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Sunday, March 7, 2010

How To Haunt A House, Part VII

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In the first installment of this series, I listed some of the films which feature haunted houses. In this chapter of the series, I take a closer look, as it were, at four of these houses and their spectral residents to see what I can see, so to speak, regarding these movie’s storylines.

In “Horror Story Formulae,” I lay out the bare bones of the basic horror fiction plot, or 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).

Although it is often adapted and varied, this formula continues to be the foundation for most horror stories, whether in print or on film, as a consideration of the movies summarized and analyzed in this installment of “How To Haunt A House” suggests:


The Uninvited: “From the most popular mystery romance since Rebecca!

Based upon Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold, The Uninvited (1944) The plot is not so much traditional as it is stereotypical (that is, formulaic):

  1. A couple buys a lovely mansion that is offered for sale at a price too good to be true.
  2. Shortly after they move in, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.
  3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting.
  4. The protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)
  5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.
  6. The haunting resumes or ends.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. A couple buys a lovely mansion that is offered for sale at a price too good to be true.

Roderick “Rick” Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela discover a handsome, abandoned seaside house during a holiday on one of England’s rocky coasts. Even though their terrier, Bobby, refuses to climb the house’s graceful, curving stairway, Pamela and Rick fall “head-over-heels in love” with the grand old house. The brother and sister purchase the property, called Windward House, for an unusually low price from its owner, Commander Beech, who long ago inherited the eighteenth-century mansion from his grandmother before giving it to his late daughter, Mary Beech Meredith. During the property sale transaction, Rick and Pamela meet Beech’s 20-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith, who lives with her grandfather in the nearby town of Biddlecombe. Stella is deeply upset by the sale of Windward because of her attachment to it and to the memory of her mother, despite Windward's being the location of her mother’s death when Stella was but three. Her nostalgia over the house is discouraged by the Commander, who has forbidden Stella to enter. However, against Beech’s wishes, she gains access to Windward House through Rick, who has become infatuated with Stella's charm and “Sleeping Beauty magic.”

2. Shortly after they move in, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.

The Fitzgeralds’ initial enchantment with the house diminishes, once they have become its owners and unlock a forbidding and uncomfortable artist's studio, in which they experience an unexplainable chill; even a small bouquet of roses Pamela has picked withers in the cheerless room. A few weeks later, once Rick arrives in Biddlecombe to stay, he learns that Bobby has deserted Windward in a decidedly uncharacteristic manner for a terrier. Then, just before dawn, after his own first night in his new home, Rick hears the eerie and heartbreaking sobs of an unseen woman--a phenomenon that Pamela has investigated thoroughly during the time she has spent decorating Winward whilst awaiting her brother's return with the Fitzgeralds’ Irish housekeeper, Lizzie Flynn. Lizzie's cat, like the terrier Bobby, will not climb the stairway. And although the superstitious Lizzie notices a peculiar draft on the stairs, she is ignorant of the sounds of weeping. Now Rick and Pamela must face the obvious--a secret they must keep from Lizzie: Windward House is haunted. On a pleasant Sunday evening, Stella comes to Windward for dinner, and she soon becomes aware of Windward's spirit. Rather than fearing it, she senses a calming presence that she associates with her mother, as well as a strong scent of mimosa--her mother's favorite perfume. Suddenly Stella becomes unreasonably distressed for enjoying herself in her mother's house. Crying, “But she was so young, and she died so cruelly,” Stella dashes down the stairs and out across the lawn towards the very cliff from which Mary Meredith fell to her death seventeen years earlier. “It’s that blasted room!” Rick calls to Pamela as he chases Stella and catches her just before she falls from the cliff to the rocky seas below. Something in Windward has possessed Stella and tried to kill her. As Rick, Pamela, and Stella return to the house, they hear a scream from Lizzie Flynn. Lizzie has seen a ghostly apparition, and, in short order, decides to sleep at a neighbor's farmhouse (although remaining in the Fitzgeralds’ employ).

3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting.

