The Naturalisation of the ‘Poltergeist’

An example of the historical continuity of scientific interest in unorthodox questions concerns ‘poltergeist’ phenomena, i.e. the very epitome of ‘things that go bump in the night’.

Probably coined by Martin Luther (a professed poltergeist victim) in sixteenth-century Germany, ‘Poltergeist’ means ‘rumbling spirit’. There is a vast number of historical records of dramatic poltergeist outbreaks afflicting people from all walks of life, not infrequently resulting in interventions by state authorities, which in turn have produced some of the most detailed records. Among the bizarre but apparently robust features of alleged poltergeist phenomena over time are:

  • The centre of events is usually a specific person, often an adolescent.
  • Unexplained recurring sounds are heard, ranging from raps from within walls or furniture to deafening blows.
  • Sounds are sometimes responsive.
  • Household objects of all sizes and weights are observed to move, sometimes slowly and appearing as if carried.
  • Moved objects appear to penetrate closed windows or walls without causing damage, and they are often reported to be hot.
  • Stones are thrown from without, sometimes from a considerable distance.
  • If thrown objects approach a person, they often appear to recoil before the impact and drop to the floor.
  • Large quantities of water suddenly appear and disappear, and fires ignite spontaneously.
  • Persons may be hurled out of bed, slapped or beaten as if by invisible hands, and bitten.
  • Writings and drawings appear on walls or in closed spaces.
  • Apparitions are perceived, sometimes simultaneously by more than one witness.
  • Pets and animals panic or behave unusually.
  • In post-industrial times, disturbances correspond with malfunctions or unusual behaviour of electronic equipment.

Robert Boyle

Traditionally, poltergeists were believed to be demons, elementals, or spirits of deceased evil humans, and their activities have often been associated with witchcraft and black magic. Far from being condemned as folly or superstition, such views were held by figureheads of the Scientific Revolution, such as Francis Bacon and later Robert Boyle. While Bacon submitted bills for the penalisation of witchcraft, Boyle sponsored the English edition of The Devil of Mascon, a classical French poltergeist case, for which he wrote the preface. Boyle (who investigated cases of miraculous healings, premonitions and other supposedly supernatural events) also supported colleagues at the Royal Society such as Joseph Glanvill and Henry More who compiled natural histories of poltergeist disturbances and witchcraft. Historians of science have argued that these investigations were inspired by deep worries of religious deviance (such as popular atheism, animism, hylozoism and pantheism), which were perceived to undermine regulative moral functions of Christian belief in the reward and punishment of the soul in the afterlife.


Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

During the Enlightenment the respectability of the ‘supernatural’  declined dramatically on the backdrop of religiously motivated political unrest, clerical corruption and the horrors of the witch crazes. However, rather than natural philosophers or medics it was religious and political writers such as Joseph Addison who began to treat the ‘occult’ as an object of ridicule and shorthand for irrationality and backwardness. Addison’s play The Drummer, for instance, was a caricature of the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’, a poltergeist case investigated by Joseph Glanville, poking fun of ghost beliefs as well as of atheistic free-thinkers. However, not all Enlightenment savants agreed that reports of ‘things that go bump in the night’ were necessarily to be treated with contempt. G. E. Lessing in Germany, for instance, openly opposed the fashionable wholesale rejection of reports of apparitional experiences and poltergeist phenomena. (According to the German historian Carl Kiesewetter, this was shortly after Lessing became involved in an incident in Dibbesdorf near Braunschweig, where members of a working-class family afflicted by a prolonged poltergeist outbreak were, without further ado, imprisoned for breach of the peace.)

ImageIn the mid-nineteenth century the poltergeist started to be domesticated in Hydesville, USA, when modern spiritualism emerged as a significant global movement from a case featuring a responsive poltergeist who claimed to be a dead merchant. Eminent men of science such as Alfred Russel Wallace, William Crookes, J. J. Thomson and Alexandr Butlerov investigated spiritualist mediums and became convinced of the reality of its phenomena. When the Leipzig astrophysicist Johann F. Zöllner tested his theory of a fourth dimension of space by having a medium experimentally reproduce poltergeist-style phenomena, this became an explosive political issue during the infancy of modern professionalised psychology in Germany. Zöllner, who was supported by physicists like Gustav Theodor Fechner, was publicly attacked by Wilhelm Wundt, Fechner’s disciple and the founder of the first German laboratory of experimental psychology. Wundt’s main worry was that scientific interest in the phenomena of spiritualism threatened the social and religious foundations of civilisation.


