Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In Alien Encounters, Mike Rose, writing about science fiction, offers several insightful observations that also have application to horror fiction. Indeed, Chillers and Thrillers has made some of the very same claims that Rose makes, so Rose’s own insights often complement my own. However, since he is writing about science fiction, rather than horror fiction, some of his observations about his topic do not appear to apply to horror fiction as well.
One of the typical horror plots, I’ve argued, begins by introducing a threat, usually monstrous in some way, that disrupts the characters’ everyday lives--lives that they have often come to take for granted. Rose sees a similar situation as comprising the inciting moment of many science fiction stories, in which, he says, the basic conflict pits science against nature and the human (or spiritual) against the nonhuman (the natural or the material). The result of the clash of these adversaries, he contends, is a change in the way in which human beings relate to themselves, other human beings, or nature itself:
All forms of the fantastic--the gothic, the romantic tale, and modern fantasy as well as science fiction--are concerned with the relationship between the ordinary and the extraordinary (29).In science fiction, Rose declares, the threat to humanity’s everydayness and the security that the ordinary often provides (or appears to provide) is apt to take one of four forms: space, time, machine, or monster:
At the level of theme and motif, science fiction seems bewilderingly diverse, composed of such disparate elements as aliens, time machines, spaceships, robots, and telepaths. If we proceed to a higher level of abstraction, however, we can observe the way the concern with the human in relation to the nonhuman projects itself through four logically related categories, which I shall call space, time, machine, and monster (32).Interestingly, in science fiction, the conflict between such adversaries sometimes ends with the adoption of the nonhuman or with an extension of the concept of the human to include the nonhuman--or, at least, the particular instance of the nonhuman that the threat represents:
Science fiction’s role as mediator between the spiritual and the material is in alignment with its role as mediator between the human and the nonhuman. Generally speaking, the spiritual may be identified as the human, the realm of meaning that is opposed to the meaningless realm of the nonhuman. An atom, a star, or a galaxy in itself means nothing; it is, in every sense of the word, insignificant. The nonhuman acquires significance only when it is brought into relationship with the human. And when this happens the human versus nonhuman opposition is inevitably subverted: the nonhuman becomes part of human experience (48).In horror fiction, such inclusion is rarely entertained; instead, the threat is overcome; the monster is cast out, neutralized, or destroyed. A strong rift remains between the human and the nonhuman. Between them, the chasm is usually unbridgeable and eternal.
One instance, however, in which an uneasy acceptance of the extraordinary in the context of the everyday occurs in horror fiction is the acceptance of Daniel (“Oz”) Osbourne, a werewolf in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, by his girlfriend Willow Rosenberg and the other members of their clique, the so-called Scoobies: protagonist Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, Cordelia Chase, and Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles.
In most werewolf stories, the beast is hunted down and dispatched with a silver bullet (and, indeed, a werewolf hunter seeks to do just this in “Phases,” an episode of the series). However, as Giles observes, it seems inhuman to kill a werewolf when, except for three days each month, he is human rather than animal. The more merciful and moral course of action would seem to be the one that they take, which is locking Oz in a cage during the three nights that he transforms into a wolf.
However, in a different episode, “Beauty and the Beasts,” Oz escapes during Xander’s watch, and, in his werewolf form, is thought, at first, to have killed a person. Oz eventually leaves Sunnydale rather than to continue putting those for whom he cares at risk. Later, upon returning, after believing himself cured of his affliction, he does try to kill Tara Maclay, Willow’s girlfriend, when he learns that Willow is in an intimate relationship with her, preferring her newfound lesbian lover to him.
Ultimately, the series seems to suggest that accepting the bizarre into the realm of the ordinary is perilous and foolish. Compassion, mercy, and the desire to do the right thing can have problematic effects on the community, and harboring unnatural or supernatural outcasts could be not merely dangerous, but also fatal, indeed.
