Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Horror Story Formulae

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

I. General Horror Formula
  1. A series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated incidents occurs.
  2. The protagonist (and, sometimes, his or her friends or associates) discover the cause of the incidents (often, it is a monster).
  3. Using their newfound knowledge, they end the bizarre incidents (perhaps by killing the monster).

Examples: It, Summer of Night, The Exorcist


II. Specific Horror Authors’ Formulae

H. G. Wells

  1. An ordinary man lives an ordinary life.
  2. He is confronted by extraordinary circumstances.
  3. He has trouble fitting back into an ordinary life.

Examples: The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau

Edgar Allan Poe (1)

  1. A man and a woman fall in love.
  2. The woman dies.
  3. The grieving man seeks to survive the woman’s death.

Examples: “Annabelle Lee,” The Raven

Edgar Allan Poe (2)

  1. A villain insults the protagonist or the protagonist’s beloved.
  2. The protagonist executes revenge.
  3. The protagonist and/or the protagonist and his beloved escape.

Examples: “Hop-Frog,” “The Cask of the Amontillado” Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe (3)

  1. A madman becomes obsessed with another person.
  2. The madman kills the other person or violates him or her in some way.
  3. The madman succumbs to his madness.

Examples: “Berenice,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”


Stephen King

  1. A fairy tale is reduced to its basic narrative elements.
  2. The fairy tale’s conflict symbolizes a contemporary issue or concern (theme).
  3. The fairy tale is retold in contemporary terms, in a small-town setting.

Examples: Carrie, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Misery


Dean Koontz

  1. A guy meets a girl.
  2. The couple encounters a force that tries to kill them.
  3. The couple, surviving, fall in love.

Gary Pullman

  1. Neglected or abused children face a common threat.
  2. As a team, they fight their common threat.
  3. They overcome the threat and become friends.

Examples: Saturday’s Child, Mystic Mansion, Revelation Point, Wild Wicca Woman

III. Christian Formulae

Christian (1)

  1. People enjoy paradise.
  2. Paradise is invaded, or the people give in to temptation.
  3. Paradise is corrupted or destroyed or the people are exiled from it.

Example: Adam and Eve

Christian (2a)

  1. People displease God.
  2. God warns the people to repent.
  3. When the people refuse to repent, God destroys them.

Example: Noah and the ark; the curses against pharaoh and the Egyptians

Christian (2b)

  1. People displease God.
  2. God warns the people to repent.
  3. When the people refuse to repent, God curses them, and they suffer the consequences of the curse.

Example: Moses and the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness


Christian (3)

  1. A people is oppressed by a tyrant.
  2. God elects a leader to rescue them.
  3. The people are rescued from the tyrant.

Example: Exodus

Christian (4)

  1. God promises a people that it shall have a land in which to build a nation.
  2. Through leaders, God seizes the land from its inhabitants.
  3. The people occupy the land and build a nation.

Examples: Judges and Kings

Christian (5a)

  1. A chosen one is called to undertake a mission.
  2. The chosen one performs the mission.
  3. The fortunes of a tribe, a nation, or the human race is improved.

Example: Moses, David, Israel, church


Christian (5b)

  1. God promises a Messiah.
  2. The Messiah arrives, performing his ministry.
  3. The Messiah redeems humanity.

Example: Jesus Christ


IV. Another Formula

Hans Christian Andersen

  1. A character is rejected by his or her peers or community.
  2. The character accomplishes a great deed on behalf of his peers or community.
  3. The character is accepted with praise by his peers or community.

Examples: "The Ugly Duckling," "The Littlest Christmas Tree," Revelation Point

Monday, January 26, 2009

Stephen King’s Horrific Fairy Tales; Dean Koontz’s Variations on a Formula

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Stephen King has claimed that he buys his ideas for stories at an out-of-the-way, secondhand bookstore.

However, in Archetypes in 8 Horror and Suspense Films, Walter Rankin identifies the fairy tales that he believes underlie several of Stephen King’s novels:


"Little Red Riding Hood" is the basis of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, in which a young girl is lost in the woods and encounters a monster.


"Sleeping Beauty" is the basis for Christine, in which a teenage boy falls in love with his car.


"Rapunzel" is the basis of Carrie. In the former story, “a girl is locked away in a high room by a woman who fears the girl’s maturity and interest in men, which are symbolized by remarkable changes she can’t control.” Carrie is locked away by her mother, a religious fanatic who bore her daughter as a result of having been raped, fears and hates men and sex, and, like the woman in the story of Rapunzel “fears” he daughter’s “maturity and interest in” boys, in not “men.”


"Snow White" is the basis for “Apt Pupil,” in both of which stories “an older, seemingly normal person is revealed as an evil, deadly foe by a younger person with remarkably similar policies,” and the older person dies, survived by the younger one, his or her protégé. In “Apt Pupil,” the older person is a Nazi war criminal, while his protégé is a sadistic American teenage boy.

"Cinderella" is the basis of Firestarter. In both stories, a girl is exploited by a group who adopt her as their own, but, aided by a fairy godmother (in Cinderella’s case) or her own developing pyrokinesis (in Charlie’s case), vanquishes her foes.


"Hansel and Gretel" is the basis of Silver Bullet. In the former, siblings alone in an enchanted realm must fend off the attacks of a “villain who appears in two forms, one normal and one otherworldly and powerful.” In the latter, a brother and sister, aided by their uncle, resist the assaults of a character who is the parish priest by day and a werewolf by night.


"Rumpelstiltskin" is the basis for Storm of the Century. In both stories, a mysterious man appears demanding that he be given children before he will leave the townspeople in peace. The citizens seek to uncover the stranger’s secret and prevent him from abducting their children.

According to Rankin, the fairy tale’s prohibition-violation premise structures the plot. The audience understands (and expects) the character or characters to violate a prohibition and to suffer the consequences of their doing so. The prohibition may involve almost anything--opening a closet, investigating a strange noise, believing that a killer is dead when he or she is not, wandering off alone, opening a locked door. The consequences, at some point, will likely include one or more (or all) of the characters’ meeting an untimely and gruesome end.

