Friday, April 30, 2010

The Others: A Masterpiece of Situational Irony

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The Others is a virtually perfect exercise in horror by way of situational irony. The viewer is led to believe that any (and possibly all) of three bizarre events are taking place: one supernatural (the house in which the protagonist, Grace Stewart, and her children, Anne and Nicholas, live is haunted) and two natural (Grace may be losing her mind and/or Grace’s live-in servants Mrs. Bertha Mills, the housekeeper; Mr. Edmund Tuttle, the gardener; and a young mute woman, Lydia, are involved in a conspiracy against the family). Evidence is given, as it were, in support of each of these possibilities.

That the house may be haunted is suggested by Anne’s seeing and speaking to ghosts. She draws a picture of four of the spirits she’s seen: that of a boy about her own age, named Victor; Victor’s parents; and an “old woman.” Next to each figure, she writes the number of times she has seen each of the ghosts: she has seen each parent twice, Victor five times, and the “old lady” fourteen times. The “old lady” has harsh features and wild hair, and she scares Anne, the girl confesses. Anne also talks to Victor, once in the presence of her younger brother, with whom she shares a bedroom. When Nicholas accuses her of “teasing” him, she asks Victor to touch her brother’s face to let Nicholas know that he, Victor, is present. Later, Grace, who, at first, denies the existence of ghosts, refusing to believe that her house is haunted, hears a piano playing downstairs. When she goes to investigate, she learns that the music room is not only locked but that it is also unoccupied. However, when she leaves, an unseen force knocks her to the floor. Grace also experiences other ghostly phenomena. She hears disembodied voices talking about her when she visit’s a “junk room”--a spare bedroom used for storage--and she hears heavy thumping sounds upstairs, which she attributes to Lydia--until she sees the servant conversing with Mrs. Mills outside the house as the thumping continues upstairs. A headstone on the premises indicates that a body has been buried on the estate. Is the ghost the spirit of this person? Later, Grace finds a “book of the dead,” an album of family members’ corpses, photographed as mementoes for the surviving loved ones. Perhaps one or more of their spirits haunt Grace’s house. Not only do Anne and Grace see (and hear) ghosts, but Mrs. Mills tells Anne that she, like Anne, also sees them. Although both Anne and Nicholas have potentially fatal allergic reactions to sunlight, requiring that the curtains on the windows be closed whenever the children pass from one room to another, they have all been removed overnight, as the children’s panic-stricken screams alert Grace. None of the servants admits to having taken down any of the curtains. Perhaps the ghosts did so. When Anne and Nicholas discover the graves of the servants and Grace herself sees their likenesses in a photograph of the dead, the viewer is apt to suppose that Mrs. Mills, Mr. Tuttle, and Lydia are themselves the ghosts who haunt Grace’s house.

A case is also made for the supposition that Grace is losing her mind. She is fragile and high strung, as Nicole Kidman, who portrays her in the film, says in an interview featured on the DVD release of the movie says, and her husband has gone off to fight in World War II, leaving Grace alone to care for their children. She has poor coping skills, and caring for the two children by herself is more, perhaps, than she can handle. She takes great comfort in the Bible, as the Word of God, and in the rosary, which she says, banishes her fears. She has a simple, unquestioning faith. When her children question the credibility of the such Biblical claims as God’s creation of the universe in only six days and that two of every animal could fit on Noah’s ark, Grace is angered. She tells her children that their doubts may land them in limbo, which she distinguishes from both purgatory and hell. These concepts, like the rosary, suggest that she and her family are Roman Catholics, rather than Protestants. Her dependency upon the Bible, like her generally anxious manner, her quickness to anger, and her impatience toward her children and the servants suggest that she is tottering on the edge emotionally. It is not difficult to imagine that her seeing the “old woman” wearing the veil and dress that she made for her daughter’s confirmation, instead of Anne wearing it, as if, having possessed the girl, the “old woman” is now impersonating Grace's daughter may be the result of Grace’s hallucinating, rather than an instance of a perverse supernatural masquerade. Likewise, Grace may have only imagined that she’d heard the disembodied voices in the “junk room.” She may have had other hallucinations as well, hearing thumping when there was none, for example, and imagining that she’d heard a piano playing in the locked, unoccupied music room. She herself may have done some of the things that seem simply to “happen,” such as the taking down of the curtains in the house. Even the visit of her husband, who, until his sudden appearance, was presumed dead, a casualty of the war, could be attributed to her tendency to hallucinate, especially since, while he is home, he is eerily distant, lies motionless in bed for hours and days on end, refuses to eat anything, and is soon gone again, off, he says, to the battlefront. Indeed, after Grace attacks Anne, thinking that her daughter is the “old woman” in disguise, Anne tells Nicholas that their mother has “gone mad.” All these incidents, individually, and collectively, suggest, rather strongly, that Grace may be going mad or may already have gone insane.

