Fascinating lists!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 6

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Freudian psychoanalysis is all about sex. Christianity concerns, among other important issues, human relationships: relationships between human beings and God, between one human being and another, and between human beings and nature. In psychoanalysis, the superego replaces God, heaven, and moral righteousness; the ego, human will, the earth, and corrupted virtue; and the id, the devil, hell, and sin. Therefore, literary analysis and criticism that is based upon Freudian theory will offer an interpretation of fiction as representing sexual concerns, whereas literary analysis and criticism from a Christian perspective will offer an interpretation of fiction as representing human relationships with God, humanity, or nature.

In much horror fiction, when sex is depicted, it is often perverted sex: incest; non-procreative sex, both hetero- and homosexual; group sex; and the like. A psychoanalyst would explain such deviations as expressions of the tendency of human beings toward “polymorphous perversity,” wherein any body part is capable of providing its owner a form of erotic pleasure. A man, a woman, or even an infant, Freud argues, can find sexual pleasure in almost anything.

Christianity explains sexual perversions and deviations as expressions of human beings’ innate depravity, or inborn tendency to sin. Most theologians would define sin as disobedience to the divine will; an action is sinful if it defies or is at odds with God’s will, whether communicated directly or through institutions he has established. For example, God instituted marriage between a man and a woman, not between two men and two women; therefore, homosexual unions would be considered sinful. Likewise, he orders men and women to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Therefore, non-procreative sex is sinful, whether it takes the form of masturbation, oral or anal copulation, bestiality, or some other activity. Moreover, whatever sexual unions that God has forbidden, such as those between parents and siblings, between two men, between two women, and otherwise, is, by definition, sinful.

It is important to understand these distinctions if one is to understand the differences between the sexual perversions and deviations that are fairly commonly depicted in horror films, which is the subject of this post.


In the 1960s and 1970s, horror films began to heat up--with sex as well as violence, and the sex, more often than not, tended toward the perverse and the deviant. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) explores the link between art and sex as voyeuristic filmmaker Mark Lewis skewers his female models on a customized tripod leg as he photographs them looking at their deaths by impalement as the look into a mirror mounted atop the camera’s stand.

The Freudian critic sees the film as a visual exposition of the Oedipal complex in which a son comes to terms with his burgeoning masculinity by seeking to mate with his mother but, frustrated by his stronger father, seeks, instead, to marry--or at least to mate with--a woman just like dear old mom.

A Christian interpretation would view this film as an example of the sexual perversions that result from human beings’ rejection of God’s commands for moral and sexual purity in favor of a sinful pursuit of forbidden fruit in the form of beautiful, helpless women over whom they may exercise a seemingly omnipotent and sadomasochistic power of life and death. In short, for Christians, the film exemplifies a sexual expression of idolatry; the idol is the self of the sinner whih, separated from God, employs lust instead of love in failed relationships with women.


A ham-fisted approach to filming Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, The Nightcomers (1971) makes explicit one interpretation of James' story, thereby ruining the ambiguity that makes James’ work psychologically complex and artistically sophisticated: the children, Miles and Flora, imitate the tawdry sex they witness their uncle’s perverted servants, Quint and Jessel, perform, killing the couple when they try to leave, just before the arrival of the children’s governess, who, presumably, will see Quint and Jessel when they return as ghosts to haunt the estate.

Freudians would no doubt interpret this movie as an exemplum of the harm that can be done to children who witness the primal scene. Usually, the primal scene is enacted by the child’s parents, but, lacking a father and a mother, Miles and Flora must settle for witnessing the sex that occurs between their uncle’s servants. As children, however, they are unable to assimilate the sex they see and, as a result, they themselves become hypersexual. In the novella, Miles is expelled from school for what the governess seems to believe was an incident involving precocious sexual behavior. According to Freud, a child who witnesses sex between his parents (or other adults) is apt to regard their lovemaking as a sadistic act, so it might be that Miles’ own behavior at his boarding school involved some sort of homosexual act of sadism. James merely hints at such things and even suggests that the sex may be in the governess’ own mind, like her encounter with the ghosts of Quint and Jessel, but the film’s director, Michael Winner, makes his own interpretation of the story’s psychosexual dynamics clearer than most fans and critics like.

