The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, edited by Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead

Reviewed by Eva Kingsepp.

The editors’ aim behind this volume is that

... the paranormal, despite its perception in some quarters as inhabiting the cultural fringe, should not only be considered an important feature of 21st century religious expression but also one deserving greater study by scholars (p. 289).

I do agree about the need for more scholarly attention regarding the paranormal as contemporary cultural expressions, although I also believe that it is counterproductive to adapt a framework primarily related to religion. This is of particular importance when trying to understand cultural phenomena in a postmodern, or rather metamodern, context. Although it is debatable whether the Western world was ever truly disenchanted through modernity, interest in the paranormal has varied over time and, indeed, increased during the last decades. While this can be regarded as part of what has been called a re-enchantment of the world, there is a division between those who interpret the phenomenon as related to spirituality and/or a new form of non-institutionalized religiosity, and those who prefer a more secular perspective. The former perspective is reflected in the concept occulture, as presented by in particular Christopher Partridge. In a more secular view, the door to individual spirituality is certainly not closed, although the main focus is here directed towards what has been identified as central aspects of postmodern popular culture, such as play and pastiche. Keeping this differentiation in mind is useful when reading The Paranormal and Popular Culture, as although the editors express an awareness of it, their sympathies seem to be profoundly rooted in – if I may make a rough categorization – the idea of occulture as a contemporary expression of religiosity. This leads to a certain bias that sometimes, at least for me, reduces the value of the content, as aspects of occulture not necessarily related to “the spiritual but not religious” are basically overlooked.

Although re-enchantment provides the foundation of occulture – Partridge’s book is even called The Re-Enchantment of the West (2004) – the concept is only briefly mentioned in the Introduction, but is not further utilized. Even occulture is used mainly as a sweeping categorization, not as an analytic concept – but this is perhaps only annoying to scholars … Nevertheless, regarded as an open-ended introduction to the highly diverse field of contemporary occulture the volume offers inspirational reading. Besides the Introduction and Conclusion chapters, written by the editors, the volume contains no less than 20 pieces, covering a wide range of subjects related to the paranormal and/or to (Western) occulture, by more than 20 different authors. Unfortunately, as is often the case in anthologies, the level of scholarship varies. While most authors show a high degree of familiarity with their topic, there are some who – perhaps falsely, but still – give the impression of being primarily enthusiasts, or fans.

In editor Darryl Caterine’s words, the seven chapters in the first part, The return of the sacred, “illumine the religious significance of occulture” in present Western society, while the thirteen chapters in Part II, The spell of occulture, “investigate the social significance of paranormal pop culture” (pp. 6-7). Both parts are similar in that most authors explore their topics based on selected media texts, in particular literature, film and newspapers, while only a few include ethnographic data from fieldwork, interviews and/or surveys. Nevertheless, this mix of quantitative and qualitative studies is one of the volume’s major strengths. As the editors’ ambition is to highlight the significance of the “spiritual but not religious” in contemporary Western culture, this obviously invites a risk for (unintentional) bias regarding the choice of empirical material, as well as its interpretation. I have myself had immense use of Stuart Hall’s well-known concept preferred/negotiated/oppositional readings, so I am wholly in favour of reading against the grain, when this can shed light on alternative interpretations and oppositional cultural meanings. However, this needs to be carefully done and supported by a solid theoretical framework, and/or previous research, in order to be academically sound. Some of the volume’s texts could be significantly improved in this regard.

Nevertheless, I believe that The Paranormal and Popular Culture can be valuable to any scholar interested in contemporary occulture. Several of the chapters are what a non-academic would probably call nerdy, showing deep knowledge about their often very narrow topics, resulting in texts that are highly interesting and fascinating. To mention only a few of these to give an impression of the book’s broad scope. When did fairies get wings? Simon Young’s wonderful contribution answers this important question through tracing European cultural history from the 16th century until the present. In their chapter Matthew N. Anderson and Collin L. Brown dig into the explicit, but usually overlooked, spiritualist connections to the movie Ghostbusters (1984). Kelly J. Murphy offers another good reason to immerse oneself in the volume, exploring the relations between the zombie apocalypse and early Jewish and Christian ideas about resurrection. I also very much enjoyed Jack Hunter’s shamanist reading of Batman, Leo Ruickbie’s analysis of the British ghost-hunting subculture, and Joseph P. Laycock’s careful inquiry of the legend about H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. In his conclusion Laycock proposes that this “is best understood as a form of ‘serious play’ in which multiple parties collaborate to create new imaginary realities” (p. 196); I will elaborate on this below.

