Poltergeist! A New Investigation Into Destructive Haunting, by John Fraser
John Fraser has long been interested in ghosts and the paranormal. He is a member of the Council of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee. In addition, he is a member of the Ghost Club and joined the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) in its founding year (i.e. 1981). He has previously written Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, reviewed on the SPR website by the irreplaceable Tom Ruffles. There are numerous books about ghosts, ghost hunting, and poltergeists, though books about the latter often focus on a specific case (e.g., Hitchings & Clark, 2013; Ritson & Hallowell, 2008). Fraser, however, like Colin Wilson (1981), from whom Fraser owes part of his book title, discusses several cases. The rather spare endnotes does not make it clear how much Fraser really attempts to cover. (Unfortunately, some references and citations are missing and I noted a few errors).
The selection of cases is always debatable. The book cover tempts potential readers by making it clear that a section about “The Cage – Witches Prison” is included. Although, little happened during an investigation by the Ghost Club, many have apparently had strange experiences there. Fraser has gathered much eyewitness testimony and includes an interim report written in 2015. The experiences range from minor odd occurrences to sudden emotional fluctuations and fears about attempted possession. Most of the poltergeist cases are however old and should be familiar to members of the SPR. These include, amongst others, Amityville, the Bell Witch, Enfield, and Thornton Heath.
Amityville stuck me as an odd choice. Fraser acknowledges: “The reality in the Amityville case has been clouded by so many movies which vaguely claim to be inspired by true events, which have surrounded the place in myth and legend even more” (p. 223). Much have been written about this, but even at the time when the case became known in the 1970s there were rightly serious doubts about what had really occurred (e.g., see Cooper & Tanous, 2013, pp. 103-11). George Lutz apparently stuck to his story, which his stepson Danny Lutz supported. However, as Fraser notes, there are few witnesses outside the Lutz family and one, Father Ralph Pecoraro, actually contradicted himself.
The Bell Witch case is mentioned almost in passing, but it seems fair to point out that there are more than one version of the story (Hudson & McCarter, 1934) and at this point it is of more interest to folklorists than psychical researchers. The well-known Enfield case, from the late 1970s, is mentioned a couple of times. I must admit that I am personally not convinced that the spirits (many unbelievable) that allegedly spoke through the children ever provided any facts that the children could not have known (see Morgan, 2018). I think Fraser should have elaborated a bit more since he considers it as ”quite possible the best documented case of all time” (p. 237).
Fraser actually covers two Thornton Heath cases, one investigated by Nandor Fodor in the 1930s and a later case which “is far less easy to source” (p. 45). Fraser notes that Fodor spent as much time “investigating Mrs Forbes’ psychological background as gathering evidence for the poltergeist activities” (p. 44). Although it is not evident in Fraser’s account Mrs Forbes was arguably more (psychologically) interesting than the poltergeist phenomena despite that the latter included a heavy wardrobe that fell on a bed that a reporter had just been about to enter. Fraser eventually finds that the other Thornton Heath case may very well be made up and repeated on the Internet – the original source is unknown.
To his credit Fraser highlights that there are ethical issues to consider during investigations and that there can be conflicts of interest. For example, psychical researchers naturally find poltergeist phenomena fascinating, while the people who experience the phenomena usually want the phenomena to stop as soon as possible. The latters’ beliefs appear to not only influence how the occurrences are interpreted, but may perhaps also determine when they cease to occur. Fraser notes that the late Tony Cornell once successfully exorcised a poltergeist despite that he had, in reality, just smoked a cigarette. A family in Pontefract apparently got rid of their poltergeist by placing garlic around the house! Fraser writes about the ”black monk of Pontefract” but notes that the black monk appears to be more an invention/interpretation than a clear-cut observation. A case from the Journal of the SPR (i.e. Stafford, 1984) is also singled out for discussion.
It is perhaps not too surprising that several familiar names turn up in this book, including Mary Rose Barrington, Barrie Colvin, Tony Cornell, Alan Gauld, Alan Murdie, Steven Parsons, Harry Price, and Peter Underwood — all were or are active investigators. Gauld and Cornell (1979) also wrote a classic book about poltergeists (republished by White Crow Books in 2018). Colvin’s (2010) important paper about poltergeist raps is subject to some commentary and a brief report from 2017 by James A. Tacchi is included. Tacchi was able to “produce, through conventional means 'control' rapping sounds which when subjected to the same analysis revealed very similar qualities” (p. 135). However, Fraser appears to have forgotten that Chris Jensen Romer also experimented, though he presented his results on a blog correspondence in the Journal of the SPR made the results more known (Romer, 2011).
Fraser considers the possibility that environmental factors might contribute to odd experiences, but he is sceptical of the approach adopted by many modern ghost hunters, who bring a number of gadgets and are eager to interpret any anomaly as evidence of a ghostly presence. Fraser seems to think that a tape recorder (to record eyewitness testimony — not to collect electronic voice phenomena), a notebook, and some common sense are more useful. It is however not strictly true that the S.P.I.D.E.R. (Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder) “never caught anything apart from cobwebs” (p. 253). Cornell (2002) wrote that “since 1986 Alan Gauld and Howard Wilkinson have recorded only six or seven 5- to 15-second movements of small objects which could not be explained by normal means” (p. 381). Poltergeist phenomena appear to be camera shy.
Despite some complaints this is a readable popular book, perhaps a bit chatty, but enjoyable. That said, perhaps I can be forgiven for having hoped for more truly new content?
Colvin, B. G. (2010). The acoustic properties of unexplained rapping sounds. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 74, 65-93.
Cornell, A. D. (2002). Investigating the Paranormal. New York: Helix Press.
Gauld, A., & Cornell, A. D. (1979). Poltergeists. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hitchings, S., & Clark, J. (2013). The Poltergeist Prince of London. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.
Hudson, A. P., & McCarter, P. K. (1934). The Bell Witch of Tennessee and Mississippi: A folk legend. Journal of American Folklore, 47, 45-63.
Morgan, R. J. (2018). Bill Wilkins — his life, death, and afterlife?
Ritson, D. W., & Hallowell, M. J. (2008). The South Shields poltergeist. Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press.
Romer, C. J. [Letter to the Editor]. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research,75, 175.
Stafford, B. L. (1984). The Kern city poltergeist: A case severely straining the living agent hypothesis. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 52, 345-64.
Tanous, A. with Cooper, C. E. (2013). Conversations with Ghosts. Guildford: White Crow Books.
Wilson, C. (1981). Poltergeist! A Study in Destructive Haunting. London: New English Library.