Fascinating lists!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly (S - U)

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

Note: Unless otherwise noted, definitions are courtesy of dictionary.die.net, an Internet dictionary in the public domain.


St. Elmo’s Fire--A visible electric discharge on a pointed object, such as the mast of a ship or the wing of an airplane, during an electrical storm. Also called corposant (Answers.com).

Saladin balloon--a government balloon that “shot up” into the sky with a passenger, Walter Powell, on board, becoming lost in the vicinity of a UFO (The Charles Fort Files).

Satan--in Judeo-Christian religion, the chief spirit of evil and adversary of God; tempter of mankind; master of Hell.

Satanic ritual abuse--“alleged systematic abuse of children by Satanists” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Satanism--the worship of devils (especially Satan).

Satyr--one of a class of woodland deities; attendant on Bacchus; identified with Roman fauns.

Scapulimancy-- “a decision procedure used by the Naskapi Indians whereby the shoulder of a caribou is held over hot coals causing cracks in the bone which are then used to direct a hunting party” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Scientism--“the self-annihilating view that only scientific claims are meaningful, which is not a scientific claim and hence, if true, not meaningful. Thus, scientism is either false or meaningless” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Scientology--“the religion that was initially established as a secular philosophy in 1952 by science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard” (Wikipedia). Actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Karen Black and singer-actress Brandy Norwood are among its netter-known members, according to Famous Scientologists (Church of Scientology).

Scrying--“a type of divination” in which one seeks “to scry or descry is to spy out or discover by the eye objects at a distance”; crystal ball gazing is an example (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Sea serpents--monsters reported by sailors to inhabit the sea, some of which may have been kraken or other natural creatures that were unfamiliar to those who sighted them; Beowulf claims to have fought and killed many of them during a swimming contest against Breca (the author).

Séance--a meeting of spiritualists; "the séance was held in the medium's parlor."

Shamanism--any animistic religion similar to Asian shamanism especially as practiced by certain Native American tribes; an animistic religion of northern Asia having the belief that the mediation between the visible and the spirit worlds is effected by shamans.

Simulacra--A likeness; a semblance; a mock appearance; a sham.

Shelley, Mary--author of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley Sleep paralysis--“Sleep paralysis is a condition that occurs in the state just before dropping off to sleep (the hypnagogic state) or just before fully awakening from sleep (the hypnopompic state). The condition is characterized by being unable to move or speak. It is often associated with a feeling that there is some sort of presence, a feeling which often arouses fear but is also accompanied by an inability to cry out. The paralysis may last only a few seconds. The experience may involve visual, auditory, or tactile hallucinations.” (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Soul--the immaterial part of a person; the actuating cause of an individual life.

Sorcery--the belief in magical spells that harness occult forces or evil spirits to produce unnatural effects in the world.

Spontaneous human combustion--the reported bursting into flame, possibly from an internal, but unknown cause, so that the body or part thereof is consumed by intense heat that does not destroy nearby objects, such as the chair in which the person is seated or other objects in near proximity to the body (the author).

Spirit guide--the spirit of a dead person or a supernatural entity that mediums claim to channel, during séances, automatic writing sessions, or at other times, and who often reveals occult information to the medium and otherwise offers guidance concerning various topics, personal and otherwise (the author).

Spirit photograph--the alleged production of images on photographic media by paranormal means such as psychokinesis or of paranormal phenomena such as ghosts or astral bodies (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Subliminal--below the threshold of conscious perception. Superstition--an irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear.

Stigmata--marks resembling the wounds on the crucified body of Christ.


Stonehenge--an assemblage of upright stones with others placed horizontally on their tops, on Salisbury Plain, England,-- generally supposed to be the remains of an ancient Druidical temple.

Synchronicity--the relation that exists when things occur at the same time; "the drug produces an increased synchrony of the brain waves."

Synaesthesia--a sensation that normally occurs in one sense modality occurs when another modality is stimulated.


Talisman--a trinket or piece of jewelry thought to be a protection against evil.

Tantra--doctrine of enlightenment as the realization of the oneness of one's self and the visible world; combines elements of Hinduism and paganism including magical and mystical elements like mantras and mudras and erotic rites; especially influential in Tibet.

Tarot cards--cards used to tell fortunes (or, in Europe, more commonly, to play games); the deck consists of 22 cards of the major arcana (“secrets”) and 56 cards of the minor arcana. The major arcana includes such cards as the Fool, the Emperor, the Empress, the Hierophant, the World, the Star, the Sun, Death, and the Devil; their meanings can be reversed as well (the author).

Telekinesis--a the power to move something by thinking about it without the application of physical force.

Teleportation--the movement of material objects through space by the power of the mind alone (psychokinesis) or by other means.

Testimonial evidence--a type of anecdotal evidence based upon one’s own personal experience, such as is sometimes given by churchgoers concerning how God has affected their lives or changed them as people, although testimonial evidence may include any type of testimony, such as eye-witness courtroom testimony; such evidence is regarded as seriously flawed and unreliable by scientists (the author).

Theosophy--belief based on mystical insight into the nature of God and the soul.

Theurgy--magic performed with the help of beneficent spirits.

Third Eye--a metaphysical concept that symbolizes some people’s ability to experience paranormal or supernatural phenomena (visions, clairvoyance, poetic inspiration) that come from internal stimuli rather than external stimuli; also called the “inner eye” or the “mind’s-eye”; sometimes symbolizes intuition or the imagination (the author).

Tinnitus--a ringing or booming sensation in one or both ears; a symptom of an ear infection or Meniere's disease.

Twain, Mark--American author; wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and many other works combining humor and social satire; had a prophetic dream in which his brother, Henry, was killed (the author).

Trance--a psychological state induced by (or as if induced by) a magical incantation; a state of mind in which consciousness is fragile and voluntary action is poor or missing; a state resembling deep sleep.

Troll--in Scandinavian folklore, a supernatural creature (either a dwarf or a giant) that is supposed to live in caves or in the mountains.

Shroud of Turin

Turin, Shroud of--a burial cloth that is said to bear the likeness of the crucified Christ, perhaps as a result of radiation that was released by his body upon his death; carbon dating has cast doubt upon its authenticity as Christ’s burial shroud; see “holy relic” (the author).

Truman, President Harry S--U. S. president who supposedly signed a “Top Secret, Eyes Only” document recounting the discovery of extraterrestrial corpses at a UFO crash site near Roswell, NM, and establishing a secret committee for investigating these and other visitors from other planets; the committee was known as Majestic-12 and included well-known, well-respected government officials and scientists (the author).


Underworld--(in various religions) the world of the dead.

Unidentified flying objects (UFOs, flying saucers)--any object that moves under its own power and cannot be accounted for (by the observer) by reference to known phenomena; many such objects turn out to be natural objects (weather balloons, clouds, atmospheric effects, aircraft, planets, meteorites); some believe them to be extraterrestrial spacecraft visiting Earth (the author).

Urantia book--a book that alleges to have been written on the basis of information provided by “superhuman personalities,” although “Matthew Block. . . has identified hundreds of plagiarized passages” in the book (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

Urban legend-- “An apocryphal story involving incidents of the recent past, often including elements of humor and horror, that spreads quickly and is popularly believed to be true” (American Heritage Dictionary); see “testimonial evidence.”

Urine Therapy, the book

Urine therapy--the drinking of one’s or another’s urine (or its topical use) to maintain health and cure disease; supposedly, Mahatma Gandhi was a practitioner (the author).

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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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