ARTICLES

Harry Price

Harry Price

Highly charismatic personality whose energy and enthusiasm for the paranormal made him the first celebrity ghost hunter. A skilled magician and an expert at detecting fraud. Because of his flamboyant manner and continuous self-promotion, Price made a number of enemies within the psychical research field, especially within the Society of Psychical Research. Founder of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, which later became the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation.

Can we explain the Poltergeist?

 - Harry Price -

           NO! WE know nothing whatsoever about why Poltergeists should infest a place, what they are, how to get rid of them, or how to attract them. There is a curious belief that opals do so. If there was any evidence for this, I would buy a sackful! We cannot explain the mechanism of Poltergeist movements, displacements, 'voices', how they transport things, or how they produce fire or water, or the many varieties and varying intensities of sounds and noises. We do not know where they obtain the energy from with which to move objects - sometimes heavy objects - or how they can hallucinate some people into believing they see or hear certain things or sounds, while other persons in the immediate vicinity see and hear nothing. And where do all the 'apports' (things that spontaneously 'appear' during an infestation) come from? Who loses them? And where do they go to when, as often happens, they disappear? If things 'appear', then they must have disappeared from somewhere, and someone must have lost them. Perhaps another Poltergeist victim! There have been speculations concerning all these puzzles, and I will later mention some of the more interesting. But they are theories only, ingenious as some of them are. We know nothing as to the causation of Poltergeist phenomena.

If we know so little about the Poltergeist per se, we are certain that there is some connection, between Poltergeists and puberty and that the mysteries of sex enter largely into their doings. And all the available evidence points to the fact that Poltergeists prefer little girls and girl adolescents to boys - the ratio is about 95% to 5% respectively. Though we know there is this connection, we cannot explain it.

'Psychoneurotics, hysteriacs, and borderline cases'

The fact that little girls are so mixed up in Poltergeist cases has led the uninformed to assume that these young creatures are consciously responsible for the phenomena; that the manifestations are produced fraudulently and that the whole thing is hocus-pocus. Perhaps the reader thought like that too - until he read this book. It has probably never occurred to our hypothetical - and ignorant - critic that, if his 'explanation' is correct, and that all these Poltergeist girls trick, then they have been tricking in exactly the same way, in every country, and in every age. That would be a phenomenon in itself, and a very remarkable one. That girls have tricked is undeniable, but these cases are few compared with those in which girls have not tricked. And those girls who have tricked were sometimes of the abnormal type, psychoneurotics, hysteriacs, a 'borderline case', one who had received a nervous shock, or one with a nervous disorder or some mental affliction. I have said that fraudulent phenomena are sometimes associated with abnormal girls; but this applies to genuine phenomena, too. And one can always tell where the genuine phenomena end and the spurious begin. As I have pointed out in another chapter, it was after a nervous shock that Esther Cox, in the Great Amherst Mystery, was sucked into the vortex of a violent Poltergeist disturbance. I shall have more to say about this later.

I reiterate that one of the most puzzling facts connected with Poltergeist infestations is why so many young girls are concerned in these cases. Assuming for a moment that every known case of Poltergeist haunting was due to trickery, why should so often a 'young girl' be suspected and so seldom a 'young boy'? Are young girls more prone to cheating than young boys? Surely not!

Photograph of a a young Poltergeist subject: Marguerite Rozier, aged 13½ years, of Seyssel-in-Iseure, near Lyons. In her vicinity, babies were injured and turned over in their cradles; chine was transported from dinner-table during meals; the furniture became volatile; semi-materializations were witnessed; knocks and footsteps were frequent. The manifestations began in 1930, when menses appeared. Case reported by M. Réne Sudre in his "A Case of Thorybism in France."

Another remarkable fact is that it was usually a 'young girl' who was the victim (or the pretended victim) in the sixteenth and seventeenth century witchcraft trials. It was so often a young girl who became 'possessed', or went into convulsions, or vomited crooked pins and tenpenny nails. Sometimes the witch mania spread to the girls themselves, who 'confessed' to the practice of witchcraft, riding on broomsticks, intercourse with the devil, the possession of 'familiars', etc. Podmore[1] cites the case of Antoinette Bourignon's girls' school at Lille where, in 1639, the whole thirty-two children ultimately accused themselves of witchcraft, confessed to having dealings with the devil, and to riding through the air nightly to attend his infernal banquets. All but one of the children recanted when examined by the magistrates. The one girl who maintained her guilt to the last was imprisoned. Mlle Bourignon expressed a pious regret that for the good of her soul she had not been burnt[2].

[1] Modern Spiritualism, Vol. 1, p. 17.
[2] See Complete Works of Antoinette Bourignon, Amsterdam, 1686, Vol. II, p. 200. In a girls' school at Derby, in 1905, forty-five girls, during a period of five days, became 'possessed', screamed, laughed, cried, and dropped to the floor unconscious. 'The girls were exceedingly weak, and had to be carried home.' A clear case of contagious hysteria. (See the Derby Mercury for May 15, 1905, and following issues.)

