by Paolo Javier and Thomas Fink
Paolo Javier: Would you define “supernatural studies” vis-à-vis “occult knowledge” and religious phenomena?
Leah Richards: That’s certainly an element of the definition that the journal’s name and scope are based on, but the journal is dedicated to representation rather than experiences; that is, we’re not alchemists or ghost hunters, but we publish work that examines how those fields are represented in film, television, literature, graphic novels and comic books, video games, and other media as well as how supernatural manifestations operate as discrete entities in such media and how audiences respond to these representations.
We’ve also, for our purposes, expanded the supernatural, that is, phenomena attributed to forces beyond existing scientific knowledge, to include the uncanny and the weird (maybe not outside the laws of nature but definitely a bit off) as well as near-future speculative, since technological advances are regularly turning what seems like magic into the everyday and will continue to do so.
When John and I took over the editorship of the journal, the name was already in place, but “Weird, Unsettling, and Kinda Spooky Studies” might not have worked anyhow.
John Ziegler: So in terms of occult knowledge and religious phenomena, our contributors would not evaluate the truth claims themselves of occultism or religion but would rather examine how those claims are constructed, represented, or disseminated, and/or how such representation can be contextualized socially, historically, culturally, and so on. This would hold true for analyses of fictional texts just as it would for analyses of avowedly non-fictional texts or cultural practices.
Javier: Where does this interest in the supernatural find its source/s in your own lives? Through literature or pop culture? Personal experience?
Richards: The supernatural (and seemingly supernatural) is something that I’ve always been interested in. I don’t know that I ever believed in supernatural causes for inexplicable phenomena (blame Scooby Doo for that–I grew up in the 1970s), but I believed in limitless storytelling. [I will say that I had wallpaper in my bedroom–we lived in an old house in northern Michigan–that had what looked like bulbous mad scientist faces in the tapestry print, and that talked to me once. I never felt a piece of literature encountered as an adult the way that I felt Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”!]
I was a curious, age-inappropriate reader from a pretty young age, and I liked mysteries, not for the solutions as much as for the characters’ responses to unfathomable events, as well as ghost stories and monster movies and tv. I liked the darker versions of fairy tales as well as Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology–my parents didn’t see why they should be bored in entertaining me–and I knew that the universe was full of people and things that I wouldn’t understand. I remember watching an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos that explained relativity, and my mind was blown even as I rolled with the idea of time not working as I expected it to. I liked things that scared people, and I liked the way that people processed that fear, whether through acceptance of a supernatural origin or through sometimes-convoluted rationalization.
As a disaffected teenager, I continued to embrace the unknowable, desperately trying to believe in Anne Rice’s vampires while rejecting the Catholic faith that I was somewhat casually raised in. Once I started college, I went through what I now consider my conservative phase, where I put such pleasures as horror and mysteries behind me for awhile and only read or watched (or admitted to reading and watching) “serious” narratives, but that was fortunately short-lived. When I was a rabid X-phile (fan of The X-Files), I read my first 18th century gothic novel in a class and realized that I could maybe make a career out of the things that I had always loved, although I was still snootily dismissive of popular culture studies until graduate school. I’ve succeeded, to some extent–in addition to editing Supernatural Studies, I’m a vampire and horror scholar, with a dissertation on the Victorian Gothic novel that upwards of seven people have read and publications on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Dracula, and George Romero’s zombies–and my work primarily looks at popular culture narratives in terms of how the supernatural, in the expanded sense that we apply it to the journal, reflects the anxieties of its age and examines seemingly complex concepts in enjoyable, accessible ways. I still don’t believe in the supernatural–to quote a terrified fledgeling vampire in Christopher Moore’s You Suck: A Love Story, “it’s science we don’t know yet”–but representations of the inexplicable–horror movies and tv shows, ghost stories, horror podcasts, unexplained mystery listicles and documentaries, goth music, and Halloween and all of its trappings–are my primary source of entertainment as well as research.
