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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thrillers

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

To date, Chillers and Thrillers has had precious little to say concerning the latter term in its title, having focused, instead, almost exclusively on chillers (that is, horror stories) and such related fare as fantasies and science fiction. In this post, thanks to Charles Derry’s excellent book on thrillers, this oversight is finally corrected.



In the second chapter of The Suspense Thriller: Films in the Shadow of Alfred Hitchcock, “Thrills; or, How Objects and Empty Spaces Compete to Threaten Us,” Charles Derry identifies the objects that are used, in several films, as symbols, or “visual correlatives”: “The cymbals in The Man Who Knew Too Much,” which represent “the assassination and the whole movement of the narrative”; “the windmill in Foreign Correspondent,” which symbolizes “the arrival of an airplane to take away the villains”; and “the glass of milk in Suspicion,” which signifies “the imminent poisoning of Joan Fontaine [sic]”; and “the blood-stained doll in Stage Fright,” which suggests “an accusation of murder” (21).

According to Derry, other symbolic objects include:

The painting of the Madonna in Obsession, which works as a symbol of the protagonists’ dilemma and the narrative; the escaping balloons in La Rupture, which works as a complex symbol of escape and freedom; Faye Dunaway’s [sic] photographs in Three Days of the Condor, which work as a symbol of trust in a morally bankrupt world; the mirrors in Lady from Shanghai, which work in part as a symbol of the destructive nature of the American woman (21).
In addition to such symbolic objects, thrillers also employ both “ocnophilic” and “philobatic” objects, Derry argues, employing terms coined by Michael Balint in Thrills and Regressions. Essentially, the former type of object is apt to be one among many that are associated with the safety and security of one’s everyday environment, whereas the other (usually one or a few “special” objects) is linked to potential dangers or risks. Examples of the ocnophilic object to which the philobat “clings,“ Derry says, include the lion-tamer’s whip, the tight-rope walker’s pole, the skier’s ski-poles, the conductor’s baton, the soldier’s rifle, the artist’s paintbrush, and the pilot’s joy-stick (25). The ocnophilic object, Derry adds, “is perhaps the antithesis of the safe ‘ocnophilic object’ embraced by the philobat and represents the most overwhelming symbol of the philobat’s inability to get away from objects that are unconquerable and oppressive,” although “the objects that the philobat encounters need not be instantly harmful” (25). Moreover, the philobat may transform a threatening or dangerous oncophilic object into “a co-operative partner” by “showing consideration, regard, or concern about” it, as “Cary Grant [sic]” does in North By Northwest when he :turns the objects at the auction into his cooperative partners and is thus able to escape the villains” or as Paul Newman‘s character does in Torn Curtain when he “allows the paper flames in the ballet set to provide him with inspiration to escape from the theatre” (26). Since the ocnophil equates ocnophilic objects with safety and security, he or she is disturbed when one or more of these objects must be abandoned or he or she is abandoned by it or them. “For the octophil,” Derry says, “the world consist of objects which are separated by terrifying empty spaces,” and, Balint contends, as Derry notes in quoting him, “The octophil lives from object to object, cutting his sojourns in the empty spaces as short as possible. Fear is provoked by leaving the objects, and allayed by rejoining them” (26). For this reason, too, “an object which remains no threatening is a source of much security, and the philobat certainly doesn’t want this object taken away” (27).

Before I had encountered Derry’s book or heard of Balint’s taxonomy of the thriller, I unknowingly described a different type of ocnophilic object in my article, “Taking Away the Teddy Bear,” except that the object was more a state of mind than an object per se. The person (or, perhaps, place or thing) that anchors us to our existence, giving us a reason to go on, despite the vicissitudes of fate and the traumas and crises of life, might be regarded as an ocnophilic object of sorts, for its possession makes us feel that life is worth living. The ultimate “teddy bear,” I suggest is one’s faith in God, which, taken away, results in despair and horror in face of the monster of meaninglessness.

Although neither Derry nor Balint identifies such an object, one might argue, for the existence of anti-ocnophilic, as opposed to both ocnophilic and philobatic, objects as well, which is to say, things--or even states of mind--that remind men and women of persons, places, or things that they find repulsive rather than comforting; an African-American might view a rebel flag in such a manner; a racist, an interracial couple; a homophobe, two men or women holding hands with one another. Rather than finding reassurance in such objects and seeking to retain or to be reunited with them, a character would seek to avoid or discard them. In some cases, an object that is initially regarded as ocnophilic might later be considered anti-ocnophilic, as, for example, one might argue, the monkey’s paw in W. W. Jacobs’ short story first is and later becomes to the elderly couple who come into possession of this talisman.

In the thriller, Derry argues, based upon his reading of Balint, the protagonist fears a “real external danger,” to which he or she voluntarily exposes him- or herself, confident in his or her hope that he or she can survive it. Balint contends that “this mixture of fear, pleasure, and confident hope is what constitutes the fundamental elements of all thrills,” and, likewise, according to Derry, comprise the “three-part progression” of “most suspense thriller plots,” to which may be added thrills “associated with high speed, such as racing, horse-riding, skiing, sailing, and flying”; thrills “associated with exposed [or risky] situations, such as jumping, diving, rock climbing, taming wild animals, and traveling into foreign lands”; and thrills “associated with unfamiliar forms of satisfaction, such as new foods, new customs, and new sexual experiences” (22).

