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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.

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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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