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Friday, November 29, 2013

The Dramatistic Pentad in Five Acts

copyright 2013 by Gary L. Pullman

Horror fiction, like all other genres of literature, popular and otherwise, is concerned with the following questions”

Literary critic Kenneth Burke's analysis of dramatic structure, known as dramatism, identifies a “pentad” of rhetorical elements that underlies all drama and narrative:

  1. Who?, which is associated with the agent, or the doer of the deed
  2. What?, which links to the act, or deed, and is expressed by an action verb
  3. When? and Where?, which refers to the setting in which the deed is done
  4. How?, which alludes to the agency, or method, by which the deed was done
  5. Why?, which explains the purpose (or the cause or the motive) for which the deed was done
These questions are recursive; they recur, as the writer works his or her way through the development of the narrative, and they may be related to the protagonist, the antagonist, or to any other characters; to various deeds; to different settings; to a variety of methods; and even to more than one purpose—or cause or motive. In fact, it is a good idea to develop a storyline from the points of view of as many relevant characters as possible, which would typically include, as a minimum, both the protagonist and his o her adversary, the antagonist (often, in horror fiction, the monster), bearing in mind that each of the elements of agent, act, setting, agency, and purpose.

Using Gustav Freytag's analysis of classic and Shakespearean drama, which divides a play into five acts, a writer can structure his or her narrative so that each part introduces or develops Burke's rhetorical elements.

Act I, the exposition, provides the background information that the audience (or reader) needs to know in order to understand the story as a whole. Typically, as a minimum, the protagonist, the setting, and the basic conflict of the story are introduced, which equate to Burke's agent, setting, and purpose (the protagonist's purpose, in general, is to resolve the conflict, usually by obtaining an objective).

Act II, the rising action, complicates the conflict by introducing successively more difficult obstacles to the protagonist's achievement of his or her objective. Typically, this is the act in which the antagonist competes against the protagonist, so this act will revisit the rhetorical elements of agent and purpose, from the points of view of both the protagonist and the antagonist, adding act to the mix as both characters vie to obtain the same objective and to prevent the other from obtaining it.

Act III, the climax, or turning point, spins the action into a new direction; if things have been going relatively well for the protagonist up to this point, he or she now suffers a significant setback; if things have, overall, not been going well for the protagonist, he or she will now enjoy significant progress, with opposite results occurring with regard to the antagonist. Act III, while continuing to focus upon agent, agency, and purpose, stresses act, while setting remains a constant throughout the story.

Act IV, the falling action, unravels the conflict. If, at the turning point, the protagonist has suffered a setback, his or her purpose may be energized, as a result, as he or she resolves to redouble his or her efforts to achieve his or her objective. If he or she has made progress, his or her hard-won moment of success may likewise energize him or her, reinforcing the main character's purpose. The same, however, in either case, is likely to be rue of the antagonist as well. Although the conflict unravels during Act IV, the adversarial contest between the protagonist and the antagonist continues, but with one or the other clearly gaining the upper hand and increasing his or her dominance over his or her rival. Throughout this act, agent, act, purpose, and agency interact with one another with setting, as always, the constant variable (although one setting may have given way to another).

Act V constitutes the resolution of a comedy (a story in which the protagonist ends up better off than he or she was at the beginning of the story) or in a catastrophe in a tragedy (a story in which the protagonist ends up worse off than he or she was at the beginning of the story). Either all's well that ends well (comedy), or everything falls apart (tragedy). This act resolves the conflict once and for all (purpose), as the protagonist (agent) wins or loses (purpose), based, to a large extent, upon what he or she has done and how he or she has done it (act and agency). Again, setting is a constant element.

