A compelling interview with historian Christopher Laursen about the presence and history of poltergeists.
via The Daily Grail:
Christopher Laursen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia whose dissertation focuses on poltergeist phenomena. I first met him at the Parapsychological Association’s 2012 conference, and have been glad that his web magazine, the Extraordinarium, has allowed me to continue following developments in his research over the past few years. His PhD dissertation, titled Mischievous Forces, looks at the shifting perspectives on poltergeist phenomena in the 20th century, focusing on changing research paradigms in the United States and UK during this period. It’s with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview him via email regarding his work and recent developments in his studies, including an online survey of people who have experienced purported poltergeist phenomena (Click Here to take the survey).
DM: What is a poltergeist? How accurate is what we see in the popular media?
CL: Poltergeist refers to a strange phenomenon in which there are unusual noises, such as knocking or scratching sounds, and movements of objects, as if they were displaced or thrown by an invisible being. There can be spontaneous fires and appearances of liquids or objects among other things. These manifestations happen repeatedly, but they tend to be time-limited. They start happening out of the blue, and then just as mysteriously, they tend to disappear a month or two later. Sometimes the anomalous phenomenon lasts just a few days, and I’ve also seen reports in which manifestations stretch across years. It is something that has been recorded as early as the fourth century, and it is likely to have been experienced even earlier in history. Furthermore, the phenomenon has occurred all around the world, albeit under different names and interpretations that are culturally specific.
The historical reports I have read certainly have had their share of strange moments, but most of them are a catalogue of relatively mundane anomalous events. The tea cup slides three inches across the countertop. A bar of soap bends around a corner to fly from the kitchen shelf into the living room. A woman enters her bedroom to find the curtains aflame. Three knocks are heard from the ceiling at 11:40 p.m., but no one is upstairs. There isn’t anywhere near the level of paranormal fury that has been depicted in most TV shows and movies.
This isn’t to say that anomalous events do not bring tension to those who experience them; emotions and anxieties are heightened in many cases since no one really knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. In other cases, people are simply fascinated by these events.
The German word poltergeist combines poltern (to make a loud noise or uproar) and geist (a ghost). The word has been in circulation since the sixteenth century, first referenced by the Christian reformist Martin Luther, who the ecclesiastical historian David V.N. Bagchi has written on at some length. Dr. Bagchi shows that Luther was creating a taxonomy of different supernatural beings, including the troublesome poltergeists, which, intriguingly, were also calledRottengeister by revolting Sacramentarian peasants who resisted both Roman Catholic and Lutheran authority, people Luther would have considered rather disruptive themselves. Maybe there’s a parallel or a relationship there, between living resistors and demonic or restless spirits.1
After Catherine Crowe’s 1848 book The Night Side of Nature introduced the word poltergeist to English-speaking readers, psychical researchers adopted the term to discuss the phenomenon. From what I can tell, it was ghost hunter Harry Price who popularized the word through the British press who he invited to investigate poltergeist cases such as the Romanian girl Eleonore Zugun (1926) and the Battersea poltergeist (1928). From then on, it has become a common way of describing this ghostly, physical phenomenon.2
I suppose I haven’t really answered your question directly. What is a poltergeist? I have to level with you, David. I’ve been studying the poltergeist as a doctoral student of history for years now, and I don’t know what the phenomenon actually is. Mind you, I’m not trying to explain the poltergeist. As a historian, that’s not my goal. I take a methodologically agnostic approach to this topic. It is not its reality or non-reality that concerns me, but rather how people have experienced these anomalous events, how others intervene, and how ideas emerge from that. From historical records, it is obvious that people have experienced this strange physical phenomenon. How they deal with something so elusive is what fascinates me most.
Even the best poltergeist researchers have only been able to offer hypotheses as to what might cause it. I know people experience this phenomenon, yet in historical documentation, it is rare to read about their point of view. So a significant part of my research project is to speak with and correspond with people who experienced the phenomenon for themselves, to get their point of view.
DM: How common are poltergeist experiences from what you’ve seen with your research?
CL: A colleague of mine, the Australian poltergeist researcher Paul Cropper, has been investigating the phenomenon outside of the Euro-American sphere, in places such as Malaysia, Turkey, South Africa, and Jamaica, and each of these cultures has their own set of explanations for the phenomenon. He finds several reports of this type of phenomenon from all corners of the world every month, sometimes a few per week. With the help of online search tools that scan the world’s newspapers, one can seek out the cases on a global scale these days.
When I look at the historically documented records I have collected mainly between Britain and the United States from the 1930s to the 1990s, it varies. In 1966, I see I have 15 cases noted. In 1979, I have eight. In 1982, 15. In 1988, six. What I have been analyzing so far are about 300 British and American cases documented in the archives from between 1930 and 1990, and there are more that were published in peer-reviewed journals, the media, and in books as well. Poltergeist researchers always suspect that most poltergeists go unreported. I think they’re right about that. There are far more occurring than we will ever know about, and most are probably very weak or minor in scope, lasting a very brief period, or resulting in very minor manifestations that remain as part of family lore, and nothing more.
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