POLTERGEISTS OF THE PAST
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
When I'm not reading, writing, or researching, I quite enjoy occasionally watching a movie. Unsurprisingly, some of my favourite kinds of movies are those with a paranormal or supernatural theme!
If you're a fan of the same kind of movie, you will have seen some where objects and furniture move and doors slam of their own accord, strange sounds are heard, and items are thrown at the protagonists by unseen hands. Of course, most of these movies are highly sensationalised- they mightn't get much of an audience if they weren't!
In the world outside of Hollywood hype, though- the world of paranormal and psychical research, the types of phenomena I mentioned above have been researched, and written about, for a great many years now, and are commonly described as Poltergeist Phenomena.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The term Poltergeist has its grammatical roots in German, and is an amalgamation of the words poltern (to crash or bang about) and geist (mind, ghost, spirit), and the earliest reports of this type of phenomena date back to well before psychical research became a formalised field of study. It was actually an apparent poltergeist case that was responsible for the beginning of the Spiritualist movement too- that of the Fox sisters and the reported phenomena that occured in their home in Hydesville, New York, in 1847.
But possible cases go much further back than that.
In his book "Poltergeist over England", Harry Price states:
"We have evidence from papyri and other remains, covering a period of 4000 years, that the ancient Egyptians believed in, and were afraid of ghosts.."
"..G.C.C. Maspero, in his 'Etudes de Mythologie..Egyptiennes' (Paris, 1893), mentions a papyrus fragment which is a letter written by an ancient scribe 'To the Instructed Khou of Dame Onkhari', his own dead wife, the Khou being her spirit. He complains to his wife that her spirit is assailing him and that 'disturbances' have occurred in his home: clearly a Poltergeist case. He tells her to stop it!"
In his 2010 book "Poltergeist: A Classic Study in Destructive Hauntings", author Colin Wilson writes of an early case dating back to 858 A.D. and recorded in a chronicle called the Annales Fuldenses. It took place in a farmhouse near Bingen, on the Rhine river, where an unnamed farmer lived with his wife and children. Wilson writes: "The chronicle states that the "evil spirit" made itself evident "at first by throwing stones; then it made the place dangerous by shaking the walls, as if the men of that place were striking them with hammers".
Another of the earliest recorded examples Price mentions comes from 500 A.D., and tells of an apparent poltergeist that infested the home of Helpidius of Ravenna (Italy), physician to the Ostrogoth King Theoderic. Showers of stones and other disturbances were reported. This was all apparently halted by the application of holy water!
The mention of holy water there definitely got me thinking about possible correlations between religion, and its practices, attitudes and beliefs in early times, and how these might have been elemental in creating a perfect environment for poltergeist "agents" (unconscious creators of poltergeist phenomena).
These considerations actually changed the direction of my writing in this piece..but more on that shortly! Firstly, though, let's look at how the word entered our vocabulary..
A LITTLE WORD ETYMOLOGY
The first use of the word "poltergeist" is attributed to Martin Luther, the German professor of theology, composer, monk, and priest, (and also apparently a professed poltergeist victim himself) and dates back to 1530, where in a pamphlet he wrote he listed poltergeists as the fifth-worst abuse of the Roman Church.
I'm sure, as the key figure in the Protestant Reformation, that Luther probably felt there was a lot to blame Rome for, but I'm unsure as to why he felt poltergeists were one of those things!
The first use of the word in English literature stems from 1848, when author Catherine Crowe used the term in her book "The Night side of Nature. Or: Ghosts and Ghost Seers"
It was this book that first made the distinction between poltergeists and other types of ghosts or spirits, and not long after that the term entered the lexicon of psychical researchers too, and a greater awareness and consideration of the phenomena and its possible causes and origins began to form.
Modern-day parapsychologists and researchers often use the term RSPK (Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis) to define the nature of poltergeist phenomena, but people's awareness and perception of what a poltergeist may be has really only evolved to include RSPK as a possibility in relatively recent times. In earlier times, the phenomena was considered and explained much differently..this takes us back to religion!
RELIGION AND POLTERGEISTS
**If you're a religious person and are reading this, I wish to make it clear that nothing I'm writing here is intended as an attack on your faith- I'm merely speculating, and exploring possibilities, and I wish to assure you I mean no offense!**
There have been reports, that seem to be consistent with poltergeist-type incidents, relating to a few religious figures over the centuries. These, however, were generally considered in earlier times to be signs of demonic possession, or of the presence of evil spirits, or of the work of the devil.
In their 1979 book 'Poltergeists", Alan Gauld and A.J. Cornell state that of the 18 types of "demon" described by the Jesuit scholar Martin Del Rio in his Disquisitionum Magicarium (1599), one type sounds quite a lot like a poltergeist. It's described by Del Rio in this manner:
"Those specters which in certain times and places or homes are wont to occasion various commotions and annoyances. I shall pass over examples, since the thing is exceedingly well known, and instances can be read in older and more recent authors. Sometimes they are content to annoy and disturb, doing no bodily harm, like that throwing spirit of which William of Paris writes, which having disturbed his slumber with clattering of pots and hurling of stones, and, having pulled away his mattress, turned him out of bed; and that Salamancan fiend of Torquemada, who indiscriminately attacked people with large stones, striking them, nevertheless, with an empty and harmless blow"
A little research showed that William of Paris was a Dominican priest, and the Torquemada in question was Antonio de Torquemada, a 16th century humanitarian student (and later a writer), born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1507..given the religious affiliations of that country, and indeed the time-frame, it somehow seemed to match up with the track of thought I found myself on..
