Are these unexplained phenomena troublesome spirits or manifestations of the subconscious mind?
by Louis Proud
The British paranormal experts Colin Wilson and Guy Lyon Playfair have something in common: they both reject the popular and “respectable” theory that poltergeist disturbances are manifestations of the unconscious mind, viewing them instead as destructive and mischievous nonphysical entities, or spirits. Unscientific and sensational though the spirit hypothesis may sound, it seems to make far more sense than the unconscious mind theory, at least as far as Wilson and Playfair are concerned.
Considering that poltergeist disturbances have been recorded for more than a thousand years, coupled with the fact that eminent scientists have been studying them for about a century, it might strike the reader as surprising that the phenomenon remains a mystery to this day.
As regards major scientific studies of the poltergeist, William Roll’s The Poltergeist (1972) is among the most significant. Roll, a psychologist and parapsychologist of some note, classifies poltergeist activity as a form of “recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis” (RSPK), noting that most cases involve a psychologically disturbed individual, usually a pubescent child, around whom most of the paranormal activity takes place. This person is usually called the focus. According to Roll, because the incidents occur around a living person, there is no reason to assume that nonphysical entities are responsible. “It is easier to suppose that the central person is himself the source of the PK energy,” he explains. In other words, the focus’s unconscious mind is behind the phenomenon.
According to Wilson, however, proponents of the unconscious mind theory, such as Roll, fail to explain “why poltergeist effects are so much more powerful than the kind of psychokinesis that has been studied in the laboratory.”
Wilson was once a supporter of the unconscious mind theory. That all changed in 1968, however, when he met Playfair at a conference center in Derbyshire, England, where he had been invited to give a lecture on the paranormal. Playfair was one of Wilson’s fellow speakers. Because Wilson had made plans to visit a poltergeist investigation following the conference, he asked Playfair, casually, what he thought poltergeists might be.
The answer he received astonished him. Playfair told Wilson that he thought poltergeists were “a kind of football.” Wilson describes the rest of this conversation in his own words: “‘Football!’ I wondered if I’d misheard him: ‘A football of energy. When people get into conditions of tension, they exude a kind of energy, the kind of thing that happens to teenagers at puberty. Along come a couple of spirits, and they do what any group of schoolboys would do: they begin to kick it around, smashing windows and generally creating havoc. Then they get tired and leave it. In fact the football often explodes and turns into a puddle of water.’”
Wilson was, at first, critical of Playfair’s theory, viewing it as crude and superstitious. But when he arrived in Pontefract the following afternoon, at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Prichard, the location of the poltergeist investigation, he was forced to reconsider his opinion.
The Pontefract Poltergeist
The first manifestations of the Pontefract poltergeist haunting occurred in 1966, then ceased two days later. When the disturbances began again in 1968, Mr. and Mrs. Prichard’s daughter, Diane, then aged 14, was clearly the focus.
When the poltergeist first arrived, small pools of water began to appear on the kitchen floor. According to Mrs. Prichard, they were “neat little pools—like overturning an ink bottle.” Wilson was, of course, astonished when he heard this comment during his interview with the Prichards, as it seemed to corroborate Playfair’s “footballs of energy” theory. “I began to feel that there might be something in the spirit theory after all,” he explains.
Playfair told Wilson that the pools of water left by the poltergeist were impossible to make by pouring water onto the floor, as splashing would result. “These pools,” says Wilson, “look as if a small cat has placed its behind close to the floor and urinated.”
As soon as they were mopped up, the pools of water reappeared elsewhere. And when water board officials arrived to search for a leak, none was found. Not only did green foam spurt out of the tap when it was turned on, lights in the house began to switch on and off of their accord, and a potted plant situated at the bottom of the stairs somehow found its way to the top of the stairs. These events occurred in 1966, when the Prichards’ other child, Phillip, then aged 15, was clearly the focus, as Diane was away on holiday when they took place.
When Diane became the focus in 1968, few disturbances occurred during the day while she was at school. During the evenings, however, all hell would break loose. There would be loud drumming noises; ornaments would levitate around the room; furniture would be thrown around, often smashed. On one occasion the hall stand, made of heavy oak, floated through the air, landing on Diane and pinning her to the stairs. Although Diane was unharmed (in fact, not even bruised), moving the object proved to be something of an ordeal, as the family was unable to budge it on their own.
Wilson observes that the ghost seemed to have a sense of humor. On one occasion, for instance, in true slapstick fashion, a jug of milk floated out of the refrigerator and poured itself over the head of Aunt Maude, who, it should be noted, had earlier revealed her skepticism of the poltergeist’s existence.
Later on, Aunt Maude’s fur gloves appeared around the door, looking like two giant, sinister hands. What happened next is best described in Wilson’s own words: “As the gloves floated into the bedroom Mrs. Prichard asked indignantly, ‘Do you still think it’s the kids doing it?’ Aunt Maude burst into ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and the gloves proceeded to conduct her singing, beating in time.” The poltergeist, it seems, wanted to change Aunt Maude from a skeptic to a believer in the most humorous way possible.
