Fascinating lists!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Perspective and Setting: An Overlap of Cinematographic and Literary Technique

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In Film Narratology, Peter Verstraten explains how, in adopting the perspective of the birds as they sweep down from the sky to attack the residents of Bodega Bay, California, Alfred Hitchcock forces The Birds audience to “reflect on the sadist in ourselves” (122).

Other films require us to see ourselves from the victims’ point of view, thereby presumably encouraging us to consider the masochistic element of our personalities. The infamous shower scene in Psycho is a notable example: it puts the audience in the shower with Marion Crane, letting us see the curtain as it is torn aside and the knife’s blade as it flashes toward us.

Indeed, one might argue that the shower scene is sadomasochistic, alternating between the perspective of the murderer and the perspective of the murdered, so that, in effect, we become suicidal, the killer and the killer of, and the killed by, ourselves.

Some stories create suspense by including a killer among a team of investigators as they seek clues and argue theories as to how a murder may have been committed or who may have committed it, with the killer, perhaps, offering his or her own ideas concerning the topic. In her nonfiction book, The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule includes an alternative version of this perspective by including serial killer Ted Bundy among the university students who discuss a mass murder on their campus. Bundy disagrees with their view of the crime and the killer. One of the students considers the murderer “a lunatic” who is “probably lying low as the police investigation accelerated.” Bundy disagrees: “No. . . this was a professional job; the man has done it before. He’s probably long gone by now” (344). Bundy, typically, is telling a half-truth. He, the killer, has definitely “done it before,” but he is far from “long gone”; he is in the midst of the students with whom he debates the issue. His presence is an eerie and disturbing incident among many other such incidents.

In Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema’s “Making Up Monsters: Set and Costume Design in Horror Films,” Tamao Nakahara explains how, in Psycho, “d├ęcor becomes the narrative’s organising [sic] image” (141):

In the film‘s trailer, Hitchcock makes a point to associate the killer, Norman Bates. . . with his safe have and with the birds he sews up: “his favorite spot was the little parlour [sic] behind his office in the motel. . . . I suppose you’d call this his hideaway. His hobby as you see was taxidermy. A crow here. . . an owl there”. During the scene in which Norman invites his future victim, Marion Crane. . . into the parlour [sic] for supper, he is visually defined by the way that the frame unites him with the various stuffed birds in the room. As the shots and shot-reverse-shots alternate between Norman and Marion during their conversation, the camera remains generally in the same position for all of Marion’s shots, while those for Norman change angles to frame him with one bird and then another in the set design. While the conversation is light, the camera shows Norman from the waist up to the right of a dresser with a couple of small birds. As soon as the topic of “mother” is broached, the camera angle changes to show him in a low angle medium shot in front of two paintings (one of a nude) and two menacing spread-winged birds near the ceiling--an image that suggests Norman’s conflicted feelings of sexual arousal and self-censure for that arousal. Finally, when Marion suggests putting Norman’s mother away in an institution, the enraged Norman is shown in close-up flanked by two birds abutting against his ears. As if to provide a wall ornament for each mood and emotion, Norman’s sanctuary, and his behaviour [sic] in it, hints at his multiple personalities (142-143).
Although, as Verstraten observes, “the narrative techniques and stylistic procedures in cinema are inevitably fundamentally different than those in literature (or those in comics, music, painting, sculpture, and theater, to name but a few),” and, in some cases, the twain between these “techniques and. . . procedures” in one medium will never meet those of another medium, there are narrative and stylistic techniques that do, in part, overlap, such as do (to some extent) both point of view (in both media) and set design (in cinema) and description (in literature), from which both cinematographic and literary artists can, and should, learn from on another.


Nakahara, Tamao. "Making Up Monsters: Set and Costume Design in Horror Films." Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema, 2010: Print.

Rule, Ann. The Stranger Beside Me: The Shocking Story of Serial Killer Ted Bundy. New York: Pocket Books, 2009. Print.

Verstraten, Peter. Film Narratology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Horror from the Mouths of Babes

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

One, two,

Freddy’s coming for you!
Three, four,
Better lock the door.
Five, six,
Get a crucifix.
Seven, eight,
Better stay up late.
Nine, ten,
Never sleep again. . . .
A Nightmare on Elm Street opens with innocent children singing this haunting rhyme as they skip rope.

Stephen King’s novel The Tommyknockers is based upon another poignant and horrific verse, the third and fourth lines of King himself wrote:

Late last night and the night before,
Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.
I want to go out, don't know if I can,
'Cause I'm so afraid of the Tommyknocker man.
“Hush,” an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also features a nursery rhyme-like ditty:

These songs are eerie and unsettling, disturbing and creepy. One reason that they are distressing is that they are sung by children. In one case, the children are playing; they are skipping rope. Their play is a reminder of their youth. Their voices are high and sweet, pure and natural. However, the lyrics to the ditties they sing are anything but sweet and innocent; they are vile and wicked--or, at least, they refer to wicked acts, to someone who is stalking or hunting a victim, to the need to lock oneself behind a door, the need to seek divine assistance or protection, the need to maintain nightlong vigilance (A Nightmare on Elm Street); to remain at home rather than to go outside (The Tommyknockers); the need to remain silent, to lock oneself inside one’s house, and the need to say nothing even to one’s own mother, possibly lest “The Gentlemen,” who are “coming by,” likewise harm her (“The Gentlemen”). This juxtaposition of innocence and wickedness is itself alone troubling. However the inclusion of nursery rhymes concerning such brutal action as the verses describe is also unsettling for other reasons.
Can't even shout, can't even cry,
The Gentleman are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors,
They need to take seven and they might take yours.
Can't call mom, can't say the word,
You're going to die screaming but you won't be heard.
How is it that the children who sing such songs have an awareness of the atrocious deeds about which they warn their listeners? Were they victims? Do they know others who were victims? Were they eyewitnesses to the attacks and visitations they describe? Since these songs are not traditional nursery rhymes, they seem to imply first-hand or close secondhand knowledge.

The sings are creepy, too, because they seem to imply a deadly inevitability. Whether it’s Freddy who’s “coming for you” or the Tommyknockers who are “knocking at the door” or The Gentlemen who “need to take seven,” it seems that they are relentless, that they will keep coming, no matter what, and that, sooner or later (probably sooner), they will succeed. They will kill, mutilate, eviscerate. Nothing, these songs suggest, can stop them, whether it’s locking one’s windows and doors, arming oneself with a crucifix, staying awake all night, remaining home rather than venturing out, shouting, crying out, or calling one’s mother. Freddy, the Tommyknockers, and the Gentlemen will succeed in carrying out their violence and murder no matter what one does to thwart them.

Moreover, the words of these rhymes threaten the listener (and, therefore, the moviegoer or the reader him- or herself) directly, employing the second person: “Freddy’s coming for you” and “They need to take seven, and they may take yours.”

Almost as an afterthought, one realizes that these ditties also function on a practical level, advising the moviegoer of the movies’ basic storylines as the songs, at the same time, acquaint viewers with the film’s genre.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Psycho" and "The Birds": The Reason They Endure

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Looking back at some of the “classic” horror movies of the forties, fifties, and sixties, it’s difficult to determine just what (and why) these films were considered frightening. This difficulty applies even to such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds.

Maybe I can get some insight into this matter by considering some of these movies’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. This site awards Psycho (1960) a 99% “fresh” rating, meaning that 99 percent of the site’s reviews award it a favorable review. What is the bases of these favorable reviews?

One critic views the movie as a trailblazer.

Another critic considers it “shocking.”

A third opines that “Alfred Hitchcock should be credited with making the first slasher film” and thereby providing the “template” for future films of this type.

Still another commentator regards the movie as being “more analyzed” than any other.

According to another pundit, the film is “impressive” in having been well crafted.

Another critic seems to attribute the movie’s success to Janet Leigh’s attractiveness and taste in brassieres: “Janet Leigh, stalking around in pointy brassieres, making bird-gestures, and flirting with the coprophobic Perkins, is one of cinema's most deliciously perverse pleasures.”

One authority claims the film’s popularity derives from several of its scenes: “The music, the setting, the shower scene, the mother in the cellar... everything about this iconic film has passed into cinema history. “

How about the film’s “manipulation of audience identification” and “style”? One critic sees these attributes as being largely responsible for the movie’s enduring appeal.
None of these comments seem all that insightful concerning Psycho’s attractiveness to moviegoers over half a century.

What about Rotten Tomatoes’ take on the lasting popularity of another horror film by Hitchcock, namely The Birds (1963)? The website labels this movie 95% “fresh,” with reviewers offering the following comments concerning the film:

“The only thing dated is the special effects. The suspense holds up well.”

“Although not as horrifically shocking as ‘Psycho,’ [sic] ‘The Birds’ [sic] is a more sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark [sic] in the prolific career of a true maestro of cinema.”

“Alfred Hitchcock's most abstract film (1963), and perhaps his subtlest, still yielding new meanings and inflections after a dozen or more viewings.”

“More novelty than spectacle, but overall a chilling exercise in nihilistic terror.”

