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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Imaginary vs. Imaginative Worlds as They relate to Horror Fiction

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman


In C. S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath points out the distinction that Lewis makes between imaginary and imaginative worlds. For Lewis, the former, McGrath says, depicts a landscape having “no counterpart in reality,” whereas the latter seeks to convey “images adequate to” the depiction of a transcendent “reality.” The worlds of mythology are examples of imaginative worlds, and “the more imaginative a mythology, the greater its ability, Lewis says, to “communicate more reality to us.”


McGrath makes it clear that, in discussing imaginative worlds, Lewis does not mean that such worlds—or the works devoted to them—are allegories. They may be interpreted allegorically, but that does not mean that they themselves are allegories. As Lewis explains, his own Chronicles of Narnia can be allegorized, but that “of itself is no proof that it is an allegory.” Instead, his Narnia series, which presents an imaginative world, is a “supposal,” by which he means fiction that supplies possible answers to questions of a transcendent nature. Using Narnia as an example, Lewis writes:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress] represents Despair, he [Aslan] would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he actually has done in ours? This is not allegory at all.”


Lewis makes several points:

  1. The writer's work asks or implies a question.
  2. Although the question is posed in or by a work of fiction, the question relates to an actual event or events in the real world.
  3. In the context of its imaginative world, the work poses an answer to the question.


Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fails these tests and is, indeed, McGrath states, a work about an imaginary, rather than an imaginative, world. The world of Oz has no referent beyond itself. Narnia, by contrast, is shadow of another world which is itself the shadow of yet another world, just as, in Plato's thought, our sense perceptions of phenomena are shadows of the objects in the world and the world is itself a shadow of the transcendent world of perfect Forms.


An illustration of Plato's “Allegory of the Cave” pictures a man chained against a wall behind which men carry clay figures. The men hold the figures over their heads, and the upper portions of the figures are higher than the top of the wall against which the man on the other side is chained. A fire burning on a stone shelf of the cave, on the other side of the men, casts the shadows of the objects onto the wall in front of the chained man. Rather than seeing the actual objects—clay figures of a horse, a bull, and a pot—the chained man sees only their shadows. High on one of the cave's walls, a ladder ascends to the world above, where the sun shines in the sky. The objects the men carry are mere copies of the things in the world above—representations of the animals—and the shadows are copies, as it were, of these copies. Only in the unseen world above are the unseen, actual animals (representing, in the allegory, the Forms themselves).


Lewis's Narnia is somewhat like Plato's allegorical cave. The real world is Narnia, where Aslan dwells. Its copy is The Chronicles of Narnia, which recount the events in Narnia. The copy of the copy is our own world, a dim reflection of the imaginative world of the novels, which is, in turn, itself a faint likeness of Aslan's real world. The images that depict the world of the novels are the clay pots in Jung's cave, which represent, but do not truly reflect, the true objects themselves, any more than the objects truly reflect their transcendent Forms. As Lord Digory says, in The Last Battle, “It's all there in Plato.”


In attempting to envision Forms (i. e., in a Christian context, divine realities), Lewis depicts Christ as the lion Aslan, Satan as the White Witch, the fallen, unredeemed world as a frozen wasteland in which Christmas never arrives (until Aslan appears), and the Pevensie children are disciples. As McGrath points out,

Lewis's remarkable achievement in the Chronicles of Narnia is to allow his readers to inhabit this metanarrative—to get inside the story and feel what it was like to be part of it . . . . The Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story.

Do any horror stories accomplish something similar, creating imaginative worlds wherein the writer's work asks or implies and answers a question related to an actual event or events in the real world? Do any works of horror fiction shadow the true horrors of the real world in such a way that readers can enter their imaginative worlds and “experience” the stories depicting these landscapes? Do any of them give rise to myths? Are any horror stories mythopoeic?


The icons of horror that continue to resonate with readers and moviegoers may indicate which images have particular force in conveying feelings of terror and disgust (probably the two chief elements of horror). Often, these icons appear in literary works, but they are also present in the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. Such icons include demons, ghosts, vampires, witches, and zombies, all of which have appeared in novels, short stories, or movies that meet Lewis's criteria, asking or implying a question related to what is (or is, at least, believed by some to be) related to an actual event or events in the real world, and pose answers to the question they pose.

To get just an intimation of the power these images of horror originally held for their audiences, we must try, to the best of our abilities, to envision the world as it was to them and to see, in this context, the supernatural beings they imagined as their enemies.


The world in which such creatures existed was a pre-scientific world wherein there was no well-established association of objective cause and effect. Demons, rather than bacteria, birth defects, viruses, radiation, or the like afflicted people with disease, blindness, or mental illness. They also animated human corpses, using dead bodies, as “vampires,” to drink blood. Demons also empowered witches to perform spectacular feats and wonders. The soul's survival of death enabled the existence of ghosts and zombies.


Today, we might call such a view of “reality” superstitious, but, for the ancients, it was simply the truth, the way things were, reality itself. Against such evils, such remedies as prayers, rituals, incantations were the only recourse which might prevail, and, only then, because God ruled over even the supernatural entities that afflicted humanity.

Horror is, like poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and many other human enterprises, of religious, not secular, origin, and, despite the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the Enlightenment, horror continues to tap the primeval aspects of our existence as human beings that religion once addressed and, indeed, continues, for many, to address.


Just as adults retain vestiges of their childhood experience, humanity retains traces of its primordial heritage. In our fiction and in the dark, dim recesses of our ancient selves, demons, ghosts, vampires, witches, and zombies continue to horrify us, just as, in times past, they possessed, haunted, stalked, hexed, and vexed our ancestors in the “real world” in which they lived. If you doubt this, spend a few minutes alone in a cemetery by yourself after dark or imagine spending a night alone in the catacombs, among centuries-old corpses and skeletons of the dead.


Then, you will begin to fathom the terrible terror felt by those who believed in things that go bump in the night, and reading Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King will take on a new intensity. In Platonic and mythopoeic terms, their works are, after all, shadows of the shadows of the Real Horrors awaiting us beyond this world.

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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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