Closely observed poltergeists
ALAN MURDIE revisits two extremely well documented polt cases on their 50th anniversary
Avariety of 50th anniversaries are being marked in 2017, from the first human heart transplant to the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts
Club Band. But this year is also a hitherto neglected anniversary in the study of poltergeists. It is 50 years since two of the most closely observed outbreaks on record, in which the investigators on the spot gathered some of the strongest evidence for paranormal effects yet obtained. The first was a poltergeist that struck at the beginning of the year at a warehouse in Miami, Florida. The second plagued a lawyer’s office at Rosenheim, in what was then West Germany, at the year’s end.
The Miami case first attracted attention early in January 1967, manifesting in what might be deemed a dream location for a poltergeist, a commercial warehouse packed with bottles, glassware and breakable ornaments. Events centred on an office-room lined by shelves of merchandise. There were repeated incidents of items falling from the shelves. These were picked up and replaced only to fall again. Breakages accumulated and the management called the police, who pronounced themselves baffled. No normal explanation could be found as to why beer mugs, ashtrays and heavy crates should suddenly fly off storage shelves to the floor.
Suzy Smith, a prolific author of popular ghost books such as Haunted Houses for
the Millions (1967), heard rumours of a ghost and visited. Satisfied the case was genuine, she called parapsychologists William Roll (1925-2012) and Gaither Pratt (1910-1979) from the Psychical Research Centre at Durham, North Carolina, who immediately went to Florida to see for themselves.
Until the mid-20th century most investigators approached a poltergeist eruption from a pre-existing standpoint, opinions being divided as to whether they were the work of mischievous spirits or mischievous adolescents. But 10 years earlier Roll and Pratt investigated another significant American poltergeist, at Seaford, Long Island. The Seaford case, which focused on a 12-year-old boy, was among the first to make scientific researchers (including many in psychical research itself) pay proper attention to the hypothesis that disturbances arose from psychokinesis (PK) generated by a living person rather than a ghost. (For a good review of the Seaford case and its influence see Unbelievable
(2013) by Stacy Horne and Christopher Laursen’s Re-imagining the Poltergeist
in 20th century America and Britain, PhD Thesis, Univ. British Columbia, 2016).
At Miami, Roll and Pratt luckily arrived before the disturbances ceased, suspicion having centred on a young man employed as a shipping clerk at the warehouse named Julio Vasquez (19), a refugee from Cuba; but there was no evidence that Julio was causing the displacements and resulting damage by any normal means.
The layout of the warehouse enabled a degree of control to be imposed and to identify where everyone was at any moment. Roll and Pratt ran some experiments. Certain shelves were particularly prone to disturbance, so target objects were deliberately placed on these, and the position of employees was monitored.
Some 40 incidents occurred with Roll on the premises, with him directly observing the spontaneous movement of several bottles, a box of combs, and a beer mug. Pratt saw the breaking of a glass and a pickle jar and an ashtray moving by themselves. Another significant witness was Howard Brooks, a professional conjuror who confirmed seeing objects moving by themselves. Altogether over 180 unexplained events were logged during periods of intensive observation. Since the starting position of many objects was known, and Julio’s position in the building could be identified, it was possible to plot the object movements in relation to his whereabouts. Objects closest to Julio tended to move clockwise and shorter distances compared with those furthest from him. The latter moved greater distances, tending to anti-clockwise trajectories.
Psychological testing of Julio revealed a troubled young man. He was an unhappy homosexual who suffered from bouts of dissociation and had suicidal tendencies. Following the ending of the disturbances and leaving employment, Julio was later imprisoned for inept thefts and robberies. Roll believed Julio was unconsciously generating PK force, leading Roll to term it ‘Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis’ (RSPK). Roll later detailed the case and RSPK theory in research papers (e.g.
Proceedings of the Parapsychology Association vol.4 (1967); ‘The Miami Disturbances’ with Gaither Pratt (1971)
Journal of the American SPR vol.65 pp40954 and in a book The Poltergeist (1972).
The second significant case of this remarkable poltergeist year began in November, at Rosenheim, Upper Bavaria. This was the location of the respectable legal practice of a Dr Adam who was suddenly beset by a peculiar interference with his office telephones. They repeatedly dialled the speaking clock at a rate that couldn’t be accounted for by human intervention. Phone bills soared. Telephone and electrical engineers were called in, discovering unaccountable surges of current within the system. But where these came from and just how random surges of electrical energy were capable of connecting with the telephonic circuits to dial the speaking clock baffled not only the technicians but everyone else to whom Dr Adam appealed for help over the next few weeks. Neither the efforts of the telephone department, the Siemens works, the Criminal Investigation Department, nor physicists from the Max Planck Institute, who recorded effects, could explain it.
