The following article was first published in the ASSAP magazine Seriously Strange 147 Spring/Summer 2015 (p.30-31). I have added a short bibliography, but otherwise the article is as originally published. You can join ASSAP at http://www.assap.ac.uk if interested in this sort of thing. Part 2 will follow…
“Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?” So sings Holly Johnson on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1985 hit Two Tribes – YouTube. Well you can see why he might ask the question; sex and horror are staples of the cinema, and at the point that record came out Britain had experienced a moral panic over ‘video nasties’.
Now of course we are jaded – films like Hostel, Saw and The Human Caterpillar are described as torture porn, and sex and horror are still tightly entangled. It’s nothing new – The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) is a classic of the B Movie genre that exploits sex and horror in a more innocent way, but the two entwine back through theatre,to the early novels where the Gothic is all about sex and horror.
So does Art imitate Life? According to most of the ghosthunters I know, yes. After all, many of us have encountered cases like the ladies who believe ghosts are having sex with them, or the chap who believed he was attacked by a Succubus – he said incubus, but I think he meant the female variant – through to groping ghosts or their more pleasant cousins the incredibly beautiful phantom, beloved of older folklore collections where no phantom is ever plain or homely.
Occasionally one is able to help someone – if you spontaneously orgasm while lying down, it is probably worth seeing your GP, because there is a condition that causes it, and it is best to get it treated no matter how satisfying the symptoms! In other cases one just has to shrug and explain that the experience reported may be sleep paralysis (a convenient place-holder, though the actual physiology of the experience remains mysterious) or possibly psychological, but there are some places where even the boldest ghost hunter can not take their EMF meter, and a clients bed with them is one of them!
It is worth noting however that you are most likely to see a ghost at home, in your own bed according to all survey research, and yet when I try and sell ghost nights where I just come around and sleep with you no one buys tickets. Oh well, one tries…
So while a tiny percentage of cases a paranormal investigator is called upon to look at involve sexual themes, there is one kind of haunting that always seems to be associated in the popular mind, and indeed among many ‘experts’, with sex, or developing sexuality. I refer of course to the poltergeist. In the 1970’s one North American researcher joked he had a scale of charges to seduce your daughter: time and time again forty years later I read things like “there is always a young woman going through puberty associated with poltergeists” or “poltergeists never occur except around teenage girls” or “sexual frustration and powerful emotions are invariably associated with the poltergeist”. If you hold to the agent theory, that a poltergeist has a human focus, well researchers tend to look for the younger women in the household. I’m guessing many of you watched the recent adaptation on Sky of This House is Haunted, Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the Enfield poltergeist?Did you notice how, like the book, but even more so, the narrative focussed on the two girls, and Margaret’s puberty and Janet growing in to womanhood? We even get a scene in the bath featuring one of the girls first menses as I recall? In my recent look at the Enfield Case I came to focus on the boys – but they are almost missing from the narrative; one tragically died a few years later, and one was absent through many of the events at school, but seriously we will never understand Enfield till we look at the whole family, not just the girls. My gut feeling is Playfair and Grosse were on to something important, but I’m frustrated at times by the way the boys don’t feature much in the write up.
I’ve done it – in an early case, the teenage daughter seemed the obvious focus, and the fact she was a dancer and very attractive and articulate probably added to that, but eventually I came to think another family member represented the centre of events.
I have long noted that in much psychical research in the past the focus was on (attractive, vivacious, one might say alluring) young ladies. Eva C (she was a lesbian) and Baron Shrenck Notzing aside, time and time again we find accusations of romantic relationships between the older, powerful and usually well positioned man and the young, attractive and not so powerful female medium. Sir William Crookes and Florence Cook (or Katie King) are one example, and various accusations of sexual impropriety with her investigators floated around Mina Crandon, aka Margery, no matter how unjustified. These young ladies were tied up, probed and allowed to act in amanner that would not normally be possible for a woman – though Margery was maybe an exception, being a talented and strong willed woman before she dabbled in mediumship. One would need to write a detailed study of women, power and sexuality in the Victorian and Edwardian séance room, did it not already exist in the form of Alex Owen’s superb book The Darkened Room.
