Paranormal phenomena come in many forms, their causes or even their reality always uncertain. Ghostly phenomena too seem to encompass a vast variety of forms, with all manner of spirits, specters, wraiths, demons, and others seeming to inhabit some corner of the world with us. One mystery of this sort of phenomenon is a species of ghost known as poltergeists, which many of you reading this may be at least passingly familiar with from the hit film Poltergeist. However, while it all seems to be the doing of restless spirits, is this really the case? Could poltergeists have their origins in an entirely different mystery all together?
The term “poltergeist” comes from a fusion of the German words poltern, meaning “to rumble,” and geist, which means “ghost” or “spirit,” making the word translate basically to more or less “noisy ghost.” The strange phenomenon usually descends quite suddenly, often in places where there was previously no known paranormal activity, usually ending just as abruptly, and it can be quite frightening for the victims indeed. This poltergeist activity usually entails a wide range of seemingly mischievous occurrences, including anomalous noises such as knocks, thuds, and footsteps, or more rarely voices, objects moving on their own or getting knocked over by unseen forces, doors opening and closing by themselves, lights or other electronics turning on or off or experiencing strange power surges, levitating objects, objects that are mysteriously misplaced or seem to teleport from one place to another, even dropping from the ceiling out of nowhere, strange scents that seem to spring up out of nowhere, rarely apparitions, and numerous other unexplained disturbances. Puddles of water that seem to come from no known source are also not uncommon, and mysterious fires starting are not unheard of. In more extreme and indeed frightening manifestations, objects or furniture will fly across the room to violently crash into walls, and people will levitate or even be seemingly attacked by unseen hands, often leaving bruises, scratches, and cuts behind.
Although the phenomena may vary widely from case to case, there are some traits and patterns most seem to have in common. The manifestations tend to start and also end quite suddenly and without warning, and are always spontaneous and unpredictable, happening at all hours both day and night. They typically begin rather innocuously, and then steadily escalate in intensity and spookiness until the besieged, terrified occupants of the home are forced to try and move away. This might all sound as if it must surely be the work of ghosts, and that was the prevailing theory on poltergeists for a very long time, but there are some commonalities between many poltergeist cases that suggest there might be something else going on altogether, and that these frightening forces do not come from some outside supernatural force, but rather from within.
One of the problems with poltergeists is that they don’t go away when people move. Indeed, unlike more traditional hauntings the phenomenon will follow people from place to place, quite often getting even worse the more a family tries to escape the harrowing forces that are terrorizing them. This seems to suggest that it is all tied to them, not any specific location. Another curiosity is that a great many poltergeist cases seem to orbit and focus on one particular person, statistically most often a female just on the cusp of or right after puberty between the ages of 9 and 14, with these people often called the “agent” by paranormal investigators. The activity will usually happen only when this person is present or intensify when they are around, as if they are some sort of trigger, often beginning during a time of stress or emotional turmoil, and even targeting them in a seemingly malevolent way. This is a very telling detail and seemingly of great importance, and indeed many of the most famous and well documented poltergeist cases very clearly revolve around a living person and share these characteristics.
For instance, there is perhaps the most famous poltergeist case of all time, which happened in Enfield, in North London, England. Beginning in August of 1977, Peggy Harper and her four children were plagued by all manner of strange activity in their home. It started with the terrified children claiming that their beds were shaking or bouncing, and furniture moved across the floor, and although Peggy dismissed this as overactive imaginations, it would quickly escalate to become one of the most purportedly well-witnessed poltergeist cases out there. Peggy would hear anomalous noises too, and see her dresser pushed around over the floor or toys flying through the air, and when police came to investigate they purportedly witnessed various phenomena as well. When the press arrived they were allegedly pelted with marbles or Lego blocks that seemed to fly out of nowhere, with enough force to leave bruises in some cases.
With the help of paranormal investigators from the Society for Psychical Research, it was learned that the activity seemed to gravitate towards two of the children, 11-year-old Janet and 13-year-old Rose. Janet in particular claimed to have had chairs fly at her, some instances of which were witnessed by others, and she was also allegedly thrown from her bed on several occasions by unseen hands. It is important to note that at this time Peggy had just gone through a divorce, which had taken an emotional toll on her and the children. Although in later years the case of the Enfield poltergeist has been accused of mostly being a hoax perpetrated by the girls, there is enough evidence to convince many that at least some of the activity was genuine.
Another fairly well-known such case is that of 14-year-old Tina Resch. In 1984 she was living in Columbus, Ohio with her adopted parents, John and Joan Resch, who were well known in the community for their work helping orphans and foster children. In March of that year, the family started experiencing myriad odd disturbances such as the lights in the home going on and off by themselves, even in full view of a baffled electrician, who could find no sign of electrical problems. This graduated to the typical poltergeist fare of objects flying off of tables, faucets turning on of their own volition, and oddly eggs often levitating out of their cartons or flying up to smash upon the ceiling. In some cases, knives alarmingly hovered out of their drawers or flew out to land on the floor.