During the witchcraft mania in Sweden in 1669 and 1670 three hundred children in the one village of Moira (Mora?) confessed to the practice of witchcraft. Joseph Glanvill, whom we have so often quoted, gives a full account of the examination, confessions, trials and executions of the witches of Moira during this period. Seventy women were accused and most of these were executed. Then, says Glanvill[3]:

[3] Saducismus Triumphatus, London, 1681. Part 2, pp. 313-4.

'Fifteen Children which likewise confessed that they were engaged in this witchery, died as the rest; six and thirty of them between nine and sixteen years of age, who had been less guilty were forced to run the gantlet; twenty more, who had no great inclination, yet had been seduced to those Hellish Enterprizes, because they were very young, were condemned to be lash'd with Rods upon their hangs, for three Sundays together at the Church-door; and the aforesaid six and thirty were also deem'd to be lashed this way once a week for a whole year together. The number of the Seduced Children was about three hundred.'

Glanvill does not tell us whether all of these children were girls, but I am pretty sure they were. Anyway, he says that when the 'notoriously guilty' were executed, 'the day was bright and glorious, and the sun shining, and some thousands of people were present at the spectacle'.

I am convinced there must be something, either psychological or physiological, in a young girl's organism, that turns her into a girl-witch or Poltergeist-attractor. In this connection it is worth noting that the modern cult of spiritualism was started by two young girls, Margaret and Katie Fox, in 1848; though, as the reader knows, another young girl, Elizabeth Parsons, had produced identical phenomena in Cock Lane nearly a century earlier.

In the foregoing pages I have given several examples of the link between phenomena and pubescency. Eleonore Zugun's 'power' vanished overnight with the first appearance of the menses. Conversely, Stella C.'s manifestations were not frequent until she had matured. The same can be said about Esther Cox. On the other hand, Damodar Ketkar was troubled no more when he 'grew up'. The Schneider boys' phenomena were brilliant during and immediately after pubescency - then, as they approached adolescency, their powers waned. Also, with the adolescency of ailing Teddie Fowler, the 'Mill on the Eden' was troubled no more with Poltergeists.

Professor Hans Thirring, Ph.D., of Vienna University has, like myself, experimented considerably with Willi and Rudi Schneider, the famous physical mediums, and has expressed his views concerning sex and phenomena - especially in connection with these two young Austrian boys. In an article[4] he wrote for me, he refers to this subject more than once. Describing some sittings with Willi that he arranged, he says:

'During the trance, both Willi's elbows were resting on the principal controller's (Mrs. Holub's) lap and his head was lying on the same controller's left shoulder. Taking into account the possible connection between psychical phenomena and sexuality, it was not at all astonishing that the telekinetic forces were stronger when a sympathetic female was principal controller than it was when a sceptic and suspicious scientist was controlling. (As a matter of fact, we had sittings with different controllers a year later. They were successful only with a lady as principal controller.)'

[4] Psychical Research in Vienna', Journal of the Am. SPR, New York, 1925, Vol. XlX, pp. 693 and 705.

Dr. Thirring returns to the subject in the same article, when discussing the best conditions for producing good phenomena. He says:

'The far more delicate metaphysical phenomena cannot be produced by the mere will of the medium. Some psychic emotion seems to be necessary in the same way as certain sexual functions are started by emotions and imaginations. In the case of our medium the necessary emotions seem to be furnished by rhythmical music; by the touch, of a woman; or by the buoyant spirit of a cheerful circle'.

'It was so often a young girl who became "possessed".'

On one of my visits to Vienna, I invited Professor Thirring to lecture for me in London, before the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, of which I was then Director. Dr. Thirring arrived in October, 1926, and the title of his talk was 'The Position of Science in Relation to Psychical Research'[5] Dr. Thirring delivered his lecture at our rooms on October 19, 1926, before a large audience that included Sir Richard Gregory, F.R.S., Professor A. O. Rankine, F.R.S., Dr. R. J. Tillyard, F.R.S., Sir Horace Plunkett, and many scientists. Dr. Thirring again referred to his experiments with Willi Schneider and remarked that for good phenomena 'it seemed to be necessary for the medium to have a female very near him. The connection between sex and psychical phenomena was a well-known fact. In this instance, no manifestation could be obtained unless a lady were near'. In my own experiments with the Schneider boys, I have, always found that the phenomena were better when women - especially young women - were present at the sittings.

[5] Printed in The British Journal of Psychical Research, London, March-April, 1926, Vol. I, pp. 165-181.

Mention of Vienna reminds me that during one of my visits to the Austrian capital, I endeavoured to obtain sittings with a young physical medium, Frieda W. I failed, but I had a chat with her husband, who endorsed Professor Thirring's views on sex and mediumship. Herr W. told me that during the early months of their married life, Frieda's mediumship was strongly affected by their marital relations. At the height of his wife's sexual excitement, the ornaments would sometimes fall off the mantelpiece in their bedroom, or the alarm clock would start ringing. Once, he assured me, all the pots and pans in the kitchen of their flat began dancing. He also informed me that his wife never gave séances during her Monatsfluss, as no phenomena occurred at these periods.

