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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Horror Fiction: Myths and Monsters

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

During a freshman-level course in composition, I had my students write an essay analyzing a print advertisement, such as they could find in a popular magazine or online. I included movie posters among print advertisements, giving them the option of writing about them if they wanted to do so. Many chose the magazine ads, but some opted for the posters. Among the latter group was a student who chose a poster advertising Steven Spielberg's E. T. the Extraterrestrial (1982), starring Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, and Drew Barrymore.

The poster shows E. T.'s fingertip making contact with Elliot's fingertip. At the point of connection, a star of light forms inside a purple circle. The poster's background shows the universe bedecked with stars and galaxies. Below, part of the Earth's globe displays Africa and points east. The title of the poster is “His Adventure on Earth.” The oceans, like the heavens, are black. Below the hands of alien and earthling, between heaven and earth, the poster's text reads:

He is afraid.

He is totally alone.

He is 3,000,000 million light years from home.

After the student shared his thoughts about the poster's design and the ideas and feelings communicated by its images and text, I mentioned to him the poster's allusion to the scene Michelangelo had painted on the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. My student was unaware of both the allusion and its referent, the painting itself, so I suggested his research of his topic should include this material.

This anecdote makes a point: all of us are unaware of one thing or another; what is common knowledge to one is new to another. As the author of Cultural Literacy observes, our understanding is based, to a large degree, upon our knowledge of our culture, which, in the Western world, includes the history and literature of the ancient, medieval, and modern nations and peoples upon which our own contemporary culture is founded: Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Europeans, and others. To the extent that we lack such knowledge, our understanding is diminished. As Marcus Mosiah-Garvey, Jr., says, “A people without a knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Without an awareness of, and a familiarity with, Michelangelo's painting of God's creation of man, the E. T. movie poster's allusion to this earlier work and the meaning it conveys would have been lost on my student. His understanding and appreciation of the poster's own artistry would, as a result, have been reduced, as would his insight into the linguistic and cultural “layers” of the poster and of the film it represents.

One of the basic mediums of expression among ancient peoples is myth. A myth is a story that encapsulates a human experience in timeless and widespread, if not universal, significance. Such a story can be applied to various situations across time. For example, the myth involving Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor attempts to create the “Perfect Woman”—or, rather, his idea of the Perfect Woman—is given new significance by George Bernard Shaw. In his play, Pygmalion, Professor Henry Higgins transforms Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl with a Cockney accent, into a lady by teaching her elocution, outfitting her in fashionable attire, and instructing her in the manners of polite society. Class, his play suggests, is more a matter of appearance and behavior than of lineage. (His play is also the basis of the movie of the same title, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller; the musical My Fair Lady starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn; and the teen comedy She's All That, starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Rachael Leigh Cook ).

Not only has the Pygmalion and Ganymede myth inspired several movies, but it could also be applied to the fashion industry. Most designers are men, but they create clothing for women, suggesting, thereby, what the “perfect” (or, at lest, the fashionable) lady wears. Of course, the “look” changes periodically; otherwise, there would be no need for the fashion industry. Such changes are no problem: models, like mannequins and the clothing both wear, can be replaced at will, just as the ideal woman, as fashion designers shape her, changes, the flat-chested “flapper” giving way to the hourglass woman with conical breasts, who, in turn, was replaced by the slender, statuesque version of perfect womanhood years later. In fashion, woman's name is not only vanity, but also mutability.

Over the years, the social status of the Perfect Woman changes as well, as do the roles she plays. Until 1920, American women were not allowed to vote. During World War II, for the first time, it was acceptable for women to work full-time outside the home and to perform labor that their husbands did, before the men went away to war. In 2015, women were allowed to serve in military occupational specialties directly related to combat. Galatea, the Perfect Woman, couldn't vote; then, she could and did; next, she was allowed into the workplace; most recently, she has become eligible to fight alongside men on the battlefield. The Perfect Woman is as changeable socially as she is aesthetically.

The Perfect Woman has also changed sexually. Once, she was seen as a dangerous and amoral temptress, a siren, and as a cruel, vindictive monster, a harpy; later, she was cast as a virgin for the protection of whose honor chivalrous male champions would gladly fight and die. Still later, she regained her sexuality, becoming a pitiless, cruel, but beautiful and desirable, belle dame sans merci, or vamp. Now, she is the equal of men, both socially and sexually, able to take as many lovers as she wishes and to terminate any pregnancy she deems undesirable. As men's concepts of womanhood changes, the Perfect Woman changes, and other, lesser, flesh-and-blood women emulate her example.

Like the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, all other myths are likewise timeless templates upon which contemporary examples may be constructed. While each reiteration may bear the stamp of its own particular innovation, it also remains a work based on the original mold.

Like most other genres of literature, horror fiction is often inspired by myths. As the subtitle of Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, suggests, her protagonist is not truly a Pygmalion figure; rather, he is “The Modern Prometheus.” The mythical Prometheus, a Titan, created man from clay. Then, defying the will of the gods, he stole fire, giving it to mankind, for which offense he was punished. Bound to a rock, he endured the agony of having Zeus, in the form of an eagle, consume his liver, the seat of the emotions (or what, now, in this sense, we'd call the heart). Overnight, Prometheus's liver would be renewed, and the eagle would descend again to devour the organ. In one version of the story, the Titan's punishment is eternal, whereas, in another version, he is eventually rescued by Herakles (Roman, Hercules).

Unlike Prometheus, however, Frankenstein is not much of a creator. His “man” is far from perfect. Comprised of bits and pieces of revitalized, sewn-together corpses, the creature is more of a monstrous parody of men. (The fact that the monster is more sensitive and humane than his creator suggests Frankenstein's own comparatively inferior sensitivity and humanity.) The “fire” that Prometheus bestowed upon mankind becomes, in Shelley's novel, the lightning by which life is imparted to the body stitched together from the parts of human corpses. Whereas Prometheus endures torment as a result of his hubris, Frankenstein pays for his “ambition” with his life and the loss, forever, of his suicidal monster. Not all gifts are acceptable to the gods—or to God.

A number of other horror novels and movies are based on the eternal ideas communicated through various myths, and some of these works, in turn, suggest later ones based on similar themes.

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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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