Poltergeists - a Phenomenon Worthy of Serious Study

By Bynum, Joyce | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

Poltergeists - a Phenomenon Worthy of Serious Study


Bynum, Joyce, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


FOLKLORISTS FOCUS ON STORIES, tales, legends, proverbs, riddles, and jokes -- all genres that contain artistic elements and lend themselves easily to analysis and comparative studies. In the area of folk belief, studies in the past have concentrated mainly on such genres as ghost stories or superstitions, both of which feature verbal art and the expressive use of language. However, we neglect hundreds of other folk beliefs not nearly as entertaining or as easy to study. Often these beliefs pose a special problem for folklorists, since people may seldom express them, or the activities related to the beliefs may rarely occur.

One of the more interesting of these obscure folk/popular traditions in Europe, England, and America (and probably elsewhere as well) is the "poltergeist phenomenon." The term derives from the German ("polter" meaning "noise" or "racket," and "geist" meaning "spirit"), and traditionally referred to specific types of activity that have no demonstrable cause but were believed to be the activity of pesky little spirits: objects flying through the air and perhaps striking someone, furniture or walls moving or shaking, or the production of rapping noises or sounds that imitate the human voice. For most of us, this and other "unexplainable" phenomena seem too bizarre and far-fetched to warrant further study. The folklorist, however, recognizes in the poltergeist phenomenon something that contains surprisingly more than meets the eye.

Poltergeist outbreaks occur rarely, and last only a very short time, perhaps only days, thus making difficult serious investigation or scientific analysis; by the time the reports reach folklorists or other researchers, the "attacks" have stopped as mysteriously as they started. Observers notice that the activities center around a particular person -- usually, but not always, an adolescent female -- only during that person's waking hours. One of the most famous cases of poltergeistery in the United States occurred in Hydeville, New York about 1848 in the home of John D. Fox. His three daughters noticed a recurrence of mysterious rappings suggesting a code of spirit communication -- one rap for no, two raps for doubtful, and three raps for yes, with a more complicated code for longer messages. The Fox sisters eventually became "mediums" in the Spiritualist movement, whose followers believed the rappings to be messages from the dead. Sometime later one of the sisters apparently admitted that the "spirit knocks" were produced fraudulently, thus giving weight to the theory that poltergeist cases always involve trickery. (Perhaps the Fox sisters did indeed have "genuine" poltergeist experiences in the beginning, but were never able to reproduce them and thus resorted to fraud.)

Before the advancements of information technology, sporadic reports of poltergeistery appeared in the United States, Britain, and Europe. More recently, about once or twice annually, we have reports of activity that we recognize as poltergeistery, even though that word may never be used. Merely because a newspaper or television program publicizes a mysterious event does not mean, of course, that the phenomenon is genuine or that no fraud is involved. However, because reports of poltergeistery come very often from sensible, disinterested witnesses and bear striking similarities, we may conclude that either the events really happened or that the observers are somehow influenced to believe that similar activities occurred. In any case, this phenomenon deserves very careful consideration by scholars from various disciplines.

We tend to discount reports of anything unconventional or strange from centuries past, as if almost everyone who lived before the mid-20th century had superstitious beliefs and therefore could not possibly be objective. Some accounts, however, appear to be so rational that we take notice. For example, the Reverend Glanvill, a 17th century philosopher and scholar, described in a very sensible and straightforward manner what came to be known as "The Drummer of Tidworth," a classic poltergeist case. …

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