What about the West Coast Stephen King, Dean Koontz? Where does he get his storylines?

In Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear, edited by Stefen Hantke, Richard John Hauser is credited with having identified the “five basic plots [that] Dean Koontz uses over and over ad infinitum. Actually, it seems that Koontz uses but one plot and four variations on one of its parts. The blank indicates the part that changes (slightly) from one employment of the formula to another: “Guy meets girl and they stumble across _________________. The _______________ tries to kill them. They survive and fall in love.” With this in mind, these are the five plots that Hantke identifies; the parenthetical examples are his as well; the underlining is added:
  1. Guy meets girl and they stumble across a government experiment gone wrong. Government forces try to kill them. They survive and fall in love (Watchers, Strangers).
  2. Guy meets girl and they stumble across a non-government experiment gone wrong. Non-government forces try to kill them. They survive and fall in love (Midnight).
  3. Guy meets girl and they stumble across a supernatural horror. The supernatural horror tries to kill them. They survive and fall in love (Twilight Eyes, Darkfall).
  4. Guy meets girl and they stumble across a psychopathic killer. The psychopathic killer tries to kill them. They survive and fall in love (Watchers, Strangers).
  5. Guy meets girl and they stumble across a horror that doesn’t quite fit one of the above categories. The horror that doesn’t quite fit one of the above categories tries to kill them. They survive and fall in love (Watchers, Strangers).

Sources

Fairy Tale Archetypes in 8 Horror and Suspense Films by Walter Rankin; McFarland and Company, Inc., NC, 2007.

Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear
, Stefen Hantke, ed.; 2004.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Hyperfeminine Monster: What Does She Look Like?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Some hypermasculine fictional characters are good guys (of a sort, at least), among whose ranks we may count The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine or, on a slightly more realistic level, James Bond or Dirty Harry. More often, however, especially in horror fiction, such characters tend to be the heavies, the Predators and the Xenomorphs or, on the slightly more realistic level of the espionage and the police dramas, the Odd Jobs and the Scorpios. In real-life, the hypermasculine good guy might be a cowboy, a policeman, a soldier, or a mercenary, and the hypermasculine bad guy might be a gunfighter, a sociopath, an enemy commando, or an outlaw biker.

Whether comic book super villain, horror story monster, or police drama bad guy, the hypermasculine character is fairly familiar, but what does his counterpart, the hyperfeminine monster, look like, and how does she act?

Hyperfeminine characters exhibit exaggeration of feminine qualities. Typically, they stroke the male ego, are passive, naïve, innocent, flirty, graceful, nurturing, and accepting, even, sometimes, of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They want to be seen as all-woman women, and they are drawn to hypermasculine men (men who exaggerate masculine traits).

If the aliens of Predator and Alien represent horror fiction’s image of the hypermasculine monster, does Sil, of Species (1995), represent the female equivalent, the hyperfeminine monster, or are we talking something more along the lines of another extraterrestrial creature, the Blob?


“Sil” is the name given to a female alien-human hybrid produced by scientists, using instructions transmitted to them from the alien species, by splicing human and alien DNA together. When she reaches adolescence in only three months, breaking free of her confinement, the scientists view her as a potential menace, and the government seeks to hunt her down and destroy her before she can mate with a man or men. Able to revert to her alien form at will, Sil is extremely strong, agile, and intelligent. She also has incredible regenerative abilities.

She seeks a mate, killing two men, the first because he is a diabetic and, therefore, unworthy of her, the second because the couple are interrupted as they’re about to, uh, couple. Disguised, she does mate with one of the scientists in the hunting party, killing him when he recognizes her. Ultimately, she and her offspring are killed in a cave. (The monstrous Sil was created by H. R. Giger, the same superb biomechanical artist who designed the xenomorph that appears in Alien and its sequels.)

Although in her human guise, Sil is beautiful (Michelle Williams plays her as an adolescent, and Natasha Henstridge portrays her as an adult) and she is adept at turning men’s heads (both literally and figuratively), Sil seems to have too many traits that are traditionally categorized as masculine (or, indeed, as hypermasculine) to qualify as a hyperfeminine monster: she is aggressive, physically powerful, and violent.

Although she becomes a mother, she doesn’t appear to be the nurturing type, and she most definitely is not at all concerned with stroking the male ego, is not passive, is not naïve, is not innocent, is flirty only in a clumsy fashion, and is anything but accepting of others’ flaws. It’s hard to imagine any female creature that is less likely to tolerate physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In fact, if anything, she is the predator and the abuser.


A more recent movie, Teeth (2007), may offer us the image of the hyperfeminine monster. The premise seems promising: Dawn O’Keefe, a young woman, has teeth in her vagina. She’s certainly able to defend herself: when a new acquaintance refuses to take no for an answer, forcing himself upon her in a cave after a quick swim, she--or her vagina dentata (vagina with teeth)--bites off the offensive offender’s penis, and she flees the scene of the crime, leaving him to bleed to death.

After researching the topic of the vagina dentata, Dawn visits her gynecologist to see whether her condition qualifies. When the doctor, pretending to examine her, molests Dawn, she--or her vagina--responds, biting off his fingers. Later, learning that her classmate Ryan has bet that he can seduce Dawn, her vagina dentata bites off his penis.

She recalls an earlier victim of sorts: her stepbrother, who molested her when she was younger. It wasn’t with her mouth, as she had remembered until now, that she’d bitten his finger at the time; it was with her vaginal teeth.

She leaves home on her bicycle, but, when it has a flat tire, she accepts a ride with a male driver. He locks the car’s doors when she tries to get out at a gas station, and intimates that he wants to have sex with her. Dawn responds with a sinister smile.

Both aggressive and violent, Dawn isn’t really a predator as such, attacking only those who have or would molest or otherwise harm her, so it seems difficult to imagine her as a hyperfeminine monster.