Carl du Prel

Unlike Wundt, his American counterpart William James advocated scientific interest in spiritualism as legitimate, and he became highly active in the investigation of trance mediumship and ‘veridical hallucinations’ (apparitions of the living and the dead that seemed to convey information not known to percipients). Research by James and other psychologists in hypnotism, mediumship and veridical hallucinations spawned important late-nineteenth century concepts of the unconscious. Two major theorists of subliminal cognition were Carl du Prel in Germany and Frederic W. H. Myers in England. Juxtaposing conventional sleep-walking with apparitions of the living, they concluded that both seemed caused by fixed ideas, and they suggested an unusual psychological explanation for apparitions of the dead: Myers proposed that “the behaviour of phantasms of the living suggests dreams dreamt by the living persons whose phantoms appear. And similarly the behaviour of phantasms of the dead suggests dreams dreamt by the deceased persons whose phantasms appear”. Likewise, du Prel believed “If super-sensory capacities are possible without the use of the body, they must be possible without occupancy of it”.


Eugen Bleuler

In the twentieth century, Oliver Lodge, Charles Richet, Cesare Lombroso, Filippo Bottazzi, Camille Flammarion, Henri Bergson, Marie and Pierre Curie, the third and fourth Lords Rayleigh and many less known scientists, medics and philosophers tried to reproduce poltergeist-style phenomena under controlled conditions. After authors like du Prel and Myers were eclipsed by psychoanalysis, mental health professionals like Carl Gustav Jung, Eugen Bleuler, Enrico Morselli and the sexologist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing continued to study poltergeist phenomena in the field and in the laboratory. However, they categorically dismissed theories involving the agency of discarnate spirits and advocated a strictly psychodynamic approach. As Schrenck-Notzing put it: “In certain cases, emotionally charged complexes of representations, which have become autonomous and dissociated, seem to press for discharge and realisation through haunting phenomena. Hence, the so-called haunting occurs in place of a neurosis”. Holding that once possibilities of fraud were practically eliminated, they proposed that poltergeist phenomena were to be explained in terms of emotional conflicts unconsciously acted out by individuals with a ‘telekinetic’ disposition, a view which was adopted by psychoanalysts like Alfred von Winterstein and Nandor Fodor.


Wolfgang Pauli

Scientific interest in poltergeist phenomena persisted in the most unlikely places. Members of the Vienna Circle of Positivism such as Rudolf Carnap and Hans Hahn (who became vice-president of the Austrian Society for Psychical Research) eagerly followed Schrenck-Notzing’s experimental and field investigations. Hahn’s most eminent student, Kurt Gödel, likewise attended experimental séances. The theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli believed in the intrinsic interconnectedness of mind and matter even on a macroscopic level and was banned from the Hamburg lab of his friend Otto Stern because Pauli’s presence was believed to reliably wreak havoc on lab equipment and apparatuses. Pauli corresponded extensively with Jung, and along with spontaneous and experimental poltergeist phenomena, examples of the “Pauli effect” informed Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Pauli also corresponded with the Freiburg psychologist Hans Bender, who continued a psychodynamic-synchronistic approach to ‘occult’ phenomena and investigated the ‘Rosenheim case’, a violent poltergeist outbreak in a Bavarian law firm, which parapsychological researchers consider as one of the most thoroughly documented modern cases of ‘recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis’ (or RSPK).

Interestingly, the OED (third edition, updated in September 2006) still exclusively relies on early modern theological notions by defining the poltergeist as “a ghost or other supernatural being supposedly responsible for physical disturbances such as making loud noises and throwing objects about”. This narrow and ahistorical definition strikingly obscures the strong pluralism of empirical and conceptual approaches to the ‘poltergeist’ as a shorthand for a variety of questions regarding the human mind, its place in nature, and, not least, the power of belief and disbelief.

[This text is loosely based on my talk Exorcising the ghost from the machine. Affect, emotion, and the enlightened naturalisation of the ‘poltergeist’, delivered on 10 October 2012 at the Society for the Social History of Medicine Conference, Queen Mary University, London].

Select Bibliography

Bender, Hans (1968). Der Rosenheimer Spuk – ein Fall spontaner Psychokinese. Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie und Grenzgebiete der Psychologie, 11, 104-112.

