Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Primeval Paranormal

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word ‘paranormal’ as: (1) anything that is not scientifically explainable, (2) the supernatural. And supernatural loosely translated means, anything beyond the visible.

Through the ages, the paranormal has held the human race in a tight grip. We have carried these stories with us and passed them down from generation to generation. Many think that paranormal means ghost stories, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Paranormal covers everything from ghosts and demons to vampires, werewolves and even aliens. Paranormal stories have evolved from cave drawings and ancient hieroglyphics, to centuries old texts and writings, to the books and films of our day. But where did the paranormal genre originate from in the literary world? I hope to help provide you with some clues to answer that question.

Between 1300 & 1000 BC, in ancient Babylonia, a poetic story was written in the Akkadian language and placed on twelve tablets made of clay. The story itself comes from a poem from Mesopotamia known as The Epic of Gilgamesh. The story chronicles the life of the King of Uruk who lived somewhere between 2750 & 2500 BCE. In it, you will find history’s very first paranormal tale. Amazingly enough, some remains of those 12 tablets are still intact and can be found on display in the British Museum. With this small piece of knowledge I believe that it is safe to say, with a history that dates back thousands of years, that the paranormal genre has been around longer that any other.

It would be quite a few years before the next documented ‘ghost’ stories would rear their head in history. Some say that Homer’s Odyssey was next in line in the paranormal genre, as it dealt with some spirits; however I believe that Ovid, Petronius and Vergil penned classic ghost stories long before this. It is also widely known that, Gaius Caecilius Cilo or Pliny the Younger, wrote the very first paranormal story about a haunted house sometime before his death in 112 AD.

There were many beliefs from dozens of cultures throughout the world, all of which revolved around one central theme… the paranormal. These people wrote and handed down their ’ghost stories’, and though the stories of the paranormal have been around for thousands of years, the word ‘paranormal’ itself, was not coined until around 1915.

There are many famous authors who, though billed in different genres, have dipped their quills into the ink of the paranormal. Shakespeare, Poe, Stoker, Wells, Hitchcock, Elliot, King, Rice, Carpenter, Blatty and many others have left their indelible marks on the paranormal genre. Each author’s individual style helped to mold and shape the paranormal genre into what it is today.

Paranormal isn’t a genre that deals exclusively with ghosts and as such, many books that fall into the sci-fi, horror, thriller, romance & suspense genres, support a cast of characters that fall under the realm of the paranormal. Whether it was Homer or Virgil, Shakespeare or Poe, many authors made their contributions to the supernatural and left behind their legacy in the process. Even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though labeled as horror, contained a lead character that was and is the epitome of paranormal.

Starting in the early 1900‘s, the paranormal genre shot to the forefront of the literary field with the release of a non-fiction book that would set the stage for an entire generation of writers and researchers. The Book of the Damned was written by Charles Fort and published in 1919. Within its pages was research for every type of paranormal phenomena that was known to us as a society. The book changed the way many viewed the paranormal and made huge precedents in the field of paranormal research. Not only was The Book of the Damned a catalyst in the paranormal genre but from the work of this one man, sprang an entire organization of men and women dedicated to researching and uncovering the truths of the paranormal. That group came to be known as ‘The Fortean Society’ and is still going strong today.

Interest in EVP’s or, electronic voice phenomena, were sparked in the late 1920’s when, Thomas Edison suggested that it might be possible to communicate with the dead. Many EVP’s were recorded throughout the following years but the real work would begin in the 1970’s with Konstantin Raudive. From this research on paranormal activity, many writers and film makers found an easy avenue on which to prey on the fears of others. One film in particular, White Noise, featured Michael Keaton and dealt with the ‘darker’ side of EVP‘s.

