Blithe Spirits: A History of the Poltergeist, by S. D. Tucker
Reviewed by Ted Dixon
Does it help us understand poltergeist phenomena to think of them as examples of trickster figures at work? In this, his ninth, book, independent writer S. D. Tucker argues that it does, in more than thirty very readable chapters of mainly poltergeist stories and comment. These are based on an impressive amount of research – into the literature on trickster figures in myth, folklore and popular culture as well as into poltergeist stories. Tucker credits George P. Hansen’s (2001) The Trickster and the Paranormal as one of his main inspirations for the book and quotes extensively from it.
After two introductory chapters, headed Acting Like Little Children and How True Are These Tales?, the book is organised in two main parts, with each of the chapters in these parts looking at the poltergeist with reference to the idea of the trickster and to particular trickster figures and their characteristics. The book finishes with a Non-Conclusion.
Part One, includes thirteen chapters with the titles: The Haunted Mask, The Living Dead, Breaking Down Barriers, Keys to Meaning, Borderline Personalities, Shamans Without the Shamanism, Traps of Logic, Our Minds Playing Tricks on Us, Loki Unbound, The World Turned Upside Down, Identity Crisis, Motives Unknown, and Poltergeist Art. It will be fairly clear from some of these chapter headings alone what they are about, but in other cases it may not be so clear until you read them.
Part Two, includes eighteen shorter chapters with the titles: Practical Jokes, Vandalism, Slapstick, Sick Jokes, Toilet Humour, Absurdity of Location, Hide-and-Seek, Ridiculous Evidence, False Promises, Funny Disguises, Theatres of the Absurd, Verbal Humour, Defying Authority and Blasphemy, Poltergeists at Play, Threats of Violence, Rewriting Physical Laws, Unusual Conjunctions, and Machines in the Ghosts. It is more evident what these chapters are about.
By looking at poltergeist cases in terms of the trickster characteristics Tucker highlights features that cases often have in common but which can easily be overlooked, or quickly forgotten, when we look at reports of individual cases one at a time. However, if you want to look up all the references in the book to a particular case, a particular trickster figure or a particular researcher or theorist (as I did in writing this review) then it is an annoying weakness of the book that there is no index.
Tucker covers classic old cases such as the Drummer of Tedworth and the Worksop poltergeist, more modern well-known cases such as Sauchie, Rosenheim, Enfield and Cardiff, and very many other more recent cases still, some of which have been extensively written about and others known only from publications such as Fortean Times. Tucker makes no bones about the fact that not only may some of the details in the stories not be true (he says he has made no attempt to verify them) but that some he refers to are almost certainly not entirely true. His justification for including them anyway is that he believes that most of the less well-authenticated poltergeist reports probably are true in essentials, and that he gives enough information for us to judge for ourselves how likely they are to be true. I think this inclusive approach is helpful all round. For me, coming across stories that were new to me was one of the main pleasures of the book. With almost all these less well-known cases, however distressing for the victims, you have to laugh (as Tucker intended). The Bromley Garden Centre case is just one example. These cases are all very well referenced.
I also enjoyed the way Tucker structures his material. He heads each chapter with one or more very well-chosen quotes and continues with an appropriate introductory fact or thought, sometime about poltergeists, sometimes about trickster figures and sometimes about ourselves and the world we live in. It is then followed by an always interesting and skilfully blended mix of material. Before you have time you get bored with a poltergeist story, Tucker moves into reflective and theorising mode, and then when he has made his points in this mode he moves back into story-telling mode. And so the sequence typically continues. His comments are always thoughtful and often witty.
Keys to Meaning is a fairly representative chapter (in terms of approach) in Part One. Tucker begins by saying that poltergeists have an undeniable obsession with locks, bolts and keys, and goes on to give a number of examples including an 1870 case involving the appearance of a “marvellously irrelevant key” which Tucker sees as a ‘‘most subversive joke in which the spook is mocking the whole notion of keys, locks and barriers entirely, remaking them all on its own deliberately absurdist terms’’. There follows a page on the trickster god Hermes, herms (boundary and direction-markers) and hermaions (gifts of Hermes) and their significance in ancient Greece.
Moving on to present times, Tucker goes beyond the typical poltergeist cases in the popular imagination to make his first reference to instances of JOTT (Just One of Those Things) experiences which often involve keys. He quotes examples from Mary Rose Barrington’s collection, and also the well-known Anthony Hopkins story of finding the author’s own personal annotated copy of a book Hopkins needed. Seeing this story as being in the same class as Arthur Koestler’s ‘library angel’ cases, Tucker says these can also be sensibly labelled as hermaions. He goes on to say that hermaions can also be verbal in nature, as with what we usually call Freudian slips, giving more examples of JOTT experiences and the meanings that those affected give to them.
