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"...hearing is the easiest of the five senses to deceive." --Milbourne Christopher
A poltergeist is, literally, a "noisy or mischievous spirit." Poltergeists make their presence known by rapping sounds, by throwing inanimate objects around, by electrical disturbances, or by lighting fires.
Parapsychologist William Roll thinks poltergeist events are actually cases of psychokinesis -- "recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis." Craig Hamilton-Parker agrees. He thinks that "most reported accounts of poltergeists centre around adolescents who've had a very unhappy childhood." Roll and Hamilton-Parker do not believe that poltergeists are ghosts or conscious entities. According to Hamilton-Parker, poltergeists "result from psychokinetic energy projected from" a person whose "inner problems" express themselves by making objects move. He claims that Uri Geller is able to bend spoons by using this same kind of energy.
Another possibility, however, is that some poltergeist experiences are simply perceptual misinterpretations, e.g., seeing things move that never moved or attributing sounds or movement of inanimate objects to spirits when one can't detect the source. At least this explanation has the virtue of relieving us of the requirement of multiplying entities unnecessarily.
Milbourne Christopher tells the story of Maude Connolly, a widow living with two adopted daughters in Cape Cod in 1957. They were watching television one evening when
papers in the living room began whirling in the air, and ornaments fell from a knickknack shelf and crashed to the floor....A heavy mirror fell from the bedroom wall and an ash tray that had been resting on a table with a glass top slammed against the surface with such force that the glass was shattered. (Christopher 1970: 142)
But that wasn't the end of it. The next morning she found an imitation fireplace and a couple of chairs overturned in the living room. Such things went on for four days. A building inspector suggested the problem might be coming from the fireplace, so Mrs. Connolly hired someone to put a protective covering over the chimney top. "From that moment on, the objects stayed put" (Christopher 1970: 142). Mrs. Connolly was not a superstitious woman and attributed the events to powerful drafts swirling down the chimney and disturbing objects in their path. When confronted with poltergeist activity one should not rule out such natural factors as drafts of wind.
Now, I can't prove that the events in Connolly's house were caused by downdrafts. In fact, I can't even prove that these events happened. Milbourne Christopher has a stellar reputation and I have no reason to mistrust his account. Nevertheless, he could be hoaxing us for some strange reason. But even if I did prove that Christopher's account is completely accurate, that would only account for this one "haunting" in this one place at this one particular time. Dozens of other similar events could have completely different causes. Yet, even if I provided plausible physical explanations for a million poltergeists in a million different places at a million different times, there is always the possibility that the next one that pops up will be the real thing. So, those who believe in poltergeists, ghosts, and haunted houses can always take refuge in the fact that nobody ever has enough information to debunk every ghost story, and even if they did, the next one might prove the debunkers wrong!
As I note in the entry on haunted houses:
As a skeptic, all I can say with confidence is that when one considers the requirements for a ghost story to be true, the most reasonable position is that there is a naturalistic explanation for all these stories, but we often do not or cannot have all the details necessary to provide that explanation. We must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is always incomplete and selective, and which is often passed on by interested, inexperienced, superstitious parties who are ignorant of basic physical laws. Thus, there will always be stories like the "Bell Witch" story that attract much attention, especially when made into movies, that will lead many people to think that maybe there is something to this one, even if all the other ghost stories are false. The "Bell Witch" is alleged to be "a sinister entity that tormented a family on Tennessee’s frontier between the years of 1817 and 1821."* The likelihood that we don't have all the evidence in this case is proportionate to the number of years that have passed since the events allegedly took place.
Christopher relates several poltergeist investigations that turned out to be the work of bored or agitated adolescents and adults. One group of four youngsters was asked why they had terrorized a teacher and the children attending their rural schoolhouse in North Dakota. "They admitted that when they had found their teacher and their parents so gullible, so easy to mystify, they thoroughly enjoyed the excitement and the publicity their pranks had provoked" (Christopher 1970: 149).
