The Ashgate Research Companion to

Paranormal Cultures

Edited by Olu Jenzen, University of Brighton, UK
and Sally R. Munt, University of Sussex, UK

Welcome to the Paranormal Cultures website, where we introduce our book, the Ashgate Research Companion to Paranormal Cultures. We also host a blog for you to post your comments about the paranormal or any thoughts you have about our book.

Our Secret in Plain Sight

The paranormal is something that cannot be explained in terms of the laws of nature and reason as we currently understand them. The term is sometimes substituted for ‘the occult’ from the Latin occultus: that which has a hidden, secret meaning. Why then study the paranormal, if it is fundamentally unknowable, and perpetually hidden? As Jeffrey J. Kripal has said: “The paranormal is our secret in plain sight. Weird.” (2010, 6)

This book offers a rich collection of essays from international scholars exploring why we might consider the paranormal, arguing for its relevance to studies of everyday life as it suffuses what passes for normal. As Avery Gordon has said, “to study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it”; so here we are looking for a “language for identifying hauntings and for writing with the ghosts any haunting inevitably throws up” (Gordon 2008, 7). Firstly, Gordon refers here to the paranormal working as a metaphor that infuses much human communication. Secondly, Gordon invokes paranormal phenomena, which circulate throughout and permeate human culture. Most people are comfortable with the former, but hold strong opinions about the latter. Framing the paranormal in our collection is intended to encourage the reader to approach the paranormal with curiosity, and with her senses attuned to the irrational, which - far from being residual in contemporary culture - is intrinsic to it. Interest in the paranormal, magic and the occult has peaked in cycles of resistance to orthodox belief since medieval times. Whereas in previous eras the attraction of the paranormal lay in its resistance to religious orthodoxies, nowadays the impetus is to resist the post-Enlightenment orthodoxy of scientific rationalism. Our aim is to read the paranormal culturally as a symptom of refusal that offers an alternative signifying practise. Open-minded curiosity is necessary, as we shall see. Previous academic publications have largely been restricted to the period of High Victorianism, and although some wonderful works exist, such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s definitive History of Spiritualism (1926) and more recently Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room (2004), there is little to offer the reader wishing to examine the paranormal as part of everyday contemporary life.

Early advocates of paranormality adopted a scientific model that connected spiritualism to narratives of enlightenment, and religious and social progress, giving it some degree of legitimacy. Nineteenth century Victorian empiricism and empire-building augured a “heroic age” of high occultism which culminated in the formation of the (still lively) Society for Psychical Research in 1882. Its first President was Henry Sidgwick, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge University, and SPR was mainly comprised of gentlemen scholars and prominent figures of Victorian society, “many of them with inherited wealth”. Constrained by Victorian values of scientific rationalism and considerable class habitus, the society was nevertheless committed to the fashion of social philanthropy and open discovery. It remains an influential organisation within paranormal studies and arguably one of its intellectual legacies is the field of parapsychology today.

Our book offers a collection of the most recent research in the field by established and new scholars which is groundbreaking in its focus on the contemporary rather than the historical. These essays represent our selection from the wide range of submissions we received following our call for papers for publication after the Paranormal Cultures conference held at Sussex University, at the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies, in Summer 2010. It’s critical approach is to study the social and cultural practises of the paranormal now, in its derided, hidden or parallel knowledges. This volume joins a small field of perhaps a dozen recent books representing a nascent scholarly interest in paranormal culture; some of those same authors such as Blanco, Clarke, Harvey, Hill, Partridge, and Peeren appear here, alongside newer voices in the field which, we hope, will crystallize into a spirited corpus.

Everyday strangeness, moments of the extraordinary and the unexplained, can be enormously mundane and inconsequential. A classification system, such as paranormality = trash, represents a cultural code of interpretation, or what Foucault (1972) called “a discursive formation”. This relies on the deep operation of social rules. So, if you believe you can communicate with the dead, and you are a member of the professional classes, best not to mention this skill in your annual appraisal. On the other hand, if you work as a psychic, this is probably quite a pertinent talent, and you would be advised to brag to your boss. I’m willing to bet though, that there aren’t many academics, who can count mediums or psychics amongst their closest friends. Writing a geneaology of occultism, as Christopher Partridge has done, reveals the struggle of such subjugated knowledges, so that brought forward are: The claims to attention of local, discontinuous, disqualified, illegitimate knowledges against the claims of a unitary body of theory which would filter, hierarchise and order them in the name of some true knowledge and some arbitrary idea of what constitutes a science and its objects. (Foucault 1980, 83)

Foucault argued in Power/Knowledge that everyday struggles over meaning and belief need scrutiny because they reveal the robust relationship between truth and power. Hence, “specific intellectuals” are needed, who focus their expertise on the local and specialized province of the everyday; these intellectuals are, in Gramsci’s terms, “organic”. Step up paranormal researchers, who are by no means restricted to the academy; they form a disparate and cacophonous folk culture for whom finding ‘evidence’ is a passion. In our book we include views that have no pretense to neutrality, our essays are not here to ‘objectively’ disprove the existence of supernatural phenomena, or dispute them. We argue though that disbelief in paranormality can be identified as a regime of truth, due to a universal western social contract that demands obedience to the valorisation of reason. We believe that paranormal phenomena are very real in the sense that people really and truly experience them, and hence in Cultural Studies we must analyse these experiences. We will explore what people are doing with the paranormal, in order to get a better grasp of what’s ‘out there’. We will focus on the socio-cultural implications of belief, its practises and engagements - vitalities that may also be sceptical, ironic, metaphorical and playful. This is why this Ashgate Research Companion focuses on paranormal cultures.

We welcome your comments on our blog, and we hope you enjoy your journey Warm wishes Olu Jenzen and Sally R Munt

"This is just a marvelous collection of essays (and essayists) …as interested in the popular as the elite, and, above all, sufficiently weird. What they show as a whole is that the paranormal is normal, or, better, that the normal is not what we thought it was. Exactly the kind of notes we should be striking in cutting edge scholarship."

Jeffrey J. Kripal, Rice University, USA and author of Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred


"This welcome collection and study of history definition… provides an intellectually stimulating look at ghosts, UFOs, spiritualism, and broader paranormal cultures without getting unnecessarily bogged down in abstruse theory."

Owen Davies, University of Hertfordshire, UK

book cover image
tape recorder in gallery
man in a box