Windward's now undeniable haunting and the ways in which it relates to Stella prove to be a complex mystery. The strange occurrences are investigated by the Fitzgeralds along with the town physician, Dr. Scott), whom they've befriended, and who has adopted the Fitzgeralds’ wandering terrier, Bobby. In exploring the history of the family, they are told that Stella’s father, a painter, had had an affair with his model--a Spanish gypsy girl named Carmel. Stella’s mother, Mary Meredith, from all accounts a beautiful and virtuous woman, found out about the infidelity and took Carmel to Paris, leaving her there. Carmel eventually came back, stole the infant Stella and, during a confrontation, flung Mary Meredith off the nearby cliff to her death. Shortly afterward, Carmel herself became ill and died.

4. The protagonists put their newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.

Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott conspire to dissuade Stella from her dangerous obsession with Windward by staging a séance. Using an upturned wineglass and an alphabet on a tabletop, they attempt to convey to Stella the “message” that Stella’s mother wants her daughter to stay away from the house. Suddenly the real ghost takes over the proceedings, communicating that it is guarding Stella, presumably from the ghost of Carmel. A sort of ghostly confrontation ensues, causing the wineglass to fly from the table and shatter. Stella is unexpectedly possessed by the spirit of a woman who mutters in Spanish, “My love,” and “Do not believe!” The séance is interrupted by Commander Beech, who removes Stella and secretly arranges for her to be sent to The Mary Meredith Retreat, a sanitorium run by a Miss Holloway), Mary Meredith’'s childhood friend and confidante. Holloway worships Mary with an obsession that borders on insanity. The Fitzgeralds travel by car to the sanitorium to interview Holloway, not knowing that Stella is confined there. Holloway explains to them that after Mary's death, she took care of Carmel, who had contracted pneumonia and eventually died of the illness. The Fitzgeralds return home with little new information. Rifling through old records left by the previous village physician, Dr. Scott discovers that Carmel died of neglect at the hands of Miss Holloway. The doctor is then called away to care for an ailing Commander Beech, who tells him that Stella is at the sanitorium. Knowing Holloway's true nature, Rick, Pam, and Scott decide to rescue Stella. They telephone Holloway and tell her that they are on their way. At the Meredith Retreat, knowing the trio is en route, Holloway deceives Stella, saying that the Fitzgeralds have invited her to live with them to be closer to the spirit of her mother. Stella happily takes the train home, not knowing Holloway's motive is to send her alone to house filled with a malevolent spirit, who will quickly overwhelm Stella, leading her to the cliff and a deadly fall. The trio arrives at the sanitorium only to find a deranged Holloway, who tells them that Stella is on her way to Windward House. They rush back towards Biddlecombe, but are twenty minutes behind Stella's train. Stella arrives at the house to find her grandfather in the haunted artist's studio. Weakened nearly to the point of death, he begs Stella with his last strength to get out of the house, but she loyally remains at his side. As a ghostly presence appears, the Commander succumbs to a heart attack. Stella welcomes the ghost, convinced it is the protective spirit of her mother. But the cold, vindictive apparition makes her scream with fright, and she flees in panic again towards the cliff. Rick, Pam, and Scott arrive just in time to pull Stella from the crumbling cliff to safety.

5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.

Back inside the still-troubled house, the group is drawn again to the physician’s journal found by Dr. Scott. They discover that before her death at the hands of Miss Holloway, Carmel gave birth to a child--apparently in Paris, where Stella herself was born. Then the truth becomes clear: Stella's mother is actually Carmel, who returned to Windward from Paris not for love of Mary's husband, but to be near her own little girl. Stella recalls that mimosa was said to be her mother's favorite perfume, not that of Mary Meredith at all. Indeed, the warm scent of mimosa and the heartfelt, ghostly sobs have been emanating from Carmel--not from supposedly saintly Mary--all along. Understanably, Stella is relieved to learn that she is not the child of the cold, perfect Mary Meredith. Being Carmel’s daughter makes sense to her, and she realizes that the spirit of her true mother is free and has left Windward, never to cry again.

