Difference Between Preternatural, Supernatural, and Paranormal?

While working on my defining the fiction genres series, a thought occurred to me.

What is the difference between preternatural, supernatural, and paranormal? And do they differ enough to actually matter when referring to what genre book you write?

Then I stumbled into an (awesome/heaven) secondhand bookstore which categorizes books under the following categories: fiction, romance, horror, science fiction/fantasy, and paranormal.

I know for a fact that Barnes and Noble has now changed their store again and their genres (that I pay attention to) go as follows: science fiction/fantasy, fiction/literature, and romance. They don’t factor in horror or paranormal as their own genres. Horror is under fiction, while paranormal is under fantasy/science fiction.

So yeah, that didn’t help.

I figured I didn’t know what to figure. So, naturally, I Googled it. And guess what? No one has a one correct answer, but tons of people have their own opinions and beliefs.

So of course this then became a matter of me being curious and having to look into it whether it was relevant to defining the fiction genres or not, and I had to figure this out as best as I could.











First things first, I looked the three words up in multiple dictionaries.



“para” is Latin for “beyond” – so it literally means “beyond natural”

“claimed occurrence, event, or perception without scientific explanation, such as extrasensory perception”

“beyond normal explanation; outside normal sensory channels; extrasensory”

“not scientifically explainable; supernatural”

“defies science; against reality”


“not existing in nature or subject to explanation according to natural laws; not physical or material”

“attributed to a power that seems to violate or go beyond natural forces”

“attributed to God or a deity; demigod, spirit, or devil”


“attributed or pertaining to ghosts, goblins, or other unearthly beings”

“an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; related to the realm of the unexplained”


“surpassing the ordinary or normal”


“transcending the natural or material order; supernatural”

“existing outside of nature”

“another word for supernatural”










Doing so only solidified the confusion. They basically all say the same thing, with only minor differences.

So I then read through tons of different opinions and interpretations on the matter and came to the conclusion that they are defined as follows:


Supernatural is beyond scientific explanation/natural laws. Even if everything became explained by science, anything ‘supernatural’ would still not be explainable by science. What is considered as ‘supernatural’ was never natural or of this world.

For example, a demon. Because it isnt scientifically proven to exist. And it is not of this world; as in, it was never human or a part of the naturally existing creatures acknowledged by science and nature. A demon is a creature believed to exist on another plane of existence and not our world.

Preternatural is presumed to have a scientific explanation that just hasn’t been discovered yet. Unexplainable by scientific explanation/natural laws but was once of this world.

For example, a vampire. Because it isn’t scientically proven to exist but was once human (of this world).

Paranormal goes against scientific laws. It is extrasensory phenomena (beyond the physical senses).

For example, a ghost. People who can see ghosts are considered to have a “sixth sense” – so they have witnessed an extrasensory phenomena.


However, even while people accept the above definitions, there still remains three general opinions on these three terms.


ONE – Supernatural refers to a creature while Preternatural refers to an ability that exceeds the bounds of what is scientifically proven to be possible.

TWO – Supernatural and Preternatural are listed, used, and considered in general opinion to be synonyms for one another.

THREE – Paranormal is used interchangeably with Supernatural and Preternatural and they all loosely mean the same thing.








So – what people are telling me, is that even though these three terms have three different (even if only slightly different) definitions, they’re still used synonymously to mean anything not proven by science.

Right then.


Just for fun let’s take a look at some of the more popular fantasy and science fiction creatures and where they would fall under the original definitions I came to the conclusion of…

  1. Demon – supernatural
  2. Vampire – preternatural
  3. Ghost – paranormal
  4. Zombie – preternatural
  5. Werewolf – preternatural
  6. The Fey – supernatural
  7. Alien – supernatural
  8. ShapeShifter – preternatural
  9. Poltergeist – paranormal
  10. Witch/Wizard – paranormal and/or preternatural – which one would it be? Paranormal because it goes beyond the five senses but Preternatural because it goes beyond scientific explanation but is from this world.

And we could go on and on. Some would strictly fit into one term and some, like witch/wizard will cause a problem due to fitting into the definition of more than one.


So, I suppose I will just do what everyone else does, and use the terms interchangeably. It looks to me like the publishing world uses Paranormal for genre distinction anyway.

Or maybe I’ll use preternatural and supernatural as they’re defined; as two different words with two different meanings.

It will probably depend on my mood.  I do have to admit that the three definitions can cross over quite easily. Especially due to the definition of ‘paranormal’ being so vague.


What about you? Do you use them according to their specific definitions, or do you use them synonymously?

Have you seen a book’s genre displayed as Preternatural or Supernatural, instead of Paranormal?