On the other hand, maybe Grace’s house is not haunted, any more than she herself is insane; instead, the servants may be involved in a conspiracy against Grace and her family. They claim to have appeared at the house as the result of their "passing by," a mere coincidence, despite the fact that Grace’s house is located on an island and, for that reason, would not be a place where anyone--especially experienced servants--would be apt to seek employment. At Mrs. Mills’ direction, Mr. Tuttle dumps leaves on a headstone to prevent Grace from discovering the marker, despite Grace having given him a directive to find the headstones of all those who are allegedly buried on the estate. Mrs. Mills confides in Anne that, like the girl, the housekeeper has herself also seen the ghosts. Does Mrs. Miller do so to convince Anne that the ghosts are real in the hope that Anne will, in turn, influence Grace’s belief that her house is haunted and that it is safest to leave the mansion? Did the servants pose for the picture of the dead in which their corpses were supposedly photographed as a memento for their surviving loved ones? Mrs. Mills more than once hints at secrets that she and the other servants are keeping from Grace, and the housekeeper tells Grace that the living and the dead sometimes get “mixed up” with one another. Grace herself supplies a possible motive on the part of her servants for their conspiracy: they want to “take over” her house, she charges. Grace’s thoughts and behavior, at times, seem rational and appropriate, but, at other times, her ideas and actions are obviously groundless and even bizarre, suggesting that she is either insane or nearly so.

The Others is ambiguous on purpose, suggesting three possible explanations for the strange goings-on at the mansion in which she and her children and the servants live: the house is haunted, Grace is insane, and/or the servants want to drive Grace away so that they can lay claim to the mansion . However, the end of the movie, during which, at a séance, Grace finally learns that she has murdered Anne and Nicholas before committing suicide, upsets all three of these expectations concerning the movie’s plot, for the medium reveals that the children are dead and it is their ghosts and the ghost of their murderous mother and the loyal household servants who are the actual ghosts. Those whom Grace suspected of being ghosts are actually the members of the family who have bought the house. Grace and her family are, it appears, in purgatory, reliving Grace’s murder of her children and her murder of herself over and over again. It is only because of the careful planning of the film’s feasible, but ambiguous and bizarre incidents, that the movie succeeds in leading the audience down one path of expectations so that, at the end, it can deliver a wholly different conclusion to the story that ties up these previous storylines: the house is haunted, but by Grace and her family and servants; Grace has gone insane, killing her own children and herself, because she proved incapable of coping with and handling the stresses of everyday life without her husband’s assistance; and the servants, in fact, were conspiring, but not to steal Grace’s home but to confront her with the truth about herself and her actual situation as a soul in purgatory. Like any story that hinges upon situational irony as the means by which to effect a surprise, or twist, ending, The Others performs a bait-and-switch routine, setting up and maintaining viewers’ expectations along one line of development so that the grand finale can deliver an altogether different conclusion than the one that the previous action has painstakingly and deliberately suggested as the culmination of the whole. In doing so, The Others reveals itself to be masterful, indeed, and, therefore, a suspenseful and frightening thriller well worth watching again--and again.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Discovering the Elements of Fear

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Would you be afraid if you were alone in an isolated cemetery at night? Perhaps, if there were also a full moon, you might be a little anxious? After all, you are alone. You are on your own. No help is available--no police, no rescue personnel, no paramedics. You are isolated. There is no one near. No one to come to your aid or even to hear you scream (should you scream). The full moon is bright, but it, too, is distant and its light, rather than comforting or reassuring, seems eerie. It illuminates shadows, but it is not bright enough to light up the night.