“Still a dream come true after you've met enough Californians.”

“It's fierce and Freudian as well as great cinematic fun, with ample fodder for the amateur psychologist following up on Hitch's tortuous involvement with his leading ladies.”

“Inventive classic.”
Are these reviewers’ comments any more helpful in establishing this film’s almost half-a-century-long appeal? You decide.

For my part, I have a simple, but, I think, affective, explanation for these movie’s continuing appeal. They were filmed in more innocent times, before the multiplicity of media sources and choices, when the concept of the serial killer was fairly new and the crimes of Ed Gein, upon whom Norman Bates is based, were both contemporary, shocking millions across the country and around the world, thanks to the news and to Robert Bloch’s novel. (The term “serial killer” was not coined until the 1970s, Wikipedia tells us, and Psycho was released in 1960.) In other words, for the relatively innocent audiences of the day, Norman Bates represented a new kind of bogeyman--the transvestite momma’s boy-become-killer whose penchant for helpless young women made every young woman a potential victim of similar homicidal maniacs. Why does the movie continue to appeal to the more jaded audiences of today? I think it does so because of its nostalgic nature, hearkening back, as it does, to a day in which relatively innocent audiences were confronted with a new type of bogeyman.

How, then, do I explain the original and the continuing popularity of The Birds? I think that it represents society’s unconscious fear that something will go wrong. What, precisely, will go wrong, when it will go wrong, and why it will go wrong are unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. They are also, strangely enough, unimportant. What matters is the uneasy, the disquieting, the unsettling and vague notion, the inkling, the hunch, the gut feeling, the intuition that something, sooner or later, is going to happen, something that probably makes no sense and has no business happening, something as absurd as it horrific--and catastrophic: the end of time, the end of the world, the apocalypse that mystics have predicted, again and again, off and on for centuries and millennia. In other words, The Birds symbolizes the haunting suspicion that we don’t really quite deserve the bounty of riches with which we’ve been blessed and that, someday, harpies of some sort, will be sent to us from above to harass and punish us, stripping away the blessings and destroying the bounty. In Hitchcock’s film, the harpies are birds of all kinds, coming, it seems, from everywhere, attacking Bodega Bay, California today and, tomorrow, the world. . . .

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Shirley Jackson: Horror as a Slice of Life

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

I am reading The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson, and, as I do so, I am struck, again and again, by the strong similarity between her style and that of Flannery O’Connor’s. There is a directness to their sentences, a no-nonsense, straightforward cadence that marches resolutely forward, even as it describes and narrates unlikely stories typically involving grotesque characters. Despite the improbable tales and the fantastic characters, Jackson’s narratives are frequently slice-of-life stories, or narratives that involve mere segments of their characters’ lives without exposition, with little overt action, with minimal conflict, and with an inconclusive denouement. Her stories start in media res, characterizing their protagonists and antagonists as they go, seemingly on the fly. The incongruity, and, often, the irony, that results from this bare-bones approach in which realistic portrayal is juxtaposed to, or is the vehicle for, the grotesque and eccentric, is jarring. To get a sense of the meaning of any of Jackson’s stories, one must reread them, usually several times. The reward for one’s time and effort, however, is well worth the trouble.

Since most of her stories start, progress, and end the same way, an analysis of one is a sufficient introduction to Jackson’s method. I choose to illustrate her approach with an examination of “Trial By Combat,” which originally appeared, in 1944, in The New Yorker.

The plot is deceptively simple. Emily Johnson, a young woman working in New York City, while her husband is away in the Army, possibly at war, lives in a rooming house, where, during the past two weeks of her six-weeks’ residence to date, she begins to notice that someone is pilfering her belongings. Handkerchiefs, costume jewelry, perfume, and “a set of china dogs” have disappeared from her room.

One day, when she is returning to her room from the roof, where she has been sunning herself, she sees “someone come out of her room and go down the stairs,” and Emily recognizes her “visitor” as her downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Allen. (It is “an old house,”wherein the tenants’ skeleton keys fit one another’s, as well as their own, rooms.) Emily goes to Mrs. Allen’s room, where the two women have a cordial conversation about their respective husbands and their fondness for flowers and plants before Emily makes oblique references to someone’s having come repeatedly into her room and pilfered her belongings, declaring that the trespassing and theft “has to stop” or she will be obliged to “do something about it.”

Emily sees that Mrs. Allen’s room is almost identical to her own in its furnishings: “the same narrow bed with the tan cover, the same maple dresser and armchair; the closet. . . on the opposite side of the room, but [with] the window. . . in the same relative position” (42). Although Mrs. Allen is twice her own age, the widow’s late husband, “dead for nearly five years,” was a soldier. The couple was childless, although photographs of “several” children cluster about his photograph, his “nephews and nieces,” Mrs. Allen explains. When Emily expresses her fondness for flowers as a means of brightening her room, lamenting that they “fade so quickly,” Mrs. Allen tells her that she can prolong their color by adding an aspirin to the water so that “they last much longer” and “make a room look. . . friendly.”

Despite her visit to Mrs. Allen’s room, the thefts continue: “The following evening, when Emily came home from work, a pair of cheap earrings was gone, along with two packages of cigarettes which had been in her dresser drawer” (45). Emily responds to these additional thefts by calling in sick to work and biding her time in her room until she hears Mrs. Allen go downstairs, at which point Emily goes to the elderly lady’s room. After looking “for a moment at the picture of Mrs. Allen’s husband,” Emily opens the top drawer of the widow’s dresser and finds her own belongings inside: “Her handkerchiefs were there, in a neat, small pile, and next to them the cigarettes and the earrings. In one corner the little china dog was sitting” (46).

Mrs. Allen returns, catching Emily in the act of rifling her drawers. And Emily tells herself, “now turn around and tell her,” but instead of accusing the widow of having stolen her belongings, Emily says that “I had a terrible headache and I came down to borrow some aspirin. . . . and when I found you were out I thought surely you wouldn’t mind if I borrowed some aspirin” (47). Mrs. Allen accepts Emily’s explanation, gives her the aspirin, and tells her that “I’ll run up later today. . . just to see how you feel” (47).
Much of the meaning of this seemingly simple, six-page story is derived from what is left unsaid rather than from what is directly stated. The similarities between Emily and Mrs. Allen bind them together. The widow is almost an older version of the protagonist, an embodiment of Emily’s own future. They both live in a rooming house, in Spartanly furnished, nearly identical rooms. Their husbands are both away--Emily’s in the Army, Mrs. Allen’s a soldier taken by death, perhaps (the story’s title suggests) as a casualty of war. They seem lonely (Mrs. Allen’s only “companion” is the Woman’s Home Companion she is reading when Emily visits her, and the widow tells the younger woman, “It’s so seldom one meets anyone really. . .nice. . . in a place like this” [42]).

The flowers and plants they purchase to “brighten up” their rooms and make them seem friendlier also suggest the loneliness and barrenness of their lives, as does Mrs. Allen’s (and, indeed, Emily’s own) childlessness, which is emphasized by the children’s photographs clustered around the dead soldier’s photograph, as if his nephews and nieces were his and Mrs. Allen’s surrogate children. As the story’s title indicates, both women have endured a “trial by combat,” and it is the commonality of their experience that appears to draw them to one another.

They lead pitiful lives, but their empathy allows them to pity each other. Moreover, both women are lonely and confide in one another that they have been eager to meet one another, which suggests that, in their misery, they seek company: “I’ve seen you, of course, several times,” Mrs. Allen tells Emily, “and thought how pleasant you looked.” Emily replies, “I’ve wanted to meet you, too” (42). Their common plight allows Emily to overlook Mrs. Allen’s thefts and to conspire with her in pretending that they are nothing more than neighbors, or even friends, not strangers, who are concerned about one another’s health and well being.

There seems to be a darker, somewhat horrific subtext to this story, too. It may be that Mrs. Allen practices a sort of symbolic cannibalism. Her kleptomania seems to be an attempt to secure for herself some of Emily’s “nice” and “pleasant” circumstances. By taking items that belong to Emily, the older widow seems intent upon becoming like Emily, at least in part, by performing a ritual similar to that of ancient and medieval warriors who ate the hearts of their vanquished foes in order to take into themselves their enemies’ courage and military prowess by literally ingesting the presumed seats of their souls. If such an interpretation is accepted (admittedly, it is controversial), the implication of Emily’s observation, addressed to Mrs. Allen, “You’ve made yours [i. e., Mrs. Allen’s room] look much nicer than mine” and Mrs. Allen’s rejoinder, “I’ve been here for three years. . . . You’ve only been here a month or so, haven’t you?” much more significant--and macabre--than this dialogue might seem otherwise. Has Mrs. Allen been stealing from other tenants’ rooms for “three years”? Are her thefts the reason that her room looks “much nicer” than Emily’s, and will Emily, who has already trespassed upon Mrs. Allen’s room, as Mrs. Allen has trespassed upon Emily’s, likewise become a kleptomaniac, whose thefts improve the appearance of her room, making it “nicer,” brighter looking, and friendlier? Will Mrs. Allen’s ways become Emily’s ways? Will the widow become the mentor and Emily the apprentice in cannibalizing the lives of other tenants, as it were, by stealing bits and pieces from their neighbors’ lives?

