Noisy Ghosts

  • John and Anne Spencer. The Poltergeist Phenomenon: An Investigation into Psychic disturbance. Headline, 1996.
  • Philip Stander and Paul Schmolling. Poltergeists and the Paranormal: Fact Beyond Fiction. Llewellyn, 1996.

Two new books on poltergeists from either side of the Atlantic. Both review historical and contemporary cases, including those investigated by the authors. The Spencers will be well known to Magonia readers, being stalwarts of BUFORA and ASSAP. The American authors are college professors, and teach at a Community College in New York, and I assume their book is a sort of textbook. The Spensers provide a wider range of cases, while Stander and Schmolling (S&S) give rather more detail on individual cases. One which is of some interest features a lady called Margot who, among other anomalous experiences, had the experience of being orally raped by an incubus. S&S do not appear to realise that her account was a classic description of The Hag, and it is instructive in cases like these to try to work out what environmental and physiological stimuli provided the building blocks of the hypnogogic narrative.

Both pairs of authors allude to the Hydesville rapping in more or less similar terms, and do not appear to take Katie Fox's alleged confession at face value. S&S also have sections on Eusapio Palladino and Daniel Home; the account of the latter deriving from the uncritical biography by Elizabeth Jenkins, itself based on books by Home and his wife.

S&S do at least give some space to the sceptical positions, and seem to appreciate to the sorts of complexities surrounding these stories, whereas the Spencers take a completely uncritical stance which, given the insightful comments John Spencer has made about abduction cases, seems surprisingly obtuse at times. In some cases they seem to be wilfully withholding information, the existence of which they can hardly be unaware. For example they quote the claims of Grosse and Playfair about the Enfield poltergeist without mentioning the very severe criticism made by Anita Gregory of the SPR - a respected and anything but dyed-in-the-wool sceptical researcher (see her review in the SPR Journal for December 1980).

No mention is made of Hall and Dingwall's sceptical commentary of the Runcorn poltergeist; a mention of the case of Mrs Forbes does not give the full context of her story, with its faked apports and her claim to have been attacked by a vampire, even though they are in the source (Fodor) that the Spencers refer to. Most seriously, in an uncritical account of the SORRAT affair no mention is made of the fact that many far from generally sceptical parapsychologists - the late Scott Rogo, for instance - were convinced it was a hoax.

Both books, like a lot of paranormalist writings, tend to rely on unexamined cliches. Neither provide any conceivable mechanism by which the human brain can move objects at a distance; terms like sexual energy are used without defining what exactly is meant by this. I suspect it is a metaphor, and one could no more lift a table by sexual energy than ride to work on the back of a fast-paced thriller.

Even if this is not the case, no-one comes up with the mechanism by which increased levels of testosterone or oestrogen could move objects at a distance. When we come to cases like the one discussed by the Spencers, in which a poltergeist was accused of, among many other things, leaving teeth marks in food in a fridge and filling in crossword puzzles, invoking paranormal mechanisms seems totally absurd.

Reading these cases, it struck me more and more that trickery is the only explanation which makes sense. We can argue whether or not the trickery is always conscious or not, whether it sometimes takes place in dissociated states, even whether, when normal means of trickery are ruled out, some paranormal trickery takes place. But these are probably not very clear-cut distinctions, and in the latter case may never be resolvable. The interesting question, which these books don't answer, are those concerning the meaning and purpose of poltergeists. The Spencers do suggest that frustration and stress play a part; yet this cannot be the whole background, as poltergeists are not common in a variety of stressful situations ranging from traffic jams to prisons.

They provide a more important clue when they point out that they rarely happen to people living alone. They are not directed outwards to the wider community. People don't produce poltergeist effects to interest the neighbours: they are the product of the tensions of small groups such as families and workplaces. There are clearly deep connections with Munchhausen's Syndrome, as the case of Beverley Mitt (and I believe, Mrs Forbes, Marianne Foyster and Eleanor Zugun) demonstrates. There appears to be some relationship to vandalism (a form of social behaviour which reappears generation after generation). There may also be connections with eating disorders.

The most likely common purpose is the gaining of attention from and power over, other people; more specifically a rearranging of the power relationships within a group. Relatively powerless and insignificant members can now be the centre of attention: they are able to manipulate those around them, often in a violent and disturbing manner, and can instil fear in others - and get away with it.

Of course, by no means all these events are caused by just one person. Others may get in on the act as ever more complex games get played out. the Spensers in particular tend to feel that this sort of speculation involves blaming the victim. But it would be naive to divide the world into polarised camps of blameless victims and blameworthy perpetrators. Real life is much, much more complicated than that. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 60, August 1997.

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