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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.


lazlo azavaar said...

Fantastic post, Gary! As scary as Ted Bundy's rebellion against what he terms "value judgements" is, let us not forget that much of modern media has been engaged for the last few decades in a war against morals and "value judgements". So, why are we surprised that society is producing monsters? Does anyone think the coarsening of our society is gonna end well?

Gary L. Pullman said...

Your comment is better than my post, Lazlo. Right on target!

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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