Friday, March 07, 2008

Anything Goes: A Horror Writer's Cop Out

The law of identity has a nasty habit of reasserting itself. Even authors whose stock in trade is supernatural horror stories prove implicitly that the law of identity cannot be defeated.

Obviously, all things are what they are, definite entities with definite characteristics. Their behavior is determined by their nature, by their characteristics (the law of causality, a corollary of the law of identity).

The law of identity is an axiomatic truth, that's why I wrote, "obviously." It's confirmed by every observation you make. Plus, even if someone denies an axiomatic truth, they have to accept that truth implicitly in their argument.

Now, what happens if a horror writer makes up entities with supernatural powers, omnipotent monsters that can assume any shape at will, that are not bound by any laws of nature?

It's a lazy writer's dream. No loose ends to take care of. No plot holes. No logic of the story to respect. If all ends are loose by definition, those left loose by accident don't stick out. If the laws of logic are suspended, a writer can play it deuces wild.

Yet, most every self-respecting author writing tales of the supernatural accepts implicitly that there is nothing truly supernatural, nothing bound by no laws, nothing omnipotent. Even Lord Voldemort and Harry Potter need wands, potions, and spells, and have to use them to exacting standards. Every horror story of substance has its "supernatural" beings bound by rules.

They aren't the laws of nature that apply in our universe, but laws they are. They are, so to speak, laws of the supernatural. However, once the supernatural is no longer an omnipotent blur without laws, it by definition ceases to be supernatural. Being subject to predictable laws is the hallmark of nature.

All those witches and alchemists, in fiction and in our real past, weren't dealing with the supernatural. Not in the sense of "omnipotent." What they were searching in the real world, and found in fiction, is another body of laws that supersedes the known laws of nature.

For potions and the philosopher's stone alike, they accepted that the identity they wished to change could only be changed by scrupulously following specific recipes and carefully selecting specific ingredients. Those alchemists who tried to turn lead into gold, to seemingly defeat the law of identity, explicitly or implicitly accepted the law of identity.

Turns out that in a way they were right. There is a law of nature that does supersede the laws of chemistry known up to the twentieth century. Today, man knows that the characteristics of matter permit turning lead into gold, not by chemistry, but by nuclear physics. Trouble is, doing that costs more than the gold is worth.

In short, no matter how many laws of nature one denies, as long as one still lays claim to a vestige of logic, one cannot deny the basic law underlying all others: the law of identity.

But what does happen if a horror writer does play it deuces wild? What if a story does feature truly omnipotent beings?

That's simple. The closer the characters come to being omnipotent, the fewer laws of nature they're bound by, the more the plot disintegrates. Plot is the logical progression of events, and the more the author tries to deny the law of identity, the less logic there is to go round.

A truly hundred percent supernatural story featuring truly omnipotent beings would be exceedingly short and boring. So the god or vampire or Voldemort or Potter could just command, "Die, enemies!" and all his antagonists would be dead. The story, having run out of conflict, would be over.

Alternatively, the writer could have both sides being omnipotent: an irresistible force versus an immovable object — which would terminate the story as well. The resulting contradiction of universal proportions by the way constitutes proof that there can be neither irresistible forces nor immovable objects.

So the monsters must be hobbled to slow them down, must have an Achilles heel to give the heroes a chance to defeat them. Vampires cannot stand sunlight, garlic, and crucifixes, cross water, or enter a room uninvited. If there were no such rules, the vampires could just consume one peasant girl after another, without any effort. Once past the "shocker" part, once the existence of vampires has been established, the story would degenerate into a mindless orgy.

Many horror stories are simply short shockers. Say, a couple stops over at an out-of-the-way hotel, all night long the goings on get stranger and stranger, until it turns out that the hotel is occupied by vampires. The couple either manages to escape by the skin of their teeth, or they get killed.

In tales like these, the whole story is nothing but a suspenseful "exposition," baiting and thrilling readers by hints that something monstrous is going on. Conveniently, the story stops before the author has to deal with the contradictions inherent in the supernatural, so he never has to go to the trouble of making his monsters work.

If the monsters are invulnerable and cannot be fought, the only two plot elements available are the monster's inner conflicts whether to use his powers and (more frequently) the efforts of his victims to suck up to him to evade his wrath.

For example, take John Carpenter's The Fog. The ghosts are pretty much omnipotent while in the fog. Their victims can only run, or when the fog encircles them, plead with the ghosts, try to bribe them, or offer themselves in sacrifice to save others. There's no conflict worth mention because the ghosts' omnipotence makes any activity of their victims pointless. They must remain passive, helpless, at the mercy of supernatural forces.

That doesn't mean that The Fog isn't a good movie, or isn't worth watching. In fact, it's kind of fascinating. But it means that what makes movies like this interesting is not plot or conflict. The Fog is actually very similar to another movie filmed in the same neck of the woods: Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Both movies feature a thrilling "exposition," but in both the real star is the atmosphere.

Take an idyllic California coastal town and have it enveloped and wrecked by some irresistible, inexplicable force. Of course, the more easily scared members of the audience appreciate the thrill of an ax or a bird attack out of the blue, too. But then, a little less omnipotence and a little more logic might work wonders.

Originally published on August 10, 2007, on The Atlasphere.

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