Enjoying the paranormal
Scholar Jayashree Kamble has some misgivings about the boundaries paranormal romance can break, but she also finds the subgenre fascinating. It’s a rich realm for exploring possibility, even more so than other romance subgenres.
How did paranormal become so popular?
I think part of the interest in the paranormal really comes from Joss Whedon. I think Buffy was the watershed moment, and especially I think for female audiences, the idea of the woman who’s sort of part of this very physically active world, right, and going back to that idea of the fainting white woman who really needs to be protected, is, I think, changed. And that was Whedon’s idea, so I think part of the pleasure comes from that.
Finally women sort of saw themselves in all these male narratives that had been around that we’d never had any place in. I was thinking recently of, like, Arwen in Tolkien, and she’s, you know, she’s nowhere, it’s all about Aragorn. And I think suddenly women had a place in that fantasy so that might be part of it, I think. Whedon really made it mainstream, he made it okay for the female protagonist, and sort of paranormal suddenly became something women could enjoy. They weren’t running away or running into the basement or whatever other trope existed.
There is a parallel idea, and I was just recently talking to a scholar who presented her work on paranormals, very recently, where she’s theorizing that it has to do with 9/11. And this worry that the world is sort of falling apart and you have to deal with it, and the paranormal allows you room to imagine all these shadowy enemies and so forth. And I’ve written a little bit about that in my dissertation in the chapter on war. I talked about Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series sort of coming at that moment, where we’re trying to figure out what the enemy is. Enemy with a capital ‘E.’ And sort of trying to examine, like, is it really something we can identify or is it somebody we could actually love and who could live with us in our own communities. Is it okay to demonize the “Other,” as had been the rhetoric in the popular media. So I think, the paranormal comes at this moment where there’s such powerful rhetoric right now in the United States and I think among its allies, too, about fighting these sort of mysterious enemies.
And that’s I think always been the case. I mean the Cold War, always fighting mysterious enemies, but I think the tide against that rhetoric is also very vocal, it’s very strong. Maybe because of social media or whatever, but you get a lot of opposition to this idea that we have “Enemy” capital “E” and we’ll just fight them. There’s lots of people who argue for, “Let’s understand what’s happening there. Let’s figure out what their problem is. Let’s figure out if we’re actually on the same page. Maybe we are.” So I think that might be part of the pleasure of the paranormal.
The other pleasure, I think, is just that it allows things that are otherwise kind of forbidden or not so acceptable to be part of this fantasy world, right? So it allows you to have the ass-kicking heroine, it allows you to have a lot, a lot of sex without really any physical damage. So I think there’s definitely that extreme element of fantasy. So what is a fantasy, anyway, in romance, in general, in the paranormal it just gets ratcheted up and allows a lot more things to happen. So I think it’s just that it allows more possibility.
And romance in general is about the pleasure of possibility, right? How many ways can we think about to fall in love and how many possible understandings are there of sex and desire? And the paranormal says, “Oh, what about this other understanding that, yeah, it may be physically not possible, but maybe.”