Tony Healy and Paul Cropper. Australian Poltergeist: The Stone –Throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. Strange Nation, 2014.

The authors of “Out of the shadows: mystery animals of Australia” and “The Yowie” here provide a catalogue of Australian poltergeist cases and give detailed accounts of 11 of them. The largest section deals with the title case, that at the oddly named Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory, which took place from? March 1998 and into the Australian winter. (There is no precise date given). This began with stones being hurled at the occupants but then moved on to other things being hurled around, and then messages appearing, either on walls made with marker pen, or with pebbles and other artefacts arranged on the floor. There were the usual accusations of fakery and counter accusations. One puzzling feature was that when examined by heat detecting cameras the things throw showed up hot all over and not in finger like patches. The authors personally investigated this case and were clearly puzzled by it.

The second case that of the Mayanup poltergeist in West Australia from 1955-1957 involved things appearing and disappearing, floating around as well as showers of stones, objects taking off. These things took place over three properties in Mayanup, Pumphrey and Boyup Brook and also involved strange lights in the sky, sounds of cars where there were none and so on. These included reports of objects emitting beams of light. Interestingly there was a classic CE2 on the road from Kojunup to Boyup Brook in October 13 1967 when a Mr Sprago found his car engulfed in beam of light from a mushroom shaped object and while this was going on found he couldn’t even hear his own heartbeat let alone the night sounds.

At Tarcutta New South Wales in 1949 metal plates from a milking machine flew off and landed over 200m away; between 1992 and 1997 small objects seemed to appear out of nowhere and fall in a legal brothel in Canberra. At the centre of this was a woman who moved from being a civil servant to being a prostitute and committed suicide “because men were no longer captivated by her”; at Cannibal Creek Queensland in 1935 household utensils flew around and rappings and groanings were heard; at Cooyal NSW in 1887 it is stones falling apparently through the solid roof, there is a mysterious black object, chills and thumping sounds; at Newcastle NSW in 1977 noises like footsteps were heard and pictures were taken down from the walls and laid neatly down; at Alice Springs in 1989/90 socks, toys and utensils are thrown about and “footsteps” heard and a male apparition seen; Gurya NSW 1921 stone throwing again and at Coalbaggie Creek at NSW there were household items flying around and a gruff voice speaking.

The catalogue follows the same pattern and shows the preponderance of stone throwing particularly in the earlier reports, rather different from most modern cases here in the UK or USA, though stone throwing was common here in the 19th century.

When it comes to explanations I was disappointed that the authors tend to go in for spiritualist clichés rather than look for scientific explanations. Am I the only person who just thinks it’s absurd to attribute physical effects such as stone throwing or writing on walls to “disembodied intelligences” (I suspect the latter is itself a self-contradiction)

Physical effects have physical causes, and perhaps the most parsimonious explanation is that physical actions by human beings cause them. I would certainly argue that is the explanation for writing on walls, pictures being gently let down etc. You might call this trickery, but I would imagine that we are dealing with something much more complex and deep than party tricks here. It seems clear that some of these cases involve people and families in crises of one form and another. The people at Humpty Doo had just lost a close friend in a terrible accident which one would expect to lead to some form of PTSD. When you have a woman who took up as a prostitute and then killed herself because she feared she was no longer irresistible to men, it seems obvious you are dealing with someone very damaged indeed. One wonders what might lie at the heart of other cases. Poltergeists therefor lie on a spectrum that runs from “normal” teenage vandalism through to self-harm and symbolic acting out (casting stones, disorderly house, injury to the home as extended body, importation of the wilderness into the habitat etc.).

There is a problem with such a simple explanation, not the simplistic notion that a kid/these country hicks etc. couldn’t possibly know this/do that, but that if these effects are due to 'trickery' then human perception and memory are much more problematic than we would like to think. Do we experience what we expect to experience, not what is actually out there. Can human testimony be relied upon for anything, particularly of an unusual nature?

If you argue that there is more than trickery involved, that these effects are real, you may end up getting into a deeper quagmire. The next default position might be that poltergeists like other Fortean phenomena are evidence that we are, as has been seriously proposed by some physicists that we are living in some vast computer simulation, and that Fortean phenomena represent glitches in the programme. That seems to be recycled and technified Berkelian idealism, with slippery slopes to solipsism and endless regress (the simulators are themselves simulations ad infinitum). It also reeks of the old notion of attributing to “advanced intelligences” our own current preoccupations writ large.
Then there is macro PK, trouble is there is no evidence for it, and quite a lot against. If it were possible it would have been selected for and would be a quotidian part of our lives. I rather think that year after year that the moment the school holidays start up here the UK, it starts to rain and continues to do so until the kids go back to school and then the sun comes out again, as pretty much evidence against it.

We can, of course, invent almost any number of science-fictional “explanations”; our environment is pervaded by defunct alien pico-bots from the days when Earth was an alien “hey look at the big nasty creatures” theme park, and every so often something prods one or two of them into desultory action; there is a “re-coherencing mechanism” which allows access to alternate quantum realities, onr there is another brane so close to the planck length in higher dimensional bulk space that the two can overlap, or…so on till your head hurts. And that’s just the stuff we can think about.

The end result is that while trying to explain everything by “trickery” looks inadequate, none of the more exotic alternatives really work either. Despite my general scepticism I still think poltergeists are worthy of real scientific study, even if the odds are a million to one or even a billion to one against, the tantalising possibility that these events might just give a clue to an exotic energy source which could be harnessed to give an unlimited source of clean energy and advance physics by centuries makes the possible rewards worth the risk of waste. -- Peter Rogerson.

1 comment:

  1. Where is it written that everything has an explanation? There must be some reason why our language includes the word 'unknown.'