Book Review The Supernatural in Society, Culture, and History, edited by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton
Reviewed by Eva Kingsepp
This is a very valuable contribution to the scholarly literature on the supernatural regarded as a social and cultural phenomenon, a research field that is here explored interdisciplinary. The anthology explicitly has its focus on the reception of the supernatural and the paranormal, including cognitive aspects, which is a very productive and illuminating way of approaching the topic. It is one of the book’s major strengths that it is not concerned with either ontology or epistemology regarding alleged supernatural and paranormal phenomena as such. In other words: while it does not matter whether these are in themselves “real” or not, it is an undisputed fact that a large number of people have had personal experiences that they understand, and make sense of, in these terms. Our culturally shared ideas and representations of them serve important functions: they provide cognitive frameworks for unusual personal experiences, and contribute to the creation of an “enchanted space” where all that which is commonly regarded as fantasy, superstition, and pseudoscience, can safely become objects of desire and consumption. Accordingly, although the term occulture is not highlighted in the volume, this is essentially what it is exploring, especially through its focus on the thoughts, ideas, and practices of “ordinary people” in their everyday lives.
After a general introduction (which will be presented in some more detail below) all of the volume’s 11 chapters are either directly based on, or otherwise refer to, case studies that taken together make up a compilation covering a broad range of subjects related to the supernatural. Together with the Introduction, the first two chapters offer valuable theoretical and methodological foundations for the scientific study of these phenomena. The first provides a general conceptual, interdisciplinary framework for the scholarly study of the supernatural from a sociocultural and historical perspective, proposing a “broad cryptoscientific perspective”, which may sound somewhat unconventional. This is to be understood not in the common derogatory use of the word, but in a literal sense as “a science of the hidden or unknown” (p. 21; italics in original). The second chapter is less theoretical, offering a useful hands-on methodological checklist based on the author’s own fieldwork on legend tripping.
The following case studies have a prominent base in ethnographic research, dealing with experiences of ghosts, the tension between “scientific” and “sensitive” in paranormal investigation, legend tripping and dark tourism, the social functions of fortune tellers, the use of tarot cards from a sociological perspective, voodoo in literature and practice, including issues related to racism and commodification through tourism, vampires in contemporary society, cryptozoology and (re-)enchantment of a disenchanted world, and alien abduction narratives. Although providing fascinating reading and valuable insights, this eclecticism can also be regarded as the volume's main weakness, as some chapters are dealing with rather limited phenomena such as the identity claims of ”modern vampires” in the US. I believe this in particular would make much more sense if read together with other texts dealing with similar topics, as for example subcultural practices related to the supernatural. Following the volume’s title, basically all of the chapters include a historical perspective on their subjects, which I believe is very valuable. Still, some texts work better regarded as historical overviews, while others would probably benefit from being more explicitly situated in the present.
The Introduction, by the editors, deserves a closer presentation. They present useful definitions of the supernatural and the paranormal, highlighting the frequently overlooked but highly significant distinctions between these concepts and common issues related to such neglect. To associate the supernatural with both religious and non-religious phenomena such as ghosts and UFOs is highly problematic, it is argued, not only as it becomes a vague catch-all concept, but especially as we need to acknowledge the significance of the cultural authority associated with institutionalised religion. In the editors’ words, “... by virtue of being embedded in these legitimated and legitimating institutions, evangelical Christians possess the power to conventionalize their beliefs as valid religious phenomena while discrediting nondoctrinal beliefs and rituals as invalid supernatural phenomena” (p. 6; italics in original). Further, as is made clear through references to Émile Durkheim’s classical The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915), this distinction also enables us to analyse the supernatural as a modern concept, referring to “all sorts of things which surpass the limits of our knowledge; the supernatural is the world of the mysterious, of the unknowable, of the un-understandable” (Durkheim, 1915, p. 39, quoted on p. 7). Although The Supernatural includes a historical perspective, it is valuable to also acknowledge the impact of modernity on common ideas about the otherworldly.
It goes without saying that the concept supernatural also needs to be distinguished from the paranormal, a term the editors reserve for “alleged psychic abilities that defy accepted scientific understanding of human mental capabilities” (p. 8). They point out several reasons for this distinction, in particular testability, origins, and inclusivity. Alleged supernatural phenomena are essentially untestable: we cannot make laboratory tests on, for example, ghost encounters. Although sceptics argue that it is a waste of time and resources to scientifically test telepathy, healing and clairvoyance, it is still possible to conduct such tests. Further: while the paranormal is here strictly associated with human mental capabilities, the supernatural is ontologically more diverse. For example, while telepathy or psychokinesis belong to the paranormal, the ideas about communication with the dead, or altering the outside world through magic, belong to the realm of the supernatural. Finally, the editors point out that “paranormal” applies only to abilities, while “supernatural” encompasses abilities as well as entities” (p. 9). Although some might find this too simplifying, I believe that the whole discussion is highly important, as it helps to clarify significant differences between the concepts. When these are clearly identified, it is easier to proceed with an examination of similarities and possible overlap.
Several of the case studies contain examples of how supernatural and paranormal phenomena, as well as the people for whom they matter and their everyday practices related to these phenomena, are commonly classified according to a binary sociocultural value scale with science and spirit as two opposing poles. Accordingly, for many it is significant to identify with the “correct” label and to distinguish oneself from others within the field who have a different approach to it. Although this is indeed discussed in some chapters, it is somewhat surprising that a Bourdieuan analytical perspective, which would have been very interesting to see applied here, is lacking. This, of course, indicates a dilemma: within this limited space, is it possible to truly implement the volume’s interdisciplinary spirit regarding all these diverse topics, achieving both width and analytic depth? No, it is not, which is why I believe that The Supernatural is best appreciated as an excellent introduction to a field of study that has regrettably been regarded as unscientific, or simply not really worthy of scholarly study.
Eva Kingsepp, PhD, is Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, Media and Communication, Karlstad University, Sweden. She can be reached at email: firstname.lastname@example.org