The link between sex and mediumship was well known and recognised in classical times. There were young girls known as Pythias who, when 'possessed', went into a sort of trance or ecstatic condition, shivered violently, foamed at the mouth and, in their impersonation of Apollo, answered - in ambiguous hexameters - the questions put to them by the audience. Delphi and Dodona were famous for their Pythias, and lesser sanctuaries also employed them.

Plutarch, from A.D. 95 to A.D.125, was one of the priests of the oracle and, though he has left us three, essays[6] on the subject, tells us really very little about it. But we learn that the girls had to be virgins, and that loss of virginity would kill the faculty to prophesy. Plutarch mentions one priestess who, having broken the rule about chastity and who still attempted to exercise her faculty, was horror-stricken to find that her 'power' had gone. She fled, fell to the ground, and died several days later. There are many recorded cases of these young girls being violated, and this led to the employment of less-attractive virgins of fifty years or more, who were attired as maidens. At Delphi two Pythias were in constant attendance, with a third in reserve in case of the 'defilement' of either of the two regular priestesses.

[6] On the E at Delphi, On the Pythian Responses, and On the Sanctuaries Where Oracles have Ceased.

If loss of virginity is said to upset the mediumistic faculty in some girls, it appears also to awaken the slumbering powers possessed by certain subjects to attract Poltergeists. A striking example is that of Olive, in the Sunderland case. And the Poltergeists appear to have departed when Mrs. Mara Mack and her sisters left the parental roof for marriage and a new sexual life. Even the attempt to violate Esther Cox[7], was sufficient to set in motion those strange and terrific forces that culminated in the famous Poltergeist case known as the Great Amherst Mystery. It was on August 28, 1878, that a boy friend, Bob McNeal, drove Esther into the woods and attempted to rape her. She resisted, even at the pistol's point. She was then exactly eighteen years, five months old. McNeal drove the terrified girl to her home and then fled the township. Esther suffered a severe nervous shock which, coupled with the loss of Bob, of whom she was fond, effected a remarkable change in her. From this fatal night until September 3, she cried herself to sleep every evening. On September 4 (i.e. seven nights later), the phenomena began. They continued until December when Esther was ill for two-weeks, and no manifestations were recorded during this period. Then they recommenced and continued until August 1, 1879.

[7] Born March 28,1860. Died at Brockton, Mass., November 8,1912.

The above facts are related in detail in Walter Hubbell's book[8]. Hubbell makes the significant statement (p. 80) that the 'power' 'was always at its greatest strength every twenty-eight days' - a periodicity corresponding with the menstrual flux. If only we knew more about the Poltergeist and the link with adolescency, we might glean some valuable data from the Esther Cox case. Unfortunately, the 'subjects' or victims themselves know as little about it as we do. Very rarely, as in the case of Ann Robinson of Stockwell, and the French bonne, adolescents do know that they are responsible for all the trouble.

[8] The Haunted House... The Great Amherst Mystery, op. cit.

We know it, too. One of the things that we are certain of is that there is a connection - psychological or physiological - between young people and the observed phenomena. The reader must also be sure of it, if he has studied the foregoing cases. All the investigators recognise this fact, and I will cite one or two views (they are not explanations) of writers who have devoted some time to the subject. Hereward Carrington says[9]:

[9] The Story of Psychic Science, London, 1930, p. 146.

'An energy seems to be radiated from the body, in such cases, which induces these phenomena, when the sexual energies are blossoming into maturity within the body. It would almost seem as though these energies, instead of taking their normal course, were somehow turned into another channel, at such times, and were externalised beyond the limits of the body - producing the manifestations in question. The spontaneous outburst of these phenomena seems to be associated with the awakening of - the sex-energies at that time - which find this curious method of externalisation.'

Of course, very occasionally, a Poltergeist case is remarkable for the fact that no young people appear to be connected with it.

Mr. Sacheverell Sitwell says[10]:

'The mysteries of puberty, that trance or dozing of the psyche before it awakes into adult life, is a favourite playground for the Poltergeist. Pregnancy[11], it might only be natural to suppose, might produce the same sub-conscious receptivity'.

[10] Poltergeists, op. cit., p. 83.
[11] See the Sunderland case in this connection. - HP.


Canon W. J. Phythian-Adams, in his study of the Borley Rectory Poltergeists, says[12]:

'Whatever the explanation of them may be, it seems certain that the energy which plays the pranks is drawn mainly if not exclusively from living persons (often young ones) who thus become its unconscious "accomplices". At Borley Mrs. Foyster was pretty obviously the most conspicuous though of course not the only unconscious "accomplice"; and the house seems to have been able to store up a reservoir of such energy, since the phenomena continued even when it was empty... If we accept the view that a place can become saturated with the "mental vibrations" of a person who has lived there in a state of strong emotional tension, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they may remain on the spot as potential stimuli of Poltergeist activity.'

