Fascinating lists!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 3

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


From a Freudian point of view, ghosts often appear to represent sexual repression. They are appetites that, although suppressed, refuse to be banished and tend to haunt those whom they afflict, returning again and again to trouble and disturb those upon whom they would assert themselves. Such is the case--or may be the case, at any rate--with regard to Henry James’ classic novel, The Turn of the Screw, in which it is debatable as to whether the story’s apparitions are in fact specters or figments of the governess’ own mind. In Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre, Jason Colavito lays out the dichotomy of the novel's criticism (and its resolution) in succinct fashion:


Scholars are divided in their opinion of what “really” happened in The Turn of the Screw, falling into two camps. One holds that the story is a tale of a ghostly haunting, taking at face value the governess’s story. The other camp believes the governess insane and that the story is the record of her hallucinations and madness. Edmund Wilson, the eminent twentieth century critic, inaugurated this school of thought in a 1938 essay calling for an explicitly Freudian reading of the novel in which the governess is treated as a “neurotic case of sex repression.” By this reading, the towers of Bly House are phallic symbols, and the governess is acting out repressed sexual rage at the patriarchy, as represented by Miles and his (absent) uncle. As Willie van Peer and Ewout van der Camp have noted, however, these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive and can both be true. In fact, the Freudian interpretation is quite clever but forgets that fiction is, well, fictional, and therefore can play by its own rules. In the world of The Turn of the Screw it may just be that Freudian interpretations are the false reality and ghosts are the truth that Freudian theories unfairly obscure. Since it is a novel, and not an autobiography, we can never know (136).

From a Christian point of view, ghosts are real (in a post-resurrection appearance to His disciples, Jesus assures them that He is not a ghost). Some regard them as the souls of departed (that is, dead) persons who are allowed to tarry on Earth for a time before continuing their journey to heaven (or possibly to hell). Others contend that ghosts are really demons in disguise. While the former may attempt to warn unbelievers of the consequences of their unbelief, the latter may seek to deceive the living and draw them away from God. (The nature of the ghost of Hamlet's father--as actual ghost or as demon in disguise--and its motives are questions that have considerable importance to the plot of Hamlet.) In either case, ghosts are considered potentially dangerous, and Christians are forbidden to summon them. (There may be reason to believe that the ghost who appears in Hamlet may be a demon in disguise, rather than the soul of the prince’s slain father).

Accordingly, the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw may be the souls of the deceased spirits of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, former servants who had had a sexual affair with one another while in the employ of the uncle of the two children, Miles and Flora, who has entrusted their care to the governess. The governess supposes that the ghosts may have sexually molested one or both of the children, but the novel is ambiguous; it could be that she herself is obsessed with the children’s sexuality and is tempted to molest them, blaming her compulsions upon the supernatural specters that she imagines she sees. Alternatively, the ghosts may be demons who have disguised themselves as ghosts in order to deceive the governess and draw her away from God. However, she never seems to be overtly or especially religious, or, for that matter, Christian.

There is a second possibility for a Christian interpretation of the story, that of Robert Heilman, who argues, in “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,” namely, that--

The story is virtually a morality play, involving the typical conflict of divine and demonic agents fighting for the soul of Everyman. The garden at Bly is the Garden of Eden; Miles and Flora are Adam and Eve in a state of prelapsarian innocence; Quint corresponds to folklore descriptions of the Devil; the governess is both an angel sent from God and a Christ-like mediator. By the end of the story, the Fall has occurred, but at the last minute the governess exorcises the demon from Miles’s soul and thereby saves him. Other apparitionist critics have expanded and rounded out this interpretation; the only character left unaccounted for is Miss Jessel, who too often is seen as merely the artistic counterpart to Quint. Miss Jessel, as cohort of Satan, is probably the Lilith in the Judaeo-Kabbalistic tradition who united with Adam and brought forth the race of demons, imps, and fairies (Rictor Norton, “Henry James's The Turn of the Screw,” Gay History and Literature, 1971, 1999, updated 20 June 2008).
Either interpretation, the Freudian or the Christian, makes of the novel both more and less than it seems to be in itself, for the story, capable of prompting both interpretations (and others), makes sense from both points of view but exhausts them rather than being exhausted by them. As usual, it seems that the way by which one interprets literature indicates at least as much about the interpreter as it does the interpreted. For Freudians, the story is about sex, because all things are reducible to sex. For Christians, the same story is about sin and redemption, because the world itself is a product of creation, sin, and redemption.

