10 March 2012


Lawrence R. Samuel. Supernatural America: A Cultural History. Praeger, 2011.

In this lively book. Samuel, the founder of a “consultancy to Fortune 500 companies”. traces how the paranormal has been reflected in the pages of the press and other media since the beginning of the twentieth century. We can see from this how media which once reported the work of respected workers in the field such as J. B. Rhine have gone considerably downmarket in recent years.
Samuel takes a fairly neutral line between the sceptics and the believers, one suspects that his head is with the former and his heart with the latter.

As a conclusion he argues that belief in the supernatural is likely hard-wired into the brain, its how humans are, a by-product of our pattern making abilities. He suggests that parapsychologists (and by implication other anomalists) are making a mistake by trying to treat the subject through the mechanisms of science, and trying to ‘prove’ that ESP are whatever exists, rather, ‘the supernatural’ exists as a kind of a shadow of science, a sort of raw protean proto religious experience.

While Samuel is to be congratulated for mining a previously unexamined mine of material, the newspapers and periodicals (I assume) indexed on online data bases, this is one of the causes of the problems which afflict this book.

The trouble is that it is not, despite the title, a cultural history of  'the supernatural' in America. How could one write that without reference at all to the 19th century, the rise of Spiritualism (not Spiritism as Samuel keeps calling it, that was something else altogether, a French spiritualist religion now mainly centred on Brazil), the growth of New Thought, the impact of Theosophy, the role of the folklore of the many different communities that make up the US population.

Even in the narrower confines of ‘supernatural’ in 20th century popular culture there are major gaps. There is no mention of Fate magazine, the main conduit of paranormal experiences and beliefs to the mass market for years, the role of supermarket magazines like Saga, and ‘newspapers’ like The National Enquirer in the popularisation of the paranormal. There is little or no coverage of popular topics such as near death experiences, hypnotic age regressions, the popular cult of angels etc., the popularity of figures such as Carlos Castaneda, books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, neo-Paganism, Wicca and women’s spirituality and so on. There is very little coverage of ufology

There are also a number of grammatical errors ('suspect' for 'suspicious' for example) and howlers - Queen Elizabeth I confused with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, as being born at Glamis.

Of course, it might be argued with considerable justification that a genuinely comprehensive history of the paranormal in America would take many large tomes, so perhaps we should be content that this is an interesting account of changing attitudes as reflected, mainly, in a sample of the high brow and middle brow press. -- Peter Rogerson

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