Friday, December 28, 2018

Characters + Twist = Outcome

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

It's possible to analyze the plot dynamics of horror fiction, whether a particular narrative or drama takes the form of a novel, a short story, a narrative poem, or a movie), in a variety of ways.

In the scheme proposed in this post, two (occasionally, more) characters are involved in a relationship of some sort, and an unknown, unusual or extraordinary twist causes or facilitates a significant outcome, which may or may not be catastrophic.

Movie (Year)
Hide and Seek (2005)
Dr. David Callaway and Emily Callaway
Father and daughter
David has an alter ego, Charlie
Charlie is killed after he attacks Emily (murder and attempted murder)
The Exorcist (1973)
Father Damien Karras and Regan MacNeil
Father Karras, an exorcist, exorcises demon-possessed Regan
The demon possesses Father Karras, its true target
Father Karras commits suicide, but Regan is delivered (deliverance)
The Others (2001)
Grace Stewart and Anne and Nicholas Stewart
Mother and children
Grace is a ghost
Grace discovers she is in Limbo after having killed Anne and Nicholas and murdered herself (discovery of truth)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Malcolm Crowe and Cole Sear
Malcolm is a psychologist; Nathan is one of his patients
Malcolm discovers he is a ghost (discovery of truth)
Malcolm is able to rest in peace (acceptance)
Psycho (1960)
Norman Bates and his “mother”
Norman is a motel owner; he lives with and takes care of his mother
Mother,” Norman's alter ego, kills a motel guest
Mother” completely takes over Norman's mind (destruction of personality)
The Most Dangerous Game” (1924)
Sanger Rainsford and General Zaroff
Rainsford is Zaroff's guest
Zaroff hunts Rainsford
Rainsford survives, after killing Zaroff (implied) (survival)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Horrific Body Modification Rationales

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

One source of horror results from supplying bizarre or unusual answers to the question why?

This question relates to such categories as cause, motive, purpose, or use.

Ordinarily, we identify and subscribe to ordinary, or at least understandable, reasons for doing something, even if the “something” we do is itself bizarre or unusual. For example, for body modification—a practice that many would regard as bizarre or unusual, at least in its more extreme forms—is explained by the anonymous author or authors of the Wikipedia article on this topic as “often [being] done for aesthetics, sexual enhancement, rites of passage, religious beliefs, [for the] display [of] group membership or affiliation, in remembrance of lived experience, [for the display of] traditional symbolism . . . for shock value, and as self-expression.” 

Body modification, the article explains, can be divided into the use of “explicit ornaments” (piercings, implants, tattooing, teeth blackening, and wearing neck rings); surgical augmentation (breast implants, male enhancement surgery, silicone injection, and subdermal implants); removal or splitting (cutting or removing hair, female genital mutilation, clitoral hood reduction, clitoridectomy, infibulation, labiaplasty, circumcision, foreskin restoration, emasculation, genital bisection or inversion, genital frenectomy, “headsplitting” [splitting the glans penis], meatotomy, orchiectomy, penectomy, subincision, nipple cutting or splitting, nullification, lingual frenectomy, and tongue-splitting); the application of long-term force (corseting, cranial binding, breast ironing, foot binding, anal stretching, jelqing, non-surgical organ elongation); and “others” (human branding, ear shaping or cropping, scarification, human tooth sharpening, and yaeba).

Whatever one's demons, when it comes to body modification, horror stories, whether on the page of on the stage (or the sound stage) aren't likely to settle for such (relatively) mundane motives as those identified in the Wikipedia article. When motive is to be the source of a horror story's horror, it stands to reason that the motive must be a horrific, not a generally socially acceptable, one, which begs the question, Why, in horror stories, do characters perform or undergo extreme body modifications?

The following table suggests the motives that some horror movies, at least, have provided.