[12] His essay will be published in the forthcoming Borley book.

Dr. Phythian-Adams is of course referring to my oft-expressed opinion that a house or place can become saturated with the ego, personality, or intelligence of a person who has lived - or died - in it. And I have postulated a theory, for what it is worth, that these 'emanations' do, under certain conditions, produce phantasms or ghosts. Whether we can apply this very tentative theory to the causation of Poltergeist phenomena is another matter. Mrs. Foyster was a young woman during her residence in Borley Rectory and undoubtedly there was a very sympathetic nexus between her and the 'nun' - witness the wall-writings and the pathetic appeals for 'help'. But, except for a very brief period during the incumbency of the Rev. G. Eric Smith, and when I leased the place, there have always been many young girls living at the Rectory, and their 'mental vibrations' may still be clinging to their old home.

A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement (October 5, 1940), in discussing the Borley manifestations, observed 'that the phenomena of the Poltergeist order increased and decreased in a fairly consistent ratio according to what we may assume as the potentialities of the occupants for providing "power". It could be argued, then, to take but a single instance, that during the period 1930-35, one of these occupants was an unconscious medium of the same type as Hetty Wesley in the Epworth Rectory case, which is to say that while she was innocent of any intention to produce the phenomena, her emanations (teleplasmic?) could be used by the Poltergeister.'

Both Dr. Phythian-Adams and The Times reviewer speak of the 'energy' required by the Poltergeists to produce their telekinetic phenomena at Borley. Mr. Andrew J. B. Robertson, the rising young Cambridge scientist, whom I mentioned in my chapter on Borley Rectory, has studied Poltergeist manifestations for many years and he has kindly sent me his views - the views of a physicist. Here is his essay:

The Poltergeist Problem: A Physical View

Any discussion of the interesting scientific problems raised by the behaviour of Poltergeists must, at the present time, be speculative. This is necessitated partly by the extraordinary nature of the phenomena themselves, partly by the rather dubious nature of the evidence in many cases, especially in matters of detail, and partly by the fact that most investigations into Poltergeists have been confined to simply observing the phenomena. Few investigators have conducted experiments which might perhaps throw some further light on the problems raised, and any such investigations would be rendered very difficult by the sporadic nature of the phenomena. Nevertheless accounts of Poltergeist activity from widely varying sources show a remarkable measure of agreement, a fact tending to point to the genuineness of the happenings. On examining the various reports of Poltergeist behaviour it appears that most of the phenomena are essentially objective: this immediately raises a physical problem which one might express generally as that of the energeties or thermodynamics of Poltergeist manifestations. These objective effects seem to be of two kinds, the first being mechanical phenomena, as for example the displacement of objects, the production of ghostly footsteps and knockings, the breaking of objects, and the production of paranormal writings. The second kind of Poltergeist phenomenon can be called thermal, including such effects as the spontaneous outbreaks of fire, the heating of objects which have been displaced by the Poltergeist, the occurrence of spontaneous temperature fluctuations in the air, and possibly the appearance of paranormal luminosities.

Both the thermal and mechanical phenomena show considerable evidence of being produced by some kind of intelligence. In this and in other respects an appreciable degree of correlation is noticeable with the phenomena produced by physical mediums. According to one school of thought physical mediums merely act as the agents for definite entities or spirits entirely separate, in their normal existence, from the mind of the medium, and the view is often expressed that Poltergeists are mischievous spirits, possibly rather undeveloped, which remain confined to a particular house or locality and are able to utilise certain people, especially adolescent children, as physical mediums. On the other hand the activities of physical mediums can be interpreted without the help of the spirit hypothesis, since in many cases the apparent entities are equally explicable as being secondary personalities of the medium. In a rather similar way one might regard a haunted house (in the Poltergeist sense) either as the abode of a separate entity or spirit of some kind, or as a place where for some unknown reason certain people are able to exert some of the powers possessed by physical mediums. The connection between the occurrence of Poltergeist phenomena and the presence of certain people at the same time, and the possibility of Poltergeist phenomena taking place in the absence of any persons, are matters requiring further investigation. At the present time the evidence seems to rather favour the view that a Poltergeist is at least a partially independent entity.