Perhaps the most frightening and dramatic incident was when the poltergeist dragged Diane up the stairs. It appeared to have one hand around her throat and the other hand on her cardigan. As soon as Phillip and Mrs. Prichard grabbed Diane, the poltergeist let go, and they all tumbled down the stairs. According to Mrs. Prichard, shortly after the incident took place, she found the hall carpet soaked with water and marked by large footprints.
Later on, the poltergeist, whom the Prichards named “Mr. Nobody,” began to manifest physically, appearing as a tall figure dressed in a monk’s habit, with the cowl over its head. One day Phillip and Diane saw it disappear into the kitchen floor. From that point on the disturbances ceased completely.
A friend of Wilson’s discovered that there had once been a gallows on the site of the Prichard’s house, and that a Cluniac monk, convicted of rape, had been hanged there during the time of Henry VIII. The Pontefract case, says Wilson, “left me in no possible doubt that the entity known as Mr. Nobody was a spirit—in all probability of some local monk who died a sudden and violent death, perhaps on the gallows, and who might or might not be aware that he was dead.”
This entity, insists Wilson, which seemed to have more in common with a ghost than a poltergeist, could not have been a product of Diane’s unconscious mind, as the behavior it displayed, such as pulling Diane violently up the stairs, was individualistic in nature. If, after all, a fragment of Diane’s psyche really did split off, then why would it take on the form of a monk, of all things? And why, moreover, would Diane want to unconsciously create something, in this case a poltergeist, to scare and torment not only her family but also herself? The question as to why her unconscious mind would want to destroy almost every piece of furniture in the house also begs an answer.
Accepting the existence of spirits, says Wilson, “is an embarrassing admission to have to make. With the exception of Guy Playfair there is probably not a single respectable parapsychologist in the world who will publicly admit the existence of spirits.”
The eminent psychologist Carl Jung stated in a letter that he thought the spirit hypothesis explained mediumship and other types of metaphysical phenomena far better than the unconscious mind theory. He did not make this admission in any of his published works, however, possibly for fear of ridicule. In this letter, Jung mentions that he had a discussion with the distinguished American psychical researcher James Hyslop, an ardent supporter of the spirit hypothesis, who wrote in Life After Death, “Any man who does not accept the existence of discarnate spirits and the proof of it is either ignorant or a moral coward.” In regards to his discussion with Hyslop, Jung writes: “And here, on the basis of my own experience, I am bound to concede he is right. In each individual case I must of necessity be skeptical, but in the long run I have to admit that the spirit hypothesis yields better results in practice than any other.”
How did Playfair arrive at the conclusion that poltergeists are spirits, or, as he likes to put it, “footballs of energy”? To answer this question we need to explore his background.
Guy Lyon Playfair
Playfair developed an interest in psychical research in 1972 while living in Rio de Janeiro, where he worked as a teacher and freelance journalist. One of his neighbors, the American actor Larry Carr, invited him to a session of psychic surgery conducted by a healer named Edivaldo Oliveira Silva. The experience piqued his curiosity. Over the course of a year or so, Playfair witnessed Edivaldo perform innumerable operations, and soon became convinced that his psychic healing powers were genuine. A psychic operation carried out by Edivaldo on Playfair helped to ease a stomach complaint he suffered from.
Wanting to learn more about psychic phenomena, Playfair began attending Spiritist sessions. He also became a member of the Brazilian institute for Psychobiophysical Research (IBPP), founded by the pioneering parapsychologist Hernani Andrade, who died in 2003.
In 1973 Playfair investigated his first poltergeist case. The family, a divorcée and her two children were troubled by the strange disturbances in their home, which had been occurring for about six years. The poltergeist produced loud bangs and crashes, set their clothes on fire, and threw furniture around. The disturbances had started as soon as the son of the family had married a girl named Nora, leading the family to believe that they had become the victims of a black magic trabalho (work or job).
As Playfair explains in his book The Indefinite Boundary, the practice of black magic is rife in Brazil, as it is home to many African-influenced cults, two of the biggest being Candomblé and Umbanda, which originated among freed African slaves in the 1830s, and which, moreover, have their roots in voodoo.
There was plenty of evidence to suggest that someone had been working a black magic trabalho against the family. For instance, a spirit offering, consisting of bottles, candles, and cigars, was found in the family’s garden. Also found on the premises were photographs of a girl with stitches through it, a sign of black magic. The family, it turns out, had many enemies, any one of whom could have organized the trabalho. One of the many suspects was a supposed former lover of Nora’s, who may have borne a grudge against her and her husband.