“Trial By Combat” is a much eerier story than the text which meets the reader’s eye, because its subtext opens itself to unusual, even grotesque, interpretations, largely because of the technique that Jackson employs in writing slice-of-life stories involving mere segments of their characters’ lives, told without exposition, with little overt action, with minimal conflict, and with an inconclusive denouement. Writers, aspiring or professional, can learn a lot by apprenticing themselves to such a master as Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House (which is one of the inspirations for Stephen King’s television miniseries Rose Red), and many other haunting tales.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery and Other Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982. Print.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Ted Dilemma: Is Evil a Matter or Nature or Nurture, Determinism or Free Will?

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes life is more horrible than horror fiction. In The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule demonstrates the truth of this observation in recounting a nightmare she had as she tried to come to terms with the apparent guilt of her friend, Ted Bundy:

I found myself in a large parking lot, with cars backing out and racing away. One of the cars ran over an infant, injuring it terribly, and I grabbed it up, knowing it was up to me to save it. I had to get to a hospital, but no one would help. I carried the baby, wrapped almost entirely in a gray blanket, into a car rental agency. They had plenty of cares, but they looked at the baby in my arms and refused to rent me one. I tried to get an ambulance, but the attendants turned away. Finally, in desperation, I found a wagon--a child’s wagon--and I put the injured infant in it, pulling it behind me for miles until I found an emergency room.

I carried the baby, running, up to the desk. The admitting nurse glanced at the bundle in my arms. “No, we will not treat it.”

“But it’s alive! It’s going to die if you don’t do something.”

“It’s better. Let it die. It will do no one any good to treat it.”

The nurse, the doctors, everyone, turned and moved away from me and the bleeding baby.

And then I looked down at it. It was not an innocent baby; it was a demon. Even as I held it, it sunk its teeth into my hand and bit me (240-241).
This is the end of her dream. It is horrific. It seems mysterious, too. A baby that’s not a baby, but a demon--what could such imagery mean? Rule is certain that she knows. The baby symbolizes innocence, the demon (its true self), evil: evil is masquerading as innocence, or as she informs her readers: “I did not have to be a Freudian scholar to understand my dream; it was all too clear. Had I been trying to save a monster, trying to protect something or someone who was too dangerous and evil to survive?”(240-241).

To describe Bundy as a monster is an understatement. According to Wikipedia, the law student confessed to thirty murders, but may have committed as many as a hundred, and his modus operandi wasn’t merely cruel; it was savage: “Bundy would bludgeon his victims, then strangle them to death. He also engaged in rape and necrophilia” (“Ted Bundy”). His youngest victim, Floridian Kimberly Leach, was only twelve years old. If the brutality of his crimes, the sexual perversions he committed, and the slaying of a preteen girl are not enough to manifest the evil that was Ted Bundy (and, of course, they are), then his own words, chilling to the bone, concerning morality certainly are:

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself--what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself--that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring--the strength of character--to throw off its shackles. . . . I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self.
At about the time of the rise of modern psychology, which is often identified with the work of Wilhelm Wundt, who established the school of experimental psychology at Leipzig University in 1879, more than a decade before Sigmund Freud launched his ill-fated psychoanalysis, Edgar Allan Poe became one of the earliest, if not the earliest, modern writer to include madmen in his stories instead of inhuman monsters. Many other writers of horror fiction have since followed suit, and the human monster is one of today’s most popular types. One of the most widely known contemporary examples is Thomas Harris’ Hannibal (“The Cannibal”) Lecter (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal).

Perhaps, as they age, aficionados of horror fiction become more interested in human monsters like Bundy than in fantastic creatures such as demons, werewolves, and zombies, recognizing that the true monsters are those in the mirror. Certainly, as the authors of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Monster Book point out, there is no lack of variety for such human fiends, a category of the monstrous that includes not only serial killers, but also Adolf Hitler, murderers, rapists, “monsters and abusers, drug trade predators, the heartless and shallow, and even the bitter, belittling monsters,” concluding “there are so many people whose behavior is unnatural or inhuman that we need go no further” than human nature itself “to find our monsters” (360). Joss Whedon, the creator of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series seems to agree. It is people, he confesses, who “terrify” him more than anything else (330).

Among the many more traditional (that is, inhuman) monsters that appear on Buffy the Vampire Slayer are a number of human monsters, as the authors of The Monster Book point out, including Billy Fordham (“Lie to Me”), “the Kiddie League baseball coach” (“Nightmares”), Ted Buchanan (“Ted”), Frawley, Frederick, and Hans (“Homecoming”), Tucker (“The Prom”), Coach Marin and Nurse Greenleigh (“Go Fish”), “the lunch lady” (“Earshot”), Kyle, Tor, Rhonda, and Heidi (“The Pack”), “the demon-worshiping fraternity brothers” (“Reptile Boy”), Eric Gittleson (“Some Assembly Required”), Pete Clarner (“Beauty and the Beasts”), Gwendolyn Post (“Revelations”), Maggie Walsh (several episodes), and Jack (“Beer Bad”) (361-362).

There are a number of theories as to what causes human monsters. Are they born and bred or are they made? Is it nature or nurture? Perhaps it is a combination both of genetics and environment. Another way to ask the same question is to pose it as a philosophical issue: is evil behavior determined or does it result from the exercise of free will? The authors of The Monster Book favor nurture (or, perhaps, the lack of it) over nature, arguing that “abnormal brain chemistry may account for certain psychopathic and sociopathic behavior, but most human monsters are not born that way; they are made into what they are by circumstances, by experience and example” (363).

Buffy’s executive story editor and writer Douglas Petrie even offers an etiology for the evil of one of the show’s long-standing human monsters, the rogue slayer Faith. The causes of her monstrosity are parental neglect; feelings of isolation, loneliness, and alienation; and an inability to “compete” against Buffy, but, at bottom, Petrie suggests, the "key" to understanding the wickedness of Faith is her “pain”: “The whole key to Faith is that she is in pain. . . . She’s so lonely and so desperate, and all her toughness comes out of trying to cover that. That’s what monsters are made of.” Her pain, however, he intimates, comes out of her lack of the relationships she would like to have: “You’ve always got a carrot you can dangle in front of her. Mrs. Post was the mother she never had. Buffy and her friends are the best friends she never had. The Mayor is the dad she never had. So she’s always looking for a family and always coming up short and making these horrible choices, and it drove her insane” (368). Primarily, Faith’s monstrosity, then, results from her abuse by her family and by society in general, by the way she has been treated--or, rather, mistreated--but it is also a result of her “horrible choices.” Evil is caused, in Petrie’s estimation, by societal abuse and the exercise of the abused person’s own free will. Secondarily, nature might also have a part to play in human monsters’ origin and development, Petrie seems to admit, tossing in, as if for good measure, the observation, concerning Faith, “Plus I think she was missing a couple of screws to begin with. ‘If you don’t love me, you will fear me’ seems to be her m. o. [modus operandi]” (368).

Paradoxically, Whedon and Petrie appear to disagree with respect to how they view threats represented by human monsters. Whedon admits that “people scare him,” the authors of The Monster Book reveal. “Terrify is the actual word he uses” (330). Petrie, on the other hand, in discussing the rogue slayer Faith, a human monster in her own right, says, “she’s not a stable girl, but a fun one” (368). In their commentary upon human monsters, the book’s authors resolve this paradox, perhaps, when they argue that, because of the number and variety of actual human monsters among us, fictional ones seem to be unnecessary:

There are so many people whose behavior is unnatural or inhuman that we need go no further to find our monsters. We don’t really need vampires or werewolves.

Or do we?

In a world where such real, visceral horrors are so disturbingly commonplace, horrors on the screen or the page may be more comforting than terrifying. We can close the book. We can turn of the television when the show is over. We have control. But in the real world, the show is never over. Nothing is more disturbing or monstrous than that (360-361).
That’s not a bad rationale for the genre.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Leftover Plots, Part V

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Plot Generator XY112G

One way to come up with ideas for short stories and novels is to steal--I mean, borrow--them from other writers. I write of this practice in earlier posts, “Leftover Plots,” parts I through IV. Those articles are more general than this one (and, possibly, future ones, which will focus specifically on the works of horror fiction’s current bad boy par excellence, Stephen King.

I’m not really going to tell anyone how to steal from King (or anybody else, for that matter), of course, because (a) stealing is wrong and ( b) plagiarism can be costly, to one’s reputation as well as to one’s purse.

However, ideas (like titles) cannot be copyrighted. They are free to anyone and everyone, which is why, for example, The Lost World (1925), Jurassic Park (1993), and 10,000 Years B. C. (2008) (or, for that matter, The Land Before Time [1988]), and many, many more movies about either dinosaurs or dinosaurs in conflict with human beings have been made. No doubt, many another will follow.

