Fascinating lists!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Background: The Key to Interpreting Foreground

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Bats’ wings, horns, talons, tails, reptilian shapes, scales, tentacles, multiple mouths equipped with jaws full of jagged teeth, compound eyes, flies, worms, skeletons, corpses, mummies, skeletons, skulls, distortions of face and figure, conical heads, skin masks, blood, viscera, anthropomorphic trees, birds, hybrid life forms, living statues, men and women walking on air, eyes embedded in tree trunks, Santa with an axe, ghost children, bloody tears, alien babies, strangers at the window, vast spaces, disembodied body parts--these are but some of the images one finds in art associated with the horror genre. The fear of the animal within, of the predator, of the grave and the secrets it holds, of deformity, of a confusion of cognitive categories and loss of sense, of madness, of love and trust betrayed, of the strange, of dislocation and dismemberment, of suffering and death--these are the terrors upon which such images are based.

If the foreground is the text, more or less clearly expressed, albeit, usually, in metaphor, the background is the subtext. The background is the whisper that provides the context by which the spoken (foreground) is to be interpreted, and, in artwork related to the horror genre, the background often hints at night and darkness, at the distance of stars, at clouds and fog, at alien worlds, at disorientation, at devastation, at decomposition and putrefaction, at fragmentation, at mystification, at torture, at suffering, at passion, at destruction, and at hostility.

According to Trevor Whittock, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue, in Metaphors We Live By, “against the view that experiences and objects have inherent properties and are understood solely in terms of those properties. . . [that] inherent properties only in part account for how we comprehend things. Just as important is [the fact that] our concepts, and consequently our experience, are structured in terms of metaphors” (Metaphor and Film, 114-115). By comparing the new and unfamiliar with the known, people seek to understand better that which is strange or novel. Often, the creation of metaphors and analogies are means of doing so.

I assert that something similar to this process can occur in the contemplation of a drawing or a painting. The foreground is the overt (known), the background the covert (unknown), half of a complete statement, or vision, that, to be understood must be considered in light of its complementary counterpart. Some of the clearest, or more obvious, examples of the background’s importance to interpreting a work of art’s foreground are seen in the work of fantasy artist Frank Frazetta, whose paintings often adorn science fiction and fantasy paperback novels, but which also frequently exhibit horrific imagery.



In one such painting, a warrior dressed vaguely in the manner of a Viking rushes toward a nubile, nude young maiden who is about to be sacrificed upon a stone altar by a cloaked figure holding a large knife. An alligator, but with wavering tentacles attached to its reptilian tail, lies at the base of the short flight of stone steps that leads to the altar. The background is peopled, as it were, with dark shapes comprised of huge bat-like wings, fanged human faces, lupine ears, and brawny arms, one or more (it is difficult to tell, for the background is dark, and the figures which occupy it are little more than shadows) seize the pale, white corpse of another nude woman who, it appears, was the victim of an earlier sacrifice. Above the heroic warrior, parallel bands of shadow descend, as if they are the dark outlines of a monstrous hand reaching for the would-be rescuer. The background suggests a hellish or demonic cult and, perhaps, the evil god whom the cultists worship and who are about to sacrifice the female victim, thereby offering a key to interpreting the overall image, or scene, that the painting, as a whole, depicts.


In another of Frazetta’s paintings, Queen Kong, a gigantic blonde stands astride the Empire State Building, New York City stretched out below her, circled by attacking biplanes. In her right hand, she holds a miniature version of King Kong. The sky is blue-gray, shot through with wisps of red-orange clouds that resemble used bandages. Obviously, the painting is a spoof upon King Kong, with the roles of the ape and the human object of his simian affections reversed; the background (the city streets below the skyscraper, in particular) helps to establish the context that makes this humorous work intelligible.


A final example should suffice to clarify my point that a painting’s background is--or can be (and probably should be)--an important contextual clue to the interpretation of its foreground. In this picture, Barbarian, a warrior stands atop a heap of rubble, a nude woman lying at his feet. The palm of his left hand rests upon the hilt of his sword, the blade of which thrusts into the pile of debris. A closer look at the rubble reveals it to be not only a heap of earth, but one which is strewn with skulls, spines, severed arms, a battleaxe, and what might be a spear. Symbolically, the warrior stands upon the bones and corpses of enemies whom he has bested in battle, an interpretation which seems to be borne out by the delicate images of a huge skull and a cowl-shrouded death’s-head which are close to the same colors--tan, light brown, yellow, and orange--out of which they appear to swirl, perhaps as representations of the warrior’s memories of the evil forces whom he has, in past battles, slain. The yellow and orange colors rise, seeming to flicker, as if they are flames, perhaps suggesting the final fate of the vanquished, whom the victorious hero has dispatched to hell.

Writers can accomplish the same effects as Frazetta and other visual artists by writing descriptions of settings in which details comprise a contextual background which illuminates, on a more or less subliminal level, the significance of a scene’s “foreground” action or characters, thereby enriching their own work. By describing settings in such a way that the descriptions themselves tell a story, the writer can tell stories within stories, the former providing emotional, thematic, or narrative subtext for the latter.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Metaphorical Enhancements

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


In his excellent study of cinematic metaphor, Metaphor and Film, Trevor Whittock lists various types of film metaphors, explains how they are created, and offers one or more examples of each kind. In addition, he suggests how these tropes enrich the audience’s perception, understanding, and appreciation of the film’s content. Authors of fiction in general and writers of horror stories in particular can learn much from Whittock’s discussions and treatment of his fascinating topic, including how to use metaphorical descriptions to suggest unconscious, even, perhaps, subliminal thematic nuances and undertones regarding characters, settings, and other narrative elements. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho offers several examples, Whittock contends, of this process at work.

One of the ways by which filmmakers create metaphors, Whittock says, is “by context, which forces the audience to see A as B.” Such a “context is often an emotionally charged one,” he observes, offering the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film as an example. After talking to Norman Bates, Marion Crane decides to return the money with which she has absconded, and her shower, following her repentance, represents a sort of “ritualistic. . . spiritual cleansing,” whereby she washes “away her guilt.” Therefore, when she is “murdered in the shower,” Whittock contends, “our sense of shock is all the greater: We perceive a terrible moral gratuitousness in the crime” (52-53).

Another technique for creating cinematic metaphors, Whittock argues, is to employ situational irony, or “rule disruption,” such as occurs in Psycho, with Crane’s death:

Because audiences. . . feel confident that whatever happens the star will not be killed off, when relatively early in Psycho they witness the murder of Marion Crane who is played by a star actress (Janet Leigh), they experience extreme disorientation. This disruption of complacent assumption, combined with the disruption of another cherished pattern--that someone who repents and washes off her guilt should not be harmed--works to create a disturbing sense of the gratuitousness and insecurity of our existence (65-66).



Another of Hitchcock’s films, The Birds, also makes use of metaphors, both to characterize and to heighten suspense. For example, the director, in an interview with Francois Truffaut, Whittock points out, explained that he had ordered a “road watered down so that no dust would rise because I wanted that dust to have a dramatic function when she drives away”; the truck, Hitchcock says, is “an emotional truck,” signifying by the “tremendous speed” at which it moves and “the sound of the engine,” which is “something like a cry. . . as though the truck were shrieking,” the mother’s “frantic” state (57).

Whittock identifies the use of an objective correlative as a means of creating cinematic metaphors that can serve the interests of suspense and characterization as well, citing an example from The Birds: “the five broken teacups” in Mrs. Brenner’s house, broken by in an attack by the birds, he says, represents both “the damage done by the birds that have attacked the house” and “Mrs. Brenner’s tense fragility, glimpsed in her endeavors to preserve a domestic and unchanging home life,” functioning “as an objective correlative for the deep-seated anxieties now surfacing in Mrs. Brenner” (62-63).

Finally, in a quotation of Hitchcock at the outset of Whittock’s study, the famed director himself comments on metaphors that he created in The Birds:

At the beginning of the film we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop. He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says: I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.’ I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterisation [sic] as a wealthy, shallow playgirl. And later on, when the gulls attack the village, Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage. This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery (1).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Androids, Cyborgs, and Robots: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Let's start with that old pedagogical favorite, a--


Pop quiz:

1. Star Trek’s Data is
A. an android
B. a cyborg
C. a robot
D. none of the above
2. Terminator is
A. an android
B. a cyborg
C. a robot
D. none of the above
3. Blade Runner’s replicants are
A. androids
B. cyborgs
C. robots
D. all of the above
4. Forbidden Planet’s Robby is
A. an android
B. a cyborg
C. a robot
D. none of the above
5. The Bionic Woman and the Six-Million-Dollar Man are
A. androids
B. cyborgs
C. robots
D. none of the above
A mainstay of science fiction, androids, cyborgs, and robots feature in both fantasy and horror fiction as well. Therefore, it behooves writers to know the difference between these creatures, as, sooner or later, one or more of them is apt to appear in one’s sort story, novel, or screenplay.

