Study Day 58: Poltergeist Outbreaks: Then and Now

Report by Tom Ruffles

The subject for October 2009’s Study Day was poltergeists, with the emphasis on continuities in different places and at different times, and John Newton – the organiser and chair for the day – introduced the proceedings with a brief historical perspective. The format was an unusual one, each speaker discussing a pair (or sometimes more in practice) of cases that would allow differences and similarities to be teased out.

John Newton introduces Guy Playfair at Poltergeist Study DayGuy Lyon Playfair began by describing disturbances at the Lamb Inn in Bristol which took place in 1761-2, the same time as the better known Cock Lane ghost. The scratchings and rappings that occurred there became a motif recurring throughout the study day, and Guy made the point that commonalities in poltergeist phenomena were evident across a wide range of cases, recorded by people who would not be familiar with other instances, thus minimising the likelihood of copy-cat reports. He moved on to discuss ones he had been involved in while living in Brazil, to demonstrate how destructive these can sometimes be, and he emphasised the influence of Spiritism in the country. The first of these accounts was that of Maria Ferreira. Some of the more unpleasant events this 11-year old experienced included the widespread destruction of household objects, needles shoved into her heel, attempts at suffocation, and even her clothes catching fire. This catalogue, Guy felt, contradicted the prevalent belief that poltergeist effects were invariably harmless. Similarly a poltergeist victim called Marcia picked up a statue of the Virgin Mary from the beach and took it home, and was then faced with a catalogue of disasters, including serious illness, exploding pressure cooker and oven, and suicidal urges. Only when she returned the statue to the sea did her misfortunes stop.

Brazil is, or at least was then, clearly a rich place for poltergeists. But Guy also discussed one closer to home he had investigated with Anita Gregory, in Rotherhithe, which also involved physical assault to the young girl involved. As so often in spontaneous cases, an external figure with spiritual authority was able to calm things down, in this instance Canon Pearce-Higgins and his own brand of “ghost soothing”. Guy noted that mind set, faith and suggestion are all important components in these cases, and external assistance can help victims to resist attack by reinforcing their own defences.

Mary Rose Barrington also looked back in history for her first example, though not quite as far as 1761, and not as violent as some of the phenomena we had heard about from Guy. She began with a case which took place in 1887, reported by Frederic Myers in Proceedings. This involved a gentleman, ‘Mr D’ (Hugh Dixon) whose house was plagued by mysterious knockings and ringing of the bells when nobody could have been responsible. These phenomena had caused consternation among his staff and he had sought an explanation – cats, rats, trickery by his household – in vain. As in other poltergeist cases there appeared to be a focus, in this instance Mary the housemaid. She was young, this was her first position and she had only been in it a few weeks before the events began, so she may have been suffering stress which was somehow externalised. As so often happens, events came to a natural conclusion, and no explanation was forthcoming.

Mary Rose next described a case she had been involved in personally, the ‘Flying Thermometer’, though she said that it should more properly have been called “The Three-Act Tragedy” or “The Great Howl”. Mary Rose’s investigation of the Mason family was published in the Journal in three instalments from 1965 to 1975. The focus was on the seven-year old daughter, and events included the mysterious moving bathroom thermometer of the title, but more dramatically a strange howl heard in the middle of the night. Five years after the initial paper, Mrs Mason disclosed that at the time of the original investigation she herself had been undergoing intense emotional turmoil owing to her marital difficulties. This flared up again five years later still, and Mary Rose felt that while the mother always seemed to be on an even keel, the externalisation of emotion in poltergeist effects might have been her way of rebuking her husband. In the final act, the Masons were estranged, and Mr Mason killed himself, but events still occurred which appeared to be externalisations of Mrs Mason’s frustrations. Another case investigated at Euston, with Maurice Grosse, involved a seven year old and again a distressed mother, and featured strange raps. They responded to questions, using the alphabet to spell out answers, but these were not meaningful.

Alan Murdie at Poltergeist Study Day After lunch, Alan Murdie compared the1967 Rosenheim case to the 2006 South Shields poltergeist, subject of a recent book. Rosenheim is famous for the calls made to the German speaking clock, faster than a human hand could dial, and for the swinging lights. The evidence for this case was extremely strong, as it was investigated by both the Max Planck Institute and Hans Bender. Events ceased after 19-year old Annemarie Schneider was sacked, but her career after leaving the solicitor’s office was also troubled. She had disliked her boss and the job intensely, and had been going through relationship difficulties, and as with the Flying Thermometer case, the implication was that somehow this energy was released in poltergeist activity.

