Meaning of the word 'poltergeist'
The German word 'poltergeist' roughly
translates as 'noisy spirit' or 'noisy ghost'. Parapsychologists often refer to
the phenomenon using the rather unwieldy term 'Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis' (RSPK).
Common characteristics of the
phenomenon are: the movement and hurling around of inanimate, often extremely
heavy, objects, the
opening and closing of doors and windows by no visible means, unexplained noises
such as voices, moans, screams, explosions, crashes, raps, thumps, scratches and knocks on
floors, doors and walls, heavy footsteps, bed-shaking, the breaking of household
objects such as crockery, the destruction of garments, the throwing of stones,
rocks and dirt, bad smells, mysterious fires (read about an example case here), the appearance of pools of water
on floors, the malfunctioning of electrical equipment, telephone ringing, the
unexplained appearance of objects ('apports'), apparitions and even physical
assault (as in the case of
Stone throwing is very often the first
sign of poltergeist activity, with the houses of victims bombarded by stones and
bricks sometimes for days (or even weeks) before any other kind of unexplained
A most important point about the
that it has appeared throughout history over a large cross section of cultures
and generally exhibited the same characteristics.
First century Jewish historian
Josephus describes phenomena connected with 'possession' that would nowadays be
attributed to poltergeist activity. Jacob Grimm, one of the brothers Grimm,
writing in his Deutsche Mythologie, describes a number of cases including
one from Bingen-am-Rhein dated to AD355, where stones were thrown, people were
pulled out of bed, and raps and loud noises were heard. Writing in his Itinerarium
Cambriae (AD1191) of his tour of Wales, clergyman and chronicler Giraldus
Cambrensis describes an incident at a house in Pembrokeshire where 'unclean
spirits' threw dirt and other objects, garments were ripped and torn, and the
'spirit' even spoke publicly of the various secrets of people present.
not isolated cases, Medieval chronicles are full of such incidents. The
problem, however, with these accounts of poltergeist cases is that the sources
for them were not written as 'history' as such; medieval chronicles include many
signs, wonders and miracles and are not records of 'true' happenings as would be
Over the last few hundred years more famous
cases include the 'Tedworth Drummer' of England in 1661, where a drum which
belonged to an imprisoned beggar proceeded to play on its own, accompanied by
various other phenomena such as the hurling about of chairs, beds with servants
sleeping in them being lifted up, and loud scratching noises. A series of bizarre
and frightening incidents which took place on a Tennessee farm in 1817 has
become known as the 'Bell Witch Haunting'. The Bell Witch herself was thought by
many to be the spirit of Kate Batts, one time neighbour of John Bell, owner of
the farm where the disturbances took place, and who had apparently been involved
in a dispute with him over land. The phenomena included apparitions of strange
animals, whistling, disembodied voices, loud laughing and singing and vicious
physical assaults on people at the farm, which are claimed by some to have
resulted in the death of John Bell.
The Enfield and Mackenzie
Two modern cases are the
'Enfield Poltergeist' and the 'Mackenzie Poltergeist'. The former took place in
1977 in a north London council house, and the phenomena included furniture moving
by itself, knockings on the walls, spontaneous fires, pools of water appearing
on the floor, cold breezes, physical assaults, the appearance of graffiti, equipment malfunction
and failure, and various items being thrown around the house.
The alarming series of events that make up the Mackenzie
Poltergeist case took place (and
according to some, are still taking place) in 1999 in Greyfriars Kirkyard,
Edinburgh. The events appear to have been triggered by a homeless man spending
the night in a mausoleum belonging to Sir George Mackenzie, who died in 1691,
and was known during his lifetime for his bloody persecution of the Covenanters,
a powerful Scottish Presbyterian movement. The homeless man accidentally caused
some damage to Mackenzie's coffin and was subsequently witnessed running and screaming
in terror from the site, to be found later in a state of delirium
by police. Since that strange night weird phenomena have been experienced in the
kirkyard and the surrounding area. Neighbouring houses were plagued by objects
flying around the rooms and crockery smashing, while visitors to
the site itself experienced feelings of extreme heat or cold, suffered cuts and
bruises from an unknown assailant, had their throats squeezed, coats tugged
violently, and were, on occasion even knocked unconscious by an invisible force. Two
of the area failed to halt the phenomena.
So what is it that causes the
from accusations of hoax and exaggeration, which although applicable to a
number of cases by no means apply to them all, the most popular theory is
that the poltergeist is caused unwittingly by a human agent, usually a teenage
girl. Researchers believe that a troubled adolescent unconsciously manipulates
objects using psychokinesis (PK), a type of energy generated in the brain.
According to researchers at the Rhine Research Center Institute for Parapsychology
at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, poltergeist activity is the physical
expression of psychological trauma. However, more natural explanations are
often the cause of what appears to be a poltergeist disturbance. Electromagnetic
Interference (EMI) has been found to be behind at least one supposed poltergeist
investigated by Midlands (UK) investigation group Paraseach, and there is an
increasing amount of evidence to show that it could explain many more cases.
Perhaps this might help to cast light on
poltergeist cases such as those of Eleonore Zugun
and Carole Compton. However, this does not explain
how enough power is generated to move objects such as heavy pieces of furniture,
or to shower a room with stones, make objects appear from nowhere, or start
fires, if accounts of such phenomena can be trusted.
There are also a number of poltergeist cases
where the people involved have no psychological problems at all, and where there
are no adolescents in the household. How can we explain these? A further point is
that there are millions of troubled teenagers all over the world, but the vast
majority do not cause poltergeist activity to occur. Other researchers have
suggested that 'spirit entities' are responsible for the phenomena, perhaps
generating the power by attaching themselves to suitably disturbed teenagers.
But the very nature of these hypothetical 'spirits' means that scientifically at
least, they cannot be properly investigated, though there are interesting tape
recordings of a 'voice' from the Enfield Poltergeist case. However, if accounts
of the more extreme unexplained occurrences alleged to be caused by poltergeist
activity are themselves exaggerated, or even completely unreliable, which is
entirely possible in older cases, then no further explanation is required. For example, if bad smells in the home can be filtered out with an air purifier and then don't happen again, the problem is solved. But when even the best air purifier cannot remove offensive odors that continue without obvious cause, poltergeist activity may be to blame.
Nevertheless, the inability to find
a convincing explanation for the phenomenon, the significant amount of
poltergeist cases exhibiting similar characteristics
occurring over a long period of time in widely different cultures, and the
bizarre but somehow consistent nature of the phenomena, make the poltergeist
perhaps the most baffling and enduring of unexplained mysteries.
Sources & Further Reading
H. & Fodor, N. The Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries. Rider
& Co. 1953
& Cornell, T. Poltergeists. Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1979.
Poltergeists: An Annotated Bibliography of Works in English, Circa
1880-1975. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1979
A.R.G. Can we Explain the Poltergeist? Garrett Publications. 1964.
Playfair, G. L. This House is Haunted: An Investigation
into the Enfield Poltergeist. Souvenir Press. 1980.
Price. H. Poltergeist: Tales of the
Supernatural. Bracken Books. 1993 (1945).
Scott. On the Track of the Poltergeist. Prentice-Hall. 1986.
G. The Poltergeist. Wyndham 1972.
Sitwell, S. Poltergeists: Fact or Fancy. Dorset
Press. 1988 (1959).
J & A. The Poltergeist Phenomenon. Headline 1996.
Thurston, H. Ghosts & Poltergeists. Burns
C. Poltergeist! A Study in Destructive Haunting. New English Library.
by Brian Haughton All Rights Reserved.