Our TV suddenly cuts out during a favourite programme. We think of the most likely explanations so we can try to get it back on again. Blown fuse in the plug? Fault in the set? Powercut? Silly child messing about with a spare remote control?

We usually assume that the explanation is a natural one, within the laws of physics. So why have there been so many poltergeist and ghost experiences reported and believed throughout the ages - noises in the attic, windows or doors swinging open, vases falling off the shelf, a man in a black robe walking up the steps in the haunted old theatre etc?

Of course if it’s a vase or a chair suddenly hurtling through the air, that’s different. Reports of such things happening are occasionally made, and those are the ones we need to investigate.


Poltergeist: from the German ‘polter’ (commotion) and ‘geist’ (spirit), a poltergeist is a ghost of mischievous character, usually throwing things about and damaging the surroundings.


Martin Luther in the 16th century referred to this type of experience and declared it to be the work of demons.
Our first well-known case occurred in a mining town in America in 1986. The Smurl family had four daughters and were all devout Roman Catholics. They had been ‘terrorised by demons’, which included being subjected to foul smells, strange sounds and moving and disappearing objects. The case received widespread publicity.

Strangest of all was the hideous woman who sometimes abused the father, Jack Smurl in his bed at night. In his own words: “At least a dozen times ‘it’, or whatever you want to call this grotesque woman, has had intercourse with me in bed. I was awake but I was immobile”.

Investigators were later able to find out some information from the neighbours. It turned out that the house was built over disused mineworks. Subsidence was a serious problem in the area, and could have explained many of the ghostly noises.

It also turned out that Mr. Smurl had years earlier been treated for hydrocephalus, or water on the brain. This is a highly dangerous condition which can cause mental impairment, paralysis and loss of hearing and sight. Could this have accounted for his hideous ghost lover? Also, could the two teenage daughters (14 and 17) have been responsible for some of the other incidents? The older daughter did change her story several times. (1)

The Harper family lived in a three-bedroom house in Enfield in North London. (Single mother and four children). Events began in August 1977 when two of the children, Janet and Pete complained that their beds kept moving. Thereafter there were funny noises, including loud knocks on the wall, more moving furniture, things flying through the air, levitation (floating in the air), unexplained puddles on the floor and so on.

One of the daughters, Janet, began to speak in a rough male voice, claiming to be someone called ‘Bill’. It turned out that Bill was indeed a former occupant who had died in the house.

A local vicar, a medium, the police and reporters from the Daily Mirror all came to investigate. Newspaper reports followed as well as a two and a half hour radio phone in. The Harpers were becoming famous.

Janet was taken to the Maudsley Hospital for six weeks for tests and observations to see if there were any physical or mental abnormalities, but none were found. However, during her absence the strange activities in the house stopped. So suspicion began to focus on Janet as the possible cause of it all.

Janet caught on camera
A hidden camera caught her bending spoons and trying to bend a metal bar. When investigators from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), who generally believe in the paranormal, came to the house, they were hit on the head by flying objects - but always when their backs were turned on Janet. One of them spoke to Janet’s uncle, who said he believed that she had taught herself how to talk in a deep voice, that she had always been athletic and mischievous, and took delight in playing tricks on strangers.(2)

A huge question mark
The SPR nevertheless concluded that it was unlikely that the girls’ trickery could account for all the strange events. But for Chris French the trickery “places a huge question mark over the whole case.” "Children can be very ingenious. I don’t buy the idea that kids can’t outwit intelligent investigators. There are undoubtedly some things in the case that defy rational explanation but that does not mean that they are real phenomena. When you also consider the fact that people, no matter how sincere, are notoriously unreliable witnesses, then you have to take this case with a big pinch of salt.”

The children appear to have enjoyed all the attention they were getting. They had their photographs taken, people came to meet them, wrote about them etc. However, we have not had, to my knowledge, any confessions from the children.


Apparent levitation at the house in Enfield
Perhaps the most famous of all haunted houses was in Amityville, New York State. A best selling book and two highly successful films (The Amityville Horror and Amityville II - the Possession), and several television films sprang from it. The first film claimed to be a ‘true story’.

In 1974 a youth called Ronald DeFoe shot six members of his family in their house in Amityville, and was sentenced to six life sentences. His lawyer, however, had argued that he was insane, and had heard voices in the house telling him to do the killings.