Tattoo (2002)
Profit: A murderer kills victims for their unique tattoos, which he then sells to weirdo collectors.
American Mary (2012)
Profit: Medical student Mary Mason modifies clients' bodies to pay her way through school. Revenge: She later modifies the bodies of men who drugged and raped her.
What's Left of Us (2013)
Scorn: When Ana rejects his love for her, Axel tattoos himself so he will be repulsive to her.
The Human Centipede (2009)
Insanity: A mad doctor wants to create new creatures, so he plays God by sewing women together, mouth to anus, to form a “human centipede.” He also severs tendons in their legs to prevent them from walking, ensuring, thereby, that they must crawl, as befits their new identity.
Taxidermia (2006)
Art for Art's Sake: After removing his own internal organs, a young man named Lajoska, arranges for a machine to decapitate him so he can become a grotesque statue.
The Skin I Live In (2011)
Forced Feminization: Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard performs a vaginoplasty on a captured man whom Ledgard plans to use as a replacement for his late wife.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Themes in Erotic Horror Fiction

Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror fiction elicits disgust and terror; erotica, lust and desire. In the former, an antagonist acts violently toward others, often injuring or killing them, usually in imaginative, gory ways. In the latter, an antagonist acts violently or, more often, seductively, toward others, sometimes causing them to act against their own better judgment or against their will. Sometimes, erotica ends in death, just as horror stories occasionally result in an unspeakable pregnancy (for example, as the result of intercourse with a demon or a monster) or an obscene birth (for instance, the birth of a demon child or a monster). The two genres have a lot in common, which is why, perhaps, they are sometimes merged as “erotic horror fiction.”

As the following table suggests, erotic horror fiction (in this post represented by films) often also involves a kinky sexual twist of some kind.

Movie (Year of Release)
Sexual Element(s)
Beyond the Darkness (1879) Erotic lactation, masturbation
Les Démoniaques (aka Demoniacs) (1974)
Entrails of a Virgin (1986)
Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980)
Female Vampire (1975)
Cunnilingus and fellatio
Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971)
The Hunger (1983)
Ilsa the Wicked Warden (1977)
Pornography production
Sx Tape (2013)
Rape, fellatio
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Vampyres (1974)
Lesbianism, orgy
Zipperface (1992)
Sadomasochism, transvestism, prostitution
Zoom In: Rape Apartments (1980)

What makes these stories horrific isn't their antagonists (a housekeeper, shipwreckers, a possible ghost, vampires, a sorceress, a serial killer, and a piano tuner, among others) or some of the erotic content (masturbation, oral sex, and even sadomasochism, to some extent, are commonly accepted, for example, if not generally promoted). These stories are seen as horrific due to their denial of free will or their corruption of natural reproductive processes. Each perverted act in some way subverts the “true” or natural purpose of the act (reproduction) or violates a participant's right to exercise his or her—mostly her—free will:

Movie (Year of Release)
Sexual Element(s)
Type of Perversion
Beyond the Darkness (1879) Erotic lactation, masturbation Erotic use of a non-sexual act (lactation) and the substitution of a non-procreative act (masturbation) for procreative sex
Les Démoniaques (aka Demoniacs) (1974)
Rape Denial of the victim's free will to consent to or to refuse sexual intercourse
Entrails of a Virgin (1986)
Sadomasochism Substitution of non-procreative act for procreative sex
Erotic Nights of the Living Dead (1980)
Necrophilia Substitution of non-procreative act for procreative sex
Female Vampire (1975)
Cunnilingus and fellatio Substitution of non-procreative acts (sadomasochism) for procreative sex
Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971)
Lesbianism Substitution of non-procreative acts for procreative sex
The Hunger (1983)
Hematolagnia Substitution of non-procreative act for procreative sex
Ilsa the Wicked Warden (1977)
Pornography production Encouragement of non-procreative sexual acts or dehumanizing sexual conduct
Sx Tape (2013)
Rape, fellatio Denial of the victim's free will to consent to or to refuse sexual intercourse and substitution of a non-procreative act (fellatio) for procreative sex
Trouble Every Day (2001)
Rape Denial of the victim's free will to consent to or to refuse sexual intercourse
Vampyres (1974)
Lesbianism, orgy Substitution of non-procreative acts for procreative sex and encouragement of non-procreative sexual acts or dehumanizing sexual conduct
Zipperface (1992)
Sadomasochism, transvestism, prostitution Substitution of non-procreative acts (sadomasochism) for procreative sex
Zoom In: Rape Apartments (1980)
Rape Denial of the victim's free will to consent to or to refuse sexual intercourse

Erotic horror stories, in short, show antagonists as victimizing men and (primarily) women by denying victims' the free will to consent to or to refuse sexual intercourse, by substituting non-procreative acts for procreative acts, and by encouraging non-procreative sexual acts or dehumanizing sexual conduct. Therein lies the true horror of these films. Their redeeming value? Some show or suggest that the villains pay dearly for their crimes against human decency and humanity.

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.

Popular Posts