Apparitions, Poltergeists

(Investigator 97, 2004 July)

There is little if any difference between a ghost and an apparition, although generally speaking ghosts are associated with hauntings whereas an apparition is any remarkable appearance which is at first mistaken as real.

A poltergeist is a spirit which makes its presence known by making noises or dislodging objects.

The journals of the Society for Psychical Research in London and its American counterpart in New York, are replete with reports from people who have seen ghosts or apparitions, and surveys carried out by reputable polling firms confirm a high belief in their existence.

Photographic evidence became available within a few years of the camera being invented, the first produced by William H. Mummler of Boston, Massachusetts in 1862, when he took a photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln. When the plate was developed the spirit of Abraham Lincoln was seen in the photograph by her side.

Since then hundreds of convincing and inexplicable photographs have been taken of spirits by amateurs and professionals alike.

What (if of course they exist) are ghosts made of? The theories vary – ectoplasm, electromagnetic auras, long wavelength electromagnetic radiation and paranormal perception have all been suggested – but of whatever they may consist, the reality of ghostly footsteps, sudden drops in the temperature and noises coming from empty rooms cannot be easily dismissed as imagination.

Poltergeists or "noisy spirits" as they arc sometimes called, cause great concern when they appear for no apparent reason in any household. Furniture appears to move of its own accord, objects fly across a room, lights and electrical appliances turn on and off without human hands manipulating the switches and household articles mysteriously and spontaneously break.

Several theories have been advanced by paranormalists to explain this phenomenon. W. R. Roll, project director of the Psychical Research Foundation at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, suggests that, "The typical poltergeist is somehow created by a force housed in the brain and body of the agent himself ... the force probably emanates from two places on the agent's body that take on the function of the ‘rotating beams' of force."

Hans Bender, a noted German parapsychologist, theorises that, if the temperature in a room is lowered by one degree, a tremendous amount of energy would be released to produce the weird antics of the poltergeist.

The evidence for the existence of ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night, would at first appear to be overwhelming. Eyewitness accounts abound, photographic evidence proliferates and scholarly tomes record hauntings, manifestations and seemingly inexplicable happenings. In view of this, can we simply dismiss them all as hallucinations or figments of the imagination? The short answer is "no" because people are usually quite genuine in what they report as having seen, although there is a vast difference in what one perceives or what one believes one has seen and what was actually seen. It is in the examination of this difference that most answers can be found.

Eyewitness reports, no matter how observant the percipient may be, are notoriously unreliable due to the fact that human perception and memory are constructive. Perception is not only a function of the senses, but also of what we know and believe of the world. In other words, when the sensory input is weak or lacking, we tend to compensate or make up the difference to form a picture. Thus a drawing of say a circle, one half of which is covered with a piece of paper, will in one's mind, be seen as a circle despite the fact that it may in reality only be a semi-circle or an arc appendage of a larger drawing. Similarly, if the bottom half of a line of print is covered, memory compensates and the sentence can be read.

Another factor which tends to diminish eyewitness credibility, is the susceptibility of humans to hallucinate under certain conditions, particularly after going to bed when people are in an "in between" state – neither awake nor asleep. During this period, hypnogogic hallucinations as they are called, are quite common, and likewise, hypnopompic hallucinations occur on awakening. These hallucinations are responsible for many re-ports of ghosts and apparitions.

Also common and just as persuasive to a receptive mind are the odd noises, rustlings, creaks, taps and bangs, and doors that seemingly open and close of their own accord, which people tend to interpret as being caused by other than natural causes. Further, the "odd" or "creepy" feeling we sometimes experience in connection with a certain place or environment, is often ascribable to odours, dampness and expectation.

From the scientific point of view, there are two principal arguments against the existence of ghosts. First, the evidence at best is doubtful as it is anecdotal and usually uncorroborated by independent witnesses, and second, there is a general proclivity for people to accept uncritically unusual accounts or happenings.

A belief in ghosts, apparitions or visions implies an acceptance of mind/body dualism or monism, in which the "soul" or "spirit" is seen as a distinct non-material entity capable of existing outside the body, and in the latter, a mental phenomenon which can be traced to activity in the central nervous system and therefore is simply a known function of the brain.

