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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Reestablishment of Order as the Restoration of Faith

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror fiction often establishes a norm that it then violates. In Stephen King‘s fiction, the norm is usually everyday life as it transpires in small-town America. After setting the stage, often literally before the readers’ eyes, by having them follow a character on his or her way about town, delivering newspapers, jogging, or going about some other, ordinary, everyday task, and introducing them to several characters, King, at some point, upsets the applecart of everydayness by letting not the cat, but the monster, out of the bag. The ordinary laws of the universe no longer apply. At least, they don’t seem to apply.

When something spectacular enough to void the laws of nature occurs, readers may (and do) expect it to explain itself or, rather, they expect the protagonist to find the answers to the conundrum that the abrupt arrival of the uncanny represents. In fact, that’s the formula for much contemporary horror fiction, as I pointed out in a previous post:

1. All is well.
2. Something strange happens.
3. The protagonist learns the cause of the strange event (or series of events).
4. The protagonist uses his or her new-found knowledge to put things right again.

I also argued, as have others, that horror fiction is basically a conservative genre, because it is generally concerned with routing or destroying the monster and reestablishing order. However, in this post, as a sort of follow-up to the one in which I discuss the horror plot formula (“Horror Story Formulae”) and the one in which I talk about the loss of security in the face of evil and death (“Taking Away the Teddy Bear”), I would like to suggest, further, that the reestablishment of order renews readers’ sense of security, hope, and faith in the possibility of experiencing meaning in regard to their lives. Obviously, if the world makes no sense, if it is chaotic and capricious, nothing matters, and there is no hope of accomplishing anything that really counts.

Things that don’t fit the big picture (the model of reality that human beings have pieced together over millennia and continue to piece together in each new generation and age) threaten our security as a species, a nation, a community, or a family. The wholesale death that accompanied the spread of the bubonic plague during the Middle Ages threatened nations’ security, because the Black Death did not fit the picture of a world governed by a loving, all-powerful God. The Holocaust threatened the Jews’ security because the wholesale slaughter of their people did not fit with their understanding of themselves as God’s “chosen people.” A serial killer or a serial rapist threatens a community’s sense of security because a whole series of deaths or rapes in one’s own neighborhood suggests that the local police force is unable to protect the public; therefore, potentially anyone, male or female, is at risk of murder and any woman is at risk of being sexually assaulted. Extramarital affairs, among other things, threaten a family’s security because such behavior can destroy the family’s trust and psychological welfare.

Scientists supposedly revise their models of the universe, or nature, when discoveries warrant such revisions, replacing, for example, Newton’s theory of physics with Einstein’s theory of the same and foregoing Lamarckian evolutionary theory in favor of the Darwinian theory of evolution. By changing the big picture, scientists keep their understanding of the universe current with their discoveries of new facts. In theory, at least, and ideally, this is how scientists are said to work.

Scientists have faith that the universe is orderly, even if their own knowledge and understanding of this order is imperfect and changeable. It is, in fact, upon this bedrock of assumed certainty, of faith, that the scientific enterprise itself is based, for, without such assumed certainty with regard to the universe as orderly, no possibility of obtaining true and certain knowledge at any point would be possible. That doesn’t mean that one’s big picture is perfect; it will need correction from time to time.

The concept of the supernatural versus that of the paranormal clarifies such “paradigm shifts,” as the adaptations of scientific views concerning the universe have been called. At one time, ghosts, werewolves, zombies, and such were believed to be spiritual entities or monstrosities empowered by supernatural entities--beings beyond nature and outside the universe. Today, scientists, when they accept the notion that such phenomena exist at all (and many do not), consider them to be natural forces or entities which are, as yet, not understood, but which are, nevertheless, as natural, rather than supernatural, phenomena, understandable by science in principle.

Individuals have a harder time making such adjustments to their own big pictures. Often, the information they base their decisions--and, indeed, their very lives--on is fragmented, erroneous, partial, or untested. It is more a matter of faith and tradition, of custom and wishful thinking, than it is a matter of knowledge. It is disconnected and idiosyncratic. When new information or experiences challenge individual world views (if, indeed, such a lofty term can be applied to individuals’ often half-baked Weltanschauungs), individuals have trouble adjusting their thinking and adapting their beliefs so as to accommodate such challenges.

Some monsters challenge the world (the Martians in The War of the Worlds); others, nations Godzilla); and still others, communities (King Kong) or families (Cujo). Those that threaten the world or a nation challenge humanity on a global or national level; the others challenge humanity on a communal or familial level. In other worlds, the Martians in H. G. Wells’ novel challenge the security of a species which considers itself God’s gift to the universe, the “crown of creation” itself. If other intelligent life exists, human beings are not unique or even all that special--especially if the extraterrestrial species is technologically superior to the Earthlings whom they seek to conquer.

Human beings tend to congregate, to form cliques, families, communities, nations, and international alliances, mostly to increase their own chances for survival and to protect their group against others. A force that is not powerful enough to destroy the planet may be strong enough to destroy a nation, as the United States appeared to be, during World War II, when it dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. If the building of a nation, over a period of centuries, if not millennia, is no guarantee of safety or survival, nations have a right to tremble, as Japan does, in the shadow of the radioactive Godzilla.

Communities are based upon commonly shared characteristics (geographical location, if nothing else), common interests (the church, for example), or both. Depending upon the strength of the ties that bind such groups together, a community can withstand quite a challenge. New Orleans is regrouping after Hurricane Katrina, and the church has survived a variety of threats, internal and external, throughout much of the world, for thousands of years. However, a resurgence of the primitive, or primordial and instinctive drives that are normally repressed in the interest of the common good, can be potent enough to threaten a community, as King Kong, an embodiment of the primeval and bestial within human beings, almost succeeds in doing.

Likewise, a moral threat, such as adultery, symbolized by the attack of the rabid Saint Bernard in Cujo, or alcoholism and child abuse, the demons that haunt Jack Torrance in The Shining, can destroy one’s family.

There are plenty of threats, on every level of society and civilization, from peer pressure to nuclear annihilation. Security, which depends upon order, social, political, economic, cultural, psychological, moral, and otherwise, is subject to assault at any moment, and, indeed, it is under almost continuous attack. Whether one anchors his or her faith in God, in the human mind, in cultural and social traditions, in law, in parental love, or in some other seabed, sea serpents are apt to threaten such faith and to seek to overturn, or even to destroy, the order it tends to engender and to sustain.

Monsters shake up the big pictures that human beings piece together, on the individual, the familial, the communal, the national, and the global level. In doing so, as painful and as horrible as such “attacks” can be, the monsters do humanity a service. They expose the chinks in the armor of the individual, the familial, the communal, the national, or the international world views which, individually and collectively, comprise the beliefs, understandings, and values of humanity.

Like pain that alerts a person to a health problem, monsters alert people to moral, philosophical, theological, social, cultural, political, economic, or other problems that need to be addressed (or vanquished). If the monster doesn’t kill one (and, more often than not, it doesn’t kill the whole herd), it makes one stronger. By pointing out weaknesses in individual or communal beliefs, knowledge, or values, monsters help us to overcome them and, in the process, to transform fallacies, ignorance, and false values into the real deal, strengthening the bases of security upon which men and women build lives and societies of order, purpose, and significance, for the reestablishment of order which follows the vanquishing of the monster is a restoration of the faith which gives a sense of security to human beings who live in a dangerous world in an uncertain universe.

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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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