Along with its numerous highlights, the volume also suffers from a number of weaknesses. One can, after all, live with the inevitable varying quality of the texts, but it is considerably more disturbing to find a lack of internal consistency and functional definitions regarding the central concepts paranormal and postmodern. Further, the Introduction seems to regard popular culture as purely entertainment, which is obviously far too simplistic. This means that all but one of the concepts in the volume’s full title – The Paranormal and Popular Culture. A Postmodern Religious Landscape – are in several chapters used without sufficient foundation. In many cases the different texts would have profited from previously introduced distinctions, in particular between the paranormal and the supernatural, but also related concepts. Are zombies really best identified as “paranormal”? It is hard to think of the zombie apocalypse as a “paranormal” event, belonging to the same sphere as, say, a séance, or a healing session … Most importantly, it is certainly not analytically helpful. Another example: what is meant by “paranormal mythology”, and what is a “paranormal myth of [a] satanic cult”? These are just two cases where the lack of differentiation between related and/or overlapping terms disturb an otherwise interesting text. Moreover, concepts like “the fantastic” and “the marvellous” are often used synonymously with “the paranormal”, seemingly without any notion of their rich analytic potential as presented by, for example, Rosemary Jackson and Tzvetan Todorov. This conceptual vagueness reduces much of the volume’s usefulness in a scholarly context.

The lack of a consistent framework regarding central terms invites confusion, as “paranormal” more or less becomes a floating signifier. Although some of the contributing authors provide their definitions of the concept (e.g., Castro, pp. 13-14), it is surprising that this was not done by the editors in order to keep the volume together. In his Introduction Darryl Caterine states that:

The indeterminate nature of the paranormal, both as a category of analysis and as a description for its myriad themes, runs as a common thread throughout the full range of subject matter covered in this volume (p. 1)

If this is the main framework, it is unfortunately not very helpful. However, Caterine does suggest two approaches as a way to finding a definition: the intersection between religion and science, and “the paranormal as a particular form of modern entertainment” (p. 2). On page 2 Jeffrey Kripal’s definition of the paranormal as “the sacred in transit from the religious and scientific registers into a parascientific or ‘science mysticism’ register” is offered. This seems to be in line with the editors’ view, as no alternatives are presented. The following section, A brief history about the paranormal and popular culture, brings more confusion than clarity, using a number of terms: “supernatural”, “mystical”, “irrational”, “pseudoscientific”, “marvellous”, “otherworldly themes”, ”unexplained anomalies”, and even “fiction”. That “paranormal entertainment” is suddenly called “supernatural entertainment” does not make things clearer ... This imprecision is a recurrent problem in the volume, especially when theoretical concepts are used as in everyday language, thereby losing their analytical significance.

Furthermore, although the term “postmodern” is frequently used, this seems to be mainly in a superficial understanding of postmodern theory. Accordingly, several vital characteristics of the postmodern condition are overlooked, including simulacra, simulation, the importance of history as the last “reality”, and the centrality of playfulness. The Introduction presents the last three chapters in the volume as arguably reflecting “the most sceptical readings of the paranormal insofar as they view their subject matter as ‘just fiction’” (p. 8). As Michael Saler shows in his book As if: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2011), the fictional worlds of, for example, H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien offer enchanted spaces for play, where the experience of the paranormal/supernatural/spiritual etc. is not dependent on whether one is “a believer” or not. This kind of openness is absent in much of The Paranormal and Popular Culture.

I wholeheartedly acknowledge the editors’ ambition to offer a heterogeneous collection of texts, presenting different aspects, voices and theoretical perspectives, as this is a potential major strength. Still, such an endeavour would benefit more from a distinct theoretical framework that would simultaneously highlight the richness of the very disparate material and keep it together, instead of presenting conceptual vagueness as the common denominator.

Eva Kingsepp, PhD, is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at Karlstad University, Sweden.