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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.

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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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