Fortunately, Daniel Dinello tackles these distinctions in Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. I’ve taken the liberty of juxtaposing the differences in this handy, dandy chart, the text of which comes from Dinello’s book (pages 7-8):

The Bionic Woman and the Six-Million-Dollar Man, by the way, are cyborgs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Alien Androids": Another Plot-generating Method

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Writers often say that plotting their stories is one of the most daunting challenges they face. In previous posts, I’ve shared a few ideas for generating storylines. In this installment, I share another, which works particularly well for novel-length fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories. For want of a better title, I’m calling it “Alien Androids.” I offer an outline of the method, followed by an example:

METHOD
  1. Present a startling claim.
  2. Provide several possible justifications for the claim.
  3. Combine as many of these justifications as possible to make the claim seem even more supportable and to widen the story‘s scope.
  4. Using the claim as the story’s premise, break the plot into the three parts common to horror fiction:
    a. Bizarre incidents occur.
    b. The protagonist discovers the cause of the incidents.
    c. The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to restore order.
  5. Repeat 2-4 with a different set of justifications, and then select whichever of the results seems to represent the better basis for the story.

EXAMPLE

  1. Startling claim: Aliens are actually androids created by the U. S. government.
  2. Justifications. The aliens are created to unite the world’s nations against a common foe, to create a secular religion to replace other faiths, to unite humanity indoctrinate people according to predetermined “alien” objectives, to occupy bored citizens by enlisting them to in the global fight against the invaders, to reenergize citizens’ interest in space exploration, and to redirect people’s focus from social and political problems
  3. Combined justifications: all of these justifications can be used. Some of the alien androids can be described as hostile and others as peaceful. The nations unite against the former, whereas the latter are used create a new, worldwide faith as a means of indoctrinating humanity according to the “alien’s” creators’ objectives. Whether people combat or follow the hostile or peaceful aliens, respectively, humans will be engaged, rather than bored, and their attention will be redirected from social and political problems. At the same time, the peaceful aliens can promote humanity’s interest in renewing space exploration, possibly as a means of combating the hostile invaders.
  4. Break of the story into the three parts common to horror fiction:
    a. Bizarre incidents occur: In various places around the globe, people see UFO’s. Some witness alien visitations. Others report having been abducted by aliens who have conducted experiments upon them, including the collection of their semen or ova. News media report increasing cases of dead, mutilated cattle. Important men and women in various fields of endeavor are reported missing. The number of faces on milk cartons increases dramatically. In an age of unprecedented leisure among humans, during which machines do virtually all the work, a clash of titans breaks out between two groups of visiting--or invading--extraterrestrials.
    b. The protagonist, former Navy SEAL and present Service Agent Adam Drake, discovers the cause of the incidents. The president of the United States, flanked by British and Japanese heads of state, is broadcast in an address to the United Nations. The many reports of extraterrestrial visitors that have occurred since Roswell are true! Two groups of aliens, Hostiles and Friendlies, are at war with one another, and, now, that war has broadened beyond both groups of Celestials to include the nations of the earth, and every nation must decide with which party, it will align. The U. S., Europe, and Japan, as well as other, lesser states, have aligned with the Frendlies, while China, North Korea, and the Arab states have aligned with the Hostiles. Other countries, for the moment, hoping to remain neutral, have sided with neither of the Celestials. However, the president suggests, neutrality will not remain an option for long.
    c. The protagonist uses his or her newfound knowledge to restore order: Recognizing that both alien parties represent a threat to humanity’s welfare, Adam organizes a resistance force to fight the Hostiles while, at the same time, sabotaging the Church of the Friendly Celestials in a two-pronged attack upon the Earth’s invaders. Meanwhile, his army continuously recruits new soldiers, preparing for a long and sustained resistance effort against both the nations’ armies and the Celestials themselves.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 and then select whichever of the results seems to represent the better basis for the story: Not included in this example.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Devil Is in the Details

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


This morning, I awoke to a naked pillow--a pillow that wore no case. Because my mind was in the receptive state that follows one’s awakening (as it also precedes one’s slumbering)--the best time, incidentally, for conceiving ideas for stories!--I saw something, a detail, which, more likely than not I wouldn’t have noticed at all had I not been in such a receptive frame of mind: a decorative feature.

Spaced apart by three inches or so, a series of seven bands of stripes, each of which, starting with one, increased by an additional stripe, appeared upon the pillow’s surface, or skin: one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

Someone had deliberately designed this feature, although chances are that few, if any, would ever notice it and that fewer still, perhaps, would care. It was enough that the designer him- or herself had cared to take the time and trouble to add this pattern to what would have been otherwise blank cloth.

Seeing the time and trouble that an anonymous someone had taken to add this design to a fabric that few would ever even notice, much less appreciate, made me think about the significance of detail, especially as it relates to writing horror (or any other genre of) fiction. Not only does the inclusion of such details in one’s descriptions of settings (or the physical appearance of characters’--including the monsters among them) help to create verisimilitude, but detailed descriptions also create mood, tension, suspense, fear, and disgust--in a word, horror. Indeed, a judicious use of details can even produce a somewhat subliminal effect, affecting readers (or moviegoers) on an unconscious level.

As they do in many other ways, ancient Greek (and other) myths offer writers, especially of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, a prototype of techniques for developing monstrous characters.

Some mythical monsters are hybrids, which merge features from two or more actual animals (the centaur combines man and horse). Others are formed by removing a feature that an actual creature typically possesses (the Cyclops has only one eye). Still others are created by multiplying the attributes that a real animal or human has (the hydra has many heads). In many cases, two or more of these techniques are combined, so that, for example, a griffin combines aspects of the lion (body), the eagle (head), and the dragon (wings). Another trick is to replace one thing with another, as is seen in the Gorgon’s hair, in which serpents take the place of Medusa’s and her sister’s dreadlocks.

Although a monster such as the griffin might appear more ludicrous than hideous to modern readers or moviegoers, the point is that a more judicious combination of anatomical parts, more appropriate to today’s sensibilities, could produce startling--and eerie or frightening--results. In the version of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Donald Sutherland stars, an image appears that remains firmly embedded in my brain: a dog with a human, instead of a canine, head! The sight of this sight nearly floored me then, and it haunts me yet. And, who knows but that, soon, we might be confronted with just such a real-life monstrosity, for, with both cloning and genetic engineering present-day realities, anything seems possible.

Of course, details apply beyond just the physical environment and the physiological appearances of monsters and other characters. Writers should be specific about the abilities of their characters--and their non-human or monstrous dramatic personae, in particular. Stephen King’s monster in It seems to derive from the shape-shifting Greek deity Proteus, whereas Tak, the demon who inhabits the pages of his Desperation, appears to be something right out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The It villain can take the form and appearance of anyone’s worst nightmare, whereas Tak can leap into and possess anyone’s (or anything’s) body, although, as a result, he causes a biochemical meltdown of his host in not-so-pretty short order.

Horror writers, more than any other type of author, need to remember that the devil is in the details.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Quick Tip: Victimizing the Victim

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Victims are important to horror, but one would hardly know it, for, from authors, critics, and readers, they receive short shrift. Except for Carol J. Clover’s excellent discussion of the “final girl,” the survivor among a slasher film’s slew of the slain, who, as the last girl standing (Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), typically defeats the monster, little has been said of horror fiction’s victims of late. However, as the careers of many a fine young actress attests, victimization can lead to fame and fortune--off-screen, at least.

Clover describes the final girl as virginal and drug free, with a past that is shared in part with the killer, and as someone who may have a unisex name. Clover sees audience members as able to identify with female characters, regardless of their own sex and gender; the killer, in fact, is a male who has problems with his own sexuality and gender and uses weapons, especially knives, as a phallic substitute that psychologically enhanced his own problematic virility.

