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Friday, November 25, 2011

A Dirty Little Secret About Horror Movies: They Hurt So Good!

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


We say that we fear death, disability, insensibility, insanity, incarceration, apathy or hatred, poverty, indignity, pain, disfigurement or ugliness, unbelief, and humiliation, but we do not. We fear what these conditions signify: we fear loss. Respectively, we fear the loss of life, of limb, of our senses, of our minds, of freedom, of love, of wealth, of dignity, of pleasure, of beauty (our own or beauty itself), of faith, and of pride.

Horror is about loss.

The threats to loss are the enemies, the monsters, that appear in horror stories to threaten and to seize, to destroy and to eliminate, to ruin and to pervert. The monsters are the creatures, conditions, situations, duties, fates, and other foes that attack us from within or from without--or, in some cases, from both within and from without.

Alternatively, loss can transform us into the monsters we fear. The loss of love or beauty can turn a heartsick woman or a grieving husband into a beast bent upon revenge, as in The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

Horror films that play upon--or prey upon--these fears of loss include Silver Bullet (1985) (paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Marty Coslaw is pursued by a werewolf); Jeepers Creepers (2001) (victims are blinded by the villain); Psycho (1960) (Norman Bates is psychotic); Prison (1988) (innocent, convicted murderer Charlie Forsythe is electrocuted, but returns to avenge himself by frying others); Carrie (1976) (Carrie White is bullied before, unleashing her telekinetic powers, she kills her hateful tormentors); Soylent Green (1973) (Soylent Green is people--the have-nots feed the haves--literally); Victim (2010) (first, the victim is stripped of his dignity; then, the pain begins); most of the Saw movies qualify as “torture porn,” in which pain is celebrated for what it is--pain--for no other reason than that pain makes an audience squirm; Darkman (1990) (burn victim--and scientist--Peyton Westlake is just one of the many disfigured characters who appear in a multitude of horror films); The Exorcist (1973) (Father Damien Karras battles his own unbelief as well as the demon who’s possessed preadolescent Regan MacNeil); Last House on the Left (1972) (two teenage girls are not only raped and tortured but humiliated); and, of course, countless horror movies delight in detailing graphic and gory death scenes. Many other such movies also present themes and images of the loss of life, of limb, of our senses, of our minds, of freedom, of love, of wealth, of dignity, of pleasure, of beauty (our own or beauty itself), of faith, and of pride.

We want wholeness. We want soundness. We want happiness. Instead, horror movies give us crippling, fragmenting, and grievous physical and psychological harm. We keep coming back for more, though. We are, on some level, both sadists and masochists. We are, in fact, sadomasochists: we want to inflict pain upon ourselves or others and want, at the same time, to experience the infliction of misery. That is one of the dirty little secrets of horror movies. Like the twisted love that John Mellencamp sings about, horror movies “hurt so good.”

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Tunnel of Trees and Me


Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


Imagining that one is a location scout or a cameraman while taking a stroll may not put money in the bank, but it does enliven one’s promenade. Things take on a sinister and ominous look as one imagines camera angles, the types of shots to be shot, the characters and objects to be emphasized or deemphasized, the lighting to be used, and the music that would accompany the images upon the film.

One can, quite easily, scare the hell out of oneself.

Perhaps, as a result of such a stroll--a walk that takes place in the imagination as much as it does through any particular landscape--one may even conceive of a story that will set other people’s nerves on edge.

Some landscapes or landscape features are natural symbols of emotional states. Once, while searching for my brother’s place--he and his lovely wife live in a remote canyon in the southern part of California--I somehow entered what was, in effect, a tunnel of trees. They stood thick along either side of the narrow, unpaved, rutted road, their branches interweaved, both side by side, throughout their impenetrable stand, and overhead. It was night, but, by shutting out even the ambient illumination of the stars and the moon, the tunnel of trees made the night darker than it would have been otherwise. My headlights were the only source of light, and all this relatively faint illumination disclosed was the dirt road ahead and the thick green foliage on either side of me and overhead. The emotion that this seemingly unnatural growth of trees and foliage created--or seemed to create, for, obviously, the sentiment was my own, and not the earth’s--was anxiety akin to panic at the sense of being trapped. Claustrophobia produces, I must say, an alarm like no other type of fear, one that is as pervasive as it is evasive and as overwhelming as it is engulfing.

Fortunately, in a mile or so, I exited this tunnel of greenery as abruptly as, having made another in a series of wrong turns, I had entered it. I was even fortunate enough to find my brother’s house. I related the strange experience, and his and his wife’s insistence that neither of them knew of such a road anywhere near their domicile further enhanced the eeriness of the experience. Wouldn’t a story--or a film--that included a scene of a protagonist or a lesser character entering such a corridor as the one I had chanced to enter be a scary tale?

Probably. Certainly, handled with adroitness, it could be.

But this is only one of the many such possibilities that a walk in the park--or, better yet, a walk in the dark--viewed from the perspective of the monster, the serial killer, the madman, or their victim, could inspire.

 

Friday, November 11, 2011

11/22/63: A Book That Shall Live in Infamy

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Stephen King can’t seem to help himself. For the past twenty years or so, he’s been writing when he really has little or nothing more to say (worth saying, at least). Instead, it bashes Republicans, conservatives, or whatever he sees as the monster of the moment.

His self-indulgent attacks upon all-things-not-Kingly are tiresome, not entertaining.

