Yesterday (Halloween) Becky and I attended the SPR Study Day on Poltergeists. I won’t be writing a review for my blog (Tom Ruffles has written an excellent one here) as I have been asked to write a review for the SPR magazine The Paranormal Review but obviously the subject is one of considerable interest. I have been fascinated for nearly twenty years with Poltergeist/RSPK cases, and have participated in a number of investigations (one minor one is reported elsewhere in an earlier post on this blog). I have a very real interest in following up any case – those who feel they may be experiencing something of this nature are welcome to drop me an email at email@example.com or you can contact the SPR Spontaneous Cases committee.
Anyway while I won’t be writing directly about the fascinating insights from yesterday here, I thought a brief theoretical overview of the poltergeist phenomena would make a great blog post, and was about to start work on one when I remembered that Becky wrote an essay on this for her MSc last year. Well I will edit it a biot to tweak it, and with her permission have simply reproduced it, with my own comments interspersed, below. I hope it proves of interest! It’s a first for the blog to have something not written by me, but I think a healthy one. 🙂 This version was not the final version of Becky’s assignment, but an earlier draft, but it is all I have to hand!
The term poltergeist derives from an old German world which means ‘noisy ghost’ or ‘spirit’. Although this term is now rarely used in Germany it has become a common term in English. [CJ: ‘Polter’ meaning to make a noise was also a 19th century Suffolk dialect term, probably adopted from the Dutch; so I am not sure if the words etymology may not be English — but as far as I am ware the first usage in English was Catherine Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature, published in 1848. The term ‘hobgoblin’ or just plain ‘ghost’ was in common usage before this.)
This term suggests that poltergeist activity is caused by the spirit of a deceased person; however there are four main distinct theories for what causes poltergeist activity. This essay will begin by looking the common features of poltergeist activity and then will briefly describe two well known poltergeist cases; Enfield (Playfair & Grosse 1977) and Cardiff (Fontana 1993). It will then look at the first two theories of what poltergeist activity is, these being fraud and misinterpretation of natural phenomena. The second two theories; the Entity Hypothesis and Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) will then be discussed as theories of poltergeists.
It will be argued that fraud and the misinterpretation of natural events may be able to explain a few cases of poltergeist activity but certainly cannot explain the majority of them, especially cases like Enfield and Cardiff. It will also be argued that there appears to be evidence for both the Spirit Hypothesis and RSPK in some cases of poltergeist activity so rather than two separate theories a more appropriate theory may be a combination of the two.
When purportedly paranormal activity is experienced in a house or other type of building this activity will be considered to be either place-centred or person centred.
The Symptoms of the Poltergeist
If the activity is place-centred this means that the activity is linked to the building; the occupants of the property can change and the activity will continue. This would usually be called a haunting but may be classed by some as a poltergeist outbreak. If the activity is person-centred this means the activity appears to be linked to a person and will follow this person to different properties; this is typical of poltergeist activity. The person that the poltergeist activity is linked to is known as the focus and it has been found that the focus is often a young adolescent around the age of puberty who may be facing personal turmoil of some kind (Irwin, 2004; 158).
There are several different types of activity (“symptoms”) associated with poltergeists which include the movement of objects, noises, bite and scratch marks appearing on people, and water inundations (Gauld & Cornell, 1979). One of the most common types of activity is the movement of objects which can include small objects such as keys, ornaments and cutlery and the movement of much larger objects such as wardrobes, beds and tables. [CJ: Called SOD, an acronym for Small Object Displacement – blame the ‘sodding’ poltergeist!]
Gauld and Cornell found that of all the poltergeist cases they looked at, 64% featured the movement of small objects and 36% featured the movement of larger objects. Another common type of activity is noises which can include knocking, banging and scratching sounds. Gauld and Cornell found that noises featured in about 50% of the cases they sampled. 15% of these cases featured the appearance of scratches or bite mark appearing on people’s bodies and the outbreak of numerous small fires featured in about 11% of cases, with some of these fires featuring objects that would normally seem to be incombustible. Finally about 5% of these cases featured water inundations, which may include the unexplainable appearance of puddles of water. (CJ : Gauld and Cornell’s book remains the classic study, well worth acquiring). Another common feature is that most poltergeist outbreaks tend to be brief, lasting around two weeks to two months although some cases have been found to have lasted for more then a year (Irwin, 1994; 154).
The Enfield Poltergeist
One of the most famous British poltergeist cases is that of the Enfield Poltergeist (Playfair, 1980). The activity at Enfield started on 31st August 1977 and lasted over a year, finally ending around the beginning of 1979. The family who lived in the house at the time included Mrs Harper, Rose aged 13, Janet aged 11, Pete aged 10 and Jimmy aged 7. The activity began when Pete and Janet reported that their beds were shaking, this was followed by shuffling sounds and knocking and then a heavy chest of drawers slid out of the bedroom on its own. Activity experienced at Enfield included the movement of furniture and other objects (large and small), knocking, and the poltergeist developing a voice, all of which seemed to focus around Janet. Many other people witnessed the activity at Enfield including the Harpers neighbours, the police, reporters and different types of investigators. (The case has been much discussed, and it must be noted that a minority group of the SPR investigators did not believe it to be of paranormal origin – a position Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair heartily contest.)