Freytag's analysis, it should be stressed, is based not upon modern drama, and certainly not upon the novel or the short story, and does not take into consideration such modern tendencies as beginning a work in media res, employing flashbacks and prolepses (flash-forwards), and allowing the exposition to be revealed piecemeal, throughout much of the work, rather than restricting it to the first act. Nevertheless, in general, Freytag's ideas, if not rigid formulation of them, remains influential in narratology and dramatism. Therefore, it is useful as a means of illustrating how Burke's pentad can be applied in the plotting of a film or a novel. After the elements are in place, the author can always rearrange them to suit his or her own dramatic or narrative purposes.

Here is an example of the application of Burke vis-a-vis Freytag; the summary is taken, with slight modifications, from Wikipedia's article, “Psycho (1960 film)”:

Act I: Exposition

Marion Crane [agent] and her boyfriend Sam Loomis [agent] meet for a secret romantic rendezvous [act] during lunch hour at a hotel in Phoenix, Arizona [setting]. They [agents] then talk about how they can barely afford to get married [act]. Upon Marion's [agent] return to work [act] at a realtor's office [setting], a client [agent] comes in with $40,000 in cash [act] to purchase a house for his daughter [purpose]. The money is entrusted to Marion [act], who decides to steal it and skip town [act; with the implied purpose of using the stolen money to finance her marriage to Loomis].

Act II: Rising Action

On the road [setting], she [agent] pulls over [act] to sleep [purpose]and a suspicious [purpose] policeman [agent] awakens her [act]. The policeman [agent] lets her go [act], but upon arriving in another town [act; setting], Marion [agent] pulls into a used car dealership [act; setting] and hastily exchanges her car for another one [act]. Driving [act] during a rainy night [setting], Marion [agent] pulls up [act, with the implied purpose of seeking shelter from the storm]to the Bates Motel, a remote lodging [setting] that has recently lost business due to a diversion of the main highway.

The proprietor, youthful but nervous Norman Bates [agent], invites her [act] to a light dinner in the parlor [setting]. Norman [agent] tells her that his mother is mentally ill [act], but he [agent] becomes irate and bristles [act] when Marion [agent] suggests that she should be institutionalized [act]. The conversation [agency] induces [act] Marion [agent] to decide [act] to return to Phoenix [act] and return the stolen money [purpose].

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Marion [agent] later takes a shower [act] in her room [setting], during which a shadowy figure [agent] comes in and stabs her [act] to death [purpose]. Norman [agent] bursts into the bathroom [act; setting] and discovers Marion's dead body [act]. He [agent] wraps the body in the shower curtain and cleans up the bathroom [act]. He [agent] puts Marion's body in the trunk of her car and sinks it in a nearby swamp [act; setting].

Act IV: Falling Action

In Phoenix [setting], Marion's sister Lila [agent] and Marion's boyfriend Sam Loomis [agent] are concerned [act] about her disappearance [purpose]. A detective named Arbogast [agent] confirms that Marion is suspected of having stolen $40,000 from her employer [act]. Arbogast [agent] eventually finds the Bates Motel [act; setting], where Norman's [agent] evasiveness and stammering arouse his suspicions [act]. Arbogast [agent] later enters the Bates' residence [act; setting], looking for Norman's mother [purpose]. A figure [agent] emerges [act] from her room [setting] and murders Arbogast [act; purpose].

Fearing that something has happened to Arbogast [act; purpose], Sam [agent] and Lila [agent] go to the town of Fairvale and talk with the local sheriff [act]. He [agent] is puzzled by the detective's claim that he was planning to talk to Norman's mother [act], stating that Mrs. Bates died years ago, along with her lover, in a murder-suicide [act].

