Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Horror: The Contributions of Personification and Dehumanization

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror movie monsters often have offensive capabilities modeled upon those with which nature has equipped terrestrial animals. Sil, Species's female alien-human hybrid created through a synthesis of alien and human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), is a case in point. An extended description of her appearance and her abilities shows that, despite her human characteristics, she is, at heart, much more alien than human:

Her human form is, in truth, merely a disguise and her true alien form is an exotic, sensual, alien mockery of the human form. Her form is chitinous and reptilian, somewhat reminiscent of the creatures from the film Alien, but still humanoid in appearance. Her “hair” is a mass of prehensile tentacles which are slicked back behind her head. She possesses two sets of teeth with the internal set being razor sharp. Her breasts, rather than storing fat or mammary glands, instead store long, slimy tentacles which emerge from her “nipples.” She can use her breast-tentacles as weapons but they are also used in her amorous mating ritual (as shown in the second film). Sil has long sharp spines up her back that she can retract and extend at will. These seem to be utilized as a weapon in Species 2 by Eve. Last but not least, Sil's infamous tongue. Her long tongue is tipped with sharp spines and is her primary defense mechanism (or weapon). When threatened, she can simple impale her aggressor with her tongue. This "kiss of death" is shown in each of the franchise's films at least once. Sil’s alien form is also capable of holding its breath underwater for an extended period (“Sil's Appearance”).

A conglomeration of insect, reptile, mollusk, feline or bird, and human, Sil possesses anatomical weapons that resemble those of the shark (her “two sets of teeth”), the octopus (her “prehensile tentacles”), spiny lizards (the sharp spines on her back), and cats or birds (her barbed tongue). In biological terms, she is more than simply a hybrid, or cross-bred organism; she is, in fact, a chimera, “an organism or tissue that contains at least two different sets of DNA.”

The surrealist artist H. R. Giger, who helped to develop the designs for Sil, the original of which, for her tongue, was festooned with shark's teeth, said, “My original idea was for a death kiss in which Sil forces her lethal tongue down her lover's throat, and pulls it out tearing his insides out with it. It was not to smash through the skull as in the final film.” From the beginning, Giger envisioned Sil's tongue as an anatomical weapon: “My original idea was for a death kiss in which Sil forces her lethal tongue down her lover's throat, and pulls it out tearing his insides out with it. It was not to smash through the skull as in the final film, exactly as it was done in Alien and Alien3.”

Giger also designed the spines that project from Sil's back, “hair with flaming tips,” breast tentacles, and “claw[-]like nails.” Oh, yes—she would be fire-resistant as well. Although he wasn't satisfied by the way his designs were incorporated, sometimes in an altered fashion, in the film, without his creative ideas, the movie would have been as original and as, well, surreal.

Before his work on Species, Giger also designed the Alien alien that has come to be known, unofficially, as the xenomorph. The creature's five-stage “life cycle” (Ovomorph, Facehugger, Chestburster, adult, and Queen) is elaborate and reminiscent, to some extent, of that of “wasps of the Chalcidoidea and Ichneumonoidea families, which lay their eggs on live prey that are then consumed by the hatching larvae.”

A mobile ovary with finger-like appendages and a phallic proboscis, the Facehugger attaches itself to its host's face after emerging from an egg laid by the Queen. After incapacitating its host with “a cynose-based paralytic chemical,” the Facehugger uses its proboscis to implant the creature's egg (formed during the first stage of the alien's life cycle) in its victim's chest. It then detaches itself, “crawls away and dies.” (While it's still attached, its “acidic blood prevents” its removal.)

The attachment of the Facehugger to its victim's face and its subsequent death are somewhat reminiscent of the fate of the male anglerfish, except that it attaches itself to the larger female, withering away until it becomes nothing more than a pair of testicles.

This stage of the xenomorph's “life cycle,” some contend, is a parody of the human reproductive process, substituting rape by means of something akin to oral sex for penile-vaginal intercourse performed in a context of mutual love and respect. (Alien is not recommended by feminists.)

The implanted egg is not only parasitic, but also tumorous in its growth, and it's like a virus, commandeering the host's body to use the host's DNA and other “biological material” to develop its own body, which includes assuming some of the host's own “physical traits [e. g., bipedalism] via a process known as the DNA Reflex.” Once the egg develops into a Chestbuster, it bursts through the abdomen of its host and flees, rapidly increasing in size until, within mere hours, it reaches its adult dimensions.