The Cardiff Responsive Poltergeist
Another well known British poltergeist case is the Cardiff poltergeist which was investigated by David Fontana over a period of two years from June 1989 to early 1992 (Fontana, 2006; 64-80). This case involved mostly stone throwing and some movement of objects in a lawnmower repair shop and adjoining garden accessory shop. As well as the owner John, four other middle-aged people were closely involved with the case; Pat John’s wife, Paul Pat’s brother, Paul’s wife and a business associate who worked with John in the workshop. Activity was also witnessed by visiting salesman and acquaintances of John and Pat’s family. We will refer back to both these classic modern cases in the following discussion.
Theories of the Poltergeist
There are four main theories for what causes poltergeist activity. These are fraud, misinterpretation of natural causes, The Spirit Hypothesis and Subconscious Psychokinesis or Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK). Each of these theories will be addressed in turn.
The first of these theories, that is fraud, holds that poltergeist activity is simply childish pranks (Irwin, 2004; 156) or deliberate hoaxing. When you consider that poltergeist activity is often associated with adolescent children it would suggest that children playing tricks may be a possible explanation, however if you actually look at some of the activity supposedly experienced if accurately reported fraud cannot account for this. In the Enfield case one occurrence particularly astounded the family and investigators (Playfair, 2004; 66-67). In the bedroom where the family was sleeping there was a gas fire that was cemented into the brickwork of the building. One morning while the family were still in bed there was a violent shaking sound that caused panic in the bedroom. When Playfair reached the room he discovered that the gas fire had been wrenched from the wall, it was still attached to the half-inch pipe that connected it to the mains but this was now bent at a 32 degree angle. When the investigators went to dismantle the gas fire they found it hard to move due to the weight of it. It is therefore hard to believe that this kind of activity can be faked in any way; it would not be possible for Mrs Harper or any of the children present in the room to wrench out a gas fire that is concreted into the wall.
On another occasion a researcher called David Robertson was experimenting with trying to get Janet to levitate (which she claimed to have done before) by bouncing on the bed. On one attempt Janet exclaimed ‘I been through the wall’ meaning she had passed through the wall into the bedroom of the house next door. To test whether Janet may have actually passed through solid matter David gave her a large red cushion from the living room and asked the poltergeist to make it disappear. Before he had even left the room Janet called out and the cushion had disappeared. Janet said she had thrown it at the closed window to see what would happen and it had gone through and gone onto the roof. Playfair tried to get the cushion on to the roof to see if this could be done. He found to begin with that the window was hard to get open and then he had to lean out dangerously far and reach up as far as he could to get the cushion on the roof. He did manage this but nearly fell out of the window doing this. In the amount of time Janet had before calling out and taking into account Janet’s size compared to a grown man it is inconceivable that Janet would have been able to open the window and get the cushion onto the roof.
Fraud and Misinterpretation
While some poltergeist cases can be explained by fraud, Gauld and Cornell found that 8% of the 500 cases they looked at involved total or partial trickery, this certainly cannot explain the majority of cases, especially those featuring activity that is currently beyond known human capabilities. A stronger possibility is that poltergeist activity is misinterpretation of natural events. Whereas the fraud theory states that poltergeist activity is deliberately faked this theory states that it is genuine misinterpretation. This means that noises or movement of objects is caused by vibrations from small earthquakes, the movement of water through underground streams or subsidence (GW Lambert, 1956). Cornell and Gauld looked at whether these natural events would be able to produce the kind of object movement featured in poltergeist cases by measuring the vibrations needed to produce this movement and comparing this to the vibrations produced by these events. They looked at the movement of an object in contact with a wall 6ft above the ground which is thrown a distance of 6ft and 9ft, an object in contact with a wall 3ft above the ground which is thrown 6ft and 9ft, a stone being thrown from the floor of a room to a ceiling 12ft high and a teacup flying from a table. They found that the vibrations produced by natural events were far too weak to produce the sort of object movement under consideration and in fact an earthquake would substantially damage a building before this type of movement could be produced. Therefore it would be obvious that this type of movement was being caused by natural events because anybody in the building would be able to feel the earth movement and the building may well fall down around them.
As well as not being able to explain the sort of movement considered above these natural events will not be able to explain other activity such as water inundations, fires, apports and the substantial movement of much large objects such as tables being overturned.