In order to produce objective phenomena, such as the throwing of kitchen crockery, a Poltergeist has to exert force of some kind, and it would in fact appear that Poltergeists have access to some form of energy. The basic assumptions made here are that Poltergeist phenomena are real and not fundamentally dissimilar to ordinary physical processes involving energy changes, so that the thermodynamics of Poltergeists is a definite problem to be considered, at least for a start, in the normal scientific way. One might tentatively suggest three sources of energy as being available to a Poltergeist: First there is the adolescent child. In numerous cases it has been noticed that phenomena are produced most vigorously when the child is lying or sleeping in bed. The conditions may then be rather favourable for the removal of energy from the child by the Poltergeist; the child under these conditions approaches more closely the state of a medium when in trance. Some metabolism experiments might perhaps be carried out, although a consideration of the actual magnitude of the energy changes involved in Poltergeist phenomena shows that any correspondingly increased metabolic rate would be difficult to detect, unless the efficiency with which the Poltergeist can transform energy is very low. A second possible source of energy is from the cooling of air and perhaps other bodies. One cubic foot of air (at N.T.P)[13] when cooled through one degree of Fahrenheit loses about fifteen foot-pounds of energy (this is the amount of work expended in lifting a fifteen-pound object through a vertical distance of one foot). The cooling of a small quantity of air therefore releases a considerable quantity of energy. Such a process, although in agreement with the first law of thermodynamics would be a violation of the second law under some conditions. It follows from the second law that a volume of air surrounded by a quantity of air at the same uniform temperature can only be cooled with respect to its immediate surroundings by means of some agency which does work and thereby transfers the heat to some other place. In actual fact the experimental evidence on temperature variations in haunted houses is scanty, but both rises and falls in temperature have been noted. It is not at all clear whether the Poltergeist can escape the restrictions of the second law, or alternatively can act in a manner similar to that of a refrigerating machine.

[13] Normal temperature and pressure: i.e. 0° Centigrade and 760 mm. of mercury. - H.P.

A third possible energy source is suggested by an examination of Poltergeist displacements themselves. In many cases it happens that the object displaced finishes on a lower horizontal level than it started from, its resultant movement being in a downward direction. An examination of some of the literature on Poltergeists suggests that movements of objects downwards are considerably more frequent than movements upwards. In general therefore a Poltergeist displacement is accompanied by a decrease in potential energy. At the same time it is noticed that the objects fall much more slowly than they would do under the influence of gravity alone. Now an object when falling in the normal way loses potential energy which is converted into kinetic energy, and at any point on the path of the falling object the potential energy lost is equal to the kinetic energy gained (neglecting small order corrections). But with Poltergeist manifestations this is clearly not the case: the potential energy lost is only partially transformed into kinetic energy, and hence part of the potential energy is lost in some unknown way - perhaps to the Poltergeist. This consideration raises the general question of whether the Poltergeist can store energy. If so, and if the store of energy is situated in a localised region of space, it might perhaps be detectable with suitable instruments. One might enquire whether the 'cold spot' at Borley Rectory has some special significance in this connection, being a localised region apparently having rather curious properties at times.

The heating of objects which have been moved by a Poltergeist is of interest. This involves much larger energy changes than those involved in displacements. Thus a kilogram falling through a metre loses only about 2.3 calories of potential energy; if this quantity of energy was used in heating the kilogram its temperature would rise only by 0.023 degrees Centigrade even with a specific heat as low as one tenth. Actually, the objects have been reported to be quite hot to the hand. But in such cases an adolescent child is usually present. These thermal phenomena are of great interest and require further experimental investigation.

It must be again emphasised that the above suggestions are speculative. But the phenomena presented by Poltergeists are not readily explicable in terms of normal concepts, so that in the present state of knowledge one might hope that such speculations are not entirely valueless in that further researches may be suggested which may contribute to a further clarification of the problem.

Andrew J. B. Robertson

Mr. Robertson notes that Poltergeist phenomena are often more vigorous when the young child or adolescent is sleeping or lying in bed - a fact I have drawn attention to in the pages of this volume, and the reader will recall how Hetty Wesley trembled in her sleep when phenomena were occurring. Perhaps energy was then being extracted from her. In many examples in this book the Poltergeist has 'attacked' sleeping children, or their beds if the children were not in them, as in the case of Olive W. of Sunderland. And Poltergeistic phenomena have been witnessed frequently where there were sick children in the house, or in the homes of dying persons (e.g. Battersea). I think Mr. Robertson is correct in stating that under such conditions, the removal of energy becomes favourable.

The cooling of the air during séances with certain subjects is now a recognised fact. With the 'Poltergeist mediums', Stella C.[14] and the Schneider boys, my very delicate transmitting thermographs repeatedly recorded a drop in temperature instead of a rise. Mr. Robertson has noted curious thermal changes at Borley Rectory, and so have I. Every observer who stayed in Borley Rectory was struck, as I was, with the fact that the place was consistently and unnaturally cold. Were the Poltergeistic entities at work there continuously extracting heat from the place and transforming it into energy? Perhaps. During my broadcast from the 'haunted manor' at Meopham, Kent, on March 10, 1936, my sensitive thermograph in the 'haunted cellar' showed that the temperature was quite constant during the whole of the day, by the straight line of the graph across the chart. But at 9.45 p.m., during the broadcast, the temperature suddenly rose slightly, and then fell sharply below what had been measured during the day. The kick in the graph[15] could not be accounted for in terms of normality. The 'cold spot' referred to by Mr. Robertson was a certain place on the landing at Borley Rectory, just outside the Blue Room. Several observers and others, when passing this spot, suddenly felt very cold or had shivering fits. There is good and independent evidence for these strange effects.

[14] See my 'Some Account of the Thermal Variations as Recorded During the Trance of Stella C.', Journal of the Am. SPR, Nov., 1927, pp. 635-41. (With many graphs.)
[15] Reproduced in my article in The Listener, March 18,1936.