In 1936, Harry Price brought us the phrase ‘ghost hunter’ with his novel Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. In his wake, a more famous hunter would emerge. Hans Holzer is a world renowned writer and researcher of the paranormal who’s most famous investigation is no doubt, The Amityville Horror in 1977. Today, modern ghost hunters suit up with infrared cameras, digital voice recorders and all manner of equipment and make their way into famous haunts around the globe in search of answers to the centuries old question… ‘Do ghosts really exist’? Millions of viewers tune in every week to watch the crews of shows such as Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International and Ghost Lab in their hunt for the truth and to hopefully get a glimpse into the paranormal world.

Magazines on the paranormal began to make their mark on the literary world in the 1940’s and covered a wide array of topics from UFO’s to ghosts and everything in between. In 1948 Fate Magazine, a monthly digest, was launched by Clark Publishing Company and by 1955, over 100,000 faithful readers subscribed to its pages. The Fortean Times, which was founded in 1973, was published in November of that same year and is still available today. It has flourished in the paranormal world and its’ spin offs include, reference & study materials, books and even CD’s. Paranormal Magazine was founded in 2005. Though it only lasted 26 weeks before being acquired by Jazz Fashion Publishing Limited, Paranormal Magazine is today, a thriving part of the literary community. Containing all the mainstays of the paranormal genre including, ghosts, poltergeists, UFO’s, aliens, psychic powers, vampires, werewolves, fairies, witchcraft, magic, unexplained phenomena, crypto zoology and forteana, Paranormal Magazine has something for everyone. Some contributor’s of the magazine include Richard Freeman, Brad Steiger, The Fortean Picture Library and even The Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena.

Other forms of paranormal made a huge impact on the genre and came in the form of the world’s obsession with aliens. One of the most famous believers in aliens was Zecharia Sitchin who is known for his ‘Ancient Astronaut Theory’ which basically states that all human life sprung from… you guessed it, Alien astronauts! Crazy? Maybe, but the beauty of it was that it opened the door for many other great writers and directors of the paranormal.

Anne Rice brought us her take on the genre with witches and her more famous vamps, while other writers and movie directors doused us with large helpings of paranormal in works such as Ridley Scott’s Alien & Aliens and John Carpenter’s The Thing. A whole slew of sub genres would rise up from the paranormal but none would see the following that the Paranormal Romance would receive. On books in this genre, many authors have signed their name. Lara Adrian, Rachel Caine, Karen Marie Moning, PC & Kristen Cast, Chris Evans, Laurell K Hamilton, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Ted Dekker and Richelle Mead are putting their personal spin on this classic genre.

Of all the books written in the paranormal genre, none would have the same worldwide impact as would a set of YA books published in 2005 by a virtual unknown. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series caused a huge upsurge in sales of the paranormal when she introduced her four book series that featured sparkling vampires and werewolves. The world has not been the same since. There isn’t a big store around or a major bookstore on the planet that doesn’t carry a book, poster or calendar with the ‘Twilight’ logo on it. Though many might argue with me, Stephanie Meyer pushed the paranormal into the limelight and there, it continues to thrive. The paranormal romance is, today, one of the top selling genres in the US and authors like Daphne du Maurier, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe and Bram Stoker are to blame. Their unique twists on the genre itself opened the gates wide for the paranormal writers of today.

Whether its television shows like True Blood, Being Human & Ghost Hunters or books and magazines, the paranormal genre is showing no signs of relaxing its grips on the human psyche. Even the very magazine that you hold in your hand, though its title says ‘Suspense’, has its fair share of dealings with things that go bump in the night. In thousands of bookstores across the US and in many countries around the world, you can pick up a copy of Suspense Magazine or others like it, flip through the pages and find something that deals with the paranormal genre.

From the primeval beginnings of the written word comes a genre that fascinates, enthralls, enlightens and sometimes even sends shivers down the spine. If we are the luckiest of beings, every generation after ours will continue to tell the tales that we have carried throughout the decades. Perhaps, one day, all the answers will be found. But my hope is that in order to continue sharing the wonderful stories that we so dearly love, the paranormal will remain forever… unexplained.

CK Webb for Suspense Magazine

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