Entry updated 5 October 2020. Tagged: Theme.
These imagined Supernatural Creatures, whose German name means "noisy ghost", have attracted some sporadic sf interest. Though never directly seen, poltergeists supposedly move or throw small articles around, break crockery (which is sometimes also hurled across a room while remaining miraculously unbroken) and so forth. Their reality was once enough of an accepted phenomenon that Edmund Crispin used a highly active one to comic effect in his otherwise nonfantastic detective novel Buried for Pleasure (1948), while Michael Innes's nonfantastic John Appleby detective story "Poltergeist" (in The Appleby File coll 1975) assumes fake poltergeist activity to be an entirely plausible mask for a criminal plot. Charles Fort speculated about several reported real-world examples, in particular in his Wild Talents (1932); Sacheverell Sitwell discussed specific cases in Poltergeists: An Introduction and Examination Followed by Chosen Instances (1940); and Colin Wilson surveyed the topic with characteristic lack of scepticism in Poltergeist! A Study in Destructive Haunting (1981).
Poltergeist activity is traditionally associated with adolescents in the household; of course sceptics have long assumed that the mischief therefore requires no supernatural explanation, though troublesome youngsters are gifted or cursed with Telekinesis that generates such effects in The Witches of Karres (December 1949 Astounding; exp 1966) by James H Schmitz, "What Thin Partitions" (September 1953 Astounding) by Mark Clifton and Alex Apostolides, and The Hidden Ones (1988) by Gwyneth Jones. Poltergeist-like effects are part of the panoply of weirdness generated by an occult mechanism in Lord Lytton's The Haunted and the Haunters, or The House and the Brain (August 1859 Blackwood's Magazine; 1905 chap). The titular poltergeists in Keith Roberts's "Boulter's Canaries" (in New Writings in SF 3, anth 1965, ed John Carnell) are energy configurations which can do substantial damage in the real world. Colin Wilson presents a more conventional view of poltergeist phenomena as a vortex of uncontrolled Psi-Power emanations from a dysfunctional family (including adolescents) in The Philosopher's Stone (1969). The eponym of James H Schmitz's "Poltergeist" (July 1971 Analog) is another psi phenomenon. Activities of the invisible gas-plasma entities known as Muskies in Spider Robinson's Telempath (1976) were ascribed – prior to the discovery of their existence – to ghosts or poltergeists. Richard Cowper's "The Attleborough Poltergeist" (in The Web of the Magi and Other Stories coll 1980) hints at psychic Time Travel amid the trappings of Scientific Romance. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy Reaper Man (1991), much comic poltergeist activity is generated not by any individual but by a worldwide surplus of spiritual energy when Death – having been forced to retire – is no longer ushering the souls of the dead to their proper destinations.
In Cinema, rationalized poltergeist-like activity features in Quatermass and the Pit (1967; vt Five Million Years to Earth US) directed by Roy Ward Baker, and in Interstellar (2014) directed by Christopher Nolan. The supernatural Horror film Poltergeist (1982) directed by Tobe Hooper rapidly escalates from the traditional mischief of broken glass and shifting furniture to over-the-top excess; the sequels, still less in keeping with the legend of poltergeists as minor though persistent nuisances, are Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) directed by Brian Gibson, and Poltergeist III (1988) directed by Gary Sherman.
A relevant anthology is Poltergeist: Tales of Deadly Ghosts (anth 1987) edited by Peter Haining. [DRL]
- Charles Fort. Wild Talents (New York: Claude Kendall, 1932) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Sacheverell Sitwell. Poltergeists: An Introduction and Examination Followed by Chosen Instances (London: Faber and Faber, 1940) [nonfiction: illus/hb/Irene Hawkins]
- Colin Wilson. Poltergeist! A Study in Destructive Haunting (London: New English Library, 1981) [nonfiction: hb/nonpictorial]
- Peter Haining, editor. Poltergeist: Tales of Deadly Ghosts (London: Severn House, 1987) [anth: hb/]
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