The preceding paragraph is not intended to set the mood of a scene. Instead, it is meant merely to identify elements of a setting which could be the bases of such a paragraph or passage and to suggest why these elements might be frightening. Notice the commonality among them: the external, natural object or phenomenon (an isolated cemetery, darkness, a full moon) are linked to emotional states (fear, anxiety, distress). With this in mind, this analysis might lead to a passage such as this:

The sun had set, and a slight breeze stirred the leaves on the few scraggly trees that stood sentinel over the headstones and crypts of the isolated rural cemetery. High in the darkness of the sky, a full moon leered down upon the graveyard. The darkness seemed to press down upon Kim as if it were a heavy, hostile thing, a force that meant to crush her, and the absolute silence of the distant city of the dead was unsettling.

Kim felt not merely alone; she felt lost, wraithlike, as if she were herself the ghost of one of the corpses interred within the neglected, overgrown grounds. There was nothing to fear. She knew that--and, yet, she was afraid. She was terribly afraid. Her isolation was total. There was nothing and no one for miles in any direction. If she should fall or lose her way, if thugs were to happen along and discover her--or, worse, if the dead were to rise; if revenants were to return; if--she laughed at the
absurdity of these ideas, born as they were of unreasoning emotion, of blind fear akin to panic.

She’d meant for her laughter to dispel the sense of panic that had risen within her, for no reason, but the sound of it seemed raucous and forced, strained somehow, and false. It was anything but heartening.

Nor was the light of the moon, for it was not bright enough to light the night; its radiance did nothing more than to show the shadows of furtive things darting and scurrying among the gravestones and crypts.

Rats? Wolves? Worse, nightmarish things? Kim’s imagination suggested several creatures possible, if at all, only in hell. It had been a mistake to come here alone, she thought, especially at night. It had been a mistake to come here at all.

Somewhere in the darkness, among the graves, a twig snapped. Or a bone. Or a spine. Kim froze, staring wide eyed, straining to see, to hear, to think.

Clouds obscured the moon, and the darkness of the night was complete.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fiction For Thought

Copyright 201 by Gary L. Pullman

Although it isn’t necessary to have a fully developed, systematic philosophy of life to be a writer, some writers of fiction--Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre come to mind--did have such a worldview and wrote novels and short stories, in fact, to popularize their beliefs. Others’ fiction--the short stories and novels of Flannery O’Connor and the novels of Walker Percy, for instance--are informed by religious traditions.

Whether one has a well-thought-out worldview, his or her fiction may be based upon, and reflect, the values and traditions of the society of which he or she is a member. In Dean Koontz’s fiction, brotherly love saves the day against natural, paranormal, and even supernatural threats, and Stephen King’s work suggests that it takes a village, so to speak, to put down the types of threats that horror stories typically involve.

It seems fair to say that a well-thought-out philosophy of life, a religious tradition, or a set of social mores is likely to add depth to, and enrich, popular fiction, including the horror story. Sometimes, such concerns create themselves in the telling of the tale, but, more often, to be enduring and fulfilling, such philosophical, religious, and social underpinnings must be either the outcomes of protracted and systematic deliberation or sustained religious and emotional conviction. The difference is one of quality such as is seen, in horror fiction, for example between Child's Play or The Happening and Psycho and The Exorcist.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Characterization: A Filmmaker’s Contribution

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Filmmakers are neither novelists nor short story authors, but, like both, directors are committed to bringing characters to life for their audiences. Because moviemakers cannot directly explore characters’ thoughts through a narrator’s exposition or the character’s own stream of consciousness or interior monologues, they must rely upon other techniques. These techniques, used by a novelist or a short story writer, can enhance and support traditional narrative techniques of characterization, offered to readers by means of description rather than camera work.

Here’s an example of how Alfred Hitchcock conveys emotion on the screen; he is discussing a scene from his movie Sabotage:

It was a supper table. The man complained about the color of the greens. All I did was to show the close-up of the woman, about ordinary bust size, and the man the same. Sometimes the man from her eye-line, sometimes the woman from his eye-line. That was all we were concerned with. The most important aspect of the scene was her hand. It was essential to play up her using the carving knife. She carved meat with it, and then found herself helping him to vegetables with the carving knife. She realized what was wrong. Then I showed her hand dropping the knife, trying to get rid of it, and then having to pick it up because more meat needed carving--and dropping it with a clatter. Then immediately a close-up of the man hearing the clatter. Then the woman’s hand clasping and unclasping over the handle of the carving knife. All we saw was a foreground of a table; glasses, and cutlery, and her hand hovering. Then back to him. He got up, and the camera tilting [sic] up with him. He realizes his danger. I never bothered to show the room, and I allowed that man to go right past the camera towards the woman; and, then again he comes to her and he looks down, and the camera goes right from him, following his thought, down to the knife and her hand still hovering over it. And then he makes a grab and she gets it first. Then the two hands: her hands win. And then all you see is two figures, and the man gives a cry and falls (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995], 186-187).
In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe explains why the end of a story is all-important in determining how the rest of the narrative is structured and told. Hitchcock subscribes to a similar notion. For him, every scene and every montage must be carefully and deliberately worked out, often with storyboards, before it is committed to film: “The director,” Irving Singer, declares, “must have a prior conception of the response he wishes to achieve and how it can be evoked,” for, otherwise, the Sabotage montage of which Hitchcock speaks would have come to naught. Indeed, Hitchcock himself argues, “To have shot all that in a long view would have been useless. It had to be made up of these little pieces. With a first-class director the final cutting is a simple job, if he has constructed the scene in his mind in advance and knows what he wants to achieve” (Three Philosophical Filmmakers [Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004], 10-11).

According to Hitchcock, Singer says, “there are two primary uses of cutting or montage in film: montage to create ideas and montage to create violence and emotion.” In his discussion of the Sabotage scene, Hitchcock explains how he used montage to perform the latter objective; Singer offers an example of the director’s use of this technique to create the former: in Rear Window, Singer contends, Hitchcock creates ideas (that is, depicts a character’s thoughts on film) by “cutting back and forth to what James Stewart sees (and shows in his facial expressions) as he watches what is happening outside his window” (13).

Besides his views as to how to create thought and emotion on film, Hitchcock also had specific thoughts as to how characters should be represented. According to Singer, the director rarely achieved suspense in his films as the result of relating it “to someone’s character”; rather, “it is because we immediately perceive the innocence and (most often) friendliness of some ordinary person in his movies that we are lured into feeling concerned about what might happen to him or her” (129).

For Hitchcock, characters, like actors, were necessary evils, as it were, to the filmmaker’s true purpose, which was to create and project suspense and other forms of emotion. “His innocent victims,” Singer contends, “ordinary people who sometimes end up doing heroic acts, rarely behave as they do because of abstract thought or sensory need or even passionate impulse.
They flee from imminent danger or engage in a secretive and solitary mission that pits them against something that is determined to destroy them. The drama concludes when they succeed, for then nothing perilous remains to prolong suspense” (230).

The appeal of such characters, Singer suggests, is in their very ordinariness, for they represent stand-ins for audience members who, as ordinary people themselves, lead ordinary lives: Do we really care about the happy married life that the threatened couples will now presumably enter into? Not at all. We were fascinated by them only because they were surrogates for ourselves as imperfect human beings, and of all other persons who have also so much to fear in mere existence, which seems forever poised to victimize every finite creature (231).
Hitchcock had definite ideas about female characters and villains, too. His ideas about female characters are clearest, perhaps, in the type of actress he preferred to direct. He sought “elegant women,” Singer says, “even ‘ladylike women’ . . . rather than sexy fleshpots,” preferring “Nordic types because their sexiness is deeply hidden in them and must be discovered instead of being flaunted,” and “he thought that stylish actresses. . . have the greatest range of cinematic expressiveness,” although, as raw materials, so to speak, “they too would have to be molded, even manipulated by him, in order to perform as he desired” (65-66).

Hitchcock wants his audience to see his villains as realistic, believable characters. To this end, Singer says, the filmmaker “give[s] his villains a pleasant, often suave and seductive appearance as opposed to his innocent protagonists,” which, Singer believes, “keep[s] his thrillers from degenerating into horror films” (231).

In a previous article, I listed various ways by which novelists and short story writers depict their character’s personalities. To these techniques may be added the montage that Hitchcock uses, represented on the page in images conveyed through description rather than as pictures filmed by a camera and projected onto screens by projectors.. Interspersed or alternated with traditional narrative methods of characterization, the cinematic montage, effected through description and, indeed, exposition, can add a dimension to novels and short stories which is present at this point more in cinema and theater than anywhere else.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Thesis and Demonstration: Philosophical Horror Fiction

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Many of H. P. Lovecraft’s short stories, like those of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, begin with a thesis-like assertion, the truth of which is then demonstrated, as it were, by the narrative that this philosophical premise introduces:

Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal (“The Tomb”).

