Poltergeists: Noisy Spirits

A poltergeist is perhaps the best-known — and most feared — type of ghost. It is a spirit that is said to harass and torment its victims. This harassment typically includes minor but mysterious and disturbing events such as loud sounds, moving furniture, sheets and covers being pulled off beds, small objects inexplicably falling off shelves, stones rising off the ground and being hurled at people, and so on. 

Of course, discussing different categories of ghosts is like discussing different breeds of dragons or races of leprechauns: it's all made up, so there are as many types as you can dream of. Nevertheless, people all over the world believe in ghosts and spirits, and a 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts.

No one knows for certain what ghosts are, or if they even exist; some believe that they are spirits of the dead who for whatever reason get "lost" on their way to the afterworld; others think that ghosts are the souls of people whose deaths were violent or premature. 

History of poltergeists

In his book "Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation," historian R.C. Finucane notes that the word poltergeist "takes its name from two German words, meaning 'to create a disturbance' (or more specifically to rumble, roll, or bluster), and 'spirit.' Though examples can be found in earlier centuries, this form of spiritual harassment only becomes commonplace in the post-Reformation era [around the 1600s]." 

The interpretation of mysterious disturbances as being caused by a ghost specifically is a fairly recent development; a few centuries ago such events might have been attributed to witchcraft or even Satan. Horror films about ghosts and evil spirits including "Poltergeist," "The Amityville Horror," and "The Exorcist" have influenced how modern people think of violent ghostly phenomena.

Poltergeists and pranking

Poltergeist activity centers on people and is often associated with the presence of children, leading many to suspect that childhood attention-seeking pranks are involved. Indeed, many poltergeist reports were proven to have been faked by children and teenagers — and one well-known case of alleged poltergeist activity in the mid-1800s even led to the creation of an American religion. 

It happened in Western New York in the early 1840s when a young peddler arrived at the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Bell to sell his house wares. He was invited into the home by the Bells' housekeeper and stayed for some days. The maid was shortly dismissed from service but abruptly rehired a week later. The peddler was gone, but many of his items were now in use in the Bells' kitchen. The maid thought little of it until she began experiencing poltergeist phenomenon, only to find out from the peddler's ghost that he had been murdered in her absence. 

At least that was the story told by two young sisters named Maggie and Katie Fox, who claimed to communicate with the peddler's ghost through taps and knocks. The Fox sisters became famous across the country for their ability to communicate with spirits of the dead, drawing enthusiastic crowds for decades. Years later, however, the sisters admitted it had all been a hoax; there was no murdered peddler, and the spirit communications had been faked. Still, the sisters had inadvertently founded a religion called Spiritualism, which is still practiced today. 

Rapping and knocking communication from spirits has its origins in fakery and hoaxing, and decades later many psychic mediums continued the practice, pretending that knocks in darkened séance rooms came from the spirit world. For example, an Italian psychic medium named Eusapia Palladino, active in the late 1800s, claimed she experienced poltergeist activity including table rapping and sheets pulled off her bed. Palladino made a successful career out of faking spirit voices, knocks, and "flying objects" (made to move with hidden wires in darkened rooms) during séances for paying customers. 

Do poltergeists exist outside of folklore and historical hoaxes? If ghosts and spirits truly do move objects and cause the unexplained phenomena attributed to them, it is surprising that not a single film or video exists of such amazing incidents. Surveillance cameras and cell phones are everywhere, yet no one has ever captured a clock flying off a shelf on its own or cabinet doors violently banging open and closed in an empty kitchen. Modern reports of these "noisy spirits" are closer to urban legends than documented proof.

Though there's no scientific evidence for poltergeists or any other types of ghosts, they continue to intrigue, entertain and scare us — just as they have for centuries.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" and "The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.