The Poltergeist Elephant in the Room: The call for a paranormal renaissance
“We’re missing the elephant poltergeist in the room” - John Fraser
With tea and biscuits on my lap, I sat in a sold-out room at the Society for Psychical Research’s (SPR) headquarters listening to one of their paranormal investigators, John Fraser, present a talk on poltergeists. Fraser has just published a book on poltergeists (Poltergeists! A New Investigation Into Destructive Haunting), in which he argues for a reevaluation of poltergeist evidence, and a new way of investigating such cases, which are more common than we think.
You may have experienced a "jottle" or "JOTT", for instance. Mary Rose Barrington, a retired lawyer and longtime psychical researcher, came up with the term, an acronym for “Just One of Those Things”, to describe the unexplained phenomena we often dismiss as absentmindedness. When something disappears and later reappears in the same place, despite having already looking there, it's called a “comeback JOTT”.
Walkabout JOTTs, in particular, can be an early indicator of a poltergeist case. These occur when something disappears and emerges in a place it couldn’t possibly have been moved. According to Fraser, it's this type of phenomena on the poltergeist spectrum which will likely turn out to be provable. Investigators thus need to change how they operate, looking past their ghost-hunting equipment to the “elephant poltergeist in the room”.
Poltergeists are not confined to North America and western Europe
The term “poltergeist” (from German, “noisy ghost”) has been applied almost without exception to cases in North America and western Europe. However, as Fraser pointed out, when you look at the descriptions rather than the terminology, you end up with a plethora of potentially misdiagnosed cases which, when added to the ranks of western poltergeist cases, suggest that this activity is not as rare as we’ve previously thought. For example, Richard Sugg of Durham University noted that vampire folklore can describe suspiciously poltergeist- or trickster-like behavior. In addition, journalist and paranormal investigator Guy Playfair investigated a poltergeist outbreak in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We also have to factor in that cases may not be reported for various reasons, cultural or otherwise.
“We have to solve Enfield first”
In order to understand poltergeist phenomena, Fraser said, we first have to solve the Enfield poltergeist case. In 1977, the SPR sent Guy Playfair and Maurice Grosse to investigate a case in Enfield, a town on the outskirts of north London. In an unassuming council house, a mother and her four children had been experiencing mysterious activity such as furniture moving and toys being thrown by themselves. The police and press were already involved, and there were dozens of witnesses, with one police woman even signing an affidavit. Since then, the case has been the subject of films such as The Conjuring 2, a TV series, and numerous documentaries. Despite the attention from the press, the police, and the SPR, the lack of attention from scientists such as physicists or biologists, who might have been able to collect more compelling evidence, was attributed by the investigators as due to the nation's preoccupation with picket lines and football at the time.
Playfair wrote two books as a result of this investigation: The Evil Eye, a book on the harmful effects of television (inspired by his dislike of the tv reenactments of the case), and This House Is Haunted, which depicted the Enfield case. When I read the latter book a couple of years ago, two things in particular stood out to me.
Firstly, there was a claim by Janet, the 11 year-old girl who the events were said to be focused around, that she had floated through the wall. Now, many people might dismiss the entire case after hearing this, but as someone who has had an out-of-body experience (OBE), it doesn't sound strange at all (ok, maybe a little). Although she described the experience as though it had taken place while she was awake, I had also assumed I was awake during my first out-of-body experience. I only realised that this wasn't the case when somebody grabbed my arm and I suddenly found myself upstairs, back in my bed.
The second example from the book is the story of Maurice Grosse's daughter visiting the Enfield house. She saw her father looking from the window on the ground floor as she knocked, and was wondering why he wasn’t coming to the door when the mother came downstairs and opened it for her. She told her that her father had been upstairs the whole time (he then came downstairs and corroborated this).
A connection between hauntings, doubles and out-of-body experiences?
I mentioned Grosse’s double and Janet’s floating through the wall to Fraser during the Q & A, and asked whether he thought there was a connection between hauntings, doubles (or doppelgangers), and other states such as out-of-body experiences. Fraser said that he does think that there is a connection and that you can’t separate these phenomena so easily. I agree.
In 2017, the paranormal group I'm involved with received a call to investigate poltergeist activity at a work location in the countryside. It was here that we ended up experiencing all three phenomena. We received a report of visitors seeing ghosts, the sound of furniture moving, and things moving around in two of the bedrooms (which were called the "poltergeist rooms"). We spent three weekends over the year looking for an explanation for these events, and as we had it all to ourselves, we also conducted out-of-body experiments while we were there.
For the experiments, participants used induction techniques after a period of sleep aiming to have an out-of-body experience on location. If successful, the goal was to either a) find another participant and get their password (chosen specifically for the experiment), b) go into the "target room" and identify the object on the chair, or c) investigate the property for ghosts and try to communicate with them. The first goal was inspired by an OBE experiment I had taken part in several years before, and the latter two goals were taken from experiments performed by medium Alex Tanous in the 1970s.
A participant succeeded in having an OBE in one of the poltergeist rooms one night, during which she said that she saw me in front of her. However, after talking to me, she realised that I wasn't acting like myself, and that my face was moving slightly like a mask. She concluded that it was not me, but an imposter.