After more examples of JOTT seen as hermaions, Tucker then says that the ‘‘I Ching-like divinatory art of interpreting’’ them ‘’can sometimes be taken a bit too far, however, the chief exhibit being the books of Nandor Fodor’’. He writes at length about Fodor’s investigations and theorising about the Thornton Heath case. In the final section of the chapter, Tucker considers how a modern-day Fodor would explain why by far the most commonly affected JOTT items are keys. He then mentions and draws conclusions from Maurice Grosse’s story of lost and found keys involving his wife, following the death of their daughter; and after telling us about Loki, the trickster god of Norse mythology, considers the meaning of JOTT experiences through Loki’s eyes.
An example of a chapter in part Two is Rewriting Physical Laws. It begins with a classic poltergeist case. Pieces of wood were flying around in a carpenter’s shop as if alive, animated and intelligent. Sometimes these objects flew in a straight line, but often their motion was undulating, rotator, spiral or jerky and fell without any noise: one piece jumping from a bench to an easel, then to another piece of furniture and then into the corner where it stopped: ‘‘So not only do objects fly around, they do so in a variety of highly unnatural and inconsistent flight patterns’’. In this and other cases Tucker mentions, ‘‘polts quite literally defy the laws of physics – and indeed subsequent attempts of witnesses to get them to conform to those laws’’. He goes on to look at reports of solid objects passing through other solid objects, such as at Humpty Doo in Australia ‘‘where two journalists backed themselves up right against a wall to avoid flying objects … only to have a shower of gravel hurled at them from behind, as if the wall itself was not there’’; and of things being placed in closed boxes and then escaping again – ‘‘another staple trope of poltergeistery’’.
Tucker also gives examples of reverse-temporal experiences where things that have broken seemingly mend themselves again and of objects acting with physical characteristics other than their own. For example, he mentions that a book broke into shards as if made of glass and that a stone appeared out of thin air then split into two irregular parts and then snapped back together as if magnetised. About as strange are instances during which heavy objects struck someone yet to the person it felt like being struck by just a feather. More extraordinary, Tucker writes about an instance during which a massive ball of fire made everything it touched turn to ice, of things burning when they should not and not burning when they should. Tucker says the only pattern to discern is one of deliberate trickster-style contrariness and goes on to give more examples of “physical effects which are simply bizarre one-offs” such as dust jumping out of a vacuum cleaner and spelling out words, of soap powder pouring from a box horizontally, and of petals falling from the sky and spontaneously transforming into a pile of dead wasps.
Tucker observes that ‘’No matter what physical or energetic patterns you might detect in one case, you will not find them present in all poltergeist outbreaks’’. After a reference to the trickster god Mercurius, who mediates between matter and spirit, Tucker concludes by saying that ‘’The poltergeist thus does not simply break the laws of physics ... it breaks our entire prevailing world view’’.
Tucker begins his final chapter with the last of his always very apt quotes: “TV Interviewer: Very briefly, can you tell us what a poltergeist is? Guy Lyon Playfair: Very briefly, no”; and goes on not only to repeat why this is so but to celebrate the fact: “I for one actually rather hope that the mystery of the poltergeist is never solved – because if it is then the subject’s appeal would be unutterably reduced. The supernatural would become just science. Goodbye grimoires, hello textbooks”. He quotes Hansen, reminding us that terms like clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition and recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK) are only labels – they do no not designate mechanisms; and adds that poltergeists are even worse: “If they too are ostensibly non-energetic in nature, as I have argued, then it would be impossible to distinguish in practice whether a lithobolic stone has been thrown by an invisible demon or by a personified forces from within the human brain”.
What does Tucker himself think is more likely? He ventures a “hesitant proposal” that “when poltergeists act like the Trickster, that is simply because we are in fact the poltergeist, and also somewhere deep down within ourselves, we are the Trickster as well” but then, asking if this is what the whole book has been leading up to, answers: ‘’No; it is just a thought. As with the proposals of William G. Roll, Nandor Fodor and a thousand others, it may have some merit in individual cases, and little or no merit in others. At best I hope my idea is at least interesting and worth considering, if you are inclined to do so”.
Tucker’s final pages address the question of what is the point of studying a subject which can probably never end up being fully understood to the human mind? His short answer is that it leads us on to “what Socrates called the aporia – a sense of unsolvable paradox” and that “in reconnecting us to the unknowable the poltergeist reconnects us with the numinous.”
I am not persuaded by Tucker’s “hesitant proposal” myself. This is mainly for reasons to do with my own and family and friends’ poltergeist-type experiences and my gut feelings about these, influenced by the writings of Alan Gauld , Colin Wilson, Guy Lyon Playfair and others. If anything, the weight of Tucker’s poltergeist and possibly-related stories and his commentary on them has strengthened my conviction that living-agent psychokinesis cannot be the whole story. Tucker is right to emphasise that his proposal is not what the whole book has been leading up to and I can’t help wondering if he only intended it to be a trickster-like tease. I hope the book will be widely read. It is a distinctive and substantial contribution to the literature on the poltergeist that is also very entertaining.
Hansen, G. P. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Philadelphia: Xlibris.
Ted Dixon can be reached at email: firstname.lastname@example.org