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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Horror vs. Humor: A Case in Point

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullma

“The Haunted House” episode of The Andy Griffith Show could easily have been a horror story rather than an installment of the famous television sitcom. It has all the elements of a classic horror story: a decrepit, abandoned house that is allegedly haunted, a visit to this house by law enforcement personnel, frightening and bizarre incidents of an apparently supernatural character, and a rational explanation for these incidents. However, the story is comical, not horrific. Why?

The answer to this question takes us a long way toward understanding not only the affinities between humor and horror but the nature of horror fiction itself.

Let’s start with a summary of the story’s plot, courtesy of Dale Robinson and David Fernandes’ The Definitive Andy Griffith Show Reference: Episode-by-Episode, with Cast and Production Biographies and a Guide to Collectibles (McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, NC, and London, 1996):

Opie hits a baseball thrown by a friend and breaks a window at the abandoned Rimshaw house. Both boys are nervous about retrieving the ball because the house is rumored to be haunted. As they approach the door, they hear a spooky noise that scares them away. They go to the courthouse and tell their story to Andy and Barney. The men tell them it was probably just the whistling wind. Andy wants them to stay out of the house because it is likely that the floorboards are loose. Then, sensing that Barney was putting up a false front when he said there was nothing to be afraid of, Andy asks his deputy to go get the ball for the boys. While it is clear that Barney doesn’t want to do it, he can’t back out now. When Gomer suddenly comes by, Barney quickly enlists him to come along.

The nervous deputy enters the house first--”Age before beauty,” says Gomer. Unfortunately, they don’t get much farther than the boys did. Ghostly moans send them scrambling for the door.

Back at the courthouse, Andy chides Barney for failing to get the ball and for believing the house is haunted. Barney says that he recalls that when old man Rimshaw died, his last wish was for his home to remain undisturbed. Otis Campbell chimes in with rumors he has heard: the walls move, the eyes on the portrait of Mr. Rimshaw seem to follow a person around the room, and axes float through the air.

Andy dismisses all this as nonsense, and he goes to the Rimshaw house with Barney and Gomer in tow. They quickly locate the baseball, and despite objections from his
cohorts, Andy insists they look around the place. While he wanders off into another room, Barney and Gomer slowly move around the room, looking scared to death. Suddenly, Gomer disappears! Barney panics, and Andy returns. Gomer suddenly reappears. He had inadvertently stepped into a closet or something. The eerie thing is, Gomer says that someone or something pushed him out. Next, Andy notices that the wallpaper above the fireplace is peeling and the wall is warm. Barney suggests that maybe an old tramp has been using the fireplace.

Andy ventures upstairs and asks Barney and Gomer to check out the cellar. Gomer correctly surmises that the cellar is downstairs. When Barney opens the cellar door, he sees an ax. Too scared to go down the stairs, he softly inquires, “Any old tramps down there?” then quickly shuts the door. Gomer tells Barney that legend has it that Rimshaw put chains on his hired hand and then killed him with an ax.

Barney notices the eyes on the Rimshaw portrait following him. When he tells Andy, Andy responds that it’s probably a trick of the light.

Barney knocks on the wall--and his knock is answered. Andy gets the same result when he knocks. Suddenly, Andy appears frightened. He orders loudly, “Let’s get out of here!” Barney and Gomer quickly bolt out of the house, but Andy remains. He has a plan in mind.Suddenly, we see Otis and the notorious moonshiner Big Jack Anderson in the house. They are laughing, and Big Jack is quite proud of the fact that his scare tactics have worked. He has found the perfect spot for his still, and claims he could probably stay there for twenty years.

As they come out of their hiding place, believing the house is empty, they get the shock of their lives. They witness an ax hanging in the air, a baseball rolling down the stairs, and the eyes moving on the portrait. They make tracks leaving the house. Meanwhile, Barney has bravely determined he must go rescue Andy, so he comes in the rear entrance. He sees the suspended ax and hears moaning. He nearly passes out from fright before Andy can explain things.

The lawmen later use the infamous ax to smash Big Jack’s still. Andy captures Anderson and surrenders him to Federal Agent Bowden of the Alcohol Control Division. Mr. Bowden has been after the tough and tricky outlaw for years. As usual, Andy generously shares the capture credit, in this case with both Barney and Gomer.

Since much of the plot, just as it stands, could be used for a horror story, the key difference that differentiates it from that of a horror story is not the action--the series of incidents, including characters’ behavior--but the characters’ comical reactions to these incidents. In a horror story, the elements of humor--exaggerated facial expressions and physical gestures, poses and postures, attitudes and responses, slapstick, clowning, and farce, irony and satire--would be minimal, if they were included at all, and the story would focus upon the evocation, through the characters’ responses to the situation, of revulsion and fear. It’s possible--probable, even--that the rational explanation of the incidents--a tramp has been residing in the house--would be shown to be false and that the incidents would, in fact, have a paranormal or a supernatural cause.

Largely, then, horror stories stress elements of the uncanny and the inexplicable and concentrate upon feelings of revulsion and fear, rather than offering rational or natural explanations for suspected supernatural phenomena and poking fun at characters’ foibles. To better see how a master of the horror story might handle a similar storyline to that of The Andy Griffith Show’s “The Haunted House,” read H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Red Room.” Both stories are concerned with an allegedly haunted domicile, and both focus on their characters’ reactions to uncanny incidents which may or may not have a natural or a rational as well as a paranormal or supernatural explanation.

Note: For a discussion of this same television episode from a humorous perspective, visit my other blog, “Writing Hilarious Humor

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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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