In Thrills and Regressions, Balint coins the words philobatism and ocnophilia to refer, respectively, to the thrill seeker and his or her opposite, who is quite content to avoid thrills of any kind. Using Balint’s terminology and Derry’s insights, one could define a suspense thriller as a story in which an initially ocnophilic protagonist enters the philobatic world of external danger, triumphs over the peril, and is able, thereafter, to balance the extremes of a safe but uneventful existence with the dangerous but thrilling aspects of life.

Although the thriller plot’s emphasis upon a “real external threat” and an ultimately thrill-seeking protagonist suggests that such stories are more likely to be addressed to male audiences, it is clear, given the synopsis of Wait Until Dark, which involves a female protagonist, that this storyline can also involve female protagonists and can be directed toward female audiences:

In Wait Until Dark. . . the ocnophilic and clinging Audrey Hepburn [sic] loses the secure protection of her husband and home base, faces a series of terrifying thrills which she conquers, emerges victorious, and returns unharmed to the security of her husband, although now in touch with her own philobatic abilities and no longer in need of his protection” (24-25).

Indeed, as Derry himself points out,

there are many notable female protagonists in thrillers (as for example in Shadow of a Doubt, Le Boucher, or The China Syndrome) who become adventurers. . . and there are so many female spectators who have been moved by the thriller that it would be wrong to argue that these works are--more than any other popular genre--unusually reflective of sexist male fantasy (29).
In this chapter of his book, Derry also suggests how empty spaces can threaten the philobatic protagonist. For example, Derry contends that “in Wait Until Dark. . . it is precisely the empty spaces that are terrifying to the blind heroine; the empty spaces are blank, and she is unable to maneuver herself from place to place without the help of the anchored objects which make up her world” (26).

Two passages in Derry’s book explain how and why the suspense thriller differs from the horror story. In the first of these passages, Derry, alluding to the observations of both Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle, suggests that the suspense thriller “excludes horror,” just as it excludes “traditional whodunnits and detective films,” because, as Hitchcock insists, “the whodunnit generates a kid of curiosity that is void of emotion, and emotion is an essential ingredient in suspense” and horror often includes “supernatural suppositions” that identify the genre as “outright fantasy.”

For his part, Castle defines horror as the use of a monster to frighten audiences, whereas he defines a thriller as using “an identifiable person” such as someone the moviegoer could actually encounter and with whom he or she could empathize “in jeopardy” so that the audience can “root for” him or her (8-9).

The second passage adds a contemporary, all-too-human monster to the traditional ones that Castle featured in his films: “in certain horror films,” Derry points out, “the ‘monster’ is not a mystical or fantastic creature, but an insane individual who commits crimes,” and “because their murderous protagonists are presented as objects of horror and virtual monsters, films such as Psycho (1960), Repulsion (1965), and The Collector (1965) might most accurately be perceived as belonging to both the suspense thriller and horror genres simultaneously” (324-325). One could argue, indeed, that Dean Koontz’s much-vaunted “cross-genre” novels represent an even greater hybridization of genre fiction, often including, as it does, elements of science fiction, romance, the thriller, and the traditional horror story.

In the table of contents of The Suspense Thriller, and based upon his study of the thriller genre, Derry identifies six specific subtypes and promises (“To Be Continued”) more, perhaps, in a future volume: the thriller of murderous passions, the political thriller, the thriller of acquired identity, the psychotraumatic thriller, the thriller of moral confrontation, and the innocent-on-the-run thriller (vii). Perhaps Chillers and Thrillers will feature more summaries and commentaries upon these chapters of Derry’s excellent book in the future. Stay tuned (so to speak.)

3 comments:

Gene Phillips said...

Hi, first-time reader here,

I'd read Derry's SUSPENSE THRILLER years ago and admired it (though I found this blog looking for references on Frank Cioffi's FORMULA FICTION). I just starting re-skimming SUSPENSE THRILLER but I thought the introductory chapters could have used a little more detail as to what divides a horror film's use of a menace from that of a suspense film's.

My only exposure to Koontz is through adaptations but I'd tend to think that he probably takes fantastic threats that would conform to the "horror menace" mold and reconfigures them to be "suspense menaces." But that's just a guess.

Gary L. Pullman said...

Thanks for commenting. Koontz has written some thrillers, although he started out as a science fiction writer before trying his hand (quite successfully) as a horror novelist. Now, he writes mostly cross-genre fiction according to a predictable formula that he's developed over the years. I find him much less enjoyable now than he was as a writer who was finding his niche. His bank account shows his general popularity, though.

Gene Phillips said...

I read a few of Koontz's old SF novels, and seem to remember liking them. One anecdote has it that when he planned to re-invent himself as a Stephen King imitator, he bought back the rights to his old SF works so that no one could republish them and thus confuse what we now would call his "brand."

I've just finished an essay on Derry's SUSPENSE THRILLER: see what you think if you've the inclination.

http://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2010/10/trails-of-suspense.html

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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