by David Metcalfe for 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 called Rottengeister 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.