ASTOP: Ghosts and Poltergeists

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets. In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.
Human beings have probably enjoyed telling and listening to ghost stories for as long as human beings have had a language. It’s fun to be frightened when one knows one is really safe after all, hence the popularity of horror films and horror fiction. The body of a dead human being is almost instinctively frightening to most people — cold, stiff, with ghastly color and terrible blankness of expression. To enhance one’s fright further, one need only imagine the body becoming somehow reanimated, yet retaining the essential features of death — including the additional horror of decay and decomposition.

Ghost stories offer one step up in sophistication from the walking dead. Ghosts are more insubstantial, and better suited to the average living room, than animated corpses. Paperback book sales indicate that ghost stories are more popular today than ever before, especially if the book gives the impression that the story “really happened.” The haunted house” is a standby of paperbacks, film and TV as the 20th century nears its end, and is as “sure-fire” a theme as it has ever been.

Actual, real-life reports of ghosts have a great deal in common with reports during the past 40 years of “flying saucers.” Just as a light or glow in the sky, whatever its real cause, becomes a “flying saucer” to anyone who has just been reading about them in the papers, so an unusual sound in a dark house at night, whatever its real cause, becomes a ghost to anyone who has read or heard enough ghost stories. As in the case of the flying saucer sightings, scientists find little to work with when they investigate “ghost sightings.” Somehow nothing ever happens while the scientists are around, and they find themselves left with the eyewitness testimony of others, contradictory descriptions, and meaningless “evidence” such as broken dinnerware.

The pitfalls that ghost stories offer for well-meaning investigators is illustrated in a classic way by the fate of the magnum opus of England’s 19th century Society for Psychical Research, the 2-volume, 1,300-page Phantasms of the Living, published in 1886. The aim of this work was to collect cases in which, for instance, an individual, at the time of death, is seen as an apparition by relatives and friends hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and the sighting is exhaustively documented by letters, diaries, or multiple simultaneous witnesses. In almost every case in the book the relatives were said to have documented the apparition before having heard actual confirmation of the individual’s death. But, as usual, the facts turned out to be quite different. In a devastating article published in 1887, A. Taylor Innes revealed that in not one of the cases collected did there exist any letter or document written at the time by anyone involved. This kind of discovery has been made over and over by diligent investigators. Ghost stories “grow in the telling,” and trivial everyday events quickly grow into signs, portents, and phantasms of whatever important event is worth spinning a tale about.

A more recent example is the so-called Amityville Horror, the subject of several books and at least two awful movies. The best-known book on the topic is by a novelist named Jay Anson. On its dust jacket tit is proclaimed “a true story,” although all the other works listed by Anson are fiction. Independent investigators, however, found that not a single detail of the supposedly “real” events in this 201-page book which could be checked independently was correct. They also found that Anson never visited the house or carried out any sort of journalistic investigation of the alleged incidents involving the “haunting” of a five-member family by the ghost of a murderer. A detailed analysis of the book by Robert L. Morris shows it to be a tissue of deliberate fabrications, faulty memories, and tall tales. (See references.)

It must be emphasized that these are not isolated cases. In every case where a thorough investigation has been undertaken, “ghost stories” collapse utterly. For instance, Borley Rectory in England was made famous during the late 1930’s as “the most haunted house in England,” and as “a really haunted house.” When the Rectory and the tales about it were thoroughly investigated in the mid-1950’s by a magician and two parapsychologists, every feature of this “iron-clad case” collapsed. (See references.)

No two ghosts are described quite alike in appearance. Some are the stereotype white-sheeted figures, others look like normal people except for being transparent or being able to walk through walls, others look like recently dead or long-dead corpses, often bearing monstrous wounds. Ghosts are only rarely described as being “solid,” which makes it puzzling if they are also said to wear clothes, make noise, move things around, or, in some cases, to produce a “cold feeling” in the air. Probably ghosts are reported as completely invisible more often than not.

Ghosts which are completely invisible, but still manage to make noise and move objects are called poltergeists (“noisy ghosts”). Typically, in a house haunted by a poltergeist, furniture is moved, things fall from shelves, jars and bottles are overturned, objects are tossed through the air, and breakables are broken, all apparently without anyone nearby. In essentially every case in which poltergeist phenomena have been investigated, and were not found to be due to natural causes (e.g., vibration from passing trains, subways, mild earthquake tremors, etc., or subsidence and settling of the house), there have been one or more adolescents in the family. Further, the pattern is that the adolescent is frequently highly restricted and repressed. Inexperienced investigators whose heads are full of “psychic” marvels have often concluded that poltergeist phenomena are therefore not due to ghosts at all, but are the result of the frustrated adolescent channeling blocked energies into psychokineses! That is, that the adolescent creates the poltergeist phenomena by mind power, sometimes without being aware of it. More experienced investigators have simply laid a trap for the adolescent, and usually have managed to catch him or her using not the unknown powers of mind, but the well-known powers of fingers, arms or feet to achieve the “psychic” manifestations. Only the most elementary stealth and misdirection, well within the abilities of most 10-year-old children, are required to produce even the most “authentic”-looking poltergeist manifestation. Parents, law-enforcement officers and reporters spend their time looking for the “haunts” and marveling at the “manifestations,” never paying any attention to where little Timmy is or what he is doing. Investigators have witnessed teenagers leaning into a doorway and tossing a plate directly at their seated, distracted parents. The parents look up to see a plate in mid-air moving rapidly toward them, with nobody around. The child is already halfway back to his room by the time the plate strikes the wall, ready to pretend to be asleep or to cry out, “What happened, Ma?” as the mood strikes. It is an easy way to get your name and picture in the papers, and an easy way to give you and your friends a real opportunity to snicker justifiably at the stupidity of adults.

Poltergeist phenomena seem to be about the most commonly reported “house haunting,” particularly in the United States. Newspaper and TV reporters consider such ghost episodes as a godsend, particularly in times when there are few stories of local interest. As long as these stories continue to receive massive publicity, both in the form of supposed “true stories,” and in the form of popular fiction, there will continue to be new and equally bogus cases.

For further reading

Appearances of the Dead, by R. C. Finucane, Prometheus, New York, 1984.

“Poltergeists and ‘Haunted Houses,’” by Milbourne Christopher, in ESP, Seers, and Psychics, Crowell, New York, 1970, pp. 142-173.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, by E.J. Dingwall, K.M. Goldney, and T.H. Hall, Duckworth, London, 1955.

Four Modern Ghosts, by E.J. Dingwall and T.H. Hall, Duckworth, London, 1958.

“A Case Study of the West Pittston ‘Haunted’ House,” by Paul Kurtz, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter 1986-87, pp. 137-146.

Review of the Amityville Horror by Robert L. Morris, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring/Summer 1978, pp. 95-102. 

“The Columbus Poltergeist Case: Part 1,” by James Randi, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring 1985, p. 221-235.


ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (