23.1.11

PROBLEMS WITH POLTERGEISTS

Michael Clarkson. The Poltergeist Phenomenon: An In-Depth Investigation Into Floating Beds, Smashing Glass and Other Unexplained Disturbances. New Page Books, 2011 -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

Michael Clarkson is a Canadian journalist who has previously written a number of books on the general theme of the psychology of fear. His long term interest in poltergeists began with a visit, at of all times Halloween 1980, from a person who as a boy had been the centre of a poltergeist case 10 years before in St Catharines, Ontario. Clarkson admits he has never had a personal experience with a polt, but has interviewed many of the people involved in cases on both sides of the Atlantic, and presents a good selection of cases, including that Tina Resch and the infamous Enfield poltergeist. Another UK case was from Rochdale and featured the curious phenomenon of what seemed like rain appearing inside a house. Other cases are from Long Island, Connecticut, Florida, the Rosenheim poltergeist and the fifty year old Scottish case of Virginia Campbell.

Clarkson presents various viewpoints, though it is clear that his sympathies lie with the advocates rather than sceptics. This may well because the sceptics are represented by Randi - whose main purpose in all of this is more publicity for Randi rather than disinterested research - and his sidekicks. The main spokesperson for the advocates quoted here, William Roll, seems a much more credible advocate in contrast, certainly more so than some of the investigators from the U.K.

That being said there is no doubt that if the events in many of these cases occurred exactly as reported in the advocate literature they would be very difficult to explain in conventional terms, and one would have to assume a substantial degree of malobservation and reporting, along with a more complex scenario of trickery than the classical single 'naughty child' explanation. Perhaps in some of these cases not only are most of the members of the household involved in tricks, but so are extended family, neighbours, local youths and children, even reports and 'investigators'.

It is perhaps not surprising then that paranormal explanations have an at least a superficial appeal. Clarkson presents a number of interesting speculations and studies of people assumed to be 'poltergeist agents'. These have included discussion in terms of epilepsy, the 'fight and flight' response and repressed aggression However most of these explanations have massive problems. While terms like Recurring Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) have been invoked, no real, testable theories have ever been adduced to explain how patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the human body could throw furniture around, to say nothing of claims of apports and the like, evoking rather fashionable notions of zero point energy and quantum mechanics does not seem to greatly help in this regard. It is also extremely difficult to understand why, if such wild talents existed, they would not be as obvious and widespread as outstanding artistic, athletic or musical ability.

There is yet another problem, ask a paranormal advocate what a poltergeist or RSPK cannot do and you would be hard pressed get an answer. This means they are scientifically useless, infinitely elastic hypotheses. Explanations involving 'spirits' and other hypothetical entities have the same problems only worse. It is often not appreciated that anything that produces physical effects must be physical by definition.

Reading through this and similar books also raises another related problem, the discrepancy between the enormity of the claims and the efforts that are put into investigating them. Taken at face value, poltergeist stories hint at huge untapped sources of presumably renewable energy in an energy-poor world, so you would think that advocates would not stint any amount of time, trouble and money investigating them, and seeking to interest the scientific community in them, in hope of reaping the kudos and riches beyond imagination of if they could discover and harness. Yet when one suggests that proper scientific investigation should take place, the reply is less than positive. Could it be that the advocates don't really, really, believe in their own claims, at least as not occurring in the same reality as that of their wallets?

These accounts suggests that while there may be no agreement as to the mechanisms behind them, there might be better consensus on their psycho-socio-cultural meaning. They seem to involve the subversion of the idea of the home as an orderly refuge from the outer wildness. The poltergeist home is literally a disorderly house, an anti-home. Poltergeists are clearly related to that perennial teenage activity, vandalism. In contrast however to normal vandalism, this is an inwardly directed vandalism, and if one thinks of the home as an extension of the self, then it suggests that poltergeists may be related to both self-harm and Munchausen's syndrome. The poltergeist events seem like an ostentation of deep personal and family chaos and disorder.

People with Munchausen's Syndrome have been noted as extremely manipulative, and having an nearly unlimited need for attention, as well as an almost uncanny ability to latch onto the inner weaknesses of those dealing with them. Similar profiles have been associated with a number of the people involved with claims of Satanic abuse, 'multiple personality' and the like.

Deep family tension and repressed aggression seems to run through many of the accounts presented by Clarkson and to have been noted by those investigating them. I rather suspect however that they may not be fully appreciating how deeply disturbed and disturbing a proportion of the individuals and families that they are dealing with may be.


4 comments:

  1. I have shared my research (and experiences) into so-called poltergeist phenomena during the 1990s and those who've read my book TESTAMENT (and blog posts) may well understand my insight that the phenomena provide evidence of a vast human metaphysical reality beyond the range of what can be learned in a laboratory.

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  2. Anonymous25.1.11

    When I was 11, my brother went upstairs and shot himself in the head. As the oldest, I had to go up and find him. Mom sat looking at a wall. Dad sexually molested me. Rocks fell from a clear sky, rain inside the house, objects moved of their own accord. It is still unreal to me, and I am an old woman, that I was a poltergeist.

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  3. Anonymous29.3.11

    I noticed that you forgot to mention (or perhaps purposefully ignored) the work of Michael Persinger, who is mentioned in this book as a researcher currently conducting investigations into pk. You make it sound as if no legitimate work is being done in this area. That just isn't the case.

    PK seems to be a rather short-lived phenomenon, making it a challenge to bring out of the field and into a controlled laboratory setting. Despite that fact, researchers are still trying to do just that. Certainly the evidence for micro-pk is much better than macro-pk, but you seem to be conveniently overlooking the fact that there is a growing body of evidence published in peer-reviewed journals.

    I don't think Clarkson's book does justice to this topic. It was obviously a quickly thrown together update of a previous book he had written, along with some interesting additional material provided by William G Roll. Most of Roll's work is better documented in his own books The Poltergeist and Unleashed: Of Poltergeists and Murder: The Curious Story of Tina Resch.

    While Clarkson has gathered together some interesting case studies, his personal understanding of RSPK is sorely lacking. The silly pop-psychology explanations he has provided do nothing to further the reader's understanding of parapsychology or RSPK.

    I would say that this book is a very basic introduction to the topic for people with no prior knowledge of the literature. It's an adequate book. Not great. And not one I would particularly recommend either.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anonymous1.4.11

    I noticed that you forgot to mention (or perhaps purposefully ignored) the work of Michael Persinger, who is mentioned in this book as a researcher currently conducting investigations into pk. You make it sound as if no legitimate work is being done in this area. That just isn't the case.

    PK seems to be a rather short-lived phenomenon, making it a challenge to bring out of the field and into a controlled laboratory setting. Despite that fact, researchers are still trying to do just that. Certainly the evidence for micro-pk is much better than macro-pk, but you seem to be conveniently overlooking the fact that there is a growing body of evidence published in peer-reviewed journals.

    I don't think Clarkson's book does justice to this topic. It was obviously a quickly thrown together update of a previous book he had written, along with some interesting additional material provided by William G Roll. Most of Roll's work is better documented in his own books The Poltergeist and Unleashed: Of Poltergeists and Murder: The Curious Story of Tina Resch.

    While Clarkson has gathered together some interesting case studies, his personal understanding of RSPK is sorely lacking. The silly pop-psychology explanations he has provided do nothing to further the readers understanding of parapsychology or RSPK.

    I would say that this book in a very basic introduction to the topic for people with no prior knowledge of the literature. It's an adequate book. Not great. And not one I would particularly recommend either.

    ReplyDelete

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