Apparently, he’s now given up even pretending to write about horror. Instead, he’s taking up alternative history--or alternative history and science fiction--as his new “literary” genre--or genres. In his latest tome, which is quite the doorstop at over 800 pages, King stretches his readers’ ability to suspend their disbelief to the breaking point and beyond by introducing a time machine (in the form of a “wormhole.”) A local butcher has been using the device to slip back a few decades and buy some cuts of meat at way more than bargain basement prices for resale in the here and now. King’s protagonist has a better idea: he uses the time machine to throw himself (and horror fiction) back more than half a century so he can prevent the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or “JFK,” as King prefers to refer to the former president.

The whole idea sounds rather more tiresome than entertaining.

But that’s understandable. After all, 11/22/63 is King’s fiftieth book. Apparently, he’s too tired himself, at this point in his career, to trouble himself to write words when numbers will do--or, perhaps, in his pastiche-prone way, he’s simply trying to associate his book with 9/11, another date which, like 12/7/41, lives in eternal “infamy.”

Apparently out of gas (or maybe full of gas), King trots out the trite and the familiar: time travel, JFK’s assassination, chaos theory, high school, teacher-writer protagonist (the novel’s hero, Jack Epping, is a high school English teacher, as King himself once was, before he became the Big Mac and fries of the literati), domestic violence, and a classic car (shades of Christine and From a Buick 8). He even tosses a little Groundhog Day into the mix. (Something’s gotta stick, right?) About the only thing missing is a St. Bernard.

Recommendation: Don’t buy it; if you must read it, wait until your local library pays for a copy out of your tax dollar.

The Machinery of Horror

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

Every horror story needs something to generate its action. Sometimes, this element is mentioned in the story’s title (especially, it seems, in horror movies, as opposed to novels). Some of the tried-and-true (and trite) include the activities of particular types of characters, the application of supernatural or paranormal powers, the methods of madness, twisted retellings of traditional tales, and the murder and mayhem of traditional monsters:
Alien visitation
Curses
Demonic possession
Full moon (causing werewolf activity)
Haunting of a house (or some other location), usually by ghosts but also, occasionally, by demons
Incestuous relationships and their consequences
Madmen (and women)
Motherly love gone awry
Natural catastrophes
Psychic abilities
Psychotic roommates
Religious cults and their rites and rituals
Retold fairy tales
Sadists
Serial killers
Stalkers
Vampires’ need to feed
Witchcraft
Zombies
 
 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Explaining Vampires

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman


In The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases, E. J. Wagner includes a series of facts that writers of horror stories, seeking to balance claims concerning the supernatural origin and existence of vampires with natural explanations for the belief in such creatures can use in their own stories:

In real life, exhumations of reputed vampires provided helpful information to medical science. In the eighteenth century, during a vampire panic in central Europe, a number of graves were opened by physicians of the occupying Austrian army. Their reports gave a detailed picture of the unexpected effects that burial can have on cadavers--effects that in less educated minds gave credence to the vampire legends. Bodies of males, for instance, were sometimes discovered showing “wild signs,” or penile erections, no doubt caused by bloating from gases. The same gases caused corpses to split open, often with sufficient noise to be heard aboveground. Some burials were in earth so rich in tannin that the bodies were extraordinarily preserved, even after centuries underground. All of this served to immortalize the belief in the “undead.”

. . . In many nineteenth-century country villages the disease [consumption, or tuberculosis] meant that infected descendents of diseased victims often showed the first signs of illness after their progenitors were buried. It was not recognized that the disease was the result of contagion within the household. The symptoms of weakness and anemia caused by poor lung function and bloody coughs suggested to the credulous that the dead had returned to feed on their young.

Opening the graves of suspected vampires sometimes disclosed that the corpses had changed position, a result of effects of decomposition and ensuing gas formation. Insect activity affected the visage of the dead, contraction of the skin made it appear that the hair and nails continued to grow, and what was thought to be fresh liquid blood could be found in the mouths or chest cavities. It was not generally realized that blood, which coagulates after death, can subsequently return to a liquid state, so when a stake was driven into the chest of an exhumed corpse and a plume of blood erupted, it satisfied the observers that a vampire had been quelled (202-203)

. . . The belief that hair and nails could grow after death was taken as evidence of vampirism in some primitive rural communities (207).
Occasionally, unconscious or catatonic men and women were buried alive by accident, and, when they regained consciousness, experiencing claustrophobia and seeking to escape the confines of their buried coffins, they flailed at the lids, tore the linings, and writhed and rolled about. If their bodies were later exhumed for some reason, the damages to the interiors of the caskets and the repositioned corpses might also be taken as signs that the supposedly dead were really the “undead.”


Note: George Washington, who suffered from taphephobia, ordered that he not be buried until twelve days after his death, and others who feared being buried alive ensured that their coffins and graves were equipped with means of escape and egress. Vestal virgins who violated their oaths of chastity were buried alive as a form of torture and execution. The antagonist of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” was likewise immured, and the protagonist of “The Premature Burial” was buried alive. In reality, before modern medical knowledge provided safeguards against live burial, people were accidentally buried alive more often than one might suppose; as Christine Quigley points out, in The Corpse: A History, “William Tebb records 149 such cases, as well as several 219 near misses, ten live dissections, and two awakenings during embalming. “10 Horrifying Premature Burials,“ an Internet article, also describes additional live burials.  Maybe being a vampire wasn’t all that bad, compared to the virgins’ fate!

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

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My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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