Fascinating lists!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Subtext: The Key to Greater Storytelling Sophistication

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

In the past, when same-sex love dared not name its name, filmmakers whose movies, horror or otherwise, featured gays or gay themes had to rely on coded messages to convey their messages. While such a tactic is not necessary now that mainstream society has embraced, or is beginning to embrace, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender men and women, the approach can be adapted to other uses, offering a subtler, more indirect way of communicating that could help make horror films more nuanced in their presentation of themes in general.

The group of editors who co-wrote an Advocate article, “17 Horror Films Only LGBT People Understand,” identify several of the ways by which gay filmmakers “coded” their homosexual content.


In The Black Cat (1934), Christopher Harrity observes, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) “keeps dead women in glass cases.” Extreme misogyny, he notes, was a shorthand way, back in the day, to suggest a character's homosexuality.


In The Haunting (1963), Trudy King identifies the “Mary Quant outfits” that Theo wears and points out how she rejects a male character's “advances” while she “coyly” flirts with another female character, Eleanor. A brief mention, in a Metro article, “The V&A is holding a Mary Quant retrospective to celebrate the iconic designer’s work,” suggests their significance in the movie's disguised same-sex context: “defiant 60s hemlines were a symbol of young women shrugging off the more traditional and repressive gendered expectations of previous generations, and embracing a new world where they had more impetus to take control of their bodies and their futures.” Theo (note the ambiguity of the nickname, which could stand for either Theodore or Theodora) wears clothing that signify her unconventional lifestyle. Precisely how, or in what manner, she is unconventional is indicated by her style of dress, her rejections of the male character's advances, her sexually ambiguous nickname, and her surreptitious flirtations with another member of her own sex. Although the evidence is circumstantial, it is also fairly substantial. 


Tracy E. Gilchrist sees the clothing that Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) wears—a “formfitting sage skirt suit and glamorous fur that would make Cate Blanchett’s [awakening lesbian] Carol Aird swoon”—and her “impeccable hairdo that The Birds just can't help dive into”—symbolic of her latent saphhic desires. She is a straitlaced lady, but her beauty and sex appeal don't seem to escape the notice of “sumptuously husky-voiced” Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) who opts for male attire (pants) over feminine clothing. Gilchrist detects a “sizzling . . . tension” between the two women, who appear to represent the butch-femme pairing typical of the sleazy pulp novels of the day. (The movie was released in 1963). But there's more, as infomercial announcers like to say:
Beyond the calculable lesbian energy set off when Melanie and Annie interact, and Melanie’s fabulous wardrobe, there’s an argument to be made for those lovebirds (they’re called lovebirds, after all) as an allegory for forbidden love shaking things up. Bodega Bay was perfectly fine and set in its ways before Melanie, with her progressive ideas and those winged outsiders, turned up and created a feathered maelstrom.

For Gilchrist, it's warrant Officer Ripley's personal characteristics (“laconic sensibility, competence, strength,” not to mention her “cheekbones”) that establishes the Alien (1973) character as a butch lesbian. A lesbian context for the female Marine (who's a middle-management fighting woman, halfway between the ranks of commissioned officer and that of enlisted personnel) is created by the presence of the alien eggs and by the “feminist iconography of tunnels and dark spaces evoking vaginas, ovaries, and wombs, and . . . recurring primal scenes of birth and rebirth.”


According to writer David Chaskin, Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985) contains a gay subtext because he promoted the movie's “gay themes.” These elements—“leather bars, male shower scenes, and a 'final boy' who is more interested in hanging out with his cute guy friend than making out with the beautiful gal pal”—were directed, Chaskin admitted (after initially denying the “gay themes” were present in the movie at all), at “teenage boys' rampant AIDS-era homophobia.” 


Subverting gender roles” can also mark a movie as bearing a gay theme, as The Descent (2005) does, claims Neal Broverman, in the film's depiction of women without men as “strong women,” rather than “helpless girls” who must face monsters on their own in the remote cave they're exploring.


In Teeth (2007), the protagonist, Dawn O'Keefe (Jess Weixler) fights “male aggressors” with a weapon unique to her sex—her vagina, which, unlike those of ordinary women, is armed; she possesses an actual vagina dentata. The movie “is a tale about empowering women,” Daniel Reynolds contends. 