Clover detects a sexist and misogynistic element in the final girl. In a patriarchal society, it’s difficult, if not impossible she (Clover, not the final girl) argues for many to identify with a terrified male character. Therefore, a female character is victimized. In other words, women make more credible victims than men. Since, during the murders of others (and, possibly, the attempted murder of the final girl), these female characters are depicted in a state of undress and, sometimes, sexual intimacy, the slasher films take on a voyeuristic nature and suggest that neither beauty nor sexuality escape punishment in a cruel and sadistic world, despite the apparent anything-goes, free-love attitude of contemporary society.

Outside slasher films, victims are not limited to nubile young women, which casts some doubt, perhaps, upon Clover’s claims of sexism and misogyny concerning victims of horror in general. Dean Koontz and Stephen King, as usual, offer good examples of a variety of victims in their fiction. The commonality among their victims lies in their sympathetic nature and their vulnerability. While some of them are women (Rose Madder), others are physically or mentally handicapped (The Bad Place). Others are verbally, physically, psychologically, or sexually abused (It). Still others are children (Desperation). Especially in Koontz’s novels, victims are even sometimes animals (Watchers).

Their conditions (being psychologically dependent, physically weak, physically or mentally handicapped, young and naïve) make them vulnerable, and something about their personalities and, at times, their past experiences, makes them sympathetic. They may be pure of heart, precocious, developmentally disabled, autistic, victims of previous traumas, social outcasts, unlucky at love, afflicted with a terminal illness, or sufferers of adultery or some other sort of betrayal.

However, the victim must also have a reserve of pluck, of nerve, of courage, of which he or she may unaware. The stalker or killer or monster or whatever other form the antagonist may take will be the means by which the victim discovers his or her courage and defeats or banishes his or her foe (or, if he or she is vanquished, after all, puts up an incredible fight).

Therefore, if you want a victim with whom your readers can identify, make sure that he or she is vulnerable, sympathetic, and courageous. Then, win, lose, or draw in his or her contest with the adversary, your victim will attract and hold your reader’s or audience’s attention--and respect.

Indexing Horror

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Not many horror novelists are apt to peruse non-fiction books’ indices for fun and profit, but doing so can be profitable--and, yes, even fun. They lay out the skeletons of their books, making it clear which topics the authors address at some length and which they consider in less detail. An index can also suggest a context for the discussion of various concepts and the relationships among one idea and other notions.

In this, my third post concerning Daniel Dinello’s Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology, I want to take a look at this volume’s index. Doing so shows these tantalizing connections: artificial intelligence is linked to “racism,” as it is to “robot slavery”; the film Alien is related to not only “corporate control,” but also to “viral horror”; androids are compared to “cyborgs” and “robots,” and Dinello writes about “female” androids, the “gothic myth of artificial creatures,” androids’ “revolt against humans,” and of androids in regard to “sexism.”

In our survey of Dinello’s index, we are not looking at the meat, just the bones, of these connections. The bare bones, however, suggest quite a few intriguing and dramatic possibilities in themselves, which we can flesh out, so to speak, with our own imaginations, a point to which I will return in a bit.

First, though, let’s continue our scan of the index. “Artificial intelligence,” which we saw linked to racism and robot slavery, under the entry for the movie “A. I.,” is, under the entry for “artificial intelligence,” also associated with “corporate power,” the “Founding Fathers,” the “military,” “nanotechnology,” “religion,” and weaponry, among other ideas. Dinello’s discussions of bionics includes “controlling prostheses” and its “military and divine origins.” Again, although these connections are, in the index, vague, they tease out ideas for captivating and spectacular treatments within the scope of a novel or a screenplay.

The index also lists several short stories, novels, and movies that deal with various aspects of nanotechnology or related topics, including, for example, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Robot Visions; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; Blade Runner; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Octavia Butler’s Dawn; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars; Robin Cook’s Contagion, Outbreak, Toxic, and Vector; Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Prey; Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?,” The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Vulcan’s Hammer.

Plenty of other fictional works, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, I Am Legend, Homunculus, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Johnny Mnemonic, and many others, are listed, suggesting the wide variety which Dinello’s subject and its related topics have comprised and the relatively long period of time during which they have been treated in science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

But let’s return to the use that writers might make of such tantalizing connections between these topics. Could artificial intelligence be used to boost or lower the natural intelligence of a particular race or ethnicity, to level the playing field in a futuristic, politically correct society, perhaps? How much artificial intelligence should “robot slavery” involve? Might it be dangerous to make robot slaves too smart for their masters‘ own good? Could artificial insemination and gestation be used to enhance companies’ bottom lines and extend their “corporate control” of politicians and citizens? Would hackers be likely to design a “viral horror” with which to infect robot slaves or other androids, as a means of gaining the upper hand or to secure huge ransoms? Why does society need “female” androids--or, for that matter--male androids? Could the creation of such mechanical women (and men) the future’s answer to the practical difficulties and moral qualms related to prostitution? Is that where “sexism” comes into play concerning androids? The answer (or answers) to any of these questions, all of which are based upon simple words and phrases to be found in the entries to Dinello’s index, is a potential short story, novel, or screenplay.

Hopefully, you’ll never look at the index to a nonfiction book the same way again.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Techno- and Other Phobias

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Rubens' Medusa: an image of both gynephobia and serpentephobia?

There seems little doubt that there are some real phobias. Plenty of people seem to be genuinely afraid of snakes, for example, and most people have met others who are terrified by just the thought of germs. However, it also seems clear that some “phobias” are products of little more than political correctness. Perhaps homophobia fits into the latter category.

Man-made phobias are a horror writer’s dream come true, because by inventing irrational fears, authors of such fiction have a means of creating an all-but-inexhaustible supply of fears, and, of course, fear (and disgust) is the mainstay of horror fiction.

Take technophobia--the irrational fear of technology. This phobia is the basis for all kinds of short stories, novels, and films. In fact, technophobia is the subject of an entire book, Technophobia!: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology by Daniel Dinello.

Technophobia knows many forms. According to Dinello, it is evident in science fiction’s (and, one might add, to a lesser degree, horror’s) “obsession with mad scientists, rampaging robots, killer clones, cutthroat cyborgs, human-hating androids, satanic supercomputers, flesh-eating viruses, and genetically mutated monsters” (2).

The most extreme expression of technophobia--and one which may soon be not only feasible, but also “inevitable,” according to artificial intelligence expert Raymond Kurzweil,” Dinello says--is the transfer of “human minds into death-free robots” as what science fiction writer Vernor Vinge predicts may be “the next stage of evolution,” which could end in the “physical extinction of the human race,” Hans Moravec, a “robotics pioneer,” warns(4).

Some of the stories in which such transformations are portrayed include Terminator, I, Robot, Blade Runner, Robocop, and, of course, Matrix. Likewise, such novels as H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Food of the Gods, Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and Robin Cook’s Coma are based upon similar technophobic fears.

By adding “phobia” to the ends of other words that refer to basic human enterprises, scientific, cultural, social, or otherwise, might produce similar subgenres of science fiction and horror: biophobia (fear of life or maybe just biology), statuarophobia (fear of statues), cinematophobia (fear of motion pictures), gardenophobia (fear of gardens), meterophobia (fear of weather), androphobia (fear of men), gynophobia (fear of women), ephebiphobia (fear of children), serpentophobia (fear of snakes), and so on, ad infinitum.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quality Television--It’s Back!

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

Occasionally, television transcends itself and offers a series that is worth watching, even in the conglomerate science fiction-fantasy-horror genre: Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville. Lately, the Syfy Channel has done it again, with not one, but two, series: Eureka and Warehouse 13.


Created by Andrew Cosby and Jamie Pagli, Eureka premiered on July 18, 2006, and focuses upon its setting, the small town of Eureka, Oregon. The town (like Mercury, Nevada) is owned and operated by the U. S. Government, as a combination home, laboratory, and think tank for its residents, most of whom are geniuses and scientists who work for Global Dynamics, a research facility that has invented, discovered, or engineered most of the cutting-edge technological marvels released and distributed to the public over the past half century.

The plotlines for the episodes are much the same: use or abuse of experimental research causes a catastrophe that is remedied by the town’s scientists and its sheriff, Jack Carter. The lawman stumbled upon Eureka as he was transporting his runaway daughter Zoe back home to her mother’s residence in Los Angeles and, when one of the town’s many mysterious accidents injured the sheriff, Carter was chosen as his replacement. The show is filmed mostly in Canada’s British Columbia, although its city hall is Ashland, Oregon’s, city hall and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is the source of Global Dynamic’s exterior shots.