Norman [agent], seen from above, carries his mother down to the cellar [act] of their house [setting] as she [agent] verbally protests the arrangement [act].
Sam [agent] and Lila [agent] rent a room [act] at the Bates Motel [search] and search the cabin [act] that Marion [agent] stayed [act] in [setting]. Lila [agent] finds a scrap of paper with "$40,000" written on it [act], while Sam [agent] notes that the bathtub has no shower curtain [act]. Sam [agent] distracts Norman [act] while Lila [agent] sneaks [act] into the house [setting], looking for Mrs. Bates [act, with the implied purpose of locating her]. Norman [agent] subdues Sam and chases Lila [act]. Seeing Norman approaching [act], Lila [agent] hides [act, with the implied purpose of evading Norman] in the cellar [setting] and discovers Mrs. Bates' body [act], sitting in a rocking chair [setting]. The chair [agent] rotates [act] to reveal a desiccated corpse, the preserved body of Mrs. Bates [purpose]. A figure [agent] enters [act] the basement [setting], wearing a dress and wig while wielding a large knife [act], revealing Norman to be the murderer all along [purpose]. Sam [agent] enters and saves Lila [act].

Act V: Catastrophe

After Norman's arrest [act], a psychiatrist [agent] who interviewed Norman [act] reveals that Norman [agent] had murdered his mother and her lover years ago [act], and he [agent] later developed a split personality [act] to erase the crime from his memory [purpose]. At times, he [agent] is able to function [act] as Norman [agency], but other times the mother personality [agent] completely dominates him [act].

Norman [agent] is now locked into his mother's identity permanently [act]. Mrs. Bates [agent], in a voice-over [agency], talks about how harmless she is [act], and how it was really Norman [agent], not she [agent], who committed the murders [act].

The final scene [agent] shows Marion's car being recovered [act] from the swamp [setting].

Although this approach has some difficulties—the ambiguity, for instance, inherent in how one summarizes the story, selecting, arranging, and emphasizing its incidents; of labeling the incidents according to Burke's pentad {for example, as when determining when to count an element as significant and when not to do so (for instance, should a shift of scene be counted as a new setting or as merely a continuation of an already-identified setting in which a different aspect of this setting is featured). (My solution has been to allow the summary to determine these matters as much as possible. However, if this approach is to be taken, it ought to use the shooting script, not a secondary source's understanding of the plot, as the basis for summarizing the movie's action). This approach, nevertheless, a potentially fruitful approach to analyzing the structure of a work, whether the work in question is one's own monster or that of another. Such an analysis, combining Burke's five-element dramatistic pentad with Freytag's analysis of five-act dramatic structure, suggests the extent of the use of each of Burke's elements, their interrelation to one another, and the way in which non-human techniques (that is, cinematographic agencies) can take the role, as it were, of agents. It is clear that, regarded as a mimetic medium, fiction simplifies the true complexity of human behavior by occasionally representing natural events or omniscient points of view as causal in order to express purpose which would not, otherwise, be communicated, as when the chair, acting as an agent, acts in order to accomplish a purpose that is really the screenwriter's, not that of the imaginary world (that is, the setting) in which the drama unfolds: he chair [agent] rotates [act] to reveal a desiccated corpse, the preserved body of Mrs. Bates [purpose]. Likewise, it is easy to see that purpose, as the cause or motive of the character's behavior, is typically suggested, rather than overtly stated, and often pertains to not only one or two, but to a whole series, of a character's acts. However, purpose is implied in each and every act of the drama and is, therefore, like the other of Burke's rhetorical elements, a unifying principle.

Removing the specific contents of each of the rhetorical elements, while retaining their grouping according to Freytag's acts, discloses the appearance of these rhetorical elements, their arrangement, and their relative importance—or, at least, the degree to which each element is emphasized within and among the various acts of the drama; each sentence of the synopsis is included, with the periods representing the respective ends of each.

Act I: Exposition

Agent / agent / act / setting. Agent / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Act / act / purpose.

Act II: Rising Action

Setting / agent / act / purpose/ purpose / agent / act. Agent / act / act / setting / agent/ act / setting / act. Act / setting / agent / act / purpose / setting.
Agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act / agent/ act. Agency / act / agent / act / purpose.

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting.

Act IV: Falling Action

Setting / agent / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose.
Act / purpose/ agent / agent / act. Agent /act / act.
Agent / act / setting / agent / act.
Agent / agent / act / setting / act / agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act. Agent / act / agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act. Act / agent / act / purpose / setting / act / setting. Agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act.

