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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 9

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Having provided both Freudian and Christian definitions and examples of erotic horror, I would now, in the final installment of my “Sex and Horror” series, like to offer my own thoughts concerning this subgenre of horror fiction (or, depending upon one’s point of view, this subgenre of erotic fiction). Although I fervently disbelieve in psychoanalysis, I also believe that Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality does provide some insights that may be, in some sense and to some extent, valid and applicable to the horror genre in general and to the erotic horror subgenre in particular. I likewise believe that the Christian criticism of such fiction, both Catholic and Protestant, offers valid insights concerning sex and horror.

Freud’s emphasis upon unconscious drives and impulses as wellsprings of human behavior is certainly valid, as is the Christian insistence that non-reproductive sex necessarily involves one in human relationships and possibly human-divine relationships as well and may constitute “sinful” conduct. Unless masturbatory, sex must involve at least two individuals, after all, and even masturbatory sex doesn’t occur in a vacuum--a whole web of social and cultural values, taboos, and inducements, including religious ones, apply--even in the commission of solitary sexual activities.

For me, however, sex and horror merge mostly in the duality of human beings as, on the one hand, material-animal beings and, on the other hand, as spiritual-human beings. As ghosts inhabiting machines, men and women are both part and parcel of the natural world and, at the same time, transcend the natural world. As minds, or spirits, people are able to freeze experience in thought and to react or respond to it emotionally and imaginatively; they can project themselves forward in time and imagine a variety of sexual pathways, alternatives, and futures, both for themselves as individuals, for others as individuals, and for society.

In addition, one may find that he or she does not measure up to the expectations of others, whether the “other” involved is one’s partner or one’s society. Perhaps a man may discover that he is impotent, that he cannot perform, or please his lover; a woman may find that she is more highly sexually charged than society deems correct or that she prefers one of her own, to the opposite, sex. Men and women may have trouble relating to anyone else, male or female, on intimate emotional, physical, and sexual levels. They may fear not sex itself but what it will reveal concerning innermost secrets of the self which they would conceal at all costs.

Moreover, social mores shift from time to time, and what is permissible in one era may be impermissible in another; what was once “right” may now be “wrong”--or what was impermissible or wrong in an earlier time may be acceptable or right today. The recognition of the relative and ethnocentric nature of morality is usually disturbing, whether it occurs through reflection upon one’s sexual behavior (or sexuality) or upon human experience in general, and erotic horror is often a product of a character’s discovery of such limitations.

Sex is a physical act in which the heart rate increases as muscles flex and contract, blood flows more copiously, the lungs pant, and body fluids, ultimately, are exchanged. In short, sex reveals human beings’ animality, an aspect of themselves that, in polite society men and women generally take pains to obscure, preferring to think of themselves as “a little lower than the angels” rather than as “higher animals.” Paradoxically, sex, which can generate life, is also a reminder of death. People are animals. They are meat. They will die. Sex brings men and women close to the physical--and, indeed, the visceral--components of themselves and, in doing so, with their own imminent mortality.

But sex is also about power, too. It is about conquest. It is about seduction. Men sometimes regard themselves as conquerors, sex as a means of conquest, and women as the conquered. Sex is, such men suggest, a "war" in which, sooner or later, women are likely to become "casualties." Sex is a series of ongoing "battles" in which the strongest will survive, and men are stronger than women.

Some women, on the other hand, consider sex a means of seduction. In nature, the male animal is bright, beautiful, and alluring, but, among human beings, women adorn themselves, attract and lure, seduce, and claim as their own the suitors who fight among themselves for the exclusive claim to women’s charms. In either vision, the male or the female, sex itself is about power, especially the taking of it from one person--and from one sex--and the conferring of the taken power upon oneself--and one’s own sex.

Many of the icons of horror fiction are used to suggest the multivalent nature of erotic horror: the demon, its amoral quality; the ghost, the repressive social and cultural limitations associated with it and the personal and psychological responses to such restrictions and taboos; the vampire, its predatory aspects; the werewolf, its animality; and the witch, its seductive character. Often, scenes of so-called bondage and discipline highlight the sexual, the social, and the sadomasochistic qualities of sex, suggesting that it is emotionally, physically, and sexually painful and that there is a dynamic of power and powerlessness, of dominance and submission, involved in every expression, of whatever variety, of the sex drive.

Sex is primal and instinctive; sex is personal and secret; sex is social and cultural; sex is revelatory and fearsome--it is a complex set of behaviors, including thoughts and emotions, because humans are themselves complex dualities which are neither exclusively physical or material nor completely incorporeal or spiritual. Men and women live in a number of twofold worlds, but they are defined by none of them: the material and the spiritual, the animal and the human, the temporal and the eternal, the private and the public, the barbaric and the civilized, the natural and the cultural (and, indeed, it may be, the natural and the supernatural). These crossroads of being come together, as it were, as many intersections, the centers of which are often sexual.

Sex unifies us, both as individual persons and as societies and cultures, just as, at the same time, it separates us, both from ourselves and one another. At the heart of erotic horror is our duality as material-spiritual beings who have a foot in both the world of nature and the world of the supernatural, ghosts in machines for whom neither oneness with God or the universe nor oneness with our own fleshly existence is completely comfortable or sufficient. Therefore, sex will always be both a delight and a horror, the center and the fulcrum of erotic horror.

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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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