A year later George and Kathy Lutz and their three children bought the house, in spite of its gruesome history. Not surprisingly the price was low. A priest reportedly blessed the new home and, as he was doing so he heard a firm voice saying ‘GET OUT’. A series of terrifying events then occurred over the next four weeks which drove the family out.

The heavy front door was ripped off its hinges, windows were damaged and green slime oozed from the ceiling, Kathy found herself levitating above her bed, and outside the house strange tracks were found in the snow - hoof tracks that some demon might have left, the Lutzes thought. Flies infested a room in the middle of winter, a four-foot statue moved about the house and the two boys and the dog misbehaved! The police were reportedly called to investigate.

George and Kathy Lutz, who bought the Amityville house after the murders and who reported the strange events.
It is impossible to say just how many of the reported incidents did occur, but some of them have been shown to be impossible. The town has no record at all of the 12 hour storm which ‘lashed the house’, or of snow falling when the tracks outside were supposed to have been made. A careful examination was made of the doors and windows, and they appeared not to have been damaged or replaced. Certainly no door had been ripped off its hinges. The police also said they had never been called in to investigate, and the priest in question sued the Lutzes for falsifying his role, settling out of court.    
The evidence of a huge hoax was beginning to pile up. Finally the lawyer of Ronald DeFoe confessed that he and the Lutzes had ‘created this horror story over many bottles of wine’. He added: ‘We were really creating something the public would want to hear about. If the public is gullible enough to believe the story, so be it’. (3)

The Lutzes sold the house to another family who noticed nothing strange at all about it, apart from a stream of sight-seers! Even today the house is a popular tourist attraction. I wonder if there are still many people who believe that it all really happened? Don’t forget how many people there are who refuse to let the facts spoil a good story!

One night, some years ago, Vic Tandy, an electronics and IT engineer at Coventry University, was working late when the cleaner ran up to him terrified, saying she had seen a ghost. He could see that her fear was genuine. She had already given in her notice because of similar ghostly encounters she had recently had.

The next night the same thing happened to Tandy himself. He was a keen fencer and had been oiling the blade of his sword, which was clamped in a vice on a work bench. First he felt a strange sense of uneasiness, and then saw a grey thing coming for him. ‘I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck…it seemed to be between me and the door, so the only thing I could do was turn and face it.’ It then disappeared as abruptly as it had appeared. He also noticed, to his amazement, that the blade of his sword was ‘vibrating like mad’ for no apparent reason - but did not vibrate in a different part of the room. The next night the grey apparition reappeared in a different form. (4)

The power of inaudible sound
Being an engineer Tandy decided to look for a physical cause. He found that the haunted area had strong levels of infrasound - sound which has a frequency of less than about 20 Hz (hertz), or 20 cycles per second (in this case exactly 18.98 Hz): a low frequency which humans cannot hear. The source of the infrasound turned out to be a recently installed extractor fan.

Infrasound had been known sometimes to cause the eyeballs to vibrate, and to cause hallucinations in the side of our field of vision. It can also set off a primitive survival response that causes fear, a racing heart, feelings of cold, shivering and breathlessness. But surprisingly the connection between this and ghost encounters was not made before Tandy’s discovery. Switching off the extractor fan ended the feelings of anxiety, and also stopped the blade from vibrating. He said that ‘It was as if a huge weight was lifted.’ Tandy had found his ghost!

Tandy becomes ghost hunter
He had also heard that a cellar in a 14th Century building in Coventry, now the city’s tourist centre, was said to be haunted. A number of people had had genuinely frightening experiences there. So Tandy took his equipment (a precision sound-level meter sensitive to frequencies as low as 1Hz) to the ‘haunted’ areas of the building and, sure enough, found exactly the same level of infrasound.

Elephants have the ability to communicate by emitting infrasound, which can be detected by other elephants two kilometres away. Whales and some other animals can also emit infrasound. It appears that only a small percentage of humans, however, are sensitive to it, which might explain why some are more inclined to ghost encounters than others.

Research is also being done to see whether infrasound can be used to confuse invading armies or rioters! [Vic Tandy died in 2005 aged 50.]