Act V: Catastrophe

Act / agent / act / agent / act / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / agent / act.
Agent / act. Agent / agency / act / agent / agent / act.
Agent / act / setting.

Simply by tallying each of the times that an element is used, it is possible to determine the relative emphasis of each, both by dramatic act and in total:

Act I: Exposition

Agent / agent / act / setting. Agent / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Act / act / purpose.

Agent = 6
Act = 6
Setting = 2
Purpose = 2

Act II: Rising Action

Setting / agent / act / purpose/ purpose / agent / act. Agent / act / act / setting / agent/ act / setting / act. Act / setting / agent / act / purpose / setting.
Agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act / agent/ act. Agency / act / agent / act / purpose.

Act = 14
Agent = 11
Setting = 6
Purpose = 4
Agency = 1

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Agent / act / setting / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting.

Act = 6
Agent = 5
Setting = 3
Purpose = 1

Act IV: Falling Action

Setting / agent / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act. Agent / act / setting / agent / act. Agent / act / setting / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose.
Act / purpose/ agent / agent / act. Agent /act / act.
Agent / act / setting / agent / act.

Agent / agent / act / setting / act / agent / act / setting. Agent / act / agent / act. Agent / act / agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act. Act / agent / act / purpose / setting / act / setting. Agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / setting / act / purpose. Agent / act.

Act = 29
Agent = 24
Setting = 11
Purpose = 8

Act V: Catastrophe

Act / agent / act / agent / act / agent / act / purpose. Agent / act / agent / act.
Agent / act. Agent / agency / act / agent / agent / act.
Agent / act / setting.

Act = 10
Agent = 10
Purpose = 1
Setting = 1
Agency = 1

This statistical analysis shows that, in Act I, agent and act dominate to the same degree; that, in Act II, act dominates; that in Act III, act dominates; that, in Act IV, act dominates; and, that in Act V, act dominates. Overall, as a whole, act dominates over all of the other of Burke's rhetorical elements; therefore, it is evident that, rhetorically, Psycho is an action movie, the tone of which is horror.

After converting the incidents of the story's plot, as indicated by the plot's synopsis, into discrete rhetorical elements, in accordance with Burke's pentad, it is an easy matter to transpose the results into the questions that are associated with these elements, even while retaining Freytag's structure, if desirable:

Act I: Exposition

Who? / Who? / What? / When? Where?. Who? / Who? / What? / Who? / What? / setting / Who? / What? / Why?. What? / What? / Why?.

Act II: Rising Action

When? and Where? / Who? / What? / purpose/ purpose / Who? / What?. Who? / What? / What? / When? and Where? / Who?/ What? / When? and Where? / What?. What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What? / purpose / When? and Where?.

Who? / What? / When? and Where?. Who? / What? / Who? / What? / Who?/ What?. Agency / What? / Who? / What? / purpose.

Act III: Climax, or Turning Point

Who? / What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What?. Who? / What?. Who? / What? / When? and Where?.

Act IV: Falling Action

When? and Where? / Who? / Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What?. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What?. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / purpose. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / purpose.
What? / purpose/ Who? / Who? / What?. Who? /What? / What?.

Who? / What? / When? and Where? / Who? / What?.

Who? / Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / Who? / What? / When? and Where?. Who? / What? / Who? / What?. Who? / What? / Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / purpose. Who? / What?. What? / Who? / What? / purpose / When? and Where? / What? / When? and Where?. Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What? / When? and Where? / What? / purpose. Who? / What?.

Act V: Catastrophe

What? / Who? / What? / Who? / What? / Who? / What? / purpose. Who? / What? / Who? / What?.

Who? / What?. Who? / agency / What? / Who? / Who? / What?.
Who? / What? / When? and Where?.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cover Art

copyright 2014 by Gary Pullman

It may be true that one cannot tell a book by its title, but, fortunately for those of us who enjoy visual as well as literary art, publishers keep trying to prove this maxim wrong.

