Christopher Laursen is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia whose dissertation focuses on poltergeist phenomena. I first met him at the Parapsychological Association’s 2012 conference, and have been glad that his web magazine, the Extraordinarium, has allowed me to continue following developments in his research over the past few years. His PhD dissertation, titled Mischievous Forces, looks at the shifting perspectives on poltergeist phenomena in the 20th century, focusing on changing research paradigms in the United States and UK during this period. It’s with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview him via email regarding his work and recent developments in his studies, including an online survey of people who have experienced purported poltergeist phenomena (Click Here to take the survey).
DM: What is a poltergeist? How accurate is what we see in the popular media?
CL: Poltergeist refers to a strange phenomenon in which there are unusual noises, such as knocking or scratching sounds, and movements of objects, as if they were displaced or thrown by an invisible being. There can be spontaneous fires and appearances of liquids or objects among other things. These manifestations happen repeatedly, but they tend to be time-limited. They start happening out of the blue, and then just as mysteriously, they tend to disappear a month or two later. Sometimes the anomalous phenomenon lasts just a few days, and I’ve also seen reports in which manifestations stretch across years. It is something that has been recorded as early as the fourth century, and it is likely to have been experienced even earlier in history. Furthermore, the phenomenon has occurred all around the world, albeit under different names and interpretations that are culturally specific.
The historical reports I have read certainly have had their share of strange moments, but most of them are a catalogue of relatively mundane anomalous events. The tea cup slides three inches across the countertop. A bar of soap bends around a corner to fly from the kitchen shelf into the living room. A woman enters her bedroom to find the curtains aflame. Three knocks are heard from the ceiling at 11:40 p.m., but no one is upstairs. There isn’t anywhere near the level of paranormal fury that has been depicted in most TV shows and movies.
This isn’t to say that anomalous events do not bring tension to those who experience them; emotions and anxieties are heightened in many cases since no one really knows what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. In other cases, people are simply fascinated by these events.
The German word poltergeist combines poltern (to make a loud noise or uproar) and geist (a ghost). The word has been in circulation since the sixteenth century, first referenced by the Christian reformist Martin Luther, who the ecclesiastical historian David V.N. Bagchi has written on at some length. Dr. Bagchi shows that Luther was creating a taxonomy of different supernatural beings, including the troublesome poltergeists, which, intriguingly, were also called Rottengeister by revolting Sacramentarian peasants who resisted both Roman Catholic and Lutheran authority, people Luther would have considered rather disruptive themselves. Maybe there’s a parallel or a relationship there, between living resistors and demonic or restless spirits.1
After Catherine Crowe’s 1848 book The Night Side of Nature introduced the word poltergeist to English-speaking readers, psychical researchers adopted the term to discuss the phenomenon. From what I can tell, it was ghost hunter Harry Price who popularized the word through the British press who he invited to investigate poltergeist cases such as the Romanian girl Eleonore Zugun (1926) and the Battersea poltergeist (1928). From then on, it has become a common way of describing this ghostly, physical phenomenon.2
I suppose I haven’t really answered your question directly. What is a poltergeist? I have to level with you, David. I’ve been studying the poltergeist as a doctoral student of history for years now, and I don’t know what the phenomenon actually is. Mind you, I’m not trying to explain the poltergeist. As a historian, that’s not my goal. I take a methodologically agnostic approach to this topic. It is not its reality or non-reality that concerns me, but rather how people have experienced these anomalous events, how others intervene, and how ideas emerge from that. From historical records, it is obvious that people have experienced this strange physical phenomenon. How they deal with something so elusive is what fascinates me most.
Even the best poltergeist researchers have only been able to offer hypotheses as to what might cause it. I know people experience this phenomenon, yet in historical documentation, it is rare to read about their point of view. So a significant part of my research project is to speak with and correspond with people who experienced the phenomenon for themselves, to get their point of view.
DM: How common are poltergeist experiences from what you've seen with your research?
CL: A colleague of mine, the Australian poltergeist researcher Paul Cropper, has been investigating the phenomenon outside of the Euro-American sphere, in places such as Malaysia, Turkey, South Africa, and Jamaica, and each of these cultures has their own set of explanations for the phenomenon. He finds several reports of this type of phenomenon from all corners of the world every month, sometimes a few per week. With the help of online search tools that scan the world’s newspapers, one can seek out the cases on a global scale these days.
When I look at the historically documented records I have collected mainly between Britain and the United States from the 1930s to the 1990s, it varies. In 1966, I see I have 15 cases noted. In 1979, I have eight. In 1982, 15. In 1988, six. What I have been analyzing so far are about 300 British and American cases documented in the archives from between 1930 and 1990, and there are more that were published in peer-reviewed journals, the media, and in books as well. Poltergeist researchers always suspect that most poltergeists go unreported. I think they’re right about that. There are far more occurring than we will ever know about, and most are probably very weak or minor in scope, lasting a very brief period, or resulting in very minor manifestations that remain as part of family lore, and nothing more.
DM: Tell us about your current survey of “Moving Objects.”
