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Monday, May 14, 2018

"Backcountry": A Study in the Causes and Consquences of Poor Judgments

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

In Backcountry, in Powassan, Ontario, and Caddy Lake, Manitoba, Alex convinces his girlfriend Jenn to go camping with him in one of Canada's remote provincial parks. She's a lawyer, while he's a landscaper. He believes his expertise as a woodsman will allow him to shine once he's in his element, and he wants to impress her, because he plans to pop the question while they're on their trip. Nothing goes as he'd hoped, and, despite his rudimentary skills as a woodsman—he can pitch a tent, chop wood, start a fire, and read sign—it's soon clear he's in over his head. In fact, once she's forced to fend for herself, Jenn, ironically, proves herself to be more competent than Alex, whose vanity, eagerness to impress Jenn at any cost, and minimal woodcraft, led him to make a series of poor judgments that, if it were not for their catastrophic consequences, might have made the film a comedy. He makes at least a dozen serious errors in judgment:

He refuses a ranger's offer of a park map. He's been to the park so many times, he says, he has no need of a map. As a result, when he later becomes lost, he and Jenn have no guidance out of the forest.

Annoyed that Jenn returns telephone calls during their trip to the park, Alex removes her cell phone from her backpack, leaving it behind, in the trunk of his car. Once the couple becomes lost, they have no way to call for help.

He leaves Jenn alone when he goes to chop wood for their campfire. In his absence, a stranger, Brad, happens upon Jenn. As Alex himself later points out, both to Jenn and to Brad, Brad could have been a dangerous “nut” who might have raped or killed Jenn. Despite this realization, Alex again leaves Jenn alone when he goes to retrieve the hatchet he left in the side of a tree at the site at which he'd chopped the wood.

When he spies a bear print, Alex doesn't share this sign with Jenn. Jenn has bear spray and a traffic flare that they could use against the bear, but she is unaware of its presence. The bear could (and, later, does) kill someone.

Although he is uncertain of the correct path to the lake, Alex continues their trek through the forest, despite his not having a map, a cell phone, or a weapon (other than, perhaps, his hatchet).

During the night, Jenn hears mysterious sounds. Without investigating, Alex tells Jenn she's hearing nothing more than acorns falling from the trees, onto their tent. He may believe the sounds are the effects of falling acorns, as he says, or he may not want Jenn to think the sounds are caused by a bear, whether to keep her from being afraid or to prevent her from wanting to leave, in which case he is also being deceitful.

After hearing the sounds of what be a bear, instead of falling acorns, Alex refuses to leave the park.

After seeing a broken tree branch indicative of a bear's nearby presence, Alex refuses to leave the park.

After seeing the carcass of a dead deer indicating the presence of a bear—and of a bear that is both starving (bears, otherwise, don't eat meat—and predatory)—Alex refuses to leave the park.

Even after the bear visits their campsite, Alex refuses to leave the park.

Early in the movie, Alex injures himself by dropping the canoe in which he and Jenn arrive at their initial campsite on his foot. He doesn't tend to the injury for over a day, by which time his sock is soaked in his blood. He hangs the sock in a tree, and the blood attracts a hungry black bear.

Alex leaves his hatchet outside the couple's tent. Had he brought the hatchet inside the tent, he would have had a weapon with which to fight off the attacking bear; without it, he has nothing but his hands and feet.

Jenn also makes several errors in judgment. She is mindful of Alex's need to assert his masculinity and defers to his wishes and judgments, which, under other circumstances, might not have life-and-death significance; in the wilds of the Canadian park they visit, such deference can, and does, have such consequences. These are the more significant errors in judgment Jenn makes:

She does not insist that Alex accept a park map from the ranger or accept one herself.

In Alex's absence, Jenn invites Brad into their campsite.

She does not insist that Alex make sure the “acorns” he says are falling on their tent really are acorns.

She does not insist that Alex take her home after she sees evidence of the nearby presence of a bear.

She returns to their campsite after the bear has killed Alex so she can retrieve the engagement ring he has shown her.

Although Jenn, like Alex, makes mistakes in judgment, she is not a woodman and the couple's survival is not primarily her responsibility. In addition, she is not deceitful toward Alex, as he is to her. When she is alone, after Alex's death, her decisions are wise, allowing her to survive the bear and the wilderness.

Despite these mistakes, Jenn also makes wise decisions, even in the face of danger and under the pressure of stress:

She has the presence of mind to use her bear spray and her whistle to twice frighten off the bear before it can attack her.

She bathes her right arm, which was injured in the bear attack, and bandages it.

She sleeps in the fork of a tree's high branches.

She uses her flare to signal for help.

She recalls Alex's advice about eating spearmint berries and Brad's counsel that hikers should climb down the right, not the left, side of the park's waterfall.

She follows a buck, hoping it will lead her to water or out of the forest. The animal leads her to the waterfall.

She makes a splint and sets the leg she breaks in a fall during her descent of the cliff beside the waterfall.

Despite her amateur status as a woodsman, Jenn is more successful in navigating the forest and escaping the bear than Alex had been. His decisions endangered their lives. Some of hers did as well, although most of them helped her to survive her ordeal.

The movie does a good job of depicting the consequences of the characters' respective behaviors, suggesting that what one does results from his or her character no less than his or her motives.

Alex wants to impress Jenn, but he wants to do so because of his own insecurities. He feels inferior to her, because, in the everyday world in which they live the majority of the time, she, as a lawyer, occupies a position of greater status that he has as a landscaper.

Although she frequently defers to him and is eager, most of the time, to support his sense of himself and to shore up any doubts he may have of his masculinity or personal worth, she seems ambiguous about these aspects of his character. When she loses her temper after they become lost in the park, she says she wants to speak honestly to him “for once,” calling him a “loser” who always manages to mishandle or otherwise botch “everything.”

Alex also seems to care less about Jenn than he does about his own fragile self-image. He often rushes up and down the trail, leaving Jenn in his wake to fend for herself in the rough terrain, among tree branches, logs, brambles, and other obstacles. Even after he knows that a dangerous bear is following them and lurks in the vicinity of their campsites, he continues, without regard for his safety of her own, to proceed on their misguided journey, endangering their lives. In preparing for their trip, he took no precautions, failing to bring bear spray, a whistle, or a rifle.

In his mind, he is too macho to need such provisions or to heed the danger signs he sees in the forest. His poor judgment, however, is no match for the starving bear. The animal's ripping and tearing him apart, which is shown in grisly detail, is proof that he is no match for nature. In trying to impress Jenn by proving his manhood, Alex endangers both his life and hers.

At the beginning of the movie, as they are driving to the remote park, Jenn gives Alex a multiple-choice “boyfriend test” published in an issue of a women's magazine she's brought with her. Many of the items deal with consideration. Alex fails the test miserably, suggesting he isn't considerate at all of Jenn. He cares more about himself than he does her. Although he dies protecting her, giving her an opportunity to escape, it is he who, through his own insecurities and poor judgments, put her—and himself—in such a dire situation to begin with. As the test predicted, Alex was poor boyfriend material. Chances are, he'd have been poor marriage material as well. Jenn was lucky to survive the bear, as she was lucky to survive Alex.

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Todorov:

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

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

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

My Cup of Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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