By Stephen Wagner, About.com Guide
An interview with Michael Clarkson, author of The Poltergeist Phenomenon
The poltergeist phenomenon is one of the most intriguing and baffling areas of paranormal research, in great part because there are physical manifestations: objects being moved (even thrown) about; electrical devices going on and off by themselves, or malfunctioning without cause; loud bangs and raps; water dripping from ceilings from seemingly no source.
Many hundreds of cases have been documented over the years, and although the effects were once attributed to ghosts (poltergeist means “noisy spirit”), it is now thought to be the unconscious product of human agents.
In his book, The Poltergeist Phenomenon: An In-Depth Investigation into Floating Beds, Smashing Glass, and Other Unexplained Disturbances, award-winning investigative reporter Michael Clarkson reviews 75 notable cases and talks to the victims and eyewitnesses to the perplexing, often unnerving disturbances in an effort to bring us closer to an understanding — or at least an acceptance of the reality — of the phenomenon. Following is an interview with Mr. Clarkson.
Many paranormal researchers suspect that poltergeist activity is not caused by a ghost or other outside entity, but by living individuals. Has your research led you to the same theory?
Yes. My research suggests we are dealing with haunted people, not spirits or buildings. Poltergeist energy (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis or RSPK) usually revolves around a person in the room, most often a young person going through puberty. In only about 5 percent of the 75 cases I reviewed, a spirit was reportedly involved and perhaps acting through a young person to move objects.
For RSPK, it seems, a number of components must come together for a “perfect psychic storm,” and that’s one reason RSPK is rare. There is usually stress or repression in a house and the poltergeist agents seem frustrated and have no other way of expressing themselves. As well, the agents often have unusual brains and the ability to tap into nearby energy sources to move things unconsciously with their minds.
Obviously, a great deal of energy is required to move some of the very heavy objects documented in some poltergeist cases. If this energy is indeed coming from the minds of people, what do you think is the physical mechanism involved? How do we work this out scientifically, if we can?
Somehow they temporarily suspend gravity – this is called zero point theory — to allow the objects to move. And then they subconsciously tap into energy sources such as household electricity, geomagnetic storms, magnetic fields in the area, or even electrical energy from the human mind-body. This is hard to reproduce in a lab because RSPK usually occurs in a stressed family environment. If we try to copycat this, ethical issues are involved.
I was very intrigued by one of the cases you describe in your book, that of “Popper the Poltergeist,” which at first involved only the unstopping and spilling of bottles. To me, it is most peculiar that this case had such very specific, directed targets. Do you have any thoughts on the “why” of this?
Parapsychologist William Roll suspected that the young boy who seemed to be the poltergeist agent was unconsciously causing the events through mind over matter, partly because he was going into puberty and partly because of his attitude towards his father. After interviewing family members, Roll came to the conclusion the boy was angry at his father and that he vented this through his unusual mental powers at objects, particularly those he associated with his parents. Because many of the incidents involved bottles which might be associated with a woman, they may have reflected “unmet dependency needs” that Jimmy had with both his parents, Roll said.
The Tina Resch case, also cited in your book, has come under some criticism because she was caught, in some instances, “cheating” – that is, caught creating some of the effects. Do you think there was some legitimacy to this case?
Possibly. There were many eyewitnesses to earlier events – movements of objects and electrical devices, including lights, going on and off by themselves while Tina was in the room. As well, a telephone flew across her lap and was recorded by a photographer. Witnesses swore she did not throw it.
However, when she was later caught cheating, it made headlines around the world. I call this the When the Circus Comes to Town Syndrome. Because we are dealing with mainly young people, they like attention and when the legitimate RSPK dissipates, as it usually does, they try to maintain attention through trickery, and that casts doubt on preceding events.
You include a brief profile of arch-skeptic James “The Amazing” Randi in one chapter. Do you think he, as a magician, is at a disadvantage in his view of poltergeist phenomena? In other words, because he is a magician, he assumes that such fantastic things must be tricks.
That’s one good way of looking at it. Another issue is that he seems to be a professional skeptic, or, rather, a professional cynic. He wouldn’t give me a proper interview for my book because he thought poltergeists were bunk – and yet he claims to keep an open mind! Unfortunately, Randi gets a lot of publicity and his is often the last word the public hears in the media about a reported paranormal event. Unless Randi sees things happen, they didn’t happen.
It continues to astonish me that skeptics dismiss poltergeist phenomena despite the testimony from many hundreds of eyewitnesses, including dozens of investigating police officers. Do these skeptics have an agenda or are they simply in denial?
Hard to tell. There could be different reasons for different folks. I agree that eyewitness accounts are the weakest part of evidence in any incident, but police officers are not normal witnesses – they are trained to capture details when the action is fast and furious, they tend to be skeptical and they closely watch a person around whom the activity revolves. Some skeptics may have cultural bias, others are turned off by cases of trickery – of which there are many.
Do you have any thoughts on how we might come to really understand poltergeist phenomena? Do you think we ever will?
Unfortunately, tests for psychokinesis (PK) are often inconclusive, but it’s even harder to prove poltergeist energy exists because it is so fleeting and because families are often embarrassed and don’t let parapsychologists into their homes, or they do so when the energy is decreasing. Research funds for PK seem to be waning in recent years as some university labs have closed.
We might understand it better if there is an intense case which is researched properly, gets scientific study and good press, and is followed up by PK research as the poltergeist agent gets older. There is an on-going case right now in Canada, but the woman does not want her name used because of the stigma attached to poltergeists by the mainstream media, mainstream science and, often, the mainstream public. Until it becomes more accepted, we won’t get to second base.
Michael Clarkson is the author of six psychology books, including Intelligent Fear and The Secret Life of Glenn Gould, and has won many newspaper awards for his investigative writing, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his article about reclusive author J.D. Salinger.