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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Doctors of Death

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


When a doctor goes wrong, he is the first among criminals.” – Sherlock Holmes, “The Speckled Band



Some believe Jack the Ripper was a medical doctor, perhaps a surgeon. Other serial killers are known to have practiced medicine, include H. H. Holmes, Harold Shipman, Michael Swango, Marcel Petiot, Shirō Ishii, John Bodkin Adams, Josef Menegle, Robert George Clements, Thomas Neill Cream, Louay Omar Mohammed ai-Taei, Maxim Petrov, and Kermit Gosnell.

As Sherlock Holmes (okay, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) observes, medical doctors make splendid criminals. They have the knowledge, the discipline, and the skill to kill, but they also often present the persona of a caring and humanitarian professional in whose hands patients are well-advised to place not only their trust, but also their lives. In fact, their victims often come to them, as patients who are both physically and emotionally vulnerable. They look upon their doctors as their best hopes for survival. Ironically, “when a doctor goes wrong,” he or she is apt to be just the opposite. Alas, patients sometimes learn too late that their trusted physician or surgeon is, in fact, a cold-blooded killer.



Horror movies have featured their share of diabolical doctors, some of whom are researchers, others of whom are medical practitioners or surgeons. Dr. Jekyll, of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, (1886) appears to be a chemist; Dr. Moreau, of H. G. Wells's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), is a physiologist and vivisectionist; and Dr. Griffin*, of H. G. Wells's novel The Invisible Man (1897), is an optics researcher. (Mary Shelley's Victor von Frankenstein is not a doctor, but an amateur scientist of sorts. Likewise, Dr. Anton Phibes [of the 1972 movie The Abominable Dr. Phibes] is not a medical doctor; he has degrees in music and theology, one of which is a doctorate.)

Several other novels and movies also feature doctors of one type or another, but the ones we've identified are sufficient for our (or, rather, Sherlock Holmes's) thesis: “When a doctor goes wrong, he is the first among criminals.”

* * *


Dr. Jekyll

In creating the dual character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson seems to have separated the private person from his persona. The former is the public face, the persona, presented to the world; the latter, the private person, known only to himself (and not entirely known, even then).

All of us are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We have private selves and public selves, and these split aspects of our personalities are not always in synchronization with one another. Privately, we desire and fantasize and, perhaps, in some ways act upon less-than-honorable, or even shameful, impulses and proclivities which, in our public lives, we would never dare to acknowledge, much less entertain or act upon.

We are hypocrites, all—or would be, had society not, in its wisdom, allowed us to a differentiate between our private lives, wherein ignominious and disgraceful thoughts, feelings, and secret behaviors are allowed without penalty, as long as they harm no one, and our public lives, wherein we are expected to conform to the mores, traditions, customs, and laws of civilized society.

Wanting to kill, or even entertaining fantasies about murdering, another person is permissible to us in our private lives, the lives that our counterparts to Mr. Hyde live, but such ideas, emotions, and dreams are strictly forbidden to us in our public lives, the lives of our Dr. Jekyll dopplegangers live.

In crossing the line between the private hell of his personal life and the public life of affected propriety, Stevenson's protagonist committed a horror more horrible than the murders he perpetrated. Stevenson's novel is a cautionary tale: this far, one may go, but not a step farther. The boundary between the vile, secret self and the acceptable persona must be respected at all costs. When it is, murders and other immoral acts are unlikely to occur; the monster within is kept at bay.


Dr. Moreau

As we point out in another post, mixing human and animal perverts both natures, dehumanizing the former while objectifying the latter. Men and women, like animals, are better off as men and women or as animals than they would be as manimals or womanimals. By being hybridized as chimeras, neither human nor animal is improved.

Compared to humans animals are not, by nature, very bright. They live mostly by instinct, unable to comprehend the ways of men and women, whom, according to scientists, they regard as alpha members of the pack of which they themselves are lesser members. Unfortunately, with intelligence comes the capacities for treachery, infidelity, malice aforethought, and all manner of other evils. There are no innocent adults, and even children are often cruel to one another. They do not need teachers; such cruelty comes naturally to them. An animal, especially a domesticated one, is more innocent than any child.

By mixing humans and beasts, as Dr. Moreau did, both are made different and are devalued in the process. Indirectly, through is hybrid creatures, Dr. Moreau causes the deaths of others, but his greater crime is the immorality of vivisection as the means he employs for grafting human beings and animals. His means to his ends set him apart in his villainy, just as does Dr. Jekyll's means to his ends set him apart for the same reason.


Dr. Griffin

Humans depend upon their five senses to perceive the world. Primarily, they depend upon sight. To render oneself or anything else invisible is to eliminate the sense of sight, at least as it concerns the persons or objects made invisible. Invisibility blinds us, and blindness hampers our powers to conduct reconnaissance or surveillance and to protect ourselves and defend others. To confer invisibility upon someone or something is to disable those who are thus deprived sight of the person or thing made invisible.

To use a unique and extraordinarily effective ability against others, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless is tantamount to betrayal. Dr. Griffin's invisibility allows him to accomplish just such an immoral act. Instead of using his power to benefit others, he abuses it, even committing acts of murder. Again, his ends to his means is worse than the deaths he inflicts upon his victims, because these ends set him apart from his peers as not only ruthless but also inhuman.

* * *

Stevenson and Wells, although not, perhaps, in the first rank of literature, many might contend, are, nonetheless, superior to the vast majority of writers of their time or, indeed, of any time. The quality of their writing, its urbane and sophisticated style, the subtlety of their novels' various themes, their superb craftsmanship, their attention to detail, and the unhurried manner of their narratives, in which, most often, structure and function are so perfectly balanced as to appear to be one and the same thing, make their stories of such a character that the morality of the tales are not overwhelmed by the sensationalism of their plots. Directly, or by proxy, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Moreau, and Dr. Griffin are serial murderers. Although their criminal deeds are described in lurid detail, the murders they commit, as extravagant as they are, do not cloud the moral implications of their heinous acts.

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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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