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Glossary of the Supernatural

Updated on October 5, 2014


This is the time of year when there is much talk over ghosts, spirits and the supernatural. In my research, I often find that people tend to use words like “ghost”, “spirit” and “soul”, interchangeably, to name just a few. For this reason I have compiled this “glossary of the supernatural” to try to clarify what is a very confusing area. I have included all colloquial terms for ghosts, and tried to define the differences between very real and frightening conditions, for example, “attachment” and “possession”. I have also described a few superstitions that may or may not have relevance to the “real” world. I welcome input from readers on this.

Attachment and Posession

Attachment: in literature, writers often describe a character as “haunted”, usually meaning that he or she has experienced an unhappy love affair or has had another kind of traumatic past. However, there are supernatural entities that attach themselves to humans. People who believe in angels experience these entities as benevolent, a number are harmless but other entities, like demons, are very dangerous. The attached subject experiences a constant feeling of unease, whether alone or with others. He or she is often disturbed when alone, distracted at work and experiences troubling dreams. These symptoms, of course, can be a sign of “normal” psychological distress. The difference is that the attached subject has often been in a place known to be haunted, or has even taken part in a ritual known as a séance (see below). The attachment usually weakens over time, but a number of instances persist. In this case, the attached subject stands in real danger of possession and should seek professional help.

Possession is the most terrifying of all phenomena. Unlike the attached person, the possessed subject has no awareness that anything extraordinary is happening. He or she looks and behaves normally much of the time. However, witnesses often see the person behaving irrationally, even recklessly, and talking in a language that he or she can have no knowledge of. These symptoms can be confused with psychotic behaviour, but the difference is that the possessed person usually has a definite agenda, a desire to harm a particular person or persons, often a cleric or member of the church. Also, the possessed person may recently have become involved in occult activity. Anyone suspecting a friend or relative of being possessed should seek professional guidance, without delay.

The demon is a very dangerous entity. Demons are not the souls of dead people but independent entities that can take human form and mimic human activity. They can attach themselves to places, people and inanimate objects, and also have the power to possess. (See Attachment and Possession for the distinction). Anyone who fears that he or she has been “attached” by an entity should seek help without delay.

The exorcist is a highly trained and experienced professional, with the ability to rid a place or person of dangerous entities. The exorcist will have worked much with other professionals before ever attempting an expulsion rite, and is usually connected to a church. Exorcists should not be confused with spiritual healers or cleansers.



The banshee, a word that actually means “fairy woman”, features much in the mythology of Ireland and Scotland. The banshee is a harbinger or messenger who attaches herself to a particular and (usually) important family, wailing around the ancestral seat on the night that a significant member of the family dies. Sightings of the banshee have given rise to descriptions of an old woman, often with long grey hair. Other cultures have their banshee equivalents and there are no reports of a banshee causing harm.

The fetch is the eerie phenomenon whereby a twin or doppelganger of a living person appears in a place other than the living subject is known to be. The most notable case was that of Emilie Sagee, a French schoolteacher whose students witnessed her outside the classroom window and standing by the blackboard, at the same time. Later, the students recalled how the fetch, which was in the classroom, looked shadowy and insubstantial in comparison to the real Emilie Sagee outside of the building. Sagee was eventually dismissed from her job, giving rise to speculation that the appearance of the fetch was a story fabricated by students who wanted to be rid of her. All the same, the phenomenon does raise questions about the nature of body, soul and spirit.

A ghost, as opposed to a spirit or soul, is a remnant of a happening in a place or to a person. A ghost usually expresses itself as a random sound, a smell or a sighting, often with feelings of melancholy or fear, relevant to the person or event. One example is the archetypal “grey lady” or “headless horseman”. A ghost can last for centuries and then just fade away. They can incite fear but are always harmless.

The incubus could be called the “nightmare” ghost. There are numerous reports of people waking up with a feeling of suffocation, as if something or someone is seated on their chests. In a number of instances, the subject has reported seeing an entity leaning over them, a phenomenon that inspired Henri Fuseli’s great painting, The Nightmare. One possible explanation for the incubus phenomenon is that a sudden or incomplete awakening gives rise to a lack of coordination between brain and motor function, thus the feeling of suffocation, a situation that takes a few minutes to right itself. It is in this interval that the mind of the subject “invents” a sighting of the incubus to explain what is happening. The incubus is the male entity that visits the sleeping female.

