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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Building Horror and Suspense Tobe Hooper’s Way

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

In Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, John Kenneth Muir explains some of the narrative and symbolic devices that Hooper uses in his film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), to build horror and suspense.

First, Muir says, Hooper sets the tone of the film by using symbolic images that suggest that the world exists within an indifferent, or even hostile, universe in which human life is not only meaningless but also endangered. A corpse is shown, posed as if it were a work of art (55). Then, Hooper shows “close-ups of violent eruptions on the surface of our sun,” the red shade of which “belies a kind of anger,” the whole image implying, again, that “the universe is disordered, anarchic, even cruel.” Indeed, the sun and the moon may represent the eyes of the “cosmos,” suggesting that the cosmos is “watching from a distance” (56). One might even wonder if the heavenly orbs might suggest that God is observing the bizarre and hideous actions that transpire in the film. If so, the God who watches such horrors is obviously not a loving God, but a voyeur who is something along the lines of a sadist. A third image is that of armadillo road kill. It is important to observe that the armadillo “is overturned, upside down,” because such a position, Muir points out, “is a long-time signifier of death in the language of the cinema” (56). This image accomplishes a double task, Muir says. First, it reinforces the idea that “the ordered universe has become topsy-turvy” because although “the highway is a symbol of man’s intelligence and his need to connect one place to another,” the presence of the dead armadillo suggests that “above and beyond man’s sense of self-imposed order (the road), is the overriding chaos of the universe” (56). Second, the image of the dead armadillo heralds a similar image of a homeless man, “signifying. . . the death and horror to come”:

Not long after the shot of the armadillo, a drink is seen in the cemetery to be lying in the same position as the road kill. . . . In fact, this is the film’s second “armadillo” shot: the drunk’s face is upside down in the frame too, out of order, signifying again the death and horror to come (56).
So far, three images have conspired, so to speak, to indicate that the world exists within an indifferent, or even hostile, universe in which human life is not only meaningless but also endangered. Next, sound--or, more specifically--music is used to further underscore the universe’s cosmic indifference to humanity:

The music in the film. . . is distinctly unpleasant, all cymbal crashes and echoes; highly discordant and jarring. There is no lyrical theme running through the music, no recognizable leitmotif, only a jumble of ugly, seemingly random sounds strung together. Like the eruptions on the surface of the sun, the music reflects the absence of equilibrium, sanity, reason, and order in the universe” (56).
This sense of an unintelligible, meaningless, and possibly hostile universe comes across even more clearly when there is, as it were, a “theme” or “leitmotif” to man-made sounds, such as, for example, the news report to which one of the film’s characters is listening at the moment that he is struck and killed by a passing truck while he is busy reliving himself into a cup while standing at the edge of the road. The report is full of seemingly random events of a “discomforting” character, which, taken together, indicate “a disordered, uncaring universe” (57).

Having used both images and sound to symbolize such cosmic indifference to humanity, Hooper now turns his film’s attention to its characters, eliminating, from the very outset, first the group of victims’ “alpha male,” followed, in short order, by the elimination of the second male, which leads the female character on her own, with “no ‘male’ figure to cling to at all” (57-58).

Hooper ratchets up the film’s horror and suspense by refusing to grant the character’s experiences any meaning; what happens to them--and, vicariously, to the audience, has no cognitive or epistemological significance; they learn nothing from it. Therefore, their experience is without value:
He denies his viewers the critical act of learning. . . . an audience usually learns important facts from the story’s structure or through the expositional dialogue of the main characters. . . . Knowledge does not pass from one protagonist to the next and no acts are explained or even rationalized. . . . They are killed without learning anything. . . and so the audience doesn’t learn anything either (58).
The failure to explain the bizarre, violent incidents lends the film verisimilitude, Muir suggests, because, in moviegoers’ own lives, similar events transpire, without readymade answers (58).

