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Definition: poltergeist from The Penguin English Dictionary

a mischievous ghost said to be responsible for unexplained noises and throwing objects about [German Poltergeist, from poltern to knock + Geist spirit].


Summary Article: poltergeist
from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

A mysterious invisible force asserted to cause a number of phenomena, most commonly noises (bangs, thuds and rappings) and object movements (from the hurling of smaller items, to the lifting and upsetting of large pieces of furniture).

The word ‘poltergeist’ comes from the German poltern, to make a racket, and Geist, ghost. However, alleged poltergeist activity includes a broad spectrum of phenomena, not necessarily covered by the literal translation of the word, ‘noisy spirit’. Poltergeist-related phenomena can involve objects seeming to move with no cause, including heavy items such as furniture as well as smaller items; bangs, knocking and rapping noises; thrown objects, which sometimes follow an unusual trajectory, or seem to be aimed at a specific person; rains of small objects such as stones or coins, sometimes falling inside a house or building; foul smells; spontaneous fires, sometimes breaking out on walls or ceilings; electrical disturbances, including the switching on and off of lights and appliances; telephone disruption; the levitation of either objects or people; and the manifestation of liquids such as blood, water or oil. Some poltergeists are said to physically assault their victims, although this is usually in the form of pinching and scratching rather than serious physical harm. Apparitions are only rarely reported in poltergeist cases.

Poltergeist incidents have been reported around the world since ancient times, and have exhibited many commonalities, with object movements the most consistent feature. It has been suggested that these commonalities lend weight to the existence of the phenomena, as reports were independent of each other. The activity usually starts and stops very abruptly, and occurs over anything from several hours to several months, although disturbances over longer periods have been reported. Generally, one individual seems to be at the focus of the activity. Until the 19th century poltergeist events were attributed to the devil, witchcraft or the ghosts of the dead. After this time, and with the development of psychical research in the late 19th century, a more scientific explanation was sought. In the 1930s the psychologist Nandor Fodor brought psychoanalytical analysis to his research of poltergeist cases and developed a theory that some poltergeist occurrences were caused by living individuals who were suffering from intense repression, anger or sexual tension. More recently William Roll of the Psychical Research Foundation in Durham, North Carolina, identified in his research what he termed recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK). His work suggested that the poltergeist focus (or poltergeist agent) was most commonly a child or teenager who was unknowingly using psychokinesis (PK) to express their hostility or unhappiness. Further, the focus was usually unaware that they were causing the chaos of poltergeist activity but was pleased with the disturbances.

Most parapsychologists have adopted the explanation of the psychokinetic abilities of a living person as the source of poltergeist activity. Many of the recorded cases (both historical and modern) revolve around one individual (frequently female and under the age of 20) to the extent that phenomena only occur when that individual is present. There have also been recorded incidents of the poltergeist phenomena ‘following’ the focus to another location.

During some of the high-profile investigations of poltergeist activity, the focus has been seen (and sometimes recorded on film) deliberately causing the movement of objects. Some cases are revealed to be entirely hoaxed, whereas in other instances – for example, the tina resch case, and the enfield poltergeist – an example of hoaxing has been observed which does not necessarily invalidate all of the phenomena, but can be attributed to the effect of the pressure to perform during the intense and disruptive involvement of investigators and particularly the media. See also bell witch; drummer of tedworth; epworth parsonage poltergeist; gef the talking mongoose; humpty doo poltergeist; lamb inn; rosenheim poltergeist.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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