Sunday, January 12, 2014

Images of Horror as Not-So-Friendly Reminders

copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

Bodies severed at their waists. Eyes without irises or pupils. Furry faces full of fangs. Cheeks stitched from the corners of the mouth to the ears. Mouths devoid of lips. Decapitated bodies. Skulls showing through flesh. Bloody necks slashed and slashed. Faces streaming blood. Crowns of skulls cut away. Craniums transformed into slug-like monstrosities. Faces without noses. Eyes become fanged mouths. Flesh pockmarked and riddled with open sores.

The results of special effects, these images of violence horrify because they display death, dismemberment, injury, monstrous transformation, and disease. They are graphic reminders of our humanity—and, thus, our vulnerability—as much as they are mementos mori.

These pictures remind us of the facts: we are not only going to die someday, but we are, in fact, dying day by day.

Life itself reminds us of our mortality, but in much more subtle ways, ways that seem too small to disturb us more than a moment, if at all.

Our skin wrinkles and sags.

Our hair grays, recedes, or thins.

We put on a little weight.

Our joints ache and stiffen.

Our ears and noses sprout hair.

Our ears get bigger.

Age spots appear on our faces and hands.

Our bones become brittle.

Vision or hearing erode.

We become forgetful.

We wear dentures where, once, we had teeth.

We fall and we cannot get up.

But these signs of aging (and of eventual death) occur gradually, giving us time to adjust and to accept the inevitable. We say that we are getting older, not that we are dying.

And, yet, we are dying, day by day, a wrinkle here, an age spot there.

But we become accustomed to our fate.

Images of horror—of death and destruction, injury and pain, madness and loss of control—don't allow us such a luxury. Such depictions shock and frighten.

They get the blood running and the adrenaline flowing, preparing us to fight or to take flight.

In reminding us of death, they also remind us of life.

Such images remind us to stop, to think, to listen, and to smell the roses. . .

. . . while we can.

Before it's too late.

And the bogeyman hiding within emerges, born of blood and flesh, pain and bone, reducing us, at last, to food for worms.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The WHO?, WHAT?, WHEN?, WHERE?, HOW?, and WHY? of Horror: A Sampler

copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

WHO?: A motel owner; the devil; a writer—what is scary about some is what they are by nature, in and of themselves (the devil); what is scary about others is what they are secretly (Norman Bates), what they are incipiently (Jack Torrance), or what they become (Seth Brundle). Human beings gone bad, in other words, are frightening. The selves we present to others are our personas, masks that we wear to appear normal and rational and acceptable; horror fiction shows readers or audiences the true face behind these masks. We do what we are.

WHAT?: Madness, evil, experiments gone awry—what is scary about some is that they represent loss of control (madness); what is scary about others is that they represent helplessness in the face of merciless cruelty (evil); what is scary about still others is that they represent the unintended harm that can come of good intentions or mistakes (experiments gone awry). Actions are frightening because they show that human behavior is not insignificant, but causal. We are what we do.

WHEN/WHERE?: An isolated motel, a house in Georgetown, a vacant hotel in the middle of nowhere. Some settings are scary because they isolate (Bates' motel); others are scary because they show that evil can occur anywhere—and, therefore, everywhere—including the nation's capital); still others are scary because they combine two or more sources of fear, such as isolation and familial dysfunction). Places are frightening because they are the sites in which human behavior and its consequences are displayed. In building places, we reveal ourselves: the architect is visible in the buildings he or she designs.

HOW?: Rental, possession, experimentation. A motel room can be a motel room—or it can be a Venus flytrap-like chamber of death; the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but it can also become the devil's pig sty; scientific instruments can deliver us into evil as well as good. The means we use to achieve our ends depend upon our ends—or, sometimes, they have unanticipated results too horrible to have imagined. We are not only what we do, but we are also often the victims of what we, or others, do.

WHY?: To appease another, to assert the self or to defy God, to discover new possibilities or to control nature—what is scary about appeasing others is that, in doing so, we subject our wills—indeed, our very selves—to the wills of those whom we seek to appease; what is scary about one's assertion of will is that, as Shakespeare observes, “one can smile and smile and be a villain”; what is scary about attempts to discover new possibilities is that some possibilities are better left alone, and what is scary about controlling nature is that doing so subverts or, at least, alters the effects of natural law. The “why” of behavior is, at bottom, a mystery, and this, too, makes motive and cause frightening in themselves; the unintended—or, sometimes, intended—consequences of such motives and causes make the whole cause-and-effect chain of events potentially even more horrible yet.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Techniques for Devising Plot Twists

copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

By analyzing movies which end with an unexpected twist, one may discern various techniques that writers have employed to accomplish this feat. With some overlap among a few instances, here is one classification of such techniques:

Denial: the apparent experience never happened. Example: April Fool's Day (1986): It seems that a serial killer is murdering people, but the apparent deaths are all results of practical jokes (it's April Fool's Day, after all) perpetuated by pranksters who could be gainfully employed, if they weren't so immature, as Hollywood special effects wizards.

Inversion: life is but a dream (or an hallucination). Example: When  a Stranger Calls (1979): A babysitter is terrorized by a psychotic killer who calls her repeatedly on the family's telephone—and the killer is in the house! The Descent (2005) also relies upon inversion for its plot twist, as does HighTension (2005) and Identity (2003).