I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong (“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”).

Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the craven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black cobwebbed steps beneath the scattered stones of forgotten cities in Asia. The haunted wood and the desolate mountain are their shrines, and they linger around monoliths on uninhabited islands [but]. . . the true epicure of the terrible to whom a new thrill of unutterable ghastliness is the chief end and justification of existence, esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England; for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness and ignorance combine to form the perfection
of the hideous (“The Picture in the House”)

From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent (“The Shunned House”).

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far ("The Call of
I have dealt with this topic already, at some length, in a rather different (and some might say odd) manner in “Alien Androids: Another Plot-generating Method,” but I wanted, here, to provide a few examples of a celebrated writer of horror’s use of this technique.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Lull Before the Storm

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Chiller Channel startles viewers by juxtaposing a serene scene against a horrific one. In one such instance, a man is shown fishing, waist deep in a lake, surrounded by bucolic beauty. Ironically, despite its crueler aspects (the hooking of an innocent creature whose taking of bait is prelude to a desperate struggle that is apt to end in its terrifying, agonizing, and violent death), fishing is associated, by many, with relaxation and the enjoyment of nature.

After the man is shown enjoying the serenity and majesty of the lake, set among the sylvan splendor of a forested mountain, for several moments, a horrific image flashes on the screen, shocking and disturbing the viewer. Text follows, suggesting a purpose for this intrusion of horror upon a scene of pastoral serenity and bliss: “We just wanted to make sure you were awake.”

This technique, sometimes referred to as “the lull before the storm,” including the humorous undercurrent (at times, at least), is a staple in horror fiction, especially in the novel and its cinematic equivalent, the major motion picture. Examples abound, so I will offer but a few, confident that others will recall many additional ones.

The storm doesn’t have to involve violence. It may simply relate terrifying or horrific information, such as the origin of the monster or an account of its previous deeds.

(By the way, it is instructive to consider what storytellers accomplish during the lulls in the narrative or drama’s action. Usually, these are occasions for characterization or the exposition needed to explain the current situation or otherwise advance the plot.)

Example 1: A Nightmare on Elm Street

The Lull: In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Tina Gray, Nancy Thompson, and Nancy’s boyfriend, Glen Lantz, stay overnight together after both Tina and Nancy have nightmares about a man with a badly burned face and razor-clawed hands pursuing them. Tina’s boyfriend, Rod Lane, joins Tina, and they sleep in her mother’s bed.

The Storm: This togetherness is reassuring for the teens, but their comfort is soon destroyed when the villain puts in an appearance, murdering Tina in her sleep after he enters her dreams.

The Lull: In the same film, Nancy is later taken to a dream therapy clinic, where she is hooked up to an array of scientific instruments while she sleeps in an observation room, behind a glass wall.

The Storm: The presence of scientists and the clinical setting are both comforting--until Nancy has a nightmare in which the antagonist again appears, and Nancy awakens with a cut arm, clutching the would-be killer’s worn, felt hat.

In another relatively restrained, if not serene, scene, Nancy’s alcoholic mother, Marge, provides her daughter with the secret behind the villain’s supernatural powers: he is Freddy Krueger, a child-killer whom Marge and the community’s other parents trapped inside a boiler room and burned to death ten years ago, after he was released from prison on a technicality, having murdered twenty or more children.

Example 2: The Bad Place

The Lull: In The Bad Place (1990), a Dean Koontz novel, Frank Pollard awakens surrounded by strange objects, unable to account for his apparent journeys during sleep.

The Storm: However, he senses that he is being pursued by a relentless assassin of some kind.

The Lull: He is reassured by the skills of the husband-wife team of private investigators whom he hires, Bobby and Julie Dakota.

The Storm: The Dakotas uncover the true nature of Frank and his evil brother, Candy, both of whom were born of a hermaphroditic mother who impregnated herself with her own sperm.
A Twist Upon This Technique: The Sanctuary Amidst Hell
A twist upon this technique, which is also widely used in horror novels and films, is the alternation between a safe house or place of refuge and the hostile territory that surrounds it or the antagonist’s turf.

