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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Taking Away the Teddy Bear

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman


Whether a doll, a favorite blanket, or a teddy bear, many children have a favorite toy or other item with which they sleep, partly because they want company but also because they feel a need for security, especially when they are by themselves, in the dark, and ordinary things become large and threatening in their imaginations. We like to think that, long before we become adults, we give up our teddy bears or whatever we substitute for them, or that, at least, they are taken away from us, perhaps as we kick and scream in protest at losing such a trustworthy and faithful companion.

The truth? Even as adults, we have our teddy bears. They’re our husbands or wives, our children, our jobs, our homes, our automobiles, our doctors, and all the other persons, places, and things (and, for that matter, qualities and ideas) that make us feel safe and secure (as well as important and meaningful).

Most of us, although we may lose one or more of these teddy bears, seldom lose them all. A spouse may die; we may be fired; we may lose our homes to foreclosure, our doctors may retire or move away, but, most of the time, not all of these possibilities are realized; we are not, as a rule, fully abandoned. We retain at least, one teddy bear, and often several. That is, until death arrives, to strip us not only of these symbols of our security, but also of life itself and the very flesh we wear, leaving us both nameless and faceless in the grave forever.

In “The Horror of The Exorcist: Its Presentation and Confrontation,” J. W. Ocker contends that “horrifying an audience” is a relatively simple matter, requiring nothing more than the filming of “atrocity.” Such filming becomes “art,” he suggests, only when the atrocity is given some sort of redeeming value, when it is filmed “in a meaningful way without reveling in the horror” (72). The Exorcist is artistic because it accomplishes this end, using atrocity to examine “what has been termed, in the theological realm, ‘the problem of evil,’” or “the paradox that seemingly unbounded atrocity can occur in a universe that is the product of a loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, benign Creator” (74-75). The novel’s (and the movie’s) theme transcends the horror of evil per se and of “an individual child being subjected to that evil” (74) to ask what meaning or purpose human existence can have in such a universe.

In other words, The Exorcist’s unrelenting “presentation and confrontation” of evil “does not allow us to distance ourselves from the evil” by “turning it into some fantastical construct of the nightly news or [a] philosophical plaything” (74) and, therefore, the novel (and the movie) makes each reader come to terms with the significance of evil’s existence. In short, The Exorcist holds the reader’s (or the moviegoer’s) feet to the fire of hell. Evil becomes real; it is not merely an anecdote or an abstraction.

The type of horror that The Exorcist’s depiction of “the problem of evil” represents is both religious and existential: “Such a horror finds its potency in the possibility of a faith unfounded, a worldview demolished. . . . It is the horror of ultimate betrayal” (75). This is the horror, one might argue, of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” or Sir Winston Churchill’s “Man Overboard.” In both short stories, the protagonists expect to be rescued, but learn, as they languish, dying at sea, that they are quite alone in an uncaring universe in which no sign of God is to be seen, perhaps because there is no God. It is a horror, one might suppose, to which there is no lower, deeper pit, the nadir of despair itself, but such is not the case, Ocker contends; rather, it is the herald of, and the catalyst to, a deeper, even more devastating understanding regarding the true nature of the universe, the type of vision that one discerns in the works, for example, of the Marquis de Sade:

This type of horror is different from, but the close forerunner of another type of horror. . . . That terror is of a universe that is either indifferent or hostile to our own existence. It is a universe in which there is no guarantee that good will triumph over evil “in the end” nor even any reason why it should. It is a universe where there is no real basis to value good over evil. . . [and] each one is a force as natural and as much a part of our reality as anything else. It is a universe in which saying that it is bad to subject a child to torment and obscenity is to say something nonsensical. One can only say in that universe, that the child is or is not being subjected to such, and one cannot tag onto that fact an objective moral judgment (75).
Earlier writers, both popular and mainstream, have suggested that God, if he exists at all, is a disinterested Creator (deism), is dead (Friedrich Nietzsche), is missing in action (Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), or is inscrutable (Job). Shakespeare suggests that God may be but a gibbering idiot (the blind force of chance evolution, perhaps?). He also characterizes the type of universe that results from such a “creator”: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth).

In bringing his reader face to face, as it were, with mindless evil, The Exorcist’s author, William Peter Blatty, denies him or her the opportunity to escape into clichéd presentations or abstract understandings of human suffering. He gives to such evil a human face, that of preteen Regan MacNeil. In other words, he takes away the teddy bear of a shallow, but comforting, religious faith that assumes that, because “God is in his heaven, all is right with the world” (“Pippa Passes”).

Others who abandoned such a teddy bear include those writers whose names or works have been mentioned--deists (Thomas Jefferson, for example), Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Beckett, Stephen Crane, Sir Winston Churchill, the author of Job, William Shakespeare--and some, either they or others, have even gone so far as to suggest a purpose for life in what might be regarded as a purposeless universe. Hedonists suggest that we should pursue pleasure and avoid pain, enjoying life in the here and now. After all, once death occurs, we will ourselves shall have ceased to exist. Others, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, propose that, by pursuing our own interests while, at the same time, accepting responsibility for our actions, we can live as authentic an existence as it is possible for creatures who are both finite and temporal to live. Still others, such as Nietzsche, recommend that we persist in order to give rise to the superman who shall come, through us, to inherit the world and to live beyond the categories of good and evil, a law--and a sort of god--unto himself.

Blatty himself surrendered his teddy bear, believing that the so-called problem of evil was real and must be not only “presented” but “confronted,” as Ockley’s essay’s title suggests, but Blatty, in confronting this issue, remains a man of faith, and a man of a deeper and truer faith than that expressed by Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes.” The novelist’s conclusion regarding the matter seems to be spoken by Father Merrin, who tells his fellow exorcist, Father Karras:

I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us. . . The observers. . . Every person in this house. . . . I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity. . . To see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps; in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it is finally a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us.
Blatty’s point of view is interesting in several ways, not the least of which is that, if a relationship between a person and God must be based upon love, living as if it must be predicated upon some other basis, whether rationality, emotion, or morality, for instance, is to miss the whole point entirely. The problem of evil is a moral problem. If God is good, how can he, if he is also both omniscient and omnipotent, allow human beings--especially an innocent child--to suffer undeservedly. This is a rational conundrum, defying logic; its force, however, is as much emotional as it is rational, and the true significance of the problem of evil, which is that of human beings’ living in a universe, which is “full of sound and fury” that signifies “nothing,” is that it leads humanity to despair, a state in which the acceptance of God’s love becomes impossible, leaving “every person in this house,” or universe, bereft of God and abandoned to him- or herself.

The problem of evil, truly understood, is the taking away of the final, and the most cherished, of all teddy bears, the belief that life is meaningful, purposeful, and worthwhile. Paradoxically, the loss of this final teddy bear can allow its replacement not by another token of security but by the only true security there is, if there is, indeed, any at all, the God who is not only the ground of being-itself but also love. This is the answer, to the extent that an answer is possible, that Blatty’s novel offers to the problem of evil, “not an explanation,” as Ocker observes, as much as “a context”:

For Father Merrin, the exorcist, there was no doubt that there is a God, there was no doubt that evil exists, and there was no reason to dally with paradoxes. As a result, he was ready for immediate action, unlike the doctors, psychiatrists, and Father Karras himself (at first). Nor does Merrin’s death take anything away from that, for without his help, without his strength, without his sacrifice and the catalyst of his death, there could only have been more horror for all involved (77).

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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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