Maybe the much earlier movie, The Blob (1958), offers a better idea of the hyperfeminine. Although the alien’s sex, if it has one, is not identified in the story, it does seem to have some traits that are traditionally identified as feminine, and it seems extreme in its exercise of these qualities. An alien, the Blob is a formless creature resembling a colossal ameba. Able to envelope its prey, incorporating animals and human beings into its jelly-like mass, it is repelled by cold temperatures, and the military dispatches it to the arctic after it is frozen in carbon dioxide, where it remains until the movie’s sequel, Beware! The Blob (1972).

In the latter film, Chester, a construction worker who is helping to lay the Alaska oil pipeline, brings home a mysterious, jelly-like substance. When it thaws on his kitchen countertop, it is hungry, after being frozen for fourteen years, and appeases its appetite by devouring increasingly bigger prey: a fly, a kitten, Chester’s wife, and Chester himself.

Afterward, the monster attacks and eats hippies, police, a barber and his customer, homeless people, a Scout master, bowlers, skaters, and even chickens, before it is frozen inside the ice skating rink. The 1988 movie is a remake of the original, rather than another sequel.

The Blob is aggressive (in a somewhat passive manner) and, in its own way, violent, which are attributes that are traditionally associated with males. However, its ability to envelop its prey; its passive-aggressive nature; its aversion to cold (i. e., its preference for warmth, which, symbolically, might signify a desire for sociable contact, if not affection; its open acceptance of all; and its womblike “smothering” of others are qualities that are traditionally linked to females.

It seems, then, that the Blob is more hyperfeminine than either Sil or Dawn O’Keefe and, for the present, at any rate, earns the title of horror fiction’s most nearly hyperfeminine monster.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presto! You Have a Plot!

Copyright Gary L. Pullman

It’s fairly easy to plot a contemporary horror novel if you know the formula, which is also fairly simple--quite simple, in fact, consisting of three phases:
  1. A series of bizarre incidents occurs.
  2. The main character discovers the cause of the bizarre incidents.
  3. Using his or her newfound knowledge as to the cause of the bizarre incidents, the main character (usually assisted by others) puts an end to them (often by killing a monster).
With this formula in mind, all a writer has to do is to:
  1. Establish the cause of the series of bizarre incidents; if the cause is human or humanoid (for example, a monster with a will and personality), give it a plausible motive for its actions.
  2. Make a list of the bizarre incidents that will occur.
  3. Establish the means by which the main character learns the cause of the bizarre incidents.
  4. Have the main character use this knowledge as to the cause of the bizarre incidents to put an end to them.
  5. It helps (but is not mandatory) to associate the monster or other cause of the bizarre incidents with a real-life horror.

In a nutshell, that’s all there is to plotting the contemporary horror novel.

Let’s conclude with an example (Stephen King's Desperation):

  1. Establish the cause of the series of bizarre incidents. The demon Tak escapes from the caved-in mine in which he has been imprisoned for several decades and battles God, seeking to demonstrate its superiority to the Christian deity.
  2. Make a list of the bizarre incidents that will occur. 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.
  3. Establish the means by which the main character learns the cause of the bizarre incidents. A character who has witnessed several of the bizarre incidents that befall his town tells David and the others in their party about the demon that has escaped from the caved-in mine and how it possesses one person after another.
  4. Have the main character use this knowledge as to the cause of the bizarre incidents to put an end to them. Assisted by others, David reburies Tak inside the collapsed mine.
  5. It helps (but is not mandatory) to associate the monster or other cause of the bizarre incidents with a real-life horror; for example, the monster of cause may symbolize such a real-life horror. Tak could represent social anarchy and its consequences.

Presto! Flesh out the skeleton of your story, possibly adding a related subplot or two, and you have the plot for one scary horror novel (especially if you happen to be Stephen King.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Writers’ Considerations: Readers’ Likes and Dislikes

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

While it is true that a writer should not let his or her writing be determined solely by readers’ observations (i. e., likes and dislikes) about his or her work, any more than a politician should allow his or her politics to be solely determined by public opinion polls, it is also true that a writer (or a politician) has an audience whose interests he or she disregards at his or her own peril. Since a writer writes for an audience (or audiences, since one is apt to consist of professional critical and another composed of amateur fans), he or she should understand what his or her readers like and dislike about his or her fiction, and an astute reader, whether professional or amateur, can, and frequently does, offer valid observations from which all but the most insulated and arrogant writer can profit.

In doing so, one is advised to keep in mind the adage about following the money trail; some reviewers offer uncritically positive views because they are selling the book. One should also weed out blatantly unfair comments, especially on the negative side, as well. Be mindful, too, that some observations will be diametrically opposed to others, as when one reviewer calls the plot “boring” or “predictable” and another sees it as “well-paced” or “surprising.” (I tend to winnow out such contradictions unless there are many more on one side than there are on the other.) Also be careful to reject comments that are nothing more than superlatives (“rich plot”) or their opposites (“stupid plot”) which are so general and vague as to be meaningless.

This enterprise also offers a handy dandy way of distinguishing which features of a story female readers like or dislike and which male readers enjoy or find objectionable, and one can tell, just by eyeballing the lengths of the respective “Likes” and “Dislikes” columns, whether the book, in general, seemed to receive more favorable than unfavorable comments. (Admittedly, this is not a scientific approach, but it works reasonably well as a rule of thumb for those writers who lack the time, money, expertise, equipment, and laboratories in which to conduct the bona fide experiments that scientific research requires.)