CL: As mentioned, it is rare to actually gain the perspective of those people who have experienced these types of manifestations. I am seeking people who have experienced it first hand for my historical research project. The question is simply “Did you experience a poltergeist?”
I define a poltergeist as any combination of the following things:
- Strange, unexplainable sounds
- Objects that apparently moved on their own, for example sliding across surfaces or flying through the air
- Spontaneous fires or appearances of liquid
I clarify, “Other types of events may have been experienced as well. Note: These things must have happened REPEATEDLY and over a LIMITED PERIOD OF TIME (for example, a few weeks or months, occasionally longer).”
I have a contact form online that people can fill out, and then I reply, and correspond with these individuals confidentially. If they wish, they may remain anonymous in any research I publish based on their experiences.
A few years back, I did a preliminary collection of these experiences, and so far two people have completed the questionnaire. I am hoping that more will contribute over the summer. This will really help bring forth how people have experienced the phenomenon and how it impacted their lives – whether it brought difficulties, or if they just carried on as usual, or even if somehow what happened empowered them, or broadened their perspective of the world in which they live. I want to try and understand what circumstances inspired the variety of responses and impacts in ways that haven’t really been talked about in historical studies.
DM:How did you get into this line of research? Have your interests changed over the years as you've explored deeper?
CL: I have had an ongoing variety of extraordinary experiences in my life, and since I was quite young, I shared those with members of my family who also had extraordinary things happen to them. So I’ve always been interested in how metaphysical issues intersect spontaneously with one’s everyday life. I am most interested in how the average person is going about their day and then suddenly something very unusual happens that takes them aback, makes them reconsider what the world is about. As a graduate student, I have always chosen these spontaneous, extraordinary incidents that occur to people without warning. The poltergeist extends from that.
Even before I was a teenager, I was fascinated by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, and the Czech writer Franz Kafka. They were all stories about the extraordinary unfolding in ways that shocked and taught people profound lessons, moments and circumstances that surreally disrupted their worldviews and involuntarily lead them to unreal possibilities. It was around this time that I delved into my rural school library’s (and later my town library’s) decent collection of books about ghosts, unidentified flying objects, and extra-sensory perception. Luckily for me, the 1970s and 1980s produced a boon of quality books on supernatural topics that rode on the popularity of parapsychology, transformative psychical experiences, and poltergeists. Some of the books provided insightful overviews of the studies of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), a British organization that sought to evaluate telepathy, survival after death, and other metaphysical possibilities. Larry Kettlekamp’s Mischievous Ghosts, which inspired the title of my dissertation, covered poltergeists and their psychokinetic potential in language that kids could understand.
There is quite a bit of continuity in that sense, but graduate school has certainly changed how I see the world.
DM: How does engaged research in these areas change your own worldview?
CL: In graduate school, I’ve been exposed to so many fascinating thinkers, and from that my worldview expanded and also been refined. Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour, for example, questioning the machinations of power around the making of knowledge has drawn me to think more on how our ideas come to be what they are, and how knowledge shifts and reforms over time. Reflexivity has become a central tool in this study, although not everyone likes to question where their ideas came from. I was doing a presentation on ghost photographs in Dingle, Ireland, back in 2010, and one image was of the Wem “ghost,” proven to be a clever manipulation using a historic postcard.3 One of the people in audience asked why I was questioning such things. Why can’t we just accept the photograph as a ghost? For me, this reflexive process does not close any doors on wondrous things, but it does enable an important critical approach to how people present evidence, such as photographs, audio-video recordings, or technical measurements. I make an effort to balance open-minded, empathetic, agnostic, and skeptical approaches. The middle ground enables me to bring together a wider range of possibilities, I think – whatever has been experienced or what people’s ideas are.
DM:What is your take on the tenor of the study of the extraordinary at the moment? What has historians buzzing?
CL: For me, the buzz is around the annual conference series Exploring the Extraordinary. It was started seven years ago by Hannah Gilbert, Madeleine Castro, and Nicola Holt who were all postgraduate students of the Anomalous Experiences Research Unit at the University of York in England at the time. I have attended two of these conferences, most recently in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – the first conference held in the U.S., with more American conferences planned for the coming years. I met George Hansen there, and his 2001 book The Trickster and the Paranormal, I think, presaged the current interdisciplinary mood that has since emerged in these studies. Even Jeffrey Kripal referenced it at length in his new textbook Comparing Religions. Hansen’s book is required reading as he brings together significant threads between supernatural experiences and ideas, and broader philosophical, scientific, and parapsychological studies. The historians of religion Jeffrey Kripal and Ann Taves have been leaders in interdisciplinary thinking on extraordinary experiences, and people like Jack Hunter (Paranthropology), B.D. Mitchell (Beyond Borderlands), Andreas Sommer (Forbidden Histories), Erika Pratte (Journal of Exceptional Experiences and Psychology), and yourself David are among this new wave of scholars/thinkers/writers who are putting interdisciplinarity into practice in various ways. Exploring the Extraordinary is perhaps the perfect gathering interdisciplinary place, because there is no judgement, and the conference podium is shared between scholars, skeptics, and experients alike.
