Closely ob­served poltergeists

ALAN MURDIE re­vis­its two ex­tremely well doc­u­mented polt cases on their 50th an­niver­sary

Fortean Times - - Ghostwatch -

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.

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