The Naturalisation of the ‘Poltergeist’

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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 http://www.archive.org/stream/naturalisationof00podmrich#page/n7/mode/2up

    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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