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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Building Fear

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

The architecture common to horror stories, whether novels, short stories, or movies, is conducive to the evocation of fear. Although this statement may seem something of a truism, it may be less obvious that it seems. What, precisely, makes a building evoke fear? By using the Aristotelian approach—that is, by analyzing mages of haunted buildings—we can identify the exact mechanisms of this evocation.

Size matters.

Size matters. Large spaces, especially when they appear labyrinthine, disorient us, confuse us, frustrate us. When we're not sure where we are, we don't know what places—what rooms, for example—are safe or in which direction our escape lies. Therefore, our ability to fight or to take flight is hampered. Spacious buildings of uncertain layout are frightening because, well, they could be the death of us.

Probably the best-known example of “size matters” is Stephen King's Overlook Hotel (The Shining [1977]), the mansion in his Rose Red, or the house in the Spierig Brothers' 2018 movie Winchester. (Full disclosure: the house in Winchester and the house in Craig R. Baxley's 2002 television miniseries Rose Red, written by King, were both inspired by the Winchester Mystery Mansion in San Jose, California.)

Books in print, including The Shining; Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959); and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), an early Gothic novel that, when it comes to haunted houses, was one of the prototypes that started it all, are first-rate examples of the principle that size matters.

Darkness matters.

Darkness matters. When it's dark, we can't see; we are blinded. We rely most heavily on our ability to see. When we cannot see, we are handicapped; our ability to observe, to conduct visual surveillance, to reconnoiter, is impeded. What we can't see could be dangerous, even deadly. We could be attacked. We could run into a wall or fall down stairs. We could lose our way.

Many horror stories are shot mostly in the dark, including Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar's 2001 film, The Others; Victor Zarcoff's 2016 movie, 13 Cameras; and Wes Craven's 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs, to name but a few.

Stephen King's novel 'Salem's Lot (1975), Dan Simmons's novel Summer of Night (1991), Bram Stoker's short story, “The Judge's House” (1891), H. G. Wells's short story “The Red Room” (1896) are excellent examples of printed works that take place largely in the dark.

Isolation matters.

Isolation matters. When alone, we are cut off. There are no emergency medical personnel, no firefighters, no police, no military. We do not have access to stores, utilities, or repairers. Our society is sophisticated and complex. None of us knows enough to be entirely self-sufficient. We rely on experts. We're helpless without them. When no one's home but us (and the monster), we're in a whole world full of hurt. Here, King scores again with The Shining. Other stories in which out-of-the-way buildings evoke fear include The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Psycho (1961), Wrong Turn (2003), and The Cabin in the Woods (2012).

For in-print stories of horror in isolated settings, try Stephen King's novel, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) or his Despeation (1996), James Rollins's novel Subterranean (1999), and Denise Lehane's novel Shutter Island (2003). Sir Winston Churchill's short story “Man Overboard” (1899), H. G. Wells's short story “The Cone” (1895), Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The Masque of the Red Death” (1845), and Charles Dickens's short story “The Signal-man” (1866) are superb examples of the isolated horror story as well.

Neglect matters.

Neglect matters. If someone cannot (or will not) look after his or her own home, he or she probably won't look after us, either, should we need help. Neglectful people are usually careless people. Think about that for a moment: careless people = people who care less; in fact, they may not care at all. People who don't give a damn are not survival assets; quite the contrary, their negligence could get us killed.

Of course, a building, especially a house, in a state of neglect, suggests a negligent resident or owner. Do we really want to trust our lives to such an individual. The answer is simple, and it isn't no; it's hell no! The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (1997) is an example of what can happen as the result of neglect, as is the movie Hide and Seek (2005).

Neglect also happens in Stephen King's novels Carrie (1974) and in Bentley Little's novel The Ignored (1997).

Disrepair matters.

Disrepair matters. Disrepair may be caused by neglect, but it goes well beyond the effects of inattention and laziness. It suggests unsoundness verging upon collapse. Symbolically, a building in a state of disrepair suggests madness. A house in such a state implies that its resident or owner may also be unsound, verging upon mental collapse. Certainly, that's the case in Edgar Allan Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and a host of other haunted house horror stories.

Location matters.

Location matters. We've already mentioned how isolation can evoke feelings of helplessness. A house on a hill can dwarf us. Looking up at something implies that we are smaller (and lesser) than it, that we are inferior to it. That's why judges and legislators sit on high, to impress us with their superior status, to help us remember our place, our subordinate positions in society. Elevation confers status and authority, weheras the lower the station, the less importance and standing one has. The house in Psycho (1961) suggests its de facto owner, Norman Bates's “mother,” rules the roost; Norman, her caretaker, works for her, much of the time in the motel on the grounds below.

Personification matters.

Personification matters. Most of the buildings we've considered are frightening, each in its own way. More frightening than most—perhaps all—others, however, is the house with a personality of its own. A house to which human attributes (in the case of horror, horrible ones) have been assigned are more than just creepy; they can think, feel, and, worst of all, accomplish their will through action. They can injure, maim, or commit premeditated murder. The house in The Amityville Horror (2005), we can tell by the “eyelike windows,” to borrow a phrase from Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” indicate there's a twisted, maniacal madness to the place. It's a house with a personality. It even has curb appeal. To enter, though, is tantamount to suicide.

As the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House indicates, her haunted house is also personified:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone. 

In a later post (maybe the next one), we'll take a look at the interior of buildings built to evoke fear.

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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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