All Hallows’ Eve allows us to indulge in a particular kind of fright; largely, the anticipated kind, where we know that a series of spooks and startles lie in wait. Yet six years ago, I stumbled across something altogether more alarming: poltergeists who, in airy defiance of the laws of physics, would hurl objects in a house, make a hammering racket, or produce showers of stones from nowhere.
I was researching the matter for my book and, as a lifelong agnostic, I found the accounts I came across hard to swallow. Yet the tales, spanning over hundreds of years, were given directly by every possible kind of witness; the personal, unpublished anecdotes I went on to collect would easily fill several volumes.
I located the majority of the historic accounts of ghosts and poltergeists in the Daily Telegraph – one notable sighting in the autumn of 1881, recorded by its letters’ pages, detailed a ghostly apparition in Church Stretton. This then prompted several readers to share other paranormal experiences; the authors included two MAs, a lieutenant colonel lamenting the ghost in his friend’s house, the servant of a haunted London club, and a woman troubled by the ghost of her husband’s first wife.
Another writer (tellingly signing himself ‘A Sceptic’) described the misery caused to his friend in the west of England by ‘the shadowy form of a woman holding a child in her arms’. This apparition had terrified two separate wives, and children and servants, and prompted the use of a private detective. ‘The victim of these mysteries’, our correspondent insisted, ‘is as intelligent as he is courageous and calm-tempered’.
The same seemed to hold for one ‘W.M’., who stressed that ‘previous to Nov. 7 1869, I always laughed at the bare idea’ of ghosts. On that night, he was walking along the Brighton Esplanade by moonlight when a two-horse carriage pulled up beside him.
He recognised its occupant as his grandmother. Wondering why she should suddenly appear at this hour from her home in Cheltenham, he vaulted the railings to approach the carriage, when ‘to my horror the whole thing vanished’. The next day he learned that his grandmother had been found dead in her bed at 7.30 that same morning.
This kind of educated interest in the paranormal crystallised, in 1882, into the formation of the Society for Psychical Research at Cambridge University. Throughout the 19th century, Britain was deeply divided on the question of ghosts and poltergeists, with many writers treating them with contempt. But a significant number of people died of terror of ghosts, sometimes as the result of a simple hoax.
In August 1934, the Telegraph recounted how ‘a man who is reported to have said that he had seen the ghost of Feodorovna Lady Alington, who died a little more than a month ago, was found dead on Saturday in the house in which Lady Alington had lived in Portman Square.’ Frank Wallace, recently caretaker at the residence, ‘was found hanging in the boiler house in the basement’.
A subsequent inquest learned, however, that he had not died from hanging. It was concluded that he had died from the shock, which provoked his suicide attempt. In reality, it may have been that Wallace, like so many before him, died from terror of seeing a ghost.
Fifty years later, a tale in the Telegraph’s pages recorded that John Baker, the Bishop of Salisbury, had believed in ghosts since his grandmother appeared to him just after she died when he was four years old. “I was awake. She came in and kissed me good night… This was not the ghost story of the grey lady in the long gallery. It was personal; it had a purpose,” he wrote.
Whilst there is good evidence that ghosts with a purpose exist, there is much to show that some sightings involve purely passive, unconscious imprints of a dead person, moving automatically, and with no awareness of the living. Andrew Green, England’s premier ghost-hunter of the late 20th century, believed that apparitions were ‘bursts of electromagnetic energy’ rather than conscious spirits from the afterlife.
Green was called in by Ian Blackburn in spring 1996 to look out for ghosts in the Royal Albert Hall. Sighted and sensed since the 1930s, they tended to reappear whenever building work was going on, and with this now due again, Blackburn wanted to be ready, telling the Telegraph’s reporter that “When people keep saying the same things to you, you have to take notice and try and get to the bottom of it.”
In 1999 the Telegraph interviewed Daniel and Diana Hodson about paranormal experiences in their Georgian house in Sussex – teddy bears, ornaments and vases tumbling from shelves and windowsills looked like the work of a poltergeist. But at around two their first daughter, Susannah, was already talking about imaginary friends, George and Abbie. Presently a visiting boy was found crazed with terror after seeing an old woman and a man with a bad leg, ‘telling him he should not be there’.
A medium identified George and Abbie without being prompted, and reported images of a man ‘wielding a pickaxe’ – an exorcism succeeded in clearing the house. Years later, an old lady who had lived there as a girl told the Hodsons stories of poltergeist activity.
Eventually, she added, her family ‘had been forced to move out: because she had been tormented by a man called George who used to chase her wielding a pickaxe.’ Daniel, a sometime finance executive, ultimately accepted ‘that there was some kind of malevolent metaphysical presence associated with the house that their daughters were particularly sensitive to’.
The rise of the internet across the following 20 years has allowed a greater exchange of paranormal cases amongst victims and commentators. But it has also seen book-length first-hand accounts of poltergeists or ghosts, such as Enfield in 1977-8, which was later the subject of a Sky drama featuring Timothy Spall. For whatever reason, in an age keen to break old taboos, poltergeists have become a new one.
When police were called to the home of Catherine Shreenan and her teenage son in Rutherglen near Glasgow, in August 2016, “the officers attended expecting it to be a mental health issue”. Two sets of police officers had witnessed clothes flying around, oven doors opening and closing, and a pet chihuahua moved from the lawn onto a seven-foot hedge.
Whatever the ultimate cause, the victims soon fled their home, and were plagued with abuse for their apparent ‘imaginings’. But such attacks are the product of belief systems in turmoil. They remind us that, ultimately, the greatest violence inflicted by a poltergeist is that unleashed upon the human mind.
Richard Sugg is the author of ten books, including A Century of Ghost Stories.