The Entity Hypothesis
Two theories are the most supported by researchers into the poltergeist phenomenon. The first of these is the Entity Hypothesis which states that poltergeist activity is caused by an entity, possibly the spirit of a deceased person. This theory appears suitable to explain poltergeist cases that are place-centred, as the activity is not linked to a particular person, and those that seem to display a level of intelligence. This would appear to be the best theory to explain the Cardiff poltergeist. Towards the end of the activity one of the people most closely involved with the case started to see an apparition of a young boy within the workshop, therefore it may be assumed that this was an apparition of the spirit that was causing the stone throwing activity. The activity at Cardiff also showed evidence of intelligence. Sometimes after unlocking the premises and entering the kitchen they would find that there had been attempts to lay out cutlery on the table as if ready for a meal. One day John decided to test whether somebody in the workshop was responsible and so after closing they sat with their hands visible on the counter and the stone throwing continued. A suggestion was made to request for certain tools to be bought to them. Each time they requested a tool this appeared in front of them appearing to drop down from the ceiling and John commented he would not have been able to find the tool that quickly himself in the workshop. A common feature of poltergeist phenomenon is that when objects move they appear to travel as if being carried; they appear to be lifted, carried in a straight line and then are placed down again or drop straight down as if they have been released. The stone throwing in the Cardiff case does not appear to follow this type of movement, however one day John placed an object on the far side of the workshop and attempted to hit it with stones. After unsuccessfully being able to hit the object John called out for Pete to hit it which he immediately did. Therefore although the stones in the workshop appear to be thrown and not carried Pete was able to accurately hit an object that Fontana and John were unable to hit. It appears that Pete would attempt to be helpful, was able to respond intelligently to requests and would join in games and be able to beat the people in the workshop. As will be discussed shortly this level of intelligence would appear unlikely if RSPK is responsible for poltergeist activity.
Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK)
Those that do not believe in life after death or the existence of spirits or that just do not believe that spirits are responsible for poltergeist activity may instead support the theory of Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK). The theory of RSPK says that poltergeist activity is the result of the unconscious use of psychokinesis (PK) as a way of releasing psychological tension (Irwin, 1994; 158). Psychokinesis means ‘movement by the mind’ and involves the movement or alteration of an object without any direct contact with the object (Irwin, 1994; 6). The theory of RSPK supports a claimed common factor in poltergeist activity, which is that a child around the age of puberty is usually the focus of the activity. Around this age children may experience a lot of psychological tension because their bodies are changing and they are facing become an adult and if this tension builds and this cannot be released through normal means this may result in a psychological release of PK. This release of PK may result in the movement of objects or other possible effects around the focus.
Returning to Enfield at first Janet appears to be the focus of the poltergeist activity and indeed she reached puberty and started her periods during the outbreak. However a lot of factors in this case also appear to suggest that the activity may have been caused by a spirit. The poltergeist developed a voice, which appeared to be linked to Janet as it would only speak when nobody was watching her, however the voice claimed to have lived in the house and to have died downstairs in a chair. Later when Janet was sent away from the house, although some activity did follow her activity also still continued at the house and while Janet was away an apparition of a man was seen in the living room.
It appears that although RSPK may explain some aspects of poltergeist activity such as the association with adolescents around the age of puberty that the activity seems to focus around this may not be able to account for other aspects of poltergeist activity. Very little is known about what PK actually is and even less is known about how to try and control it. As mentioned previously a common feature of poltergeist activity is that when objects move they appear to be lifted and carried; would it be possible for an object to be moved in such a controlled way by unconscious PK. Unfortunately not enough is known about PK to be able to say whether this would be possible or not, although it appears if the PK involved is unconscious it would not be possible for it to be that controlled. Would this unconscious PK also be strong enough to move larger objects such as the fireplace that was wrenched from the wall in Enfield and could this explain other activity such as fires and water inundations. It appears that trying to explain poltergeist activity with RSPK is currently using one unexplained phenomenon to try and explain another unexplained phenomenon.
A suitable explanation may be a combination of the two theories. It may be that spirits are responsible for poltergeist activity but the build up of tension within adolescents provides useful energy for the poltergeist to use and therefore they become the focus of the activity. The existence of a spirit causing the activity would explain the intelligent nature of the activity when at first it would appear that the activity is originating from the focus as subconscious and probably uncontrollable PK.
While fraud and misinterpretation of natural causes can explain a few probably very simple poltergeist cases these theories certainly can’t explain the best cases in the literature. The Entity Hypothesis seems to be most appropriate for the Cardiff poltergeist case because the activity displayed a level of intelligence that might not be expected with RSPK, and sightings of an apparition were reported during the outbreak. Although RSPK at first seems to be the most appropriate theory for Enfield because the activity appears to focus around Janet, on closer inspection of the activity experiences and as an apparition is also sighted this case appears to contain aspects of both theories. At this stage we simply can not tell if psi or entities underlie the poltergeist.