Dictionary Sources:






Google Define



Filed under The Odd Bit

42 responses to “Difference Between Preternatural, Supernatural, and Paranormal?

  1. Thomas

    You are one dumb cunt.

  2. M

    Hi daphneshadows, I am doing a research on paranormal and would like to use the information above, is it already if I use your info and credit it under ur name?

  3. Anonymous

    but ‘para’ in Latin means ultra, not beyond

  4. davidlarcombe

    After my son died at age 35, my iPhone would occasionally start playing music from songs I’ve saved and inexplicably some not saved. I am 100% sure this is a way Phil tries to communicate with me. Music is what he and I had most in common. My wife and Phil’s siblings have experienced this phenomenon but with each unique way to communicate. My guess it’s based on how and what was the tie each of us had with Phil. I’ve never seen him as a spirit or “ghost” but I know he makes his presence known. I miss that boy tremendously so I get confused as to whether I’m making this up for my own comfort and stability or is Phil truly out there watching over his family. Obviously, the latter is what I want it to be.
    Thanks for listening

    • I believe that when we die, we go somewhere else. I also believe that when its your time to pass on, he’ll be there waiting for you. ❤ Whether you're "making it up"/recognizing what reminds you of him or if it is truly him, I don't think it matters. He still lives, just somewhere else. And you can continue to love him. 🙂
      Any time. ❤

  5. Anonymous

    It does seem as though most agents use ‘paranormal’ so probably best to mirror their preferred language..

  6. How is ‘metaphysical’ distinct from ‘paranormal’ and ‘supernatural’?

    • Yomi

      Depends on what you are referring to with metaphysics. Classically, metaphysics refers to philosophy and souls. It is “beyond (meta) the physical world (physics)” or simply put, beyond the material universe.

      Supernatural, according to classical Christian theologians, would tie in with metaphysics except metaphysics would be a discipline/philosophy, while supernatural would be a adjective describing something being beyond this universe and its laws.

      Paranormal is beyond the scope of scientific understanding.

      I believe that is all the differences by the most modern “large” descriptors. Supernatural and Metaphysics are both old definitions as I am using them (metaphysics is literally from antiquity as in Ancient Greece and Ancient China). As I said while describing the Supernatural, I was using classical Christian Theology, I believe would be dated to the 1600s…cannot remember the theologians name though.

  7. Ciel LeFay

    so where creatures like mermaids fall?
    i mean i guess it would depend on what kind of mermaid. was it once human and changed or was it always a human fish hybrid
    and for that matter what about dragons and unicorns?
    a dragon is pretty much just a big lizard which essentially make sit a dinosaur. and a unicorn is just a white horse with a rather unfortunate bone protrusion.

    • I think it depends on the specific lore. I mean some creatures are completely different in different books, movies, and art. It just confuses the matter further, you know?

    • BillCipher

      Back to the question about mermaids: there’s also the possibility that a mermaid could be some kind of otherworldly creature, either one that is basically a fish/human hybrid or one that takes that form for convenience in the physical realm

  8. BLake

    Isn’t preternatural that which could be scientific but just hasn’t been found out yet?

    These words all mean the same thing, their definitions are just worded differently, but based on how I’ve seen them used paranormal= sci-fi/pseudoscience while supernatural= magic/fantasy

  9. BLake

    I’m sorry, but I’m not seeing the diffidence here. It sounds like they all mean “beyond science”

  10. Hobbs

    Everybody seems to agree that supernatural means something that goes against the laws of nature and is not a part of reality. It can’t be explained and never will be.

    What causes problems is the difference between paranormal and preternatural. For me it sounds like they means pretty much the same. As far as I know, both praeter and para can mean “beyond”.

    From an article on the net (http://www.romeofthewest.com/2006/11/universal-doctor.html): “Saint Albert (before 1200 – November 15, 1280) coined the term “preternatural” as a distinction between the natural and the supernatural. In Catholic theology, the supernatural is reserved to acts and gifts of God alone: it is above and beyond the created realm. The preternatural order of things still exists within created nature, although it is nature in the extreme and far beyond the ordinary. For example, angelic beings are bound by the laws of nature just as much as humans, animals, and rocks are, but they have preternatural speed and intelligence, that is, far beyond that of humans. There is then no theoretical distinction in Medieval philosophy between occult magic and technology, except that with occult magic, a practitioner seeks demonic assistance instead of using reason. A magician, in principle, can only do things that can also be done, at least theoretically, with technology.”
    (The website also refers to Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.)

    I could be wrong, but I have the impression that preternatural is something that follows the known laws of nature, but in a way that is beyond normal.
    What is preternatural sounds like it belongs more in science fiction than fantasy and horror. It’s about lack of knowledge at the present time; it may not be something that can be explained today, but possibly tomorrow.