Often, horror writers throw off ideas for short stories and even other novels in the novels and screenplays that they write. The concepts sometimes fall like sparks from the tail of a fiery comet (or, at least, comets of the type that we generally see in science fiction movies and tend to imagine in the theaters of our minds). King’s novel, Desperation, suggests a few ideas that could become the bases for additional short stories or, perhaps, even novels. Others of his many works offer similar suggestions.

One of these ideas, the one that appeals most to me, is that of someone’s discovery of idols that might or might not be like the images of the false gods that King depicts in Desperation. If one devoted his or her story to only one (or a few) idols, their properties, and the results of human interaction with them, he or she would be apt to write a short story, but were he or she to consider a number of these false gods, their characteristics, and their effects on those who make contact with them, he or she might well produce a narrative of novel, or even epic, scope.

One’s development of this idea would, of course, have to be one’s own; otherwise, borrowing an idea would, in fact, likely become stealing a treatment of such an idea, or, in a word, plagiarism.

In his novel, King depicts his idols as being like “some kind of stone artifact,” and they have a decidedly sexual effect upon those who make contact with them, as Cynthia discovers when she touches one of the idols with “a tentative finger” and “her hips jerked forward as if she’d gotten an electric shock and her pelvis banged into the edge of a table,” making her blush (254-255). King’s omniscient narrator then describes the idol in more detail, indicating that it has an animal shape:

It was a rendering of what might have been a wolf or a coyote, and although it was crude, it had enough power to make them both forget, at least for a few seconds, that they were standing sixty feet from the leftovers of a mass murder. The beast’s head was twisted at a strange angle (a somehow hungry angle), and its eyeballs appeared to be starting out of their sockets in utter fury. Its snout was wildly out of proportion to its body--almost the snout of an alligator--and it was split open to show a jagged array of teeth. The statue, if that is what it was, had been broken off just below the chest. There were stumps of forelegs, but that was all. The stone was pitted and eroded with age. It was glittery n places, too, like the rocks collected in one of the Dandux baskets. . . .
“Look at its tongue,” Cynthia said in a strange, dreaming voice.

“What about it?’ [Steve asks]

“It’s a snake” (255).
The narrator’s description is vivid and detailed, allowing the reader to visualize the artifact readily, which makes the idol seem both more bizarre and, paradoxically, more realistic than it would be had the storyteller merely glossed over the strange artifact with a few adjectives or descriptive phrases.

The idols can make those who touch them experience orgasms; can make them forget their surroundings; and, readers learn a few pages later, can have a devastating effect upon their self-esteem. As Cynthia later tells Steve, when she touched the idol, “it seemed like I remembered every rotten thing that ever happened to me in my life,” and, she admits, its touch made her think of “sex. . . the dirtier the better” (318). Moreover, contact with the idols can spur its victims into acting upon these lusts, as both Cynthia and Steve find out soon enough.

There are other idols than the image of the wolf or the coyote:

He thought at first that there were three odd-looking charms lying in her open palm--the sort of thing girls sometimes wore dangling from their bracelets. But they were too big, too heavy. Not charms, but carvings, stone carvings, each about two inches long. One was a snake. The second was a buzzard with one wing chipped off. Mad, bulging eyes stared out at him from beneath its bald dome. The third was a rat on its hind legs. They all looked pitted and ancient (480).
The artifacts are obviously images of gods or demons, as they have inexplicable, supernatural effects upon those who come into contact with them. At the same time, however, they are tangible; they are material; they have concrete form. Made of stone, they are subject to the long-term effects of natural forces; they erode: they are “pitted and eroded with age,” and they appear “ancient.” Moreover, they can be “broken,” “chipped” and, presumably, destroyed. They have powerful effects upon the humans who make contact with them, but the artifacts are not invulnerable. The

Were another writer to write about such statues, he or she would have to do so in such a way as to make them his or her own creations, with properties different from those whitish King ascribes to his, and with effects that also differ from those that King’s false gods have upon those with whom the carvings come into contact. There are various ways to accomplish this task, which are better left to each individual to determine for him- or herself.

Another idea that spins off, so to speak, King’s novel is the creation of demons out of the whole cloth of one’s imagination rather than to embody such evil spirits on the basis of research concerning demonology. King’s demon is a spirit from another dimension, utterly dependent for incarnation upon possessing the bodies of other, corporeal beings, such as humans or animals. However, the demon’s metabolism is extremely fast, and it soon wears out the body of its host, so that it must possess another and another. His possession results in the deaths of the possessed, whose bodies thereafter enlarge, possibly in response to the greater demands upon the organs of Tak’s greater metabolic rate. Tak is able to exercise control over animals and insects through a power similar to telepathy. He is also able to project his power into the stone idols, or can tahs, that various characters discover in Desperation. When he possesses a human being, the body’s senses, strength, and natural abilities are heightened, although Tak can also perceive phenomena by other, extrasensory means, as when he is aware of the presence of a nameplate inside the Carvers’ recreational vehicle without entering the vehicle of looking through any of its windows (“Tak [Stephen King],” Wikipedia).

By imaging one’s demon (perhaps on the basis of one’s own inner demons or the problems and issues that best society), one is pretty much guaranteed an original creation. This approach is as wide open as one’s own ability to think outside the box of tradition. Where King creates Tak, you or I might create Tik or Paddywack in the same fashion, by using our own imagination or our knowledge of social problems, past or present, to envisioned to embody our own concepts of the demonic, creating one or more demons in our own image and likeness as a result, as King apparently did in writing of the idols in his novel.

Another provocative consideration is what might happen to animals that survive Tak’s telepathic influence? Would their exposure to the demon’s mind have a long-lasting, or even permanent, effect upon them, and, if so, what, exactly, might the animals change? Perhaps they would become monstrous versions of their previous selves, retaining the enhancements of their natural abilities that they experienced as Tak’s cognitive thralls. Would big game hunters ally themselves with demonologists or scientists to hunt down these demonic beasts and capture or kill them?

At the end of the novel, not much remains of the town of Desperation, but what if it--or, rather, another small town, elsewhere, that has experienced a similar catastrophe--remember, be inspired to borrow, not to steal, and make other writers’ ideas your own--were to be rebuilt? With its horrific past, could new horrors occur to the community’s children or grandchildren, a generation or two after the original calamity? King’s novel It suggests that such could easily be the case.

Could the demonic entity that destroyed your first town return to destroy another community? The answer is in King’s simultaneous, mirror-image release of a twin novel, The Regulators, which features many of the same characters as appear in Desperation, but living wholly different lives in a wholly different community.

Other of King’s noels suggest other ideas for additional stories or novels, which, possibly, I will consider in future posts, although not necessarily in a continuous order.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Sort of Man Reads "Playboy"

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

For half a century, Playboy magazine has defined its targeted audience in a page devoted to fashion and style, the contents of which answer the rhetorical question, “What sort of man reads Playboy?” According to this page, the Playboy reader is urbane, stylish, wealthy, single, and literate. He’s handsome, loves women, drives a convertible sports car, attends college (unless he’s already graduated), smokes cigars, drinks brandy, and has a thing for sweaters. Advertisers took note of this description, running full-page, full-color ads that pitched just such products to the bunny-loving sophisticate.

Until Penthouse debuted, focusing its appeal on the blue-collar worker, Esquire was one of Playboy’s biggest competitors. It focused mostly on fashion and literature, publishing fiction by such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Terry Southern. It also included some cheesecake art, including pinup art by George Petty (the “Petty Girls”) and Alberto Vargas (the “Vargas Girls”). Like Playboy and Penthouse, Esquire was chauvinistic and sexist, but popular among teenage and young adult males.

Women liked these magazines, too, for a different reason. Those who succeeded in appearing in their nude “pictorials” or as centerfolds were often exposed to opportunities in modeling or even acting, and quite a few celebrities owe their careers to appearances in such magazines, Playboy in particular. Being the subject of a pictorial or a centerfold was equivalent to having society stamp its seal of approval upon a young woman’s beauty and sexuality, making her, even more than a Miss America winner, a glamour girl.

Knowing the significance of artifacts of popular culture allows writers to characterize their characters simply by alluding to these objects, using them as props in a manner similar to that of product placement, which is the deliberate inclusion, in a conspicuous location, of a product in a filmed movie or television scene, in exchange for remuneration from its maker. For example, a character on a television situation comedy, or sitcom, might open his or her refrigerator door, thereby providing viewers a glimpse of the interior, well stocked with Pepsi, Coca-Cola, or some other soft drink.

