Unicorns and sex? Out of this world

Peer-reviewed scholarship takes on demons and ghosts. Matthew Reisz prepares for an encounter

May 10, 2012

"The thorny penis of the devil, the bizarre anal insertions of Satanists and the mysterious probing of aliens," not to mention a King of Aragon who spent much of his time searching for unicorn horns, all come under scrutiny in a new academic journal.

Published by Pennsylvania State University Press, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural describes itself as "a rigorously peer-reviewed inter-disciplinary forum for original research that touches on the appearance of magic, prophecy, demonology, monstrophy, the occult and related topics that stand in the liminal space between the natural world and the preternatural".

But editor Kirsten Uszkalo, Circa scholar at the University of Alberta and e-lab scholar at Athabasca University, also in Canada, said the journal was not for "ghost hunters or magical practitioners".

Contributors will focus on the "cultural significance" rather than the "veracity" of their ghosts and goblins, she said, yet the journal will be committed to "studying things that keep being scary and troubling and anxiety-provoking".

"We always have the same worries about the preternatural. We are still buying crystals and going to pyramids. There's continuing interest in the power of magic objects. Similar monsters, gods and demons keep recurring - we have a resistance to letting them go."

Furthermore, suggested Dr Uszkalo, "some really exciting ideas don't form part of the mainstream conversation of particular disciplines".

Most historians of religion, for example, devote little attention to "Judaic vampires". Despite the risk of raised eyebrows, her new journal "wanted to give a wholehearted voice to these kinds of studies".

Dr Uszkalo is currently working on a book about witchcraft and prophecy in 17th-century England, and another that applies contemporary neuroscience to the study of early modern demoniacs.

Most of the contributors to the first volume of Preternature have also looked back to times when a man could accuse a witch of making him vomit up 34 rusty pins, when the body of a potential saint could be cut open to check if there was a crucifix embedded in her heart, and when a unicorn was far more than "a figure of saccharine sentimentality, outrageous camp or postmodern irony".

But Joseph Laycock, adjunct professor at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Virginia, has drawn on much more modern material in a paper on the "strong similarities between the confessions taken from accused witches in early modern Europe, the testimony of Satanic ritual abuse taken by modern therapists, and accounts of alien abduction given under hypnosis".

Across the centuries, he suggests, "sexual encounters, as a way of knowing, are regarded as somehow more authentic than mere sightings".

It seems you can never be absolutely sure you have met an alien until you have had sex with one.


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