It is thought by some people, that the energy used in Poltergeist phenomena is of an electrical nature, obtained from the atmosphere. There is no evidence for this. It occurs to me, though, that the alleged 'new current' recently discovered by Professor Felix Ehrenhaft might be an explanation. Professor Ehrenhaft, a Viennese physicist, demonstrated to the American Physical Society at Columbia University on January 16, 1944, that he had obtained experimental proof of the existence of pure magnetic current. This meant, he declared, that 'not only electric currents, but also magnetic currents flow through the universe.' He said, 'the discovery has terrific possibilities'[16]. It is possible that the Poltergeist can utilise this current in some way.

[16] For full account see the Daily Telegraph, January 17, 1944.

A correspondent, Mr. Percy Pigott, of Kirk Ella, Hull, has sent me his views of how the manifestations might be explained. His speculations are ingenious and novel, and I have pleasure in reproducing them:

'Is it not possible that the substance which pervades all space, interpenetrating and enveloping our earth and our bodies, which scientists simply name ether, but do no pretend to explain, is capable of receiving and retaining pictures of our actions and the sounds which emanate from such actions and even of reproducing them when conditions are favourable, as for instance, the evening light, the temperature and the weather generally?

'In other words, this little understood substance is perhaps capable of acting as a photographic negative. This is simply what a cinema film does. It reproduces form, motion and sound. Why should not Nature also do it? May we not have a mirage of a past event as well as of a distant scene? The fact that we always associate motion with consciousness has subjected us to an error of interpretation.

'If this is so, it seems feasible that those events which have been accompanied by, intense feeling and concentrated thought, such as accompany the great tragedies of life, should be more deeply impressed land therefore more clearly reproduced than those which are performed unheedingly and habitually.

'Thus I have heard of a street in London where the sound of running footsteps are sometimes heard. I am told also that the hearer gets the impression that these footsteps are being panic driven. Over this pavement a murderer once fled from the crime he had committed. Which is the more reasonable, to suppose that the murderer is constantly running again and again over this pavement, and that though his body is invisible his footsteps are audible, or to suppose that the original sound is simply being reproduced?

'Again I have heard that Ann Bullen still haunts Hampton Court and that the sound of her footsteps and the wail of her anguish as she fled from her husband, having failed to obtain the mercy she had been pleading for, are heard at certain times. Her form may have been seen, I do not know. Is it not incredible to suppose that Ann Bullen has been thus employed, at intervals at least, for four hundred years? It is not in the least incredible, in these days of gramophones and radio, to believe that the sound of her distressed wail can be, and is at times reproduced.

'Thus the coach, the galloping hoofs, the bay horses, the glittering harness, etc., at Borley, are all real in that they are an objective actuality; but the observer is mistaken if he thinks he is viewing real horses or a driver consciously directing them. The name, a spectre, a phantom literally applies. This theory would also account for the nun. I think there is generally reason to be sceptical of ghosts being conscious egos after the lapse of a number of years after passing over. It would also account for the light in the window. It could account for all the noise of footsteps, shufflings, scrabblings, tappings, thuds, etc. Is it not significant that no one ever spoke to the nun? Had they approached her for this purpose she would probably have vanished, the necessary distance, or angle, for seeing this mirage having been altered. It would then have been regarded as uncanny. Is it not significant also that no ghost of any sort was seen to account for the footsteps, thuds, etc., which were heard? Is it reasonable to suppose that spirits, or ghosts, who pass silently through solid walls, should make such a noise with their feet? I submit it is more reasonable to regard these noises as being echoes of an ancient tragedy.

'This, however, will not account for the messages on the wall, stone throwing, furniture moving, bottle dropping, hair-ruffling, bell-ringing, belt-raising, etc. For these phenomena I accept your theory of Poltergeist, and of course it is possible that the Poltergeist accounted for all the noises in the house. But to give a mystery a name does not always explain it. What is a Poltergeist? You refer to "these playful little fellows"[17]. For my part I cannot regard a Poltergeist as in any sense a being. In my judgment we should be more correct to regard it as a vaguely conscious, instinctual, elemental force. Such elemental force may emanate from, and in the Borley case certainly has emanated from, the distress and restlessness of some departed human being. It is fully charged with power, but power only for one sole purpose, namely, of expressing this restlessness and distress on the physical plane in the hope of receiving help from the place where its trouble originated. The vagueness of its consciousness is shown by the feeble effort either to write or compose a simple sentence or understand one. If you ask me how could a blind force throw stones or ring bells, I can only reply that neither you nor I can claim to know all the laws of nature, and that these phenomena are evidence of such a law. Because there are no visible hands it is not, therefore, necessary to postulate invisible ones. The Egyptians were supposed to be able consciously to charge objects with such a force, and there is some evidence to support this.

[17] I, too, was being playful. - H.P.

