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Sunday 9 November 2014

"Australian Poltergeist" : a Review

 Tony Healy and Paul Cropper, Australian Poltergeist,  Strange Nation, 2014

     You can stay overnight in an allegedly haunted house, set up all your equipment and, if you are lucky, the ghost - assuming there are such things - may turn up. Or it may not. Ghosts are fickle and unreliable things. However, there is one paranormal phenomenon which is not at all shy, but is happy to perform, loudly and boisterously, in broad daylight in front of any number of witnesses. I am speaking, of course, of poltergeists.
     The phenomenon definitely exists. Not only that, but it is relatively common - probably the most common of all paranormality. A thing can be relatively common and still remain socially invisible if people don't talk about it. If every poltergeist manifestation were reported in the local press, you would be absolutely amazed at how frequently it occurs.
     More to the point, because of its propensity for high profile performance, it is eminently studiable. So why isn't it being studied by the scientific establishment?
     For a long time it has been noted that poltergeists tend to focus on a particular individual, especially an adolescent, with the result that many people now attribute it, not to discarnate spirits, but to RSPK: recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis. "The truth, of course," stated the arch-debunker, D. H. Rawcliffe in The Psychology of the Occult (1952), is that the adolescent girl or boy is solely responsible for the production of poltergeist phenomena; in almost every case which has been completely investigated, the poltergeist activity has ended in the child being caught red-handedly in trickery." He didn't, himself, provide any examples, but nevertheless, we will agree that this is a testable hypothesis. However, a moment's consideration will reveal that, if true, this would simply replace a paranormal mystery with a psychological mystery. Psychological aberrations rarer than this are regularly researched, so why doesn't anybody investigate? "Let's totally ignore the poltergeist phenomenon," seems to be the motto of official science.
     That's why I'd like to introduce you to a new book by the team that gave you the cryptozoological classics, Out of the Shadows and The Yowie (the latter still in print). And for starters, I shall quote the first two paragraphs, next to a photo of Paul gazing up at a moving overhead fan.
     A sudden, sharp clatter, like a flurry of hail on the corrugated iron roof, caused Paul, in the kitchen below, to glance upwards. As he did so, a dozen grey pebbles cascaded onto the linoleum at his feet. It was as if they'd passed straight through both roof and ceiling without leaving a mark. Kirsty and Jill, standing just in front of him, looked up, laughed wearily and exclaimed, "Well - here we go again!"
    For the next five days we dodged pebbles, knives, chunks of broken glass and a variety of other objects that seemed to appear out of nowhere, dropping or flying horizontally, banging into walls and floors both inside and outside the weirdly beleaguered dwelling.
     Think about it! These two have spent the better part of their adult lives following up reports of mystery animals, but have never, to my knowledge, seen a yowie or a black panther. But now they found themselves in the middle of a poltergeist manifestation. The lucky so-and-sos!
     Thus begins the account of their own investigation of the manifestation at Humpty Doo, a name most of us have heard, but which belongs to a place too small to appear on any but the most detailed maps. In fact, it is 40 km from Darwin and, as it turns out, just a hop, skip, and jump from the site of a yowie encounter they also wanted to investigate. Talk about serendipity! But the phenomenon had already been investigated by three priests, the press, and a television crew, so we don't have to rely simply on the reports of this dynamic duo.