Occasionally, younger readers will offer a review of the book without having finished reading it. Of course, this is not acceptable for most readers outside the circle of their peers, but it offers writers one advantage. Most writers, especially mystery writers and horror writers, present their readers with a red herring regarding the cause of the plot’s events, saving, for near the end, the true cause. For example, in The Taking, Dean Koontz suggests that aliens who seek to terraform the Earth in reverse, to make it hospitable for the army of their kind which is to follow, are responsible for the horrific incidents he details, whereas, in fact, the true cause is something else (an invasion of demons). According to the half-baked reviews of the adolescents who submit their takes on Desperation before they have finished reading King’s novel, the cause of the strange goings-on in the story is the madness of a police officer. Their reviews show that King has succeeded, with these reviewers, at least, in his sleight-of-mind suggestions that the strange and uncanny events are caused by something other than their true cause, which, as it urns out, is not a “mad cop,” as one reviewer believes (and as King has led him to suppose), but a demon, Tak, who has escaped from a caved-in mine and who now seeks to show his superiority over God, whom Tak regards as merely a competitive deity, rather than the one and only Supreme Being.

As an example of this approach, this post offers the following “likes and dislikes” of a number of readers of Dan Simmons’ novels The Terror and Summer of Night and of Stephen King’s Desperation. Obviously, the same two-column-table approach could be applied to any other writer’s work, recent or previous, including one’s own.

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Summer of Night by Dan Simmons

Desperation by Stephen King


In case you were wondering (you probably weren’t), my own takes are that Summer of Night is well worth reading, The Terror is nigh unreadable, and Desperation is one of King’s best books ever. The reasons for these assessments, in nutshells, are Summer of Night's realistic and believable recreation of America as it was for many during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, sympathetic characters, effective chills and thrills, and an interesting back story concerning the history of the bell that focuses and draws the ancient evil to the novel’s unsuspecting and enchanting town; The Terror's needless detail about the most minute aspects of everything nautical and historical, characters who are difficult to get to know, much less to care about, and a lack of overt action during most of the story; and Desperation's sympathetic and believable characters (always a strength in King’s fiction), an interesting antagonist, high stakes, the religious and moral dimensions, and, of course, the chills and thrills. Concerning Desperation, it was difficult to find any negative comments among horror fans.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Fill-in-the-Blank Guide to Writing Fiction

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Creating Characters

1. Create the Character’s General Profile. Creating a character is largely a matter of making choices, or decisions. To aid you in making these decisions, you can use a fill-in-the-blank decision-making template. We will start with a blank template. Then, we will fill in its blanks to show an example of how the template can be used to create a character.

Notes: If one of the blanks does not apply, simply write "N/A" in it, to indicate that the blank (and the situation to which it refers) is “not applicable.” When necessary, add more blanks--for example, your character may have more than one friend or coworker. You may want to add brief notations in parentheses after an entry. For example, if the character is separated or divorced from a spouse, you may want to indicate this situation by the parenthetical notation “(separated)” or “(divorced).” You can add other elements, represented by labeled blanks, to further extend the construction of your character.

____________________ (name of character) is a(n) ____________________ (age of character) ____________________ (social role of character), who works as a(n) ____________________ (vocation of character), supervised by ____________________ (name of character’s supervisor) and assisted by ____________________ (name of coworker or coworkers; add blanks as necessary); his or her friend (or friends) is (are) ____________________ (name[s] of character’s friend or friends; add blanks as necessary), whom he or she met while he or she was ____________________ (name of activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her friend or friends). The character lives in ____________________ (name of hometown and state) at (in) ____________________ (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with ____________________ (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her ____________________ (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is ____________________ (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), whom he or she met at ____________________ (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while ____________________ (type of the activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse).

Here is an example:

Buffy Summers (name of character) is a(n) 16-year-old (age of character) high school student (social role of character), who works as a(n) vampire slayer (vocation of character), supervised by Rupert Giles (name of character’s supervisor), and assisted by Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others (name[s] of coworker or coworkers; add blanks as necessary); his or her friend (friends) is (are) Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others (name[s] of character’s friend or friends; add blanks as necessary), whom he or she met while he or she was
attending high school (name of activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her friend or friends). The character lives in Sunnydale, California (name of hometown and state or country) at (in) home (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with Joyce Summers (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her mother (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is Angel (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife), whom he or she met at The Bronze (a club for teenagers) (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while he or she was dancing (type of activity that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse).

To make your character profile easier to read, simply eliminate the underlines, any unneeded or redundant material, and the parenthetical elements:

Buffy Summers is a 16-year-old high school student who works as a vampire slayer, supervised by Rupert Giles, and assisted by Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others; her friends are Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, and others, whom she met while she was attending high school. The character lives in Sunnydale, California, at home with Joyce Summers, her mother. Her boyfriend is Angel, whom she met at The Bronze (a club for teenagers), while she was dancing.

Notes: If the character’s situation changes, update the template. For example, Buffy Summers graduates from high school and attends UC Sunnydale. Thereafter, she drops out of college and returns home. She also acquires a kid sister, Dawn, and her mother dies. Her friend Willow moves in with her, and they acquire another roommate. For a while, Giles moves back to England, so she is without a supervisor, or mentor. Her friend Cordelia Chase moves to Los Angeles, and Buffy sees her only rarely thereafter. Other slayers (Kendra and Faith) are introduced, as are a group of Potential Slayers, all of whom complicate the plot and its various conflicts. Using a copy of the blank template, repeat the process for each character in your story.

2. Create the Character’s Back Story. A character’s back story makes him or her more believable as a character and can help to establish his or her motivation for taking the course of action that he or she adopts in his or her present situation. Make sure that the back story relates to and supports the main story that is presently being told. Otherwise, it will be irrelevant and confusing to the reader. To aid you in making these decisions, you can use a decision-making template, such as the one that we use, which takes the form of a fill-in-the-blank format. We will start with a blank template. Then, we will fill in its blanks to show an example of how the template can be used to create a character’s back story.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to creating the character’s back story as apply to creating his or her general profile.

Before _________________ (name of character) _________________ (incident that precipitated the character’s present situation, in general), he or she was a(n) _________________ (social role of character) living in ____________________ (name of hometown and state) at (in) ____________________ (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with ____________________ (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her ____________________ (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is ____________________ (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), whom he or she met at ____________________ (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while ____________________ (that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse). At this time of his or her life, the greatest difficulty or problem that he or she faced was ____________________ (type of difficulty or problem), which resulted in ____________________ (result of difficulty or problem), and now affects him or her by ____________________ (brief explanation as to how the difficulty or problem NOW affects the character).