DM: Do you think that these areas are becoming more integrated into the culture?
CL: Maybe so! The digital age is revolutionizing access to these topics like never before, but there needs to be more outreach to the public. I’m not sure about paranormal culture right now. Most people still seem to be clinging onto belief/disbelief dichotomies in social media and on websites, and there are a lot of egos attached to these debates. Television and news media too often perpetuates that dichotomy. It’s like a dog chasing its tail, and it’s not all that productive. I’d like to think that there are educational projects that are taking the high road and that over time, people will discover them and that it will make a difference in how the public thinks about extraordinary experiences and studies into them. I guess we’ll see how it unfolds.
Everyone who is interested in the paranormal should read the magazine Fortean Times. I think that is such a central and entertaining place to bridge sharing and thinking on a variety of anomalous experiences. Heck, anyone can get that magazine nowadays, even sample issues for free on an iPad or e-reader. It’s such an excellent starting point in thinking about the paranormal in greater ways on a monthly basis. I think it strikes a chord with paranormal enthusiasts and critical thinkers alike.
DM: How does historical work integrate with field and lab research?
CL: From what I’ve gathered, there are ongoing tensions between historical analyses and the studies of psi phenomena (and science in general). I hear occasional complaints that historians get it wrong, but these are usually issued over contested factual details. I’m concerned that there is a rift between historical analysis and its value to today’s researchers. Researchers can benefit from historical thinking on how the making of scientific knowledge is a dynamic process that involves a lot of people with different points of view, methodologies, and interpretations. And historians can benefit from seeking ways to reach out more to active research communities. I like Jeffrey Kripal’s approach that historians should be working with psychical researchers and scientists to write better histories and do better field and lab research. I would add experients to the mix – the very people who experience the anomalies. It’s all a work in progress. We all have something to learn from one another. I prefer a hands-on approach to make this happen, which may not work for all historians or researchers, but it certainly has been working well for me and many of those I’ve been interacting with.
DM: How has running the Extraordinarium website helped in your research?
CL: I started ">Extraordinarium as a way to write about the extraordinary in broader ways – both experiences and studies of the extraordinary. It’s a collection of occasional papers and interviews that I conduct that don’t otherwise fit into my writing projects that end up published elsewhere. It remains a rather niche website, but I get a lot of compliments on it. The articles and interviews are usually lengthy, so it provides a deeper alternative to explore a variety of ideas than are usually found online. I think it’s starting to form into something that brings together broader concepts of how the extraordinary and wonder are an integral part of human life.
Writing articles and conducting interviews has really expanded my own approach in my research. It has put me in touch with people who experience extraordinary things, and researchers who I hadn’t heard of before write to me. I feel like Extraordinarium has enabled me to be part of a wider dialogue, and that has only encouraged me to keep pushing boundaries with my research. While my academic work has been very insightful, the greatest inspiration really happens through personal dialogues with experients and thinkers through Extraordinarium, Exploring the Extraordinary, the SPR, Paranormal Studies & Investigations Canada, and so forth.
DM: Extraordinarium Digital Press also published dark fiction - how does fiction and reality interact in the realm of anomaly studies?
CL: Yes, I have just launched Extraordinarium Digital Press. Since I’m so busy with my PhD work right now, I am starting small, distributing an excellent anthology of dark fiction edited by Maria Grazia Cavicchioli and Jason Rolfe, Fear of the Dark, that received a limited print run a few years back. I collaborated with the publisher, Horror Bound, to transform the book into an ebook and make it widely available. I hope it catches on. It certainly is a competitive market out there with so many ebooks. It’s a great collection of fiction.
Fiction and other imaginative forms are crucial to anomaly studies. Those thinkers who really have pushed the boundaries the most did so by exercising their imagination in their processes, and their ideas have, in many ways, been the most transformative. It’s kind of like how Gene Roddenberry and his Star Trek collaborators dreamt up communicators, tricorders, warp speed, and transporters, and inventive people have been bringing those things into reality in a variety of ways. Similarly, Charles Fort used his imagination and tremendous sense of humour to point out all of the anomalies he could find in newspapers and journals as a way to point out the limitations of positivist scientific methodologies and the possibilities (often dangerous ones) signified by strange human talents, experiences, and events. Nandor Fodor used psychoanalysis, very much a creative interpretive process, to reassess the poltergeist as being centered around psychological tensions. Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s books Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics is a tremendous way to see the links in how fiction and reality interact in anomaly studies. These very creative people he writes about, from Frederic Myers to Stan Lee to Jacques Vallee, have been making the impossible possible through incredibly imaginative approaches to fantastic things.
The authors who wrote short stories in Fear of the Dark are part of a great tradition of speculative fiction. In this case, the fiction evaluates the origins and enactments of our fears, and provides insights into why we get scared and why we (well, some of us) get a thrill out of being scared. In many ways, it is a nod to the darker side of The Twilight Zone that inspired me so much as a kid. It speaks to the twists and turns of the extraordinary.