As we saw in Part 3 of this series, a Christian interpretation of the story has been offered by Robert Heilman, who argues, in “The Turn of the Screw as Poem,” 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).
In William A. Fraker’s A Reflection of Fear (1971), an adolescent falls in love with her father when he returns home after a fifteen-year absence, seeking to divorce his wife so he can remarry. She also develops a strong hatred of both her mother, who has reared her in isolation, and her grandmother. A boy kills the women and later seeks to harm the girl’s fiancée. Her father pursues the male attacker, only to discover that he is really his own daughter, who was raised by her mother (his late wife) as a girl, because her mother hated men.

Freudians would attribute the transvestite adolescent’s dilemma to an emasculating mother who herself suffers from penis envy. Apparently having driven her husband off, perhaps because of her emotional castration of him, she now avenges herself upon men by denying her son his own masculinity, feminizing him in a symbolic and, indeed, socialized castration through feminization.

From a Christian point of view, the film is another instance of sexual perversion such as results when human beings substitute their own will for the will of their Creator. God created men and women in His own image, and, for Christians, God does not make mistakes, intending males to become men and females to become women. The Bible, in fact, forbids the wearing of clothing of the opposite sex, judging such behavior to be abominable: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 22:5). The mother is guilty, not the son, however, for he is in her charge and subject to her authority.

The Bible commands children to “honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20:12), but the mother has denied her son the opportunity to honor his father and she has made it difficult, if not impossible, to honor her, for her emasculation and feminization of him is abusive in the extreme.

The son’s love for his father, although it may involve a homoerotic aspect, since the boy has been reared as a girl and is clearly jealous of his father’s fiancée, seeing her as a rival for her father’s affections (in what Freudians would characterize as a twisted Oedipal situation of sorts), nevertheless shows his desire to embrace masculinity and to be himself a man. For Christians, the movie is the story of child abuse, not gender dysphoria, resulting from another instance of an individual's (the boy’s mother) defying God’s will in favor of her own.

Examples could be multiplied, for many horror films depict all manner of sexual perversions and deviations, including adultery, homosexuality, incest, masturbation, sadomasochism, sodomy, voyeurism, and other activities that modern psychologists define as paraphilias or sexual deviations. Indeed, the 2009 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual lists 547 paraphilias! To Christians, however such sexual deviations are sinful acts, usually considered instances of sodomy, a term which includes any sort of unnatural or non-genital sex act, and result from the sinner’s idolatrous placing of his or her own will above that of God’s will that human beings be either and exclusively male or female, in accordance with their sex, adopting the roles, manners, and modes of behavior that are consistent with their respective genders. The Bible insists that the only legitimate form of sex is heterosexual, marital, and, in principle, reproductive. Anything else is sinful, hellish, and demonic. Horror movies show that the sexual gateway to hell, so to speak, is wide, indeed, but the way to heaven is narrow.


Note:  In the next installment of "Sex and Horror," I consider the haunted house and the sex and horror that are sometimes associated with this horror fiction icon.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 5

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman



For Sigmund Freud and his followers, a witch is basically a hysterical woman. Of course, for Freud, witches were also associated with a sexual element: “The broomstick they ride,” Freud declared, “is the great Lord Penis” (A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, 171). During interrogations by members of the Inquisition, women accused of witchcraft were invariably asked about their demonic paramours’ genitals, and their reports varied, suggesting that demons are able to grow their penises almost anywhere they wish on their anatomies. The organ itself varied as well, being sometimes the size of a mule’s member, other times black and covered in scales, and other times non-existent. Most of the women did agree in one particular: the devil’s penis, like his semen, was apt to be ice cold (A Mind of Its Own, 3) Freud had an answer to the polymorphous perversity, as it were, of the demonic penis: women were affected not by the fleshly organ itself, but by the idea of the penis; it was the mental image, the envisioned phallus, that caused neurosis in women (A Mind of Its Own, 172). Moreover, since witches could steal men’s penises, women could emasculate, or symbolically and emotionally castrate, men, whose penises they envied.