Here is an example:

Before Buffy Summers (name of character) moved to Sunnydale, CA (incident that precipitated the character’s present situation, in general), he or she was a(n)high school student (social role of character) living in Los Angeles, CA (name of hometown and state) at (in) home (type of residence--for example, home, apartment) with Joyce Summers and Hank Summers (name[s] of family member or members or roommate or roommates; add blanks as necessary), his or her parents (type of relationship between other resident or residents and the character). His or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is N/A (name of character’s boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), whom he or she met at N/A (name of place at which the character met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse), while N/A (that the character was performing when he or she met his or her boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse). At this time of his or her life, the greatest difficulty or problem that he or she faced was her parents’ divorce and her calling to be the current vampire slayer (type of difficulty or problem), which resulted in her blaming herself for her parents’ divorce and her desire to live a normal life (result of difficulty or problem), and now affects him or her by making her desire to please her father and causing her to divide her loyalties between her duty and her desire to socialize (brief explanation as to how the difficulty or problem NOW affects the character).

Again, if the character’s back story is further developed, update the template. For example, Buffy Summers’ father comes to visit her in Sunnydale on several occasions, and a demon uses her guilt concerning her parents’ divorce to emotionally manipulate her. Buffy’s desire to date and to socialize with her friends often causes problems between her and her supervisor, the Watcher Rupert Giles, and between her and her mother, Joyce; in addition, it sometimes endangers others. At one time, she even considers “quitting” her “job” as a slayer and letting others (Kendra, Faith, and her friends) take over her duties. Although she remains true to her calling, doing so requires many personal sacrifices.

Finally, simplify the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

Before Buffy Summers moved to Sunnydale, CA, she was a high school student living in Los Angeles, CA, at home with Joyce Summers and Hank Summers, her parents. At this time of her life, the greatest difficulty or problem that she faced was her parents’ divorce and her calling to be the current vampire slayer, which resulted in her blaming herself for her parents’ divorce and her desire to live a normal life, and now affects her by causing her to seek to please her father and to divide her loyalties between her duty and her desire to socialize.

3. Define the Character’s Major and Minor Conflicts. The character must be involved in at least one major and usually several related minor conflicts between or among aspects or elements of nature, him- or herself, other characters, and/or God. In other words, conflicts will be natural, psychological, social, and spiritual or theological. Use the following template to identify this conflict or these conflicts.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to identifying the conflict in which your character is involved as apply to creating his or her general profile. If several conflicts are in operation in your story, you may want to develop a template for each type of conflict and each specific example of the conflict that your character encounters rather than try to represent all of them on a single template.

As a(n) ________________ (social role of character) and a(n) _________________ (vocation of character), __________________ (name of character) is in conflict with __________________ (force, plant, animal, person, group, or spiritual being) concerning __________________ (brief description of the nature of the conflict), which conflict is resolved by __________________ (method of conflict’s resolution), when __________________ (brief description of
character’s action in resolving the conflict) in (at) __________________
(location at which the conflict is resolved).

Here is an example:

As a(n) high school student (social role of character) and a(n) vampire slayer (vocation of character), Buffy Summers (name of character) is in conflict with her calling (force, plant, animal, person, group, or spiritual being) concerning foregoing a “normal life” in favor of slaying vampires (brief description of the nature of the conflict), which conflict is resolved by the near death of her mother and one of her friends because of Buffy’s neglect of her duties as the slayer (method of conflict’s resolution), when Buffy resumes her duties as the slayer (brief description of character’s action in resolving the conflict) in (at) Sunnydale, CA (location at which the conflict is resolved).

Again, simplify the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

As a high school student and a vampire slayer, Buffy Summers is in conflict with her calling concerning foregoing a “normal life” in favor of slaying vampires, which conflict is resolved by the near death of her mother and one of her friends because of Buffy’s neglect of her duties as the slayer, when Buffy resumes her duties as the slayer in Sunnydale, CA.

4. Identify the Character’s Motivation(s). The character must act because something internal (intrinsic) or external (extrinsic) compels him or her to act. This compulsion, the character’s motivation, must be both significant (meaningful and important) and powerful, especially if his or her acting upon this motive could or actually does endanger him- or herself or others. As a result of a past or present experience, this motive will be grounded in some belief, emotion, or value. At the same time, the character’s motive may make him or her sympathetic to the reader. Use the following template to identify the character’s motivation.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to identifying your character’s motivation as apply to creating his or her general profile.

________________ (name of character) is motivated to ________________
(vocational role of character) by his or her ________________ (belief, experience, emotion, or value) because ________________ (name of experience, past or present, which established the character’s motive).

Here is an example:

Buffy Summers (name of character) is motivated to slay vampires (vocational role of character) by his or her valuing of human life and social justice (belief, experience, emotion, or value) because her friends and family were nearly killed by a vampire (name of experience, past or present, which established the character’s motive).

Again, simplify the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

Buffy Summers is motivated to slay vampires by her valuing of human life and social justice because her friends and family were nearly killed by a vampire.

