In the context of the paranormal, a poltergeist is a spirit which manifests its presence by making noises, moving objects, and assaulting people and animals. Such a spirit’s actions can range from the mischievous to malevolent and various theories like the actual presence of dangerous spirits or psychokinesis or merely pranks have been put forward to explain the activities of such poltergeists.
What do the poltergeists do?
The most common reports of poltergeist activities usually mention rains of stones, dirt, and other small objects taking place for no accountable reason. Objects, including large pieces of furniture appear to move or thrown about by an invisible agent. There could be loud noises and shrieks from no apparent source. It seems that poltergeists have adapted to the development of technology. They are known to have caused interference in telephones and electronic equipment, and turning lights and appliances on and off. At the other extreme, poltergeists can engage physical assault as well ranging from petty attacks on human beings, such as pinching and biting to far more dangerous instances of hitting and sexual attack.
When are they active?
Generally poltergeist activity starts and stops abruptly. The duration of it may extend over several hours to several months; however, some cases have been reported to last over several years. According to experts of the paranormal, the activity almost always occurs at night and is instigated by the presence of certain types of persons. Typically this is the "agent," an individual who seems to serve as a focus or magnet for the activity. In most cases the agent is a factor, both in cases where poltergeist activity is considered of supernatural origin or that may be caused by human psychokinesis. The agent is usually female and under the age of twenty.
Explanations of poltergeist activity
The term "poltergeist" comes from the German poltern, "to knock," and geist, "spirit." various theories have been put forward to explain poltergeist activity ranging from complicated pranks played upon the impressionable to the ability of psychokinesis and even presence of actual supernatural agents.
- At one extreme of the spectrum of belief is the explanation put forth by believers in the paranormal. According to them Poltergeist activity is the work of malicious ghosts. Allan Kardec, the founder of Spiritism, belonged to this group who theorized that poltergeists are manifestations of disembodied spirits of low level, belonging to the sixth class of the third order. They are believed to be closely associated with various elements like fire, air, water, ether and earth.
- In the field of parapsychology, poltergeist activity has been explained as a form of psychokinesis or telekinesis. These terms refer to the direct influence of mind on a physical system that cannot be entirely accounted for by the mediation of any known physical energy. If one of the examples of psychokinesis or telekinesis includes distorting or moving an object without any physical agency, then poltergeist action may be explained as the movement brought about by an individual in his/her material surroundings with the power of his/her mind. Other examples of psychokinesis include influencing the output of a random number generator or the throw of the dice. However many skeptics believe that psychokinesis itself is a suspect theory and such experiments have historically been criticized for lack of proper controls and repeatability. At the same time, skeptics have pointed out at some experiments that have created illusions of psychokinesis where none exists, and these illusions depend to an extent on the subject's prior belief in the theories.
- Nevertheless the theory of psychokinesis was the most popular explanation for investigators into poltergeist phenomena. Psychologist and parapsychologist Nandor Fodor adopted the theory and developed it in addition to psychopathology to explain poltergeist activity. In the 1930s the Fodor advanced the theory that some poltergeist disturbances were caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension. Fodor demonstrated his theory in several cases, including the most famous "Thormton Heath Poltergeist" in England, which he investigated in 1938. The case involved a woman whose repressions caused a poltergeist outbreak and apparently a vampire attack.
William Roll, project director of the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, North Carolina, further explored this psychological dysfunction theory. Starting in the 1960s, Roll studied 116 written reports of poltergeist cases spanning over four centuries in more one hundred countries. Roll identified patterns that he labeled "recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis" in which the most common agent was a child or teenager whose unwitting psychokinesis was a way of expressing hostility without the fear of punishment. The individual was not aware of being the cause of such disturbances, but was, at the same time, secretly or openly pleased that they occurred. The psychopathological explanation of poltergeist activity has by far been the most widely accepted among researchers of the phenomena. Patient having unresolved emotional tensions have been associated with houses where poltergeist activity has been reported. When studying the personalities of agents psychologists found anxiety reactions, conversion hysteria, phobias, mania, obsessions, dissociative reactions, and schizophrenia. In some cases therapy eliminated the poltergeist activity.
However not all psychologists are convinced of this explanation for poltergeist activity and indeed of the existence of the phenomena itself. The psychological dysfunction theory has been disputed by other researchers, including Gauld and Cornell who said the psychological tests employed were invalid.
- Among other theories put forth to explain poltergeist activity are those that have focused on geophysical forces. For instance psychical investigator Guy William Lambert explained that an underground water course may flow under "haunted" locations and that after heavy rainfall the stream could cause structural movement of the property, possibly causing the house to vibrate and move objects. Likewise Michael Persinger, a neuroscientist has theorized that seismic activity could cause poltergeist phenomena and in his case studies he showed a complex interaction between geomagnetism, household electrical equipment and the brain physiology of the individual. Some skeptics like Milbourne Christopher have attributed poltergeist activity to freak air currents even, such as a 1957 case on Cape Cod where downdrafts from an uncovered chimney became strong enough to blow a mirror off of a wall and knock things off shelves.
Like many other phenomena inhabiting the grey region between rational and irrational, poltergeists too have evoked diverse reactions and explanations down the years and the matter is by no means over yet.