Poltergeist
The name of unexplained rappings, noises, and similar disturbances.
The term poltergeist (Polter Geist, or rattling ghost)
is indicative of the character of these ‘‘beings.’’ It is believed
poltergeists rarely cause serious physical injury, but can cause
much damage by breaking fragile objects and occasionally setting
fire to pieces of furniture or clothing. Supposedly a person
may be pulled out of bed or levitated.
Most psychic manifestations require darkness, but poltergeists
act in daylight. However, the movement of objects usually
happens when no one is looking. One frequently reported
claim is that objects rose or fell through the air slowly. Otherwise
objects are often seen in flight but seldom beginning to
move.
In the late nineteenth century, to explain the crashing
noises that occurred such as the sounds of breaking crockery
later found intact, Adolphe d’Assier advanced a theory in his
book Posthumous Humanity (1887). He suggested inanimate objects
also possess a double, a phantasmal image and it is the duplicate
that is flung by the poltergeist. D’Assier stated the sum
of motion a moving body possesses is found by multiplying the
mass of the moving body by its velocity and its live force at the
moment of fall is equal to half the bulk by the square of velocity.
D’Assier’s theory was discarded.
Reportedly, Italian psychical researcher Ernesto Bozzano
collected statistics on hauntings and claimed that out of 532
cases, 374 were ghostly manifestations and 158 were poltergeists.
Historical Poltergeists
Supposedly the poltergeist is not indigenous to any one
country or any particular period. Author Andrew Lang claimed
several cases belonging to the Middle Ages and at least one
dates back to 856 B.C.E. In different cultures around the world,
the reported phenomena are similar regardless of the country
of origin.
Believers claim the disturbances are particularly active in
the neighborhood of one person, generally a child, a young
woman, an epileptic, or a hysterical subject. According to the
theory advanced by Spiritualists, the center of the disturbances
is a natural medium, through whom the spirits desire to communicate
with the world of living beings. In earlier times, such
a person might be regarded as a witch, the victim of a sorcerer,
or even an evil spirit. Some believe the poltergeist developed
out of witchcraft and is a direct forerunner of modern Spiritualism,
possibly a link between the two.
Amongst the earliest poltergeist cases recorded were those
of the Drummer of Tedworth (1661) and the Epworth Phenomena
(1716). Supposedly the case of the Drummer of Tedworth
began in 1661. A vagrant drummer was taken before a
justice of the peace and deprived of his drum. The instrument
was found in the house of Mr. Mompesson. Later, disturbances
broke out in the house. Loud knockings and thumpings and
the beating of an invisible drum were heard. Articles flew
around the rooms and the beds (particularly those of the children)
were shaken. After the drummer was sentenced to leave
the manifestations ceased, but reoccurred when he returned.
Contemporary opinion classified the case as witchcraft by
the drummer. Modern psychical researchers such as Frank
Podmore believe the ‘‘two little modest girls in the bed’’ were
responsible for the knockings and scratchings of the poltergeist
rather than the drummer.
In the Epworth case, the family of the Reverend Samuel
Wesley (father of Methodist founder John Wesley) reportedly
described levitations, loud noises, and rappings, together with
apparitions such as rabbits and badgers. Podmore was of the
opinion that Hetty, one of John’s sisters, was in some way responsible
for the disturbances. Hetty did not give an individual
account of the manifestations.
Poltergeists Around the World
Supposedly in Germany, Justinus Kerner recorded a poltergeist
case in his book The Seeress of Prevorst (1845) that occurred
in 1806–07 in the Castle of Slawensik, Silesia.
In Italy, the newspaper La Stampa of Turin claimed on November
19, 1900, poltergeist occurrences in a wine and spirit
shop. Cesare Lombroso investigated the case and wrote
‘‘I went into the cellar, at first in complete darkness, and
heard a noise of broken glasses and bottles rolled at my feet.
The bottles were ranged in six compartments one above another.
In the middle was a rough table on which I had six lighted
candles placed, supposing that the spirit phenomena would
cease in the bright light. But, on the contrary, I saw three empty
bottles, standing on the ground, roll as though pushed by a finger,
and break near the table. To obviate any possible trick, I
felt and carefully examined by the light of a candle all the full
bottles which were on the racks, and assured myself that there
was no cord or string which could explain their movements.
After a few minutes first two, then four, then two other bottles
on the second and third racks detached themselves and fell to
the ground, not suddenly but as though carried by someone;
and after their descent, rather than fall, six of them broke on
the wet floor, already soaked with wine; only two remained
whole. Then at the moment of leaving the cellar, just as I was
going out, I heard another bottle break.’’
In America, reportedly in 1850, disturbances occurred in
the house of the Reverend Eliakim Phelps at Stratford, ConEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Poltergeist
1225
necticut. Twelve-year-old Harry Phelps was put in a water cistern
and suspended from a tree. Mrs. Phelps was often pinched
and pricked, and once, from a vacant room, a bottle of ink was
thrown at her white dress.
