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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly (V - Z)

copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman

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

Vampire--a corpse that rises at night to drink the blood of the living.

Vanishing--the sudden disappearance of an object that may or may not reappear or be seen again; many such vanishings are said to have occurred in the so-called Devil’s, or Bermuda, Triangle; see “Bermuda Triangle” and “Saladin balloon” (the author).

Veronica cloth

Veronica cloth, miraculous image of Christ on--veils or other cloths upon which the image of Christ’s face appears or is a part, as a result of a miracle; see “holy relic”) (the author).

Victor, wild boy of Aveyron-- “a boy who apparently lived his entire childhood alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Saint Sernin sur Rance, France (near Toulouse) in 1797” (Wikipedia); see “feral children.”

Virgin Mary--the mother of Jesus Christ; according to the gospels, she conceived as a virgin, impregnated by God, and bore and delivered his son, the founder of Christianity, in which religion he is considered “the only begotten son of God”; see “Fatima, Virgin Mary appears at” (the author).

Vitalism--a doctrine that life is a vital principle distinct from physics and chemistry.

Voodoo--a religious cult practiced chiefly in Caribbean countries (especially Haiti); involves witchcraft and animistic deities.


Wandering Jew (by Gustave Dore)

Wandering Jew--according to legend, a Jew who was cursed to wander the earth forever because he taunted Jesus on the way to his crucifixion (the author).

Warlock--a male witch or demon.

Wells, H. G.--science fiction author (see his story in the column to the right) (the author).

Werewolf--a monster able to change appearance from human to wolf.

Witch--a female sorcerer or magician.

Wizard--one who practices magic or sorcery.


Xenophobia--an irrational fear of strangers (the author).



Ying-yang--a Chinese symbol of opposites united or reconciled (the author).


Zen Buddhism-- “school of Mahayana Buddhism that asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition rather than through faith and devotion and that is practiced mainly in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. (Answers.com).


Zombie--a dead body that has been brought back to life by a supernatural force; a spirit or supernatural force that reanimates a dead body; god of voodoo cults of African origin worshipped especially in West Indies; someone who acts or responds in a mechanical or apathetic way.

Zombie, philosophical--a a human body without consciousness which would nevertheless behave like a human body with consciousness (The Skeptic’s Dictionary).

A Note on the Dictionary Entries

Many short stories, novels, epic poems, television series, and motion pictures that involve elements of Gothic romance or horror are based, in part or in full, upon the concepts, beliefs, theories, legends, or folklore mentioned in the definitions of the terms in this blog’s “Dictionary of the Paranormal, the Supernatural, and the Otherworldly.” Here is a sample:

Ad hoc analysis: many stories, in print and on film, make use of the ad hoc hypothesis as a means of explaining, explaining away, or diverting attention from the cause of the bizarre series of incidents that have been taking place of late.

Aliens populate many stories, including H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and countless movies, from Invaders from Mars to Alien and Independence Day.

Dracula nearly always wears an amulet.

The Argo and its crew, the Argonauts, appear in several movies of the 1950’s, including Jason and the Argonauts.

Stephen King alludes to auras throughout Insomnia.

Willow Rosenberg channels spirits in several Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, as do several of the series’ characters in “Conversations with Dead People.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind occur in the movie of that title and in many others in which human characters encounter extraterrestrial aliens.

Crop circles occur in Signs.

In Stephen King’s Children of the Corn and other films and stories, cults are central to the plot.

Curses are featured in many films, one of which is Curse of the Mummy.

Buffy Summers has a déjà vu experience in “Becoming, Part I.”

Demons appear in countless stories, in print and on film, including, perhaps mist notably, in William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist and the movie based upon it.

Dinosaurs still walk the earth (or part of it) in such films as The Lost World, King Kong, One Million Years B. C., and plenty of others, and they’re brought back in Jurassic Park.

Stephen King’s novel, Desperation, includes an encounter with the divine, as do many other horror stories, such as Bentley Little's novels, University and Revelation.

Prophetic dreams are plot elements in a number of horror stories, including Nightmare on Elm Street.

The protagonist of the film 1408, based upon Stephen King’s short story by the same title, has evidence of the haunting he experienced in the tape-recorded voice of his deceased daughter, an example of electronic voice phenomena.

Poltergeists appear in Poltergeist and many other movies and in some novels.

What would The Exorcist be without demonic possession and exorcism?

Feral children are the adversaries in Cat People and other films, and, one might argue, appear, in a sense, in H. G. Wells’ novel, The Island of Dr, Moreau.

The theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung inform virtually every horror story every written, but are especially discernable in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ghosts are plentiful in the fiction of horror, appearing in a myriad stories, not the least of which by any means is Henry James’ classic, The Turn of the Screw.

Hallucinations appear frequently as ad hoc hypotheses to account for the mysterious doings that characters perform and the bizarre beliefs they hold.

Without hell, Dante couldn’t have written The Inferno any more than John Milton could have penned Paradise Lost.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel is about a lamia.

Lycanthropy and full moons underlie every story ever written or filmed in which a werewolf appears, from The Wolfman and I Was a Teenage Werewolf to The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.

It’s largely thanks to lucid dreaming that Nancy is able to confront Freddie Kreuger in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Logical positivism, as a convenient ad hoc hypothesis, underlies the initial rejection of supernatural realities in movies such as The Exorcist and countless other movies that include demons, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night.

A fungus, delivered courtesy of a meteorite, is the death of the character in the “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verril” segment of Stephen King’s Creepshow.

Numerology is at the heart of the psychological thriller, The Number 23.

Ouija Board is about, well, a Ouija board. So is Ouija.

Psychics appear in Poltergeist, Rose Red, The Psychic, The Shining, and many other horror stories, in print and on film.

Repressed memories are vital to The Turn of the Screw and the movie, The Innocents, based upon the Henry James ghost story.

Urban Legends is based upon urban legends.

Mummies, trances, vampires, voodoo, witches, and zombies are in movie after movie and book upon book, including The Mummy, Trance, Dracula, Burn, Witch, Burn!, and Night of the Living Dead.


The following sources were used in compiling this dictionary:

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

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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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