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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

H. R. Giger: A New Approach to Horror Fiction?

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

H. R. Giger's biomechanical art combines the organic with the mechanical, human bodies with machines, biology with technology. Typically, his bodies are female. Dehumanized, they lack consciousness; sometimes, they appear to be catatonic or even dead. Were they analyzed according to Martin Buber's categorization of relationships, the female figures in Giger's art would be involved in—not participating in, but involved in—an “I-it,” as opposed to an “I-thou,” relationship. In Giger's art, women are not flesh-and-blood creatures, or not entirely; rather, they are biomechnical hybrids, more dead than alive, and they are more subsumed by the mechanical than the mechanical is subsumed in them.

Often, the female figures' involvement in these associations with mechanical systems is compelled, rather than voluntary; the females are restrained, held in place by mechanical arms, pipes, vises, form-fitting chairs, needles, or masks. They appear to be nothing more than human hosts to industrial parasites or to a system comprised of interacting mechanical parts. Often, their eyes are closed or completely white, lacking both irises and pupils. It is as if their humanity has been extracted along with whatever the needles, tubes, pipes, coils, clamps, suction hoses, hydraulic devices, cables, pumps, phallic appendages, beakers, and baths extract from their mouths and other, more intimate, bodily orifices. Giger's paintings are impersonal, detached, disinterested, and, in this sense, inhuman, depicting scenes that involve actions resembling rape, although it is questionable whether the machinery of technology can commit such an offense in any real sense of the word.

Of course, someone had to create these fantastic hybrid female-machines. The existence of biomechanical factories dedicated to exploiting human females implies that other human beings, perhaps men, since their sex is almost completely absent in Giger's work, designed and operate this system for their own benefit, albeit for mysterious purposes. If men are in charge of the system, if they have converted the females of the species largely into a power supply or an exploitable resource of some kind—chemical, perhaps, or sexual—they must be inhuman; they must be monstrous, indeed, to have deprived women of their lives, of their liberty, of their pursuit of happiness—and, indeed, of their very humanity itself. One would not be surprised to find someone like Josef Mengele in charge of the sadistic, clandestine, mechanized operations.

Each painting depicts a nightmare world unto itself, disconnected from any other. Each of the paintings suggests a narrative, but none connects to any other, and none explains the situations it depicts. It is as if each one is the start of a tale which begins in media res, but never progresses beyond its beginning. Therefore, each scene is without context and without meaning, an existential nightmare devoid of significance from which, like Jean-Pal Sartre's No Exit, there is no escape. Perhaps this is Giger's vision of modern life, a world in which men operate a vast system of machinery, preying upon helpless, dehumanized females like parasites feeding upon hosts, for purposes unspecified, but likely involving, at the very least, sex and exploitation.

Most of Giger's work is unique, in a class of its own, but a few pieces, those he designed for various film projects, do have a context, although not one created exclusively, or even primarily, by Giger himself. However, he often expressed his enjoyment of the movies' scripts. His comments on some of his work on specific motion picture projects may suggest insights concerning his overall intentions as an artist. 

Giger was commissioned to create some potential designs for the movie Dune, including Harkonnen, a castle symbolizing “intemperance, exploitation, aggression, and brutality”—all elements commonly featured in his work. The castle is equipped with a “drawbridge which can be lowered like an enormous penis to admit visitors,” Giger explained. (Many of Giger's paintings also include phalli, most of which are mechanical, rather than organic.) His castle “is a gigantic Moloch, which functions by converting living beings into energy. Every visitor is materially or spiritually exploited.”

In describing the castle, Giger could be describing almost any of his own paintings:

Whoever enters the castle stays there for the rest of his life, which in any case can only last a few seconds. The belly of Harkonnen is a gigantic, senseless Gothic, empty space in which corpulent beings swing through the abyss on their suspensors. The thin, plump external skin is supported from inside by a bone-like structure in the form of gigantic vertical plates. The egg in the desert, a symbol of fertility and reclusion—nothing but a fragile, empty sham.

Although his contributions were not used in the film, the fact that Giger had “a completely free hand” in designing Harkonnen suggests that, in developing the castle's designs, he may have used the same ideas and themes he'd expressed in his other work. If so, in Giger's comments about the work he did for various movies, we may have an insight into some of the views the artist sought to express through his own biomechanical paintings. 

Giger designed aliens for the Alien film series, Species's Sil and Ghost Train, the Batmobile for Batman Forever, art for the poster promoting Future-Kill, creatures for Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, and murals and other work for Prometheus. He also served as a creative consultant for set designs for Killer Condom. We'll consider those works which pertain to our own interest, the new approach for horror fiction that may be represented in Giger's work.

Batmoble Art describes Giger's Batmobile as an “'X'[-]shaped design” that included “articulated front legs/mandibles, retractable fins, and Gatling gun emplacements on each of the four pods on the sides of the vehicle,” noting that Giger's “design also combined side and forward intake ports with organic spines and a central pod connecting the four legs.” 

The result looks more like a living organism than a vehicle and, apparently, it was considered too avant-garde for the Caped Crusader, despite Batman's own penchant for the grotesque. It does indicate, though, that, for Giger, with regard to objects that have a definite, definable purpose, function determines form, where design is concerned.

Angela Cartwright, who plays the navigator of the Nostromo in Alien, describes the set that Giger created as the spaceship's interior as “visceral” and “erotic”: “it's big vaginas and penises . . . the whole thing is like you're going inside of some sort of womb.” Such a description could be applied to many of the backgrounds and settings of Giger's own paintings, Penis Landscape in particular. 

