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Poltergeists - a phenomenon worthy of serious study.

FOLKLORISTS FOCUS ON STORIES, tales, legends, proverbs, riddles, and jokes -- all genres that contain artistic elements and lend themselves easily to analysis and comparative studies. In the area of folk belief, studies in the past have concentrated mainly on such genres as ghost stories or superstitions, both of which feature verbal art and the expressive use of language. However, we neglect hundreds of other folk beliefs not nearly as entertaining or as easy to study. Often these beliefs pose a special problem for folklorists, since people may seldom express them, or the activities related to the beliefs may rarely occur.

One of the more interesting of these obscure folk/popular traditions in Europe, England, and America (and probably elsewhere as well) is the "poltergeist phenomenon." The term derives from the German ("polter" meaning "noise" or "racket," and "geist" meaning "spirit"), and traditionally referred to specific types of activity that have no demonstrable cause but were believed to be the activity of pesky little spirits: objects flying through the air and perhaps striking someone, furniture or walls moving or shaking, or the production of rapping noises or sounds that imitate the human voice. For most of us, this and other "unexplainable" phenomena seem too bizarre and far-fetched to warrant further study. The folklorist, however, recognizes in the poltergeist phenomenon something that contains surprisingly more than meets the eye.

Poltergeist outbreaks occur rarely, and last only a very short time, perhaps only days, thus making difficult serious investigation or scientific analysis; by the time the reports reach folklorists or other researchers, the "attacks" have stopped as mysteriously as they started. Observers notice that the activities center around a particular person -- usually, but not always, an adolescent female -- only during that person's waking hours. One of the most famous cases of poltergeistery in the United States occurred in Hydeville, New York about 1848 in the home of John D. Fox. His three daughters noticed a recurrence of mysterious rappings suggesting a code of spirit communication -- one rap for no, two raps for doubtful, and three raps for yes, with a more complicated code for longer messages. The Fox sisters eventually became "mediums" in the Spiritualist movement, whose followers believed the rappings to be messages from the dead. Sometime later one of the sisters apparently admitted that the "spirit knocks" were produced fraudulently, thus giving weight to the theory that poltergeist cases always involve trickery. (Perhaps the Fox sisters did indeed have "genuine" poltergeist experiences in the beginning, but were never able to reproduce them and thus resorted to fraud.)

Before the advancements of information technology, sporadic reports of poltergeistery appeared in the United States, Britain, and Europe. More recently, about once or twice annually, we have reports of activity that we recognize as poltergeistery, even though that word may never be used. Merely because a newspaper or television program publicizes a mysterious event does not mean, of course, that the phenomenon is genuine or that no fraud is involved. However, because reports of poltergeistery come very often from sensible, disinterested witnesses and bear striking similarities, we may conclude that either the events really happened or that the observers are somehow influenced to believe that similar activities occurred. In any case, this phenomenon deserves very careful consideration by scholars from various disciplines.

We tend to discount reports of anything unconventional or strange from centuries past, as if almost everyone who lived before the mid-20th century had superstitious beliefs and therefore could not possibly be objective. Some accounts, however, appear to be so rational that we take notice. For example, the Reverend Glanvill, a 17th century philosopher and scholar, described in a very sensible and straightforward manner what came to be known as "The Drummer of Tidworth," a classic poltergeist case. In 1666 Glanvill himself had observed noises and movements coming from the head of the bed where two prepubescent girls were lying with their hands in plain view; he could find no physical cause for the noises, nor could he discover any trickery.

Most of us would express skepticism about the Tidworth case, but more recent accounts of such activity are difficult to discount entirely. One of the best documented cases involved an 11-year-old Scottish girl named Virginia who in 1960 heard noises like a ball bouncing in her bedroom; the sound followed her downstairs when she went to tell her parents. While Virginia took part in tea next day, her parents noticed a sideboard move five inches away from the wall, and then return to its original place. The parents asked reliable witnesses, none of whom were connected to the family, to visit the home and Virginia's school to observe the phenomena; these observers included a minister, three medical doctors and Virginia's teacher. All these observers independently prepared very detailed, corroborative statements describing reports of the following activities at different times in both the bedroom and the school: violent knocking sounds coming from the headboard of Virginia's bed while she was lying in it, the movement of a linen chest for a distance of about 18 inches before it returned to its original place, a "sawing" noise, a rippling motion of the bed covers and movement of the pillow, the raising of the desks of both Virginia and her teacher, and the movement of objects in the classroom. The observers attempted to film some of the activity with little success, since the duration was always short; they did, however, manage to record some of the sounds. The observers apparently did not believe that an evil spirit caused the commotion, but nevertheless held a service of "intercession" in the house. As is typical in poltergeist cases, the activities began to wane and then disappeared completely in a few weeks.(1)

