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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Isolating Your Characters

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In a previous post (“Horror as Image and Word”) , I spoke of the benefit that authors of horror stories can derive from physically isolating their characters. By locating the story’s action in a remote setting, a writer heightens their vulnerability. They are more helpless than they might be otherwise, had they not been cut off from the larger community, society, or nation in which they live, having no access to emergency medical services, law enforcement personnel, financial institutions, or even friends and family. They are on their own, with no one and nothing else to assist them.

There’s another way to isolate characters besides that of locating them in remote places, far from the madding crowd: separate them from others by making them shy, emotionally detached or withdrawn, or even antisocial. (I touch upon this topic in my earlier post, “Ray Bradbury’s ‘Love Potion ’: Learning from the Masters.”) Psychological or emotional isolation has similar effects to physical isolation, making it difficult for a character to share his or her true and deepest thoughts and emotions with others. A shy or socially withdrawn character is likely to be incommunicative beyond the most superficial level, and an antisocial character is apt to go so far as to lie to others, even on a routine basis.

Wikipedia describes shyness as a manifestation of such tendencies as an avoidance of “the objects of their apprehension in order to keep from feeling uncomfortable,” which initiates a vicious circle of sorts, in which “the situations remain unfamiliar and the shyness perpetuates itself.” Shyness, the article indicates, may be a temporary or a permanent condition, and it may be mild or extreme, adding:

The condition of true shyness may simply involve the discomfort of difficulty in knowing what to say in social situations, or may include crippling physical manifestations of uneasiness. Shyness usually involves a combination of both symptoms, and may be quite devastating for the sufferer, in many cases leading them to feel that they are boring, or exhibit bizarre behavior in an attempt to create interest, alienating them further. Behavioral traits in social situations such as smiling, easily producing suitable conversational topics, assuming a relaxed posture and making good eye contact, which come spontaneously for the average person. . . may not be second nature for a shy person. Such people might only effect such traits by great difficulty, or they may even be impossible to display. . . In fact, those who are shy are actually perceived more negatively because of the way they act towards others. Shy individuals are often distant during conversations, which may cause others to create poor impressions of them, simply adding to their shyness in social situations (“Shyness”).
Jack Torrance, the protagonist of The Shining isn’t shy as much as he is socially detached from the world, or socially withdrawn. He is a mystery, if not exactly a stranger, even to his own wife and son. In discussing this character in an earlier post, “Narrative and Dramatic Techniques,” I indicated how, according to literary critics, the filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, used his motion picture camera’s photography of a mountain to characterize Torrance as emotionally cold and detached.

Extremely wide vistas of the mountainous landscape induce a cold, detached and depersonalized perspective. Humans are unimportant in this vast physical, and metaphysical, terrain. . . .

Jack undergoes a freezing of emotional warmth and empathy. His blood runs cold, both figuratively and literally, as he becomes one with the forces of winter and death (Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film, 43-44).
As a result of his detachment, Torrance both becomes a monster, and his cold-heartedness becomes the death of him when, trapped inside a maze following a blizzard, he freezes to death as he pursues his young son, intent upon murdering the boy.

The antisocial personality disorder is different than shyness. Recognizing it as a mental illness of sorts, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual defines this condition as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder,” Wikipedia). Serial killer Ted Bundy, among others, is said to have had such a condition. The disorder is marked by such symptoms as

[a] persistent lying or stealing; [an] apparent lack or remorse or empathy for others; cruelty to animals; poor behavioral controls. . ; a history of childhood conduct disorder; recurring difficulties with the law; [a] tendency to violate the boundaries and rights of others; substance abuse; aggressive, often violent behavior. . . [an] inability to tolerate boredom; [and a] disregard for safety” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder”).
Such additional conditions are often associated with ant personality disorder as “anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, substance-related disorders, somatization disorder, pathological risk-seeking, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, [and] narcissistic personality disorder” (“Antisocial Personality Disorder”).

In short, those who are afflicted with the antisocial personality disorder are hard to get along with. They are dangerous not only to themselves, but to others as well. Moreover, despite the dazzling array of symptoms and associated disorders, such individuals can, and do, pass as normal among others. Bundy was not only considered sane by the team of psychiatric and psychological doctors who examined him, but by the coworker (and author of The Stranger Beside Me) Ann Rule, who worked alongside him in a Seattle crisis clinic for a year and a half. Young women often found the brutal killer attractive, and he had no problem in finding victims among the college coeds he frequently targeted. Even during his incarceration and trial, he had suitors among the female sex, one of whom, Carole Ann Boone, married him on the witness stand as Bundy cross-examined her, allegedly bearing the serial killer a daughter. During his career as a serial killer, however, Bundy killed somewhere between thirty and a hundred and thirty young women, one as young as twelve years old.

Interestingly, one critic, John E. Reilly, diagnoses the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” as a “paranoid schizophrenic” (“The Lesser Death-Watch and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, Second Quarter, 1969, 3-9), a diagnosis with which another critic, Brett Zimmerman, agrees in “‘Moral Insanity’ or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’” Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, 39-48). This storyteller’s mental illness has obviously alienated him (or, some critics recently claim, her) from both reality and his (or her) kinsman, whom he (or she) murders.

One need not suffer from either antisocial personality disorder or paranoid schizophrenia to be emotionally detached or withdrawn. Shyness will also accomplish the goal of psychologically isolating a character from his or her peers and making him or her emotionally (and, indeed, physically) vulnerable to the monster, human or otherwise, who stalks a group of men and women, and a shy person may be regarded with sympathy on the part of the reader, whereas, despite his or her mental illnesses, neither an antisocial nor a paranoid schizophrenic is likely to garner much in the way of the reader’s compassion or even understanding. The writer may want to make a character who is stalked but not killed shy, but the character who is both stalked and killed antisocial or schizophrenic--or, for that matter, make the killer him- or herself antisocial or schizophrenic. There is, of course, another option for writers who want to isolate their characters so as to cut them off from all outside support and assistance: isolate them physically, by locating the story’s action in a remote and inaccessible setting, and then further isolate them by making one or more of the characters shy, antisocial, or schizophrenic.

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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.

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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