History of Poltergeist Activity
The German word ‘poltergeist’ roughly translates as ‘noisy spirit’ or ‘noisy ghost’. Parapsychologists often refer to the phenomenon using the rather unwieldy term ‘Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis’ (RSPK).
Common characteristics of the phenomenon are: the movement and hurling around of inanimate, often extremely heavy, objects, the opening and closing of doors and windows by no visible means, unexplained noises such as voices, moans, screams, explosions, crashes, raps, thumps, scratches and knocks on floors, doors and walls, heavy footsteps, bed-shaking, the breaking of household objects such as crockery, the destruction of garments, the throwing of stones, rocks and dirt, bad smells, mysterious fires, the appearance of pools of water on floors, the malfunctioning of electrical equipment, telephone ringing, the unexplained appearance of objects (‘apports’), apparitions and even physical assault (as in the case of Eleonore Zugun). Stone throwing is very often the first sign of poltergeist activity, with the houses of victims bombarded by stones and bricks sometimes for days (or even weeks) before any other kind of unexplained phenomenon occurs.
The Poltergeist in History
A most important point about the poltergeist phenomenon is that it has appeared throughout history over a large cross section of cultures and generally exhibited the same characteristics. First century Jewish historian Josephus describes phenomena connected with ‘possession’ that would nowadays be attributed to poltergeist activity. Jacob Grimm, one of the brothers Grimm, writing in his Deutsche Mythologie, describes a number of cases including one from Bingen-am-Rhein dated to AD355, where stones were thrown, people were pulled out of bed, and raps and loud noises were heard. Writing in his Itinerarium Cambriae (AD1191) of his tour of Wales, clergyman and chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis describes an incident at a house in Pembrokeshire where ‘unclean spirits’ threw dirt and other objects, garments were ripped and torn, and the ‘spirit’ even spoke publicly of the various secrets of people present.
These are not isolated cases, Medieval chronicles are full of such incidents. The problem, however, with these accounts of poltergeist cases is that the sources for them were not written as ‘history’ as such; medieval chronicles include many signs, wonders and miracles and are not records of ‘true’ happenings as would be accepted today.
Over the last few hundred years more famous cases include the ‘Tedworth Drummer’ of England in 1661, where a drum which belonged to an imprisoned beggar proceeded to play on its own, accompanied by various other phenomena such as the hurling about of chairs, beds with servants sleeping in them being lifted up, and loud scratching noises.
A series of bizarre and frightening incidents which took place on a Tennessee farm in 1817 has become known as the ‘Bell Witch Haunting’. The Bell Witch herself was thought by many to be the spirit of Kate Batts, one time neighbor of John Bell, owner of the farm where the disturbances took place, and who had apparently been involved in a dispute with him over land. The phenomena included apparitions of strange animals, whistling, disembodied voices, loud laughing and singing and vicious physical assaults on people at the farm, which are claimed by some to have resulted in the death of John Bell.
The Enfield and Mackenzie Poltergeist Cases
Two modern cases are the ‘Enfield Poltergeist’ and the ‘Mackenzie Poltergeist’. The former took place in 1977 in a north London council house, and the phenomena included furniture moving by itself, knockings on the walls, spontaneous fires, pools of water appearing on the floor, cold breezes, physical assaults, the appearance of graffiti, equipment malfunction and failure, and various items being thrown around the house.
The alarming series of events that make up the Mackenzie Poltergeist case took place (and according to some, are still taking place) in 1999 in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh. The events appear to have been triggered by a homeless man spending the night in a mausoleum belonging to Sir George Mackenzie, who died in 1691, and was known during his lifetime for his bloody persecution of the Covenanters, a powerful Scottish Presbyterian movement. The homeless man accidentally caused some damage to Mackenzie’s coffin and was subsequently witnessed running and screaming in terror from the site, to be found later in a state of delirium by police. Since that strange night weird phenomena have been experienced in the kirkyard and the surrounding area.
Neighbouring houses were plagued by objects flying around the rooms and crockery smashing, while visitors to the site itself experienced feelings of extreme heat or cold, suffered cuts and bruises from an unknown assailant, had their throats squeezed, coats tugged violently, and were, on occasion even knocked unconscious by an invisible force. Two subsequent exorcisms of the area failed to halt the phenomena.
Explanations for Poltergeist Activity
So what is it that causes the poltergeist phenomenon? Aside from accusations of hoax and exaggeration, which although applicable to a number of cases by no means apply to them all, the most popular theory is that the poltergeist is caused unwittingly by a human agent, usually a teenage girl. Researchers believe that a troubled adolescent unconsciously manipulates objects using psychokinesis (PK), a type of energy generated in the brain. According to researchers at the Rhine Research Center Institute for Parapsychology at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, poltergeist activity is the physical expression of psychological trauma.
However, more natural explanations are often the cause of what appears to be a poltergeist disturbance. Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) has been found to be behind at least one supposed poltergeist investigated by Midlands (UK) investigation group Paraseach, and there is an increasing amount of evidence to show that it could explain many more cases.
Perhaps this might help to cast light on poltergeist cases such as those of Eleonore Zugun and Carole Compton. However, this does not explain how enough power is generated to move objects such as heavy pieces of furniture, or to shower a room with stones, make objects appear from nowhere, or start fires, if accounts of such phenomena can be trusted.
There are also a number of poltergeist cases where the people involved have no psychological problems at all, and where there are no adolescents in the household. How can we explain these? A further point is that there are millions of troubled teenagers all over the world, but the vast majority do not cause poltergeist activity to occur. Other researchers have suggested that ‘spirit entities’ are responsible for the phenomena, perhaps generating the power by attaching themselves to suitably disturbed teenagers. But the very nature of these hypothetical ‘spirits’ means that scientifically at least, they cannot be properly investigated, though there are interesting tape recordings of a ‘voice’ from the Enfield Poltergeist case.
However, if accounts of the more extreme unexplained occurrences alleged to be caused by poltergeist activity are themselves exaggerated, or even completely unreliable, which is entirely possible in older cases, then no further explanation is required. Nevertheless, the inability to find a convincing explanation for the phenomenon, the significant amount of poltergeist cases exhibiting similar characteristics occurring over a long period of time in widely different cultures, and the bizarre but somehow consistent nature of the phenomena, make the poltergeist perhaps the most baffling and enduring of unexplained mysteries.