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Friday, September 2, 2011

Giger's Art: A Lesson for Horror Writers of the Biomechanical Age

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Horrific sex is about domination and submission, about control and being controlled, about power and powerlessness, about pleasure and pain, about joy and misery, about elevation and degradation. Its fulcrum is neither love nor affection, but power. It is the use and abuse of another human being--not only sexually, but also physically and emotionally--for one’s own purposes. It is the reduction of a person to a thing and the use of him or her as a means to the end of satisfying one’s own psychosexual needs and desires.

H. R. Giger’s art is horrific because it depicts such behavior. In his nightmarish biomechanical worlds, men and women--mostly women--are cyborgs--part human and part machine, and their situations (and their postures) are indicative of their degradation and humiliation. Indeed, the very purpose of Giger’s art seems to portray, as starkly as possible, the abject nature of fleshly incarnation, of the fleshly aspects of human existence, of the body that houses the soul. It is in the flesh that humanity is lost; it is in flesh that the animal within is to be found--except that, in Giger’s art, even the flesh and the animality of human existence is transformed; it is reduced to an even lower level, that of the mineral and the mechanical. In Giger’s art, free will is denied in favor of the mechanistic and the material, the mechanical and the determined. At best, people (mostly women) are what is leftover of them--half faces, half bodies, partial personalities, all immersed in a mechanical apparatus that is greater than themselves, in which they are, quite literally, mere cogs in a machine.

When a face does appear, amid the wires and cords, plates and pipes, tubes and gears, hose connectors and clamps, presses and compressors, motors and switches, the eyes usually show only their whites. The irises are missing, signifying, perhaps, the agony or the death of the individual enmeshed in the machinery. Emphasis, in general, is given to the sex organs--breasts, vagina, buttocks, anus, penis, and testicles--the animal parts of men and (mostly) women. These organs are hooked into the machinery or, in some cases, have become one with the machines of which they are part, penises becoming pistons, vaginas sockets, breasts dome-shaped lids with nuts instead of nipples.

Paradoxically, it is humanity itself who has manufactured the machinery that enslaves men and women, that dehumanizes them, that humiliates them. Human beings have created of the natural world a hell on earth, wherein they have reduced themselves, along with nature, to something lower than the beasts. They have become one with, and part and parcel of, their machinery, as determined and soulless as the engines that perform ambiguous functions without direction or, it appears, purpose. Having been set in motion, they do whatever task they have been designed to do--usually something, in Giger’s art, that is as horrific as it is bizarre and absurd. The human (mostly female) cogs in his machinery are there, it seems, mostly to be raped, tortured, and possibly killed. This is the earth that we have made, Giger’s work suggests; this is the world as we would have it to be, not a garden of Eden but a nightmarish mechanical world in which we are not the image and likeness of God but cogs in a giant and incomprehensible, but horrific, machine of our own making. The biomechanical world is the world that we have created in our own image and likeness.

In Giger’s art, sadomasochism is taken to new heights--or lows. It has become passionless, it has become a matter of course, it is mechanical and perfunctory, operating under the same laws of physics as any other impersonal force in the universe. Penile pistons pump back and forth inside tubular vaginas without love, affection, or any kind of emotion, except, perhaps, mute horror, with the machine-like efficiency of a cog in a machine. Impaled, women seem to be all but unaware of their rape by the monstrous machines that ravish them, sometimes vaginally, sometimes orally, sometimes anally--sometimes in all these ways, simultaneously--to no purpose or end but, it seems, efficiency of motion, for, obviously, no machine is capable of inseminating a woman, nor is a woman who is partly--or even mostly--machine able to conceive or bear a child. The sex in Giger’s art is mechanical and purposeless, as absurd as the rest of the machinery in his factories of the damned. Sex, which, in times past, united couples, does not depend upon even the presence of a complete man or woman. All that is needed is the sex organs themselves and a face to register the misery and horror of dehumanized, mechanical existence in a determined and material world apart not only from God but from spirituality itself. This is the true horror of Giger’s horrific art.

In fantasy, science fiction, and horror, the theme had emerged--and had been emerging--for decades, even centuries. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had warned of artificial reproduction which bypasses sexuality. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack warned us about the dangers of bestiality in King Kong. Dean Koontz portrayed the dangers of sex with computers in Demon Seed. Some fundamentalist Christians are also warning us that sex with robots might not be without menace. According to “Why Sex With Robots Is Always Wrong: The Impending Demise of the Human Species,” a somewhat histrionic, and perhaps tongue-in-cheek article (it‘s written as if its incidents occur in the 2030 and “is not about sex with robots at all,” but “increasing sexual perversion and increasingly pervasive virtual sex happening through the expanding acceptance of online pornography”), “the idea that sex with robots will radically effect the attitudes of practitioners also comes from studies of those involved with pornography on a regular basis,” and “studies have found that viewing of pornography results in“ the following outcomes: 
  1. increased callousness toward women
  2. trivialization of rape as a criminal offense
  3. distorted perceptions about sexuality
  4. increased appetite for more deviant and bizarre types of pornography (escalation and addiction)
  5. devaluation of monogamy
  6. decreased satisfaction with a partner’s sexual performance, affection, and physical appearance
  7. doubts about the value of marriage
  8. decreased desire to have children
  9. viewing non-monogamous relationships as normal and natural behavior
Even in the “real world,” some are predicting that men and women may, within the present century, fall in love with, marry, and have sex with robots.  According to Dr. David Levy, a researcher at University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, as paraphrased by Charles Q. Choi in the MSN online article, “Sex and marriage with robots? It could happen,” “psychologists have identified roughly a dozen basic reasons why people fall in love, “and almost all of them could apply to human-robot relationships.” Some, if not all, of these reasons could be programmed into robots, Levy argues: “For instance, one thing that prompts people to fall in love are similarities in personality and knowledge, and all of this is programmable. Another reason people are more likely to fall in love is if they know the other person likes them, and that's programmable too.”

So far, the robots resemble human beings. “There's a trend of robots becoming more human-like in appearance and coming more in contact with humans,” Levy said. Indeed, he predicts that realistic sex dolls of the type manufactured by RealDoll will be the prototypical robotic paramour: “It's just a matter of adding some electronics to them to add some vibration,” Levy contends, and maybe equipping the robots with the ability to coo a few sweet nothings. “That's fairly primitive in terms of robotics, but the technology is already there.” Levy’s is only one vision of the future of sex with robots, however, and it is a decidedly utopian dream Alongside it is Giger’s dystopian nightmare. It remains to be seen who, Levy, the artificial intelligence expert, or Giger, the surrealistic artist, will prove more prophetic.

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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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