Writers of Gothic tales and writers about them use many of the same terms, but they often assign different meanings and values to them. Or they may assign the same Gothic-ficiton-writers to different categories, e.g., the weird tale or the occult tale or the tale of terror . For instance, Glen St. John Barclay identifies Le Fanu, Stoker, and Lovecraft as masters of "occult fiction"; for Edward Wagenknect, LeFanu, Machen, and Blackwood are masters of "supernatural fiction"; and S.L. Vernado discusses Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft was writers of the "numinous tale."

For these reasons, it is important to be aware of the meanings a word may have in general and to determine the specific way a writer is using it, as well as know exactly what you mean when you use the word. I have grouped words which have similar, overlapping, or associated meanings together, to highlight their similarities, differences, and connections.


Mysterium Tremendum, Numinous, Occult, Paranormal, Preternatural, and Supernatural

"mysterium tremendum":

      The numinous is the divine and the spiritual, or it may be the revelation or suggestion that a god is present; always, it inspires awe and reverence. This meaning was in use by 1647. The adjective derives from the noun numen, meaning deity, divinity; divine or presiding power or spirit.
      Writers exploring occult and supernatural fiction frequently quote Rudolf Otto, who "defined numinous as the non-rational mystery behind religion, which is both awesome and fascinating. It is, he asserted, the permanent and essential feature of all religion, including Christianity" (S. W. Sykes).

      The occult is what is kept secret or is told only to the initiated (this meaning appeared in writing in 1533). Later in the same century, it came to mean something not understood by the mind or not capable of being understood by the mind; it was, in other words, mysterious. The final meaning relevant to our course refers to ancient and medieval sciences or their modern equivalents, like magic, alchemy, astrology, and theosophy; these occult sciences used agencies of a secret and mysterious nature, for example, divination, incantation, magical formulas. Thus, the occult may mean magical or mystical. This last set of meanings was in use by 1633.

      A modern word appearing in 1920, the paranormal functions according to natural laws which are not yet known and so cannot now be explained, but the paranormal, it is assumed, can be explained.

      Since the sixteenth century, the word preternatural has described happenings or powers which, it is assumed, follow natural laws not yet known. With the eighteenth century, the word came to be used as a synonym for supernatural. The preternatural, though sometimes mistaken for the miraculous, is merely strange and inexplicable.

Of things in nature and art: Affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur.

      The supernatural is, as its name literally indicates, above nature; it belongs to a higher level than nature and transcends nature; these meanings were current in 1526. So
Calvin said, "Of nature is giltinesse, and sanctification is of supernaturall grace." Later in the century, the word was extended to mean relating to, dealing with, or characterized by what is above nature.


Eerie, Uncanny, and Weird

      From 1300 on, eerie meant fearful and timid; today, the word has narrowed to a specific kind of fear–a vague superstitious uneasiness. It is used as a synonym for weird and uncanny, as well as for gloomy and strange; the eerie arouses fear.

      The usual meaning of uncanny is having a supernatural character or being mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar. According to the OED, the first recorded use of this meaning occurred in 1843, and by 1850 it was common. The word may also mean mysterious, eerie, or ghostly. An uncanny person is not quite safe to trust to or be involved with, because of having some connection with supernatural arts or powers; this meaning appeared in 1773.
      Freud offers his own definition and theory about the uncanny.

      This word has a long lineage, its first recorded use being in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, where it means fate or destiny. A stock phrase using this meaning is "to dree one's weird," that is, to suffer one's fate. A narrowing of this meaning, dating from 1300, is an evil fate which is inflicted by supernatural power, often in retribution. By the fifteenth century, the word also meant events which are fated or predestined to happen; by the eighteenth, a prophecy or prediction of someone's fate. Not until 1814 is weird used to describe a story about the supernatural or the marvelous.
      In the 1930s and 40s a magazine called Weird Tales catered to readers with a taste for the Gothic and published several of H.P. Lovecraft's stories.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary distinguishes among these three words:

Weird, eerie, uncanny mean mysteriously strange or fantastic. Weird, in stricter use, often implies an unearthly or preternatural mysteriousness; eerie, a vague consciousness that unearthly or mysterious and, often, malign powers or influences are at work; uncanny, in its prevailing but looser sense, unpleasant mysteriousness or strangeness, as of persons, places, sensations, thought, etc.


The Gothic Experience Page

Revised:August 26, 2008