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Monday, January 18, 2010

To Be Is To Be Perceived (And To Be Perceived Is To Be)

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines “edible” as meaning “good to eat and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.”

His humor’s not for everyone, but it does, in this case, at least, suggest something important to writers, whether of horror fiction or otherwise: We are either who we would have ourselves be or what others would have us be. To a hungry lion, we are perhaps viewed as food. However, were we armed with a spear (or, better yet, a rifle), the king of the beasts himself might become our prey. To Christians (in the old days, at least) and to Moslems (even today, in some cases) alike, those who were not of the faith were pagans or infidels, although, from their viewpoint, the pagans and infidels, not the Christians and the Moslems exercised the one and only true faith. To Republicans, Democrats are the opposition; to Democrats, it’s the other way around. We either define ourselves or we are defined by another.

We may also regard ourselves one way while another regards us in a completely different manner. A man may consider himself to be a suitor, whereas, from the perspective of the object of his affections, he may be considered a stalker. The use, in the last sentence, of “object,” in describing the woman whom the man (depending upon one’s perspective) either woos or stalks, was intentional, intended as a segue to the concept that Jewish theologian Martin Buber introduces in I and Thou. In this profound book, Buber points out that we can consider either ourselves or others to be either a person (an “I”) or a thing (an “it”). We will then treat ourselves or others accordingly. Employers, for example, often think of employees as “human resources,” rather than as men and women with attitudes, beliefs, dreams, emotions, ideas, imaginations, morals, motivations, needs, principles, values, and wisdom of their own--and treat them as such. (Employees seldom forget that they are, in fact, as human--or more so--than their bosses, whom they may regard as tyrants--and treat them as such.) As the Bible says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

A philosophical adage has it that “to be is to be perceived,” but it seems equally valid to say that “to be perceived is to be,” for we assign both ourselves and others roles to play, thereby perceiving ourselves and others to “be” this or that or, perhaps, to “fit” a particular type of work, as being “suited to” or “suitable for” a certain activity. Writers should never forget that it is just as true, perhaps, that we are perceived to be certain things as it is true that we exist because we are recognized or understood.

We assign meaning, just as we assign value. In doing so, we construct reality. Both for ourselves and others. We do this every day, whether we are writers or not, but writers also do it every time they write a story. To Beowulf, Grendel is the monstrous troll who is killing Danish warriors and terrorizing the people of their village and mead hall. To his mother, Grendel is a beloved son whose death at the hands of the murderous Beowulf must be avenged. It is clear that how characters see one another can be, and often is, the basis of narrative and dramatic conflict.

Perceptions can also be the bases of ironic reversals. Indeed, such a reversal is the very foundation of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He imagined a young woman entering a dark alley, where she was attacked by a monster. However, instead of the monster killing (and possibly devouring) her, it was she who emerged victorious from their battle. The monster, a vampire, no doubt, saw the teen as prey (and, possibly, a meal), as would someone watching such a scene play out in a movie or a television episode (Buffy was a movie before it was a TV series.) Likewise, the typical teen would regard the vampire as a threat, as a predator. Both would act accordingly, the vampire actively, attacking, killing and consuming; the girl, passively, being attacked, killed, and consumed. (Acting upon the instinct for self-preservation, she might put up some resistance, of course, but it would be futile.) In Whedon’s ironic version of the scene, though, the vampire’s perception of himself as the predator and of Buffy as the prey worked against him, for it was Buffy who, as it turned out, was actually the actual slayer in their (brief) encounter.

Playing with roles can have other interesting effects, too. A boy or a girl, transitioning to adulthood, can leave childhood behind, seemingly in a moment, either because of an external event or because of an internal incident. For example, if one encounters child abuse, perhaps seeing a father bending back the fingers of his son’s hand, by way of “punishment,” will the witness become involved? Intervene? Pretend nothing unusual is happening and ignore the abuse? Whatever he or she does, the adolescent characterizes him- or herself, perhaps in several ways. Will a teen participate in the bullying, intimidation, and humiliation of a classmate simply because his or her “friends” are doing so, speak out against the harassment, stop the abuse and find new friends (perhaps starting with the bullied person), or ignore the situation altogether? Again, whatever he or she does, the teen characterizes him- or herself. The response shows maturity and independence (and compassion) or the opposites. Often, we are more revealed by what we say or do (or do not say or do) than others to whom we say or do whatever it is we say or do. (Yes, that is a sentence, of sorts.)

Dynamic characters (those who change by the end of the story) necessarily reverse the roles they played, as it were, at the beginning of their narratives. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale is disappointed in her home, dependent, and complaining at the beginning of the movie, but, at the end, as a result of the experiences she’s had in Oz, she is appreciative of her home, independent, and glad to be surrounded by the family and friends whom she’d taken for granted before. Tested, tired, and resigned to her fate at the end of the series’ seventh year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is no longer the unproven, perky, rebellious teen she was at the start of the show. Dynamic characters end up as the opposites of themselves. Arguably, even for a vampire, Buffy would be hard to mistake as a victim at the end of the series, just as it would be difficult for the Wicked Witch of the west to cowl Dorothy after all she’d been through in the wonderful land of Oz.

As far as others know (and can know), each of us is what we say, what we do, and the various roles that we play. For good or for ill, because we can think differently than we speak or act, we are able to deceive others, just as they are able to deceive us. We can also be hypocrites, acting at odds with what we say we believe or endorse. The possibilities of deceit and hypocrisy are important to writers, because they allow subterfuge, betrayals, treachery, treason, and the other violations of trust upon which intrigue, suspense, irony, and plots are built.

Speech (dialogue), behavior (action), and role playing are the bases, along with nonverbal communication cues such as facial expressions and gestures, of characterization and its exhibition to readers and audiences. It is, therefore, a good habit for a writer, in studying people (as models for fictional characters) to not only observe what and how people say and do things but, equally importantly, to imagine the various ways in which the same things might be said or done, both by the present and by other people, and both in their presently adopted or assigned roles and in other possible ones. Who might have imagined that a man, through technology, could become a mother of sorts? Mary Shelley did, in the fictional person of Victor Von Frankenstein, and, if Joss Whedon hadn’t imagine a reversal of roles between the teenage girl and her supernatural attacker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer never would have been born.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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