10 April 2012


P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. Poltergeists: A History of Violent Ghostly Phenomena. Amberley, 2012.

Dr. Maxwell-Stuart here traces the history of poltergeists, or at least poltergeist phenomena from early Christian times to the present. The largest portion of the book deals with the history before the 19th century, and thus before the social construction of the concept of ‘poltergeist’.
Over periods of time those phenomena now attributed to poltergeists such as the moving of furniture, the throwing of stones, mysterious fires, anomalous knocks, voices out of nowhere etc., were attributed to a variety of agencies, ranging from spirits of the dead seeking expiation for their sins in the early period, through demons and evil spirits in the medieval and early modern periods, through witchcraft through much of the 17th and 18th centuries, to more modern notions of ‘electricity’ and ‘psychic energies’.

This study clearly demonstrates how these sort of stories exhibit distinct cultural tracking. In early medieval times the vengeful dead were envisaged as much more corporeal entities than were the wraiths of Victorian psychical research; they may reveal hidden treasure (though that might mean they were demons in disguise seeking to tempt the pious with wicked lucre) or engaged in theological dialogue, often defending the current correct theological party line.

By the later sixteenth century through to the mid-nineteenth, at folk level at least, the principle explanation of poltergeist-like phenomena was witchcraft rather than ghosts, the latter being rejected by Protestant theologians as ‘Papist superstition’ tied to notions of Purgatory. Indeed witchcraft became the explanation of choice of all sorts of anomalous experiences. It was as defenders of the reality of witchcraft that people like Glanville, More and Baxter produced their books of extraordinary experiences, rather than modern notions of psychical research.

From early times there were also ‘traditions of disbelief” which attributed such experiences to natural occurrences or the tricks of children and servants. Maxwell-Stuart, though trying to take a historically detached point of view, tends to regard these explanations with suspicion, and points out how difficult trickery would have been in certain circumstances, and that many of the witnesses even in earlier times were initially sceptical. Or rather that was how they presented themselves in the narratives, the narrative device of the ‘conversion of the unbeliever’ being a common one in both theological and paranormal rhetoric.

The presentation of this early material is the main strength of the book, and it seems clear that the medieval and early modern periods are ones in which Maxwell-Stuart feels most at home both at an academic, and I rather suspect personal, level than the period from the nineteenth century onwards. Here the coverage is rather superficial, there is no discussion of the studies of Frank Podmore and his disputes with Andrew Lang, and the coverage of some of the cases such Amherst or the Bell Witch tend to be limited. One wonders also what Maxwell-Stuart would have made of Gef the Talking Mongoose.

Despite this, the value of this book lies in presenting the earlier material in its historical context, rather in modernised versions, which serves to rescue them from the often edited versions which appear in popular literature. What emerges from the study are accounts which contain features in common across time and culture as well as profound differences, which reflect the changing times. It is not just that the interpretation of the experience changes, but some items such as theological discourses are lost from the repertoire and others, for example interfering with electrical appliances, threatening text messages and absurd messages on word processors, take their place. In terms of paranormal explanations boggarts and witches are out, spirits and psychic energies are in, and outside the realm of psychical research explanations such as the activities of aliens to the actions of secret government projects are banded about.

Maxwell-Stuart clearly has no easy explanation for this, one hesitant attempt by Sacheveral Sitwell, he describes as “gobbledegook”, yet his own evocation of kabalistic theology is just as likely to produce the same response from the non-believer. Of course it may well be that if the explanations of the sceptics in terms of an amalgam of misperception, false memory, natural phenomena and the actions of very physical humans (trickery seems an inadequate word, there seems to be often something much darker and damaged than cheerful japes at work), turn out to be wrong, then the answer(s) may well be something that looks like ‘gobbledegook’ and will be very different from any folk explanation past, present or future. -- Peter Rogerson.

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