Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal, anyone?

By Mary Margret Daughtridge

The other day, in reference to a promo blog I had written about SEALed Forever (coming in 2011) I received this from my editor:

I changed "her house is haunted" to "a house could be haunted" b/c I don't want your readers to think there's a ghost--you can't go paranormal now.

She's absolutely right. I don't write "paranormals," and I wouldn't want to give the impression that I do...but. SEALed Forever has plenty of "things that go bump in the night." It got me thinking, what’s “paranormal” anyway?

The word was coined in 1920 as a neutral term intended to separate the legitimate study of psychic phenomena from spiritualism, the supernatural, and superstition. It was meant to give psychic phenomena a platform which made it susceptible to scientific investigation.

It didn’t work. Thirty or forty years later, study of psychical occurrences had completely bogged down between extraordinarily boring research on the one side and accusations of gullibility or outright chicanery on the other. The whole subject wound up right back where it started. “Paranormal” became synonymous with spiritualism and the supernatural. And the reputation of anyone who took it seriously was trashed.

When I looked up the word paranormal to write this blog, I learned that UFO’s had fallen under its umbrella. Huh? It turns out the same reversion of definition had happened to “UFO.”

In the late 1950’s “flying saucer” had become equivalent with alien spacecraft—and anyone who claimed to see one was nuts. Back in those days, everyone knew there were no life-sustaining planets other than Earth, and even if there were, space travel was impossible.

Believing the sightings were worth studying, and looking for a neutral term which said nothing about the origin of the aerial oddities, J. Allen Hynek, PhD, a respected astronomer, coined the term, Unidentified Flying Object.

It didn’t work. Interest in a very real phenomenon (i.e. photographable objects in the sky that witnesses can tell are not ordinary craft) became proof of credulousness at best. If you admitted to seeing one, you were a little thin on brain cells or at worst a hoaxer. And UFO's became synonymous with "space aliens," and the next thing you know, they were paranormal too.

But the word paranormal wasn't done with gathering the strange under it's wing.

In the publishing world, in addition to ghosts and witches, suddenly even the staples of horror fiction--vampires, werewolves, devils and demons—moved into the romance genre and morphed from villains to good guys. Put them in a romance and instead of getting a stake through the heart, they find true love. When the story ends, in the case of vampires, they live--no, that's not right. They remain undead happily ever...and ever...and ever after.**

In context, obviously that’s the definition of paranormal my editor meant.

My novels are reality-based, and the hero and heroine plenty smart thank-you-very-much, yet in all my books there is an encounter with the unknown, the inexplicable, the other-worldly.

That kind of thing is incidental to the external plot, which is probably what makes my books not-paranormals. At no point must the reader suspend disbelief--if they are unbelievers.

The thing is, for me, encounters with the paranormal (definitions 1 and 2) aren’t fantasy. They’re just some of the things that happen to people. How a character reacts when they happen is enormously revealing. The events are in fact within the normal range of human experience. (A Wikipedia article cites two polls. One showed 76% believe in at least one manifestation of the paranormal. Another poll revealed that 70% have had at least one paranormal experience.

So, despite the fact that a haunted house is the sine qua non of the paranormal, and I don't write paranormals, in SEALed Forever, there's a haunted house. Well, maybe.

Shall we conduct a totally unscientific poll? Where are you on the paranormal spectrum of belief? True believer or total skeptic? Or something in-between? Which manifestations of the paranormal are acceptable to you? Which are way too far out? Is there anything you believe in and find scary? Is there anything paranormal you believe in and find not scary at all--not even very weird?

**Oh! Oh! [clutches temples] I'm getting a precognitive flash! Kathryne Kennedy will be here tomorrow, and she will actually enlighten us about the Paranormal Romance subgenre.


  1. I've had four real life ghostly experiences, none of which I expected, none of which I believed in until circumstances were such that I had to believe otherwise, and all that I thought everyone else had experienced who were with me, thinking they were real situations, not ghostly. So I'm open-minded about it, but even when I go into a place where people have sensed ghostly presences, I don't "expect" I'll have that same experience.

    And I haven't. For me, it just happens unexpectedly and at first I thought everyone else had heard what I had heard in the 3 ghostly situations I've been in. In the case of the letter "C" on the wall, everyone else clearly saw it, so it confirmed that it was there and I wasn't imagining it. And then it just...vanished. :)

  2. There's another word--numinous--that means, "superpassing comprehension or understanding, spiritual or supernatural." It's a lovely word, close in sound and meaning to luminous. I like it, in part because it hasn't been brought low by unflattering connotations. And as for the numinous experience, most people when polled--self included--will say they've had at least one.

  3. I too am open minded. I've had family and friends who have resident ghosts--okay, I've even experienced that once or twice. I also spent my youth having a psychic I didn't meet until I was in my early twenties, tattling on me to my mother. Believe me, it made for several strange phone calls!

    All these experiences have lead me to keep an open mind.

  4. I'm fascinated with the paranormal, from angels to aliens, but I've never encountered either. I definitely believe in angels. The aliens I'm skeptical about but don't rule out.

  5. You know Terry, I think the element of the paranormal that one must accept to become comfortable with it, is that it is both inexplicable and outside our control.

    Sometimes you see a ghost where no one else does, and don't see one in territory where they are said to roam.