Ziegler: For me, the interest has come primarily through literature and pop culture, though I have had a couple close friends who have claimed to see or interact with spirits of one kind or another. Once I was old enough to be past the Golden Books stage, some of the first books I remember checking out of the library over and over again are Jim Flora’s Grandpa’s Ghost Stories and The Great Green Turkey Creek Monster and, later, Jack Prelutsky’s Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep and The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight: More Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. I think that the illustrations were a big part of what kept me coming back, as well as what has stuck with me about those early literary encounters with the supernatural. As I got a bit older, I graduated to books like Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown series and non-fiction books on hauntings, poltergeists, the Loch Ness Monster, and so on, as well as everything that Stephen King had written at the time–he was perhaps surprisingly popular with my friends’ mothers, which made it easy to binge on his work. These interests dovetailed well with an eventual dive into metal music of all genres and, ultimately, horror movies. It was not until I had finished my PhD, though, that the supernatural really became part of my professional life, thanks to a few academic opportunities that happened to present themselves at the right time.
Javier: Is there a particular inquiry into the presence of the supernatural and/or occult phenomena in the realm of listserves and internet memes, especially in the unreal age of trump—a presidency many of his darker followers online attribute to meme magic, among other esoteric procedures?
Ziegler: Certainly, fairly substantial academic work has been done on internet memes both in relation to religion and to internet phenomena such as Slender Man. There is currently less work on Trump and meme magic, probably because it is a more recent phenomenon, and it takes a little while for scholarship to catch up, but there is some, and I expect that amount to increase. A lot of continuity exists in that kind of inquiry with inquiries into the dynamics of online subcultures, including fandoms and conspiracy theorists, and it seems to me that there is one clear antecedent for this sort of thing in the chain emails of the 1990s, which promised magical results from a few simple clicks–or magical punishments if one fails to take part. One way to see these sort of procedures, which obviously existed prior to AOL dial-up, are as a means of imposing order or creating a sense of power and control over systems that might otherwise seem indifferent if not hostile to the individual. There have been some media stories recently about some supporters of Marianne Williams forming an “occult task force” and other spreading “orb”-related memes, so this topic is not going away anytime soon.
Richards: I was visiting my parents last week and during a discussion of what precisely my scholarly work is, my mom asked where I thought the next monsters in popular culture would come from. Inevitably, this turned into a discussion of the worldwide trash fire that we’re currently living in, but I’m wishing now that I’d seen this question before that discussion. We still would have ended up talking about the trash fire–thank goodness we had plenty of bourbon–but I’d have said more about the internet!
I think web-based supernatural or unnatural phenomena, whether in situ or as represented in popular culture, is a growing field, given the anonymity of the internet and how origins can be obfuscated (from relatively benign creepypastas to Russian troll memes that influence how people perceive the truth) and the way that things can go viral, sometimes repeatedly. Too, the world is exponentially smaller than it was before the internet: we hear of things that, in the past, would have remained local concerns.
The supernatural doesn’t have to be scary, but in the current climate (literally and figuratively), the real world is fucking terrifying, and sometimes it’s easier to look beyond our understanding for the reasons that things happen. We grant supernatural agency to the internet and the beasts that it unleashes, and we see this in the news (“How did this idiot get elected?” “Where is all of this white supremacy coming from?”) and in popular culture (Slender Man, Momo, Unfriended, to give a few examples).
Thomas Fink: Since you began to stand at the editorial helm of the journal, Supernatural Studies, what thematic, ideological, aesthetic, and methodological emphases have you focused on soliciting and eliciting from potential contributors?
Richards: For one, we’ve tried to expand the ways that people think about the supernatural, as I mentioned previously: in addition to phenomena that seem to fall outside the realm of the laws of nature, we solicit articles that consider representations of the weird or uncanny and near-future technology. Although I love horror, I want to keep the journal balanced: obviously, horror and maybe the gothic are where most people’s minds go first when they think about the supernatural, but we’ve published articles, for example, on folklore and pastoral artwork. We’ve also published a few pretty hardcore theory articles. We’ve done some themed issues, on Twin Peaks and Black Mirror, for example, which I think emphasizes our interest in all types of supernatural representation.