Example 1: Desperation

Stephen King takes this approach in Desperation (1996). After David Carver escapes from the town’s jail, freeing his fellow hostages, the band takes refuge in an abandoned movie theater, while their adversary, the demon Tak, occupies and terrorizes the rest of the town.

Example 2: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

In its first few seasons, the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) also adopts this approach, alternating between the (relatively) safe refuge of Sunnydale High School’s library and the Hellmouth below or between the library and the factory (and, later, the mansion) that Angel, Spike, and Drusilla occupy.

Example 3 The Island of Dr. Moreau

In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), such a place of safety exists in the scientific laboratory of the vivisectionist. Without, the jungle is the domain of the scientist’s Beast Folk.

Example 3: The Thing

Likewise, in The Thing (1951), an arctic outpost is the place of sanctuary. Outside, an alien roams the frozen wastelands, attacking sled dogs.

Of course, these sanctuaries provide refuge for only so long; and, sooner or later, they are likely to be invaded, infiltrated, or attacked.

Whether a story juxtaposes a tranquil and reassuring scene against a violent and disturbing one or alternates between a refuge and the domain of the antagonist, the effects are pretty much the same. A false sense of security is created (to be overturned in the next, horrific scene) or the reader or viewer is constantly reminded that the evil thing, the monster, exists just outside the protective walls of the sanctuary and might attack, infiltrate, or invade the refuge at any moment. This juxtaposition or alternation heightens both the sense of goodness and of evil and of tranquility and of horror. At the same time, it reminds the audience that there is no safe place, after all; evil will find us wherever we hide. The only way to deal with wickedness is to accept its challenge, take arms against it as a community, and destroy or banish it.

Of course, even then, it’s likely to come back some other day. . . with a vengeance.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Plotting By Trial and Error

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
  • A demon dimension opens under the library of a southern California high school.
  • An alien, sent to earth just before his own planet was destroyed, develops superhuman powers.
  • A spacecraft explores newly discovered worlds.
  • Government agents collect potentially dangerous supernatural artifacts, storing them in a secret warehouse.
  • A town is populated by geniuses who work for the federal government, developing top-secret, cutting-edge technology.
  • A tabloid reporter encounters paranormal and supernatural threats as he pursues news stories.

Each of these sentences identifies the premise of a weekly television series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Star Trek, Warehouse 13, Eureka, Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

What these premises have in common is that each one provides the basis for a theoretically endless number of episodes. Buffy: What will emerge this week from Sunnydale High School’s Hellmouth? Smallville: What powers will the alien develop, and to what use will he put them, and why? Star Trek: What new worlds are discovered, and what does the crew encounter when they explore them? Warehouse 13:What artifacts have been collected, and which remain? How and why are these objects dangerous? Where did they come from, or who invented them, and why? Eureka: Why research is being done? What effects has it had, if any, on the scientists and the townspeople? Do any of the experiments go awry? If so, what happens as a result? Kolchak: Where do the threats come from that the reporter encounters? What motivates their hostility? What happens when the reporter reports them? Is he believed? (He does, after all, work for a tabloid newspaper.)

Not everyone who is interested in writing horror (or any other type of fiction) is likely to want to write a weekly television series, so why should a writer be interested in a premise that promotes such a project?

Here’s at least one reason. By envisioning even a single, stand-alone story for which no prequel or sequel is envisioned or intended as a series of episodes, a writer can develop several plots relating to the same setting, characters, and situations, choosing from the results the best of the best. If one intends to write only one story, he or she may as well make it the best of which he or she is capable of writing. This approach will provide an author with the means of doing so, providing, as it does, the opportunity for him or her to develop virtually any number of plots using the same themes, characters, settings, and situations. The results? Sequels, prequels, trilogies. . . .

Moreover, if a single, stand-alone story should take off as a series, the writer who uses this approach is apt to have a lot of story ideas available, right from the start.

In addition, this approach allows a writer to envision how and why his or her characters may change as the story progresses. Should A, B, and C occur, what effects would their occurrences have upon the protago0nist six months or six years hence? This approach allows the author to ask and answer this and other questions. Whether the writer shares these perceptions with his or her reader or keeps them to himself, the fact that they have occurred to the writer should help him or her to anticipate future developments, attitudes, behaviors, and incidents, preparing the reader for their eventual occurrence, in the same or a later book, and to make such changes believable and seemingly natural.

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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