Substitution: one person, place, or thing is replaced by another person, place, or thing. Example: Fallen (1998): The hero says he almost died in an ordeal, but he is possessed by the killer while he's speaking, so, in fact, it's the killer who almost dies, while the hero is already dead. Fridaythe 13th (1980) also uses this technique to generate its plot twist.

Marvelous: that which seems, in Tzvetan Todorov's terms, to be uncanny actually turns out to be marvelous (in other words, that which appears to be natural is really supernatural). Example: Carnivalof Souls (1962): A woman who believes she is the lone survivor of a car crash sees strange ghouls chasing her, but she's dead all the while. The SixthSense (1999) and TheOthers (2001) also employ the marvelous to create their plot twists.

Multiplication: e pluribus unum, reversed. Example: Scream (1986): A serial killer who stalks teens turns out to be two killers.

Impersonation: The Cabinet ofDr. Caligari (1920): A man relates his tale of madman Dr. Caligari, who along with his zombie-like henchman, committed a string of murders, but the narrator is the real madman, and he's telling his tale in an insane asylum; Caligari is, in fact, his doctor in the asylum. Angel Heart (1987), Sleepaway Camp and Saw (2004) also use impersonation to generate their plot twists.

Impersonation via split personality: a character masquerades as someone else. Example: Psycho (1960): Norman Bates seeks to cover up his mother's murders. The problem is that, years earlier, Norman killed his mother and developed a split personality: he has become both himself and his mother. This same technique generates the plot twist in Hideand Seek (2005).

Mistaken identity and Irony: through mistaken identity, something happens that is other than that which the audience has been led to expect. Example: Black Christmas (1974): When a sorority house must deal with a series of threatening telephone calls and the disappearances of some of their sisters, it is discovered that the man who dies, who is assumed to have been the killer, was not the murderer; the actual killer is still inside the house.

Duplicity: an actual situation is misrepresented to deceive someone. Example: The Wicker Man (1973): A policeman investigates a missing child on a British isle that celebrates pagan customs, but the story of the missing girl was fabricated to lure the cop to the island so that he could be sacrificed to the gods after being enclosed inside a burning "wicker man." Diabolique (1964) also uses duplicity to create its plot twist.

Jumped Conclusion: someone other than the suspect is guilty of a crime. Example: Friday the 13th (1980): In 1957, Jason drowns at Camp Crystal Lake; a year later, two counselors are murdered and the camp is closed. In 1979, the camp reopens, and a mysterious killer—possibly Jason, whose body was never found—begins to stalk the camp's counselors once again, but it's not Jason; it's his mother, Mrs. Vorhees. Substitution also creates the plot twist in Fallen (1998).

Unanticipated consequences: an act that is believed to effect a specific result has unanticipated consequences. Example: The Ring (2000): Rachel, a reporter investigating a video tape rumored to bring death to anyone who watches it, finds out that it is somehow tied to a mysterious young girl named Samara, whose body Rachel retrieves from a well, thereby freeing her spirit to kill again, rather than putting the ghost to rest, as Rachel believed would happen.

Irony: something happens that is other than that which the audience has been led to expect. (In a sense, most twist endings are ironic in one way or another. However, this category is reserved for plots that are intrinsically ironic: the irony results from the very nature of the storyline, rather than an element added at the end.) Example: When a Stranger Calls (1979): A babysitter is terrorized by a psychotic killer who calls her repeatedly on the family's telephone, and the killer is calling from within the house. The Mist (2007) also uses irony to create its plot twist.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

"The Cabin in the Woods": A Review

Okay, Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse) is the producer, and the film, The Cabin in the Woods, was scheduled to open on Friday the 13th. So far, so good. Moreover, the poster advertising the movie promises something different, a new twist, an unexpected spin on a familiar story: “You think you know the story.” But, of course, we don't know the story. We only think we do. Surprises—probably shocks, even—are in store. We've been warned.

The imagery suggests a mystery, too, or a difficult puzzle. The cabin floats (or falls) before an indistinct, rather sketchy forest, and, like a Rubik's Cube, it's turned this way and that. In fact, there are three cabins, none of which are actually in the forest (in the poster, at least), and they're stacked atop one another, the topmost right-side up, the middle one set on its side, the lower one upside down. We're disoriented; we're confused; we don't know which way is “up” (or “down” or “sideways,” for that matter). This movie's going to turn us every way but loose.

Those in the know know that Whedon is to movies what Dean Koontz is to novels: a genre bender who throws in a little of everything: comedy, tragedy, romance, adventure, mystery, horror, and the kitchen sink, and, from what reviewers have said about this film, Cabin in the Woods was meant to be no exception to the Whedon formula: it's satire; it's pastiche; it's filmed in Vancouver, of all places. According to the A. V. Club, the script, which took Whedon and co-writer Drew Goddard a whole three days to write, exhibits ”Whedon’s love of subverting clich├ęs while embracing them and teasing out their deeper meaning,” if any. (The film was produced in only three months, too, by the way.) The authors themselves claim that their masterpiece is intended to “revitalize” the slasher film, a genre that so deserves such effort.

It cost about $30 million to make and grossed $65 million worldwide, so it's judged a “financial success.” Critical reviews were mixed, but generally favorable. It seems that the whole thing is a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Whedon has the talent to offer more—much more—than a revitalization of death warmed over.

Perhaps the best thing about the movie, though, is the poster that promoted it.

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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