What Are Poltergeists?

Poltergeist, in German, literally means “noisy ghost.” This paranormal phenomenon has appeared in folklore, movies and — if some cases are true — even reality. And while they may not be demons, or even spirits at all, poltergeists are the type of supernatural manifestation you’d probably want to avoid.

Signs of a Poltergeist

Poltergeists are violent, and more often than not the activity surrounding them focuses on a single individual. In most cases, this activity is similar to your traditional signs of a haunted house, but the aggressiveness is what sets poltergeists apart. Here’s a list of the most common signs that you may be experiencing one:

  • electrical disturbances, or electrical objects working on their own
  • rapping or banging on walls, or other unexplained noises
  • objects moving or being thrown around by themselves
  • objects mysteriously disappearing and reappearing
  • strange or unusual smells
  • occasional levitation
  • physical attacks

What brings a poltergeist to haunt someone? That’s an interesting question. It’s generally accepted that poltergeists aren’t your normal “spirits,” but rather psychic manifestations of stress or anxiety, often that of a teenager. In other words, when exploring a paranormal explanation, poltergeist activity is often attributed to psychokinesis, or the ability to affect physical objects with one’s mind.

Image: From Scary Stories 3 More Tales to Chill Your Bones
Image: From Scary Stories 3 More Tales to Chill Your Bones

In fact, one of the earliest stories of poltergeists I ever read was “The Trouble” in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones (page 69 if you happen to have the old box set like I do).

In this story, based on a true event that reportedly happened in a New York City suburb in 1958, a family, the Lombardos, is tormented by objects that seem to move on their own.

Caps pop off bottles, porcelain statues rise into the air, bowls and flowers and globes jump from place to place. They had detectives and, eventually, parapsychologists come to investigate, but they never did find out what caused the bizarre activity, even after exploring the possibility that someone was playing a trick.

However, the final theory by the parapsychologists was that it was possibly due to psychokinesis, arising from the family’s teenage son, Tom.

“The only explanation they could not rule out,” writes Schwartz, “was the possibility that a teenage poltergeist had been at work, moving objects with mental power. They did not have enough evidence to prove it, but it was the only answer they had.”

Rational Explanations

It’s entirely possible that poltergeists are not paranormal in nature, but rather explainable natural phenomena. In some cases, so-called poltergeists may actually be individuals (read: humans) acting out for whatever reason. Other possible natural explanations include:

  • infrasound
  • air currents
  • vibrations caused by underground water currents
  • sonic booms by aircraft passing overhead
  • electromagnetic disturbances
  • seismic activity
  • ball lightning

Famous Poltergeist Cases

Whether you believe poltergeists are psychokinesis or simply natural phenomena, there have been many strange cases over the years. Here are just a few of the most famous ones (though not all may have actually been poltergeists):

The Enfield Poltergeist: In 1977, a family living in a rented home in Enfield, England experienced moving furniture and unexplainable tapping on the walls. This activity escalated into demonic noises and one of the children, 11-year-old Janet Hodgson, allegedly levitating. She also appeared possessed by an entity calling himself Bill Wilkins, however, indicating that this may not have been a poltergeist, but rather a demonic possession.

Rosenheim Poltergeist: In 1967, parapsychologist Hans Bender investigated claims that poltergeist activity — exploding light fixtures, moving furniture, and electrical malfunctions — had occurred at a law office in Rosenheim, Bavaria. This he attributed to the “telekinetic powers” of the office’s secretary, 19-year-old Annemarie Schaberl.

The Great Amherst Mystery: In 1878-1879 at Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada, Walter Hubbell recorded the details of poltergeist activity surrounding 18-year-old Esther Cox. The activity manifested in a variety of unsettling ways — the usual banging, as well as scratching noises, but Esther also suffered seizures, swelling, and at one point the words “Esther Cox, you are mine to kill” were found written mysteriously on the wall near her bed. The activity, which seemed to follow her and her alone, continued to escalate, with Esther claiming to see a “ghost,” which appeared to physically attack her on multiple occasions. However, ultimately, the activity came to an end.

Poltergeist (2015)

Given all of the above information, it’s kind of obvious that Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film Poltergeist doesn’t have too much to do with, well, poltergeists. Nonetheless! A remake of the film is set to release later this year, starring Zaphod Beeblebrox, James Moriarty, and Rosemarie DeWitt. That’s the trailer up there. Check it out. (Sam Raimi!?)


Rob Schwarz

Rob Schwarz is a writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.


  1. I didn’t know Sam Raimi was doing a remake…! I hope it’s not too stupid and CGI-y!

    Poltergeists are very interesting to me, with how they specifically seem to be connected to teens and puberty and all. If they’re real, I wonder what the explanation for that connection is.

    1. I’d guess it has to do with the general emotional overload of being a teenager (hormones, etc). But then again, things don’t seem to cool off too much once you’re an adult, especially as far as stress goes, so I don’t know…

    2. I had those problems at 12 but then they have lasted into adulthood for myself and others. It’s not about puberty.

  2. I expect that actual events themselves are not nearly as action-packed as the films which are usually created for a consumer public. That’s not to say that there’s nothing going on in these ‘haunted’ houses because there clearly is. From the extreme emotional reactions from those who’ve lived through something very terrifying and upsetting, something is most certainly going on.
    We call these things “supernatural” because we don’t yet understand the logic behind the happenings. For lack of any real knowledge about those happenings, we all guess, and based on our backgrounds (i.e. science, religious) our guesses are all tainted differently. Allow me to toss out another possibility.

    My guess is that there are people out there with a lot of funding who are testing out new secret technologies which can operate at long distances. Usually, these persons focus their tests at isolated locations and often at the same locations so that people at large will believe that the phenomenon has to do with the location itself. Because, for example, if they were directing their technologies all over the place all the time, we may begin to share our collective experiences with each other and quickly begin to catch on to what’s really going on. Instead, only certain locations (and sometimes objects) are targeted and experimented on, much to the misfortune of those who choose those locations to live at.
    Consider, too, that those with large funding often associate with others who similarly have large funding, like hollywood producers who… make films about weird supernatural locations. Something to think about.

  3. As a Lead Exorcist Investigator (Demonologist) for a Catholic Order this is where we define the line between emotional manifestation and infestation. While a poltergeist can be very dangerous it will not call on someone by name. While it can affect one more than the others the intelligence is the underlying factor. Two of the cases mentioned in the article I would have referred for a rite of deliverance.

    1. Yeah, while I was looking for “famous” poltergeist cases, it got a little confusing because most of them don’t seem to actually involve poltergeists. But I included the above ones, anyway, because they seem to pop up a lot.

      If anyone knows of any actual poltergeist cases, let me know and I’ll be happy to include them in the post.

      And thanks for the info, Timothy! Interesting stuff.

    1. Hmm, let’s see…

      Signs of a typical family get together: strange noises, disembodied shouting, objects flying across room, unusual smells, physical attacks.

      Yep, checks out. Poltergeist confirmed.