Alan characterised the South Shields case as one of the most important since Enfield, assuming the account in the book was accurate. It involved a wide range of phenomena, and he had recently examined all of the unpublished evidence and interviewed the investigators. Like those described earlier, many of the events were unpleasant, and we were shown footage of a back covered in welts. Alan’s feeling was that the book does not do the case justice, and there is scope for a further volume. As it stands, the investigators have suffered from attacks, some personal and nasty, by “console-based critics”. There seemed little point, Alan felt, in debating sceptics as he was not trying to make converts; the emphasis instead should be on following the evidence. He noted that poltergeists often seem to fulfil suggestions given by investigators, and he speculated on the idea of a “psychic lobotomy”, where part of the unconscious mind somehow comes loose and takes on a life of its own, matching the expectations of those involved

The final talk of the day was given by Barrie Colvin, comparing two cases which featured raps. The first was that of eleven-year old Virginia Campbell at Sauchie in 1960, who was investigated by George Owen. Like many other poltergeist foci she was going through a difficult time. Her family had moved from Ireland while her father stayed behind to complete business, then her mother went to work elsewhere, and she had to share a room with her niece. She was extremely shy and had no friends. Subsequently violent knockings were heard, and objects moved, and Virginia’s pillow exhibited a strange rippling effect. By the following year though, she had settled in, made friends, and the phenomena ceased. Barrie had obtained recordings of the raps and found that the acoustic amplitude was different to that of normal knocks, and he was unable to replicate those associated with Virginia.

The second case was that of Theresa at Andover, which he had personally investigated in 1974. She was aged 12 during the time when mysterious raps were heard in the house, and like Virginia she was shy, quiet and placid. The raps in her bedroom could be located precisely, and they used a code. They investigators ruled out any involvement from the house next door, and found that the raps were able to respond correctly to numbered card tests. Like the 1850 Normandy case recounted by Sacheverel Sitwell in his 1940 book Poltergeists, the last rap would be more distinct to show that they had finished. The raps said that the body of somebody called Eric was buried under the house, but until demolition this claim is unlikely to be subject to verification. Attempts to trace him through records have proved fruitless, but ‘his’ raps, like those at Sauchie, show different characteristics to normal ones.

Barrie concluded by saying that he wanted to compare more cases with improved equipment and analytical techniques. He could not say whether Eric was discarnate or not, but the physics of raps could be studied without a choice having to be made. He was keen to encourage sitter groups as they allowed this to be studied under more controlled conditions, and he showed some footage from one he is involved with which showed raps occurring while the sitters’ hands were on top of the table.

John Newton, Guy Playfair, Barrie Colvin and Mary Rose BarringtonDiscussion naturally was wide ranging during the day, after each talk and in a general session at the end. It was noted that numbers of cases had declined in recent years – something not restricted to poltergeists – but this could partly be explained by the proliferation of local groups who keep investigations to themselves. The ethical tension between householders at the sharp end (sometimes literally) desperate for a speedy resolution, while investigators wanted to study it, was noted. This raised the possibility that those in need of help would be more likely to approach those who can encourage whatever it is to ‘move on’, rather than psychical researchers.

The idea of poltergeists matching expectations was felt to be in line with psi proponents obtaining positive results in experiments while sceptics failed, and the idea of the “psychic lobotomy” evoked the Philip Experiment. Ian Stevenson had asked whether poltergeists were living or dead. In recent years the focus has been on the living, with the poltergeist cast in terms of RSPK from a living agent. For Guy, the answer to Stevenson’s question was ‘both’. But of course that still left open the use of the word ‘energy’, one frequently used in this context but not quantified, nor its source identified, and this was an issue that needed to be addressed. As Guy argued, poltergeists violate the known laws – but they happen. His conclusion was that their existence is incontrovertible, even if we cannot yet supply an adequate theory to explain the facts.

The next study day, organised by Robert Charman, will be on the subject of Healers and Healing, and will be held on 17 April 2010.

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