The story known as ‘‘The Great Amherst Mystery’’ (after the
1888 book by Walter Hubbell) occurred between 1878–79 at
Amherst, Nova Scotia, in the Teed family. The phenomena
centered around Esther Cox, a sister of Mrs. Teed. A cardboard
box, moving beneath the bed of its own accord, was the first
manifestation. The next night Cox’s body began to swell to an
abnormal size. Soon after, a noise, ‘‘like a peal of thunder’’
woke everyone in the house.
Supposedly the bedclothes flew off Cox’s bed, night after
night; an invisible hand wrote in the plaster ‘‘Esther Cox, you
are mine to kill.’’ Cold water on the kitchen table bubbled and
hissed like boiling water, yet its temperature remained unaffected;
and a voice announced the house would be set on fire
and for many days lighted matches were seen falling from the
ceiling on the bed.
The spirit communicated by raps, and said he was an evil
spirit bent on mischief and would torment Esther until she
died. Things became so bad that Esther left. In the house of a
friend, Mr. White, for a month everything was quiet. One day,
while Esther was scrubbing the hall floor, the brush suddenly
disappeared from under her hand. A few moments later, it fell
from the ceiling. The spirit was heard to walk about the house,
banged the doors, attempted to set the house on fire, stabbed
Esther in the back with a knife, and piled up seven chairs in the
parlor and pulled one out near the bottom allowing them to fall
with a crash. This lasted for nearly a year.
Walter Hubbell, the actor, was supposedly a witness. In
1907, the psychical researcher Hereward Carrington interviewed
some of the surviving witnesses at Amherst. The testimonies
he gathered confirmed Hubbell’s narrative.
The Staus Poltergeist
One case occurred in the home of the Joller family in Switzerland.
In 1860-62, disturbances broke out in Staus, in the
home of Mr. Joller, a lawyer. Knocks were first heard by a maid,
who also claimed she was haunted by grey shapes and the
sound of sobbing. In the autumn of 1861, she was dismissed
and another maid hired.
In the summer of 1862 the disturbances began again. Joller’s
wife and his seven children claimed to have heard and
seen many sights and sounds, though Joller remained skeptical.
After a while he was convinced that neither trickery nor
imagination would suffice as an explanation of the phenomena.
Meanwhile the manifestations appeared before thousands
who were attracted by stories of the phenomena circulating
around town. The Land-Captain Zelger, the Director of Police
Jaun, the President of the Court of Justice, and other people
arrived to investigate the disturbances and some suggested a
commission be appointed to examine the house.
Three of the police were to conduct a formal inquiry. They
demanded the withdrawal of Joller and his family, and remained
in the house for six days without witnessing anything
abnormal. They drew up a report to this effect. However, after
the Joller family returned to their home, the interruptions were
renewed. Joller became the butt of ridicule and jokes and finally
left his ancestral home.
Poltergeist Fires
Alexander Aksakof described several instances of poltergeist
fires in his book Animisme et Spiritisme (1906). One occurred
in 1870, at the country house of a Mr. Shcnapoff, near
Orenburg, Russia and was investigated by various locals. It
seems that Mrs. Shcnapoff was the medium in this case. When
she was sent away from the house, the phenomena ceased. On
one occasion a bluish phosphorescent spark was seen flying
through the air, bursting a cotton dress into flames in her bedroom.
Another time the dress she was wearing caught fire. In
extinguishing it her husband was severely burned, yet she suffered
no injury.
Sporadically, events were claimed to have occurred to justify
the Russian belief in the ‘‘domovoy,’’ the Slavic house elf who
performs various domestic duties during the night and watches
over the sleeping household. The Shcnapoff case is similar to
the Morell Theobald case where the poltergeist obligingly lit
the kitchen fires. An even more domesticated poltergeist was
recorded by J. A. Gridley in his book Astounding Facts from the
Spirit World (1854). He wrote that on one occasion the breakfast
table was laid by spirit agency.
Stone Throwing
The medieval Annales Fuldenses includes a chronicle of stone
throwing approximately 858 C.E. in the town of Bingen on the
Rhine. It was believed stones were thrown by a malignant spirit,
and they struck dwelling walls.
Joseph Glanvill in his study Sadducismus Triumphatus
(1681), recorded the witch trial of Mary London. She was a servant
girl who, in addition to vomiting pins, had stones flung at
her. The stones vanished after falling on the ground.
Poltergeists in the 1900s
In the early period of the Society for Psychical Research,
London, opinions about poltergeist phenomena were dominated
by the skeptical theories of Frank Podmore, but an alternative
view was presented by Sir William Barrett in 1911.
Amongst reported cases, Barrett investigated one at Derrygonnelly,
in Ireland, where he claimed the phenomena had intelligence.
Four times he got answers to numbers that he mentally
asked.
In 1926, Eleonore Zügun, a Romanian peasant girl, was
brought to London by psychical researcher Harry Price to
London, and studied at the National Laboratory of Psychical
Research for more than three weeks. The girl exhibited stigmata.