6. The haunting resumes or ends.

Something evil, though, has remained. The living flee the house--all but Rick, who overcomes his own terror to confront the cruel and furious spirit of Mary Meredith, admonishing her that they are no longer afraid of her, and that she has no power over them anymore. Defeated, Mary's spirit then departs, and the house is calm. Lizzie's cat eases up the stairway, licking a paw. The night of struggling spirits and wicked vindication has ended, and a bright future dawns for Rick, Stella, Pamela, Scott, and, perhaps, even for Windward House on its lonely cliff along a haunted shore.

Ghost Ship: “Sea evil.”

Based upon the fate of the ocean liner S. S. Andrea Doria, which sank in 1956, after colliding with the M. S. Stockholm, near Nantucket, Massachusetts, Ghost Ship (2002) is a remake of the 1952 film by the same name.

This movie embraces a plot ploy that has become typical, if not yet stereotypical, of contemporary horror stories: it begins with a teaser, a horrific scene which begins in media res (literally, in the middle of things, and, therefore, without any narrative context) and, as such, represents a hook, or teaser, that is intended to capture the audience’s attention and motivate them to watch the rest of the film--a sort of cliffhanger that appears at the beginning of the story rather than at the end of a chapter. Following the teaser, the story’s actual inciting moment occurs, and, from this point onward, the storyline pretty much follows the formula that is common for horror stories. With these advisories, the plot for this type of story can be represented by the following outline:

  1. As a teaser, a festive scene ends in horror as a catastrophe occurs.
  2. In the story’s true inciting moment, an opportunity for profit occurs.
  3. Shortly after the protagonist seeks to profit from the opportunity, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.
  4. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)
  5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.
  6. The protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.
  7. The haunting resumes or ends.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy, again, of Wikipedia:

1. As a teaser, a festive scene ends in horror as a catastrophe occurs.

The film opens aboard an Italian ocean liner, Antonia Graza, in May 1962. Dozens of wealthy passengers enjoy dancing in the ship's luxurious ballroom while a beautiful Italian woman) sings “Senza Fine.” Galley crew wheel carts of soup around as stewards carry trays of champagne and wine. On the bow deck, more passengers dance on a platform surrounded by a cable attached to a mast. Away from the party in an outer room, a gloved hand pulls a switch that causes a spool to reel in a thin wire cable at high speed. Suddenly, the cable runs out and is detached from the mast. The cable slices across the deck (dance floor) like a blade, cutting through the crowd of dancing passengers. They stand still for several seconds before grasping that they have been cut in half, and then begin to fall apart. Only little Katie), who had been dancing with the ship's Captain, is spared, thanks to her small stature and to the captain leaning down to protect her when he saw the wire snap. Seeing the fate of the other dancers, she looks up at the officer's face. He looks back at her sorrowfully, as his face splits open at mouth level and the top of his head falls off. Katie then screams, the view from the outside of the ship zooms down underwater, and the
film cuts to the present day. A salvage crew made up of Captain Sean Murphy,
Maureen Epps, Greer, Dodge, Munder, and Santos have retrieved a sinking ship in
the open ocean. They bring the ship into port and receive its salvage value from
the authorities.

2. In the story’s true inciting moment, an opportunity for profit occurs.

While celebrating their success at a bar, Jack Ferriman, a Canadian Air Force pilot, approaches them and says he has spotted a mysterious vessel running adrift in the Bering Sea. Because the ship is in international waters, it can be claimed by whoever is able to bring it to a port. The crew soon set out on the Arctic Warrior, a small tugboat. While exploring the abandoned ship, they discover that it is the Antonia Graza, an Italian luxury liner that disappeared in May 1962 and was believed to be lost at sea. The ocean liner's disappearance was well known at the time.

3. Shortly after the protagonist seeks to profit from the opportunity, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.