From the philosophical and neurobiological view points, the concept of mind/body dualism poses some awkward evolutionary questions – for instance, at what stage during the evolutionary process did humans become endowed with a non-material spirit? It would have to be a one off affair, not something that would evolve, and a "spirit" gene would contradict the nature of a non-material entity leaving divine intervention which in itself raises more questions than answers.

Hoaxes and frauds too, have long played a role in reports of ghosts and hauntings, the best documented being those of Borley Rectory in Essex, England, and the Amityville Horror in Amityville, New York. The former, sometimes known as "the most haunted house in England", was the subject of Harry Price's book bearing that name. The account tells of manifestations of many ghosts including that of a nun, unusual noises and happenings which, according to Price, could not have been due to normal causes and a host of eyewitness accounts from local inhabitants and previous occupants of the rectory. Price even rented the rectory for a year, lived in it and relates his own experiences in the book.

The evidence for the phenomena was, according to all those who read the book, as convincing as human testimony can ever be. The rectory burned in 1939, and although the remains were not finally pulled down until 1944, strange occurrences were still being reported at the site.

A thorough investigation of the alleged haunting was undertaken by the Society for Psychical Research in England in the early 1950s, and the results of their findings were published in a book, The Haunting of Borley Rectory. The findings were devastating. Price had distorted and embellished eyewitness reports to make them more dramatic and had faked several of the incidents himself while living in the rectory. Furthermore, the wife of the Rev. Lionel Foyster had been actively engaged in fraudulently creating phenomena from 1930 to 1935.

Equally famous and on the other side of the Atlantic, is the house in Amityville, where in 1974, six members of the DeFeo family were murdered. George and Kathy Lutz, who purchase the house in 1975, were subjected to the most horrible and gruesome hauntings in history. So bad in fact, that they moved out of the house after 28 days and wrote a book about their experiences which was later made into a horror film. Two years later it was revealed to be a complete hoax from start to finish, dreamed up by the Lutzs' to make money.

Poltergeists, or noisy spirits, are another phenomenon which, when investigated, usually turn out to have a more prosaic explanation.

Invariably they take place in a household with a teenage member, a typical case being that of a fourteen year old girl by the name of Tina Resch, of Columbus, Ohio. Shortly after seeing the film Poltergeist, objects started to fly about in the Resch's household. The "poltergeist" phenomenon was given wide coverage both on TV and in the press, and parapsychologist William Roll was called in to investigate.

He concluded that "when he had Tina under close observation she demonstrated genuine recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis", Roll's term for the poltergeist phenomenon.

Although nothing ever moved while Tina was being watched, as soon as the photographer looked away an object would fly across the room. One of the photographs taken and distributed by Associated Press as proof of the phenomenon when examined in detail strongly suggested that Tina was faking the occurrences. Examination and careful analysis of other photographs confirmed this and she was subsequently caught red-handed on video tape throwing objects. The records also show that Tina was hyperactive and emotionally disturbed.

Ten years later, on October 24, 1994, Tina Resch, now Tina Boyer, pleaded guilty in a Carroll County, Georgia, courtroom to the murder of her three year old daughter, Amber. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.


Anson, J. 1977. The Amityville Horror. New Jersey.
Cohen, D. 1984. Encyclopedia of Ghosts. Guild Publishing. UK.
Dingwall, Goldney and Hall. 1955. Haunting of Borley Rectory. Duckworth.
Finucane, R.C. 1984. Appearances of the Dead. Prometheus Books. Buffalo, NY.
Harris, Melvin. 1986. Investigating the Unexplained. Prometheus Books. Buffalo, N.Y.
Podmore, F 1962. Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. University Books.
Price, H. 1939. Fifty Years of Psychical Research. London.
Rogo, D.S. 1979. The Poltergeist Experience. Penguin. NY.
Underwood, P 1996. The Ghost Hunter's Guide. Blandford Press. NY.

From: Edwards, H. A skeptic's Guide to the New Age.

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