In some cases there does perhaps seem to be a degree of correlation between religion and some poltergeist-type incidents, which became more apparent to me the further I read into the topic!
Gauld and Cornell noted too that some cases occurred around individuals who were also stigmatics- those whose bodies displayed, without physical wound or medical cause, the wounds resembling those of the crucified Christ.
The Blessed Christina of Stommeln (1242-1312) reportedly had her body, and other objects, thrown about, hot nails and stones pressed into her flesh, her clothes and shoes cut or torn to pieces, and excrement splattered.
Saint Paul of the Cross (1694-1775) was apparently tormented by sounds like the explosions of artillery being fired, being struck and bruised by unseen hands, the opening and shutting of the lid of the warming pan in his room, and visions of grotesque animals.
Price also states further early cases, including one written about by Fr. Herbert Thurston in one of his articles on poltergeists and related subjects, where he mentions an incident in the life of St. Godric (1065-1170) where "his hermitage was bombarded by showers of stones, and the 'poltergeist' threw at him the box in which he kept his altar-breads; took the horn which contained the wine he needed for mass and poured it over his head; and ended by pelting him with almost every moveable object which his poor cell contained."
As you can see, there's a lot of commonly reported phenomena in these early cases that shows correlation to phenomena reported in more recent times, too- showers of stones or stone throwing, movement or throwing of objects, knocking sounds, violence directed towards the individual..
As I said earlier too, there are elements of quite a few of these reports that made me wonder about the mindset of those involved- how the combination of their religious beliefs and the attitudes of the times in which they lived may have perhaps made them ideal "agents"..which leads me to the next section..
PSYCHOLOGY AND POLTERGEISTS
Parapsychology is the study of (as-yet) unconfirmed aspects of the workings of the human mind, and a large part of parapsychology, as its' name suggests, is psychology.
William G. Roll (1926-2012) was a German-born psychologist and a noted parapsychologist, and it was he who coined the term RSPK to define poltergeist cases. In his 1972 book "The Poltergeist", he states;
"Poltergeist phenomena may not represent odd exceptions to the laws of nature, but lawful processes which have so far escaped our attention. If Poltergeist phenomena say anything, I suspect that this is not about spirits, demons, or ghosts but about human personality."
When we look at the possible cases stated in the previous sections, there's a lot that seems to point to Roll's assertion that poltergeists are more to do with people than with ghosts, spirits or demons. One common theme in many poltergeist cases both early and modern seems to be that possible poltergeist agents have some elements of possible underlying stress, and some agents also show signs of emotional repression, and there's maybe some strong influences upon their beliefs or perceptions too, via values or upbringing perhaps, which may have had an effect on them.
I mentioned earlier in this piece that what my research uncovered changed the direction of my writing here, and this is where it really comes into the equation..
In the cases above, I do wonder how strongly some of those individuals were influenced by their religious beliefs. For many in earlier centuries who dedicated their lives to religion, such as priests, nuns, monks and friars, their whole lives were often centred upon their devotions, and upon contemplations of a religious nature. Even if some of those mentioned didn't devote their entire lives to religious study and practise, religion would still have been a fairly major influence on their lives due to the time in which they lived.
This was possibly even more so in those earlier centuries than in this day and age, as religion held a much greater sway over people's beliefs. It influenced behaviour, conduct, and thinking to a much greater degree than it does these days. Religion even dictated aspects of the laws of earlier times!
Times were harsh, and conditions were quite harsh for those who devoted their lives to their religions, too.
When you add to that above consideration the fact that quite often priests, monks, and nuns were expected to take vows of both poverty and chastity, there's a perfect storm of repressed frustration right there!
Not only is there the possibility of repressed frustration or resentment at the meagre conditions they were required to exist in, but then add in the possibility of repressed sexual frustration too via those vows of chastity..Seems to me like an extremely conducive psychological environment for the creation of a poltergeist!
One commonality which struck me upon reading a little about some of the individuals involved in the above cases too was that quite a few of those individuals were exponents of the Catholic or Roman Catholic faith. In these faiths, Christ is the central figure of devotion and worship..how much of the torments inflicted upon the individuals via the phenomena described may have been self-created, and externalised, perhaps due to some unconscious desire on their behalf to undergo some of the same suffering that their religious Idol, Christ, apparently underwent?
What might the little "mental stew" of all of the above considerations of possible psychological influences have created when it was "cooked" for long enough?
There are many more poltergeist cases, past and recent, that seem to indicate that a degree of psychological stress is a contributing factor, whatever the reasons for the existence of that stress may be, but my main aim- initially at least -in illustrating the very early cases is to show that the possible stressors that may contribute to the phenomena have been around for a long, long time.
Repression due to religious constraints, or due to lifestyle, upbringing, values and beliefs, and the psychological influence those factors may have had on the agents, are, for my mind, worthy of consideration as being contributing factors in the phenomena that tormented the aforementioned individuals.
The same factors may be at play in more recent cases too, but I'll leave consideration of those for another time- I've given you enough to consider for now, although I've not written half of what I could have!
What do you think might be contributive to poltergeist phenomena? Is it RSPK, or might it be something else? What do you think the main contributors in those early cases i related may have been?
Share your thoughts in comments- I'd love to hear them!