    About the paranormal: “The root meaning of “paranormal” (coined around 1920) is “beside, above or beyond normal”. “Paranormal” is exclusionary – all that which is not normal. More precisely, we might say: extraordinary phenomena perceived to defy explanation or under current scientific understanding. It could be that we have not developed the technology or made the philosophical breakthrough to provide an explanation yet. Thus, what appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal.”

    It appears to include the preternatural as well, but it could also be defined as something that can not be explained by the known laws of nature because one or more unknown laws of nature are involved.

    If I should try to define the three concepts:

    Supernatural: Something that goes beyond the laws of nature, and can never be explained.

    Paranormal: Something yet unexplainable that follows unknown laws of nature. Before it can be explained, it could be indistinguishable from the supernatural.

    Preternatural: Something yet unexplainable that follows the known laws of nature. Before it can be explained, it could be indistinguishable from both the supernatural and paranormal.

    • Hobbs

      About the definition of the paranormal, it could be changed to this:

      Paranormal: Something yet unexplainable that follows one or more unknown laws of nature. Before the unknown laws are identified and the phenomena can be explained, it could be indistinguishable from the supernatural.

  11. Cindy

    The terms “supernatural” and “preternatural” have clearer definitions in the theological world (I don’t know about “paranormal.”). I found this in a theological lesson on line from Third Millennium Ministries:
    “Traditional systematic theology has spoken of everything that exists as primarily inhabiting one of three basic realms. First, there is the supernatural realm, that realm that is above nature. Although we often use this term to refer to anything that is not part of our natural world, it has a more technical use in systematic theology. Specifically, it refers to God and his works, since only God himself is truly higher, more powerful, and more authoritative than the natural world.
    Second, there is the natural realm. This is the world God created in Genesis 1, the world in which we live and operate. And without a doubt, it is the side of creation that is most familiar to human beings.
    And third, there is the preternatural realm, that realm that is beyond nature. It is not above nature in the way that God is, but is rather beside nature as a distinct aspect of creation. This is the realm inhabited by invisible spirits such as angels and demons.”
    Maybe that helps some?

  12. Serge

    Good discourse, good comments.

    The best incidence of an explanation of the three words, I believe, can be found in the 1963 movie version of “The Haunting”, directed by Robert Wise and stars Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn.

    In summary, Dr. John Markway (Johnson) is an anthropologist/researcher who wishes to find out if the “supernatural” might exist by gathering people with special “psychic phonemic” abilities or experiences in a Haunted House experiment.

    A number of times he uses the terms paranormal, supernatural and the term I had never before – preternatural.

    He uses an allegory about magnetism to describe “preternatural”. Way back when, magnetism was a complete mystery, yet it was an unknown, unknowingly “waiting” to be discovered through science. I personally like that description per Opinion ONE in the dissertation.

    I do not liken the use of demon (preter) and werewolves (super) because I feel those words go beyond such “objects”. I tend to agree that a poltergeist describes paranormal. All these discussions are brought into the movie, mainly through the Dr. Markway, the expert, as much as an expert can be in this realm.

    Paranormal, to me, indicates a situation that involves souls (ghosts), “brain” or other energy, good, bad or indifferent that we as humans can somehow feel/experience. Depending on that soul energy, we could feel at peace, totally afraid, or duped.

    Paranormal, to me could be a subset of supernatural. Supernatural means to me above and beyond nature (birth, genetics), nurture (how we are brought up and experiences through life that affect our “being”). To me, it indicates an indescribable, event, action, impact etc. that is beyond us, and perhaps beyond preternatural, which I suppose could end up being “scientifically” explained, but not likely in our human “lifetime.”
    How can a 60 year old, 100 pound woman lift a Volkswagen off her cat? Adrenaline. Is/was that paranormal, supernatural or preternatural?

    Is the term “luck” in any of those three? I’d put luck in supernatural, or perhaps a scientific answer of “probability?” Does that last idea open a can-of-worms? What about a religious factor?

    Love this debate (non-derogatory), because we may have slightly different interpretations, but the questions we have are the same.

    To be continued I hope.

    • Hmmm… see, I should have specified this much better than I did.

      I didn’t go on my opinion of what these three terms mean to me, I went with what I found them as being defined as. I was trying to make sense of them and searched out different opinions and definitions and origins of the words and their root meanings.
      I didn’t really consider what they meant in my opinion. I’m still not too sure about it. That’s why at the end, I said they’re all used interchangeably most of the time.

      I also love talking out opinions with people, so don’t worry, I didn’t take it as “you putting your nose up in the air at me”. 😉

      Looking at it now, I personally love the term ‘preternatural’ because it simply means beyond what is natural or normal. And that for me, can describe paranormal and supernatural because what we consider supernatural and paranormal is not natural or normal. Hopefully that makes sense.