Bleuler, Eugen (1930). Vom Okkultismus und seinen Kritiken. Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie, 5, 654-680.

Carnap, Rudolf (1993). Mein Weg in die Philosophie. Stuttgart: Reclam (first published in 1963).

du Prel, Carl (1888). Die monistische Seelenlehre. Ein Beitrag zur Lösung des Menschenrätsels. Leipzig: Ernst Günther.

Enz, Charles P. (2002). No Time to be Brief: A Scientific Biography of Wolfgang Pauli. New York: Oxford University Press.

Flammarion, Camille (1923). Les maisons hantées. Paris: Ernest Flammarion.

Gauld, Alan, & Cornell, A. D. (1979). Poltergeists. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hunter, Michael (1985). The problem of ‘atheism’ in early modern England. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 35, 135-157.

Jung, Carl Gustav (1950). Vorrede. In Fanny Moser, Spuk. Irrglaube oder Wahrglaube? Eine Frage der Menschheit (pp. 9-12). Baden: Gyr.

Kiesewetter, Carl (1890). Klopfgeister vor dem Jahre 1848. Sphinx, 10, 224-232.

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1827). Hamburgische Dramaturgie. Erster Theil. Elftes Stück. In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s sämmtliche Schriften (Vol. 24, pp. 82-88). Berlin: Vossische Buchhandlung (first published in 1767).

Meier, C. A. (Ed.). (2001). Atom and Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters, 1932-1958. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Myers, Frederic W. H. (1889). On recognised apparitions occurring more than a year after death. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 13-65.

Perrault, François (1658). The Devil of Mascon. Or, A true Relation of the Chiefe Things which an Uncleane Spirit did, and said at Mascon in Burgundy, in the House of Mr Francis Pereaud, Minister of the Reformed Church in the same Towne. Oxford: Hen, Hall, Rich & Davis (originally published in 1653).

Porter, Roy (1999). Witchcraft and magic in Enlightenment, Romantic and liberal thought. In B. Ankarloo & S. Clark (Eds.), Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (pp. 191-282). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schrenck-Notzing, Albert von (1928). Richtlinien zur Beurteilung medialer Spukvorgänge. Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie, 3, 513-521.

Shapin, Steven, & Schaffer, Simon (1985). Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Winterstein, Alfred von (1926). Psychoanalytische Bemerkungen zum Thema Spuk. Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie, 1, 548-553.

© 2013 Andreas Sommer

About Sommer_HPS

Dr. Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences at Cambridge University, UK. View all posts by Sommer_HPS

9 responses to “The Naturalisation of the ‘Poltergeist’

  • NIKOtheOrb

    After reading this interesting and intriguing piece, it does not surprise me that modern scientists have taken up the cry of the historical scientists. Today’s scientists, I am reading, have joined with philosophers and the like and begun what is called the Noetic Sciences, which is a look and examination into what was once considered supernatural or paranormal phenomenon. They are touching on such subjects as clairvoyance, telekinesis and telepathy. Truly, this is an exciting time to witness and about which to learn. That you mention that these phenomena are not actual affects and effects of some sort of emotional or psychological delusion, but of the faculty and ability of the mind/consciousness is what strikes as so intriguing. Surely, if we can connect to the idea of quantum consciousness (and even quantum mechanics), i.e., that which Stuart Hameroff speaks so much about, certainly the idea that these phenomena may be a latent ability of the mind/consciousness is not that far off that mark?

    Excellent post, thank you.

    • sciencehistorian

      Thanks for your comment! Mind you, I don’t make claims regarding the phenomena in question or favour possible interpretations but actually want to flag up that it is not only today that scientists and philosophers dissatisfied with reductionism join forces and ask unorthodox questions. In fact, holistic and integrative approaches to mind and matter have never ceased to be proposed by elite scientists. What interests me as a historian is why this simple fact has never been reflected in mainstream historiographies. There is a cultural and social consensus of sorts: science should not ask certain questions – which in my view undermines the very principles and virtues of science itself, for what good is enquiry if it is restricted by social convention?