Warehouse 13 was created by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran and executive Battlestar Galactica co-producer Jane Espenson and D. Brent Mote. Two U. S. Secret Service agents, Myka Bering and Peter Lattimer, chase down supernatural artifacts, collect them, and deposit them in a secret government warehouse (the Warehouse 13 of the series’ title) for safekeeping. The agents are supervised by Arthur Nielsen, whose nemesis is James McPherson, a former Warehouse 13 agent who now seems to be freelancing. Twelve similar warehouses preceded Warehouse 13, each of which was located, in its day, in the world’s most powerful nation. Designed by Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and M. C. Escher, Warehouse 13 is located in South Dakota.

Among the artifacts that Bering and Lattimer have recovered are a stone that controls those whose blood touches it (“Aztec Bloodstone”), an electronic stun gun (“Tesla Gun”), a boomerang football (“Rugby Football”), a mask that allows its user to breathe underwater (“Underwater Breathing Mask”), a self-propelled vehicle (“Bio-Energy Vehicle”), an aircraft lost in the Bermuda Triangle (“Training Flight 22”), a billfold that can transport dead souls (“Harry Houdini’s Wallet”), a kettle that can grant some wishes but not others (“Wishing Kettle”), a clock-stopping calendar (“Mayan Calendar”), a song that creates a sense of euphoria (“Euphoria Record”), an Alice in Wonderland-style looking-glass (“Lewis Carroll's Mirror”), a camera that transforms its subject into a still, two-dimensional, black-and-white photograph (“Still Camera”), and a host of other objects. Although the artifacts are not all as imaginative or ingenious as one might wish, enough of them remain at large, one may presume, to fuel many future installments of the inventive series.

More information about both shows is available at Syfy’s official website.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Horror Trilogies: Not Quite Triptychs

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

A trilogy is a three-part series of novels, each of which tells a separate story, intelligible in itself, but which also, collectively, make up a longer, continuous narrative that is unified by various elements, such as the same cast of characters, the same settings, and the same or similar themes.

Perhaps one of the better known modern trilogies is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast is also a well-known fantasy trilogy. Trilogies are relatively rare among horror novels.

The Pine Deep Trilogy, by Jonathan Maberry, is such a series, however. It focuses upon the “Most Haunted Town in America,” the futuristic Pine Deep, Pennsylvania. The trilogy’s title volumes are Ghost Road Blues, devoted to the pursuit of serial killer Karl Ruger, who is attracted to Pine Deep by the ancient evil that resides thereabout; Dead Man’s Song (2007); and Bad Moon Rising (2008). The initial volume won the 2006 Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel, the horror genre’s highest prize.

The plot?

Thirty years before the opening of the series’ present-day story, Oren Morse, a traveling field hand and blues musician whom the community’s children nickname the “Bone Man,” kills Ubel Griswold, a werewolf who’d been terrorizing Pine Deep. Local racists, blaming Morse for Griswold’s killings, murder Morse. Fifteen years later, Griswold’s spirit awakens, and, assisted by Vic Wingate, the werewolf seeks revenge upon Pine Deep.

Among those whom Morse saved was nine-year old Malcolm Crow, who now owns a craft store based upon a Halloween theme. His fiancé, Val Guthrie, is also a survivor of the original massacre. Their friend, Pine Deep’s mayor, Terry Wolfe, suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of his sister’s having been murdered (and his own near murder) by Griswold.

In Ghost Road Blues, Ruger attacks Val and her family again. Wingate’s adopted son, Mike Sweeney, who dreams of confronting various evils, is targeted by Tow-Truck Eddie after “God” tells Eddie that Mike is the antichrist. In reality, “God’s” voice is that of Griswold.

In Dead Man’s Song, Crow and local newsman Willard Fowler Newton, research the events of thirty years ago, while Wingate and Ruger assemble an army of the undead for Griswold to command during the “Red Wave,” a massive attack on Halloween night. While Crow and Newton visit Dark Hollow, where Griswold had both lived and died, one of Ruger’s companions, Boyd, becomes a vampire and Griswold’s ghost sets a trap for Crow, as Wingate sends Boyd after Val.

In Bad Moon Rising, Crow and his friends learn the truth concerning their foes, just as the Red Wave is about to get underway.

The formula for Maberry’s trilogy is simple, but effective:
1. An ancient evil returns.
2. The ancient evil repeats its atrocities.
3. Armed with knowledge concerning the ancient evil, the protagonist combats it.
Another trilogy by a well-known writer who has written horror fiction in the past and still dabbles in the genre on occasion is Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series: Prodigal Son, co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson (2004), City of Night, co-authored with Ed Gorman (2005), and Dead and Alive (2009). (Now we know, I guess, how "Koontz" manages to write so many novels so quickly; he has more help than just his handful of psuedonyms.)

Dead Souls (2010) launches a second trilogy on the same theme.

Koontz, whose plots are often recycled and derivative of his own previous work and the works of others, is at least making no bones about such redundancies in the writing and co-writing of these trilogies.

In Koontz’s Frankenstein update, Victor Frankenstein, now going by the name Victor Helios, has set up shop, so to speak, in New Orleans, where he uses synthetic biology to create a new race of androids as replacements for the human race, much to the chagrin of his nemeses, police detectives, Carson O’Connor and Michael Madison, and his original monster, who is now known as Deucalion. The new creatures’ personalities are downloaded directly into their brains through the wonders of computer technology.

The plot?

In Prodigal Son, O’Connor and Madison pursue a serial killer dubbed “The Surgeon.” Attracted by the killer’s serial murders, Frankenstein’s monster believes that his creator has somehow returned.

In City of Night, the detectives team up with the monster to stop Helios and the army of programmed android killers that Helios has unleashed upon New Orleans.

In Dead and Alive, the series’ grand finale takes place as Deucalion leads the hordes of his master’s creatures against Helios himself in a confrontation that is part showdown and part revenge. Koontz, however, hints at the sequel that is to launch his second Frankenstein series. After all, there’s gold in them thar monsters.

The formula for Koontz’s trilogy is simple, but effective:
1. An ancient evil returns.
2. The ancient evil repeats its atrocities.
3. Armed with knowledge concerning the ancient evil, the protagonist combats it.
The formula for both Maberry’s and Koontz’s trilogies suggest that Stephen King’s It could have been a trilogy; at over 1,000 pages, it is certainly long enough to have been broken into three installments, in which the first, the second, and the third, respectively, would present a plot in which--
1. An ancient evil returns.
2. The ancient evil repeats its atrocities.
3. Armed with knowledge concerning the ancient evil, the protagonist combats it.
Wait! Isn’t that also the plot of King’s Desperation? And of Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night? And of Bentley Little’s The Resort? And. . . .mmm. . . it seems we may be onto something here (maybe the reason there are comparatively so few horror novel trilogies).

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How To Haunt A House, Part VII

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman

In the first installment of this series, I listed some of the films which feature haunted houses. In this chapter of the series, I take a closer look, as it were, at four of these houses and their spectral residents to see what I can see, so to speak, regarding these movie’s storylines.

In “Horror Story Formulae,” I lay out the bare bones of the basic horror fiction plot, or formula:
  1. A series of bizarre, seemingly unrelated incidents occurs.
  2. The protagonist (and, sometimes, his or her friends or associates) discover the cause of the incidents (often, it is a monster).
  3. Using their newfound knowledge, they end the bizarre incidents (perhaps by killing the monster).

Although it is often adapted and varied, this formula continues to be the foundation for most horror stories, whether in print or on film, as a consideration of the movies summarized and analyzed in this installment of “How To Haunt A House” suggests:


The Uninvited: “From the most popular mystery romance since Rebecca!

Based upon Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold, The Uninvited (1944) The plot is not so much traditional as it is stereotypical (that is, formulaic):

  1. A couple buys a lovely mansion that is offered for sale at a price too good to be true.
  2. Shortly after they move in, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.
  3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting.
  4. The protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)
  5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.
  6. The haunting resumes or ends.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. A couple buys a lovely mansion that is offered for sale at a price too good to be true.

Roderick “Rick” Fitzgerald and his sister Pamela discover a handsome, abandoned seaside house during a holiday on one of England’s rocky coasts. Even though their terrier, Bobby, refuses to climb the house’s graceful, curving stairway, Pamela and Rick fall “head-over-heels in love” with the grand old house. The brother and sister purchase the property, called Windward House, for an unusually low price from its owner, Commander Beech, who long ago inherited the eighteenth-century mansion from his grandmother before giving it to his late daughter, Mary Beech Meredith. During the property sale transaction, Rick and Pamela meet Beech’s 20-year-old granddaughter, Stella Meredith, who lives with her grandfather in the nearby town of Biddlecombe. Stella is deeply upset by the sale of Windward because of her attachment to it and to the memory of her mother, despite Windward's being the location of her mother’s death when Stella was but three. Her nostalgia over the house is discouraged by the Commander, who has forbidden Stella to enter. However, against Beech’s wishes, she gains access to Windward House through Rick, who has become infatuated with Stella's charm and “Sleeping Beauty magic.”