Here in the West we regard such matters as superstitious nonsense. But in numerous other cultures throughout the world the existence of spirits and other supernatural beings is accepted as an irrefutable fact.
The late Hernani Andrade, who once called black magic “a really serious social problem in Brazil,” is quoted as saying: “In every case of person-directed poltergeist activity where I have been able to study the family background, there has been evidence that somebody in the house could be the target of revenge from a spirit… Any Brazilian is well aware that this country is full of backyard terreiros (black magic centers) where people use spirit forces for evil purposes… To produce a successful poltergeist all you need is a group of bad spirits prepared to do your work for you, for a suitable reward, and a susceptible victim who is insufficiently developed spiritually to be able to resist.”
A suitable reward, according to Playfair, might include some of the following: “A good square meal, a drink of the best cachaca rum, a fine cigar, and perhaps even sexual relations with an incarnate being.” In Brazil, says Playfair, even the poorest of the poor will quite happily lay out a magnificent banquet as payment to a spirit, or group of spirits, for doing them a favor.
Luckily, in Brazil, to get rid of curses, and therefore banish evil spirits like poltergeists, all one has to do is procure the services of a Candomblé master (or the master of some other voodoo-like cult). In the aforementioned case involving Nora, the Candomblé master who eventually arrived at the scene, along with his team of assistants, performed various exorcism rites that appeared to be successful. An earlier attempt to exorcize the poltergeist, which was carried out by the IBPP’s poltergeist-clearance team of mediums, was only partially successful, in that the disturbances ceased for two weeks, then began again. The team of mediums had apparently asked their spirit guides to persuade the poltergeist to leave.
Playfair was a member of the IBPP from 1973 to 1975, during which time he was heavily influenced by the psychical theories of Hernani Andrade, the institute’s founder. Andrade was a devout Spiritist. Spiritism is a philosophical doctrine much akin to Spiritualism that began in France during the mid-19th century. It later spread to other parts of the world, Brazil in particular, where today it has around one million followers.
The French educationalist and respected intellectual Denizard-Hyppolyte-Leon Rivail, commonly known as Allan Kardec, the founder of Spiritism, compiled a series of books known as the Spiritist Codification containing the fundamentals of this spiritual and philosophical system. He gained his information from a series of dialogues between himself and a group of what he believed were highly evolved spirits. Many different mediums, most of whom were automatic writers, were used to facilitate these innumerable question and answer sessions, as Rivail himself did not possess mediumistic powers. Rivail did not collect all of this information himself, however. Some of it was taken from automatic scripts that had been given to him by other investigators, people who claimed to be in touch with the same group of highly evolved spirits.
This material had a life-changing affect on Rivail, as the following remark, which he allegedly made to his wife, clearly reveals: “My conversations with the invisible intelligences have completely revolutionized my ideas and convictions. The instructions thus transmitted constitute an entirely new theory of human life, duty, and destiny, that appears to me to be perfectly rational and coherent, admirably lucid and consoling, and intensely interesting.”
The first book of the Spiritist Codification, called the The Spirits’ Book (1856), proved to be immensely popular, so popular in fact that a second edition of the book, containing additional material, was printed the following year, while “Allan Kardec” became a household name all over France. (This pseudonym, claims Rivail, was chosen by the group of spirits from whom he received his communications.)
The Spirits’ Book is an attempt to answer many of the big questions, for it deals with subjects like the nature of God, the purpose of life, the origin of spirits, human ethics, the afterlife, and spiritual evolution. It cannot be denied that the information it contains possesses an impressive inner consistency, and that much food for thought can be found within its pages
When it comes to poltergeists, The Spirits’ Book has some interesting things to say, as does its sequel, The Mediums’ Book (1861). Much of what is written in these books concerning the poltergeist has a ring of plausibility to it. Poltergeists are classified as “imperfect spirits,” and are said to be trapped in materiality. They are the least spiritually evolved of the three different classes. Some imperfect spirits are downright evil and dangerous. Others are boisterous, noisy, and mischievous. And it is in this latter category that poltergeists best belong, for very few of them actually harm their victims.
In chapter 5 of The Mediums’ Book an in-depth explanation of the poltergeist is given. The person around whom the disturbances take place (the focus) is described as being an “unconscious medium,” in the sense that their presence is necessary for the poltergeist to manifest itself. Considering that poltergeists are said to make use of the focus’s energy (called “animalized fluid”) without their realization or consent, it would not be unreasonable to classify them as a type of vampire. If the focus manages to bring their mediumistic powers under control, then it’s likely the disturbances will cease.
If the above is true, then it seems that Roll was partially correct when he wrote: “It is easier to suppose that the central person is himself the source of the PK energy.” True, they seem to be the source, but are they the whole cause? Playfair and Wilson would certainly disagree.
Louis Proud is an Australian writer/researcher whose work has appeared in New Dawn Magazine and The Australasian Ufologist.