Writers can learn from moviemakers who wanted to imply certain themes before it was socially acceptable even to mention such topics in a public forum. Their solution was to use subtext to suggest, rather than to communicate about forbidden lifestyles directly. As a result, they used indirect communication to get their points across to an audience who was in the know or who could relate well enough to the implications of the subtext to figure out its overt significance. This approach doesn't have to be limited to the expression of same-sex themes. The use of subtext can enrich any movie by suggesting, rather than stating openly, by intimating rather than declaring, by connoting rather than denoting.

By exemplifying the behaviors characteristic (or believed to be characteristic) of a group of people—in other words, stereotyping—writers can imply that an individual character is a member of the group whose characteristics he or she expresses. Sometimes, to drive home the point, writers may exaggerate such characteristics or behaviors.

A person who masquerades as a member of a race, nationality, or ethnicity other than his or her own could be shown as speaking and acting as members of the group he or she is imitating generally speak or behave. In short, such a character could impersonate a member of the group. A particular manner of dress, which is associated with a specific group, can help to create the illusion that the character belongs to the race, nationality, or ethnicity he or she is impersonating. Of course, it is likely that an actual member of the group could recognize the character as fraudulent, possibly with violent or even deadly consequences—we're talking horror here, after all.

Just as a character's sex and gender can be disguised by a sexually ambiguous or androgynous nickname, a nickname can suggest that a character belongs to a group of criminals, especially if “Guido,” “Scarface, or “Cool Daddy” uses criminal cant, or “gangster talk”; “The Colonel,” “Jarhead,” or “Sarge” uses military jargon (complete with plenty of acronyms); or “Doc,” “Sage,” or “The Professor” employs the argot of a particular profession, such as medicine, philosophy, or higher education. 

Symbolism can create the impression that something stands for something else. Symbolism often works on the basis of metaphor, the comparison of two unlike objects—and, in fiction, the second object is apt to be the story's setting. In a sense, a metaphor is an equation of sorts, suggesting that one thing (A) = something else (B). If Alien used a “feminist iconography of tunnels and dark spaces evoking vaginas, ovaries, and wombs, and . . . recurring primal scenes of birth and rebirth” to create a lesbian subtext, another subtext can be created by using an “iconography” (visual images and symbols) appropriate to it. To develop such an iconography, use a metaphor. Alien's iconography might have been based on the metaphor Spaceship's Interior (A) = Woman's Body (B). What if a writer wanted to suggest that a Lake (A) is a Mouth (B).


What iconography—which images and symbols—could be used to accomplish this end? Perhaps a wave (tongue) caused by an underwater disturbance rumbling (like a stomach) near a cave (open jaws) could curl over a boat, lifting it upward and backward, into an eddy down which the occupants (food) would swirl (as if being swallowed). Then, a big bubble might form on the surface of the lake, get bigger and bigger, and then pop (as though the lake had belched). A line of cone-shaped buoys could represent teeth. Before and after, people on the shore could be seen eating picnics and people aboard boats on the lake could be seen drinking—one or two might even pour a beverage into the lake, and the water could carry it toward the cave-jaws. When victims die violent deaths on the lake, as surely they would in a horror story, their blood could follow the same pathway as the poured-out beverages.) 

Deception can also suggest that things are other than they appear. Members of organized crime are famous for using legitimate businesses, such as restaurants or warehouses, as “fronts” for their criminal activities. Mafia members have held meetings in restaurants, where, in a basement room, they've committed murders, even cutting up the body so its parts could be parceled out and dumped throughout the city. A mortuary did double duty, conducting legitimate burials during which a double-decker coffin allowed the disposal of both the dearly departed in the upper berth, so to speak, and a murder victim in the lower berth. The restaurant employed a chef, servers, and assistants, and it served meals to the public, just as the mortuary provided actual services to the community. Were a novel written or a film produced with such a plot, saving the truth about what is really happening until the end of the story would make the horror all the more shocking when it is finally revealed. 

Sex-role and gender reversals can occur in horror fiction whether there is an LGBT dimension to the story or not. 

Since horror is a type of fantasy fiction, anything can happen. A woman's vagina can grow teeth. Alternatively, inanimate objects may come to life or, through personification, nature can be embodied by a giantess with the power to create an earthquake simply by shaking her body, grow plants and trees out of her torso, and become solid rock, loose sand, or running water.

By using the same techniques that filmmakers employed in less tolerant times to convey LGBT themes in mainstream movies, today's writers can imply meanings that transcend the literal text, enriching their stories while making them more sophisticated than they'd be without such an approach.

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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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