2. Shortly after they move in, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.

The Fitzgeralds’ initial enchantment with the house diminishes, once they have become its owners and unlock a forbidding and uncomfortable artist's studio, in which they experience an unexplainable chill; even a small bouquet of roses Pamela has picked withers in the cheerless room. A few weeks later, once Rick arrives in Biddlecombe to stay, he learns that Bobby has deserted Windward in a decidedly uncharacteristic manner for a terrier. Then, just before dawn, after his own first night in his new home, Rick hears the eerie and heartbreaking sobs of an unseen woman--a phenomenon that Pamela has investigated thoroughly during the time she has spent decorating Winward whilst awaiting her brother's return with the Fitzgeralds’ Irish housekeeper, Lizzie Flynn. Lizzie's cat, like the terrier Bobby, will not climb the stairway. And although the superstitious Lizzie notices a peculiar draft on the stairs, she is ignorant of the sounds of weeping. Now Rick and Pamela must face the obvious--a secret they must keep from Lizzie: Windward House is haunted. On a pleasant Sunday evening, Stella comes to Windward for dinner, and she soon becomes aware of Windward's spirit. Rather than fearing it, she senses a calming presence that she associates with her mother, as well as a strong scent of mimosa--her mother's favorite perfume. Suddenly Stella becomes unreasonably distressed for enjoying herself in her mother's house. Crying, “But she was so young, and she died so cruelly,” Stella dashes down the stairs and out across the lawn towards the very cliff from which Mary Meredith fell to her death seventeen years earlier. “It’s that blasted room!” Rick calls to Pamela as he chases Stella and catches her just before she falls from the cliff to the rocky seas below. Something in Windward has possessed Stella and tried to kill her. As Rick, Pamela, and Stella return to the house, they hear a scream from Lizzie Flynn. Lizzie has seen a ghostly apparition, and, in short order, decides to sleep at a neighbor's farmhouse (although remaining in the Fitzgeralds’ employ).

3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting.

Windward's now undeniable haunting and the ways in which it relates to Stella prove to be a complex mystery. The strange occurrences are investigated by the Fitzgeralds along with the town physician, Dr. Scott), whom they've befriended, and who has adopted the Fitzgeralds’ wandering terrier, Bobby. In exploring the history of the family, they are told that Stella’s father, a painter, had had an affair with his model--a Spanish gypsy girl named Carmel. Stella’s mother, Mary Meredith, from all accounts a beautiful and virtuous woman, found out about the infidelity and took Carmel to Paris, leaving her there. Carmel eventually came back, stole the infant Stella and, during a confrontation, flung Mary Meredith off the nearby cliff to her death. Shortly afterward, Carmel herself became ill and died.

4. The protagonists put their newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.

Rick, Pamela and Dr. Scott conspire to dissuade Stella from her dangerous obsession with Windward by staging a séance. Using an upturned wineglass and an alphabet on a tabletop, they attempt to convey to Stella the “message” that Stella’s mother wants her daughter to stay away from the house. Suddenly the real ghost takes over the proceedings, communicating that it is guarding Stella, presumably from the ghost of Carmel. A sort of ghostly confrontation ensues, causing the wineglass to fly from the table and shatter. Stella is unexpectedly possessed by the spirit of a woman who mutters in Spanish, “My love,” and “Do not believe!” The séance is interrupted by Commander Beech, who removes Stella and secretly arranges for her to be sent to The Mary Meredith Retreat, a sanitorium run by a Miss Holloway), Mary Meredith’'s childhood friend and confidante. Holloway worships Mary with an obsession that borders on insanity. The Fitzgeralds travel by car to the sanitorium to interview Holloway, not knowing that Stella is confined there. Holloway explains to them that after Mary's death, she took care of Carmel, who had contracted pneumonia and eventually died of the illness. The Fitzgeralds return home with little new information. Rifling through old records left by the previous village physician, Dr. Scott discovers that Carmel died of neglect at the hands of Miss Holloway. The doctor is then called away to care for an ailing Commander Beech, who tells him that Stella is at the sanitorium. Knowing Holloway's true nature, Rick, Pam, and Scott decide to rescue Stella. They telephone Holloway and tell her that they are on their way. At the Meredith Retreat, knowing the trio is en route, Holloway deceives Stella, saying that the Fitzgeralds have invited her to live with them to be closer to the spirit of her mother. Stella happily takes the train home, not knowing Holloway's motive is to send her alone to house filled with a malevolent spirit, who will quickly overwhelm Stella, leading her to the cliff and a deadly fall. The trio arrives at the sanitorium only to find a deranged Holloway, who tells them that Stella is on her way to Windward House. They rush back towards Biddlecombe, but are twenty minutes behind Stella's train. Stella arrives at the house to find her grandfather in the haunted artist's studio. Weakened nearly to the point of death, he begs Stella with his last strength to get out of the house, but she loyally remains at his side. As a ghostly presence appears, the Commander succumbs to a heart attack. Stella welcomes the ghost, convinced it is the protective spirit of her mother. But the cold, vindictive apparition makes her scream with fright, and she flees in panic again towards the cliff. Rick, Pam, and Scott arrive just in time to pull Stella from the crumbling cliff to safety.

5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.

Back inside the still-troubled house, the group is drawn again to the physician’s journal found by Dr. Scott. They discover that before her death at the hands of Miss Holloway, Carmel gave birth to a child--apparently in Paris, where Stella herself was born. Then the truth becomes clear: Stella's mother is actually Carmel, who returned to Windward from Paris not for love of Mary's husband, but to be near her own little girl. Stella recalls that mimosa was said to be her mother's favorite perfume, not that of Mary Meredith at all. Indeed, the warm scent of mimosa and the heartfelt, ghostly sobs have been emanating from Carmel--not from supposedly saintly Mary--all along. Understanably, Stella is relieved to learn that she is not the child of the cold, perfect Mary Meredith. Being Carmel’s daughter makes sense to her, and she realizes that the spirit of her true mother is free and has left Windward, never to cry again.

6. The haunting resumes or ends.

Something evil, though, has remained. The living flee the house--all but Rick, who overcomes his own terror to confront the cruel and furious spirit of Mary Meredith, admonishing her that they are no longer afraid of her, and that she has no power over them anymore. Defeated, Mary's spirit then departs, and the house is calm. Lizzie's cat eases up the stairway, licking a paw. The night of struggling spirits and wicked vindication has ended, and a bright future dawns for Rick, Stella, Pamela, Scott, and, perhaps, even for Windward House on its lonely cliff along a haunted shore.

Ghost Ship: “Sea evil.”

Based upon the fate of the ocean liner S. S. Andrea Doria, which sank in 1956, after colliding with the M. S. Stockholm, near Nantucket, Massachusetts, Ghost Ship (2002) is a remake of the 1952 film by the same name.

This movie embraces a plot ploy that has become typical, if not yet stereotypical, of contemporary horror stories: it begins with a teaser, a horrific scene which begins in media res (literally, in the middle of things, and, therefore, without any narrative context) and, as such, represents a hook, or teaser, that is intended to capture the audience’s attention and motivate them to watch the rest of the film--a sort of cliffhanger that appears at the beginning of the story rather than at the end of a chapter. Following the teaser, the story’s actual inciting moment occurs, and, from this point onward, the storyline pretty much follows the formula that is common for horror stories. With these advisories, the plot for this type of story can be represented by the following outline:

  1. As a teaser, a festive scene ends in horror as a catastrophe occurs.
  2. In the story’s true inciting moment, an opportunity for profit occurs.
  3. Shortly after the protagonist seeks to profit from the opportunity, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.
  4. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)
  5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.
  6. The protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.
  7. The haunting resumes or ends.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy, again, of Wikipedia:

1. As a teaser, a festive scene ends in horror as a catastrophe occurs.

The film opens aboard an Italian ocean liner, Antonia Graza, in May 1962. Dozens of wealthy passengers enjoy dancing in the ship's luxurious ballroom while a beautiful Italian woman) sings “Senza Fine.” Galley crew wheel carts of soup around as stewards carry trays of champagne and wine. On the bow deck, more passengers dance on a platform surrounded by a cable attached to a mast. Away from the party in an outer room, a gloved hand pulls a switch that causes a spool to reel in a thin wire cable at high speed. Suddenly, the cable runs out and is detached from the mast. The cable slices across the deck (dance floor) like a blade, cutting through the crowd of dancing passengers. They stand still for several seconds before grasping that they have been cut in half, and then begin to fall apart. Only little Katie), who had been dancing with the ship's Captain, is spared, thanks to her small stature and to the captain leaning down to protect her when he saw the wire snap. Seeing the fate of the other dancers, she looks up at the officer's face. He looks back at her sorrowfully, as his face splits open at mouth level and the top of his head falls off. Katie then screams, the view from the outside of the ship zooms down underwater, and the
film cuts to the present day. A salvage crew made up of Captain Sean Murphy,
Maureen Epps, Greer, Dodge, Munder, and Santos have retrieved a sinking ship in
the open ocean. They bring the ship into port and receive its salvage value from
the authorities.