When they board the ship and prepare to tow it to shore, strange things begin to
happen. Epps claims to have seen a little girl on the stairwell while trying to save Munder from falling through the floor, Greer claims to have heard singing in various places on the ship, and Epps and Ferriman discover the corpses of another team of salvagers in the ship’s laundry room. The crew decides to leave the ship but also to take a large quantity of gold in the ship’s hold. Before they can escape, however, their tugboat explodes when a propane tank mysteriously explodes as the engine is started, which also kills Santos, who was on board trying to fix the boat. The rest are stuck on a ghost ship in the middle of the Bering Sea with no form of communication.
When they decide to attempt to fix the Antonia Graza and sail it back to shore, they all experience hauntings. Epps finds a child's skeleton hanging by a noose in a wardrobe, and Dodge and Munder find (and accidentally eat) maggots in ration cans they initially mistook for rice and beans. Meanwhile, Greer meets the beautiful Italian singer who seduces him; however, when he tries to touch her, she disappears, and Greer falls down a shaft and is impaled on tools and equipment.

4. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)

Epps meets the ghost of Katie who was on her way to New York to be with her parents, who tries to tell Epps the secret of the ship but is attacked by an unseen force and vanishes Epps runs and finds Murphy who has been drinking with the ghost Captain. Murphy sees a disfigured Santos instead of Epps and attacks her thinking she is a ghost. Before he can harm Epps, he is knocked out by Ferriman. Munder, Dodge and Ferriman dump Murphy into a aquarium while they try to find Greer. Despite the loss of Murphy and Greer, however, the team does manage to get the boat running again enough for it to start sailing. Epps with Katie's help finds Greer's body and Katie then takes her momentarily back to the past where Epps finally sees what had happened. While the numerous dancers were sliced by the wire, the chefs in the kitchen were murdered by the crew who began pouring rodent poison into the evening's food. The food was served, and the diners began to succumb to the poison, plagued by severe nausea and dizziness. The crew then began taking the lives of the rest of the passengers by lining them by the pool and shooting them (young Katie was hung in the closet). As the crew takes the gold for themselves, one crew member (an officer) walks out of the small compartment where the valuables are stored. He takes a look at Francesca, the ship's sultry ballroom singer, who is also standing there dressed in a shimmering red satin strapless ball gown, turns around, and viciously murders his fellow crewmates out of greed with a submachine gun. Francesca then shoots him in the head with a pistol. At last, a man walks up to Francesca and they embrace. As he walks away, the singer looks up and sees a large hook swing into her face, killing her. The man burns a mark into her hand, and it is
revealed that he, the mastermind of the attack, was Jack Ferriman. Ferriman, as it turns out, is an evil spirit. Realizing the danger they are all in, Epps tries to get Murphy out of the aquarium only to find that it is already filled to the brim and Murphy has drowned. Epps finds Dodge and tells him what she found out just as Ferriman comes back. Epps tells them to not let each other out of the others sight. She goes to find Munder, who unfortunately had already been killed when the gears in the ship started up and he was trying to fix them and he was ground into them. Back on the deck Ferriman says he wants to go check on Epps. When Dodge refuses to let him, Ferriman mocks how he worships Epps, and warns Dodge that killing a man would send him to hell. Ferriman attacks Dodge who shoots him anyway. Knowing everything now, Epps decides to blow up the ship, but is confronted by Dodge. When Dodge begins to try to talk Epps out of blowing up the ship, she realizes that it is really Ferriman who has killed Dodge and disguised himself as him.

5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.

He states the obvious--by using the gold as bait, he has taken multitudes of souls to his masters (presumably Satan); he has been doing this for a long time, and considers himself a “salvager” of souls. A ferryman of souls, hence the name Ferriman. He guided the salvagers there merely to effect repairs.

6. The protagonists put their newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.

They fight for a short amount of time before Epps manages to blow up the ship, “killing” Ferriman. She is left in the debris as the souls trapped on the ship ascend to heaven. Katie stops to thank her and leads her out of the sinking ship.