By setting up a series of expectations on the parts of both his characters and the audience and then frustrating or “overturning” them, Hooper maintains the horror, the randomness, and the suspense of his movie’s action, Muir adds: “They go to the gas station expecting gas, but it’s out of gas. They go to the swimming hole expecting water, but it’s dry. They go to the friendly looking farmhouse down the lane expecting help but find only insanity and death” (58).

Likewise, the characters are dwarfed by their surroundings, which suggests that they are of comparatively little significance whose lives are often on the verge of extinction, whether they are aware of their danger or not:
Hooper takes special pains to accentuate the vastness of the universe around his young characters. . . . Hooper sees [them] much as those very characters view the spiders in the web or the cows locked away in the slaughterhouses. They’re little, meaningless creatures, running around in their lives with a sort of tunnel vision, unable to see that they inhabit a much larger and terribly frightening domain. As human beings, we. . . do a hundred “normal” and “routine” things . . . while unaware that a tornado could be approaching, or that a serial killer could be roaming the very neighborhood where we live. But we impose a false sense of order (and hence security) in our everyday existence and Tobe Hooper’s modus operandi is to strip all that away. . . . We‘re victims of a universe that unfolds randomly (59-60).
According to Muir, Hooper is not necessarily an atheist. It could be that “the universe has a plan”; it’s just that “humans don’t know what it is, or even if they’re important to it” (60), a point that Hooper underscores through imagery, camera angles, and his characters’ dialogue:

Under the uncaring eye of the distant sun, Jerry’s van picks up the Hitchhiker. . . . Under a giant blue sky, the Hitchhiker [one of the film’s antagonists] and the van itself might as well be ants on a hill or cows in the slaughterhouse. . . . Hooper and cinematographer [Daniel] Pearl make inventive use of the low angle perspective. . . . [to reveal] the inherent hierarchy (or disorder) of the universe. High above his oblivious characters stand outer space, suns, and galaxies. And those cosmic entities could not care less that five teens are about to meet their makers in a backwater corner of some place called Texas.

The film’s dialogue reinforces many of these themes (60).

The film’s central antagonist, the cannibalistic, transvestite, serial killer name Leatherface, is himself an embodiment of Hooper’s view of the universe as an uncaring, hostile place: “Ultimately, the very nature of Leatherface’s villainy is a prominent part of Hooper’s thesis about the universe, too.” For example, “he doesn’t want to have sex with the lovely Sally.” Instead, as if she were nothing more than a cow in a slaughterhouse, “where her grandfather once worked,” Leatherface would rather slaughter and eat Sally and wear her face as a mask (60).

The sole survivor, Sally survives merely by chance: she “happens to get a break, to escape the crazies and make it to the road beyond the farmhouse but none of that is part of a design or intentional strategy on her part. It’s just the law of averages” (66); the universe remains impartial in its indifference to all humanity. Moreover, as Muir points out, Sally’s escape may not have left her unscathed emotionally: “her sanity is in serious question at the end of Chain Saw” (66).

Finally, Hooper uses even seemingly random business and road signs to reinforce his movie’s horror and suspense:

Also interesting is Hooper’s appropriate use of signage at just the right times to provide the audience with subconscious clues about the horror to come. At the gas station, there is a sign reading “Gulf,” quite an appropriate brand for a half-way place between two regions, in this case the normal and the insane. Shortly thereafter, another sign reads “STOP” as the protagonists near the old Franklin place, a visual warning that is ultimately ignored (67).
It should be obvious that Hooper is a consummate director of horror films, adept in the use of symbolic imagery, instrumental music, the denial of thematic meaning to his characters’ experiences, frustrated expectations, irony, size discrepancies between characters and their vast surroundings, dialogue, business and road signs, and other forms of non-verbal communication to suggest both horror and suspense. Any storyteller, whether of film or literary fiction, interested in the horror genre would do well to study the techniques of such a master. Fortunately, Muir’s study of precisely this topic, in Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, helps one to do just this.

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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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