'The headless driver is more difficult to account for. I notice there are only two witnesses of this. I will not question the honesty of their testimony, but suggestion might account for it. They see what they believe to be a ghostly coach, ghosts are associated with tragedies and beheadings, immediately they see the driver headless. This is quite easy when viewing a mirage, which I am suggesting this was.

'Another method for accounting for this very gruesome apparition is along the following lines:

'There is little doubt that at some time there was a cruel tragedy at Borley in which a group of people were involved. Both the apparitions and the Poltergeist manifestations would have their origin in this tragedy, in which the coachman would be concerned and may have lost his head. Then he might very likely think of himself as headless after passing over. It is well, known that all apparitions of the living are caused by the subject thinking of himself as with a distant friend or in a distant place, and thus projects his form to that place, and it is occasionally seen and even heard. Now I have heard, and I can well believe, that it is much easier for the so-called dead to thus project their appearances than the living. I am confident that many apparitions of those recently departed occupying their accustomed chair or walking down a certain path with their own particular gait are due to their thinking of themselves thus occupied after passing over. Perhaps the coachman thus pictured himself as headless.

'Finally there is in my judgment the most remarkable of all phenomena, matter passing through matter. This is not unknown at spiritualist séances. It puzzles chemists. "If it is true," I once heard a chemist say, "it overthrows all our ideas about matter." But do chemists, or anyone else, know what constitutes the solidity of matter? Another chemist, who was also an occult student, when I asked him what made a wall solid and impassable, replied, "Thought." I believe he was right. We think of things as solid and solid they are to us. But our Poltergeist friend may not have been subject to those illusions of sense to which we humans are'.

There have been other 'explanations' of Poltergeist phenomena, one of which has been called 'exteriorisation of motricity' - that is, the action of the subject's (e.g. a young girl) motor force outside the periphery of her organism. This theory is that there is a repulsive force on one side of the subject's body, and an attractive force on the other. In normal persons these two forces, it is alleged, are equal. When they are not, telekinetic movements are likely to occur in the vicinity of the subject. Obviously this theory does not cover many of the observed Poltergeist phenomena.

Another theory, postulated by Adolphe d'Assier[18], suggests that the noise of crashing crockery, smashing windows, etc., when in fact nothing is broken (as in the case of Edward Cooper at Borley, who one night thought that all the china in his kitchen had been shattered) is caused by the Poltergeist hurling a sort of psychic 'double' or astral duplicate of the real objects. In other words, that inanimate things have 'ghosts'. This theory does not explain why the objects are broken in reality, as so often happens.

[18] Essai sur l'Humanité Postume ... Paris, 1883. English translation, posthumous Humanity: A Study of Phantoms, London, 1887.

Charles Fort believed in a sort of cosmic Poltergeist, a power that permeates the Universe: that hurls lumps of distant planets, and other things to, or on, our planet. And the name he gave to these strange flights was 'teleportation':

'The crash of falling islands - the humps of piling continents - and then the cosmic humour of it all ... or that the force that once heaped the peaks of the Rocky Mountains now slings pebbles at a couple of farmers... So I'd conceive the existence of a force, and the use of it, unconsciously mostly, by human beings. It may be that, if somebody, gifted with what we think we mean by "agency", fiercely hates somebody else, he can, out of intense visualisations, direct, by teleportation, bombardment of stones upon his enemy... My general expression is against the existence of Poltergeists as spirits - but that the doings are the phenomena of undeveloped magicians, mostly youngsters, who have no awareness of their powers as their own - or, in the cases of mischievous, or malicious persecutions, are more or less consciously directed influences by enemies - or that, in this aspect, "Poltergeist disturbances" are witchcraft under a new name'[19].

[19] The Books of Charles Fort, op. cit., pp. 571-2, 983.

No one, I think, now believes that Poltergeists are spirits in the accepted meaning of the term. Certainly, the spiritualists do not. But in Glanvill's day Poltergeists were regarded as spirits - evil spirits - or devils. The Wesley family thought that Epworth Rectory was haunted by devils. They also thought that the disturbances presaged the early death of old Rev. Samuel Wesley, or, to their greater concern, the premature demise of young Samuel, alone in London.

Andrew Lang, in his article 'Poltergeist'[20], mentions that 'the Highlanders attribute many Poltergeist phenomena, inexplicable noises, sounds of viewless feet that pass, and so forth, to tàradh, an influence exerted unconsciously by unduly strong wishes on the part of a person at a distance. The phrase falbh air fàrsaing ("going uncontrolled") is also used'[21]. This Scotch view of Poltergeists is reminiscent of Fort's beliefs. Lang suggests the word telethoryby, 'a racket produced at a distance.'

[20] Encyclo. Brit., op. cit., p. 16.
[21] Campbell, Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Scottish Highlands, 1902, pp. 144-147.