     To list all the weird phenomena recorded in their 45 page summary of the case would be beyond the scope of this short review. The household consisted of two couples, their male friend, and a 10-month-old baby. Unlike most cases, no obvious human focus could be discovered. Although Kirsty, the mother of the baby, tended to get more attention than most, the poltergeist would perform even in her absence. Indeed, it did its stuff when no-one but the television crew were in the house.
     The background phenomenon was the fall of pebbles, taken from the driveway, usually in the house, from the ceiling, with no possible way they could have got there. At times the pebbles were arranged in neat lines to form words. In addition, there were innumerable other objects moving through the air - sometimes thrown at speed, sometimes preternaturally slowly, at times changing direction in flight, or hovering, or suddenly appearing where they had never been before.
     Three priests came to exorcise it. Of course, they failed. Poltergeists cannot be exorcized. The first one had a knife flung straight at him, only to halt half a metre from his chest as if it had struck a barrier, and then fell to the floor. The second left his crucifix and bible behind, only to have the poltergeist delight in throwing them around. Indeed, they discovered the best way to get the polt to put on a display was to read from the psalms.
     There were two other aspects of the case worthy of mention. The first was that, when dangerous objects such as knives and shards of glass were thrown, they never hit anybody, and the baby's room was always left undisturbed. This is typical of poltergeists, although there are exceptions - some recorded in the book; whatever the phenomenon may be, it is mischievous, but very rarely malicious.
     The second was something Harry Price mentioned in Poltergeist Over England (1945): you almost never see a thrown object begin its trajectory. He himself recorded how once - when he was investigating Eleonore Zugun - he got a funny feeling, and spun around abruptly, only to see a cushion sink softly off a chair or sofa. He suspected he had caught the poltergeist just as it was about to make its move. In this case, the Channel 7 camera crew watched poltergeist activity wild and furious, but it played hide and seek with the camera. On one occasion they set up a camera, but in 100 hours of filming the only object to move was a baby's bottle. They got it in flight, but not the start of its movement, which occurred precisely during the space of two frames when a person had walked in front of the camera. (And, in case you are wondering, that person could not have moved it, for it was six metres away.) Less than a minute later, a piece of glass fell beside the cameraman just as he was changing the tape. Another time, a spanner came out of an empty room, and neither of the cameras covering the space it must have passed through recorded it.
    So they got cunning. They got everybody out of the house, set five cameras rolling inside, and then departed, locking all the doors.
No prizes for guessing what happened next: for hour after hour the cameras recorded a whole lot of nothing until the battery-expired signals went off. Then, as the duty cameraman walked to the house with new batteries, his exasperated but amused mates, sitting on the patio, would hear a tattoo of whacks as objects careened around the interior. Messages: "NO CAMERAS", "NO TV" and "PIG CAMERA" appeared on walls and floors to taunt them. [p 19]
    Just the same, it was possible to take thermal photographs of thrown objects after they had landed. Instead of displaying thermal fingerprints of the hand which had cast them, they were warm all over.
    One last thing: after the investigation, Paul contacted the Sydney branch of Australian Skeptics and offered to speak at their gathering. They weren't interested. (Paul talks about the adventure here.)