During the week of February 14, 1993 the television program "Unsolved Mysteries" (NBC) featured a typical "poltergeist" case centering around an apparently distraught young man who had been furloughed from prison to attend his grandfather's funeral. According to the broadcast, bizarre and unexplainable events followed the young man for a few weeks, both while he was spending the weekend with friends and after his return to his prison cell: "rain" dripping from the ceiling, objects in the rooms moving, a "force" that knocked the young man across the room, and enough intense heat coming from the young man's hands to cause a crucifix he was holding to inflict a burn. According to the report, several unbiased observers, including policemen, jailors and ministers, witnessed and corroborated the events. Although the producers of the program did not offer any explanation, they did quote a minister who suggested that an evil spirit was at work. After just a short while, perhaps a few days or a couple of weeks, the activities "mysteriously stopped and never came again." Folklorists would recognize this as a typical "poltergeist" case: an episode quite short in duration that involved movement of physical objects or physical activity, centering around an intense, psychologically disturbed young person.

Spiritualists, of course, believe that the movements and the noises are caused by a spirit, either living or dead; they might also insist that the victim herself has a spirit that she can project into the outside world. Naturally we cannot put beliefs of this sort to any kind of test, nor would most people accept them as valid.

A more physical explanation calls attention to the tremendous energy, the "electricity," coming from the bodies of people who are either young or disturbed, though scientists have yet to demonstrate that these electrical forces can have an effect on the world outside. Psychological factors must be considered, however, since many poltergeist cases center around people who suffer from rather severe repression and other emotional and physical disorders. A psycho-physical approach would cause us to conjecture that poltergeistery may be a means of curing hysterical anxiety by converting it and projecting it into the outside environment. The poltergeist activity may represent the repressed feelings and fears that find expression in interaction with the outside world. As with most bouts of sickness, the poltergeist episode is shortlived, running its course in a couple of weeks.

As we have noted, because poltergeist activity occurs rarely and lasts such a short time, objective study would naturally prove extremely difficult. The most serious obstacle to overcome, however, lies in the belief that if one hears noises or sees objects move, then most certainly we can find a "scientific," "natural" explanation such as trickery, sounds of the wind, or plumbing problems. The traditional scientific community would scoff at a study attempting to demonstrate that a human being, consciously or unconsciously, with no apparent effort, could cause significant changes in the outside physical environment. Many lay people, however, are ready and even eager to suspect, on one level, that an American Indian or an Asian holy man or perhaps even a group of Christians in prayer might affect the physical world, let us say, causing it to rain.

Now that poltergeists have captured the attention of television programs, perhaps we will be motivated to study and understand the phenomenon. Although we can expect paranormal psychologists and folklorists to be first on the scene after a report of poltergeistery, psychologists and physicists must also cooperate to unravel the questions posed. In addition, perhaps we should look to the new physics for help in understanding how a person could cause changes in the physical environment. Quantum theory now challenges the classical concepts of solid objects and of strictly deterministic laws of nature, and reveals the oneness of the universe in which subatomic particles have no meaning as isolated entities. (2) Clearly, only in a multidisciplinary context can we begin to understand poltergeist activity. Perhaps at some future date physicists may demonstrate that the impish trickster friends who have plagued us for centuries represent nothing more than "psychophysical" activity.


1. Owen, Alan R. G. (1964), Can We Explain the Poltergeist (London: Garrett).

2. Capra, Fritjof (1991), The Tao of Physics (Boston: Shambala)

Joyce Bynum received a Master's degree in Folklore from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught Folklore at the University of California Extension and San Francisco State University.
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Title Annotation:Folklore: Maps and Territories
Author:Bynum, Joyce
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:An exploratory analysis of responses to owned messages in interpersonal communication.
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