Connections between the double and out-of-body experiences have been made by several people including the late sociologist Hornell Hart. Back in the 1950s, Hart called OBEs “travelling ESP” and collected reports of people who said that they could will themselves to distant locations. He also collected the reports of those who claimed to see them. Researchers Celia Green and Charles McCreery also noted links between these experiences in the collections of reports they received, while sociologist James McClenon has suggested that there may be a cluster of symptoms or experiences that an individual or family might experience, including out-of-body experiences. The participant who had seen "me" in the out-of-body state has had over 100 OBEs, as had her mother; she had also seen an apparition as a teenager, so this would seem to support the above hypotheses. But the question is, had she seen an imposter ghost, my double, or dream content?
We also had a sighting of a double while awake. Kev, the most sceptical among us, saw our fellow investigator Matt turn around the corner toward him as if he had forgotten something, only to go back. When Kev looked around the corner to ask him about it, he found that Matt was at the end of the corridor, and had been there the whole time (which was corroborated by another member). Had Kev seen Matt’s double? Or was it an imposter? Or waking dream content (i.e. a "REM intrusion")? Are these possibilities state-specific?
Both Matt and Kev had experienced paranormal activity at other times. At the same location, Matt had heard the door slam in that same (empty) corridor shortly after first arriving while unpacking in his room (the other "poltergeist room"). We checked the doors and the floorboards, and all of the windows were shut - we simply couldn't explain it. The employees hadn't mentioned any sightings of a double, so I wonder how much of this was the location, and how much of this was caused by the people.
Haunted house or haunted person?
The concept of an agent around whom the poltergeist activity is centered is one of the main premises of poltergeist investigations. Girls around the age of puberty have historically been identified as the agent, and the Enfield case was no exception: most of the activity involved Janet. But this narrative may be too simplistic.
Fraser pointed out that Janet’s brother died of cancer at age 14, four years after the activity started. Janet had been sharing a room with her brother at the time, and she also admitted to playing the ouija board with her sister shortly before the activity started. Could these factors have contributed to the intensity of the case? But then again, a lot of families have gone through difficult times without lego bricks flying through the air of their own accord.
In the documentary embedded above, Janet's older sister says that the poltergeist activity usually happened when the siblings were together, and not while they were separated, such as at school. Similarly, at our location, each night at the property we had different combinations of members present due to our mismatching schedules, and I wonder whether this affected what happened (or didn't happen). It reminded me of playing the video game Maniac Mansion as a kid: you play as Dave and choose three friends to accompany you - depending on which, you get a different ending of the game. I wondered whether combinations of certain people might increase the likelihood of haunting activity, and the way in which this might manifest; as poltergeist activity, or a doppelganger sighting, perhaps. Maybe the person's double can cause the poltergeist activity. Just a very speculative thought!
Poltergeists: The Childhood Ego? An unguarded psyche?
After the talk, there were drinks in the pub and a continuation of the poltergeist discussion. Retired psychiatrist Graham Kidd suggested that poltergeists are parts of the childhood ego that can somehow manifest physically - this is why they like to play tricks, act out, and refuse to perform when told. He referred to the work of the German counsellor Walter Von Lucadou, who claimed that he had “cured” numerous poltergeist cases using psychotherapy on the victims of the haunting.
This reminded me of the Ash Manor case investigated by Dr Nandor Fodor in the 1930s. The symptoms of the haunting included footsteps and knocks, and two dozen sightings of the "Green Man", a ghost in green Elizabethan garb. The woman of the house even punched him the first time she saw him, mistaking him for an intruder, injuring her hand on the door frame in the process. When Fodor interviewed her, he noted: "The marriage relationship between [her] and her husband was not normal; [she] lacked sexual fulfillment; her husband was a homo-sexual. The relationship between [her] and her daughter was also strained. [The daughter] was abnormally jealous of her mother's status with her father. As a result, [the mother] relied on drugs for support."
So far it sounds like the “agent” in this case could either be the wife, the husband, or the 16 year old daughter. Fodor notes the daughter's age, but also the father's remark that "whatever this thing may be, it is no longer in that house alone but it is in me too." The final clue for Fodor came when he discussed the emotional tensions in the family with the husband. After this discussion, the haunting suddenly stopped.
In his notes, Fodor writes, "The ghost in that sense, was a part of [the husband] himself - or was he?" He hypothesised that poltergeist cases such as these may result from situations where “those who put themselves in an unguarded psychological position” meet a force or intelligence other than their own, in a place filled with historical memories and traditions (such as Ash Manor). So it sounds like he's suggesting that poltergeist hauntings (and likely other types of haunting) result from the dynamic between a haunting-prone place and a haunting-prone person - whatever that might mean.
At the end of the talk, somebody in the audience had asked whether the SPR had noticed an increase in poltergeist cases coinciding with an increase in anxiety and mental health issues in the population. I think this is a good point. If mental health issues are increasing (as opposed to just an increase in diagnoses), and if Von Lucadou and Fodor are correct about poltergeist phenomena being the result of the childhood ego or unguarded psyche (given the right location), then should there be an increase in poltergeist phenomena? Like sleep paralysis, will these cases go unreported for fear of being thought crazy? Or are there other factors involved in the emergence of a poltergeist case?
John Fraser's response is that any causal relationship has to be complex, but the number of cases that have followed events of high stress, such as a death, a relationship break up, or even a house move seems to show a good chance of at least some causal effect. Further, more startling is the theory that fear and expectation of a poltergeist can actually be one of those stress triggers - taken to its logical conclusion, once the phenomena has started, it could in effect 'feed on' peoples fear of it and make it stronger and stronger! Thankfully such apparent cases are rare.