    Another person the Skeptics - this time in Canberra - weren't interested in hearing from was "Caressa", the haunted harlot, but her experiences were fully documented by outsiders. It is generally considered that people who serve as foci for poltergeists are undergoing emotional turmoil. Most commonly they are adolescents, but I suspect that a prostitute's life is not one conductive to peace of mind. Although she apparently entered the trade willingly, she eventually committed suicide. In the meantime, a poltergeist followed her around into every place where she worked, as well as to her hairdresser's. One interesting episode is reminiscent of "pixilation", which I have previously speculated may be related to the poltergeist phenomenon. A client called Ray suddenly realised he had locked his keys in his truck. Not to worry! "Caressa" asked "Matt" (her name for the spirit) to retrieve them, and they suddenly dropped out of nowhere onto the bedroom floor.

    The authors consider the infestations recorded in the second chapter: those at Mayanup, Pumphrey and Boyup Brook during 1955-57 to be, if anything, even more compelling than that at Humpty Doo. In this case, poltergeists spread from one Aboriginal camp to another in a manner analogous to infection ie a person who visited site A too often or too long would return to site B, and the phenomena would start up there while still continuing at site A. And, it is important to note, we are not talking about naked savages in gunyahs in the bush, but semi-permanent station hands - fringe dwellers - living in simple cottages or tents.
     Here we had everything a researcher could hope for: multiple witnesses, multiple investigators, large numbers of onlookers, stones thrown when the site was clear for hundreds of yards around, very large stones falling in slow motion, pebbles falling through the fabric of tents without damaging it, pebbles falling inside moving cars, sudden tinkles announcing that a pebble had appeared inside a hurricane lamp, objects appearing and disappearing, and many more. One family half-jokingly attributed the phenomena, which would perform tricks on demand, to an eccentric deceased relative known as "Uncle Bob".
     Another of "Uncle Bobby's" tricks would make him popular with anybody: once, when Leila and Harvey returned from a shopping trip, the exact sum of money they'd just spent in the Boyup Brook bakery dropped, out of nowhere, onto the kitchen table. [p 77]
    I shall resist the temptation to fill this review with a summary of every amazing case recorded. The first eleven chapters describe in detail the eleven most dramatic and best documented cases. The following chapter summarises all 52 cases - including the original eleven - in the authors' catalogue, dating from 1845 up to 1998. How they managed to compile them all, mostly from old newspapers, is beyond me. Even the online resources of Trove would be of limited use, for the number of key words available is extremely limited. It must have been a prodigious task.
     By no means uncritical, the authors finish each case history with a full list of sources and their own critical analysis. Each case comes with a star rating ranging from five (absolutely spot on) down to zero (proved, or strongly suspected to have been a hoax). The zero ones were usually external stone throwing in an urban setting. Contrary to what Mr Rawcliffe would have us believe, the number of people caught red-handedly hoaxing poltergeist manifestations around the world is extremely low.
     Poltergeists are not as variable as (say) flying saucers. Australia is obviously a centre for stone-throwing poltergeists, as well as thumps on the wall which sound to those inside as coming from outside, and the opposite to those on the outside. But you cannot disclaim, "If you've read one poltergeist story you've read them all." There are cases where the manifestation took place in an isolated ruined building, and another in an open field. Another was apparently the activities of the deceased former resident of the home, who threw fruit at the modern inhabitants, and was seen by two of them. There are records of levitating objects, electrical appliances malfunctioning, and of poltergeists who communicated with, and even spoke to, the victims. One weird case involved a haunted milking machine, which the farmer and his engineer assumed was the result of a mysterious new energy source, but which a professional magician attributed to a supernatural agency.
     Chapter 13 is entitled, "Rapping it up", in which the evidence is analysed. Then follows three appendices. "A" describes three fire-bug poltergeists which Paul personally investigated, apparently as an unpaid, roving correspondent for Fortean Times (where did he find the time?): one in Malaysia, one in Vietnam, and one in Turkey. Appendix "B" records three instances, admittedly each on the testimony of only a single witness, of people who were able to conjure up poltergeist phenomena on command. This was followed by a report of some people who were subject to poltergeist attacks after ridiculing a South African witchdoctor. It should be pointed out, however, that there was nothing but a temporal connection between the two.
     In their previous, cryptozoological works, the authors displayed a difference of opinion. Paul considers mystery animals to be flesh and blood; Tony suspects a paranormal connection. In this field, Paul adopts the standard RSPK theory of poltergeists. However, Tony is more attune to the idea of discarnate spirits, and in Appendix "C" he attempts to link them to a whole range of paranormal and anomalous phenomena. (In one case, a yowie was involved.) While his speculations may appear somewhat wild, it must be remembered that all known natural laws are interconnected, so we should not be surprised if the same goes for as-still-unknown laws.

     You can find many popular books on Australian ghosts. Mostly they copy one another and other secondary sources, and are as uncritical as they are undocumented. However, this is the only work I know which comprehensively covers fully documented Australian poltergeists. Even if you are not an Australian, you will find this an excellent introduction to the subject.
     In addition to 292 pages of text, there is a two page bibliography, apart from the citations after every case history, plus a 6 page index. This is a print-on-demand book, which means that it will probably be around for some time. It can be ordered online, particularly at Amazon, but it cannot be ordered through regular bookstores. This is a pity, because it means you have to know about it before you can order it. I am old fashioned enough to believe that people can hear about a good book if they see it on the shelf of a bookstore, and can scan through it to evaluate its worth. Unfortunately, such books tend to end up being remaindered fairly early, at least in Australia. Hopefully, a method will be found to get the best of both worlds. In the meantime, you now know about the book, so buy it!

1 comment:

  1. One's been chasing us for 3 years.