So what’s wrong with this? Surely the reason for all these young ladies being involved with physical and mental mediumship is because the phenomena occur around them, rather than as I seem to be suggesting because historically most psychical researchers have been ageing men, perhaps susceptible to the charms of the fairer sex? Are adolescent girls not the centre of most poltergeist cases?
It is admittedly hard to tell, but we have one tool we can use. In 1979 Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell published their magisterial work Poltergeists, in which they analysed 500 cases from across a huge range of time and place, subjecting them to factor analysis and then using a computer to see how various factors (case mainly nocturnal; phenomena occur outside; raps or knocking – that sort of thing) group together in a Cluster Analysis. If you own the book turn to pages 226 to 228 – if you don’t, head over to Amazon or similar and buy a copy. It is that good!
At first glance the data in the table seems to support the contention women are the primary agents. Out of the cases where an “agent” who seemed to be at the centre of the phenomena was identified, in 143 cases (29%) were female, and 54 (11%) were male. (In the remaining 60% of cases no clear agent can be found).
Gauld and Cornell however realised not all their cases were evidentially equal, and they analysed a subgroup of their cases with stronger testimony, comprising of just under half (247) of the cases (column 6 if you have the book open). There we have 12% male agents (30 cases), and 34% female (85 cases).
So we can at least put one myth to bed – while there appear to be a roughly 4:1 split in favour of women in these cases, a sizeable minority revolve around men, as for example was the case in Julio in the Miami gift warehouse poltergeist reported by Bill Roll. Given the tendency for researchers to look at the women first, this may possibly explain some of the difference.
So what about the age of the agent? Luckily Gauld and Cornell provide us with figures for two categories – “agent under 20” and “agent 20 or over”. 30% were under 20; 8% over 20 (in the higher testimony cases it was 37% and 9%). In short we see again a preponderance of young people, and in maybe 75% of cases a teenager features – but a good quarter do not. Now there is a complicating factor – because assuming there is a difference – and I am on record as doubting that strongly – Gauld & Cornell’s data contains some cases that can better be characterised as hauntings rather than poltergeists. Indeed they did an analysis that separates very groups by cluster, and found some haunt type ghost cases, some classic poltergeists, and a group somewhere inbetween. I ran a cluster analysis using Becky Smith’s PhD data using NVIVO, looking at her “poltergeist type cases” and I did not find a gender bias difference between polts and hauntings – but it COULD occur in the Gauld and Cornell data set – I have no way of telling. Unfortunately Becky Smith disproved from her data set the pilot study suggestion that men forget these incidents faster so are less likely to report them than women. So what is going on?
I don’t know. Historically women were perhaps more likely to be at home more than men, as were younger people. This may well account for mush of the bias, for with a few exceptions like the Miami warehouse very few poltergeists seem to manifest at work. Given they are domesticated entities, who dwell within your homes, maybe that explains the sex differential in the data?
So given my doubts about whether adolescent women, or even young women, feature heavily in the majority of poltergeist cases, and that that was proving hard to establish by statistics, I resorted to the only thing I could think of, and read every account I could find of poltergeists. I’m still doing it now, and my infrequently updated blog Polterwotsit is the place to follow my findings, but I guess I need to open the floor to other researchers, and ask – is there a link between sex and the poltergeist, and if so what is it?
Over to you, the readers of this blog – what are your thoughts?
Gauld, A; Cornell, A.D.; (1979) Poltergeists, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Owen, A (1989) The Darkened Room: Women,Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, Virago, London.
Roll, W.G., Burdick, D., & Joines, W.T. (1973) Radial and tangential forces in the Miami poltergeist. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 67, 267-281.
Roll, W.G; (2004);The Poltergeist; Paraview; New York
Smith, B. (2013) A Century of Apparitions (unpublished PhD thesis)