Paranormal is a fiction genre. Authors and aficionados write and read about beings and phenomena outside the realm of normal scientific understanding of the natural world. It usually touches on supernaturalist elements, and always includes creatures that have been popularized by folklore, fairy tales, and popular culture, such as fairies, aliens, shapeshifters, and the undead. So, immediately we can assume its not about Elvis, Mother Teresa, former president Donald Trump or sitting president Joe Biden. Elvis was not an alien. Mothe Teresa was never a fairy, Trump isn’t undead even though he still claims he won. And of course, Joe Biden doesn’t shape shifts.
Writers and lesser folk everywhere rely on science to explain the world we live in. In the paranormal world, we are occasionally confronted with phenomena stemming from non-scientific bodies of knowledge, whose existence within is said to be beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding. Notable paranormal beliefs include QAnon, conspiracy theorists, spiritualism and the pseudoscience of ghost hunting, cryptozoology, and ufology.
First things first. Paranormal is different than Supernatural. Paranormal refers to the idea that there are certain phenomena that are outside the realm of scientific understanding but could potentially be explained by science one day. The Paranormal genre includes creatures like zombies, werewolves, aliens, and ghosts, as well as phenomena like telepathy and time travel. Supernatural refers to phenomena that are forever outside the realm of scientific explanation, such as god, the afterlife, and the soul. At the risk of blasphemy, paranormal genre fiction ignores god and the supernatural ignores zombies.
To be clear, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter are neither paranormal nor supernatural; they are pure fantasy. Their protagonists, antagonists, and central characters include supernatural characters with paranormal personalities. But they own the fantasy genre.
Here are three paranormal novels written decades apart. (1) “The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe” Edgar Allan Poe. 1989. Famous for his horror stories and brooding poetry, Poe is often considered to be the inventor of the modern detective story, as well. His classics include “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Raven” and lesser-known works such as “Loss of Breath” and “Spirits of the Dead.” (2) “Dragon Tears” Dean Koontz. 1993. Harry Lyon was a rational man, a cop who refused to let his job harden his soul. Then one fateful day, he was forced to shoot a man–and a homeless stranger with bloodshot eyes uttered the haunting words that challenged Harry Lyon’s sanity: “Ticktock, ticktock. You’ll be dead in sixteen hours…Dead by dawn…Dead by dawn…Dead by dawn…” (3) “Doctor Sleep” Stephen King. 2013. Stephen King returns to the character and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance and the very special twelve-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.
The common literary thread driving paranormal classics is horror on paper that gives the reader a taste without biting down. “Apocalypse horror films allow us to live out alternative realities — from zombie outbreaks to alien infestations. Some novel experiences can even contribute to our sense of accomplishment, like visiting a notorious haunted house. Being adventurous in this way makes us feel more worldly or daring (not to mention grants us bragging rights). Lastly, horror entrainment may help us (safely) satisfy our curiosity about the dark side of human psyche. . . As an inherently curious species, many of us are fascinated by what our own kind is capable of. Observing storylines in which actors must confront the worst parts of themselves serves as a pseudo character study of the darkest parts of the human condition.”
So, what ethical norms should paranormal authors abide by? Knowing that readers need a psychological protective frame is a good start. Readers should be able to derive pleasure from being horrified. There are three different categories of such frames. First, make sure your readers believe they are physically safe—that’s a safety frame. Second, make sure your readers can psychologically detach from a horror experience. When they read about a psychotic murderer chasing down a bloodied victim in a book, they can activate psychological detachment by reminding themselves that the psychotic murderer is just a character in a book. Second, write in confidence controllers and let your readers manage the danger in the book. They need to read for pleasure and feel confident about overcoming the danger, even if the zombie outruns the character.
There is a scientific nexus between reading paranormal books and morality. “Moral attitudes do not relate to paranormal beliefs. Paranormal beliefs relate inversely to impulse control and organization, whereas small positive correlations occurred between traditional religious beliefs, impulse control, and empathy. Moral attitudes, on the other hand, showed consistent positive correlations with all executive functions measured, independent of demographic influences. The nexus is connecting morality, religion, and paranormal beliefs.” Ethical norms do not include caution. Nonetheless, writers should be cautious about their paranormal stories meshing with and potentially rebelling against their moral beliefs or standards
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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