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Haunting or Poltergeist
Saturday, 03 April 2004
Haunting or Poltergeist – The importance of forming an accurate description whilst conducting an investigation.
© Mostly Haunted 2004

Ian R Thompson BA (Hons)

Poltergeist is a word that, when translated from German, means “noisy spirit”. It is used to describe phenomena where inanimate objects are interacted with by means that are not explained rationally. For example, a vase being flung from a table by unseen forces or, loud noises coming from unknown sources. It is a phenomena that can be terrifying to those who experience it.

Poltergeist activity is also very widespread and has been reported in many forms through the years where it manifests itself in the form of flying objects, loud noises, graffiti, and electrical interference, to name but a few. However, some of these phenomena have also been reported in “conventional” hauntings. So the question is: how do paranormal investigators form an accurate description of the case that they are investigating? What is a haunting, and what is a Poltergeist?

Perhaps the single most important factor to recognize in these cases has got to be the violence experienced. Forget about objects simply moving. A trigger object that moves in a controlled environment is not a Poltergeist. Nor is a rapping noise heard in a supposedly haunted room. These can all be regarded as hauntings. When the level of violence increases then it is perhaps important to consider that there is something more than a simple haunting taking place. The term violence is not used to describe actual attacks on people, as some may interpret the meaning to be, but to describe the nature in which objects move, or noises are heard. Indeed, in some Poltergeist reports physical assaults do take place against humans. When objects are thrown with force about a room, or rapping noises are so loud that they cause windows to shake, then it can be suggested that the level of violence has increased to above that which would be expected in a “normal” haunting. It is at this point when the investigator should look at the way in which they are to describe the phenomena that they are investigating. In addition to this “level of violence” the investigator should look at other factors such as the existence of other patterns within the case.

Many studies have been carried out to investigate Poltergeist activity during the twentieth century and these have led to some useful identifying factors that help the investigator make an accurate decision to whether the phenomena is down to a Poltergeist or not. From the findings of these studies it has been found that Poltergeist activity usually starts very suddenly with little or no build up, and can stop almost as quickly. This differs in some respects to hauntings where there is a gradual build up of phenomena or an established pattern. In addition, Poltergeist activity usually occurs when a certain person is present so, for an investigator to refer to a trigger object moving in a controlled environment (such as a locked and empty room), as Poltergeist activity may be an inaccurate and naive description. This person, who seems to be around when the Poltergeist activity is occurring, is known as the “agent”. It has been found through studies that the “agent” is likely to be a female under the age of twenty five years old. The increase of research into the paranormal during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reinforced the theory that poltergeist activity was a genuine phenomenon. Among the early investigators were two founders of the Society for Psychical Research, Sir William Barrett and Fredric W. H. Meyers. Meyers believed that poltergeist activity was a genuine phenomenon and that it was totally distinguishable from ghost hauntings.

In the late 1970s two parapsychologists; Alan Gauld and A.D. Cornell gathered as many reported Poltergeist cases as possible since 1800. From their subsequent analysis they identified 63 general characteristics that included: rapping noises, movement of small and large objects, and phenomena taking place at night. From this analysis only two percent of these reports were attributed to spirits of dead people being responsible by the persons reporting them.

In the 1930s the psychologist Nandor Fodor continued to advance the theory that Poltergeist phenomena were not caused by spirits but by human agents. Fodor claimed that these agents were suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension. This energy, he claimed, caused the phenomena to occur. In 1938 Fodor successfully demonstrated his theory in several cases that he investigated. The most high profile of these was the “Thornton Heath Poltergeist” which involved a woman whose repressions caused a poltergeist outbreak and an apparent vampire attack.

William Roll of the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, North Carolina, continued the psychological theory during the 1960s. He studied 116 written reports of poltergeist cases spanning over four centuries in more one hundred countries and he identified patterns that he labeled "recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis" (RSPK), inexplicable, spontaneous physical occurrences. Roll claimed that the most common agent for Poltergeist phenomena was a child or teenager whose unwitting psychokinetic energy (PK) was a way of expressing hostility without the fear of punishment. Roll found that the agents were mainly in the stages of puberty and were female rather than male. The agent was also unaware of being the cause of such disturbances, but was, at the same time, secretly or openly pleased that the phenomena had taken place.

Other studies have also looked at agents and found that many are in poor mental and physical health or, are vulnerable to stress. People having unresolved emotional tensions have also been associated with houses where Poltergeist activity has been involved. When studying the personalities of agents, psychologists noted incidences of: conversion hysteria, phobias, mania, obsessions, and schizophrenia. In some of these cases the agent undergoing therapy eliminated the Poltergeist activity.

However, the theory that Poltergeist activity is the result of a psychological dysfunction has been disputed by other researchers. Gauld and Cornell claimed that the psychological tests employed by other investigators were invalid. Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson proposed that spirits of the dead may account for more Poltergeist activity than initially thought. In his study of a number of cases attributed to both agents and to spirits of the dead, Stevenson noted significance differences, mainly that the phenomena in living agent cases was without purpose and often violent, while cases involving spirits of the dead featured intelligent communication, purposeful movement of objects, and very little violence. Stevenson’s findings, although not supporting the psychological dysfunction theory of Poltergeist phenomena, do support the theory that Poltergeist phenomena linked to a human agent is distinguishable from phenomena attributed to spirits of dead people.

It is important for the paranormal investigator to realize that there is a difference between Poltergeist phenomena and hauntings as the continuing investigation may suffer as a result. The increased level of violence and the presence of a human agent should lead the investigator down the “Poltergeist path” in which the agent and the incidence of phenomena should become the subject of the investigation in an attempt to find a causal link. With a low level of violence and no human agent present then the investigator should classify the investigation as a “haunting” and possibly look to identifying reasons why that haunting is taking place within the history and fabric of the location.

Further Reading

Fodor, Nando On the Trail of the Poltergeist New York: Citadel Press, 1958
Gauld, Alan, and Cornell, A. D. Poltergeists. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982
Goss, M. Poltergeists: An Annotated Bibliography of Works in English, circa 1880-1975. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1979
Owen, A.R.G. Can We Explain the Poltergeist? New York: Helix Press, 1964
Roll, William G. The Poltergeist. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976. (Signet, 1972)
Stevenson, Ian. Children Who Remember Past Lives, A Question of Reincarnation. Charlottesville, VA: The University Press of Virginia, 1992.
Stevenson, Ian. Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1997.
Thurston, H. Ghosts and Poltergeists. Ridgefield, CT: Roman Catholic Books, 1998 (originally published by Burns Oates, London in 1953)
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