Here’s an example of how an allusion to Playboy could be used to characterize a woman of fading youth and beauty:
The magazine cover showed Susan Willis naked, in all her glory--well, not quite all her glory; the set decorator had placed a caladium in a strategic location--lying languorously upon her desk, surrounded by the accoutrements of her vocation: a typewriter, a Dictaphone, a Rolodex, manila folders, and a calendar with a circled date. The photograph’s caption read, “Don’t forget to show her your appreciation on Secretary’s Day!” The implication, of course, was that the boss was having an affair with his personal secretary. Corny, Susan had thought, even twenty years ago, when her image had adorned the cover of the world’s most popular men’s magazine, thereby authenticating her beauty and confirming her sexuality, or “glamour,” as the industry had called that attribute in those days. Susan had tried hard, over the intervening years, to maintain that figure and that face, and, thanks to dieting, exercise, and a bit of nip and tuck, had mostly succeeded. She was a handsome woman at thirty eight. She’d never again be the glamorous girl she’d been then, though, except in the blown-up, framed photograph of that long-ago cover.
Magazines and other products have spent thousands, even millions, of dollars in marketing research to identify and analyze their customers and consumers in general. By analyzing their advertisements, a writer has a good idea of “what sort of man reads Playboy,” what sort of woman reads Good Housekeeping or Ms.; drinks Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Southern Comfort, or Jack Daniels; drives a Volvo, Toyota, or Rolls Royce; enrolls his or her children in a private school; and so on. By alluding to these products in a story, of the horror genre or otherwise, writers have a shorthand means of characterizing their characters. Of course, there should be additional characterization, through the characters’ dialogue and actions, but a reference to Playboy, Rolls Royce, Saab, or Chef Boyardee is a quick way to establish the basic tastes, values, and even, at times, mindset of characters.

Dean Koontz does so in his novels, although his allusions are to products and cultural artifacts that his typical reader is unlikely to be acquainted with. Stephen King, who once described his own style as “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries,” alludes to icons that are more in the domain of popular culture, letting his readers know that the author is one of their own (even if, as a multimillionaire he is not anymore). In the first three chapters of Desperation alone, King makes these references to popular culture:
  • Acura
  • Caprice
  • Sam Browne
  • Daisy canned ham
  • Bonny Raitt
  • Smokey Bear
  • Conoco
  • Rollerblades
  • Marlboro Man
  • Grateful Dead
  • Smiley-face keychain
Many others occur throughout the remainder of the 690-page novel.

While it is true that an author can overuse such allusions (and King probably tends to do so, not only in Desperation, but also in most of his other books and, indeed, short stories), a judicious use of such references, whether to high culture, low culture, or something between the two, is a handy, dandy way of inviting a particular type of reader into one’s fictional world and, at the same time, characterizing the dramatic personae who live and breathe and have their being in this imaginary world.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Total Institutions and Horror-as Metaphors

Copyrigh 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Many horror stories take place in total institutions. A total institution is a self-contained world that exists to fulfill a particular, specialized function. Examples of total institutions (and horror stories that take place in them) are boarding schools or military academies (Harold Becker's Taps), summer camps (William Butler’s Butterfly Revolution), colleges or universities (Bentley Little’s The Academy and The University), forts or military installations (Antonia Bird’s Ravenous), hospitals (Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital), hotels or motels (Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Stephen King’s The Shining), monasteries and convents (Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch), museums (Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Relic), nursing homes (James J. Murphy III’s The Nursing Home), orphanages (Guillermo Del Toro’s The Orphanage), prisons (Renny Harlin’s Prison), research facilities (H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau), resorts (Bentley Little’s The Resort), ships (Steve Beck’s Ghost Ship), spaceships (Alien), and summer camps (Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp).

Such stories’ settings tend already to be isolated or are relatively easy to cut off from larger society. In addition, as Wikipedia suggests, they may sometimes be appropriate for plots that involve “rites of passage and indoctrination” (“Total institution”).

In some cases, simply by setting a story in a total institution, the narrative or drama virtually writes itself.

To gain a better appreciation of the types of stories that are set in such places, let’s briefly review the plots of the novels and movies that I identified, parenthetically, as examples of stories that take place in the respective total institutions in my list.

Taps (1981): Military cadets take over Bunker Hill Academy when its owners decide to close the school, fending off the National Guard (for a while, at least).

The Butterfly Revolution (1961): Kids at a summer camp revolt against their adult counselors, killing one and taking over the camp, instituting a totalitarian government among themselves.

The Academy (2008): Bizarre changes to a school’s curriculum and day-to-day operation occur after the academy becomes a charter school.

The University
(1994): Odd doings take place at an institution of higher learning.

Ravenous (1999): Survival at Fort Spencer depends upon cannibalism.

Horror Hospital (1973): A scientist at a supposed health farm lobotomizes guests in an effort to transform them into zombies.

Psycho (1960): Norman Bates, who sometimes confuses himself with his mother, whom he has killed, dresses in her garb to commit murders so that she can keep Norman all to herself.

The Shining (1977): Jack Torrance comes under the influence of his own inner demons and the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel after he becomes its caretaker.

Season of the Witch (2010): During the Black plague, knights transport a suspected witch to a monastery so the monks can stop the pestilence.

Relic (1995): A monster roams New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, committing brutal murders.

The Orphanage (2007): When a woman returns to her childhood home, an orphanage that has become a home for disabled children, she discovers that a social worker who was employed there when she was a resident murdered several children, who appear to her as ghosts.

Prison (1988): The ghost of an innocent man, executed by electrocution, returns to avenge himself upon the prison’s warden.

The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896): A scientist on a remote island uses vivisection to transform animals into hybrid Beast Folk.

The Resort (2004): A family, vacationing at a desert resort in Arizona, is subjected to the bizarre behavior of employees and other guests and to horrific events that occur for no apparent reason.

Ghost Ship (2001): A demon disguised as a captain lures mariners and their passengers aboard his ghost ship, ferrying their souls to his masters.

Alien (1979): Responding to a distress call from a derelict spaceship, the crew of the commercial mining ship Nostromo encounters horrific extraterrestrial creatures.

Sleepaway Camp (1983): Violence and death ensue the arrival of shy Angela Baker at Camp Arawak.

Another way to generate horror story plots is to be inspired by possible themes rather than by possible settings. Several metaphors compare life to some other sphere of human activity:
  • Life is an adventure
  • Life is a dream
  • Life is a gamble
  • Life is a game
  • Life is a journey
  • Life is a puzzle
  • Life is a test
These metaphors suggest ways to develop horror plots. Simply substitute “horror” for life and see what this substitution suggests. Existing novels or movies provide examples. Many of James Rollins’ horror novels involve clandestine government or secret scientific adventures: Subterranean (1999), Excavation (2000), Deep Fathom (2001), Amazonia (2002), Ice Hunt (2003), Altar of Eden (2009). Horror as adventure suggests that there are fabulous places still to be found in the remote corners of the earth and that human beings are not in as much control of their environment as they may believe, and they involve slam-bam action from beginning to end, much of which, of course, includes horror. Likewise, such movies as Anaconda (1997), Arachnophobia (1990), and The Descent (2005), to name but a few, qualify as adventure-horror movies.

“Horror is a dream” could well have inspired A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its sequels, and H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, “The Dreams in the Witch House” (1933) is based upon the nightmares that a university student has while he rooms at the Witch House in Arkham, Massachusetts. An episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Nightmares” (1997), is also based upon a character’s bad dreams of an abusive Little League coach which spill over into the lives of others, including Buffy and her friends.

“Horror is a gamble” might well have suggested Edgar Allan Poe’s short satirical story, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” in which a character does just this, and, as a result, meets with “what might be termed a serious injury.” Although the story is a satire, it obviously contains an element of horror. Thirteen Ghosts (2001) also involves gambling. One of the ghosts, known as The Torso, is of a gambler who tried to renege on a bet and was dismembered, decapitated, and tossed into the ocean.

The Saw series (2004-2010 and counting) of horror movies is based on the metaphor that “horror is a game.” The captive characters will live or die according to whether the follow what their captor refers to as the “rules” of the “game” that the prisoners, like it or not, must play. The prototype for this storyline, it seems, is Richard Connell’s “The Hounds of Zaroff,” which was also published as “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924): a jaded Russian aristocrat hunts a big game hunter on a Caribbean island. Several film adaptations of this story have been made, including The Most Dangerous Game (1932), Bloodlust! ( 1961), Predator (1987), Deadly Prey (1988), Hard Target (1993), Naked Fear (2005), Battle Royale (2000), and others.

Horror stories in which a journey or an expedition underlies the plot can be thought of as examples of the “horror is a journey” metaphor. To some extent, this type of plot may overlap the “horror is an adventure” storyline. Examples include The Thing from Another World (1951, a film by Howard Hawkes, based upon John W. Campbell, Jr.‘s short story, “Who Goes There?“ (1938); Dan Simmons’ The Terror (2007); and Dean Koontz’s Icebound (1995).