2. In the story’s true inciting moment, an opportunity for profit occurs.

While celebrating their success at a bar, Jack Ferriman, a Canadian Air Force pilot, approaches them and says he has spotted a mysterious vessel running adrift in the Bering Sea. Because the ship is in international waters, it can be claimed by whoever is able to bring it to a port. The crew soon set out on the Arctic Warrior, a small tugboat. While exploring the abandoned ship, they discover that it is the Antonia Graza, an Italian luxury liner that disappeared in May 1962 and was believed to be lost at sea. The ocean liner's disappearance was well known at the time.

3. Shortly after the protagonist seeks to profit from the opportunity, strange and inexplicable incidents occur.

When they board the ship and prepare to tow it to shore, strange things begin to
happen. Epps claims to have seen a little girl on the stairwell while trying to save Munder from falling through the floor, Greer claims to have heard singing in various places on the ship, and Epps and Ferriman discover the corpses of another team of salvagers in the ship’s laundry room. The crew decides to leave the ship but also to take a large quantity of gold in the ship’s hold. Before they can escape, however, their tugboat explodes when a propane tank mysteriously explodes as the engine is started, which also kills Santos, who was on board trying to fix the boat. The rest are stuck on a ghost ship in the middle of the Bering Sea with no form of communication.
When they decide to attempt to fix the Antonia Graza and sail it back to shore, they all experience hauntings. Epps finds a child's skeleton hanging by a noose in a wardrobe, and Dodge and Munder find (and accidentally eat) maggots in ration cans they initially mistook for rice and beans. Meanwhile, Greer meets the beautiful Italian singer who seduces him; however, when he tries to touch her, she disappears, and Greer falls down a shaft and is impaled on tools and equipment.

4. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)

Epps meets the ghost of Katie who was on her way to New York to be with her parents, who tries to tell Epps the secret of the ship but is attacked by an unseen force and vanishes Epps runs and finds Murphy who has been drinking with the ghost Captain. Murphy sees a disfigured Santos instead of Epps and attacks her thinking she is a ghost. Before he can harm Epps, he is knocked out by Ferriman. Munder, Dodge and Ferriman dump Murphy into a aquarium while they try to find Greer. Despite the loss of Murphy and Greer, however, the team does manage to get the boat running again enough for it to start sailing. Epps with Katie's help finds Greer's body and Katie then takes her momentarily back to the past where Epps finally sees what had happened. While the numerous dancers were sliced by the wire, the chefs in the kitchen were murdered by the crew who began pouring rodent poison into the evening's food. The food was served, and the diners began to succumb to the poison, plagued by severe nausea and dizziness. The crew then began taking the lives of the rest of the passengers by lining them by the pool and shooting them (young Katie was hung in the closet). As the crew takes the gold for themselves, one crew member (an officer) walks out of the small compartment where the valuables are stored. He takes a look at Francesca, the ship's sultry ballroom singer, who is also standing there dressed in a shimmering red satin strapless ball gown, turns around, and viciously murders his fellow crewmates out of greed with a submachine gun. Francesca then shoots him in the head with a pistol. At last, a man walks up to Francesca and they embrace. As he walks away, the singer looks up and sees a large hook swing into her face, killing her. The man burns a mark into her hand, and it is
revealed that he, the mastermind of the attack, was Jack Ferriman. Ferriman, as it turns out, is an evil spirit. Realizing the danger they are all in, Epps tries to get Murphy out of the aquarium only to find that it is already filled to the brim and Murphy has drowned. Epps finds Dodge and tells him what she found out just as Ferriman comes back. Epps tells them to not let each other out of the others sight. She goes to find Munder, who unfortunately had already been killed when the gears in the ship started up and he was trying to fix them and he was ground into them. Back on the deck Ferriman says he wants to go check on Epps. When Dodge refuses to let him, Ferriman mocks how he worships Epps, and warns Dodge that killing a man would send him to hell. Ferriman attacks Dodge who shoots him anyway. Knowing everything now, Epps decides to blow up the ship, but is confronted by Dodge. When Dodge begins to try to talk Epps out of blowing up the ship, she realizes that it is really Ferriman who has killed Dodge and disguised himself as him.

5. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.

He states the obvious--by using the gold as bait, he has taken multitudes of souls to his masters (presumably Satan); he has been doing this for a long time, and considers himself a “salvager” of souls. A ferryman of souls, hence the name Ferriman. He guided the salvagers there merely to effect repairs.

6. The protagonists put their newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.

They fight for a short amount of time before Epps manages to blow up the ship, “killing” Ferriman. She is left in the debris as the souls trapped on the ship ascend to heaven. Katie stops to thank her and leads her out of the sinking ship.

7. The haunting resumes or ends.

Epps is discovered by a large cruise ship and taken back to land. The last scene hows Epps in the back of an ambulance at the docks. She looks out the back of the vehicle from her stretcher and sees the battered crates of gold being loaded onto the cruise ship by her deceased crew, followed moments later by Ferriman. Realizing what is about to happen she screams, only to be silenced by the closing ambulance doors.

The House on Haunted Hill: “See it with someone with warm hands!”

The House on Haunted Hill (1959) brings together a party who are challenged to survive a night in an allegedly haunted house; those who do will be rewarded with $10,000 each.

This plot is an variation of the typical horror story storyline:

  1. The story’s inciting moment occurs, as a host challenges his overnight guests.
  2. Cause is given to doubt the host’s sanity.
  3. An act of violence, usually resulting in someone’s death, occurs among strange, possibly supernatural, circumstances or incidents.
  4. One or more characters unsuccessfully try to cover up the effects of the violence.
  5. An explanation clarifies or seems to clarify the strange circumstances or incidents, revealing them to have resulted from an entirely natural cause.
  6. The occasion of the explanation is turned to the antagonist’s advantage, allowing him or her to commit a murder.
  7. The true explanation for the circumstances or incidents is provided, revealing them to have resulted from a different, but still entirely natural, cause.
  8. A truly supernatural incident occurs.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy, again, of Wikipedia:

1. The story’s inciting moment occurs, as a host challenges his overnight guests.

The five guests all arrive in separate funeral cars with a hearse leading, which their host, Fredrick Loren, explains may be empty now, but they may be in need of it later. He explains the rules of the party and gives each of the guests a .45 caliber pistol for protection.

2. Cause is given to doubt the host’s sanity.

Loren’s wife tries to warn the guests that her husband is psychotic, causing them to be very suspicious of him, especially Nora Manning, who becomes convinced that he’s trying to kill her when she keeps seeing mysterious ghouls, including the ghost of Annabelle, who had hanged herself after being forced to attend the party.

3. An act of violence, usually resulting in someone’s death, occurs among strange, possibly supernatural, circumstances or incidents.

After being driven into a fit of hysteria by the ghosts who haunt her, Nora shoots Mr. Loren, assuming he is going to kill her.

4. One or more characters unsuccessfully try to cover up the effects of the violence.

Dr. Trent, another guest, tries to get rid of the body by pushing it into acid, but the lights go out, and when they come back on, both of the men are gone.

5. An explanation clarifies or seems to clarify the strange circumstances or incidents, revealing them to have resulted from an entirely natural cause.

Annabelle emerges, having faked her death with the help of Dr. Trent, and having
apparently tricked Nora into killing Loren.

