Popularized among modern audiences by the hit 1982 film of the same name, the word “poltergeist” had already been in use in the English language since the mid-19th century. Drawn from German, the word literally means “noisy ghost,” and describes a specific type of haunting—one accompanied by noises and physical disturbances, rather than merely apparitions.
Many of the most classic examples of poltergeist activity are present in the film, including items moving or levitating on their own, silverware bending, and objects that were previously spread out suddenly appearing in neat stacks.
True to their name, poltergeists tend to be noisy spirits, prone to throwing dishes around in kitchens, knocking on doors, and rearranging furniture. They’re also violent ones, and accounts of poltergeists throughout the ages include some of the only instances of ghosts pinching, striking, tripping, and even biting the living.
It is this violence which makes poltergeists so enduring in the annals of occult lore. While ghosts may be scary, most are ultimately harmless to the living. Not so with poltergeists, whose (reported) activities have included hurling people across rooms and biting hard enough to leave teeth marks. One notable historical account of poltergeist activity even links the ghost with causing a human death.
While the word didn’t enter popular usage in English until the mid-1800s, accounts of noisy, violent ghosts date back almost as long as we’ve been telling ghost stories.
One of the earliest is from 94 C.E., when historian Flavius Josephus relates his account of witnessing an exorcism in which an “unclean spirit” was drawn from a suffering individual. In the course of the exorcism, according to Josephus, a bowl of water all the way on the other side of the room was overturned by an unseen force.
This might be the earliest recorded instance of “real life” poltergeist activity, depending on how much credence you want to lend a nearly two-thousand-year-old firsthand account. The Josephus account gives us an early example of the most stock behavior associated with poltergeists: that of objects moving on their own.
Another early example of the phenomenon, however, is a more literal interpretation of the “noisy ghost” epithet, even if it hadn’t yet been applied.
In his 1681 book on witchcraft, Saducismus triumphatus, Joseph Glanvill writes of an event which supposedly occurred twenty years before. The story told of John Mompesson, a local landowner who brought a lawsuit against William Drury, an itinerant drummer, for collecting money under false pretenses. When Mompesson won the suit, Drury’s drum was confiscated as restitution.
After that, Mompesson’s house was plagued throughout the night by the sound of spectral drumming. This story also illustrates another trait of many early poltergeist tales, in which the source of the disturbance may be a spirit, but its root cause remains notably among the living. In this case, Drury was said to have brought about the poltergeist activity through witchcraft.
Another such early tale, from around the same time, is that of the so-called “Glenluce Devil,” written about by the mathematician George Sinclair in his 1685 book Satan’s Invisible World Discovered.
The story is remarkably similar in many of its particulars to the one told by Glanvill. In it, a weaver named Gilbert Campbell, living in the town of Glenluce, Scotland, refuses a handout to a beggar named Alexander Agnew. The beggar then places a curse on Campbell’s family, who are plagued by hurled stones, “demonic voices,” strange whistling noises, and other disturbances.
Sinclair described the story as demonstrating a “usefulness for refuting atheism,” which was also the intended aim of Glanvill’s earlier book. Harvard literary professor David Damrosch has since pointed out that Alexander Agnew was noted as “the first person in Scottish history to publicly deny the existence of God,” for which he was hanged at Dumfries in 1656, just two years after the “Glenluce Devil” incident supposedly took place.
A later but more famous story along similar lines occurred in Robertson County, Tennessee between 1817 and 1821. During these years, the family of John Bell came under attack by a (usually) invisible entity known as the Bell Witch. The witch assaulted members of the family, scratched and knocked on doors, and generally caused all sorts of mischief and harm. It also, according to some versions of the story, was directly responsible for the poisoning death of John Bell himself.
In 1894, newspaper editor Martin V. Ingram published a book called the Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, which is not merely considered to be the first book-length treatment of the phenomenon, but to have provided the blueprint for many poltergeist accounts to come.
The tale has also made its way onto film, perhaps most notably in the 2005 flick, An American Haunting, though the legend of the Bell Witch also influenced pictures as diverse as The Blair Witch Project and The Amityville Horror.
As the term “poltergeist” was brought into English in the middle of the 19th century, accounts of poltergeist activity became more popular and more prevalent. Perhaps the most famous modern poltergeist account is that of the Enfield Poltergeist, which formed the basis for the 2016 film, The Conjuring 2, as well as the cult 1992 BBC hit Ghostwatch.
The Enfield case, which lasted from 1977 until 1979, was notable at the time for drawing an unusual amount of media coverage, even as the supposed events were still ongoing. The Hodgson home, the center of the Enfield poltergeist case, is depicted in this story's feature image.
In addition to controversial paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, members of the Society for Psychical Research looked into the hauntings, which included children levitating, “demonic” voices, and many more of the events depicted in the film. While at least some of the phenomena were later debunked as pranks pulled by the family’s children, some investigators continued to believe that some of the events were legitimate.
Whether real or hoaxes, violent fiends on movie screens possessing clown dolls or just old tales of phantom drumming, these “noisy ghosts” have been with us almost as long as we’ve been telling stories about the unexplained...and they’re likely to stay with us for as long as we keep hearing strange noises in the middle of the night.