In the Oxford English Dictionary the term poltergeist is defined as “a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for unexplained physical disturbances such as loud noises and the movement of objects” (“Poltergeist”). Further, the activity and characteristics of a poltergeist are denoted by the term poltergeistic (“Poltergeist”). Meanwhile, the actual manifestation of poltergeist activity is sometimes referred to by the term poltergeistism (“Poltergeist”). While there are several different words that referred to poltergeists and poltergeist activity, the etymological roots of the term poltergeist have not changed since it was first introduced into the English language.
The term poltergeist is rooted in the German language and is a combination of two words: poltern and geist (“Poltergeist”). Poltern literally means “to make a loud noise or uproar, to rumble, to thud,” while geist translates as ghost (“Poltergeist”). Thus, the poltergeist phenomenon is often colloquially referred to as the noisy ghost phenomenon (“Poltergeist”). Orthographically speaking, since the term poltergeis has been introduced into the English Language in the late 1860s, there is no evidence that the spelling of the word has changed.
The term poltergeist appears in various forms of literature since the 16th century and first appeared in German writings (“Poltergeist”). The term poltergeist appears in the Night Side of Nature II. Vi. 238 in 1848 (“Poltergeist”). Later, in 1871, the term is used by Edward B. Tylor in Primitive Culture II. 176, where the author compares some of the characteristic behaviors of vampires as being similar to that of the poltergeist: “Vampires appear in the character of the poltergeist or knocker” (“Poltergeist”). Still later, in the early 1900’s the poltergeist phenomenon is examined in the Edinburgh Review and there it suggests that the poltergeist is often a malevolent entity not typically satisfied with merely making a commotion (“Poltergeist”). As late as 1954, the poltergeist phenomenon had further been compared to the behaviors of a boggart; in Personnel of Fairyland, K.M. Briggs asserts that the boggart and the poltergeist have the same violent tendencies and that both phenomena are equally destructive (“Poltergeist”).
According to The Mystica, a poltergeist is a mischievous spirit: one that makes noise, moves things, and such spirits can go as far as attacking the individuals that reside at the location where poltergeistic activity is present (“Poltergeist 2”). There are a number of theories pertaining to how poltergeistic activity develops as well as to the actual origins of such activity. Some theories suggest that the poltergeist is a malevolent entity that chooses to attack people at random. Other theories suggest that the prepubescent stage that an adolescent goes through draws the attentions of such entities. Still other theories suggest that the poltergeist phenomena has something to do with a prepubescent teenager or adolescent that serves as an agent that is responsible for the activity that occurs; it is suggested that the agent, usually a female adolescent is somehow making the phenomenon occur via psychokinesis without actually being conscious of doing so.
The unexplained movement of objects is quite common in poltergeist cases. In some poltergeist cases, apportation occurs where rocks, stones, or other unexplained items appear out of nowhere (Guiley 21). Larger objects can be thrown about as the poltergeist case progresses, including furniture and appliances (“Poltergeist 2”). Some cases of poltergeistic activity also present unusual and foul smelling odors, and the duration of time that poltergeist cases last varies with each case (“Poltergeist 2”). A.D. Cornell and Alan Gauld conducted significant research into the poltergeist phenomenon in the 1970s (“Poltergeists”). The examination involved the observation of poltergeist cases from 1800 to the late 1970s to determine the commonalities amid poltergeist reports (“Poltergeists”). According to James McClenon in Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief, the reported cased examined by Gauld and Cornell were “narratives originat[ing] in such diverse locations as Turkey, Eastern and Western Europe, South America, the former Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Canada, the United States, Iceland, China, Indonesia, Jamaica, India, South Africa, Madagascar, and Malaysia” (58). The findings of the examination conducted by Gauld and Cornell proved quite revealing; Gauld and Cornell discovered more than sixty commonalities between reported poltergeist cases (“Poltergeists”). Below are some of the common features reported time and time again:
Small objects moving without explanation (“Poltergeists”).
Poltergeist activity increases in the evening hours -- more than half of all the cases examined revealed more poltergeistic activity when it was nighttime (“Poltergeists”).
Just under half of all the cases examined by Gauld and Cornell revealed that the sounds of rapping was present during the poltergeistic activity reported (“Poltergeists”).
Nearly 40 percent of all the cases examined reported the unexplained movement of large objects like furniture (“Poltergeists”).
