Much as the paranormal is becoming an increasingly visible facet of Western culture, so too are a growing number of scholars coming to recognize this as an important topic of academic inquiry. As many organized religious traditions see their adherence levels dropping, beliefs in spectral hauntings, alien visitors, and cryptozoological marvels are keeping steady, if not growing. Whatever the impact of secularization, supernaturalism is not simply going away.
In The Paranormal and Popular Culture, Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead bring together twenty chapters on a broad and disparate array of subjects which, it is suggested, all pertain in some way to the paranormal. Caterine opens the volume with a discussion of this concept, linking it with Christopher Partridge’s notion of occulture in a way that suggests that the terms are at least to some extent synonymous. He decides against providing any singular definition of the paranormal for the purposes of this volume, and instead notes that “philosophical debates about the ontological status of the occulture [sic] are far from settled, and the authors in this collection have approached their topics with very different assumptions about the nature of the paranormal in mind” (8).
As is almost inevitable in an edited volume, the chapters vary in both quality and importance; some are sparsely referenced and make very little use of the preexisting scholarly literature. Others make clear contributions to the study of supernaturally-oriented or culturally alternative subcultures and beliefs – and will no doubt be cited accordingly in future. In this latter category can be found Joshua Paddison’s exploration of a religious or spiritual dimension to the Bigfoot community in the US, Leo Ruickbie’s findings from a sociological survey of ghost hunters in the UK, and Simon Young’s chapter on how British fairy beliefs came to incorporate the idea of fairies having wings, a notion that he ultimately traces back to the influence of the Swiss-German thinker Paracelsus.
More broadly, the thematic links holding the collection together are somewhat tenuous. Obviously, the editors have had to rely on what contributions their call for papers produced, but greater precision and selectivity would probably have benefited the collection. Jack Hunter’s argument that Batman can be seen as a shamanic character, for example, would be better placed in a volume on comics and religion. Similarly, Linda C. Ceriello and Greg Dember’s discussion of the 2012 horror film The Cabin in the Woods, which they argue is part of the metamodern trend that moves beyond postmodernism, might have been more at home in a collection on the sociology of cinema. In part, this rather extreme thematic eclecticism might stem from the editorial refusal to clearly demarcate what is meant by “the paranormal”, even as a stipulative definition. In turn, this has given license for contributors to use the term for anything vaguely supernatural, weird, or culturally alternative, whether in purely fictional form or as part of a sincerely-held belief.
This is not just a problem with this particular volume but is evident in much scholarly literature on the paranormal. Without greater theoretical and terminological precision, this academic sub-field risks becoming – or should I say remaining – an odds-and-ends bin where potentially almost anything goes. As an academic sub-field, it will not progress and mature until it seriously grapples with this issue of definition and territorial demarcation.
Another concern with the volume is that embodied by its subtitle: A Postmodern Religious Landscape. Although the theme of postmodernity appears in the introduction, it barely makes an appearance throughout the rest of the book. Indeed, the only chapter in the volume to seriously engage with these philosophical/sociological questions (Ceriello and Dember’s), rejects the explanatory framework of postmodernism in favor of metamodernism, at least for the particular case study it is exploring. This being the case, it would have been simpler to drop the subtitle altogether, which in its present form might mislead some potential readers as to the volume’s contents.
Although The Paranormal and Popular Culture does read like a broad mishmash of chapters with comparatively little holding them together, there are some really interesting contributions within it. For that reason, it is a book that every university library with a collection on religion, folklore, or popular culture should invest in. There may be comparatively few people who read the book from cover to cover, but there is quite a lot in here that scholars from an array of backgrounds will find both intriguing and useful. For this, and for raising the flag for the academic study of “the paranormal,” Caterine and Morehead deserve to be congratulated.