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Monday, June 4, 2018

Making Every Word (or Image) Count

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) is well known to many moviegoers. Each moment in the sequence keeps viewers' attention, enhances the victim's humanity, characterizes the victim (or alternately dehumanizes her) or her companion, intensifies viewers' emotions, establishes contrasts that heighten emotion and sharpen theme, suggests despair, and/or leads up to the victim's savage and horrendous death. The blue font indicates how the action sequences accomplish these tasks.

A young blonde woman runs, Chrissie Watkins, along a fence, or what is left of it, pursued by a young man. Is he a threat? Does he mean her harm? Is he a stalker?

This sequence of action creates suspense, as the viewer, having no clue as to why the man is chasing the woman, wonders whether she is in danger.

He trips, falls, but is again on his feet in a second, and the pursuit continues. Chrissie glance back, over her shoulder, as she runs, shedding her denim jacket. Beneath her sweaters, her breasts bounce as she runs, suggesting she is braless. The man continues his pursuit.

Chrissie may shed her jacket because it impedes her range of motion, slowing her down. The motion of her breasts calls attention to her femininity and her sexuality, suggesting a possible motive for the man's pursuit. Is he intent upon rape?

She pauses to remove a shoe, before stumbling onward, her pursuer giving chase, as he doffs his sweatshirt.

Perhaps she removes her shoe for the same reason she removed her sweater: it slows her flight.

Chrissie pulls off her sweater; she is, indeed, braless. Viewers see her bare breasts bounce as she runs. Although she continues to flee from the man following her, viewers begin to suspect the couple are playing a game, as she has voluntarily removed her shoe and top.

The suspense dissipates, as viewers realize the couple are playing a game of sorts. Chrissie is not in danger. (However, since she soon will be, this segment of the film's introductory sequence creates a false expectation for viewers.) Her braless states suggests she is a modern, “liberated” young woman who is comfortable in her own skin.

As the man tumbles down a hill at the side of the trail, Chrissie, now completely nude, runs toward the ocean, her buttocks drawing viewers' gazes.

When suspense is unavailable, nudity can keep viewers' attention. The fact that she has chosen to be naked suggests she is a carefree young woman, just as the game of flight-and-pursuit she plays with her friend suggests she is playful.

She enters the surf and dives into the sea. She is a strong swimmer, and, by the time her friend arrives on the beach, removing more of his clothing, she is nearing a buoy some distance off shore.

The young man remains only a figure, rather than a character, he's little more than a prop; the introductory portion of the film remains focused on Chrissie. For this part of the film, at least, she is the protagonist.

Projecting her leg into the air, her foot extended straight, in a manner similar to that of a ballerina standing on her toes, she lets herself sink into the ocean. For a moment, she is lost to sight.

The positioning of her leg indicates Chrissie has a sense of humor.

A closeup shot shows her resurface, mouth wide as she gasps for breath, water streaming down her face. She smiles, before turning as she dog paddles, to look west, toward the sun, which is low on the horizon. Sunset is on its way.

Although she is in her element and is enjoying herself, Chrissie hasn't much time left: symbolically, the near-sunset indicates that the end is near for her.

On the beach, her friend is a silhouette against the wash of the surf, a stretch of low land, and a sky in which scattered clouds are illuminated, yellow and pink in the setting sun. He falls as he struggles to remove a shoe. Perhaps, given his clumsiness, he is drunk.

It seems clear that he is not the type of man who is apt to be able to rescue a damsel in distress. He cannot even take care of himself.

Chrissie resumes swimming, her gliding silhouette seen from below the calm, blue waters as she performs the breaststroke. Then, the back of her head and her arms are seen at a distance, as she continues to swim.

Seen from this perspective, below and at some distance, Chrissie is dehumanized. She might as well be a maritime animal, a fish or a seal, as a human being.

Pausing for a moment, as the camera shows her closeup, she turns her head from side to side, smiling.

Her moment of joy will contrast sharply and dramatically with her coming horror and pain.

She sinks below the surface of the ocean, kicking her legs and waving her arms. The camera views her from below. Her pubic hair is a dark, triangular patch, her breasts discernible as a pair of firm, buoyant mounds topped by her nipples.

Her sexuality is highlighted by this shot, but it is, at the same time, darkened by the lack of light, both below the surface of the ocean and in the dusky sky above. She is undoubtedly a beautiful and sexy woman; her death will seem all the more a waste. She could be a mother. Instead, she will become a corpse. Sexuality and life are established, through her nudity, as contrasts to her upcoming demise.

At the surface again, she smiles. Then, her head jerks back and she is pulled violently downward. Her eyes widen in surprise. She turns her head slightly to her right, looking puzzled. Her head dips below the surface, before reappearing. She looks panic-stricken. In a splash, she vanishes beneath the waves. When her head pierces the surface, her mouth is open, her eyes shut tightly, a grimace of terror and pain freezing her features.

Chrissie feels surprise, followed by shock, followed by horror and pain, as she realizes she is in the grip of an adversary too ferocious and powerful to resist and that, alone at sea, she is on her own.

A splash, and she is pulled across the water, past the buoy, only her head and shoulders visible above the water. She struggles. Her body is pulled to the right. She straightens, and her body is again pulled to the right. Water churns around her.

It is as if, clinging to the buoy, she hopes against hope, even in her hopeless situation, to survive somehow. Of course, she has no chance.

On the beach, her friend sleeps, as Chrissie continues to struggle for her life against her unseen adversary. She is launched toward the buoy and clings desperately to its platform. It turns, and, cast off, she swims toward shore, but, a moment later, she is seized. Her face flashes with anguish amid the roiling water, as she cries out. She is taken underwater.

This seems to be her last moment: she is buried, as it were, at sea, the closure of the water above her body a metaphorical closing of her grave.

Her friend continues to sleep on the beach, despite the breaking waves that wash over his lower body. The sky is now nearly dark.

The near-darkness suggests both the young man's sleep (and his unawareness of Chrissie's death) and Chrissie's own demise.

In well-made movies, regardless of their genre, every moment of screen time contributes to the film's overall effect while moving the movie forward. The same is true of well-written novels, although, sometimes to their detriment, novels are allowed more leeway than movies, probably because feature films cost millions of dollars to produce, while novels typically cost those who write and distribute them far less. A tightly written novel, though, in which every chapter, paragraph, sentence, and word contributes to the narrative's overall effect while moving the story forward is apt to be a superior one. Whatever their medium, one type of artist can often suggest ways to improve another one's work, regardless of its medium. The opening sequence of Jaws, like the movie's other scenes, has a lot to teach those willing to study and to learn.

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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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