Little Heather O’Rourke’s “They’re heeeeeeere,” in Poltergeist is one of the most memorable lines in horror film history.
Characteristics of poltergeist activity include flying objects, unexplained noises, disgusting smells, disembodied voices, opening and closing of doors, and miscellaneous electrical disturbances. In rare cases, victims experience physical assaults.
The term poltergeist, meaning “noisy spirit,” was first used in print by German theologian Martin Luther (1483 – 1546). He considered them the work of the Devil, and until the 19th century, poltergeist activity was blamed on the devil, demons, or witches. When spiritualism came into vogue, poltergeists were associated with mediumship. A popular recent theory connects poltergeist activity with unconscious psychokinesis on the part of a human agent, usually a child or teenager with repressed emotions such as anger, stress, or sexual tension. Whether the person causes the manifestations or is only a magnet for unruly spirit entities is unclear.
Poltergeist type disturbances have been reported since Roman times. German author Jacob Grimm wrote in his 1835 book, Teutonic Mythology, about a case in 355 C.E. in the town of Bingen-am-Rhein, where loud noises and raps were heard, and people were pulled from their beds. Catholic Archdeacon of Brecknock, Giraldus Cambrensis, cited in his Itinerarium Cambriae an incident of ‘unclean spirits’ in the Pembrokeshire, Wales, home of one Stephen Wyrriot, in 1188. These spirits threw dirt and other objects, ripped clothes, and spoke of the secrets of people who were present.
More recently, several compelling cases have been thoroughly documented.
The Bell Witch incident (so-called although no witch was involved) began in 1817 at the Bell farm in Robertson County, Tennessee, and lasted three years. The terrified family heard noises like the gnawing of giant rats, followed by whistling, laughing, and singing by a disembodied voice who reportedly identified herself as ‘Kate Batts’. Strange lights were seen outside the house, furniture was thrown around, and bed clothes were pulled off sleeping family members. Young Elizabeth was slapped, pinched, and had her hair pulled. After Elizabeth’s father, John Bell, died on Dec. 20, 1820, ‘Kate’ claimed she had poisoned him. Elizabeth married in 1821, at which time ‘Kate’ said she would return in seven years. Apparently she did, with some scratching noises and pulling off of bed covers, but after two weeks, the disturbances stopped.
The Amherst Haunting took place in 1878 at the Teed cottage in Amherst, Nova Scotia. Teed’s 19-year-old niece, Esther Cox, awoke screaming one night, her eyes blood-red and popping, her body grotesquely swollen. The swelling subsided, but returned four nights later, when Esther’s bedclothes were torn from her body and thrown across the room. A doctor could find no cause for Esther’s problems, but he did witness a mysteriously puffing pillow, flying plaster, and scratching of writing on Esther’s bedroom wall: “Esther Cox you are mine to kill”. The writing quickly faded, yet the manifestations continued, with the entity who identified himself as ‘Bob’ knocking things around, levitating the family cat, and setting fires in the house. ‘Bob’ even frightened away the local clergyman who came to perform an exorcism. When Esther moved out of the house, ‘Bob’ followed her, setting fire to a barn on the farm where she was working. Poor Esther was arrested for arson and sentenced to four months in prison, but served only one. She eventually married and ‘Bob’ was never heard from again.
The poltergeist phenomenon has inspired numerous films, including: The Haunting (1963), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Changeling (1980), The Entity (1982), The Others (2001), An American Haunting (2006), When the Lights Went Out (2012), and of course the Poltergeist trilogy (1982 – 1988). Watch one the next time you have an evening free – but you had better leave the lights on!