Talking with a fellow editor of a small journal devoted to the spooky at a conference recently, I learned that they’ve been subjected to some kind of white supremacist submissions (just as medievalism has been coopted by the alt-reich, apparently gothic studies is vulnerable as well). We’ve not had any troubling ideologies from our own contributors, thankfully. The only ideological throughline is that all contributors must agree with our open-access policy: access to knowledge should not be restricted, so all articles and reviews are available for free on our website.
Ziegler: While I am personally most drawn to cultural materialist, feminist, and queer theory approaches, I see thematic, theoretical, and methodological diversity as a goal that we will continue to pursue. Although we have published, for instance, some work on folklore and pedagogy, unsurprisingly, the majority of our submissions come from literary and film scholars. Of course, these fields on their own offer endless topics of study that can fall under the “supernatural” umbrella. We would be equally happy, though, to publish work by, say, historians or people working in the social sciences. We have also published a couple of non-traditional academic pieces, almost approaching creative non-fiction, and those have felt very fresh to me. There is more than one way to “do” scholarship, more than one way to contribute to these conversations, and I think it is both useful and enjoyable to make space for those variations. I have a similar attitude towards the topics of submissions: Shakespeare, Milton, Poe, Stoker are great, but an article on “Sasquatch drag” is going to really catch my attention, and I think it is that wide-ranging juxtaposition that can be really exciting.
Fink: Most readers of Dichtung Yammer share an interest in poetry, a genre that doesn’t seem to receive attention from most of your contributors, at least not recently. Perhaps W.B. Yeats and James Merrill have already received enough attention for their forays into realms beyond “ordinary reality,” but what are your thoughts about the poetry of the supernatural as well as future areas of research about it?
Ziegler: The relative lack of attention to poetry so far is a great observation. Even if we discount theologically-oriented poetry, like Paradise Lost–and we have considered one or two submissions on Milton’s poetry–there is plenty of relevant material just looking at, say, the Romantics. It may be that articles on canonical poets such as Coleridge or Poe gets sent to more traditional literary journals, whether their analyses deal with the supernatural or not. I wonder if that is then compounded by contemporary poetry as a whole not having as wide public exposure as some other genres, being still seen by many as a very “high culture” form, and so just not coming to as many scholars’ notice. Novels, TV, films, video games all seem to me–and I may be wrong and just out of the right loops here–to get the kind of widespread discussion that continuously generates these sort of public canons in a way that poetry doesn’t. My most recent poetry purchase was Iain Haley Pollock’s Ghost, Like a Place (not, despite the title, concerned with the supernatural), which I think is excellent, but I would not have been aware of Pollock if he hadn’t given a reading where I work. It come to mind also that we just reviewed a play that used zombies to explore sexual harassment in the workplace, but even I raised a skeptical eyebrow when a book I read recently was talking about The Waste Land‘s planted corpses and Londoners undone by death in terms of zombies. The first conference that we arranged did have a presenter who wrote supernatural poetry constructed around the Black Dahlia [Sarah Nichols, Dreamland for Keeps], and this year, for our third conference, we plan to explicitly encourage submissions for creative panels, so hopefully we and our attendees will be exposed to more work like this. It’s out there, and I’d love to publish more research on it.
Richards: I think that supernaturally-inflected poetry gets treated first as poetry and only tangentially as a consideration of the supernatural. There are so many journals dedicated to the poetry of a particular period, or even to a single author, that maybe we slip under poetry scholars’ radars. I’d love to see more of it, for sure.
This isn’t to say that there is not a rich tradition of supernatural poetry, obviously, outside the theological. I briefly dabbled with the idea of being a Romanticist early in my academic career, and Coleridge and Keats are still two of my favorites. I did my master’s degree in Irish Studies, and there is a LOT of folklore-inflected work by Irish- and English-language poets, as well as Yeats’ various forays into the supernatural and spiritualism. I’ve taught Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” and Ted Hughes’ “The Black Coat” together, in classes loosely themed around the gothic, and am fascinated by the idea of Plath’s demons joining her ghost in haunting Hughes. It would make a great art-horror movie (note to self: become best friends with Ari Aster [Hereditary, Midsommar] and make this happen), but my sense–as a fan of poetry but by no means a scholar–is that much of the work that considers the potentially supernatural poetry of the last 75 years looks at it in realistic terms: not “there’s a haunting” but “this poet feels haunted.” I’d love to be proven wrong, so any poetry scholars out there, keep us in mind!
