Fascinating lists!

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.


lazlo azavaar said...

Hey Gary, me again. The George Bernard Shaw one you mentioned reminds me of an old Twilight Zone episode. I don't remember the title (not very helpful, sorry), but it starred Burgess Meredeth as a librarian in a futuristic (and fascistic) setting where his vocation is of no use any longer (suggesting that no one reads anything anymore, other than the party line). He is found "not useful" by his inquisitor (played by Fritz Weaver), the penalty for such is elimination.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Wow! Talk about art imitating life (or vice versa)!

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.

Popular Posts