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Poltergeist Phenomena and the History of Science

Poltergeist. The word embedded itself in Western culture in the early 1980s with the hit film of the same name, co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg during his golden era. It became synonymous with the thought of a little blonde girl being trapped in a TV, and with building houses over Native American burial grounds.

But the concept of the poltergeist has a much longer history, and is spread across the world. Originally a German word basically meaning ‘noisy ghost’, poltergeists and the alleged physical phenomena that accompany them have been studied for centuries.

And interestingly, some of the pioneers of the modern scientific establishment – for example, founding members of the Royal Society – were involved in investigating and theorising about the poltergeist.

Andreas Sommer, historian of science and magic at the University of Cambridge – who runs the excellent Forbidden Histories website that we’ve linked to many times here on the Grail – delves into a little bit of this history in a recent video on his YouTube channel (the first instalment in a series, embedded below).

One surprising fact he mentions: attacks and ridicule of the phenomena predominantly came from religious authorities, not scientists:

In contrast to modern popular assumptions, the Enlightenment war on belief in things that go bump in the night was not spearheaded by science and medicine, but by religious and political writers.

Historians of Enlightenment science and medicine such as Roy Porter, Lorraine Daston, Katharine Park and Michael Hunter have argued that the deadliest weapons in the fight against belief in supernatural phenomena during the Enlightenment were not empirical tests, but ridicule and sweeping pathologisations.

For anyone interested in following up on the sources Andreas mentions in the video, see the related page at Forbidden Histories. And be sure to subscribe to the Forbidden Histories YouTube channel for more fascinating content like this.

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