6. The occasion of the explanation is turned to the antagonist’s advantage, allowing him or her to commit a murder.

Suddenly, a skeleton emerges from the acid accompanied by the voice of Loren. The specter approaches Annabelle as she recoils in terror. In this panic, the screaming Annabelle accidentally backs into the acid herself. The real Mr. Loren walks out of the shadow, holding the contraption that he was using to control the skeleton of Dr. Trent. In his triumph, he watches Annabelle disintegrate.

7. The true explanation for the circumstances or incidents is provided, revealing them to have resulted from a different, but still entirely natural, cause.

Nora tells the other guests that she's shot Loren in the cellar, and they all rush down there. When they arrive, they see that he's actually alive, and he explains to them that his wife and Dr. Trent were having an affair, and that the “haunting” was just a joke planned by him with the help of the caretakers. He also tells them that they’d planned to trick Nora into murdering him so that they could get away with his money. He had not loaded Nora’s guns with bullets, but blanks.

8. A truly supernatural incident occurs.

Just when everyone thinks the trauma is finally over, Mr. Pritchard, the house owner, looks up, a terrified expression on his face, and announces that the ghosts are finally coming for them.

What Lies Beneath: “He was the perfect husband until his one mistake followed them home.”

What Lies Beneath (2000) is Robert Zemeckis’ homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

The storyline resolves itself into a familiar pattern:

  1. A protagonist’s suspicions are aroused by a strange incident.
  2. Strange incidents continue to occur.
  3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting.A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)
  4. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.The protagonists put their newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits.
  5. The haunting resumes or ends.

Here are the details that fill in this storyline, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. A protagonist’s suspicions are aroused by a strange incident.

Claire Spencer moves to Vermont with her husband, renowned scientist Dr. Norman
Spencer, after a serious car accident which leaves gaps in her memory. Combined with her daughter Caitlin’s departure for college, Claire is profoundly affected. Overhearing her new neighbor Mary Feur sobbing one day, Claire is concerned, despite Norman’s reassurance, and her worry increases when she sees Mary’s husband Warren dragging what looks like a body bag out of the house in the middle of the night. Claire decides to investigate by taking a basket of flowers and wine to the house as a gift. After nobody answers the door she walks around the side of the house and discovers a woman's sandal with a dark stain on it, which she steals. Back on the doorstep, she is surprised by Warren whose surly behavior further arouses her suspicion.
2. Strange incidents continue to occur.

Mysterious events begin to occur when Claire is alone in the house--pictures fall, doors open and close and Claire witnesses a shadowy reflection in bathwater. Claire is convinced that Mary is dead and haunting her. Desperate for closure, and facing little sympathy from Norman, Claire invites her best friend Jody to join her for a séance in her bathroom. Claire produces the sandal she had earlier taken from Mary's house and places it on the table. The Ouija board does not move, but a candle starts to flicker, then goes out. The dial on the Ouija board then starts to move slowly from M to F. Claire informs Norman of the séance, prompting him to accuse her of going crazy. Meeting Warren, Claire hysterically accuses him of killing his wife, to which Warren responds with confusion before introducing Mary to the pair.
3. A back story explains (or seems to explain) the wherefore of the haunting, and the protagonist puts his or her newfound knowledge to use to exorcise the ghosts or abandon the house to the spirits. (The partial back story and its basis as for an attempted resolution of the problem or conflict are a combination of two of the plot sequences typical of the traditional horror story formula, and each part is provided in a piecemeal and cumulative fashion, alternating with the other throughout the remaining portion of the story.) (The protagonist may be a group, but, if so, they will operate as a cooperative unit.)

Back at the house, a picture falls off the windowsill again, and as Claire removes the newspaper cutting from the broken frame, she notices a partial missing person report on the back of the cutting, for Madison Elizabeth. Claire finds a missing person report for Madison Elizabeth Frank, a student at the university where Norman had been a lecturer. Claire decides to visit Madison’s mother. Claire performs a ritual with the lock of hair she found at Madison’s mother’s house, which allows Madison to possess her and seduce Norman when he returns home from work. Norman, frightened by comments Claire has made, pushes her away from him, causing her to drop the lock of hair and break the connection. Claire’s memory begins to return and she recalls that she had once caught Norman with Madison.
4. A fuller account explains the true cause of the haunting.
Norman makes a confession: he had a brief relationship with Madison, but realized quickly that he loved Claire too much to leave her, causing unstable Madison to threaten to kill Claire. He then visited Madison to find her dead of an overdose with a letter to Claire. Burning the letter, he pushed Madison's car (with Madison inside) into the lake. Norman and Claire agree to telephone the police. Norman makes the call before going to take a shower. As Claire realizes that the number her husband called is not that of the police, Norman suddenly sedates her and places her into the filling bathtub, expecting her to drown. He leans over her to give her one final kiss, and see's that she is wearing a pendant around her neck. Realizing the pendant is on backwards, he picks up Claire’s head to adjust it as her face morphs into the corpse-like face of Madison. He is startled and jumps up against a mirror, collapses and hits his head on the sink, then falls to the floor. Claire, recovering from the sedative, crawls out of the bath and downstairs. The telephone has been disconnected, so she starts to drive somewhere that will have better cellular telephone reception, passing Norman's body as she leaves the house. Norman, only stunned, chases her and jumps into the truck when she pauses on a bridge. The truck veers off the bridge and plunges into the lake, the same lake into which Norman pushed Madison’s car. Norman grabs Claire’s leg so that she cannot escape, but Madison’s ghost grabs Norman dragging him to the bottom of the lake, and forcing him to release Claire’s leg so she can float to the
surface.
5. The haunting resumes or ends.

The following winter, Claire is seen placing a single red rose at the grave of Madison Elizabeth Frank, but not the grave of Norman. The camera pans out and an image of Madison’s face is seen in the snow.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How to Haunt a House: Part VI

Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman


Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion

Walt Disney can teach the author of horror fiction a thing or two about how to haunt a house. After all, he and his Imagineers have done so on more than one occasion. A residence in Anaheim, California, a residence in Paris, France, a residence in Orlando, Florida, and a residence in Tokyo, Japan, are all haunted. How they came to be haunted is instructive to writers who want to create their own haunted houses, as I have done, for example, in my novels Mystic Mansion and The Madhouse.

The Disneyland house in Anaheim was the first project, and its chief Imagineer, Ken Anderson designed an antebellum mansion based on his study of plantation residences. Unfortunately, Disney didn’t like the result because the exterior of the mansion was dilapidated, and he did not think its appearance matched the rest of his pristine park. Disney knew that the part should complement the whole, a principle that should also inform the work of the horror writer.

A solution was reached. The Imagineers would keep the exterior of the house looking good, but leave the condition of the interior of the house to the care--or carelessness--of its ghostly residents. “We'll take care of the outside and let the ghosts take care of the inside,” Disney declared.

Whereas Anderson had researched the mansions of the antebellum South, Disney himself conducted research for the project by visiting the famous--or infamous--Winchester Mystery Mansion. He was impressed with the immensity of the house (which, by the way, inspired the mansion in Stephen King’s television mini-series Rose Red) and its many oddities (stairs to nowhere, doors which open upon blank walls, windows that look upon nothing more than one another, the number thirteen as an architectural and decorative motif, among many others). Rolly Crump and Yale Gracey, the Imagineers assigned to produce the mansion’s special effects, researched reports of allegedly haunted houses, Greek myths, and movie monsters for ideas, and both their, Anderson’s and Disney’s own studies of various aspects of the project demonstrate that research is important in the designing of a haunted house, another principle that the horror writer should adopt in creating his or her own haunted domicile. (I did research for Mystic Mansion and The Madhouse by familiarizing myself with architectural terms and by reviewing photographs and reading descriptions of mansions and architectural features typical of the various styles of such homes.)

Where to locate the haunted house is an important decision, too. Disney and his Imagineers decided to locate the Anaheim park’s haunted mansion in New Orleans Square, which is why the house is an antebellum mansion. Disney understood, as horror writers should, that it is important for the architectural style of the haunted house to match that of its environs.

Anderson created a series of stories that unified the various sights and sounds that the haunted house featured. The “ghost host” who greets visitors as they enter the house is the spirit of a sea captain who hung himself after killing his bride. The lesson here, which should not be lost to writers of horror fiction, is that a unifying back story is needed for their fiction.

Two of the projects’ Imagineers, Marc Davis and Claude Coats, disagreed as to whether the haunted house should frighten or amuse; in the end, both got their way, when Davis’ desire for amusement and Coats’ wish for frights were both honored in the mansion’s final features. Writers of horror fiction, when faced with contradictory impulses should consider the Disney resolution: it may be possible, by compromising with conflicting impulses, to enrich one’s story by incorporating elements of competing inclinations.