The succubus is the female counterpart of the male incubus.

A revenant is a reanimated corpse, usually a person returning to finish an unfulfilled purpose. This sounds frightening, but there are no recorded instances of a revenant causing harm to an innocent person.

Active hauntings

There have been numerous recorded instances of the poltergeist or “playful ghost”, even film footage of the entity at work. Generally, the phenomenon is harmless and temporary. The usual symptom of a poltergeist is the appearance of objects in a room or house moving as if by themselves, water spilling and small fires breaking out. In many instances, the poltergeist seems attached to a prepubescent person in the house, a situation that has led to much scepticism about pranksters and over whether the poltergeist exists, at all. The poltergeist is not necessarily the spirit of a dead person, rather a kind of misplaced energy. However, many poltergeists seem to develop personalities and attempt to communicate with the “host” family. Most poltergeists are temporary, and activity calms down in a matter of months or even weeks. A small number of people have learned to live with a poltergeist. The problem is that, in the initial stages of activity, there is seemingly no difference between the behaviour of a poltergeist and that of a very dangerous entity, the demon.

Portals: these are areas inside or outside a building where the human and spirit worlds converge. In houses built upon portals, occupants often hear unexplained voices and see apparitions, the majority of which are harmless. A number of people live contentedly on active portals. Anyone in doubt of the nature of “their” spirits should consult a psychic professional.

Where we fit in

A psychic is a person with extrasensory powers, often with the capability of acting as a channel of communication between the living and the dead. The problem is that there is much deception in this field, and a genuine psychic can only qualify him or herself over a deal of time, possibly years of practice. The majority of psychics do not have powers of expulsion.

Séance: to anyone contemplating taking part in a séance, I say a simple “don’t”, unless you are a professional spiritualist engaged in a cleansing rite. A séance is not a parlour game for subjects in search of novelty, but a process that can raise psychic activity, putting participants at risk of attachment or even possession. You wouldn’t hire untrained personnel to deal with elementals like fire, water or electricity, would you? Again, I say: don’t.

Soul: There has been much theological and philosophical debate over the nature of the soul. The word soul is often used poetically to describe our intangible and indefinable “higher” selves that create and appreciate the arts and scientific theories. The majority of world religions maintain a belief in an immortal component that moves on to an afterlife following physical death. It is my fervent belief that the living should never disturb untroubled souls.

Spirit: as with the soul, psychologists have argued for centuries over the nature of the spirit. The consensus is that the spirit is the animating force in the body, yet remains distinct from it. Body and spirit feed one another; a healthy body gives rise to good spirits, while low spirits can send a healthy anatomy to despondency.

The spiritual investigator is an individual, often working with other investigators, with experience in detecting spiritual activity, more and more often with the help of technology. (See my feature, Dark Matters: The Wondeful TAPS). The investigator can detect activity; changes in electromagnetism, EVP or voice recordings and film footage of poltergeist activity. Most often, the spiritual investigator is not psychic nor has powers of expulsion. However, a professional investigator will know when to direct troubled clients to such people.

Spiritual cleanser: this is an individual who has an understanding of how human nature is affected by earlier trauma in an environment. The cleanser possesses the ability to clear the trauma, thus bringing peace to the occupants. To prepare for a cleansing rite, the occupants should empty the house of clutter, and tidy away and cover all foods. When the moon is new or full, open all doors and windows, fill a room with lighted candles where occupants can spend time meditating over what they desire, peaceful surroundings or better relations. The healer then places a line of salt across the entrance to each outside door and leaves them for 24 hours. The occupants walk around the house, clapping, drumming or ringing bells. The healer then lights a crucible of incense or other aromatic herb, like white sage, and goes around the house, wafting the smoke into corners. The occupants follow, calling for love and peace to replace any previous discord.

Spiritual healer: this is a highly interpersonal role, often assumed by an individual with training in psychology. The spiritual healer is not usually a psychic or possesses powers of expulsion. His or her job is to bring peace to a troubled person. This can mean anything, from talking with and counselling the subject, to conducting processes like hypnosis or regression. The person in search of a healer should look for a combination of testimony and qualifications.


The Awakened Mind by C Maxwell Cade and Nona Coxhead, Element Books, 1979

The Dream Whisperer by Davina MacKail, Hay House, 2010


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      4 years ago

      Interesting article. I really like how you explained everything. I find the paranormal fascinating and love reading about it.


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