As a result, they—or the artists whom they hire—occasionally offer us some aesthetically pleasing cover art.

This is especially true when the novel between the covers is erotic horror.

Here are a few cases in point.

Dark Seduction: Tales of Erotic Fiction, an anthology of short stories edited by Alice Alfonsi and John Scognamiglio, shows a woman's hand, holding a single, long-stem rose against her bosom, the ample cleavage of which is framed by the decolletage of her black dress. The background is also black, so that her hand, her cleavage, and the rose alone are visible, which emphasizes them, both in themselves and as parts of the composition as a whole. Her flesh is pale, so the sleek skin highlights the crimson drop of blood that the piercing of her right breast by the rose's thorn produces. The red letters of the subtitle match the red of her blood, connecting the rose and her vital essence. Why, one may wonder, is she—whoever she may be—surrounded by darkness? Just as the color of the rose matches that of her blood, the black surroundings match her black dress, suggesting that she is one with the night, as she is one with life and beauty. She is a dark figure who inhabits a dark world. Surely, though, she is more than a lady of the evening; she is a queen of the darkness, a vampire, perhaps, a femme fatale whose beauty lures the unsuspecting and the unwary to their deaths. A beauty who feeds upon the lifeblood of her victims, she is a monster, a creature of the night, despite her apparent tenderness and loveliness. She is herself the embodiment of the “dark seduction” which awaits the reader between the covers of the book she adorns. Several of the titles of the short stories in this bouquet of flowers, as the word “anthology” literally means, suggest that romantic passion, not good intentions, may pave the road to hell: “Private Pleasures,” “Dark Seduction,” “Good Vibrations,” “Satisfaction.” Whether the stories can deliver the passion the book's cover art implies is a question that each reader must answer for him- or herself, but the pale woman in the black dress certainly promises the reader good times.

Blindfolded, the topless blonde raises a hand, to block someone or something, as she stands in an inverted triangle, blackbirds in flight through the fog that obscures a tangle of treetops behind her. Her other hand covers her lower abdomen. Has she escaped mysterious captors? Is she a sacrifice, about to be sacrificed? Is she prey, awaiting the attack of a predatory man or beast? Any of these scenarios is possible, but none is certain; the painting of the damsel in distress leaves open all these alternatives and as many others as a reader might imagine. However, the title of Selena Kitt's volume, Shivers, suggests that the reader may quiver as much with fear as with lust. . . if he or she dares to open the book to find out what waits inside.

A naked shoulder, arm, breast, and side is all that is visible in the darkness, these parts of the female anatomy and the author's name (“Polly Frost,” in white), the tagline, (“Extreme Erotic Fantasies,” in tan), the main title, “Deep,” in black, and “Inside,” in white), and, deeper down, the subtitle, the first four words in fleshly tan, “Ten tantalizing tales of,” and the remaining two in white, “supernatural erotica.” The piecemeal presentation of author and the main title, above, and the subtitle, below, the breast makes the woman's torso a striptease act, of sorts, which communicates, piece by piece and word by word, the message of erotica and horror that the cover art promises is in store “Deep Inside” the covers, where such stories as “The Threshold,” “The Orifice,” “The Pleasure Invaders,” “Viagra Babies,” “Test Drive,” and “Visions of Ecstasy,” among others, wait.

For authors, these images of sex and death may do more than suggest good times. The can also suggest how carefully planned design and composition can speak volumes in and of themselves. A writer, however, can provide such images only through description. He or she should plan his or her depictions of invitation and danger, of promise and peril, of temptation and destruction as meticulously as the artist paints his or her visions. By studying light and intensity, hue and shade, color and contrast, size and shape, density and texture, direction and distance, perspective and space, background and foreground, color and effect, depth and focal point, the writer can maximize his or her descriptions, making them do more with less to shock, terrify, disgust, and horrify. Cover art, like advertisements and posters, offer good ways for writers to study and to see, just as written texts can teach visual artists how to allude, be ironic, use hyperbole or understatement, wax metaphorical, be symbolic, or personify.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Monsters: A(lpha) to Z(eta)

copyright 2013 by Gary L. Pullman

Traditionally, monsters in horror movies have been coded as masculine; indeed, many are male. Once upon a time, among men, there were alpha males, on one hand, and, on the other, everyone else.