For me, it is clear that the Christian understanding of the story is richer and more complex than the psychoanalytical one, for life is more than sex and requires, to be appreciated properly, a world view that embraces both spirit and flesh (and both eternity and time) rather than simply the erotic impulse and its effects. The Freudian interpretation is reductive and simplistic; the Christian, expansive and intricate--rather like The Turn of the Screw (and life) itself.


In Knowing Fear, Colavito also discusses Richard Matheson’s novel, Hell House, a sort of revitalization of Shirley Jackson’s novel, The Haunting of Hill House, in which a team of paranormal investigators led by a scientist named Dr. Barrett descend upon a reputedly haunted house to ascertain whether it is actually haunted. The investigation is financed by “a dying millionaire,” Rolf Randolph Deutsch, who seeks assurance, in the existence of ghosts, should their presence in “the old Belasco mansion” be proven, of life after death (297).

It is clear that the spirits in the novel represent sexual lust, for, as Colavito points out, they are “decadent Jazz Age ghosts whose debauchery and sexual excess corrupted them into evil.” Their leader was “Emeric Belasco, the house’s builder and leader of the debauchery.” However, it was through the application of both science, and not sorcery alone, that Belasco corrupted his guests:

Belasco, it transpires, was a genius who studied deeply of the sciences and the dark arts, including the occult, and used his powers to mentally dominate his guests and turn them toward sensuality and destruction as part of his experiments and almost anthropological studies in evil. Under his auspices, men and women became like animals. . . and the guests killed and ate one another as they reveled in freedom and joy (298).
Dr. Barrett “is a skeptic about spiritualism,” attributing the Dionysian activity of the supposed ghosts to “energy” derived from “unconscious human powers.” In the course of the investigation, the investigators are sexually molested and assaulted by the spirits in the house, or, as Dr. Barrett contends, as a result of “the unconscious minds of the psychics” he employs and the telekinetic attacks they launch. For their part “the psychics believe Belasco’s shade is controlling a number of ghosts who commit the assaults” (298).

The novel’s resolution indicates that it is Belasco himself, “who survived death to continue his experiments in evil,” and Dr. Barrett’s weapon against the “electromagnetic radiation emitted from the [human] body” does its trick so that “Belasco’s power fades away,” suggesting, Colavito says, that the novel’s author intends the story’s theme to be that “the faith-based world of the mediums’ belief must bow before science”; their powers seem, after all, to have been grounded in physical, rather than spiritual, reality, products of “electromagnetic radiation,” and not demonic activity: “in the end even the most horrible of supernatural nightmares is reducible to natural law” (299).


There seems to be one major flaw in Matheson’s argument. His resolution remains ambiguous as to which force, Dr. Barrett’s scientific materialism or Dr. Belasco’s metaphysical dualism, is stronger--or, for that matter, ultimately true--for, as Colavito points out, the former’s triumph against the latter notwithstanding, Belasco’s continued existence after death indicates that “Dr. Barrett’s theories are wrong” and that “personality does survive death.” Therefore, although Dr. Barrett was able to shut down Dr. Belasco’s evil experiment by using his “Reversor, a gigantic machine that uses electricity to cleanse a space of . . . electromagnetic radiation,” the machine wouldn’t have been needed at all had Dr. Belasco not survived death and proved, thereby, that ghosts are, in fact, real. Therefore, it might be argued, Belasco’s use of both scientific materialism (as represented by his studies “of the sciences” and his conduct of “experiments and almost anthropological studies in evil”) and metaphysical dualism (as represented by his use of the “dark arts, including the occult”) indicate that he, not the materialistic Dr. Barrett, was right concerning his belief in the realities of both matter and spirit. In spite of his own efforts to dismiss a belief in ghosts as naïve, it is the belief in materialism that, the story indicates, is the truly naïve point of view regarding the nature of reality.

The ghosts of Matheson’s novel are both physical and spiritual, like the universe itself, which is precisely the view, concerning the nature of reality, that Christian thought itself argues. Ironically, Matheson’s novel seems to prove what it sets out to invalidate. Not only are the ghosts--or ghost, actually, for “the entities in the house” turn out to be “in fact but one--Emeric Belasco himself”--the source of the mischief, but they are also proof of the ability of the human soul to survive physical death (299). The ghost in the novel is himself a rather reluctant apologist, of sorts, for the Christian view of reality as consisting of both the physical and the spiritual.



Note: In Part 4 of “Sex and Death,” I will take a look at another horror icon, that of the werewolf.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.


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