17 - 22 minute read
Poltergeist (from German poltern, meaning to rumble or make noise, and Geist, meaning "ghost", "spirit", or "embodiment") denotes a demonic spirit or ghost that manifests itself by moving and influencing objects.
Historically, several different hypotheses have been put forward to explain the poltergeist phenomenon.
Caused by physical forces
Poltergeists are ghosts that make noises or move objects through the air. Some scientists and skeptics propose that all poltergeist activity that they can't trace to fraud has a physical explanation such as static electricity, electromagnetic fields, ultra-, and infrasound and/or ionized air. In some cases, such as the Rosenheim poltergeist case, the physicist F. Karger from the Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik and G. Zicha from the Technical University of Munich found none of these effects present and psi proponents claim that no evidence of fraud was ever found, even after a sustained investigation from the police force and CID, though criminologist Herbert Schäfer quotes an unnamed detective watching the agent pushing a lamp when she thought nobody was looking. However, whether this is true or not, police officers did sign statements that they had witnessed the phenomena. Other aspects of the case were hard to explain: The time service was rung hundreds of times, with a frequency impossible with the mechanical dialing phones of 1967. The municipal authority disconnected the office from the mains supply and hooked it up to a dedicated generator hoping to stabilize the current. But surges in current and voltage still occurred with no detectable cause according to Zicha and Karger. Others think poltergeist phenomena could be caused by more mundane phenomena, such as unusual air currents, air vibrations such as in acoustic levitation, or tremors caused by underground streams.
Self-delusion and hoaxes
Skeptics think that the phenomena are hoaxes perpetrated by the agent. Indeed, some poltergeist agents have been caught by investigators in the act of throwing objects. A few of them later confessed to faking.
Skeptics maintain that parapsychologists are especially easy to fool when they think that many occurrences are real and discount the hoax hypothesis from the outset. Even after witnessing first hand an agent throwing objects, psi-believing parapsychologists rationalize the fact away by assuming that the agents are only cheating when caught cheating, and when you do not catch them, the phenomenon is genuine. One reason given is that the agents often fake phenomena when the investigation coincides with a period of time where there appears to be little or no 'genuine' phenomena occurring. Another stated reason is that some of the phenomena witnessed would be hard to fake, even for magicians when under the watch of many people, let alone untrained children and non-magicians.
The current consensus among most scientists is a mixture of the self-delusion and hoax hypotheses and a bit of the caused-by-scientifically-explained-forces hypothesis (tremors, abnormal air currents, etc).
John Hutchinson has claimed that he has created poltergeist effects in his laboratory. Also worth noting is that scientist David Turner proposes that poltergeists and ball lightning may be linked phenomena.1 Some scientists go as far as calling them pseudo-psychic phenomena and claim that under some circumstances they are caused by obscure physical effects. Parapsychologists William G. Roll and Dean Radin, physicist Hal Puthoff and head of electrical engineering at Duke University who specializes in electromagnetic field phenomena, claim that poltergeist phenomena (the movement of objects at least) could be caused by anomalies in the zero-point field,2 this is outlined in the above article and in Roll's book Unleashed and mention is made of it in a chapter of Dean Radin's book Entangled Minds. The basic theory is that poltergeist movements are repulsive versions of the casimir effect that can put pressures on objects. Thus, anomalies in this field could conceivably move objects. This theory has also been mentioned in the current book on paranormal phenomena Science by Marie D. Jones.3
The theory is not complete, however, because it accounts for the movement of objects but not for the strange voices, seeming personality, and strange electrical effects displayed in some cases.
Conducted in the early 1970’s by the Toronto Society of Psychical Research, the purpose of the experiment was to see if a wholly fictitious historical character could, in fact, manifest itself through the group's efforts of concentration on the bogus data.
Dr. A.R.G Owen, a member of the Department For Preventative Medicine and Biostatistics at the University of Toronto and psychic researcher who specialized in poltergeist cases was the group’s scientific advisor. He is quoted in the introduction to Conjuring Up Phillip (Iris Owen and Margaret Sparrow, 1976) as saying, "It was essential to their purpose that Philip be a totally fictitious character. Not merely a figment of the imagination but clearly and obviously so, with a biography full of historical errors." In essence, the group sought to create a "collective hallucination" of Philip through subscribing to a common mental picture of him and his surroundings. They meditated on his appearance, his food preferences, and mostly his 'feelings' towards his lovers.
