Unexplained Mysteries

The poltergeist - SCRATCHING AT THE DOOR


The poltergeist. No phenomenon is more disturbing than this. In August 1977 a poltergeist manifested in the Enfield home of a single mother and her four children. One of the most virulent and highly researched cases on record, it remained with the family for fourteen months and carried out a host of phenomena from tapping on walls, through moving objects, to levitating some of the children. One child in particular - Janet - found she could communicate with the poltergeist. At various times it took her over, during which she would speak in a deep man’s voice. At one time it claimed to be a resident of a local graveyard.


Did this poltergeist really exist, or was it a figment of the imagination? And if it did, was it really a spirit causing the trouble? The latter is the often used explanation. Researcher Guy Lyon Playfair would blame other forms of energy.

In one case he investigated, in Sao Paulo in 1973, activity began in the home of a Portuguese family when the son married. Carrying on for over six months and three house moves, Playfair himself witnessed clothes hurl themselves out of a window and a wardrobe catch fire. In the end the infestation was eased when a mystic blamed malevolent curses put on the house. The word ‘poltergeist’ is German for ‘noisy spirit’. Sometimes it even takes the form of a spirit, as happened in 1966 with the Black Monk of Pontefract. Exhibiting classic poltergeist phenomena, it eventually manifested as a black monk, seen by several members of the Pritchard family. It even physically pulled one of the children downstairs.


The earliest recorded case of a poltergeist appeared in the ‘Annales Fuldenses’ in 858. It concerned an ‘evil spirit’ which threw stones and made walls shake in a house at Bingen on the Rhine. Another famous case was the Phantom Drummer of Tedworth who infested the home of magistrate John Mompesson, beginning in 1661. A vagrant claimed responsibility in 1663. William Drury had had his drum confiscated, which he liked playing in the streets, by the magistrate. He sent the infestation to get his own back. Samuel Wesley - grandfather of the founders of Methodism - had his home infested with the poltergeist called Old Jeffrey. Phenomena seemed to cling to his daughter, Hetty and included knocking noises and inexplicable footsteps in the night. In 1878 an infestation broke out in Amherst, Nova Scotia after teenager Esther Cox was nearly raped by her boyfriend. Phenomena included noises, floating furniture and spontaneous fires; as well as a strange voice which said things such as ‘Esther, you are mine to kill.’


Various explanations for the poltergeist have been offered other than the traditional supernatural explanation. Typical is the Geo-physical Theory. Parapsychologists Alan Gauld and Anthony Cornell decided to check it out in 1961. If correct, then land disturbances and underground water movement would be responsible, vibrating the infested house. Hence, they attacked a derelict house with a vibration machine and demolition hammer. Nothing resembling poltergeist activity was found. An alternative explanation was offered by early SPR member Frank Podmore, putting infestations down to fraud, usually caused by naughty, attention-seeking children. Sometimes this is shown to be the case, but the poltergeist that attacked the lights, telephone and other office equipment in a Rosenheim lawyer’s office in 1967 in Germany confounds this explanation. With over forty witnesses to phenomena, even physicists from the Max Planck Institute failed to identify the cause.


In the Rosenheim case, German parapsychologist Hans Bender was eventually called in and he noticed that phenomena usually occurred when a young office worker called Annemarie Schneider was present. Confirmation of her complicity came when she left the job. The phenomena ceased. The case has many imitators. In 1924 the machinery in certain departments of a Yorkshire woolen mill would break down for no reason. Eventually it was noticed that whenever breakdowns occurred, a young worker called Gwynne was in the department. She was sacked and the phenomena ceased. A poltergeist in New Yorker James Hermann’s home in 1958 had a liking for smashing bottles. Researcher Gunther Pratt worked out that it only struck when James’s young son was home.


But are we talking about conscious, fraudulent children here? No. Rather, psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor had theorised back in 1945 that a poltergeist usually had a focus - invariably female and often adolescent or pubescent. The phenomena itself, he theorised, was due to personality fragments, similar to multiple personality. Anarchic psychological tension was thus blamed for the phenomenon. Such a focus can clearly be identified in most cases above, especially the Black Monk of Pontefract and the Enfield case, where Janet was showing definite signs of being a focus. Fodor came to his conclusion after studying the Bell Witch that attacked Tennessee farmer John Bell and his daughter Betsy in 1817. First attacking Betsy, the attacks moved to John, eventually killing him. Fodor argued that the cause was incestuous attacks on Betsy by her father. Hence, she was first disgusted by herself, and eventually angry with her father.


As you read this I can almost guarantee that there is a poltergeist infestation within commuting distance of you now - so prolific is this phenomenon. And the most likely cause is psychological tension within a household. The phenomena will almost certainly be mainly focused on an adolescent who will be displaying involuntary mediumistic abilities. Through multiple personality, crypomnesia and other psychological phenomena, this will manifest what appears to be spirit possession, but is simply an invasion by the unconscious, fantasising mind. However, the phenomena will be frightening to all other members of the family. And I feel it is this which defines what the poltergeist becomes.


The best way to see the poltergeist is as a form of communal psychodrama with the focus as the unconscious director. As mild phenomena breaks out, the family becomes increasingly frightened and the supernatural culture the family is descending into feeds on the fear, the end result being the complete range of phenomena available. But do objects really move during such an outbreak? Do things - children even - really levitate? Or does the family simply experience various hallucinatory forms similar to experienced during ghost visitations, for instance? The easy answer is the latter. It is all simple hallucination and hysteria, and nothing physical actually happens. But the problem becomes somewhat more complicated when we look again at hallucination.


Contrary to popular belief a hallucination is not simply seen. If intense enough, such a phenomenon can affect all the senses, with well attested cases of a hallucination being seen, heard, smelt and touched. A fully formed intense hallucination is indistinguishable from the real thing to the experiencer. Further, it is known that the mind can produce stimuli which provides physical response, a male erection produced by a sexual thought being a prime example; or a sudden jolt if you fall in a dream. Hence, is it possible that, if such a hallucination hit you, your body would react as if it were real? Evidence that this could actually happen comes from hypnosis, where it is often displayed that a suggested threat to the body can cause bodily reactions as if the threat was real. Similarly, cases exist of ice being placed on the body with the suggestion that it is a red hot poker. The result, during hypnosis, has been a physical reaction to burning. Such evidence tells us that a hallucination can have real physical effects, and it is even possible that a hallucination experienced by one can be seen by all involved in the psychodrama.


Evidence of this can come from two specific sources. Hundreds of cases of mass hysteria exist which suggest that a physical effect suffered by one person can spread simultaneously throughout a crowd. Typical is a case from Kirkby-in-Ashfield in the Midlands in 1980. During a fete, 300 children suddenly collapsed for no apparent reason. Similar cases happened in Tokyo following the Sarin gas attacks on the underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. For weeks afterwards, people suddenly collapsed, exhibiting the effects of the gas, even though no attack was being carried out. As for the second source, consider stage hypnotism, and the way the hypnotist can make people see what he wants them to see. Hence, whilst it is perhaps correct to put a poltergeist infestation down to hysteria and hallucination, the above suggests that it can nevertheless seem to have real physical effects.

© Anthony North, August 2007

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