Writers of horror fiction can also profit from the care that Disney’s Imagineers used to let the interior of the mansion itself help to guide plans for the haunted house. Each of the house’s many rooms becomes a staging area, so to speak, for its sights, sounds, and special effects, so that there is variety in the attraction’s chills, thrills, and chuckles. In addition, the exhibits often have a delightful, unexpected “extra,” such as the grandfather clock that manages to strike 13! Wikipedia’s article concerning the attraction features a section devoted to describing “the basic attraction” which does a good job of summarizing this room-by-room variety. The odd capitalization and the bold type are the anonymous encyclopedia authors’, not mine:


The following scenes are common to all versions of the attraction except The Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris, and taken as a whole form the basic ride experience.

After entering through a pair of ornate gates, guests find themselves walking through the mansion’s well-tended gardens and courtyards. A cemetery featuring tombstones bearing humorous epitaphs adorns the grounds. A pet cemetery is also seen nearby, with marble representations of some dearly departed critters. Guests are led into a Small Foyer by Cast Members dressed as maids and butlers.

After a few minutes, the guests are brought into an Octagonal Room (also known as the Portrait Gallery, the Stretching Room, the Secret Room, or the Expanding Room), and encouraged by the staff to stand in the “dead center.” The door they entered through then becomes a wall, and the chilling voice of Paul Frees introduces himself:

“Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Haunted Mansion. I am your host--your 'Ghost Host.’

. . . and taunts them:

“Your cadaverous pallor betrays an aura of foreboding, almost as though you sense a disquieting metamorphosis. Is this haunted room actually stretching? Or is it your imagination, hmm?”

As the voice speaks, the audience's eye is drawn up to four portraits on every
other wall of the octagonal shaped room. The walls quietly stretch upwards,
elongating the Marc Davis-designed paintings on them to reveal the comedic fates
of previous guests:

A bearded man (Alexander Nitrokoff) is seen in the dress of minor nobility... and red and white striped boxer shorts. . . while standing on a keg of dynamite with a lit fuse.

A demure young woman holding a parasol. . . and calmly balancing on an unraveling tightrope... above the hungry jaws of a waiting crocodile.

An old lady (Constance Hatchaway) sits. . . atop a tall gravestone... which features the bust of a man (George Hightower) with an axe through his head.

A man with sideburns sitting. . . on a fat, mustached man who is sitting... atop a lean, pale-looking gentleman... who is chest-deep in quicksand.

“And consider this dismaying observation: this chamber has no windows, and no doors... which offers you this chilling challenge: to find a way out! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Of course, there's always my
way. . . .”

The lights go out, lightning and thunder effects fill the gallery and, in a rare instance of Disney “dark humor,” a glimpse of the earthly remains of the Ghost Host is shown hanging from a noose high above in the cupola. The ceiling above is a piece of fabric called a scrim, which conceals the hanging body until it is lit from above. The Ghost Host apologizes for frightening the guests so early, and a wall mysteriously opens, leading the guests further into the Mansion.

Guests are then led down a dimly lit hallway with thunder crashing from outside the windows to the left while the portraits of several people on the right wall mysteriously transform from the image of them in their original states into their doomed appearance. At the far end of the hall, two statues which depict one of a man and another of a woman are stationed. As the guests move about, these two statues follow whichever direction they take.

Next, guests step into the dusty and deathly cold loading station room, where they are led around to be placed in their Doom Buggies. Stepping on a moving carpet synced to the motion of the Doom Buggies, guests are seated and ride to the next scene. The Doom Buggies point guests down an Endless Hallway. A lone candelabra [sic] floats down the hallway, and a suit of armor (which moves) stands at the hallway's entrance.

Turning away from the endless hall, guest peek into the Conservatory where a long forgotten funeral is taking place. A large raven perches next to a dead plant-adorned coffin, with a corpse trying to break free.

The ghosts become more restless and try to escape from their hiding places, which results in a Corridor full of shaking, knocking, moving, and breathing doors. Demon-faced wallpaper adorns the walls as well as black and white photos of goblins and ghouls. A demonic grandfather clock chimes 13 as the hands spin wildly backwards, the shadow of a claw passing over it.

Guests enter a dark Séance Room full of floating musical instruments. Madame Leota, a medium appearing within a crystal ball, summons the mansion's spirits while levitating above her table. Madam Leota says the following:

“Serpents and spiders, tail of a rat/Call in the spirits, wherever they're at./Rap on a table, it's time to respond/Send us a message from somewhere beyond./Goblins and ghoulies from last Halloween/Awaken the spirits with your tambourine./Creepies and crawlies, toads in a pond/Let there be music from regions beyond./Wizards and witches wherever you dwell/Give us a hint by ringing a bell.”

Next, guests pass onto the balcony of a magnificent Ballroom where the happy haunts begin to materialize. Translucent couples waltz to the music of a macabre organist. A ghostly birthday party appears to be taking place at the dining table (a dinner plate and two saucers on the left side of the table combine to make a “Hidden Mickey”). Some spirits sit on the chandeliers, gorging themselves on wine, while other ghosts enter the hall from an open coffin in a hearse. A ghost wraps his arm around a woman bust, and two portraits of men with guns come to life, shooting each other with their pistols.

The Attic is an irregularly-shaped room that the Doom Buggies enter immediately after the ballroom scene. It features a collection of gifts, personal items, mementos, and wedding portraits. In each portrait, a common bride is featured with a different groom, whose heads disappear to the accompaniment of a hatchet sound. Just before the Doom Buggies leave the attic, the same ghostly bride from the pictures is seen floating in the air, intoning wedding-related vows. As she raises her arms, a hatchet appears in her hands.

The Doom Buggies fly out a window, turn around, and plunge backwards down a fifteen percent grade surrounded by dark, ghoulish trees with knotted expressions. On a branch overhead, a raven caws at the guests. (This gag is from an earlier idea, which was to have the raven narrate the tour.)

The Doom Buggies reach the ground, and turn towards the gate of the Graveyard. There stands a caretaker, the only living person in the entire attraction, his knees shaking in fright and an expression of terror on his face. Beside him is his emaciated dog, whining and whimpering. Around the corner, a ghostly band of minstrels plays a jazzy rendition of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”

Ghosts pop up from behind tombstones, a king and queen balance on a teeter-totter, a young princess swings back and forth from a tree branch, and a hellhound growls from behind them. The Doom Buggies travel down a hill and turn to see five singing busts continuing the song of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”

Next, guests encounter a tea party of sorts, where ghosts are having a "swinging wake" and singing along too. An arm protrudes out of a crypt with a tea cup in its hand, while ghouls ride bikes in the distance. Next, guests see a mummy and an old man. The old man tries to listen to what the mummy is saying through an earphone, but the mummy is just too hard to understand underneath its bandages.

Before the Doom Buggies turn to face two opera singers to the right, they see the inside of a tomb, where there is a phantom dressed in a robe-like outfit. The Doom Buggies turn to face the two opera singers, blasting their voices up into the night. Beside them are three other ghosts--a headless knight, a prisoner, and an executioner--who also join in the song.

A brick tomb can be seen at the graveyard's exit, and a cadaverous arm protrudes from an opening in the wall where a couple of bricks are missing. A trowel in the spook's hand implies that he is actually walling himself in. At last, guests pass into a Crypt where they encounter the attraction's unofficial mascots, the three hitchhiking ghosts. Passing by three large mirrors, guests discover that one of the trio has hitched a ride in their Doom Buggy.

As the vehicles prepare to convey guests out of the Crypt, a tiny ghostly figure--“Little Leota”--is seen above the exit and encourages you to:

“Hurry back… Hurry back! Be sure to bring your death certificate, if you decide to join us. Make final arrangements now. We've been [snicker] ‘dying’ to have you…”

This tiny woman in a bridal gown (though referred to as the Ghostess in early versions of the attraction script), is commonly known as “Little Leota” because her voice and face are those of Leota Toombs (who also provided the face of Madame Leota.)


We’ve culled these six additional rules for creating a haunted house by considering how Walt Disney and his Imagineers created their haunted houses:
  1. The part should complement the whole.
  2. Research is important.
  3. It is important for the architectural style of the haunted house to match that of its environs.
  4. A unifying back story is needed.
  5. It may be possible, by compromising with conflicting impulses, to enrich one’s story by incorporating elements of competing inclinations.
  6. Let the interior of the mansion itself help to guide plans for the haunted house.

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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