7. The haunting resumes or ends.

Epps is discovered by a large cruise ship and taken back to land. The last scene hows Epps in the back of an ambulance at the docks. She looks out the back of the vehicle from her stretcher and sees the battered crates of gold being loaded onto the cruise ship by her deceased crew, followed moments later by Ferriman. Realizing what is about to happen she screams, only to be silenced by the closing ambulance doors.

The House on Haunted Hill: “See it with someone with warm hands!”

The House on Haunted Hill (1959) brings together a party who are challenged to survive a night in an allegedly haunted house; those who do will be rewarded with $10,000 each.

This plot is an variation of the typical horror story storyline:

  1. The story’s inciting moment occurs, as a host challenges his overnight guests.
  2. Cause is given to doubt the host’s sanity.
  3. An act of violence, usually resulting in someone’s death, occurs among strange, possibly supernatural, circumstances or incidents.
  4. One or more characters unsuccessfully try to cover up the effects of the violence.
  5. An explanation clarifies or seems to clarify the strange circumstances or incidents, revealing them to have resulted from an entirely natural cause.
  6. The occasion of the explanation is turned to the antagonist’s advantage, allowing him or her to commit a murder.
  7. The true explanation for the circumstances or incidents is provided, revealing them to have resulted from a different, but still entirely natural, cause.
  8. A truly supernatural incident occurs.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy, again, of Wikipedia:

1. The story’s inciting moment occurs, as a host challenges his overnight guests.

The five guests all arrive in separate funeral cars with a hearse leading, which their host, Fredrick Loren, explains may be empty now, but they may be in need of it later. He explains the rules of the party and gives each of the guests a .45 caliber pistol for protection.

2. Cause is given to doubt the host’s sanity.

Loren’s wife tries to warn the guests that her husband is psychotic, causing them to be very suspicious of him, especially Nora Manning, who becomes convinced that he’s trying to kill her when she keeps seeing mysterious ghouls, including the ghost of Annabelle, who had hanged herself after being forced to attend the party.

3. An act of violence, usually resulting in someone’s death, occurs among strange, possibly supernatural, circumstances or incidents.

After being driven into a fit of hysteria by the ghosts who haunt her, Nora shoots Mr. Loren, assuming he is going to kill her.

4. One or more characters unsuccessfully try to cover up the effects of the violence.

Dr. Trent, another guest, tries to get rid of the body by pushing it into acid, but the lights go out, and when they come back on, both of the men are gone.

5. An explanation clarifies or seems to clarify the strange circumstances or incidents, revealing them to have resulted from an entirely natural cause.

Annabelle emerges, having faked her death with the help of Dr. Trent, and having
apparently tricked Nora into killing Loren.

6. The occasion of the explanation is turned to the antagonist’s advantage, allowing him or her to commit a murder.

Suddenly, a skeleton emerges from the acid accompanied by the voice of Loren. The specter approaches Annabelle as she recoils in terror. In this panic, the screaming Annabelle accidentally backs into the acid herself. The real Mr. Loren walks out of the shadow, holding the contraption that he was using to control the skeleton of Dr. Trent. In his triumph, he watches Annabelle disintegrate.

7. The true explanation for the circumstances or incidents is provided, revealing them to have resulted from a different, but still entirely natural, cause.

Nora tells the other guests that she's shot Loren in the cellar, and they all rush down there. When they arrive, they see that he's actually alive, and he explains to them that his wife and Dr. Trent were having an affair, and that the “haunting” was just a joke planned by him with the help of the caretakers. He also tells them that they’d planned to trick Nora into murdering him so that they could get away with his money. He had not loaded Nora’s guns with bullets, but blanks.

8. A truly supernatural incident occurs.

Just when everyone thinks the trauma is finally over, Mr. Pritchard, the house owner, looks up, a terrified expression on his face, and announces that the ghosts are finally coming for them.

What Lies Beneath: “He was the perfect husband until his one mistake followed them home.”

