Saturday, August 20, 2011

Demonic Aspects of Demon Art

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Okay, I admit it: I have never seen a demon.

Not a real one, not a demon in the flesh, as it were.

I know a couple of people who have seen demons--or claim that they have, at any rate. Their statements are somewhat like those who claim to have seen extraterrestrial spaceships: they tend to contradict one another. Of course, “seem” is the key word here. Perhaps they are not contradictory at all. There may be enough demons to warrant varying descriptions of them. In all probability, one would think, there would be as much variety, at least, among the infernal hordes as there are among any other creatures. I mean, who would believe that such a creature as a starfish could be real, if one didn’t know that they actually exist? Or a jellyfish? Or a chameleon? Each of these animals seems highly unlikely, and, certainly, they are all quite different in appearance and characteristics, yet they all exist. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, in nature as in anything else, demons, one might conclude, included.

In any case, what I’m more concerned with in this post are the aspects of demons--the characteristics that make the, well, demonic--that is, terrible, horrible, and just plain scary. As usual, one can discover quite a bit by simply taking a gander at artists’ conceptions of these infernal fiends, seeking, where possible, to identify similarities that suggest generalizations and differences which suggest differentiae.

The first thing I notice, in perusing pictures of fallen angels, is that most of them have human--or humanoid--faces. They have eyes, noses, ears, mouths--the usual--but these features are not typical of the ones a person would see in the mirror--well, hopefully not. For one thing, the complexion is likely to be of a most unusual color--yellow, red, green, perhaps--which is, of course, nothing like any skin tone that one is likely any time soon to encounter among human beings. Their features are also likely to be deformed in some way. They may have no irises, for example, the whole of their eyes being a glutinous white, or their pupils may be elongated and elliptical, like those of a serpent’s eyes. Some demons’ eyes actually glow like hot coals, if artists’ conceptions of the infernal folk are reliable guides. Demons’ ears may taper to points like the ears of a goat. Their teeth may include one or more sets of fangs. Their tongues may be forked like a snake’s tongue.

Besides the deformity of facial features, demons also sometimes come equipped, as it were, with attributes borrowed from animals: horns, scales, tails, cloven hooves, claws, that sort of thing. Those who have wings don’t, as a rule, have feathery pinions, but leathery, bat-like appendages. A few artists depict demons, usually of the female sort, with snakelike, Gorgon curls. The ancient Greeks’ satyrs (fauns in ancient Roman mythology) served as models for the more traditional type of demon familiar to many.

From Wolfman’s Gallery

However, more imaginative artists, including Hieronymus Bosch, H. R. Giger, and Javier Gil have rendered demons with more individuality and grotesquery.

Bosch’s demons tend to be anthropomorphic birds and beasts, often armed with weapons, or strange mixtures of several animals, hybrids of his fevered imagination. His The Temptation of St. Anthony and The Garden of Earthly Delights showcase some of Bosch’s more bizarre concepts of demonic creatures, each of which has a symbolic character that is now, alas, largely forgotten. In the vision of hell that is part of the Garden triptych, Bosch includes a demon--perhaps Satan himself, seated upon a chair that is a combination of throne and toilet. The demon, which wears an upside-down cauldron for a miter, and clerical garb, but has a transparent, insect-like abdomen, which projects downward, through the throne-toiler, devours men alive, defecating them into a round cistern below its seat. Not far from this demon of apostasy, there is a fiend whose hindquarters alone are shown, its upper body hidden in the cannibalistic demon’s flowing sash. It exhibits its buttocks to a naked woman who is seated against one of the legs of the popish demon’s throne-toilet. Instead of flesh, however, the kneeling demon’s posterior is a mirror in which the woman’s face is reflected. Straddled by the mirror-bottomed demon, whose legs end in antlers or barren tree branches, the seated woman is gripped from behind by an ass-headed fiend. A toad, symbolic of sexual lust, rests above her breasts. Her besetting sin appears to be vanity or, as psychologists would characterize her personality disorder today, narcissism.

Hieronymus Bosh, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Better known for his extraterrestrials (Alien, Species), H. R. Giger has also offered his own highly imaginative take on a ancient, albeit not particularly well understood, demon known as Baphomet. In his painting, a nude white woman--white not in the sense of Caucasian, but literally white, both of hair and of flesh--is suspended before a wheel, above and behind a bust of Baphomet, below whose head, upon the pillar which it tops are the heads of entwined serpents (or maybe birds with long necks; it’s hard to say which). The nude woman wears an inverted cross about her neck and brandishes, one in each hand, a pair of sharp-pointed objects that resemble the ends of a demon’s horns. Mounted upon the wheel, and facing in, toward her, are a series of hypodermic syringes whose needles appear to penetrate her outer thighs. The Baphomet head seems half dead: its ears are at half-mast, so to speak, its whiskers look wilted, and its eyes are half-closed, one showing only its whites, the other an iris that is rolling upward, into the skull. In lieu of a necklace, a hinge or metal plate resembling the end of a belt is fastened to the neck of the pillar, a buckle seeming to fasten it in place. The goat-head’s beard is tightly braided, one lock extending into a tail-like strand that ends in an arrowhead shape.

