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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Heads Will Roll

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


According to Wikipedia’s article concerning the event, “the scientific revolution began with the publication of two works that changed the course of science in 1543 and continued through the late 17th century: Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and Andreas Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body (“Scientific Revolution”).

Before then, and even as late as the early twentieth century, the supernatural realm often served as the basis for horror stories, novels, and films. Gradually, the principles of science replaced the tenets of theology and the mad scientist replaced the mystic in such fiction. Whereas, before the scientific revolution, what occurred among the heavenly powers, both fallen and steadfast, determined human affairs, afterward, as Shakespeare argues, “he fault” began to lie more “in ourselves” than in “the stars.”

Nature, rather than the supernatural realm, became, more and more, the stage for human affairs and the human being him- or herself, rather than God or demons, increasingly became the actor upon this stage. In horror, ghosts, werewolves, witches, and vampires became less frequent villains (and less respected ones) than mad scientists, just as technology replaced magic. Where creatures such as zombies persisted, scientific, rather than mystical, explanations were offered by authors and filmmakers to explain their origin. Perhaps they were nothing more than human beings who had had the misfortune to have been infected by a bizarre virus or were victims of unscrupulous “witch doctors” who employed a mixture of “tetrodotoxin, a powerful hallucinogen called Datura, and cultural forces and beliefs” to convince uneducated and illiterate men and women that they had been resurrected from the dead and now owed their allegiance to the witch doctors who had performed this miraculous feat (“The Serpent and the Rainbow (book),” Wikipedia). In short, the change from mysticism to science fiction, or from faith to knowledge, as the primary basis for horror fiction is not accidental; it stems from the change in Western culture’s Weltanschauung.

In the past, humans were in danger of losing their souls and becoming demonic parodies of their true selves (images of God), damned forever to hell. With the general acceptance among scientists of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, human beings might fall victim, instead, to the animal nature within, which they had suppressed, more or less successfully, over the millennia since the first human beings emerged from their original, primordial ape-like ancestors. Since the industrial revolution, people have feared their affinity, as so-called ghosts in the machine (of the human body), to automatons, with cyborgs and robots replacing feral creatures as symbolic expressions of human degeneration. In the information, or computer, age, men and women fear that even their very personalities may be replaced by software encoded with artificial intelligence.

The theological has given way to the evolutionary, which has given way to the mechanical, which has given way to the digital or cybernetic. At each point, men and women have become both less and less fleshly and human and more and more incorporeal and inhuman, alienated, literally and figuratively, from both themselves and their world. Such stories (plays, novels, television series, or films) as Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604), H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), the televisions series The Six Million Dollar Man (1970s), and Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973), upon which Donald Cammell’s film adaptation of the same title (1977) is based.

Although utopian fiction sometimes projects a paradisiacal future civilization based upon the scientific pursuit of knowledge and the technological inventions that often results from such a pursuit, horror fiction that is based upon science (or, more often, science fiction) has frequently opposed such an optimistic vision, showing that science, as an invention and enterprise of human origin, is, at best, a morally neutral activity, its beneficial or destructive effects being determined by the scientists (and, more often, the corporations or government agencies that underwrite the scientists’ work).

Horror writers generally take a dim view of human nature, considering it to be corrupted or corruptible, limited, fallible, and, perhaps, even innately evil. Edgar Allan Poe sums up the general view of horror writers as much today as he did in the nineteenth century: “I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. an is now only more active---not more happy--or more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Often, horror stories tend to be cautionary tales in which the object to be feared is not the mythical box of Pandora but the manipulation of nature, human and otherwise, for individual scientist’s own gain or as a means to the government’s end, which is usually, world domination or the control of nature itself, as H. G. Wells warned: “Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him.”


In horror, science has given birth, as it were, to such terrors as aliens; cloned dinosaurs, psychotic cyborgs; disease and pestilence; gigantic plants, insects, and animals; human-animal hybrids; renegade robots; mad scientists; serial killers; super-soldiers; and a host of other menaces representative of the dangers of runaway technology or the application of science without concern for morality; the lust for political, military, or financial power at any cost; and just plain old human hubris. We can’t blame God or nature; as Shakespeare taught us, “The fault. . . lies not in our stars but in ourselves.” The attempt to avoid blame for our own cruelty, stupidity, greed, and callous indifference to anyone but ourselves that was evident in evolutionists’ insistence that we are to expect some such behavior as natural and normal, since, after all, imperfect and fallible human beings are evolving from lower life forms may be logically sound, should one accept the basic primitive that human beings are evolving in such a fashion, but horror writers don’t let their characters off the hook as easily as that, insisting, instead, that a price--and often a brutal one and a collective one--be paid in blood and guts and fear.

Horror fiction is one of the few remaining genres that seeks to hold humanity accountable for its actions toward one another and toward nature itself. Perhaps human behavior is determined, rather than elective, but, even if it is, a price must be paid for immoral or amoral behavior. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense to punish people for the dastardly deeds that they cannot help doing (if their behavior is determined rather than free), the price must be paid, horror fiction declares. Heads must roll.

Otherwise, if heads do not roll, and everyone is permitted to do whatever he or she likes, without regard to whether an action might be considered by others, and even by a vast majority of others, to be wrong and harmful, or even disastrous, the effect will be much as would follow from a theory of morality (or amorality) such as that which Ted Bundy held and articulated, a monstrous, but perhaps irrefutable, notion of what constitutes the good in a universe devoid of evil.
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.
(On January 24, 1989, Ted Bundy’s own head “rolled,” which is to say, he was electrocuted--for the murder of 12year-old Kimberly Leach.)

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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