Sociologists are fond of pointing out that men tend to organize themselves into hierarchies with an alpha male as top dog, whereas women tend to organize themselves into a more communal, or familial, decentralized group wherein power is not passed down but is, rather, shared. Sometimes, situations are best handled by the top-dog, top-down approach; other times, situations are better handled by the partnership approach.

However, recently, types of masculinity have been re-conceived, with more categories allowing for greater and more meaningful representation of the several, varied types of masculinity. Now, in addition to the alpha male, there are not only beta males (the alpha male's lieutenants), but also
  • delta males (the everyman)
  • gamma males (no, the Incredible Hulk is not included; gammas are flattering sycophants)
  • lambda males (gay guys)
  • sigma males (lone wolves, who would be alphas had early trauma not caused them to channel their masculinity toward the survival of the fittest—themselves)
  • omega males (immature, irresponsible losers), and
  • zeta males (men who insist upon the right to determine their own identities as males, whatever such an identity may prove to be).
Such types are exemplified by such characters as pretty much any ever played by John Wayne, by Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk, and by Superman (alpha males); by superhero sidekicks, such as Batman's Robin the Boy Wonder, Flash's Kid Flash, Captain America's Bucky Barnes, or Green Arrow's Speedy (beta males); by Peter Parker and by Clark Kent (as opposed to Spider-man and Superman, respectively) (delta males); by Toad (of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) and by Othello's Iago (gamma males); by Lamar Latrell (lambda male); by Dirty Harry, by the Deathwish series' Paul Kersey, by the X-Men's Wolverine, and by Cool Hand Luke's Lucas Jackson (omega males); and by The Crying Game's Dil, by Porky's Tim Cavanaugh, and, to a large degree, by The Crying Game's Fergus (zeta males).

Since, as we have observed, monsters in horror movies have been coded as masculine and many, indeed, are male, these fantastic creatures can be classified in the same terms, as alpha, beta, delta, gamma, lambda, sigma, omega, and zeta:

Alpha monsters are the dominant (and, often, domineering) leaders of their kind. The Sayer of the Law (The Island of Dr. Moreau), Skull Island's King Kong, and Big Daddy, the zombie leader in Land of the Dead, qualify as examples of the alpha monster. The alpha monster's lieutenants, or sidekicks, are beta monsters, whose ranks include television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Spike, the former protege to Angel, and, indeed, Angel himself, when he was a lieutenant for the Master. Amilyn, the toady to the vampire lord Lothos in the original Buffy movie, and Igor, the sycophantic assistant to Victor Frankenstein, are delta monsters. Homosexual monsters are few and far between, but, according to some accounts, Psycho's Norman Bates may fill the bill, as may Count Dracula and, in a transgender sort of way, Sleepaway camp's Angela Baker. (One might add most of the characters played by Vincent Price, too, perhaps.) There are many sigma monsters, because monsters, as outcasts, typically live and work alone; some examples are Beowulf's Grendel, The Creature of the Black Lagoon's Gill-man, the Predator (in The Predator), and the Yeti (in The Abominable Snowman). Monsters who insist upon defining their own manhood—or, rather, their own monstrosity—include, in a sense, the shape-shifting It of Stephen King's novel of the same name and Dr. Otto Octavius (“Doctor Octopus), the sometime-villain in Spider-man 2.

Clearly, not all monsters are alike, any more than all men are alike. The significance of these differences in monstrosity can suggest a variety of possibilities, but addressing them must, alas, wait for another time which is yet to come. . . .

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.

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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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