For Christians, the witch is a woman who has entered into a pact with Satan or a lesser demon. Christians also see an element of sexuality in the witch: in return for serving the demon, both sexually and otherwise, she receives supernatural powers or is empowered by the demon to perform supernatural acts through magical incantations and spells. The Bible forbids the practice of witchcraft, condemning it as abominable: “Neither let there be found among you any one that shall expiate his son or daughter, making them to pass through the fire: or that consults soothsayers, or observes dreams and omens, neither let there be any wizard, / nor charmer, nor any one that consults pythonic spirits, or fortune tellers, or that seeks the truth from the dead./ For the Lord abhors all these things, and for these abominations he will destroy them at your coming.(Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Indeed, the Bible goes so far as even to declare that “Wizards you shall not allow to live” (Exodus 22:18), a text which doubtlessly authorized the persecution and execution of women accused of practicing witchcraft during the trials of the Inquisition. The Catholic Encyclopedia’s article, “Witchcraft,” has much more to say about the topic, including these rather curious and chilling words:


The question of the reality of witchcraft is one upon which it is not easy to pass a confident judgment. In the face of Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers and theologians the abstract possibility of a pact with the Devil and of a diabolical interference in human affairs can hardly be denied, but no one can read the literature of the subject without realizing the awful cruelties to which this belief and without being convinced that in 99 cases out of 100 the allegations rest upon nothing better than pure delusion. The most bewildering circumstance is the fact that in a large number of witch prosecutions the confessions of the victims, often involving all kinds of satanist horrors, have been made spontaneously and apparently without threat or fear of torture. Also the full admission of guilt seems constantly to have been confirmed on the scaffold when the poor suffered had nothing to gain or lose by the confession. One can only record the fact as a psychological problem, and point out that the same tendency seems to manifest itself in other similar cases. The most remarkable instance, perhaps, is one mentioned by St. Agobard in the ninth century (P.L., CIV, 158). A certain Grimaldus, Duke of Beneventum, was accused, in the panic engendered by a plague that was destroying all the cattle, of sending men out with poisoned dust to spread infection among the flocks and herds. These men, when arrested and questioned, persisted, says Agobard, in affirming their guilt, though the absurdity was patent.
Whether regarded as penis-envying hysterics or women empowered by demons, witches have been a mainstay of horror fiction, both in its printed and filmed versions. Although, in recent years, in novels, witches have more often populated works for teens and young adults, they continue to appear with some regularity in movies aimed at older audiences, such as Black Sunday (1960), Horror Hotel (1960), Burn, Witch, Burn (1962), Witchfinder General (1968), The Witchmaker (1969), Mark of the Devil (1970), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Devils (1971), Virgin Witch (1971), Baba Yaga (also known as Kiss Me, Kill Me (1973), The Wicker Man (1973), Suspiria (1977), Warlock (1989), The Craft (1996), and--well, a coven of others.


Note: The next installment of “Sex and Horror” will take a brief look at a few movies that depict perverse sexuality and have more generalized sexual themes, rather than characters per se.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Image and Imagination

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Like many who are interested in horror fiction, I occasionally indulge myself by perusing online images linked to such search terms as “horror,” “eerie,” “scary,” and so forth. For those of us who are twisted enough to enjoy such sights, viewing such images can be not only fun (I know, I know; I’ve already admitted I’m twisted!), but also informative, even educational.

One image is that of a young woman. She wears black (or, perhaps, she is naked--it’s hard to tell, because only her face, neck, and upper chest show; she is otherwise lost in, or swallowed up by, darkness--and her skin is not only pale, but also reflective: indeed, she seems to radiate the light that shines upon her, illuminating those portions of her body that I’ve mentioned, but leaving most of her figure invisible in the darkness.


Moreover, the flesh of her upper chest seems to be alive with internal light, as if she glows from within. Her eyes are dark, and she wears a slight, mysterious smile rather like that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. A scar is etched down her forehead, from just above her eyebrow to midway down her cheek, but the scar is not red: it is black, like her hair, her eyes, and her dress (if, indeed, she is dressed), as if she bleeds black, rather than crimson, blood, a suggestion of her innate depravity, perhaps. She seems evil, despite her youth and beauty, as if she is inwardly corrupt. The image is suggestive, posing many questions that could lead to a plot, to other characters, to a conflict, to a setting, and to a theme--in short, to a story that is both horrible to read and to contemplate. The journalist’s questions should get the imaginative writer started: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?


The next image is full of eyes.  There are eleven of them, all feminine, with long, lustrous lashes and a glittering gaze, floating, as it seems, against a fiery background of yellow and orange, black and white. They stare, intensely, at the viewer, returning gaze for gaze. At the center of the picture, a pair of eyes, complete with the suggestion, at least, of knitted eyebrows, stares forth from the digital canvass, commanding the viewer’s attention; the presence of a strategically positioned diamond shape and of a ridge of material that resembles steel more than it does bone suggest the skeletal remnant of a nose. There is malevolence in her gaze. Filaments of light float and twist in the air, unifying the floating eyes, but there is no context for the vision, so that, collectively, the eyes seem to suggest madness. 