Horror stories that confront readers or audiences with clues to puzzles that must be solved if the characters are to survive are based upon the idea that “horror is a puzzle.” In a sense, most horror stories tends to be puzzles or mysteries that the protagonists must solve if they are to avert catastrophe and survive the menace that threatens them and their communities, nations, or worlds. In horror-as-a-puzzle storylines, however, the puzzle or the mystery is explicitly stated and the object (to solve the puzzle or the mystery) is paramount to the plot. According to this definition, Hellraiser (1987) is only ostensibly a horror-as-a-puzzle film, because, although its Rubik’s Cube-type puzzle box is intrinsic to the plot, it isn’t solved by discovering and interpreting clues but by physical manipulation of its surfaces. The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971): Inspector Trout, of Scotland Yard, seeks to discover the method behind the madness of Dr. Phibes, an organist who employs modern versions of the ten plagues against Egypt chronicled in the book of Exodus to dispatch the surgeons who (Dr. Phibes believes) botched an operation that caused the death of his wife. Theatre of Blood (1973) uses a similar plot device: Edward Kendall Sheridan Lionheart, a celebrated Shakespearean actor avenges himself upon his critics my murdering them according to the ways in which the characters in the plays in which he had roles during the last season of his career died. Each of these characters represents one of the seven deadly sins and is dispatched in a manner fitting to the vice that he or she represents. Like the police who investigate the murders, the members of the audience are invited, if only implicitly, to discover and interpret clues, based upon Shakespeare’s plays, as to whom Lionheart will kill next and in what manner he will do so.

The metaphor that compares life (or, in my reformulation, horror) to a test suggests that the protagonist will be in some way examined and, to successfully complete the test to which he or she is put (and thereby continue to live), he or she must provide the correct answers to the questions to be asked. He or she may or may not be given the questions in advance. An early example of this type of storyline is The Canterbury Tales’ “Wife of Bath’s Tale,” in which a knight, having ravished an innocent maiden, is given the opportunity to redeem himself from the death sentence that the queen passes upon him for this dastardly deed by returning from a year-long quest to find the correct answer to the question of what women want most. If he succeeds, he lives; if he fails, he dies. Unwittingly, George Bernard Shaw suggests a storyline for a more contemporary horror novel or movie based upon the metaphor of “horror is a test”: he suggests that, periodically, citizens should be compelled to justify their existence by recounting to a council the deeds that they have done of late to benefit society; those unable to do so would be euthanized. To my knowledge, no one has written this story, but it is a possibility. The Beast Must Die (1974) is an interesting takeoff on this metaphor, in which the protagonist is a hunter who tests the efficacy of a security center. The center passes the test, when the hunter is unable to find any security weaknesses to exploit, and then the true trouble gets underway when one of the party who attends the test transforms into a werewolf. The party must submit to various tests to determine which of them is the werewolf. Toward the end of the movie, during a short break, the audience is invited to identify the werewolf, based upon the clues and tests that have been provided during the film.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Protagonist as Leader

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

From the earliest days, since the time that the theory of the four humours was popular among ancient shrinks, the concept of personality types has been popular with psychiatrists and psychologists, and, indeed, the idea that human beings can be pigeonholed as this, that, or the other type of personality remains attractive to some social scientists even today.

One such personality type, they contend, is the leader, who is said to demonstrate specific character traits, or qualities, among which are intelligence, the ability to adjust, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and general self-efficacy (“Leadership,” Wikipedia). Others identify various other traits, among which, according to “Leadership Theories and Summary”), the “central” ones are intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability. The matter is much more complex, of course (what isn’t?), but this is the gist of it, as leadership theory relates to personality traits.

The protagonist of a horror story, short or long, is typically a leader and, therefore, he or she will, according to psychology, demonstrate the qualities just mentioned. Let’s consider a few examples of horror fiction protagonists. Do they fill the bill?

David Carver is the protagonist of Stephen King’s Desperation. He’s not one’s typical protagonist; he’s chosen by God Himself to lead the ragtag band of survivors and near-survivors against the demon Tak. To me, he seems intelligent, but not overly so. He is certainly able to adjust to changing situations and shifting responsibilities. He doesn’t appear all that extroverted, but, then, on the other hand, he doesn’t seem all that introverted, either. He is definitely conscientious. Open to experience? Nothing suggests that he isn’t, but he doesn’t seem to seek out new experiences, either. Does he demonstrate self-efficacy? Yes and no: he is willing to obey God, but he doesn’t act of his own accord. He does what he is told to do, and he is willing to allow others to take the lead on occasion. His self-confidence ebbs and flows (as whose wouldn’t who is called to face a demon?). He is definitely a determined soul, and he has integrity to spare.

How does Father Damien Karras, of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, stand up as a leader? Since he is a priest, the reader must assume that he, too, is called by God, for Catholics believe that one is called to the priesthood: he does not choose, but is chosen. Intelligent? Yes, but not more than average, perhaps. Able to adjust to changing situations and expectations? Pretty much. Extroverted? No. Open to experience? Hard to say. Does he demonstrate self-efficacy? He depends more on his mentor, Father Lankester Merrin, and upon God than he does upon himself, although he does take it upon himself to jump out of Regan MacNeil’s bedroom window, sacrificing his life for hers, at the end of the story, so, to that extent, perhaps he demonstrates some self-efficacy. He appears to have little self-confidence, although he shows determination and integrity, despite his crisis of faith.

Like David Carver, Father Karras seems to have some of the traits that psychologists claim a leader must have, but not others. Nevertheless, God has apparently selected him as a leader.

What about Moses, who, at an advanced age, was called by God to lead the ancient Hebrews out of bondage to the Egyptians? Moses does not seem especially intelligent, although he is certainly not stupid. He sometimes has trouble adapting to change. He may be extroverted (or not). He is usually not open to experience: he does not want to be a leader, and he is angry at his people when they began to worship the golden calf instead of Jehovah. He has little self-efficacy, distrusting even his speaking ability and his other abilities in general because of his advanced age. He does appear, at times, to have a fair degree of self-confidence, as might be expected of a high member of pharaoh’s court. He is definitely determined, refusing to take pharaoh’s “no” for an answer, and he is willing to wander about in the desert for forty years, seeking the Promised Land. He is certainly a man of integrity.

Once again, as in the cases of David Carver and Father Karras, Moses appears to possess some, but not other, leadership qualities, but, even so, he accomplishes his mission, where others would be likely to fail.

Let’s conclude our musings upon the psychological theories of leadership qualities with a consideration of Satan, who some scholars contend is the true hero of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He seems to possess all the qualities of leadership but integrity (the religious would probably add, as a necessary leadership trait, faith in God, so I likewise include it in my consideration); obviously, Satan lacks this quality as well.

Psychiatrists and psychologists who enjoy playing the personality traits game might argue that one need not possess all of the qualities of leadership to be a leader or, perhaps, that one is a more or less effective leader, depending upon the number of leadership qualities that he or she does possess. Such thinkers usually argue from a secular, rather than a religious, perspective, of course, which is a point of view that does not consider theological alternatives.

The Bible’s stories of heroism tend to suggest that God expects faith, or imputed “righteousness,” and integrity, which may be defined, in this context, as the willingness to obey divine commands, more than He demands any other qualities, being more than able Himself to supply whatever those whom He chooses to lead may lack. Indeed, traditionally, He has chosen the weaker, or even the weakest, vessel as his instrument, pouring His Holy Spirit into them so that, in His name and for His sake, they can work miracles, perhaps to demonstrate that it is He, and not those whom He calls, who actually gets the job done.

If a story features a secular protagonist, he or she should be expected to rely upon him- or herself, and, it may be argued, may be more likely to achieve his or her goals if he or she has more, rather than fewer, of the leadership skills that trait theorists have identified, whereas, if a story features a religious protagonist, he or she may well succeed in spite of not having many of these traits, since it is God, presumably, who is acting within and through such a vessel or instrument.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Charles Fort

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

At the age of 42, Charles Fort inherited a small fortune from an uncle, which allowed him to quit work and pursue his hobby full time. A year later, his brother Clarence died, and Clarence’s portion of the inheritance was divided equally between Charles and his other brother, Raymond. Charles’ hobby was unusual, especially in 1916, the year that he first inherited his money. Although he wrote ten novels, only one was modestly successful.

Perhaps this lack of success in writing fiction is what caused him to turn his hand to nonfiction. He wrote a series of books in which he recorded bizarre incidents which, today, would be characterized as either paranormal or supernatural in nature. Among such incidents were reports he read in various world-class libraries of rains of frogs, snakes, and other animals; strange disappearances of people; visitations of ghosts and apparitions; unidentified flying objects; mysterious lights in the sky; the occurrence of spontaneous human combustion; and appearances of unlikely breasts.

Recounting reports of such phenomena in The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents, Fort also formulated absurd theories to account for these objects, events, and experiences. His theories were not intended to be taken seriously--or, at least, not any more so than he believed anyone should take scientific theories. The fact that science was unable to explain such phenomena as those he recounted and, indeed, rejected them, suggested to Fort that science was limited in its ability to interpret reality and, consequently, did not deserve the nearly unlimited credit and honor that it arrogantly claimed for itself and its practitioners.

For example, Fort attributed many mysterious incidents to a visitation of extraterrestrial space travelers to the Earth or to their being stranded in a gigantic Sargasso Sea that orbited the planet, occasionally spilling one or another strange artifact upon the Earth. He likewise suggested that Martians were controlling events on Earth. These theories, he claimed, tongue in cheek, had as much explanatory value as (and possibly more than) scientific theories that rejected inconvenient facts as “damned.” He compiled such data, rather than reject it out of hand, in The Book of the Damned and subsequent volumes of different titles. Today, The Fortean Society, named in his honor, continues his work, publishing its results in the Fortean Times.