The experiment went on for months with absolutely no success. The group would sit around a table and merely concentrate - much like the spiritualists of the 19th century. And then one day it just happened. There was a knock on the table, which at first was felt more than heard. All of the group’s eight members felt the vibration. This was followed by a number of distinct knocks that were in fact heard and felt. Skeptical at first, the group felt that these knocks were perhaps inadvertently the result of one of the group’s participants. They quickly changed their minds when the table itself began to move around the room. When a startled member asked aloud, "I wonder whether Philip is doing this," a loud knock on the furniture was heard as if in response. Philip, a made in Canada ghost, had finally arrived.
The group devised a plan in which one knock would signify a yes and two knocks would indicate a no. Soon after they began enjoying 'spirited' conversation with Philip. This 'entity' that they apparently conjured up "exhibited likes and dislikes, had strong views on some subjects and was hesitant on others." They questioned 'him' on his personal life. And once when an apparently too personal question was asked in regards to 'his' wife Dorothea loud scratching sounds were heard on the table or a chair.
It was noted that the ghostly sounds and movements of the table seemed closely related to the thoughts of the group. If they were in agreement to what an answer should be the resulting 'yes' knock was quick and loud. If there were doubts amongst the group's members the result would be a corresponding hesitation in the sounds. As their experiment progressed the participants would engage in teasing and joking with Philip. The table movements and knocks became more frequent and it was reported that the table would occasionally rush up as if in greeting to latecomers and even trap members in the corner of the room. Philip apparently was the cause of lights turning off and on by themselves and other strange anomalies as well.
The experiment captured the attention of local media, with group and 'ghost' featured on the CBC television show "Man Alive" as well as other talk shows of the day.
A 16mm movie was produced by the group in 1974 entitled Philip: the Imaginary Ghost. It explains how the experiment was conceived, and what actually happened, showing tables movements and actual raps.4
Further experiments with a different test group were carried out by the Toronto Society of Psychical Research in 1974. The story used was of a French Canadian girl by the name of Lilith who went to France during WWII and became a member of the French Resistance. She was however, caught and executed as a spy.
The Lilith experiments saw similar results to the Philip one in just 5 weeks. Some speculate that this was due to the fact that the Owen's were able to formulate shortcuts in methodology based on the earlier experiments and the new test group was able to sit in with the Philip group on an individual basis.
During a 1974 Christmas party held by the organization, members of both the Philip and Lilith groups got together and in jest called out, "Is anybody there?" They received a knock in response and in further jest they asked, "Are you Father Christmas?" Reportedly a long conversation with Santa Claus ensued! According to the Owens this last episode "illustrates the wonderful child-like approach taken to the phenomena and the fact that in these situations you get what you expect."4
Famous poltergeist infestations
Although poltergeist stories date back to the first century, most evidence to support the existence of poltergeists is anecdotal, which is hardly surprising as the nature of the phenomenon is unpredictable and sporadic. Indeed, many of the stories below have several versions and/or inconsistencies; however there are a few that do not, for example, the Miami poltergeist has event records signed by all witnesses as to the way things happened. These witnesses include police officers, a skeptical magician, and workers at the warehouse. The Rosenheim case is another, with multiple witnesses and unexplained electric and telephonic phenomena.
- An "evil spirit" threw stones and made the walls shake in a small farmhouse. This was the first recorded poltergeist case. (circa 858)
- Drummer of Tedworth (1661).
- Lithobolia (1698) A pamphlet printed in London in 1698 by Mr. Ricard Chamberlain provides an account of a poltergeist-type haunting that had occurred some years before. Two copies of the pamphlet exist in the British Museum called: "Lithobolia, or stone throwing Devil. Being an Exact and True account (by way of Journal) of the various actions of infernal Spirits or (Devils Incarnate) Witches or both: and the great Disturbance and Amazement they gave to George Walton's family at a place called Great Island in the province of New Hampshire in New England, chiefly in throwing about (by an Invisible hand) Stones, Bricks, and Brick-Bats of all sizes, with several other things, as Hammers, Mauls, Iron-Crows, Spits, and other Utensils, as came into their Hellish minds, and this for space of a quarter of a year....", some cases, these types of spirits share aspects with elves and goblins.