According to David Edelstein,

Alien remains the key text in the “body horror” subgenre . . . and Giger’s designs covered all possible avenues of anxiety. Men traveled through vulva-like openings, got forcibly impregnated, and died giving birth to rampaging gooey vaginas dentate . . . . This was truly what David Cronenberg would call “the new flesh,” a dissolution of the boundaries between man and machine, machine and alien, and man and alien, with a psychosexual invasiveness. [One might add that the film also dissolves the divide between male and female, since male characters are impregnated and give birth.]

Another of Giger's works, the so-called space jockey, was included to depict the dead alien pilot of a spaceship that enabled its crew to drop his species' eggs onto a planet whose life the parasitic hatchlings could then use as their hosts.

In designing the alien “facehugger,” Giger ultimately decided “on a small creature with humanlike fingers and a long tail.” He may have had its means of locomotion and its sexuality in mind. The alien assumes this form during “the second stage” of its “life cycle,” using its eight legs to “crawl rapidly” and its tail to assist it in “making great leaps.” Its legs and tail also help the facehugger to “hug” its victim's face: it grips the host's head with its legs and wraps its tail around the victim's neck. Once it has done so, the creature “administers a cynose-based paralytic,” which causes the victim to lose consciousness and the ability to move. The creature is also equipped with a tubular proboscis, which it introduces into its human host's mouth and esophagus to implant its embryo—reproduction by oral (and nasal), rather than genital means. It seems that, for Giger and the others who designed the facehugger, the creature's function determined its form.

For Sil, the female alien in Species, Giger was interested in maintaining her beauty while portraying her as deadly. She would change colors as she transformed into an assassin, and she would use her barbed tongue to kill her victims:

The character is to go through four distinct stages of evolution [Giger explains:] “She's looking for good-looking, healthy men to breed her race on Earth. If her lover's not healthy, she sees a green aura around him. When she gets angry she first becomes dark red, then orange-red hot. Her clothes and hair burn off and on her back there are these sharp spikes coming out. Her body weapons are like red glowing steel. Then she cools to transparent carbonized glass and you see her inside bone construction: veins, body organs and discs.” It is at this stage when her killing cycle begins and she loses her transparency.

Giger also wanted Sil to have a tongue “composed of barbed hooks. Sil would kiss her lovers, forcing her tongue into the victim's mouth and down their throats, then yank the insides out.” Instead of using her proboscis to impregnate men, Sil would use her tongue to disembowel them. This idea, like the idea of having Sil change colors, was rejected.

While it seems that, during collaboration with others, Giger considers carefully the effects he wants to create, allowing the forms of his designs to follow the functions of the films' fantastic characters, it may be that he is guided more by intuition than by intention. Since nearly all of his paintings and drawings have similar qualities and express similar themes and emotions, Giger may operate from an unconscious template in which bondage, masochism, sadism, and the “intemperance, exploitation, aggression, and brutality” his Harkonnen castle embodies provide a palette for creating the forms that allow various characters to accomplish the tasks assigned them by a particular movie's script.

Indeed, in creating his own paintings, Giger appears to rely largely on intuition, with no preconceived notions about function or purpose, although current events and fads may, like his own dreams, play a role:

I just start from one side and go to the other. I paint whatever comes to my mind. There is no pre-planning. For instance, the ones that feature penis imagery and grotesque baby heads, I just felt like doing that. People have said that I look like these babies a little bit. At the time, 1973, there was a problem with oil and gas—the energy crisis. You can see burners in some of my paintings. The other images must also have some reason behind them. Condoms, of course are very “in” now.

He has also admitted to having been inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon, a fictional book of spells and magic, and Lovecraft's cosmicism, the view “that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as God, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence.” 

Giger, who died in 2014, left quite a legacy in his works of art, which include his remarkable, disturbing, and fascinating drawings, paintings, and sculptures, as well as in his style, which mixes the fantastic with such concepts as Lovecraft's cosmicism and the existential angst of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other existential philosophers. However, his work also suggests a new approach to horror fiction that could breathe new life into a genre that has, of late, become predictable and stale.

Too often, horror is about acquiring new knowledge about a bizarre anomaly or singularity, often of an origin that is otherworldly (Alien), paranormal (Paranormal Activity), supernatural (The Exorcist), or abnormal (Psycho). For most of such movies, the strange is emphasized, but, once characters learn, through discovery, education, or revelation, the nature of the beast, the alien, ghost, demon, or madman (or woman) is neutralized or eliminated, and all's well again with the world. Since the 1950s, this approach has worked well in horror, as it has in science fiction, but, after well over half a century, this plot has become more than a little threadbare.

Giger's art offers a new approach, one in which there is no discovery to be made, in which education cannot provide answers, in which revelation is not forthcoming. Every story is a story in progress, so there is only what is happening now. There is no context, so everything is a mystery, which means there is no certainty, no security, and, quite possibly, no safety, and, certainly, no meaning. Characters may act by reason or faith or out of compassion, guilt, fear, or a desire for vengeance. They may act blindly. At times, they may triumph, but over what will remain unknown, and reason, faith, love, or other motivators may just as easily fail as succeed.

Giger's worlds are dark, mysterious, dangerous, disturbing, strangely erotic, meaningless, and compelling. They are worlds in which anything may happen and the only certainty is that there is no certainty. Such worlds may be mad. They may be pictures of hell. They are full of exploitation, violence, existential absurdity, hopelessness, helplessness, and terror—just like “real life” itself. Nihilistic worlds, they are devoid of heroes. They are worlds in which unseen, monstrous managers rule, unseen and unknown, faceless, nameless, and inhuman.

They are perfect settings, in other words, for horror fiction, whether written or performed.

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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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