Plotting the Story

Literary critic Gustav Freytag divided plots into five parts, or acts: (1) exposition, (2) rising action, (3) turning point, or climax, (4) falling action, and (5) resolution (comedy) or catastrophe (tragedy). In addition, he identifies two other points: (1) the inciting moment, which concludes the exposition as it initiates the rising action and (2) an optional moment of final suspense, in which the reader or viewer is left in doubt for a moment as to whether the protagonist shall succeed or fail in his or her attempt to realize the goal that he or she has set or that has been set for him or her. In the exposition, background information (such as the introduction of the protagonist and other characters, the identification of the setting, and the introduction of the basic, or main, conflict) is provided. The inciting moment initiates the rising action, wherein the conflict is complicated as a series of increasingly more difficult obstacles is placed between the protagonist and his or realization of his or her goal. The turning point, or climax, occurs as the protagonist begins to succeed or fail at his or her attempt to achieve his or her goal. (In a comedy, which is defined as a story in which the main character is better off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning of the story, things will go badly for him or her at the beginning of the story but will begin to improve at the turning point, or climax. In a tragedy, which is defined as a story in which the main character is worse off at the end of the story than he or she was at the beginning of the story, things will go well for him or her at the beginning of the story but will begin to worsen at the turning point, or climax.) The falling action unravels the conflict that was complicated during the rising action. If the story is a comedy, it will end in a resolution, whereas, if it is a tragedy, it will end in a catastrophe. With this information in mind, you can use the following template to structure the plot of your story:

The main character, _________________ _________________, wants to_________________ because _________________ , but he or she must struggle against _________________ _________________, who wants _________________ because _________________. This story takes place in _________________ (location) in _________________ (time period). To attain his or her goal, _________________ _________________ (the main character) must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: _________________, _________________, and _________________ (add more if desired). For the main character, for whom everything goes _________________ (well or poorly) at the beginning of the story, the turning point (climax) occurs when he or she _________________, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to _________________(worsen or improve). At the end of the story, _________________ _________________ (the main character) _________________ (attains or does not attain) his or her goal, because _________________ (reason), learning that ________________ (lesson learned from the experience; the story’s theme) and, as a result, changes by _________________ (how the main character changes).

Here is an example:

The main character, Dorothy Gale, wants to return to her home in Kansas because she is homesick, but she must struggle against the Wicked Witch of the West, who
wants Dorothy‘s ruby slippers because they are magic. This story takes place in Oz (location) in the present day (time period). To attain her goal, of returning home, Dorothy Gale (the main character) must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: escape the fighting trees, survive the deadly poppy field, and seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick (add more if desired). For the main character, for whom everything goes poorly (well or poorly) at the beginning of the story, the turning point (climax) occurs when she is sent by the Wizard to seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to improve (worsen or improve). At the end of the story, Dorothy Gale (the main character) attains (attains or does not attain) her goal, because Glinda, the Good Witch, tells Dorothy how to use the ruby slippers to take her home (reason), learning that there‘s no place like home (lesson learned from the experience; the story’s
theme) and, as a result, changes by being content with her life on her Kansas farm (how the main character changes).

Again, simpifly the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read: eliminate the parenthetical elements, redundancies, and underlining, and make any other minor changes that are needed or desired:

Dorothy Gale wants to return to her home in Kansas because she is homesick, but she must struggle against the Wicked Witch of the West, who wants Dorothy's ruby slippers because they are magic. This story takes place in Oz, in the present day. To attain her goal, of returning home, Dorothy must overcome the following, increasingly more difficult obstacles: escape the fighting trees, survive the deadly poppy field, and seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick. For the main character, for whom everything goes poorly at the beginning of the story, the turning point occurs when she is sent by the Wizard to seize the Wicked Witch‘s broomstick, and then the opposite state of affairs ensues, as things begin to improve. At the end of the story, Dorothy attains her goal, because Glinda, the Good Witch, tells Dorothy how to use the ruby slippers to take her home, and she learns that there’s no place like home and, as a result, changes by being content with her life on her Kansas farm.

Establish the Setting

The setting of a story includes the time and place and the historical and the cultural milieu in which the action, or what happens, takes place. It is the container, as it were, of the story. Often, the setting will help you to determine who your characters are; what their interests, goals, and motivations are; and maybe even what the conflicts and the theme of your story will be. Use the following template to establish your story’s setting.

Notes: Many of the same notes apply to establishing your story’s setting as apply to creating a character.

The story takes place at in (at) _________________ (place) at (in) __________________ (time period), during _________________ (historical period or event), and is important to the character’s _________________ (emotional or psychological state or conflict) because it _________________ (reason).

Here is an example:

The story takes place at in (at) Kansas and Oz (place) at (in) the nineteenth century (time period), during N/A (historical period or event), and is important to the character’s feelings about her home (emotional or psychological state or conflict) because it represents a place with which she is dissatisfied at first but a place with which she is content later (reason).

Again, simply the result to facilitate the ease with which it is read:

The story takes place in Kansas and Oz in the nineteenth century and is important to the character’s feelings about her home because it represents a place with which she is dissatisfied at first but a place with which she is content later.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Generating Horror Plots, Part V

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman


A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the final of our list of a baker’s dozen (plus one) of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.