Approximately one-quarter of all the poltergeist cases examined in the study lasted a period of more than twelve months (“Poltergeists”).
A small percentage, just over ten percent of poltergeist cases included the phenomenon of doors and windows closing and opening without explanation or aid (“Poltergeists”).
Finally, in terms of attribution, fewer than five percent of the cases analyzed were attributed to the deceased, seven percent of the activity was associated with witch workings, and just fewer than ten percent of the cases were associated with the work of demons or malevolent entities (“Poltergeists”). The latter information is based on the reported findings and is not necessarily the assigned attributes of Gauld and Cornell.
In the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, Rossell Hope Robbins explains that as poltergeist activity progresses, the entity or origin responsible for such events often becomes more aggressive and can even resort to starting spontaneous fires (389-90).
In Parapsychology: Research on Exceptional Experiences, Jane Henry attributes poltergeist activity to recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis or PK abilities (127). Henry also explains that “poltergeist cases have been reported on occasion for at least 500 years (Gauld and Cornell qtd. in Henry 127). Typical features include objects moving for no apparent reason, sometimes breaking, and unexplained noises such as knocking. Some cases have involved electrical disturbance. Many cases appear to be short-lived” (Henry 127). Henry examines other studies and further reveals that many poltergeist cases typically last 300 days or more in duration, that difficulties with water and plumbing frequently arise, and that some poltergeistic activity is really not poltergeist activity at all (127). There are some instances where natural phenomenon can seem like poltergeistic activity, and it is therefore critical for the paranormal investigator to rule out all mundane possibilities before seeking a paranormal explanation for questionable activity.
Some studies suggest that poltergeistic activity is more common in locations that are situated near large bodies of water (Henry 128). In addition, studies conducted in the mid 1950s suggest that poltergeistic activity is more common during the winter months (Henry 128). The ISIS Paranormal Investigation Team has noted significant correlation between purported haunting and paranormal activity with a close proximity to large bodies of water. Water may make it more easily possible for spirits to act and/or manifest. Meanwhile, thermodynamics may explain why there is seemingly more paranormal activity in the colder seasons of the year. In Science Confronts the Paranormal, Kendrick Frazier examines a letter produced by J.T. McMullan, an individual associated with the School of Physical Sciences at the New University of Ulster located in Ireland (22). According to the letter, McMullan suggests that thermodynamics explains the common temperature drops during poltergeistic activity. Seemingly, when it is colder, the conversion of energy from one form to another is more easily accomplished:
He noted that poltergeist reports are consistent in their mention of a lowering of the room temperature by as much as five degrees Celsius during a poltergeist display. He then calculated that enough energy would be given up by a one-degree lowering of room temperature in a room of normal size to raise a 25-kilogram table vertically through a distance of some 200 meters. Thus, he suggested, the energy required for the spectacular movings and jarrings of objects that typify a poltergeist incident can be accounted for by means of what is already known and accepted about the conversion of energy from one form to another. (McMullan qtd. in Frazier 22).
McClenon notes that the studies conducted by Gauld and Cornell reveal a number of commonalities in poltergeistic activity reports that “transcend culture;” the parapsychologists duly noted that some poltergeists seemingly have a bizarre attachment to selected individuals, that most poltergeist reports reveal incredibly destructive behavior, physical assaults are common in poltergeist activity, and that there is a seeming diabolical intelligence behind the phenomenon (58). Further, McClenon duly notes that getting rid of poltergeistic activity is extremely tricky and sometimes next to impossible. Certain studies reveal that four out of every twenty-nine exorcisms or clearings actually rid the location of poltergeistic activity, and another four out of every twenty-nine cases produces minimal effects in terms of reducing the onset of the activity in question (McClenon 59). The remaining cases continued on with the poltergeistic activity despite attempts to cease the events (McClenon 59). Thus, attempts to resolve issues with events associated with the poltergeist may come to naught.
Frazier, Kendrick. Science Confronts the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Henry, Jane. Parapsychology: Research on Exceptional Experiences. New York: Routledge, 2004.
McClenon, James. Wondrous Events: Foundations of Religious Belief. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
“Poltergeists.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989.
"Poltergeists." Monstrous.com. 2007. 28 Feb. 2008 .
"Poltergeist 2." The Mystica. 28 Feb. 2008 .
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Bonanza Books, 1981.
Article written by: Dayna Winters and Patricia Gardner
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