- The "Wizard", Livingston, West Virginia (1797).
- The Bell Witch (1817).
- The Haunting of The Fox sisters (1848) - arguably one of the most famous, because it started the Spiritualism movement.
- Hopfgarten, Thuringia near Weimar, Germany (1921).
- Eleonore Zugun - The Romanian 'Poltergeist Girl' (1926).
- The Epworth Rectory (Epworth, Lincolnshire)
- Borley Rectory (1929/1937): William Roll, Hans Bender, and Harry Price are perhaps three of the most famous poltergeist investigators in the annals of parapsychology. Harry Price investigated Borley Rectory which is often called "the most haunted house in England."
- Rosenheim (1967): Dr. Friedbert Karger was one of two physicists from the Max Planck Institute who helped to investigate perhaps the most validated poltergeist case in recorded history. Annemarie Schneider, a 19-year-old secretary in a law firm in Rosenheim (a small town in southern Germany) was seemingly the unwitting cause of much chaos in the firm, including disruption of electricity and telephone lines, the rotation of a picture, swinging lamps which were captured on video (which was one of the first times any poltergeist activity has been captured on film), and strange sounds that sounded electrical in origin were recorded. Fraud was not proven despite intensive investigation by the physicists, journalists, and the police. The effects moved with the young woman when she changed jobs until they finally faded out.567 Friedbert Karger's whole perspective on physics changed after investigating the events. "These experiments were really a challenge to physics," Karger says today. "What we saw in the Rosenheim case could be 100% shown not to be explainable by known physics."8 The phenomena were witnessed by Hans Bender, the police force, the CID, reporters, and the physicists. The claims were aired in a documentary in 1975 in a series called "Leap in the Dark."
- The Black Monk of Pontefract9
- The Enfield Poltergeist (1977).
- The Miami Poltergeist, a poltergeist witnessed by police and a skeptical magician who did not believe it was a ghost, but admitted he witnessed phenomena he could not explain. Many others witnessed phenomena including reporters, parapsychologists, and workers at the warehouse.
- The Thornton Road poltergeist of Birmingham (1981).
- An Entity Case allegedly involved a single mother of three named Carla Moran who was being repeatedly raped by an invisible entity and its two helpers over the course of several years.10
- The case of Tina Resch, widely reported in the media in 1984.
- The Mackenzie Poltergeist (fairly recent) - Famed for haunting Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh, UK.
- The Canneto di Caronia fires poltergeist (fairly recent (2004-2005)) - Famed for defying all attempts at a scientific explanation, Sicily, Italy11.
- A case in Barnsley near Sheffield in England, where poltergeist effects were witnessed by the police force.12
- In Denver, Colorado there have been several reports of unknown forces positioning toys, furniture, and objects in patterns and strange positions.
- Easington Council in County Durham, UK paid half of a medium's fee so that she would exorcise a poltergeist from public housing in Peterlee as it was deemed more cost effective than relocation of the tenant (2008).
Poltergeists in fiction
Both the name and concept of the poltergeist became famous to modern audiences in the Poltergeist movies and the subsequent TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy. The first Poltergeist movie actually gave an excellent depiction (during the first half of the film) of a "typical" poltergeist infestation, right down to the depiction of the focus as a prepubescent girl.
A parody on the word Poltergiest, and moreover the titles of the Poltergeist movie series were Poultrygiest and Poultrygiest Too, the names of two levels in Earthworm Jim 3D.
Poltergeists are the subject of some episodes of The X-Files.
Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas encounters many poltergeists in his adventures. Most notably, the ghost of a killer Odd was tracking and a nameless ghost with a buzz cut who wrecks the Panamint Casino when Datura verbally abuses and belittles the ghost of an Indian waitress.
There is a poltergeist named Peeves in the Harry Potter books. Peeves, however, does not conform to the classic definition of a poltergeist. The fact that he manifests visually would seem to indicate that he is something similar to a ghost, though J.K. Rowling has stated that a poltergeist is not the ghost of any person who has ever lived. Perhaps she intended Peeves to be more of a literal translation of the word poltergeist, because Peeves is quite noisy and mischievous. However, it is also possible that Harry and other students can perceive Peeves because they are wizards, and that he would be still invisible to Muggles. It is also interesting to note that Peeves appears in color, where the other ghosts at the school appear as white, misty figures.