1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

2. Develop a continuing theme. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

3. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

4. Rescue a damsel in distress. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

5. Find the strange in the familiar. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

6. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

7. Conduct an experiment. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

8. Invade paradise. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

9. Dig up that which has been buried (repressed). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

10. Bite the hand that feeds you (betrayal). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

11. Uncover a secret. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

12. Threaten the near and the dear. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

13. Explore unfamiliar surroundings. From their earliest days, human beings have been driven by a need to know. There is a quality about the unfamiliar, the mysterious, and the unknown that more than merely attracts people’s attention; it compels them to investigate, to explore, and to study. We want to know other things because our knowledge and our appreciation (or, at least, our understanding) of them helps to extend ourselves. The more we know, the more we become, containing, eventually, multitudes, as Walt Whitman suggests, and, even then, as both Soren Kierkegaard and Emily Dickinson, each in his or her own way, declare, we ourselves are left over--and left hungry--a partial void that can never be completely filled. It is this impulse to investigate, to explore, and to study that makes travelers of us all, whether in a literal or figurative sense. We travel, like Hernando Cortez, through actual worlds, or like John Keats, through “realms of gold.” Writers of horror choose to visit the stranger, more frightening and repulsive of such worlds and realms. One such movie that does so, both literally and figuratively, is The Thing From Another World (1951), which mixes horror with science fiction as a team of scientists and support personnel, conducting research at a remote outpost in the arctic, stumble upon an extraterrestrial creature encased in ice. Being scientists, they recover the specimen and take it to their laboratory, where, eventually, it thaws, terrorizing the tiny community. Dogs attack the creature, biting off one of its arms, and the thawing limb is revived by the dog’s blood. The scientists discover that the creature is a plant, despite its humanoid appearance, and one of them, Dr. Carrington, seeks to grow more of its kind by sprinkling seedlings removed from the arm with plasma he takes from the compound’s infirmary. Interestingly, Dr. Carrington believes that he can reason with the plant, but the Air Force personnel who guard the station hold the view that it is hostile toward humans and must be destroyed, especially since it needs blood to sustain its own existence and they are the creature’s only source of this vital nutrient. They finally end the creature’s threat by electrocuting it after Dr. Carrington’s last-minute appeal to the creature’s reason fails, showing that the skeptical military men, not the trusting scientist, were right in their assessment of the creature’s nature and intentions. In The Terror, Dan Simmons takes his readers on an exploration of the arctic aboard Her Majesty’s ship the Terror. The ship becomes stranded in the ice, and its starving crew resort to cannibalism; at the same time, a monster begins to kill and devour the crew members, thereby increasing the trapped sailors’ terror. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne offers an earlier science fiction novel that is based upon the exploration of an unknown locale--the center of the Earth itself. Although a science fiction story, it includes some elements of horror. The protagonist, Professor Linderbrock, leads a team of scientists down the interior of an Icelandic volcano, where they observe many wonders, the fiercest of which are the dinosaurs that have survived extinction in the subterranean world and giant insects and animals--and a prehistoric man or humanoid creature, all of which they avoid. Their way out of the underground world is blocked, but they set off an explosion that unleashes a torrent of water that buoys them out of the volcano. It is only after their escape that they realize that their travels inside the earth and the flood of waters that carried them through the subterranean environment has relocated them to Italy. Many other stories, in the science fiction genre, the horror genre, and other genres, also employ storylines that are based upon an exploration of unfamiliar surroundings.

14. Bring down the house. This storyline depends upon the destruction or the status quo. As Carlos Fuentes observes, “Perfect order is the forerunner of perfect horror.” Stephen King, likewise, declares, “Terror. . . often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment: that things are in the unmaking.” The primordial prototype of this storyline is that in which Satan, in the guise of the serpent, tempts Eve to partake of the forbidden fruit and, in this act and in the same act, committed by Adam, afterward, brings about the fall and spiritual death of humanity and their own exile from paradise. Almost every horror story is built upon this foundation, so it seems unnecessary to offer any specific examples; every horror story is itself an instance of the erosion or sudden cessation of the order that is implicit in social, political, religious, moral, cultural, and other values and institutions that, collectively, constitute the structure and organization--in short, the order--that is prerequisite to chaos, and it is the restoration of this order, or some semblance of it, however temporal and tenuous, that forms the resolution of virtually every horror story, past, present, and, it seems inevitably

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Generating Horror Plots, Part IV

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae. Here are the some more of them, each of which is complete with one or more examples to get you started on the compilation and maintenance of your own list of such plot patterns.

1. Find the ugly within or among the beautiful. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

2. Develop a continuing theme. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

3. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

4. Rescue a damsel in distress. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

5. Find the strange in the familiar. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

6. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

7. Conduct an experiment. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

8. Invade paradise. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

9. Dig up that which has been buried (repressed). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.


10. Bite the hand that feeds you (betrayal). Dante reserved the lowest level of his inferno for those who had betrayed others. For him, the most sinful of sins was disloyalty, perhaps because Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. Certainly, betrayal, or the biting of the hand that feeds one, so to speak, is a common means of generating storylines, in both horror fiction and other genres. It is the theme that underlies Stephen King’s novel, Cujo, which is more about an unfaithful wife than it is about a rabid dog. Indeed, the St. Bernard himself may function, symbolically, as a representation of the effects upon her family of the betrayal represented by her marital infidelity. In The Others, Grace Stewart, unable to cope with the responsibilities of rearing her children after her husband, Charles, leaves the family to fight in World War I, kills her son and daughter before committing suicide. Certainly, the murder of her children is a betrayal of monstrous proportions, and it is the basis of the movie’s entire plot.



11. Uncover a secret. In this storyline, one of the characters (often the protagonist) has a secret that is discovered by another character (perhaps the antagonist). I employ this method of generating a storyline in my novel, Wild Wicca Women, in which the protagonist’s mother discovers a trunk full of paraphernalia related to witchcraft, or Wicca, in her teenage daughter’s bedroom closet as the mother is putting away her daughter’s clothing, which she has just laundered. Sometimes, the uncovering of a secret coincides with the conduct of an experiment, often by the government, as in Electric Zombies (2006), a film which has a plot similar to that of Stephen King’s Cell (2006), except that Zombies does not leave the method behind the madness unexplained: in Zombies, the government’s use of electronic warfare techniques has unforeseen, and horrific, consequences, turning cellular telephone users into the “electric zombies” referenced by the film’s title. Much the same thing happens in King’s novel, although for no apparent reason (although one of the characters, a precocious boy named Jordan, does theorize that a computer worm or virus may have corrupted the telephone signal).



12. Threaten the near and the dear. Stephen King is a master of this technique, as he demonstrated at the very outset of his career, when, at the conclusion of his first novel, Carrie, he kills off the main character, after making her sympathetic enough to be loveable. The killing off of a beloved character with whom the reader has sent many hours getting to know and like has become a staple in King’s fiction, making his work, along this line, rather predictable. Before one opens the cover of any of his books, it’s a pretty safe bet that one or more characters near and dear to the reader’s heart is likely to be killed, to suffer physical, emotional, or moral harm, or, at the very least, be threatened with such loss. Other writers have since included this motif in their work as well, one of whom, Dan Simmons, kills off the sympathetic boy genius Duane in Summer of Night after building up his character with great detail and care for several hundred pages. An effect of this approach to developing a storyline is to show the reader that no one in the story is safe, necessarily, from the monster. To paraphrase the late Charles De Gualle, it seems that the pages of horror novels (and the screens of horror movies) are full of indispensable characters.