What Lies Beneath (2000) is Robert Zemeckis’ homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

The storyline resolves itself into a familiar pattern:

  1. A protagonist’s suspicions are aroused by a strange incident.
  2. Strange incidents continue to occur.
  3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting.A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)
  4. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.The protagonists put their newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.
  5. The haunting resumes or ends.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. A protagonist’s suspicions are aroused by a strange incident.

Claire Spencer moves to Vermont with her husband, renowned scientist Dr. Norman
Spencer, after a serious car accident which leaves gaps in her memory. Combined with her daughter Caitlin’s departure for college, Claire is profoundly affected. Overhearing her new neighbor Mary Feur sobbing one day, Claire is concerned, despite Norman’s reassurance, and her worry increases when she sees Mary’s husband Warren dragging what looks like a body bag out of the house in the middle of the night. Claire decides to investigate by taking a basket of flowers and wine to the house as a gift. After nobody answers the door she walks around the side of the house and discovers a woman's sandal with a dark stain on it, which she steals. Back on the doorstep, she is surprised by Warren whose surly behavior further arouses her suspicion.
2. Strange incidents continue to occur.

Mysterious events begin to occur when Claire is alone in the house--pictures fall, doors open and close and Claire witnesses a shadowy reflection in bathwater. Claire is convinced that Mary is dead and haunting her. Desperate for closure, and facing little sympathy from Norman, Claire invites her best friend Jody to join her for a séance in her bathroom. Claire produces the sandal she had earlier taken from Mary's house and places it on the table. The Ouija board does not move, but a candle starts to flicker, then goes out. The dial on the Ouija board then starts to move slowly from M to F. Claire informs Norman of the séance, prompting him to accuse her of going crazy. Meeting Warren, Claire hysterically accuses him of killing his wife, to which Warren responds with confusion before introducing Mary to the pair.
3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)

Back at the house, a picture falls off the windowsill again, and as Claire removes the newspaper cutting from the broken frame, she notices a partial missing person report on the back of the cutting, for Madison Elizabeth. Claire finds a missing person report for Madison Elizabeth Frank, a student at the university where Norman had been a lecturer. Claire decides to visit Madison’s mother. Claire performs a ritual with the lock of hair she found at Madison’s mother’s house, which allows Madison to possess her and seduce Norman when he returns home from work. Norman, frightened by comments Claire has made, pushes her away from him, causing her to drop the lock of hair and break the connection. Claire’s memory begins to return and she recalls that she had once caught Norman with Madison.
4. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.
Norman makes a confession: he had a brief relationship with Madison, but realized quickly that he loved Claire too much to leave her, causing unstable Madison to threaten to kill Claire. He then visited Madison to find her dead of an overdose with a letter to Claire. Burning the letter, he pushed Madison's car (with Madison inside) into the lake. Norman and Claire agree to telephone the police. Norman makes the call before going to take a shower. As Claire realizes that the number her husband called is not that of the police, Norman suddenly sedates her and places her into the filling bathtub, expecting her to drown. He leans over her to give her one final kiss, and see's that she is wearing a pendant around her neck. Realizing the pendant is on backwards, he picks up Claire’s head to adjust it as her face morphs into the corpse-like face of Madison. He is startled and jumps up against a mirror, collapses and hits his head on the sink, then falls to the floor. Claire, recovering from the sedative, crawls out of the bath and downstairs. The telephone has been disconnected, so she starts to drive somewhere that will have better cellular telephone reception, passing Norman's body as she leaves the house. Norman, only stunned, chases her and jumps into the truck when she pauses on a bridge. The truck veers off the bridge and plunges into the lake, the same lake into which Norman pushed Madison’s car. Norman grabs Claire’s leg so that she cannot escape, but Madison’s ghost grabs Norman dragging him to the bottom of the lake, and forcing him to release Claire’s leg so she can float to the
surface.
5. The haunting resumes or ends.

The following winter, Claire is seen placing a single red rose at the grave of Madison Elizabeth Frank, but not the grave of Norman. The camera pans out and an image of Madison’s face is seen in the snow.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

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My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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