In short, Giger's design for the xenomorph's “life cycle” envisions reproduction as a monstrous process involving sodomy, rape, parasitism, infection, disease, and death. In his view, sex is not lovemaking, but rape combined with sexual perversion, which leads to death as well as birth, and may substitute a male host's abdomen for the uterus: the fetal Chestbuster erupts from the chest; it does not emerge from the womb. Sex, as Giger envisions it, isn't merely messy; it is itself a confusing and contradictory mess devoid of love and respect, involving violence, invasion, parasitism, infection, and disease.

Daniel D. Snyder sees the xenomorph as representing “obvious distortions of the standard human physique.” Although I'm not sure what he has in mind by “the standard human physique,” his observations are, otherwise, intriguing. Giger's alien, Snyder says, “is a filthy, primal parasite whose very survival is contingent on it's [sic] continued rape and exploitation of other species.” As such, Snyder believes the xenomorph reflects the Darwinistic struggle to survive not only by adaptation, but also through the reproduction of the species, or as Snyder himself puts it, “the cold, mechanical struggle to survive.”

He sees in Giger's monstrous vision of sex, an experience that can cause “pain” and death, and a fusion, in the xenomorph's phallic form, or “phallus and . . monster” that suggests “that thing between your legs [if one happens to be male] is also an instrument of evil.” The monstrous creature of Alien is not ourselves, exactly, but “a penis come to life [and] running amok.” As such, it is also somehow “our own weapon [turned] against us” to show “the terror of what we do to each other and the creatures we torture and exploit every day as a matter of simple survival.”

While Snyder may go a bit over the top with his xenomorphy-as-exploiting-human “run amok,” his understanding of the xenomorph's phallicism is certainly on target, as I have likewise suggested, and the creature's complex, perverse “life cycle” obviously does parody, if not critique, sexual reproduction in general.

In such monsters as Sil and the xenomorph, both personification and dehumanization are at work simultaneously, as they often are when non-human organisms or objects are given human characteristics or abilities and human beings are regarded as less than human. A mermaid is a woman—in part—but she is also a fish—in part. That's why the mermaid is extraordinary and, it must be admitted, not only eldritch, but also horrible.

By increasing or decreasing the quality of a person, an animal, or a thing, we alter it. We transform it, so that it is no longer itself. Whether, in doing so, we make it more or less than it as before, we have meddled with its identity and its essential character. We have played God, creating Sil, or the xenomorph, or whatever in our own image and likeness. That which we have changed remains changed, as does it nature, its existence, and, if it is sentient or intelligent, its experience. Where “man-made monsters” are concerned, this is the true and lasting horror, the horror of Pygmalion and Prometheus and Frankenstein: the creator becomes more monstrous than his or her creation.

Like the bat, a pit viper (the bushmaster, copperhead, and rattlesnake, among others) is equipped with a heat-seeking organ located between its eyes. This organ helps the snake to “accurately aim its strike at its warm-blooded prey.” (The bat uses its heat-seeking organ to locate blood.) Not only the chameleon and other lizards, but also plenty of other animals, including insects, fish, birds, and mammals, use various forms of camouflage, as do soldiers, to conceal themselves from predators. Insects have green blood. So does Papau New Guinea's green-blooded skink. But blood doesn't exist only in red and green; some species of octopi have blue blood, and the ocellated icefish has clear blood. Although, as far as I know, no animals have luminescent blood, many of them, including lightning bugs, or fireflies, glowworms, Jellyfish, and anglerfish, to name a few, are bioluminescent.

The alien creature in the Predator movie (1987) senses body heat, can camouflage itself (using a cloaking device, rather than natural means), and has luminescent green blood. Its traits and abilities are extraordinary, but they're not unique. Appearing in, or exhibited by, a biped creature of humanoid shape, these traits and abilities do seem novel, however, making the extraterrestrial marauder seem to be truly out of this world. They make the monster seem more nonhuman, even as its bipedalism, use of tools, and thinking ability make it seem not altogether unlike its human prey. Again, the monster is both enhanced by personification and degraded by dehumanization. The combined personification and objectification of the creature makes it seem uncanny and, therefore, all the more horrible and frightening.

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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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