Poltergeists stuck pins and needles into her body. Objects
wandered around the room when she was in it. Reportedly
no fraud was detected.
Hereward Carrington investigated the Windsor Poltergeist
case involving a haunted town. Many of the Windsor residents
conspired to play a prank on an old judge to mock his belief
in Spiritualism. Carrington’s account of the hoax was published
in his book Personal Experiences in Spiritualism (1918, pp.
112–24). As is the case with many believers confronted with evidence
of having been defrauded the judge refused to accept
Carrington’s explanation and insisted the manifestations were
genuine.
One of the most interesting things about poltergeist phenomena
is that in modern times, when there has been a marked
decline in the physical phenomena of mediumship (most of
which was fraudulently produced by tricks that will no longer
work), poltergeists (not the product of fraud) continue to be reported,
and many have been accessible to parapsychologists
with modern monitoring equipment.
In Germany, the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie
(Institute for Border Areas of Psychology) under the direction
of Dr. Hans Bender has studied 35 cases of poltergeists since
World War II. Of these, the Rosenheim Case, 1967–68, attracted
the most attention. In a lawyer’s office in Rosenheim, Bavaria
electric lamp bulbs exploded, neon tubes continually went
out, fuses blew, photostatic copying machines did not work,
telephones rang or conversations were cut off unaccountably,
and sharp bangs were reported. The focus of these events
seemed to be Annemarie Sch., a nineteen-year-old employee.
The disturbances ceased when she left the office, although witnesses
claimed further events took place in her new office.
In Britain in 1977, the Enfield Poltergeist attracted wide attention.
The poltergeist effects reportedly appeared in-house
in the North London suburb of Enfield and focused its activity
around the Hodgson family, Peggy Hodgson and her four children.
Events recorded included inexplicable movements of obPoltergeist
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1226
jects, often flying through the air, levitation and transportation
of one of the children, and noisy knockings. The case was investigated
by members of the Society for Psychical Research, and
author Guy Lyon Playfair who published a book on the phenomena.
In the United States, parapsychologist William G. Roll of
the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man, made poltergeists
one of his specializations following his initial investigation
of the Seaford Poltergeist of Long Island in 1958, when
disturbances took place in the family of Mr. and Mrs. James
Herrmann and their two children. Bottles were uncapped and
the contents spilled, and toys were broken, in addition to the
usual noises and movement of objects. Roll’s monograph, The
Poltergeist (1976), summarized the parapsychological aspects of
the subject.
Sources
Barrett, Sir William. ‘‘Poltergeists, Old and New.’’ Proceedings
of the Society for Psychical Research 25, no. 64 (August
1911).
Bell, Charles Bailey. A Mysterious Spirit. N.p., 1934.
Bell, Charles Bailey, and Harriet Parks Miller. Bell Witch of
Tennessee. Reprint, Nashville, Tenn. C. Elder, 1972.
Beloff, John, ed. New Directions in Parapsychology. London
Paul Elek (Scientific Books), 1974. Reprint, Metuchen, N.J.
Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Bender, Hans. ‘‘Modern Poltergeist Research—A Plea for
an Unprejudiced Approach.’’ In New Directions in Parapsychology,
edited by John Beloff. London Paul Elek (Scientific Books),
1974. Reprint, Metuchen, N.J. Scarecrow Press, 1975.
Britten, Emma Hardinge. Nineteenth Century Miracles. N.p.,
1883.
Carrington, Hereward, and Nandor Fodor. Haunted People;
Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries. New York E. P. Dutton,
1951. Reprinted as The Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries.
London Rider, 1953.
Dingwall, E. J., K. M. Goldney, and Trevor H. Hall. The
Haunting of Borley Rectory. London Duckworth, 1955.
Fodor, Nandor. On the Trail of the Poltergeist. New York Citadel,
1958. Reprint, London Arco Publications, 1959.
Gauld, Alan, and A. D. Cornell. Poltergeists. London Routledge
& Kegan Paul, 1979.
Lang, Andrew. Cock Lane and Common-Sense. London Longmans
Green, 1896.
Owen, A. R. G. Can We Explain the Poltergeist New York
Helix Press, 1964.
Playfair, Guy Lyon. This House is Haunted; An Investigation of
the Enfield Poltergeist London Souvenir Press, 1980.
Price, Harry. ‘‘Same Account of the Poltergeist Phenomena
of Eleonore Zügun.’’ Journal of the American Society for Psychical
Research (August 1926).
Richat, Charles. Thirty Years of Psychical Research. New York
Macmillan, 1923. Reprint, New York Arno Press, 1975.
Roll, William G. The Poltergeist. Metuchen, N.J. Scarecrow
Press, 1976.
Sitwell, Sacheverell. Poltergeist. London Faber & Faber,
1940.
Thurston, Herbert. Ghosts and Poltergeists. Chicago Henry
Regnery, 1954.

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