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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, Connecticut. 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 objects, 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.


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 ResearchA 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.


views updated Jun 27 2018


A term that signifies some type of force to which is attributed a set of spontaneous, puzzling, and troublesome occurrences. The term is derived from the German Polter, meaning noise, and Geist, meaning spirit. Paranormal occurrences reported in poltergeist cases are classified by parapsychologists as physical psi-phenomena. These take the form of noises, self-propelled stones, the popping of bottle caps, and the like. Apparently these occurrences are never dangerous to persons, but they are perturbing and frightening.

Poltergeist Phenomena. Series of poltergeist phenomena begin and end spontaneously. Such occurrences differ from the physical phenomena reported in séances. Raps, sounds, and "voices" that are part of a séance have a purpose: usually to confirm the power of the medium. Poltergeist phenomena occur for no obvious purpose and on no special occasion; they are completely unpredictable. For this reason, scientists have difficulty finding reliable methods of investigation. Frequently all that the trained specialist can do is report the occurrences and judge whether or not there is evidence of deception.

Poltergeist activities differ from cases of diabolic possession. In most reports of possession, a human person is possessed or obsessed. A poltergeist "force" remains aloof and operates through no human medium or instrument. Such phenomena differ also from reported cases of "haunted houses." Poltergeist incidents are of relatively short duration and are of a mischievous nature; "hauntings" are reputed to be more permanent and threatening. Though the name suggests specters and goblins, poltergeist has become a technical term with no religious or occult connotations.

There have been reports of poltergeist phenomena throughout man's history and from every part of the world. Before man began to investigate such occurrences closely, there was a readiness to believe in the reality of occult phenomena and to attribute them to some ephemeral being. It is difficult to sift the legendary from the real; thus, most reports in history have to be discounted. Nonetheless, there are accounts of poltergeist phenomena that seem above suspicion of deception. Scientific proof does not rest on these alone.

Systematic Study. In England the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1882 with the express purpose of studying all paranormal phenomena scientifically. Sir William Barrett and other cautious scientists have admitted that deception was not present in all of the many poltergeist cases investigated. Since its foundation the society has tried to study every report of poltergeist occurrence; reports of these investigations can be read in its Proceedings.

Meanwhile Charles Richet devoted himself to the study of poltergeists and other paranormal phenomena in France. His work attracted others: in 1919 the International Metapsychical Institute and in 1941 the French Association for Parapsychological Studies were formed. Both proposed to study psi-phenomena scientifically, although they did not bar practitioners of the occult from membership. In Belgium a similar committee was begun to research paranormal phenomena systematically; mediums and spiritists were there excluded.

In the U.S. the Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1884. Eminent scholars, such as Henry Sidgwick (18381900), William james, and Josiah royce, have been members. More than 500 poltergeist phenomena have been carefully investigated. None has been so thoroughly covered as the poltergeist reported at Seaford, N.Y., in 1958. J. G. Pratt, of Duke University, studied this occurrence while it was still active. While fraud was definitely ruled out, this one case did not provide sufficient material on which to base answers to all questions concerning poltergeists.

Explanation. The general conviction of those who have studied poltergeist phenomena is that there is definitely something in operation that cannot be explained by normal physical causes.

Examining the evidence compiled, one can detect some elements of uniformity. There seems to be one person,

an "agent," whose presence coincides with the occurrences. While this person is not the observed performer of poltergeist phenomena, his presence is apparently necessary. Also, such phenomena take place in homes in which there are children. The principal agent considered necessary is most often an adolescent; only rarely is he an adult.

Fraud has been discovered in some cases. Even young people can learn to perform magical tricks, and this could explain some of the reported phenomena. However, certain phenomena cannot be explained as sleight-of-hand. The presence of deception in some cases is not, in itself, reason to suppose that fraud is present in every case. Usually there is no evident motive for fraud. Nothing can be gained by the performance of complicated and difficult pranks, unless it is momentary notoriety. This seems an insufficient motive for all cases. Fraudulent cases would be stopped only by the decision of the deceiver. Yet in some cases the occurrences dramatically ceased after the recital of a religious prayer.

In those cases in which fraud cannot be proved, there is little on which to base a theory or explanation. The popular belief is that these occurrences, since they exhibit a certain intelligence, are the work of a "playful ghost."

There is no scientific foundation for such an explanation. A more technical hypothesis is proposed: poltergeist phenomena are merely psychokinetic phenomena set in motion by the subconscious mind of some uninhibited person in the household, e.g., the adolescent agent.

The reaction of the Catholic Church to poltergeists is one of caution. In her Ritual and manuals of theology, she advises her subjects to be very slow to attribute such phenomena to angelic or diabolic spirits. When it is clear that the occurrences are of a nonreligious nature, the Church does not interfereparticularly when the phenomena are under scientific investigation. It is only when some theory takes on religious implications that she speaks out. Indeed, she welcomes explanations providing natural or normal causes for occurrences once erroneously believed to be the work of God or the devil.

Bibliography: j. g. pratt, Parapsychology: An Insider's View of ESP (New York 1964). r. omez, Psychical Phenomena, tr. r. haynes (New York 1958). h. thurston, Ghosts and Poltergeists, ed. j. h. crehan (Chicago 1954).

[c. p. svoboda]


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Poltergeist ★★★★ 1982 (PG)

This production has Stephen Spielberg written all over it. A young family's home becomes a house of horrors when they are terrorized by menancing spirits who abduct their fiveyearold daughter…through the TV screen! Rollercoaster thrills and chills, dazzling special effects, and perfectly timed humor highlight this stupendously scary ghost story. 114m/C VHS, DVD . JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O'Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Richard Lawson, James Karen, Michael McManus; D: Tobe Hooper; W: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor; C: Matthew F. Leonetti; M: Jerry Goldsmith.


views updated May 11 2018

pol·ter·geist / ˈpōltərˌgīst/ • n. a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as loud noises and objects thrown around.


views updated May 29 2018

poltergeist a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as making loud noises and throwing objects about. The term comes (in the mid 19th century) from German Poltergeist, from poltern ‘create a disturbance’ + Geist ‘ghost’.


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poltergeist XIX. — G., f. poltern make a noise, create a disturbance + geist GHOST.


views updated Jun 08 2018

poltergeist Noisy spirit or ghost, supposedly responsible for unexplained sounds and activity. Such noises often occur during seances and allegedly attest to the presence of supernatural beings.