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Sunday, 26 June 2011

Supernatural Sunday - Poltergeist

Let's start off by saying the experts agree to disagree on what a poltergeist actually is. The word itself comes from German (Poltern & Geist) and means noisy spirit. The problem for most investigators is that they're not actually sure it is a spirit; a fairly high percentage of poltergeist activity turns out to faked. But when it isn't faked, both skeptics and believers are left scratching their heads.

Poltergeists are noisy, disruptive and destructive and potentially deadly, with a nasty habit of throwing knives and other dangerous objects at people.

The earliest recorded poltergeist activity comes from around 858 A.D., when a farmer near the town of Bingen along the Rhine river was pelted by stones. Stone throwing seems to be a favourite poltergeist activity, along with setting fires; the unfortunate man lost most of his newly harvested crops when a number of spontaneous fires started.


Other activity reported in cases includes objects moving, appearing or disappearing out of thin air (aporting), water boiling away from any heat, and people having their clothes ripped. Then we get to the really  serious stuff; victims getting scratching, slapping, pulling and punched, often in front of 3rd party witnesses. It seems poltergeists really like an audience.
Victims have also been recorded as vomiting pins and needles in a couple of cases, which can't be much fun at all.

Some poltergeists seem to show a benevolent streak though: the Bell Witch poltergeist, known as "Kate",  is credited with rescuing a  young boy who got his head stuck in a cave. Of course Kate also beat the living daylights out of members of the Bell family, interfered with Betsy Bell's engagement to John Gardner to the extent the marriage was called off, and threatened to kill John Bell, the family patriarch. Legend has it that when John finally lapsed into a coma and died after enduring some serious physical torment by the poltergeist, Kate claimed responsibility for the death by poisoning him.
The old Bell homestead. Today, only a pile of stone remains to mark the spot where it is thought to have stood.
An interesting fact is that poltergeist phenomena usually occur around children and adolescents, leading to the theory that it might be a latent psychokinetic talent that becomes active around puberty. Considering the kids involved are usually the main focus of the poltergeist's spite, if this is true it's probably a talent they don't want.

The 1967 Rosenheim Poltergeist was linked specifically to 19 year old employee, Annemarie Schneider, and cost the poor girl her job. Once it was established the activity only happened when she was in the building, the company dismissed her. It was one of the first cases of poltergeist activity recorded on tape. Poor Annemarie was followed by the poltergeist to a number of jobs afterwards, until the activity tapered off and eventually disappeared.

Moving onto Hollywood; the original 1982 movie scared the pants off of a pretty large audience. Being Hollywood, an explanation of houses built over a graveyard was introduced so that a logical explanation could be used in the script. A fun movie, but not the way poltergeists usually work.


An American Haunting, released in 2005, was a pretty good movie based on the Bell Witch case. The insinuation in the movie that the poltergeist was caused by John Bell abusing Betsy is pure speculation however, and since no evidence was ever found to point to this, can be considered another Hollywood convenience.

Attempts by skeptics to explain poltergeist phenomenon have included earthquakes, ball lightning, static electricity, ultrasound, infrasound and even carbon monoxide poisoning (for those pesky hallucinations shared by witnesses).

Some experts believe poltergeists are disturbed spirits, low elementals, or  psychokinetic abilities.

At the end of the day however, the only thing that seems clear is that nobody really knows what a poltergeist is - but nobody ever wants one hanging around.

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J H Sked is the author of WolfSong & Basement Blues. You can find WolfSong on AmazonSony  e-bookstoreNook and Smashwords. Basement Blues is on Amazon and Smashwords.