  6. I so agree, MM. I've watched those "ghost buster" programs in the past and wondered how anyone can think they can "schedule" a ghost's appearance just for their show. :)

  7. Great post, as always, MM!
    The paranormal is a fascinating concept with endless opportunities to stretch the imagination, but I've never experienced it first hand. Probably never will.

  8. Grace,

    I love the word numinous. As you say it rhymes with luminous, and to me, a numinous experience shows us how little we really know about "reality" and at the same time, it lightens and enlightens the heart.

  9. Nice post, MM! I believe in ghosts and the paranormal, but my life experience stays solidly in ordinary reality. Maybe someday... And Grace, thank you for reminding us of the word "numinous." We'll make that the word of the day!

  10. Robin,

    How I envy you! You've been to a place said to be haunted and actually seen something. I never have--even though I absolutely believe it could happen.

    For instance, I live close to a historic battleground, where it is said, many spirits remain. It's beautiful place for a stroll, so I've been there lots. And never seen or felt or heard a thing.

  11. Anita,

    I saw an angel once, when I was a very young child. Never seen an alien--that I know of--and really? I'm good with that.

    Are you only interested in beings, or does your fascination include telepathy, precognition, seeing auras, and things like that?

  12. Terry, :-)

    And have you noticed that the head honchos get all the really impressive "evidence?"

  13. Joanne,

    You know what I love about the word: numinous? It sounds exactly like what it means. It accurately echoes the experience--which the words psychic and telepathy absolutely do not.

  14. I tend to be hideously rational when it comes to the paranormal. For example, if ghosts exist, I can't help but wonder if their existence could be due to the scientific principle of conservation of energy, which states that energy in a closed system cannot be created or destroyed - it is transformed.
    Transformed into... what? That is the question.

    Did anyone see the HBO movie "Temple Grandin"? (Stunning. See it!) Dr. Grandin has autism. In the movie, after a beloved horse and a beloved teacher both die, she asks aloud, "Where did it go?" recognizing that even though the body was still there, some essential spark was now absent.

    I think there's a lot we don't yet understand about energy.

  15. I keep one foot on the ground and the other in the clouds ... superstitious ancestors ... grounded husband. It's a good place to be! But after more than thirty years since they both passed on, I can still hear my grandmother speaking to me or feel my grandfather's presence behind me. Paranormal? Spirits? Good memories? Who's to say?

  16. This is my school of thought, if there are ghosts, vampires, shape-shifters, etc out there, I don't want to ever run into one of them.

  17. I'm a total non-believer. I do think the paranormal is interesting. Reading it as fiction is great fun. Hearing stories about it is amusing. Those stories might even give me the creeps. But I don't actually believe any of it is paranormal. Just a paranormal interpretation of something misunderstood. Give me a scientific explanation any day. Logic is my forte.

  18. Tamara,

    I think your hideously rational question is a good one. The existence (if you believe it exists at all) of paranormal or psychic phenomena immediately calls into question "how does reality REALLY work?."

    If ghosts etc do exist, then we must admit we don't understand all the laws of physics.

    I am reminded of Spock reciting the First Law of Metaphysics: Nothing unreal exists. (paraphrased)

  19. Carolyn,

    What a lovely way of taking responsibility for your own experience. We carry our loved ones with us, and frequently we've made parts of them into us. It would be a disservice both to ourselves and them to deny that.

  20. Amelia,

    I must have failed in my efforts at disambiguation between paranormal phenomena that seem to obey rules different from those in the material world, and the totally imaginary creatures found in paranormal romance--which I don't think anyone, in any sense, would suggest are real.

    Let me add, I'm in total agreement with your sentiments re: vampires, werewolves etc. If they WERE real, they would scare the **** out of me.

  21. Olivia, you said, "Just a paranormal interpretation of something misunderstood."

    I had to smile. That was exactly the position of the first "paranormal" investigators, and also the reason they coined the word para-normal. They theorized that whatever was going on, it was completely natural and normal--even if it was outside normal expectations.

  22. I'm not sure I believe in the supernatural - and that's from a woman who spent her day on Thurs at a class on learning to read Auras. And has written four stories about the magic in a rose bush that forces a person to time travel and invade another's body. I guess I really want to accept because a lot of it makes sense to me...but... just to shut off the scoffers, give me proof.

    Thanks for the great blog Mary Margaret.

  23. Years ago when my son was a baby he would look up and smile and wave as if he was interacting with someone in the air... except no one was there that I could see. I decided he must be smling at his angel. As he got older he stoppped doing it, and I'm sure there are other explanations, but I like the thought of angels only babies can see!

  24. Mimi,

    Looking for proof? If we're not talking the stuff of fantasy or horror, then I agree. Some proof would be nice. But what constitutes proof? exactly where the stalemate is.

    There is, in fact, abundant scientific data to support the hypothesis that instances of telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, etc, really do happen. Most people don't know about it because much of the proof rests on statistical analysis which makes it impenetrable to the lay person--not to mention stultifying to read.

    More recent studies of what's called "remote viewing" are much more accessible. (BTW, I made the hero of SEALed with a Promise able to do remote viewing.)

    To the professional skeptics, though, it doesn't matter what proof you show them. They always blame any evidence on misidentification or gullibility. When when all else fails, they will accuse the researcher of fakery.

    Why? Because they don't want it to be true--a position I have some sympathy for. After all, I don't want any proof that vampires exist! It would scare me to death, but even more important, it would severely violate my world view.

  25. Oh Amanda!

    I like that thought too.

  26. Great minds must think alike, MM! ;} We had similar posts this month.