All of this seemed to concentrate most on Tina, always happening in her presence and often seeming to directly target her. In many instances witnesses would see objects go sailing through the air to hit her, sometimes even actively avoiding others so that they could smack into Tina. These phenomena would be observed by dozens of witnesses of all types, including reporters, police officers, church officials and neighbors, none of whom had any explanation for it, and there were numerous photographs taken showing the alleged disturbances as well. The case was intensely studied by parapsychologist William Roll, who came to the conclusion that the activity was most certainly gravitating towards Tina. Interestingly, there had been quite a lot of emotional stress pervading the house in the days before and during the manifestations, in that Tina had been arguing with her foster parents and trying to find her natural parents, as well as having had a serious argument with her best friend.
There is also the so-called Macomb Poltergeist, which terrorized a young girl in Macomb, Illinois in 1948. In this case, teenager Wanet McNeil found herself living with her father after he and her mother had had a bitter divorce, a situation of which she made no effort to hide her displeasure. The two moved to the farm of her uncle, Charles Willey, and almost as soon as they arrived strange and frightening things began to happen. Most notably were the fires that seemed to spring up out of nowhere. The rather scary phenomenon began manifesting as brown spots that would appear on the walls of the house, as if something was burning the wallpaper from within, and if it wasn’t doused with water it would erupt into flame for no apparent reason.
These mysterious spots would appear all over the house, and would spread to include the ceiling and the floor, quite often right before the eyes of amazed witnesses. Indeed, the house became rather famous for this weird phenomenon, and curiosity seekers began to flock to the house in droves to see it for themselves. At no point was there any rational explanation found, and even an investigation by the Fire Chief could find no reason for why these fires should be starting. Even the Air Force looked into it and could find no explanation, nor evidence of any trickery. It was even reported that they tried to stop the fires by removing all of the wallpaper, but that the flaming spots would continue to form directly on the bare plaster beneath. In the meantime, the frequency and intensity of the fires increased, to the point that there were about 30 of these blazes a day, and they began to start in other places as well, spectacularly bursting into being and eventually burning down the barn and the milk house, and in most cases these bizarre occurrences happened when Tina was around. Perhaps tellingly, she was also right in the middle of severe emotional turmoil at the time.
Other famous cases that seem to fit in with these I have covered before, such the Bell Witch and the Borley Rectory poltergeist, and these are just a few of the countless other poltergeist cases, which come from all corners of the globe, but which share some of the same DNA, in that we have these mysterious, unexplainable phenomena drawn about an individual, sometimes more than one person, usually (but not always) adolescents, with similar phenomena and intertwined with some sort of emotional stress, anger, trauma, or inner turmoil. This has led to the theory that perhaps the poltergeist phenomenon, at least in these cases exhibiting the same tendencies, are not caused by “noisy ghosts” at all, but are rather caused by these repressed stresses roiling within the subconscious minds of these people, finally lashing out to generate these occurrences through what is called “telekinesis” or “psychokinesis,” which is simply the power to move or affect matter with the human mind. Indeed, so accepted has this idea become among paranormal investigators that poltergeist infestations are sometimes referred to as “Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis" (RSPK), a term originally coined by the paranormal researcher William Roll, who spent years investigating the Tina Resch case.
In this theory the “paranormal activity” is directly caused by the person it is concentrating on, the agent, and they are demonstrating these psychokinetic powers without even being aware that they are doing it. Since it seems like ghosts, this generates more fear and stress, which in turn provokes and causes these latent mind powers to become even more intense and unrestrained, which explains why the “haunting” often gets steadily worse as the eruption of psychic energy continues unabated. Since the phenomena are tied to the individual, moving to a new place does little to help, and the new environment can actually make it all worse. The idea of RSPK also explains why the poltergeist activity typically stops within a few days or weeks, passing when the agent has calmed down or found some sort of peace. The reason why young people in puberty are usually involved is typically explained as the result of their lack of restraint and their minds and hormones undergoing great changes, which enhances their powers or makes them more uncontrollable, although people of any age have been known to be agents.
Is that what is going on in poltergeist cases? Are these people causing everything with the power of their own minds and the pure might of their repressed, pent up emotions? It seems that it is certainly an idea worth thinking about, although not every poltergeist case demonstrates these characteristics, and there are plenty of other ideas such as that these are ghosts, spirits, demons, or even interdimensional travelers, as well as the skeptical take that it is all the result of trickery, misidentification or misinterpretation of the mundane or natural occurrences, and hoaxers. In the end the broad spectrum of accounts suggests there is probably a little of all of the above going on, and the poltergeist phenomenon is probably best looked at case by case, after considering all of the available evidence. Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that the poltergeist phenomenon is way more complex and murkier than what one may have originally thought.
If this is not all trickery or naturally occurring phenomena, then we are dealing with forces we are far from comprehending, the methods and processes by which they work every bit as cryptic as the idea of nuclear fusion would have been 100 years ago. These are things beyond reality as we currently know it, past our ability to grasp them. There is no way for us to possibly know at this point what is going on, but we can try to look at what evidence we can find and try to pursue different avenues through the tangle of mysteries to possible answers. Through this sort of speculation and pursuit of the truth there is the possibility that one day we may gain an understanding of what drives the poltergeist phenomenon, whatever that may be- a day when the paranormal will simply be normal. Until then, those poltergeists are the “noisy ghosts,” out running amok and eluding comprehension.