On October 20, 1942, the old-time radio show Lights Out featured a story called "Poltergeist" in which a trio of girls experience horrific, unexplained assaults from flying stones after one walks over a grave.
On Tuesday, November 15, 2005, Supernatural aired an episode involving a multiple haunting in the old house of Dean and Sam. The owner of the house would claim there were rats in the house. She only heard scratching and rustling noises, but didn't actually see them. The poltergeist in the house threw knives, opened baby cribs and refrigerators, and claims the hand of a repairman trying to fix the garbage disposal. Also, in another episode, Phantom Traveler, a person mentions that Dean rescued him and his family from a poltergeist with his father.
Some Castlevania games feature a few poltergeist phenomena. For example, certain furniture may suddenly spring to life and attack (some of the furniture are named Ouija Table). Another case is the enemy Alastor, where a giant sword floats around in the air, wielded by an occasionally visible, invulnerable spirit. In some disputed game canon, it is said that a character called the Poltergeist King takes charge of the Belmont family weapons between quests. The Poltergeist King does make an appearance in Captain N: The Game Master in the episode "Return to Castlevania".
The popular Ju-on series of horror films in Japan and the Americanized version The Grudge, feature poltergeist elements including the replaying of the tragedy and the violent nature of the ghosts.
In 2006 the TV show Family Guy had an episode named Petergeist, where Peter's house becomes the center for a poltergeist.
Released in October 2006, a French comedy film called Poltergay was inspired by poltergeist phenomena. The film features the story of a couple of young lovers moving into a mansion in the vicinity of Paris which used to be a gay night club. The club was shut down after a fire broke out killing a group of club patrons whose spirits live in the mansion to present time and naughtily haunt the male lover, leading him to be insecure about his sexual preference.
A The Far Side strip describes Poultrygeists, poltergeist-like activity in chickens. Similarly, a Dilbert strip features Upholsterygeists, furniture possessing spirits that can only be expelled with work-out tapes (exercists).
In many Legend of Zelda games there are poltergeist-like enemies, including pots, skulls (often called Bubbles), and most frequently rooms where the entrances lockdown upon Link entering, only to be ambushed by dozens of flying tiles. These rooms have become a main characteristic of dungeons in these games.
In Super Mario Galaxy, in one of the galaxies, there is a boss named Boldergiest, who is the boss of the Ghostly Galaxy.
(In alphabetical order)
- Some conjectures about the mechanism of poltergeist phenomenon by Pierro Brovetto and Vera Maxia, NeuroQuantology, Vol 6, No 2 (2008). Technical paper proposing hypotheses for pyrokinetic and telekinetic events reported in poltergeist cases involving young girls going through puberty.
- Poltergeist caught on video, The Sun UK newspaper, August 9, 2008.
- Andrew Lang, The Poltergeist and his explainers, The Making of Religion, (Appendix B), Longmans, Green, and C°, London, New York and Bombay, 1900, pp. 324-339.
- Haunted Ontario - Founded in 1996 by Bob Milne, Haunted Ontario chronicles the ghosts, spirits, spooks, and poltergeists said to haunt Canada's most populated province.
- Dehaunting Techniques
- International Journal of Parapsychology
- Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research
- Skeptic's Dictionary
- 1926 silent short film of the Eleonora Zugun poltergeist case On YouTube, with German title cards.
- VHS or DVD copies of Philip: the Imaginary Ghost can be purchased
from Raymond International at the following addresses: Raymond.firstname.lastname@example.org, Raymond International, 122-33 Hazelton Avenue, Toronto,
Ontario, Canada M5R 2E3, 416-485-3406
'Turner thinks ball lightning might cause the spooky movement of objects blamed on "poltergeists".' in http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn1720 ↩
Roll, W. Poltergeists, Electromagnetism and Consciousness PDF at http://www.scientificexploration.org/jse/articles/pdf/17.1_roll.pdf ↩
Jones, Marie D. PSIence: How New Discoveries in Quantum Physics and New Science May Explain the Existence of Paranormal Phenomena (New Page Books, 2006) ↩
http://www.geister-und-gespenster.de/spuk/spukorte/Poltergeist_Rosenheim.htm (German and most extensive). ↩