Admittedly, Fort was something of a crackpot who didn’t fit well into the society--or the science--of his day and is, as such, an interesting person in his own right, but why is he interesting to readers of Chillers and Thrillers, who are concerned with the theory and practice of writing horror stories?

I think he is of interest to such readers for at least two reasons. First, many of the phenomena that he identifies could serve as the inciting moment, or launch pad, for a horror story or novel. Assume that human flesh rains down upon the earth from a dark, overcast sky, as, according to Fort, it did on more than one occasion. Why? What caused such an unlikely event? Or why did fish or snakes suddenly fall from the heavens? The answers to such unusual questions should suggest some unusual possibilities, some of which might be horrific, indeed! (As I have already suggested, many of these same incidents could easily be the catalyst for a story as well.)

Second, Fort’s invention of theories suggests that a writer whose work includes bizarre incidents must have a theory that finally explains the origin, the cause, and the nature of these incidents, bizarre though they may be. Stephen King claims that he didn’t think he had to include an explanation of the remarkable events that unfold in his work, but, he says, his readers let him know, in no uncertain terms, that, yes, by God, he did have to explain himself. In Under the Dome, King offers multiple possibilities for the origin and the nature of the transparent barrier that descends over Chester’s Mill, Maine: aliens, rogue scientists, foreign terrorists are among these possibilities. The strangest (and, for me, the most intriguing) is that the dome might itself be a living organism of some sort. Outlandish? Perhaps, as Fort’s theories certainly were, probably by design. However, the very absurdity of Fort’s theories remind the writer of horror stories to offer a cause or a reason by which the bizarre incidents of his or her novel may be understood.

It is advisable for writers to acquaint themselves with criticism of Fort, too, of course, so as to have a balanced perspective regarding him and his work, and The Skeptic’s Dictionary helps in this regard, concluding, regarding Fort:

Fort was skeptical about scientific explanations because scientists sometimes argue "according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence" and they suppress or ignore inconvenient data. He seems to have understood that scientific theories are models, not pictures, of reality, but he considered them to be little more than superstitions and myths. He seems to have had a profound misunderstanding of the nature of scientific theories. For, he criticized them for not being able to accommodate anomalies and for requiring data to fit. He took particular delight when scientists made incorrect predictions and he attacked what he called the "priestcraft" of science. Fort seems to have been opposed to science as it really is: fallible, human and tentative, after probabilities rather than absolute certainties. He seems to have thought that since science is not infallible, any theory is as good as any other.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plotting the Horror Story: Lessons from Poe, King, and Koontz

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

As I mentioned in my “‘The Philosophy of Composition’ and ‘The Red Room’” article, Edgar Allan Poe argues that a writer shouldn’t write anything at all until he or she knows how his or her story (or poem) will end and, in fact, should plot the narrative backward, from the ending to the beginning, so that he or she is able to maximize the impact of the story’s emotional effect. This is sound advice, but, for many aspiring writers, it poses a difficult question: how, precisely, would a writer know how to write a story backward, as it were?

I certainly wouldn’t challenge the advice of a writer of Poe’s stature. Among horror writers, he is in class by himself, a true master among masters. Not even today’s maestro, Stephen King, whose output dwarfs Poe’s own work, measures up against Poe.

What I am prepared to do, though, is to offer two other, alternative methods of plotting horror fiction. One is based upon my analysis of King’s work--or, at least, my analysis of a few of King’s novels. I believe that this alternative approach can suit today’s writers, whether of horror or another genre of fiction, well.

Let’s consider a novel that has been the topic of quite a few of my own recent posts to Chillers and Thrillers: Under the Dome. The evil that takes place in this story occurs as the result of the descent of a transparent dome, or barrier, that cuts off a small town in Maine, Chester’s Mill, from the rest of the United States and, indeed, the world. The wickedness ends when the dome is lifted. What comes down must go up. This is the basis of the alternative method of ending stories that I mentioned. Not down and up (or even up and down, for that matter) per se, but a pair--any pair--of binary opposites: down/up, left/right, start/stop, right/wrong, good/evil. . . you name them

We tend to think in dualities, ordering reality according to a twofold structure of opposite categories, traits, or values. Of course, such a structure is far too simplistic and, therefore, erroneous. There is always a middle ground, always a great many shades of gray between the extremes of black and white.

King is aware of this, of course, and his novel takes advantage of the simplicity of the duality of dome-down/dome up. First, the military tries to destroy the dome by launching two Cruise missiles against the barrier. When this tactic fails, the brass douses the dome with an experimental acid that is capable of penetrating solid rock. Again, the attack fails. The dome remains in place, unharmed. It is only when Julia Shumway persuades the adolescent extraterrestrial female who has set the dome in place to remove it that the barrier is taken away.

In Desperation, King uses another pair of opposites to structure his problem-solution plot. The demon Tak escapes from a caved-in mine which is opened by a local mining company. He wrecks havoc until the mine is closed again. The dichotomy: open (mine)/closed (mine). The horror and terror and evil and pain and suffering takes place between these two polarities. Again, a duality (open/close) is used to structure the novel’s plot.

Any duality can become the basis of a plot, and using the array of points between the extremes of the continuum, the writer can create the middle of his or her story, creating suspense while, at the same time, disguising the fact that the end of the story will be based upon the opposite of the continuum with which the narrative began.

Let’s look at one additional example. The novel Insomnia is based upon the extremes of sleeplessness (insomnia) and eternal rest (death). At the story’s outset (and throughout the rest of the narrative, until the end), the protagonist is unable to sleep. He begins to see things from another dimension, and discovers that beings from this alternate universe seek to kill a woman; by sacrificing himself, he prevents the woman from being killed. The story that started with his inability to sleep ends with his death, or eternal rest. Once again, a duality (insomnia/death, in the sense of eternal rest) is used to structure one of King’s narratives, the middle of which is taken up by the conflict between two adversaries from the alternate dimension, who vie for the woman’s life.

It seems odd that a novel--especially a novel as long and seemingly complex as King’s--could be based upon such a simple--indeed, simplistic--duality of extremes or opposites, but Under the Dome, Desperation, and Insomnia show, as do several other of King’s books, that such is the case.

Finally, Dean Koontz’s novel The Taking illustrates the second alternative method of beginning and ending a novel to that which Poe suggests in “The Philosophy of Composition.” I have mentioned this technique in a previous post, calling it the bait-and-switch approach. The writer suggests that a story will end in a particular fashion, but, using situational irony, surprises the reader by ending the narrative in a different, unexpected, but appropriate fashion. Koontz suggests that the bizarre doings in The Taking are due to a reverse-terraforming of the planet Earth by invading extraterrestrials who seek to make the hostile Earth habitable for their fellow aliens. Instead, the extraterrestrials turn out to be Satan and his angels.

Although Poe’s prescription for writing horror stories (plot backward from the end to the beginning so as to maximize the narrative’s emotional effect) is a superior method of storytelling, the ones exemplified in several of the works of King, such as Under the Dome, Desperation, and Insomnia, and the one that Koontz’s fiction, including The Taking, illustrate, are alternatives that can work and are much less demanding upon the writer than Poe’s approach.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Quick Tip: Make Your Villains Both Timely and Timeless, Both Particular and Universal

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

The nature of a monster is determined partly by the sociopolitical and cultural milieu of its time. It is also determined, in part, by the group of individuals for whom it is an embodiment of one or another fear. For example, the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel and the Dracula who appears in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer share the same name and, ostensibly, at least, the same aristocratic and historical backgrounds, but the medieval Dracula is an altogether different vampire than his modern counterpart. Likewise, the invisible man, a scientist named Griffin, who appears in H. G. Wells’ novel, is motivated first by an ambition to make a name for himself, then by theft, and finally by revenge for his old mentor’s betrayal of him, whereas the invisible teenage girl, Marcie Ross, in the “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” episode of Buffy is motivated strictly by revenge : she wants to settle the score with those of her fellow students who have ignored or ridiculed her throughout her school years.

The monster, in other words, reflects the background of its times. Writers retool their villainous fiends and ogres so that they are representatives of the periods that help to spawn them. Since Buffy is a bildungsroman, or a story concerning “the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character,” as Yahoo! Education’s dictionary feature defines this term, its monsters tend to reflect the moral, emotional, and philosophical problems and issues that typically confront teenagers and young adults. As the series creator, Joss Whedon, himself puts it, “The show is designed to . . . work on the mythic structure of a hero’s journey. Just to reframe that as the growth of an adolescent girl. . . . The things she has to go through--losing her virginity, dying and coming back to life--are meant to be mythic, and yet they’re meant to be extremely personal” (The Monster Book viii)

Dreams are a good source for obtaining customized monsters. Because no two individuals are the same, their dreams will differ from one another, even when they are about the same general topic, such as vampires or ghosts, and each individual dreamer will project his or her own attitudes, beliefs, emotions, thoughts, and values onto the monsters that he or she creates in his or her dreams. In other words, such nightmarish creatures will reflect the anxieties, insecurities, fears, and worries of the man, woman, boy, or girl who creates these monsters. If monsters are projections of unconscious feelings, they must and will differ with respect to the particular unconscious in which they are rooted and from which they arise. Therefore, in this sense, they will be novel and original.