Next post, more storylines.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Generating Horror Plots, Part III

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

A careful analysis of the storylines of motion pictures, novels, narrative poems, and short stories in the horror genre discloses recurring plot motifs, or formulae.


1. Enact revenge. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

2. Rescue a damsel in distress. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

3. Find the strange in the familiar. We discussed this strategy in a previous post.

4. Bring up the past (and relate it to the present). We discussed this strategy in a previous post.




5. Conduct an experiment. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which we discussed in a previous post); Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, and many of H. G. Wells’ novels (e. g., The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau) and some of his short stories. Most readers are familiar with Frankenstein, although more so with the movie versions than with the expostulatory novel in which a student of science creates a monstrous human being from cadavers, from which he flees. The monster, seeking companionship, intends to kidnap a boy, but kills him instead, when he learns the boy is his maker’s younger brother, and implicates a girl in the murder. The monster then demands that Frankenstein create a wife for him, and, to protect his family, the student agrees, but, repenting, destroys his work before it is completed, whereupon the monster avenges himself by killing Frankenstein’s bride, his cousin Elizabeth, whose father died soon thereafter, of grief. The grieving groom pursues his creation to the north pole, where the monster commits suicide. In Wells’ The Food of the Gods, scientists Bensington and Redwood concoct Herakleophobia IV, a chemical growth agent that causes organisms, whether plants or animals, to grow to tremendous size. Their experiment commences with chickens, but the careless couple whom they hire to feed the fowl allow other animals to eat the food as well, with the result that giant rats, wasps, and even worms are soon terrorizing the countryside. Armed with rifles, the scientists hunt down the monstrous animals and burn down their farm. However, rather stupid for scientists, the researchers next feed children the chemical treat, producing giants whom the world fear and reject. After one of the giants is killed, the others, whom Wells labels “Children of the Food” square off for a showdown with the normal human beings who persecute them, whom Wells describes as the “Pygmies.” The hatred and fear with which the ostracized Children of the Food are treated by ordinary men and women is echoed by society’s treatment of the Marvel Comics mutant superheroes known as The X-Men. In The Invisible Man, Wells’ scientist is a man named Griffin, believing that a person might be rendered invisible by altering his refractive index to match those of the air so that his body no longer reflects light, puts his theory to the test on himself, with the result that he becomes invisible. Thereafter, he goes insane, threatening and attacking others, until he is beaten to death by a mob. His invisibility formula is lost to posterity because of indecipherable pages in his journal. In The Island of Dr. Moreau, Edward Prendick, a shipwrecked survivor, is brought ashore by natives of a remote, uncharted island, where he discovers Dr. Moreau’s experimental attempts to create man-animal hybrids, the so-called Beast Folk. Moreau is killed by an escaped puma, and, after Moreau’s assistant, Dr. Montgomery, is later killed by the Beast Folk, Prendick lives among the hybrid creatures until he is able to escape the island aboard a ship that washes ashore, is picked up by a ship that is returning to England, and returns to homeland, having learned by the reaction of the rescuers to his tale not to tell of his experiences to others, lest he be thought insane, and adopts the pretense of having acquired amnesia concerning the time he spent as a castaway. The theme of the mad scientist has become a favorite among both science fiction and horror writers, and it underlies such additional stories as Jurassic Park (1993), Metropolis (1927), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), The Mysterious Island (1974), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Carnosaur (1993), Re-Animator (1985), The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984), and many others.




6. Invade paradise. In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale comes to appreciate the home that she first disparaged, taking her Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and life on their Kansas farm for granted. This is a theme common to many horror films as well, in which the true value of a person, place, or thing, be it ever so humble, is first taken for granted but, after it is threatened, (often, in the case of places, by invasion) is appreciated for, if not exactly paradise, comes to be valued. Invaders From Mars, The War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers are some of the science fiction-cum-horror films that are based upon this there’s-no-place-like-home theme. The haunted house can be an example of an invaded paradise, as it is in Poltergeist, which is invaded by demonic spirits, and another twist on this motif is that of demonic possession in which it is not a place, but a person, who is threatened or, as it were, invaded, as in The Exorcist and The Possession of Emily Rose.



7. Dig up that which has been buried (repressed). Besides concerning himself with such matters as boys’ fears of castration which he believed the sight of a vagina created in males and girls’ supposed “envy” of boys’ penises, the eclectic theorist Sigmund Freud suggested that the uncanny has a déjà vu element that is caused by the fact that unpleasant feelings which have been repressed by a person return in somewhat disguised form and seems at once both familiar and strange, and both attractive and repulsive. Be that as it may, some find the idea of repressed memories a useful springboard for the introduction of horrible and horrific incidents. Xander Harris, a character in the televisions series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sums up this view in his typically zany, but apt, “Xanderspeak,” when he tells the protagonist, Buffy Summers, in the “Dead Man’s Party” episode, “You can't just bury stuff, Buffy. It'll come right back up to get you,” just before their party is attacked by zombies. The Others (2001) is another example of this approach. After she and her children experience a series of bizarre incidents, Grace Stewart believes that her house is haunted, only to find out that the ghosts are living people and that she and her children are the true ghosts who are haunting the house. Grace had repressed the memory of having killed her own children before committing suicide. Hide and Seek (2005) also employs this tactic. Following the murder of her mother, Emily Callaway adopts an imaginary playmate named Charlie, who is actually the alter ego of her father, the murderer, who has a split personality. Emily witnessed her father’s murder of her mother, but repressed the memory of this experience by positing the existence of Charlie as her mother’s actual killer.

In subsequent posts, we will continue our consideration of basic horror storylines.

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.

Product Cloud

You Tube Player

Loading...
There was an error in this gadget

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.

Popular Posts