What makes paranormal paranormal?

November 22, 2007

By Laura 

The larger question “what makes Genre X Genre X?” is always hard to answer. Is it the external trappings (e.g. space and ray guns for sci-fi, wizards and elves for fantasy), or something more fundamental about the story?

Most people, publishers included, take an “I know it if I see it” approach to genre division. It works surprisingly well: even if it’s hard to define, we do have a strong shared understanding of what belongs in each genre. But the system breaks down in the face of works which could fall into multiple genres. For example, is Deanna Raybourn’s Silent in the Grave a historical? A paranormal? A mystery? A fantasy? A romance? Or some combination of all of these?

At first, paranormal seems easy to define. Paranormal books, TV, movies, etc. contain, of course, the paranormal. This generally takes the form of mental powers (psychics, telekinesis), supernatural creatures (vampires, werewolves) or the crossing of boundaries between the living and the dead (ghosts, mediums). The question remains: is it the list of possible elements which defines the genre, or some underlying theme—for example, the discovery that there is more mystery and danger in the world than most people understand or can explain? If it is a list of elements, how do we know what belongs on the list? If it’s an underlying definition, what is it?

The underlying theme idea is attractive. After all, stories in the same genre have more in common (in terms of narrative elements and readership) than you would expect if it was all about set decoration.

But it’s hard to track down a theme general enough to cover everything which we define as paranormal, while excluding things we don’t. Even the phrase “unexplained phenomena”, seemingly synonymous with “paranormal,” is too broad. Magic is unexplained; does that make Lord of the Rings paranormal? Currently it would be impossible to explain faster-than-light travel; does that mean the Millenium Falcon’s hyperdrive makes Star Wars a paranormal?

Sure, magic and sci-fi technology generally have well-defined rules in the stories in which they appear so that, while we could not explain them in our own world, they are not “unexplained phenomena” within the story. Yet, stories which most people would agree are paranormal often have rules just as well-defined. Vampires from Bram Stoker Buffy, Anne Rice to Caridad Pineiro have their own sets of rules for when they can come out, how they can be killed, and whether and how they can have sex and breed. Does the comprehensive internal logic of the world (often including an origin story for how vampires came to be, so that they are no longer unexplained!) make them less paranormal?

So what separates the sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal genres? One possibility is that, while sci-fi and fantasy transport the reader to a whole new world, paranormals generally take place in the world as we know it—with just a few changes. So, is They Live (a movie in which the world is mostly as we know it, but aliens walk among us) a paranormal? Is Harry Potter (where the world is mostly as we know it, but there’s a secret community of magic-users)?

Or perhaps you would categorize a magical story taking place in the present-day world as “urban fantasy”! Blogger Milady Insanity would–she explains the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal as “magic vs. ghosts”: urban fantasy has magic, whereas paranormal has “otherworldly” elements, e.g. vampires, spirits, etc. This looks like a straightforward “set dressing” explanation of the division between the genres. But, as she points out, there are other, more difficult-to-pin-down differences—the books simply read differently. So what accounts for this? Does the use of magic vs. ghosts as a narrative device lend itself naturally to different overarching themes in the story (for example, destiny vs. mortality)?

So what do you think—what defines paranormal vs. sci-fi vs. fantasy? If you like one genre but not the other, why do you think that is? Do you like traditional (non-paranormal) romance, and if not, what is it about the paranormal genre that makes it more interesting to you?



  1. […] in what I used to blog about any more, but it’s still really nice when an author you admire links back to you, even if it’s an old post. Mostly it’s just that I don’t have time to read, I […]

  2. My WIP features an exorcist, ghosts and certain creatures from myth. I have been calling it urban fantasy largely to differentiate it from the common assumption that “paranormal” automatically means either weres or vamps.

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