Perhaps science fiction more readily embraces the otherness of the nonhuman because the genre emerged from a tradition--science itself--that has accepted humanity’s displacement from a geocentric (and, indeed, an egocentric) world view to one in which human beings are understood as being insignificant, if not altogether irrelevant, motes, not in God’s eye, but the in the eyeless, nonhuman universe.
This willingness to accept the nonhuman was not initially the case, even in science (or science fiction). Indeed, early science fiction writers resisted the nonhuman (as some still do). The protagonist of H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Star,” hangs on to his humanity, even when the nonhuman, represented by a planet hurtling toward the Earth, threatens to destroy him, expressing a sentiment much like that of the speaker of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, who asserts:
The brain is wider than the sky,--whereas the protagonist of “The Star” argues, as Rose observes, that he is capable of understanding the very nature that would seek, as it were, to kill him, and that he would not, therefore, trade places with, even if he could do so:
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do
The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
At one point, Wells’s mathematician is described as gazing at the approaching planet “as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. ‘You may kill me,’ he said after a silence. ‘But I can hold you--all the universe for that matter--in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now’ (30).
At first, even scientists themselves were reluctant to let go the anthropomorphic universe in which suns and planets were once thought gods and over which the one true God still ruled. “Galileo founded modern science,” Rose says, “but the shift from a sacramental to an alienated sense of the cosmos did not come into being until long after Galileo,” and even Copernicus himself maintained faith in the divine reality of an eternal Creator: “For Copernicus himself the solar system was a temple,” Rose reminds his readers, “and the sun was a magical sign of God” (51).
Later, however, Rose argues, science fiction accepted, if all of humanity has, as yet, not, the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme of things, and, with this acceptance, they (and science fiction writers) experienced an alienation from the ground of their being. “The sense of alienation that informs science fiction is inseparable from the modern scientific view,” which followed, if it was not caused by, the scientific revolution, and this sense of alienation continues to affect humans today: “The Victorian situation of urban man disconnected from God, cut off from nature, separated from other men, is of course our own; it is in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century spiritual loneliness as a manifestation of our culture’s longing to escape the prison-house of the merely human” (53).
Paradoxically, Rose suggests, it is science fiction that enables readers to bridge, if only imaginatively, the gulf between the human and the nonhuman. When nature was sacramental, God’s presence was perceived and, indeed, felt, in his creation, but once nature was conceived of as being merely material, and not spiritual, and was understood to act according to purely physical laws, rather than in response to a divine will, an anguished sense of alienation resulted. Orphaned by the death of God, humanity grieved--and continues to grieve. However, if science, in part, at least, helped, as Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet: To Science” suggests, bring about the death of God, its offspring, science fiction, might help readers to bond again, as it were, with the nonhuman and material universe.
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!--to which Rose seems to reply:
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
Science fiction operates, then, not merely by sustaining the human versus the nonhuman opposition but by simultaneously and continuously subverting it, generating fables that transfigure both the idea of the nonhuman and the idea of the human. The space that the genre inhabits is not a prison, rigid and unyielding, but a flexible and dynamic field of semantic tension. It is this condition that makes a living genre possible (49).Horror fiction, as I pointed out, takes a different tact. Instead of seeking, or, usually, even allowing, a reconciliation of the human and the nonhuman (usually, that is, the monstrous), horror fiction requires that the nonhuman, or the “other,” be vanquished, whether by exile (as Grendel is exiled, in Beowulf), neutralization (as Caliban is neutralized, in The Tempest, when he agrees to serve Prospero), or destruction (as Grendel is destroyed, in Beowulf, when he won’t accept his exile but, instead, attacks the Danes). Accepting a wolf into the fold, as it were, is too dangerous, as Buffy’s example of the Scoobies’ acceptance of Oz into their circle demonstrates (and as does their acceptance, for that matter, at one time or another, of the vampires Angel and Spike).