There are still a few words to be said about the 'psychological' explanation, so assiduously put forward by Frank Podmore and a few other dyed-in-the-wool sceptics. They contend that these young girls and adolescents have a dual or multiple-personality, one part of which is responsible for the 'phenomena', which the other part knows nothing about. The argument is that this secondary state or 'personality' comes to the surface, 'goes berserk', smashes the windows, shivers the mirrors, ignites the bedding, etc. - and without a single person detecting the culprit! All this presupposes a diabolical cunning and a consummate skill on the part of the 'dissociated' victim. Although I agree that psychological abnormalities have sometimes entered into these cases[22], they are of rare occurrence. And psychopaths and psychoneurotics exhibit certain indicia by which they can be recognised.

[22] A remarkable story of a 'Poltergeist' was recorded in The Times (Aug. 30 to Sept. 13, 1919). The disturbances occurred at the Rectory of Swanton Novers, near Melton Constable. Spontaneous outbreaks of fires; petrol, paraffin, methylated spirits, sandal-wood oil and water pouring from the ceilings, floorboards torn up and ceilings tom down, etc. The manifestations lasted for days. Finally, a passing conjurer was called in and in an hour or so had solved the 'mystery'. He set a trap and the 15-year-old maid-servant fell into it. She confessed to hoaxing the family. But the story does not end there. Nevil Maskelyne, the famous illusionist, also visited the rectory and saw 'barrels of oil' pouring through the ceiling. He could not explain the mystery. Then the girl denied that she had confessed, or that she had tricked. The rector also denied (The Times, Sept. 13) that she had confessed. For other accounts of this case, see the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily News, etc., for this period, and the Norfolk News for Nov. 8, 1919. Two photographs of oil pouring through the ceiling were published (Sept. 3) by the Daily Mail. Fort (Books of Charles Fort, op. cit., pp. 577-81) discusses the affair at length. The psychological aspect of the case is as important as the phenomena.

And there are other arguments against the acceptance of the theory as a formula. Many of the sights, sounds, and other phenomena, well evidenced in some Poltergeist cases, could not be produced normally by man, woman, or child, if they possessed a dozen 'personalities' each. This book is full of such illustrations. And a minority of 'infestations' are not associated with 'young persons' - or in fact any person - at all. And to think that a 'young person' could smash half the china in the house, break the furniture, set fire to the baby, and make twenty bells ring simultaneously - and an without a single occupant in the house detecting her (whatever 'personality' she was using!) suggests that Poltergeist phenomena occur not in the private residences of sane and intelligent people looking for trickery, but in lunatic asylums!

Finally, Dr. John Layard, the psychologist, has put forward the most recent hypothesis 'that Poltergeists are not chance phenomena, but have a definite purpose, and that this purpose, like all psychological phenomena (as I believe them to be) is a curative one, having for its object the resolution of a psychological conflict.' He believes that all true Poltergeist phenomena 'are also purposeful and probably occasioned by similar conditions of unresolved tension in the psyche of those involuntarily producing them.' His paper, Psi Phenomena and Poltergeists (Proc., SPR, July, 1944), should be read in full.

Well, I have come to the end of my fascinating quest of the Poltergeist and I will conclude, as I have concluded so many of my books - with the urgent demand that Official Science and official scientists should get on with their job of explaining these things to us. Though it is true that many scientists are completely ignorant of the serious literature of our subject, there are others who - unofficially - take a profound interest in it. Many scientists are sympathetically inclined towards us and our work. And the new science has even seeped through to a few universities in this (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, and London) and other countries. But, there still remain the die-hards, the last-ditchers and, saddest of all, those men of science who have made up their minds as to what Nature is capable, and not capable, of doing. If, for example, you broach the subject of Poltergeists to them they will murmur something about an 'outrage to common sense' and 'gross superstition' - forgetting that all scientific progress is from the 'outrageous'[23] to the commonplace, and that often the 'superstition' of to-day is the science of to-morrow.

[23] Charles Fort (Wild Talents, op. cit.) makes the ‘outrageous' suggestion that the strange paranormal powers possessed by some people, which he calls 'wild talents', may one day be put to good - or bad - uses. For example, in time of war: 'A squad of Poltergeist girls - and they pick a fleet out of the sea, or out of the sky... Girls at the front - and they are discussing their usual not very profound subjects. The alarm - the enemy is advancing. Command to the Poltergeist girls to concentrate and under their chairs they stick their wads of chewing gum. A regiment bursts into flames, and the soldiers are torches. Horses snort smoke from the combustion of their entrails. Reinforcements are smashed under cliffs that are teleported from the Rocky Mountains. The snatch of Niagara Falls - it pours upon the battlefield. The little Poltergeist girls reach for their wads of chewing gum.'

Note: 

The article above was taken from Harry Price's "Poltergeist Over England: Three Centuries of Mischievous Ghosts" (London: Country Life Ltd., 1945.)

 

More articles by Harry Price

'A Fit Subject of University Study and Research'
The First Psychic Laboratory
Broadcasting the Occult
The Law and the Medium
Psychic Practitioners (Regulation) Bill
The Story of ESP
The Mechanics of Spiritualism
Poltergeist Mediums

Margery' - The Psychic Riddle of the Twentieth Century
Stella C
The Materialisation of 'Rosalie'

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