Parapsychologist Professor Hans Bender (1907-1991) was alerted to the case and mounted an investigation as the manifestations extended into directly observable physical happenings. Lights were twisted out of their sockets or seen swinging on their own accord, light bulbs burnt out although not connected, and pictures rotated on their hooks or fell off walls. Most impressive was a heavy filing cabinet, which normally took four people to shift, being propelled 11in (28cm) from its normal position. Both the swinging of lights and the strange movement of a clock were captured on film and, as at Miami, these incidents were meticulously logged, with some 30 witnesses providing statements. The common factor for all incidents was that one female employee was always on the premises. This was an apprentice secretary, Miss Annemarie Schneider, aged 19 years.
Detailed reports issued by the Max Planck Institute and Hans Bender were among the highlights of the Parapsychology Association Conference held at Freiburg the following year. The English psychical researcher Renée Haynes (1906-1994) criticised these reports for focusing on physics rather than Annemarie, complaining: “Unfortunately, almost nothing about her has been made known, except that one of her parents consented to her being treated by a psychiatrist on condition that his report should be kept strictly confidential... Her photograph, reproduced in Dr Bender’s article, shows no more than a short, pleasant, rather shy girl with stout legs and the hesitant beginnings of a smile”. (Renée Haynes in The Seeing Eye,
The swinging movement of lights and the strange movement of a clock were caught on film
The Seeing I, 1976) In fact, we know a little more about Annemarie. Some details of psychological tests undertaken with her hinted at both sexual frustration and suppressed anger. She didn’t display any psychokinetic abilities at Bender’s laboratory, but scored well in ESP tests. Subsequently, when she left the firm after three months, the phenomena ceased entirely.
She was considered to have a transference relationship with her employer Dr Adam, who was a married man with a grown-up son also working at the office (as Arthur Koestler put it in The Challenge
of Chance (1973): “In common parlance she had a crush on the boss”). Annemarie was tracked down by the BBC in 1975 for a television programme, Leap in the
Dark. She now had a son aged two and seemed normal. The programme makers found her a rather “stout, plain girl, with a prematurely aged face” (they refer to her as a girl even though by this stage she was in her late 20s). She told researchers that she had been through a series of jobs afterwards, but her reputation meant that she was dismissed whenever something went wrong at any workplace. She had moved to Munich to escape the taint of the Rosenheim poltergeist, having been branded a witch and viewed in terms that might have been a prototype for Stephen King’s Carrie. No advantage had attached to being the centre of poltergeist activity. She also believed it had negatively impacted on her personal life, causing problems with her fiancé who had been passionately fond of bowling. In the summer of 1969 Annemarie had accompanied him to the bowling ground, and on eight out of 14 occasions the electronic systems went out of order. Perhaps Annemarie got so fed up with her fiancé’s bowling passion that her psychokinetic powers caused the breakdowns to get her lover away from the bowling alley and give her more attention. If so, this psi-disruption failed, for he told her he could not contemplate marriage in the circumstances and the relationship ended.
From what medical details were released, it appears Annemarie suffered hyperæmia (an excess of blood gathering in one place) and attacks of cramp. When stricken, her eyes would glaze over, her fingers and toes would be stretched rigid and muscles in her knees would flex agonisingly. (One is reminded of accounts of observations of physical mediums and accounts of fits and collapses in earlier historic poltergeist cases, often involving listless girls acting as if they were devitalised by the channelling of energy into physical effects).
But the precise nature and origins of the energy were issues the physicists involved were unable to determine; indeed, opinion was divided as to whether a human organism would even be biologically capable of generating such an amount of energy. F Karger of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics and G Zicha, a teacher of physics in a technical high school in Munich who investigated, declared: “Physics... is now confronted with a completely new situation in view of... the inexplicable nature of the phenomena. This is because it has mostly been assumed in the natural sciences that the known physical laws are also valid for describing man so that no new interaction mechanisms need be postulated. It seems… as if the psychokinetic phenomena observed here and elsewhere will make it necessary to introduce a fifth kind of interaction. Since the phenomena only occur in connection with a certain person, physics is presented with the unforeseen possibility of making basic physical discoveries by investigating man.” (Karger and Zicha, 1968, ‘Physical investigation of psychokinetic phenomena in Rosenheim, Germany, 1967’. Papers Presented for the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association. Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene)
Such was the weight of data gathered at Miami and Rosenheim that the paranormality of the disturbances must be considered proven beyond reasonable doubt. Additionally, they even affected
business profits – often the ultimate measure of materialist values! One reason researchers were so successful in gathering evidence was that both poltergeists manifested in workplace environments. This allowed a far greater degree of control and monitoring than in cases arising in domestic dwellings, often occupied by troubled families, beset with multiple problems that preclude effective experimental conditions.