Rose sees monsters as symbolic representations of “self-alienation,” rather than existential alienation, a separation of the self from itself, which, he says, may or may not be associated with the split between man's consciousness of himself as distinct from his nonhuman, or material, opposite, nature, or a “violation of conceptual categories” (176-186).
When monsters arise from self-alienation, he says, they appear in “narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of man into something less than or more than human” (179). When they emerge from the continuous play between “conceptual categories,” monsters take the forms of the grotesque: “The grotesque, as Wolfgang Kayser suggests, may be understood as an aesthetic form associated with the violation of conceptual categories such as vegetable and animal, animal and human, dead and living” (186).
How does this process occur? “The grotesque,” Rose contends, “is the estranged world, the world made over according to new principles,” and, as such, it is also “the estranged world” and “implies the daemonic” (186-187). It is a world born, as it were, from “a continuing play with the categories of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the human and the nonhuman” (188), and “all mediating figures, whether machines of human origin or monsters or supermen of evolutionary or extraterrestrial origin, move readily toward the daemonic, playing roles in science fiction analogous to those of good and evil spirits of older forms of romance” (187).
When monsters arise from self-alienation, he says, they appear in “narratives of metamorphosis, stories of the transformation of man into something less than or more than human,” Rose contends, but, one might argue, in some cases--that of Buffy’s Oz, for example--that such a transformation is simultaneously “into something” that is both “less than” and “more than human,” for Oz certainly loses everything that makes him human (except, at times, at any rate, his bipedal gait), but he also gains the strength, stamina, heightened senses, and speed of a wolf who is unimpeded by moral, or even rational, decisions and choices. As werewolf-Oz, the taciturn Scooby is a beast to be reckoned with (except that, of course, he can’t be reckoned with).
In any case, following such a transformation, Rose opines, “dehumanized man, man as either monster or superman, is in principle indistinguishable from any other kind of alien” (179), and, as such, one might add, should probably be treated as such.
Rose’s book is full of comments and observations that spark one’s own imagination. For example, horror fiction’s monsters tend to disappoint once they come crawling out of their dark domains, into the light, and the reader sees, as it were, the form of the monster, for nothing can disturb or frighten as well as the shapes of things unseen except in the mind’s-eye. Theoretically, such disappointment need not occur, however, Rose suggests, in either horror fiction or in science fiction: “Since the universe is limitless, so too are the possible shapes of man,” a possibility that is associated, he thinks, with “the pervasive science-fiction concern with infinity. The vision of the genre as a whole is the conviction of infinite human plasticity” (184).
However, in practice, this ideal can never be realized. The day awaits the writer who can somehow transcend the limits of human imagination and envision a truly monstrous monster, because, alas, it is not possible to think outside one’s own frame of reference, which is the universe (or that portion of the universe about which humanity has learned the secrets of nature). The writer who pierces this limitation must, of necessity, be him- or herself an alien or a deity. Nevertheless, too often, in horror fiction, the monster is derived from the application of the same few principles, such as addition, subtraction, substitution, and the like, as I have argued in previous posts, including “Monster Mash: How To Create a Monster,“ Part 1 and Part 2 when others may exist that should be sought.
Interestingly, Rose includes transgender characters in his gallery of grotesques, listing “the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness” alongside “the two-headed Mrs. Grales of A Canticle for Leibowitz” and “the monstrous children of Childhood’s End” (186). Likewise, until the American Psychiatric Association (APA) removed male and female homosexuals from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1974, same-sex lovers were considered mentally ill; before they were included with the mentally ill, they were criminals and, indeed, moral monsters. Today, transsexuals are still considered mentally ill (they suffer, it is said, from “gender dysphoria”).
Nevertheless, the public, like the psychological and psychiatric experts, seem to have, perhaps under political pressure, come to change their own minds concerning the nature of homosexuals, if not the transgender, regarding them, for the most part, as sane and moral. In other words, these individuals, who were once seen as monsters who must be cast out, are now regarded as having a place at the table with the rest of humanity. They, who were once seen as exceptional, if not nonhuman, are now regarded as unusual but human. More and more, they are accepted among the rest (that is, the majority) of humanity.