I do know a few poets, though, who write on supernatural themes. Ryan J. Torres writes horror poetry (Blessed Are the Snakes; Poem, and Other Four-Letter Words) and fiction (A Rustle in the Attic); he’s a regular at our annual conference and has talked about his process and influences. The Lao-American poet Bryan Thao Worra (On The Other Side Of The Eye and DEMONSTRA, to name just a few) does brilliant work on the Southeast Asian diaspora that engages with Lao myth as well as broader otherworldly themes, and is also the president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. When a conversation popped up relatively recently on social media around a young scholar working on Thao Worra’s work, I asked them to consider Supernatural Studies as a venue, so I’m still hoping we see something.
Fink: I’d like to conclude by thinking aloud about an actual article—one of the “hardcore theory” pieces—that you published (in Volume 5, Issue 1), and asking about your take on its implications. In “Spectra of Transcommunication: A Survival Study after Raudive and Derrida,” Luka Bekavac declares that “theory will be unable to grasp the supernatural until it breaches the divide between rigid binary oppositions” (11). What breaches the divide, for him, is “spectrality,” which “is an intrinsically photographic trait,” since “every photograph is a type of ghost photography, not because it captures ghosts, but because it produces them” (26). Since, for Derrida, through his theory of “hauntology” and his use of Abraham and Torok’s psychoanalytic writing on the work of mourning, and Barthes, “the repetition of a proper name in the absence of its bearer reduces it… to a metaphorical tombstone that pronounces one’s transience instead of celebrating one’s singularity” (27), Bekavac argues that Raudive and his followers, who were the most technologically advanced proponents of the allegedly possibility of “instrumental transcommunication” (ITC), “might have been right, but not in the way that they expected. The fact that no sign can testify to anyone’s existence, that there are only messages from the dead, doesn’t mean that one can reach out to the departed and bring them back to life” (28). Thus, the attempt to immortalize “objects only [makes] them already dead, therefore immune to dying.” Bekavac concludes that “the privileged area of research in hauntological research would have to be a certain post-essentialist textology, making deconstruction the ultimate and possibly final ‘science of ghosts.’” This is beautifully argued, with a great deal of rhetorical panache. However, if Bekavac insists in advance or at least strongly implies that the quest for transcommunication is always already grounded in desires that promote illusion and thwart the work of mourning and that no experiment can be devised in good faith to subject the possibility of transcommunication “in the way [Raudive and co.] expected” to testability, then it not only rules out the validity of anything that Leah calls “spooky,” not just ghosts who break on through to the other side, but shuts down inquiry into what may be a diversity of psychological, aesthetic, and (perhaps most importantly) political motivations for the construction and distribution of signs of life/death/ and yes, “spectrality.” I am not saying that articles that try to “shut things down” should always be proscribed, but could a distinction be drawn between theoretical perspectives that prove to be generative of the healthful expansion of interpretive possibilities in the field of supernatural studies and those that do not?
Ziegler: I think that such a distinction could be drawn, but it would be a porous boundary. My perspective is that even theoretical positions that argue for the foreclosure of other interpretive possibilities can in that very attempt at foreclosure be themselves generative. An example that comes to mind is a panel some years back at the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America at which one panelist flatly argued that anyone who wasn’t doing archive work wasn’t doing “real” work in theater history. This perspective, which I disagree with, received, as one might expect, a good deal of pushback and produced some very spirited conversation. This sort of pushback can then be generative, and my hope is that an article like Bekavac’s, rather than acting as some kind of last word, provokes response in a way that positions it as one voice in a polyvocal critical conversation. We can think of a text such as Edward Said’s Orientalism, which at its core offers a supposedly definitive explanation for a wide swath of culture and history: while it remains an extremely important text, its theoretical perspective has been challenged, extended, and modified by a number of scholars over the years since its publication.
Richards: I think that, by virtue of being written for publication in an academic forum, even an argument that rules out other modes of inquiry or motivations–and I am not convinced that Bekavac’s article does so–is entering into a critical conversation.