      I’m definitely going to find and watch that movie. I love it when people break things like this down but I’m one of those people who would have to see it to “get” it.

      I recently searched words in my novel and I realized that I didn’t use any of the three terms. I think its because I gave up on trying to peg down a meaning for each of them. 😉
      The thing that drives me nuts is that SO MANY opinions make sense and yet NO ONE agrees on any one opinion. Maybe I’ll never be too sure. 😉 It’s kind of a perception thing. And like I said below in response to someone else, it also depends on what myths and lore you go with on each creature. For example, a demon has two main myths. One, it was once human. Two, it was never human. So those two opinions on demons would be classified under two different terms.

      It’s all very confusing but for some reason I love trying to figure it out. 😀

  13. I really like your synthesis here. It is the second link on Yahoo when you search “what is the difference between paranormal and supernatural.” I have often wondered about these categorizations. I am writing a book with a demon as a main character, so as a result of reading this post, I will classify it under “supernatural.” Thank you!

    • Thank you! Wow, I had no idea I was that high up on Google’s results!

      Demons are hard to categorize. Because there are two main different myths. ONE, they started human and became something else. Therefore, they wouldn’t be supernatural but preternatural. Theory/myth TWO, demons were never human and are then supernatural.

      I really should have gone into greater detail, now that I think about it. Yikes! Please don’t throw a brick at my head.

      I’m so glad that this was helpful.

      Also, I think it is AWESOME that you’re writing a book about a demon. ;D Best of luck!

  14. brianpansky

    Well, I’m biased here because I have definitions that I think are better, but even so I’m not sure why you classified aliens as supernatural.

    You just said supernatural is “Even if everything became explained by science, anything ‘supernatural’ would still not be explainable by science.”

    But if the abiogenesis and biological evolution of aliens on another planet were explained by science, it shouldn’t count as supernatural. I’m pretty sure most uses of aliens in fiction fit my description here.

    If you’re curious about my uses of the terms, I use them similarly to this person here:


    Though it’s a long read and the philosophy might be difficult to understand.

    • Under that sentence of the definition of supernatural, I also said, “What is considered as ‘supernatural’ was never natural or of this world”, which would then make the first part of the definition null and void, in my opinion as aliens aren’t a part of our world.

      And yes, his piece did make sense but I most obviously didn’t get that deep. 😉 I especially like his definition of ‘paranormal’. Thanks. Also, I had no idea past Christians believed demons flew saucers.

      Personally, I think the debate depends on each person and how they categorize it. I mean, it even depends on which theory/myth you’re going with for each creature. In one, they could’ve started out human, in another never were. That would factor in, so it’s hard to pin down.
      That’s why it annoys me that the publishing and marketing world cannot agree on a single term for categorizing books.

  15. Reblogged this on Author Susan Mac Nicol and commented:
    I rather liked this article explaining the difference between the different fantasy genres. What do you think ?

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  17. Did you know that this blog post is one of the first results in a Google search for “difference between paranormal and supernatural”? Thanks for putting together a really informative post, and well done!

  18. Anonymous

    Thank you Daphne Shadows for your descriptive definitions! I found you quite by (happy) accident. My daughter and I look forward to following your stories and good luck with your future endeavors!!!!

  19. Jasmine

    I was taught that Preternatural to refer to something unnatural, which intrudes on the natural world. Preternatural stories don’t intend you to actually believe the preternatural thing, it’s usually a symbol or metaphor for something else. (Then again, I’ve also heard preternatural used to define the more horrific supernatural – that is, taking an exclusively negative view of the supernatural, which makes sense if it is an unnatural intrusion)
    Then Paranormal meaning “beyond normal,” not so much in kind, but in degree. It is More than natural, not unnatural or alternatively natural, if that makes sense.
    Then, Supernatural refers to works that view the natural and spiritual aspects of the world as being in balance, equally real and valid, influencing one another.
    So, in your breakdown, the nature of the beast would depend on the nature of its story, not on the beast itself. So a vampire whose story is a conservative parable about homosexuality is preternatural. A vampire as a creature who exists in the world and must suck blood because of…somethingsomething hemoglobin would be paranormal. A vampire who exists in this world because of a dark pact between a man and a spiritual being who also exists in this world is supernatural.

  20. Bilal

    Well, Vampires are more supernatural to be honest. Dracula, is meant to be the Son of the Devil. So Vampires are originally monsters from hell.

  21. Terri

    Awesome research, thanks!

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  23. Talk about confusing! I just stick with Supernatural, and sometimes throw in Paranormal when talking about ghosts. That’s probably wrong, but … meh. 🙂

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