threats might be a good investment. One such book is How To Survive A Horror Movie: All the Skills to Dodge the Kills, which offers such tips as:

1. Don’t consume recreational drugs.
2. Never say “I’ll be right back”; if you do, you won’t.
3. Turn on the lights upon entering a room.
4. Avoid reciting spells concerning the invocation or summoning of demons.
5. Never go into an attic or a basement, especially alone.
6. Check your back seat before getting into your automobile.
7. Be prepared to kill your cat.
8. Flee from mad serial killers (or any other kind) by exiting the house, not by dashing upstairs or into the interior of the house.
9. Never separate; the monster knows the strategy of divide and conquer.
10. The monster is never dead, not even after it’s been decapitated, crushed, shot, stabbed, and strangled, so don’t check to see if it is.

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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