What is a Poltergeist?

Noisy Ghosts May Be Psychokinetic Phenomena Rather than Hauntings

Poltergeist is a German word meaning "noisy spirit." It describes many effects such as knocks on walls, objects thrown about by unseen hands, furniture moved, and other occurences. These manifestations were long thought to be the mischievous pranks of spirits or, more frightening, the malevolent works of demons. 

Current research indicates, however, that poltergeist activity may have nothing to do with ghosts or spirits.

Since the activity seems to center around an individual, it is believed that it is caused by the subconscious mind of that individual. It is, in effect, psychokinetic activity, moving objects solely by the power of the mind. The individual is often under emotional, psychological or physical stress (even going through puberty). 

Poltergeist effects can include rappings on walls and floors, the physical movement of objects, effects on lights and other electric appliances. There can even the manifestation of physical phenomena such as water dripping inexplicably from ceilings where no pipes are hidden, and small fires breaking out. Thanks largely to the work of parapsychologist William G. Roll in the 1950s and '60s, they are now commonly understood to be psychokinetic manifestations produced by living persons.

RSPK - Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis

Roll called it "recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis" or RSPK and found that the paranormal activity could almost always be traced to a person, clinically labeled an "agent." This agent, although a victim of the puzzling and sometimes frightening activity, is unaware that he or she is actually the cause of it.

By some mechanism that is still not understood, the activity arises out of the unconscious or subconscious of the individual in response to emotional stress or trauma.

So little is really known about the human brain and mind, but somehow the psychological stresses suffered by this agent produce effects in the surrounding physical world: pounding on the walls of a house, a book flying off a shelf, glowing orbs zipping across a room, heavy furniture sliding across the floor - perhaps even audible voices.

In some rare cases the manifestations can turn violent, producing scratches on skin, shoves and slaps. So powerful is the unconscious mind under stress.

One possible and famous historical case is that of The Bell Witch from the early 19th century. This was a case of severe poltergeist phenomena that centered around young Betsy Bell. The activity, then attributed to a "witch", threw things around the Bell home, moved furniture, and pinched and slapped the children, according to eyewitnesses. Betsy Bell appears to have been the agent in this instance.

How Common Are Poltergeists?

Poltergeist agents are very often adolescents, but not always. It seems true that some adolescents under the combined stresses of growing up and the hormonal changes occurring during puberty can produce poltergeist activity, but adults under stress can be agents as well - especially, perhaps, if they have unresolved stresses from childhood.

It is unknown how common poltergeist activity is. Certainly, remarkable cases in which household objects are tossed about are relatively rare. But those are the cases that get attention and are documented simply because they are remarkable, especially if the activity persists over many days, weeks or months.

There may be many more cases, however, that occur just once or on rare occasions to people.

Documented Cases of Poltergeists

There is ample documentation that poltergeist activity does take place, in various levels of severity and for various lengths of time. Many cases have been documented by such researchers as Hans Holzer, Brad Steiger and others (their books are available in libraries and bookstores). Read more about these notable cases:  Poltergeists: Three Famous Cases and The Terrifying Amherst Poltergeist.