  • Halloween Special: C. G. Jung’s Spine-Chilling Nights in a ‘Haunted House’ | Forbidden Histories

    […] for informing me of the existence of an English translation) and can be read as a footnote to my previous post on the malleability of interpretations of ‘poltergeist’ phenomena. Jung’s report is unusual in so far that other published cases tend to be more dramatic – but […]

  • Kennedy

    You might be interested in Frank Podmore’s book The Naturalisation of the Supernatural. It has a Chapter VII Poltergeists pages 149-171

    It is online here

    And it discusses some specific cases and offers naturalistic explanations and evidence of fallacy in memory and observation.

    • Sommer_HPS

      Thanks for this; Podmore’s interestingly one-sided views on poltergeist phenomena need to be read in the context of his debates on the topic with fellow psychical researchers, e.g. the anthropologist Andrew Lang and the physicist William Barrett, who argued there was more to it than just errors of memory and perception:
      Lang, A. (1903). The poltergeist, historically considered. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 17, 305-326.
      Barrett, W. F. (1911). Poltergeists, old and new. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 25, 377-412.

  • Kennedy

    I have not been able to understand Lang’s views on poltergeists or other paranormal phenomena as secondary sources seem to be contradicting each other. Lang was cited by the arch-rationalist Joseph McCabe as being a skeptic of pretty much all paranormal phenomena and elsewhere I read he was only interested in the folklore of it. He clashed with the skeptic Edward Clodd in a series of publications on folklore.

    A recent skeptic Daniel Loxton has cited Lang’s “Cock Lane and Common-Sense” (1894) as a skeptical look at ghosts and hauntings, yet I read in an SPR review that the book argues for the complete opposite! The book is online, I did take a look. To be honest it’s hard to understand his position.

    I appreciate your research on these historical matters related to psychical research, it really is brilliant and very few people in the world spend the time to dig it all up. There’s too much to comment on but one name that I took notice to was Friedrich Zöllner and his theory of the fourth dimension. I have looked into this in depth and I came to the conclusion that Zöllner may have been deceived by Henry Slade. If you read Hereward Carrington’s book The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, he reveals some very easy trick methods that Slade could have employed on the rope experiments and Harry Houdini knew someone (I forget the name) who obtained a letter from Slade before his death that was a confession admitting he had cheated. You can read about it in Houdini’s book A Magician Among the Spirits. It’s possible the confession may of been a hoax. Walter Franklin Prince reviewed Houdini’s book and found many errors but I have little doubt Slade cheated on those experiments considering his previous history.

    I am researching Harry Price’s involvement with Eleonore Zugun and the Battersea poltergeist these are two alleged poltergeist cases which have received little attention. I have tried to do some research on the Rosenheim case but sources are scarce and if you read the heavily biased Wikipedia it was recently updated and they literally claim the whole thing was a hoax.

    • Sommer_HPS

      As with any other controversial topic: Don’t ever rely on secondary sources, go straight to the original writings, and if possible, conduct archival research to unearth additional information. Wikipedia is absolutely useless in this regard. You will find the distortions and omissions in secondary sources by self-appointed “sceptics” like McCabe, and not least good old Houdini, to be quite hair-raising.

      The same is true for Zöllner/Slade. The political relevance of the episode is enormous, and I uncovered some primary/archival sources putting things into perspective (see my “Spiritualism and the origins of modern psychology in late nineteenth-century Germany: The Wundt-Zöllner debate”, in C. M. Moreman (Ed.), The Spiritualist Movement: Speaking with the Dead in America and Around the World (Vol. 1, pp. 55-72). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013. For an evaluation of Carrington’s verdict, I recommend studying the German original of Zöllner’s observations (in vols. 2-3 of his Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, 1878-9), or the very able compilation/translation by C. C. Massey: Zöllner, J. K. F. (1880). Transcendental Physics: An Account of Experimental Investigations. London: W. H. Harrison.

      Mind you, I’m not claiming the phenomena were real, all I mean to imply is that primary sources tend to be constructed in an extremely biased manner by self-styled ‘reality sheriffs’.

      Regarding Zugun, if you don’t read German I recommend Mulacz, Peter (1999) Eleonore Zugun – the Re-evaluation of a historic RSPK case. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 15-45. Regarding the Rosenheim case, I’m afraid there’s no way around the (rather extensive) original German sources, and archival material located at the ‘Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie’ in Freiburg, Germany.

  • John Rudkin

    Many thanks for an interesting article.
    Are you familiar with Barrie Colvin’s research into the acoustics of unexplained rapping noises? I can let you have a copy of the pof if it is of interest.

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