Two long, curving horns rise from the demon’s head, a third, smaller, straight horn ending in a bony crown, between them. The long horns frame the nude woman, and the crown atop the third horn rises between the woman’s spread thighs, occupying the space at which her sex would appear, were it not so obstructed. In viewing the placement of this decidedly phallic horn, one gets the impression that penetration is occurring, although it is not: the horn is in front, not inside, the woman’s sex. She seems both to be crucified and to float. Above her, in place of INRI, the acronym for the Latin phrase “Jesus Nazareth King Jews,” is the Roman numeral “XV.” There is no indication as to what the number signifies. It seems clear, however, that the nude woman is a demonic, probably satanic, priestess, possibly a temple prostitute, who worships the devil, mocking the sacred work of Christ by the inverted cross she wears as her necklace.

Although some moviegoers might not make the connection, supposing that the appearance of the beautiful woman who turns into an ugly old hag in Stanley Kubrick’s movie version of Stephen King’s The Shining is just another of Jack Torrance’s many hallucinations and is, as such, a manifestation of his madness, the temptress is a modern-day example of an ancient demon, the succubus, a female demon that was believed to have sex with men, usually in their sleep. (The male counterpart is the incubus.)

H. R. Giger, Baphomet

As I observe in my “Sex and Horror” series, sex, as it is depicted in horror fiction, is typically of a perverted sort that is intended to defy God’s commandment to humanity (through his directive to Adam and Eve) to “be fruitful and multiply” in order to “replenish the earth” with future generations of the human species. Anything that is not reproductive (and, by definition, therefore, heterosexual) is sinful, mainstream theologians argue. Indeed, non-reproductive sex between heterosexuals is also sinful, such thinkers contend. Javier Gil’s demonic art (i. e., his work which features demonic figures) typically portrays just such sexual activity--activity that is of a non-reproductive character, including orgies, homosexual unions, bestiality, and assorted perverse behavior. Most of his works of erotica which include demonic revelers are too pornographic for display in Chillers and Thrillers, but I offer the following picture as a milder representation of Gil’s demonic art.

Javier Gil, Untitled

What may we conclude from our examination of demons as they appear in artists’ conceptions of them? They resemble us, but they represent the worst aspects of ourselves, or of humanity: unbridled animality, sin, moral and sexual perversion, disobedience to God, an elevation of the fleshly aspects of human existence above the spiritual elements of human nature, blasphemous and sacrilegious communications, false religions or religious doctrines, and of a concern for pleasure without regard for propriety (or sanctity). These are the demonic aspects of human nature, reflected in artistic conceptions of demons as personifications of such impulses, conditions, and conduct. Writers of horror and fantasy fiction can take a clue or two from their more visual counterparts concerning what is evil and how it may be represented. (The article, “Demons,” in the online edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia has some interesting insights into the subject matter, too, especially concerning the positive and negative, or good and “sinister” senses of meaning that the word had in the original Greek usage!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Pullman,

Thank you very much for this insightful look into the "demonic" aspects of demonic art. I have been reading many of your pieces recently and appreciate them.

I agree that sexuality plays a very important role in the demonic. That is because sex is something very intimate and when it is perverted is particularly--grotesque or obscene. Demons, the masters of perversion and perversions in and of themselves from what they once were, would pervert things like sex. And the perversion of sex is something that many find appalling. Some things might be more appalling than others for different people, but most people agree on certain kinds of perversion as being appalling in quality, like beastiality and sex with children. Because demons are perverse, it makes sense that one of the main characteristics regarding demons and demonic art is sexual perversion.

I do have something I wish to offer up to you, for your insight.

I know that there are Christian theologians who make the case that sex is for procreative purposes only. However, I think that a case can be made, Biblically, that sex is actually a gift, a pleasure for enjoyment and not just for procreative purposes. As a Christian and aspiring theologian myself, I have studied the Bible and doctrine.

What is interesting is that the idea of sex as something wrong unless used for procreative purposes is VERY Augustinian. Augustine struggled with sexual sin and wrote heavily about how bad he thought sex was. Because most of Western Christendom has been heavily influenced by Augustinian theology, views of sex have lined up with Augustine's view of sex.

I don't think that the Bible necessarily portrays that, however. Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 7. In verses 3-5 Paul refers to sex as "conjugal rights" for both the wife and husband. He also tells married Christians not to deprive one another of sexual relations.

Now of course, he has his own views on some things, which are expressed in verses like 6-7. But when we think about what the Bible says regarding sex (when it is between a married man and woman), I think it was designed to be pleasurable as well. Consider also the book: Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs). That is loaded with some rather explicit sexual details, including, it can be argued, oral sex and fondling.

Mark Driscoll wrote a book titled "Real Marriage" in which he makes the case that not even anal sex is actually sinful, but it can be detrimental to one's health (for various reasons).

Anyway, since sex also plays an important part in horror and horror often deals with religious aspects, symbols, and the supernatural, I thought this information might be helpful to you. Do with it what you will.

Thank you for your insightful writings regarding the horror genre!

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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