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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.

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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.

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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