One of the more famous cases in poltergeist history is the case of the Seaford Poltergeist, investigated by J. B. Rhine's associate J. G. Pratt. One of the stranger events attributed to this poltergeist was the spontaneous popping of bottles and the subsequent spilling of their contents in different rooms of a house at 1648 Redwood Path in Seaford, Long Island, New York. The paranormal investigators and the press who covered the story were baffled. Milbourne Christopher notes that "as a study of human response to the unexplained," the Seaford case is "without parallel. What does an average family do when strange events, apparently of supernormal origin, upset their normal pattern of living? What solutions are offered? How does the public at large react?" (Christopher 1970: 150). J. G. Pratt put it this way:
[T]he Seaford case may in the long run be remembered as an episode that contributed to the advance of the psi revolution by serving as a gauge of public interest in such matters. We reached - I repeat - no conclusion regarding the case itself, but one conclusion was brought home to us with the force of a new volcano erupting in one's own back yard: people everywhere are intensely interested in such unexplained human experiences as the Herrmanns had to endure! And they are interested in the scientific approach to these things - to the whole problem of psi phenomena - as shown by the fact that it was not until the two halves of the "atomic charge," the case itself on the one hand and the investigator from the Parapsychology Laboratory on the other hand, came together that the potential energy exceeded the critical level and there resulted the explosion of publicity heard around the world.*
Christopher notes that the only ones in the house when the first bottle-popping and liquid-spilling events occurred were Mrs. Lucille Herrmann and her two children, aged twelve and thirteen. When they investigated the popping sounds they found in one room an open bottle of holy water on its side with liquid spilling out. The cap was "some distance away." In another room two more open and pouring bottles were found. In the kitchen, they found a spilled bottle of liquid starch and in the basement there was a spilled container of liquid bleach.
A few days after the initial incident, Mr. Herrmann was chatting with his son, 12-year-old Jimmy, who was brushing his teeth. Mr. Herrmann saw two bottles move off a shelf and onto the floor. A few weeks later a visitor was watching TV with the children when a porcelain figurine took off from an end table and flew about two feet before falling to the ground. The visitor swore the children weren't near enough to the item to have moved it. The same thing happened a few days later while Mr. Herrmann was in New York to appear on the Jack Paar show. Somebody suggested that the cause might be high-frequency radio signals. Robert Zider, "a technician associated with the builders of a 35-billion [electron?]-volt synchrotron at the Brookhaven Laboratory of the Atomic Energy Commission" came to do a scientific investigation. But he showed up with a dowsing rod and speculated that jet airplanes might be having supersonic impacts on a local reservoir which might be sending out energy waves that traversed underground streams that flowed beneath the Herrmann's house (Christopher 1970: 153).
Milbourne Christopher, then president of the Society of American Magicians, heard Mr. Herrmann's plea on a television show for someone to solve the problem. So, he called the detective on the case and told him who he was and that he could duplicate all the events the Herrmann's were experiencing "by perfectly natural means." But, according to the detective, Mr. Herrmann didn't want a magician in the house. He said he wanted the government or scientists to help him, not "charlatans, mystics, mediums, or magicians." To which Christopher said: " I could understand his objection to the first three categories, but not the fourth" (Christopher 1970: 156). When Mrs. Connolly phoned to advise the Herrmanns to cover up their chimney, however, Mr. Herrmann had a chimney cap installed to no avail.
Even though Mr. Herrmann was not interested in Christopher's offer to duplicate the phenomena, the media were and the magician did six demonstrations for them. When Pratt visited Christopher "a china figurine leapt from a bookcase shelf and landed some eight feet away." Pratt knew it was magic but he couldn't figure out the trick. For those interested in more details, I suggest you read Christopher's delightful and enlightening book ESP, Seers & Psychics: what the occult really is. I will mention just one thing: some items that people think move on their own are actually thrown. People often think they see what they did not actually see. And we are ill-equipped to locate the precise direction of a sound because of the design of our outer ear (New Scientist, "Animal superpowers," 24/31 December 2005).
William Roll investigated the Resch case and declared it authentic. In 1984, Tina was 14 years old and living in Columbus, Ohio. Newspaper reports testified to her chaotic household where telephones would fly, lamps would swing and fall, all accompanied by loud noises. James Randi also investigated the case and found that Tina was hoaxing her adoptive parents and using the media attention to assist her quest to find her biological parents.
A video camera from a visiting TV crew that was inadvertently left running, recorded Tina cheating by surreptitiously pulling over a lamp while unobserved. The other occurrences were shown to be inventions of the press or highly exaggerated descriptions of quite explainable events. (Randi 1995).
Randi also notes that ten years later "Tina Resch was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of her three-year-old daughter."
books and articles
Randi, James. 1985. "Columbus poltergeist." Skeptical Inquirer. vol. 9, no. 3. reprinted in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. Prometheus Books, 1986.