More about sound waves
Any vibration causes a sound wave, which may or may not be audible to the human ear, such as the wings of a bee (buzzing) or a plucked guitar string. If a string vibrates, for example, at a frequency of approximately 261.6 times per second (i.e. 261.6Hz) we should hear the note of ‘middle C’ (e.g. on a guitar or a piano). If it vibrates at 440Hz we should hear the A above middle C. If it’s much above 20,000 waves per second (ultrasound) or below about 20-22 per second (infrasound), we will not be able to hear it. The higher the frequency of vibrations, the higher the pitch. Thus the vocal chords of soprano singers vibrate much more quickly than those of bass singers. Sound travels faster through liquid than air, and faster through solids than liquids. This is because the molecules are more closely packed in solids. The speed of sound through air is about 770 mph (or 345 metres per second). This is about 1,000,000 times slower than the speed of light.

Magnetically induced hallucinations
Yet another possible physical cause of paranormal experiences! This is similar, in a way, to the effects of infrasound.

In Muncaster Castle in Cumbria, UK, there is a bedroom called the tapestry room, and in it there is a 4-poster bed, supposedly haunted. Some people who sleep in the bed experience vivid hallucinations when they turn over or move - for example the sound of a child crying. Researchers (5) have investigated the bed and found it to be permanently magnetic - possibly from the iron mesh supporting the mattress. Other beds in the castle were not found to be magnetic.

The suggestion is that the magnetism is stimulating the brain in such a way as to induce paranormal experiences. Again, it appears that only a minority of people are susceptible. Further research is needed, however, before conclusions can be drawn.

Altered states of consciousness
We saw in chapter one how it is possible for the mind to influence or construct what we see: i.e. to make us see or experience things which are not there, especially if we are obsessed with something, or emotionally vulnerable in some way, or under the influence of certain drugs, half asleep or in some other altered state of consciousness. Could these altered states of mind also explain at least some of the reported ghost sightings and other paranormal experiences?


‘Orbs’ - ghosts on film
An orb is a blurred shape, usually round, which can be seen on a photograph or film, and is thought by some to represent the soul or spirit of a departed person. The photos are often taken in a cemetery or haunted house. Other eerie images on the photo may include rays of light, floating objects, mists, even human apparitions.

The problem with orbs and other images on photos is that there are simply too many possible scientific explanations for them. It is very easy to create an orb on a photo - dust, pollen (possibly disturbed as you walk around the cemetery at night taking photos), powder, tiny insects, moisture just in front of the camera lens, under-exposure etc.

Moreover, often the orbs produced by a particular camera all show the same shape and characteristics (given consistency in brightness etc.) which suggests that in this case the cause is in the camera rather than 'out there’. Orbs never take up much of the frame of the photo - if there is something ‘out there’ why are there never any close-up orbs?

We have seen some of the many possible earthly or scientific explanations of ghostly experience, from disused mineshafts to infrasound, from rats in the cellar to pranks and hoaxes.

There are others but we cannot investigate them all.

What we can do is remember the
principle of Occam’s razor:

When faced with a strange or unusual event, do not choose the more complex explanation, or one which breaks the laws of physics, if a perfectly adequate, natural explanation is at hand.



There can be more to a belief in evil spirits than mischievous poltergeists. The belief that evil spirits or devils can take over our bodies can lead to more sinister and terrible consequences.

In Britain a number of cases, mainly linked to African witchcraft, have come to light. Young children, declared to be witches or possessed by demons, have been physically abused to get rid of the demons.

In extreme cases this has resulted in death.

Victoria Climbié and Kristy Bamu were two examples.

The belief is that physical pain needs to be inflicted to make the body uncomfortable for the devil or spirit inside it.

This can mean beating, burning, isolating and starving the child.

Sometimes the child is chained down so they can't escape.

Sometimes the exorcism takes place as part of a ritual.

People with such beliefs are less likely to believe that their own children are possessed, but will more readily abuse children whom they have informally adopted or for whom they act as guardians. The child may be deprived of food and liquid for two or three days before the exorcism begins. Sometimes the victim will be shaken, and sometimes chilli peppers are rubbed in the eyes, along with the beatings. At the end, not surprisingly, he or she may well vomit or suffer diarrhoea, which is taken as evidence of the departing spirit.

  These beliefs and practices are deeply rooted in some cultish religious groups. The pastor of such a group is often the first to denounce the unfortunate child as a witch or as possessed.

According to Richard Hoskins, from King's College London, an authority in this field, there has been a growth in such groups and such practices in recent years. In June, 2012, he said that he was investigating as many as four such cases for Scotland Yard (6).

In a different case, also involving paranormal beliefs, the torso of a young child was found in the river Thames, evidently the victim of a ritual sacrifice.


It is of course important to realise that many cases of child abuse are not a result of exorcism, and have nothing to do with religion.