However, it is a curious thing that in the aftermath of Miami and Ronseheim there was a marked disinclination by scientists, whether sceptics or believers, to revisit the findings and think further about the implications. Certainly, the attention which the Rosenheim case received occasioned a temporary shift in public attitudes in West Germany towards the acceptance of psi phenomena, and one newspaper that rashly accused Hans Bender of accepting fraudulent effects had to pay out a substantial sum for defamation (see ‘The Rosenheim Legal Dispute’ by Manfred Cassirer in Journal of Paraphysics 4:3, 1970, translated from Die Welt, 13 April 1970) For a period, poltergeists were treated seriously in the German press. However, this was not a lasting change, and today the German press rarely reports any cases of poltergeists and hauntings (Pers. comm., Ulrich Magin).
Such antipathy may hint at underlying social and psychological issues concerning positive evidence of physical effects. From a research perspective, one problem is that poltergeists, along with many topics in parapsychology, may currently be categorised in terms philosopher Thomas S Kuhn called “preparadigmatic science”. Resources available are small, with spontaneous cases very much the preserve of a large number of individual researchers, each with his/her own methods and sets of findings. The careers of both Hans Bender and William Roll provide examples of how, in the natural course of things, leading researchers die without successors to carry on their work. Many decades can pass before anyone returns to positive findings, if at all. Without a paradigm or reference to earlier results, all kinds of competing alternative theories flourish simultaneously. This has been the fate of Roll’s attempts to test his RSPK hypothesis, figuratively ‘left on the shelf’ after Miami faded from memory by researchers with other ideas about what poltergeists are. But it leaves successors proceeding on a case-bycase basis, not really knowing where they are heading next, both theoretically and geographically. This is one reason why both the Miami and Rosenheim poltergeists should be remembered.
That two well-witnessed poltergeist cases should occur at widely separated locations just months apart is not unusual. For example, the poltergeist at Rerrick in Scotland in 1695 was followed by a dramatic outbreak at a monastery in Naples in 1696. Alan Gauld in Poltergeists (1979) in emphasising the “somewhat striking similarities” between the two commented: “It is almost as though the same demon having completed his commission in Rerrick, and improved his skills in the process, then undertook a fresh assignment in Italy.” Whilst Gauld was simply using the idea of a common demonic entity as a metaphor in describing recurring patterns, some researchers into physical phenomena have had the rather fortean impression that perhaps the same unified force is at work, instigating and manipulating such outbreaks at different locations. Following her experiences in PK testing with psychic Matthew Manning whose powers began with a poltergeist outbreak, Anita Gregory wrote: “The occasions upon which electrical apparatus designed to test me has malfunctioned are too numerous to recall. It is almost as if there is a cosmic joker whose sole job it is to incapacitate researchers’ machinery… At some level we are all part of one another, linked through our unconscious minds. We are all part of every living organism, no matter how small. We are cogs in a cosmic system.” (Anita Gregory (1982) ‘London Experiments With Matthew Manning’, Proc. of the SPR vol.56, 1973-82, pp283-366).
This is an idea that would have appealed to Charles Fort. Notably, the hypothesis of a single cosmic entity or unified force creating separate outbreaks has recently been advanced in Contagion (2014), by Michael Hallowell and Darren Ritson, the investigators of the South Shields case. This had an introduction by the late Colin Wilson, who after salvaging the ‘Black Monk of Poltergeist’ case for posterity, concluded discarnate spirits rather than human psychic powers were at work after all. It is certainly an arresting idea that the victims at Miami and Rosenheim might have been afflicted by phenomena orchestrated by some cosmic ‘Arch-Poltergeist’.
Personally, I doubt this idea, but a phenomenon that repeatedly defies our current understanding of physical reality is doubtless going to contain many surprises. Just exactly where does the energy exerted by poltergeists originate from? Poltergeist effects could very well turn out to have many aspects that will fundamentally challenge our notions of time, space and causation. Rather than a single entity, could there be some unrecognised collective reservoir of energy being tapped by troubled human minds? With current biological and physical knowledge at its limits, scientific consideration here veers off into philosophical speculation. One again, I am reminded of Alexander Pope’s lines: So man who here seems principal alone, Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole. ( Essay on Man)
LEFT: Julio Vasquez, the 19-year-old at the centre of the Miami poltergeist case. ABOVE: Broken objects at the warehouse where Julio worked.
BELOW: Parapsychologist and investigator of the Miami outbreak, William Roll. OPPOSITE: Annemarie Schneider at Dr Adam’s office.
ABOVE: 19-year-old Annemarie Schneider seemed to be the catalyst for phenomena in the Rosenheim case; she is seen here, some years later, in a 1975 BBC television programme.