Having returned, rather indirectly, to the matter of humans’ acceptance of the nonhuman, there is also another reason, it would seem, for horror’s rejection of such otherness (or most of it). To adopt the world view that science suggests is to jettison a belief in God and, as a consequence, the basis, some would argue, of morality itself. If God is dead, such apologists would contend, there really is no objective basis for a belief in good and evil or right and wrong. Were God to be excluded from the picture, there would be, at best, a social contract between members of a society, and among societies, in which it would be agreed that this act is permissible, whereas the other is not, a contract that is arbitrary and capricious, allowing, for example, slavery in one century; suppressing the voting of minorities, including women, in another; and outlawing both in still a third.
A system of morality that is as susceptible to political change as situation ethics or moral relativism is too fragile and subjective, such critics contend. Horror fiction maintains its hold, rather fiercely, on the possibility of God’s existence and, therefore, the possibility of the existence of good and evil. Human behavior, horror fiction implies, can be right or wrong. Human conduct is not necessarily a matter of the alignment of the stars. The alternative to a moral universe has been expressed well by one of the monsters whom horror fiction would exile, neutralize, or destroy and whom American society, in fact, did put to death, serial killer Ted Bundy:
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.In Western society, the solution to the dilemma of who and what merits a place at the table of humanity and who and what, for the common good, should be ostracized, neutralized, or destroyed rests, at present, upon such notions as the need to protect the public on one hand and the need to permit individuals to engage in activities, in private, which may offend many but do no physical harm to the participants (or need not do any such harm), as long as there is mutual consent between the adults who would participate in such conduct, whether the conduct is sexual or otherwise.
Therefore, were Ted Bundy a homosexual who had had an affair with a like-minded and willing partner, and had consummated his decision to do so in private, he would have been considered human, if unusual, and would have been accommodated by society. However, even as a heterosexual (whom society accepts unreservedly), he was sentenced to death, because he had raped and killed over thirty women, one of whom was only fifteen years of age. In other words, his acts were neither consensual nor harmless.
By carving out exceptions, qualifications, and extenuating circumstances, society has worked out a scheme for accepting some sorts of otherness while rejecting other sorts. Even so, yesterday’s monsters do not fare well in many horror stories, and those that society accepts, more or less, are often still rejected by horror fiction. For example, in general, homosexual characters still do not fare well in horror stories.
Horror fiction is more traditional than science fiction. Moreover, it clings to the possibility of the existence of the supernatural, including God. Consequently, it is more concerned with, even dedicated to, the defense of the status quo, the existing order, the way things are. Threats against everydayness may be welcome as a means of shaking up the complacent and reminding them that life is short and precious, but after the monster has done so, most writers’ stories give them the heave-ho or destroy them, if they cannot be made subservient to the reigning power elite or otherwise neutralized.
Science fiction is more alienated from both the world and the self, perhaps, than horror fiction tends to be, and what the latter rejects, the former may be inclined to accept. However, Howard Hawks’ 1951 horror-science fiction movie The Thing from Another World offers scientists a warning, because it was one of their own who reached out to the extraterrestrial invader, even trying to protect it from the military representatives of his own species, only to be killed himself by the monster.
To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it may well be that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. It may well be, too, that some things are better left alone and that vampires should never be invited into one’s home--or to one’s table.
Note: I have no animosity myself toward gays or lesbians, but, in the Western world, they are sexual “others” to the predominantly heterosexual majority in their culture and society and, as such, fit the monster mold, for some, albeit, less convincingly now, perhaps, than they did prior to 1974, when the APA declared them no longer victims of a “mental disorder.” It is for this reason that they (or the transgender) sometimes appear as threats to the status quo, as do “the androgynous Gethenians of The Left Hand of Darkness.”