The subject, about whom nothing is knowable but that she is female and apparently beautiful, strikes one as mad; perhaps the multiplicity of eyes implies a fragmented consciousness, shattered perceptions of reality, and a distorted view of the world. If so, the true source of her horror is internal, not external (except insofar as she may confuse the objective with her own subjectivity). Again, this image raises more questions than it supplies answers, producing a wealth--or, at least, a welter--of possibilities for exploration and explication, and, as before, the journalist’s questions may lead the imaginative writer to a story based upon the ideas and feelings that this image may inspire.

Not all images are created equal, of course, and one must exercise discrimination in his or her perusal of the many pictures of horror that are available online. One, for example, although interesting in itself, perhaps, is too puerile to be suggestive of a situation greater than itself--and, therefore, great enough, it may be, for a story.  It shows a skull flanked by jack-o-lanterns; the eye sockets of the death’s-head glow red, as do the mesh strands that serve as the image’s backdrop. There is the suggestion that the skull and the pumpkins are caught in a web of some kind and that along may come a spider, but such intimations are not enough for a horror story and do not raise possibilities for anyone to pursue in fiction or otherwise; they are, at best, merely decorative.

The problem of the skull and pumpkins raises an important question: what must an image accomplish in order to be useful to a writer of horror fiction? What quality or qualities must it possess? What must it evoke in the writer’s imagination?

The journalist’s questions are clues. Who? refers to an agent (if an individual) or to an agency (if an institution), and, of course, to the agent’s or agency’s motive and, probably, to his, her, or its values, feelings, thoughts, and even world view. What? alludes to the situation and the series of incidents or events that have brought the agent or the agency to this point of the action and to the series of events or incidents that are likely to result from both this initial situation and the agent’s or the agency’s actions in response to it. When? and Where? point to time and place, or setting--the story’s physical location and its cultural milieu. How? addresses the behavior of the characters, especially insofar as they are the causes and effects of various situations, actions, and reactions. Why? relates to both the characters’ motives and to the story’s theme. These are the elements common to all fiction, horror stories included, and it is these, therefore, that a truly inspirational image of horror will pose to the thoughtful and imaginative viewer, especially if he or she is--or hopes to be--a writer of imaginative fiction, of the horror genre or otherwise. An image that is capable of suggesting such elements is an evocative--and useful--one, indeed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 4

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


The werewolf doesn’t figure large in Jason Colavito’s Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre, in part, perhaps, because, as a horror icon, the werewolf was never as popular as such other monsters as vampires, witches, demons, and ghosts. In most werewolf fiction, the beast’s origins are seldom explained except to say that his existence is said to be due to a person’s having been bitten by a werewolf. Where the first werewolf came from, no one seems to know for sure or, if someone does, he or she isn’t saying.

The very mystery of the wolf is itself intriguing, for, often, the less we know concerning a person, place, or thing, the more interesting he, she, or it seems to us. The lore of the werewolf is sparse. A bite transforms someone into the monster. The beast transforms at the onset of the full moon (and, indeed, perhaps is transformed by this moon). It prowls by night, seeking whom it shall devour. Only silver bullets are fatal to it. Some werewolves have been the servants, but never the pets, of vampires.



Colavito makes reference to vampires’ keeping of werewolves as servants, as is the case in The Return of the Vampire, a 1944 film in which Bella Lugosi plays “a vampire” who “holds sway over a servant he has turned into a vampire”:


The vampire is Armand Tesla, who was once an eighteenth-century scientist but whose mastery o science led him to become an undead vampire. . . . Tesla re-enslaves his werewolf and uses his powers to stalk the family of Lady Jane Ainsley. . . .

. . . But Lady Jane uses psychology to reason with the werewolf, whom she rescued from lycanthropy once before. When a Nazi bomb knocks out Tesla, the werewolf drags the body into the sunlight, where the vampire melts away, freeing him from Tesla’s control (210-211).
Although Colavito doesn’t discuss the symbolic significance of this monster, it’s a fairly safe bet that the werewolf represents the animal nature of human beings. He is the beast within all of us, the animal that struggles to be free. From a scientific point of view, human beings are, after all, themselves animals of a higher order, perhaps, than the so-called lesser animals, the lions and tigers and bears, oh, my, and werewolves, like lamia, centaurs, minotaurs, sphinxes, mermaids, and other human-animal hybrids, represent the connection that human beings share with other predators.

