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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What’s in a Name?: More (and Less) Than One Might Think

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Anyone who has entered his or her name in an Internet image browser is likely, unless he or she has a truly unique appellation, to have had the rather disconcerting experience of having come face to face, so to speak, with a stranger who shares the same name. This experience is all the more unsettling if the other person is of a different race or ethnic group or (if one bears a unisex name) the opposite sex. Social utility websites allow the same distressing experience.

Sometimes, other media provide the same result. In Las Vegas, a billboard advertises George Wallace, an African American comedian who appears at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Younger folks often miss the irony of the entertainer’s name’s being identical to that of the racist former Alabama governor who resisted the initiation of segregation during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to bar the 1963 enrollment of the school’s first black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood (“George Wallace,” Wikipedia).

According to Wikipedia’s “disambiguation” list for “George Wallace,” no fewer than eleven more-or-less famous men share this name, among them the former governor; his son; the American comedian and two other such entertainers; a football player; several politicians; foreign and domestic; an actor; an army officer; and a politician. No doubt, there are several less-famous men with this name as well.

Occasionally, people also change their names, Norman Jean Baker becoming Marilyn Monroe and Marion Mitchell Morrison becoming John Wayne, for example, and others who would not have shared the names with such celebrities now having their names in common with such an entertainer. (One thinks of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, for example, sharing a name with the Western film star but not with the actor previously known as Marion Mitchell Morrison.)

To most of us, our name is a representation not merely of syllables of sound but of who we are, of ourselves. We think of ourselves as unique. Indeed, we are told, in our youth, that there is no other person quite like us, that we are in a class by itself, the one and only of our kind. Discovering that we share a name with someone else or that we can change our names or that our names can come from other names, even from names that are associated with the opposite sex, is surprising; it is also a bit disconcerting, suggesting that our identities might not be as fixed and permanent as we had previously supposed them to be. If we can share our names with others, maybe we could also become other. We could become a member of the opposite sex. We could become a serial killer. We could become a bigot. We could (if we are women) lose our own identities to those whom we wed. The truth of the matter, of course, is that our identities are not as fixed and permanent as we might believe. Over time, our attitudes, our beliefs, our feelings, our tastes, our values all change; we change. Nevertheless, we believe (or hope) that, at the very core of our being, our hearts and souls remain unchanged. We trust that the essence of ourselves remains unique and incorruptible, both to time and to events. Otherwise, we fear, at some point, we would cease to exist. The loss of identity is the loss of the self to madness or to death. Eve on our gravestones, our names remain--for a time. When the elements have finally obliterated our names, it shall be as if we never existed. There will be no remnant of our identities, of our being, or ourselves.

Therefore, we are jealous of our names, and we guard them zealously, fearing identity theft as much because it is a violation of who we are as because it promotes financial disaster for us as individuals.

Prisoners abhor the loss of their names, which occurs when they are issued numbers in place of their names. They feel that they have been made less than human by being designated numerically rather than alphabetically, as if their identities have been reduced to the nomenclature of mechanical parts and assemblies. Marines also dislike drill instructors’ refusal to allow them, as recruits, to refer to themselves in the first person, as “I” or “me,” and the demand that, instead, they speak of themselves only as “the private.” They perceive the dehumanization that such attempts at resocialization have upon them as individuals.

Horror fiction plays upon our fears of transformation, of loss of identity, and of life itself. Horror writers and filmmakers know what is and is not in a name and how to translate these fears onto a printed page or onto the silver screen. Human beings undergo terrible transformations, becoming werewolves or vampires. They lose themselves to madness. They suffer agonizing deaths at the hands of others who have lost their own minds and souls.

Such films as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), a remake of the 1958 version directed by Kurt Neumann; Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982); the several versions of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1982), John Carl Buechler’s Troll (1986), and Laurence Huntington’s The Vulture (1967) are just a few of the many, many titles of horror movies involving transformation that Buried.com lists for this category.

Edgar Allan Poe’s stories often feature protagonists who suffer a loss of themselves to madness, but this is a current theme among writers and filmmakers today as well, as is attested by such stories as John Fowles’ 1963 novel The Collector, the Friday the 13th movie series, the 1995 John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness (based upon the 1936 H. P. Lovecraft novella At the Mountains of Madness), and, of course the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho (based upon Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same title).

Why should our sharing our names with strangers be disconcerting? I think it is because we invest symbolic value in them. Our first names are given to us by our parents. Our last names identify our families and, therefore, our lineage. Perhaps it is unsettling for those women who opt to take their husbands’ names in lieu of the surnames by which, until they marry, they have been known all their lives. Certainly, the custom alters their perspective--and that of society’s--to some degree as to married women’s identities. Women are seen as more fluid than fixed in their identities. Not only do they shift shape (during pregnancy), but they are also likely to change their very identities, Miss Emily Jones, for example, becoming Mrs. Emily Smith. In formal correspondence, married women may be stripped even of the very remnant of their personal identity and their femininity that their first, or given name, provides them, becoming the “Mrs. John Smith” whose name appears after her husband’s: “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith.” Even women who remain single often derive their identity from another person of the opposite sex: Paulette and Paula both owe their names to the masculine Paul, for instance, just as the name Denise is derived from the masculine name Dennis. It must be disconcerting, indeed, for a Samantha to realize that her feminine name is based upon a variation of the masculine Samuel.

Death is a staple of horror stories, novels, and films. Virtually every one of them alludes to or, more often, features at east one (and usually several, or even many) savage murders. However, the so-called slasher movies, wherein nubile hotties for the most part, are sliced and diced for audience members’ vicarious viewing pleasure, is perhaps the most extreme sort of this type of fare. Slasher titles include Jack Sholder’s Alone in the Dark (1982), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Jim Gillespie’s I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) (based upon the 1973 Lois Duncan novel of the same title), Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers (2001), Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell (1980), Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepaway Camp (1983), Rob Schmidt’s Wrong Turn (2003) (reminiscent of my own 2008 Blue Mountain Detour), and a host of others.

While writers and filmmakers are careful to disguise the fact that they are playing with readers’ and moviegoers’ identities by casting their treatments of this theme in terms of other “people’s” names (those of the characters who populate their pages or screens), make no mistake about it: a reader or a moviegoer by any other name would suffer the same existential angst as the characters who experience physical transformation, madness, or death in place of their voyeuristic audiences.

What’s in a name? More (and less) than one might think!

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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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