As individuals, though, no one exists in a vacuum. As John Donne wrote, no one is “an island.” In countless ways, each day we affect one another, as our common culture, language, and society suggests. Therefore, the monsters that any one of us creates in his or her nightmares, while rooted in and arising from his or her own unconscious mind, is also rooted in and arises from the common experience of his or her nation, culture, and species. The monsters that we make are both particular and universal. They are timely when we apply them to our own time and the current events of our day; yet, they also remain timeless, because the hopes and fears of humanity are not those of any particular time and place, but of all times and all places.

Nevertheless, by letting ourselves be inspired, and even guided, to some extent, by, our nightmares, we can render the representations and reflections of our own personal fears and those of our own particular day and age in such a way that the worn and tattered monster is retooled and renewed yet again. . . and again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Horror Comics

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Not only Stephen King, but also Joss Whedon and many other writers of horror fiction cite horror comic books as inspirational to their own work, especially during such writers’ earlier years.

As a youngster, I must confess that I, too, enjoyed these tawdry, garish periodicals. Sold alongside comics devoted to “funny animals,” superheroes, crime detection, Western heroes, romance, and even classic literature, horror comics were the bad boys of juvenilia, the ones that even kids knew weren’t all that respectable and tended to keep separate from their collections of DC and Marvel.

Horror comics were popular, though, no doubt about it, and with millions of others besides King and Whedon. What made them so were blood and gore and monsters, depicted in all their ghastly glory, of course, and the bizarre and macabre stories they told, but, more than anything else, it was the reader’s own imagination that chilled and thrilled him or her (mostly him; girls seemed to prefer romance and comedy titles).

The titles suggested the appeal of these comics: Adventures into Weird Worlds, Astonishing Tales of the Night, Baffling Mysteries, Terror Tales, Weird Monsters Unleashed, Monster Hunters, Tales of Terror, Chamber of Chills, The Haunt of Fear, Stories to Hold You Spellbound, Startling Terror, Weird Chills, Worlds of Fear: these narratives, told as much, maybe more, in pictures than in words, promised to transport the reader into new “worlds” that were “weird,” “astonishing,” “baffling,” and full of horror, suspense, and fear. Gone would be the mundane world of school, chores, church, sibling nuisances and rivals, bullies, and parents telling one what to do, to be replaced with wonder, mystery, adventure, chills, and thrills.

Like many others, horror writers have developed rationales for why people enjoy being scared out of their wits, probably in response to challenges from literary critics and others, demanding a justification for such fare beyond the “art for art’s sake” line. King offers an Aristotelian argument, contending that horror fiction exorcises the demons within the reader by letting him or her (mostly him) play the role of the monster or, at least, seeing the effects of the monstrosity that he himself often feels within, when it is permitted to go unrestrained. They are pleasant, perhaps, all that blood and all those guts, but they are cathartic as well. There is some truth, perhaps, in this Aristotelian explanation.

Whedon also offers a justification for his work, which, more often than not, is steeped in horror. His rationale for horror is along the lines of the argument that Bruno Bettelheim advances in The Uses of Enchantment:

I think there’s a lot of people. . . who say we must not have horror in any form, we must not say scary things to children because it will make them evil and disturbed. . . . . That offends me deeply because the world is a scary and terrifying place, and everyone is going to get old and die, if they’re that lucky. To set children up to think that everything is sunshine and roses is doing them a great disservice. Children need horror because there are things they don’t understand. It helps them to codify it if it is mythologized, if it’s put into the context of a story, whether the story has a happy ending or not. If it scares them and shows them a bit of the dark side of the world that is there and always will be, it’s helping them out when they have to face it as adults (The Monster Book, viii).
There is some truth, too, perhaps, in this explanation.

In previous posts, I have offered my own ideas concerning the reasons for the appeal of horror fiction, so I won’t repeat them here. For those who may be interested, these essays are available in Chillers and Thrillers' massive, ever-growing archives.

Back to the topic at hand, though: horror comics.

As anyone who has ever seen a tyke cowering behind the leg of his or her mother knows, for children, strangers are threatening. This is interesting, I think, because the same toddler who shrinks from a stranger will pick up a snake without the qualms that many an adult shows in handling serpents. As boys, my brothers and I frequently carried box turtles, garter snakes, and frogs with us in our pockets and sought to snare salamanders near a neighbor’s creek, although strangers were regarded as likely demons in human guise. Although, in more recent times, xenophobia has become increasingly politically incorrect, the fear of strangers seems innate, or inborn. Can nature or God be wrong?

Certainly not from the viewpoint of the cowering toddler--or of horror comics. The monster, especially when it is reptilian, insect (the word is both a noun and an adjective, for those who haven’t studied entomology or, for that matter, etymology), or alien (as in extraterrestrial), frequently represents the other who is not only “other” but who is also foreign and, therefore, unknown. Those about whom we have little, if any, knowledge are regarded as threats (it’s better to be safe than sorry) until we learn their intentions and their hearts. This may be a politically incorrect stance, but it’s helped us to survive for millennia and isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Besides, whether the monster in horror comics is equipped with tentacles, a seaweed mustache and beard, bony plates, horns, claws, insect parts, wings, or all of the above or is more human, but repulsive (an animated skeleton, for example, or a rotting, but somehow still living, corpse), it’s apt to be just as terrifying, unpredictable, and dangerous as the children within us have imagined strangers may be.

Like most subjects, horror fiction is divisible into stories about persons places, and things.

If the monster is the person, the setting is the place, and unfamiliar places are regarded with the same wary mistrust as strangers. Who knows what may lie waiting to ambush us in the dark recesses of an underground cave; among the thick, tall trees of an ancient forest; at the bottom of the murky sea; on far-flung, alien planets; or in any of the other fantastic and mysterious worlds promised in the titles of many horror comics and suggested in the artwork that adorns these periodicals’ covers and the pages within?

Things (or artifacts) also appear in horror comics. As anyone who’s watched the hit Syfy TV series Warehouse 13 knows, such artifacts are everywhere, and many are dangerous in the extreme--and Secret Service agents Myka Bering and Peter Lattimer haven’t located and stored them all for safekeeping yet. There are more, maybe many more, out there, waiting, as it were, to injure and maybe even kill the unsuspecting and the uniformed.

The themes of horror comics are often as simple and straightforward as the tales themselves that these publications tell: bad things happen to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, a little beauty of the feminine kind can be a dangerous thing (it tends to attract actual monsters as well as human wolves), a little beauty of the feminine kind can be a dangerous thing (it can get a guy killed), beauty (feminine or otherwise) can be seductive in a bad way, curiosity can kill more than just the cat, there’s no age restriction on potential victims as far as homicidal maniacs are concerned, a trusted and seemingly harmless friend (such as a toy) can turn on one, isolating oneself from the rest of the group is dangerous unless one is a lone wolf, religious faith (often in the shape of a cross) can deliver a believer from evil (and otherwise certain death), there are “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy” (dear Horatio), and creatures of the night are often in need of dental care and a good manicure. Horror comics tell cautionary tales, and there are quite a few to be told. Both King and Whedon admit that just about everything scared or scares them; the same is true of children (and many adults), as horror comic writers and illustrators were fully aware.

A few covers surprise the reader with visual allusions to the occult or classic literature (or, at least, classics of horror). Doorway to Nightmare 2, for example, includes the tarot deck’s Devil card, which features an image of a demon that looks suspiciously like Baphomet, and Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula., and even Cthulhu are frequent guest stars in horror comics.

As mentioned, boys more than girls, read horror comics, and the creators of these publications were aware of the demographics of their readers, which explains not only the sexism of the femme fatale and the seductive siren characters that frequent the pages of horror comics’ storylines but also the scantily clad beauties who grace their covers (usually in the company of a menacing monster). Even when climate or weather or atmospheric conditions do not warrant her doing so, the damsel in distress is likely to be clad in nothing more than a short, clinging dress with a low, low, low-cut neckline; a bikini; or, in some cases, only her birthday suit. Monsters had good taste in (and a hearty appetite for) women, and the imperiled ladies, no doubt, aroused the chivalry (among other things) in the boys who read such fare.

Moreover, the covers seem to issue a challenge to their adolescent male readers: Here is a lady in distress; are you man enough to rescue her? By introducing just a hint of sexuality, horror comics also seemed to prepare boys for a role that they would play as men that has nothing to do with slaying monsters, except that, for boys, women are monsters, an alien species with cooties that may be glamorous and alluring but one that is also something strange and unknown and, therefore, to be feared, until, that is, the humanity beneath the imagined scales and behind the make-believe glowing eyes and razor fangs can be rescued, accepted, known, and, finally, cherished, not only as human but as, indeed, one’s better half.

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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