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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beyond Blood, Guts, and Gore

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Often, we think of horror fiction as a visceral genre, focusing, as it frequently does, on blood and guts and gore. However, the best horror fiction transcends the merely physical and addresses, albeit usually symbolically, those dimensions of our existence that are peculiarly human: the theological, the philosophical, the social, the psychological, and the technological. We are more than bodies. We are ghosts. We are spirits. We are souls. We believe in God, we think about the implications of our perceptions and beliefs, we organize as societies and nations, we emote, and we use tools of spectacular complexity and variety. The best horror fiction addresses these aspects of our existence.


One reason that William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) is a great novel (and a movie, released in 1973) is that it explores the problem of evil and the meaning of true faith, showing that, more than being mere belief, such faith involves trust in God; love for God, for oneself, and for others; and the needs to forgive and to be forgiven. The novel also suggests that evil is not only real but that it is also of a spiritual, rather than of a psychological or a social, nature (although evil may be expressed psychologically or socially--or in other ways).


Part of the reason that The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is a good, if not great, film, is that it is both theological, questioning whether God and the devil actually exist or are merely metaphors for experience that is not fully understood, and philosophical, asking whether human beings should consider themselves to be nothing more than one of the many products of evolution. There are consequences for both world views, the movie suggests, and it is the filmmaker's intent to force a decision for or against one worldview and its consequences or the other Weltanschauung and its consequences. According to the film's director, Scott Derrickson:

What I wanted to do was write something that wasn’t propaganda, wasn’t about trying to persuade people to think the way that I do, but recognize the fundamental importance of that question, the central question — does the spiritual realm exist? Is there a devil, and more importantly, is there a God? And if so, what are the implications of that? I don’t care what you believe — those are questions to be reckoned with… Everyone has to answer that question. And in some ways everyone lives their life based on what they believe about that question.

Many of Stephen King’s novels examine the effects of community life upon the residents of small towns, focusing upon the pressures upon, and the consequences to, individuality and personality that social mores, traditions, and expectations tend to exert and have; among the best of these novels, perhaps (but by no means the best of King‘s work to date), are Carrie (1974), Needful Things (1991), and Under the Dome (2009).


Perhaps the best-know and certainly one of the artistically finest horror films that delves into the mysteries of the human personality is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), which is based upon Robert Bloch’s novel of the same title (1959). How much of our behavior as adults is shaped by our childhood experiences, and, in particular, by the hand that rocks the cradle? If the challenges of childhood and adolescence take different avenues than is typical or normal, might a boy grow up to be a monster rather than a man? “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” Norman Bates declares, but, clearly, in his case, this was not true. Why? The film perhaps leaves more questions unanswered than answered, despite the psychiatrist’s explanation of the protagonist’s behavior at the end of the film, but it brings to the attention of its millions of viewers the importance of seeking answers to questions of nature and nurture, of learning and genetics. In the process, the film makes it quite clear that people are more than merely food for worms, for machines, whether of flesh or of steel, operate according to their design, without being affected by the attitudinal, emotional, or other cognitive functions that are peculiar to creatures that have been created in the image and likeness of God.


Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1977), in which a computer impregnates a woman who gives birth to a cyborg infant, explores the implications of the human-technology dynamic, admittedly taken to rather absurd extremes. It’s a reworking, of sorts, of the Frankenstein motif, wherein the monster is, quite literally, a ghost in a machine, but one of technological, rather than of divine, conception and origin. A 1977 movie, of the same title, directed by Donald Cammell, is based upon Koontz’s book.

It is interesting (and, one might add, significant) that several of these novels and movies are based, allegedly, at least, upon actual events. The Exorcist is based upon a titanic spiritual battle that Blatty heard about during his college daysThe Exorcism of Emily Rose is based upon the horrific experiences of  Anneliese Michel. Although Carrie is an entirely fictional work, the protagonist, Carietta (Carrie) White, is “based on a combination of two girls in King's past; one of them went to school with him, the other was a student of his,” Timeline’s Internet article “Carrie becomes King‘s debut novel,” points out:

The young girl King went to school with lived down the street from him when he lived in Durham, Maine. King recalls, in an interview with Charles L. Grant for Twilight Zone Magazine (Apr 1981), “She was a very peculiar girl who came from a very peculiar family. Her mother wasn’t a religious nut like the mother in Carrie; she was a game nut, a sweepstakes nut who subscribed to magazines for people who entered contests . . . The girl had one change of clothes for the entire school year, and all the other kids made fun of her. I have a very clear memory of the day she came to school with a new outfit she'd bought herself. She was a plain-looking country girl, but she'd changed the black skirt and white blouse--which was all anybody had every seen her in--for a bright-colored checkered blouse with puffed sleeves and a skirt that was fashionable at the time. And everybody made worse fun of her because nobody wanted to see her change the mold.”
Needful Things, King says, was inspired by the excesses of televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Under the Dome’s villain is based upon Vice-President Dick Cheney--as King sees him, of course. Psycho is based upon the murderous Ed Gein.

(It is also interesting and probably significant that several of these writers and filmmakers are Christian: Blatty is a Catholic, Derrickson is a Protestant, King is a believer but differs in his belief from traditional Protestants, and Koontz is a Catholic.)

Basing one’s fiction, entirely or in part, upon real-world people, situations, or events is one way to ensure that one has realistic, believable fodder upon which to base one’s theological, philosophical, social, psychological, and technological explorations, examinations, insights, and criticisms. That it is possible to do so underscores one of the points of horror fiction in general--and perhaps the biggest point of them all--which is that human beings, both actual and fictional, are more than blood, guts, and gore. There is a spiritual as well as a physical dimension to human existence; if there were not, horror itself would be impossible and there would be neither novels nor movies based upon this emotional reaction to external and internal evil that, like goodness, is both transcendent and immanent to human beings themselves.

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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.

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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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