Christians may accept the existence of demons, witches, and even ghosts, but most would be likely to draw the line at accepting the existence of werewolves. Such creatures, they would probably argue, are merely imaginary.

At best, werewolves represent a secular depiction of the animal instincts and impulses that human beings are said, from an evolutionary point of view, to have more or less repressed in the interests of civilization, culture, and society. They embody, in their shaggy forms, passions unrestrained, and may suggest an abandonment of the spiritual in pursuit of an unadulterated indulgence of the fleshly appetites, and, therefore, a denial, implicit or otherwise, of the soul

Moreover, werewolves are predators. They embody “nature red in tooth and claw,” suggesting that the world really is a jungle wherein species survive only if they are the fittest of their kind. As animals, werewolves are powerful and fierce and hard to beat. However, as humans, werewolves, one might be tempted to suppose, leave a lot to be desired. Aren’t they all but brainless, with fetid breath, terrible table manners, and worse etiquette? Aren’t they but brutes, pure and simple, reminders of what, perhaps, our forebears were, millennia ago, and what we may, should we devolve, be once again? So might men and women, as higher animals, suppose, but human beings are not allowed even this conceit, for, as The Return of the Vampire makes clear, these beast-men can reason, act in their own best interests, and even exact revenge against their cruel, but supposed, betters. Stronger, with greater stamina, and ferocious, werewolves are also capable of thinking and of forming beneficial relationships with others while punishing adversaries.

For Christians, there is no such animal. Instead, the equivalent might be an animated corpse--not a zombie per se, nor a mummy, nor a vampire--but someone more akin to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner or Adam after the fall, a person who is spiritually dead. In other words, someone very like modern men and women, more dead than alive and completely without tail or fangs or fur.

But a werewolf? For Christians, there’s no such animal. Or is there?

According to some accounts, God Himself might punish sinners by transforming them into wolves, and some of those whom the church excommunicated were believed to become werewolves. Likewise, saints could curse men and women, transforming them into werewolves (“Werewolf,” Wikipedia). However, such accounts are relatively sparse. For the most part, werewolves are and remain secular creatures more akin to evolutionary theory than to theological doctrine.

If, in psychoanalysis, the superego substitutes for the moral commandments of God (or, alternatively, for heaven or righteousness), the ego for the free will exercised by human beings (or, alternatively, earth or corrupted virtue) , and the id for the devil (or, alternatively, hell or sin), the fate of those whom God curses by transforming them into werewolves seems to represent, in a Freudian reading, a psychotic obsession with sex and death, or eros and thanatos, the life instinct and the death instinct. The werewolf is a creature that is immersed in his or her own animal nature, in his or her own id, in his or her own sexuality. He or she is a figure half alive and half dead, just as he or she is a figure half human and half animal.

In the Christian reading of the same figure, the werewolf is a figure of the damned sinner, whom God has cast into the hell of him- or herself, cursed forever to remain the beastly, unrepentant sinner he or she has become, most likely long before God placed the lycanthropic curse upon his dying soul.


Note: In Part 5 of “Sex and Horror,” I will consider another icon of the genre, that of the witch.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Academy Award-Winning Horror Films, 1931 - 2007


These horror films won Academy Awards:


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931): Best Actor in a Leading Role, Fredric March


The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945): Best Cinematography, Black and White, Harry Stradling, Sr.
 

An American Werewolf in London (1981): Best Achievement in Makeup, Rick Baker

 
Rosemary’s Baby (1983): Best Supporting Actress, Ruth Gordon

 
The Exorcist (1983): Best Sound, Robert Knudson and Best Adapted Screenplay, William Peter Blatty


Aliens (1986): Best Visual Effects, Robert Stotak, Stan Winston, John Richardson, and Suzanne M. Benson and Best Sound Effects Editing, Don Sharpe


The Silence of the Lambs (1991): Best Picture, Best Actress, Jody Foster, Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins, Best Director, Jonathan Demme, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Ted Tally



Jurassic Park (1993); Best Visual Effects, Dennis Muren, Stan Winston, Phil Tippett and Michael Lantieri, Best Sound Mixing, Gary Summers, Gary Rydstrom, Shawn Murphy, Ron Judkins, and Best Sound Editing, Gary Rydstrom and Richard Hymns


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007): Best Art Direction, Dante Ferretti

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.

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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