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Historical Origins of the Poltergeist

Poltergeist hits theaters on May 22. Throughout the course of history, across a wide cross-section of different cultures, poltergeist-type spirits have terrorized mankind while piquing our curiosity. In celebration of the release of Poltergeist, we’ve taken a look at the Historical Origins of the Poltergeist.

From German meaning “noisy spirit,” the word “poltergeist” has long held a haunting grip on society. Depending on which historical data you deem true, the poltergeist can be tracked back possibly as far as the first century A.D. We’ll take a look at some of the more interesting and chilling instances of supernatural activity throughout history as we put together a map of the historical emergence of the poltergeist.

Flavius Josephus Witnessed Exorcism (94 A.D.)
According to The PK Zone: A Cross-Cultural Review of Psychokinesis (PK) by Pamela Rae Heath, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus may have the claim for the first account of poltergeist activity ever recorded. Josephus reported on an exorcism performed in 94 A.D. in which an unclean spirit was being drawn out of an innocent individual. According to Josephus, after the successful exorcism was performed by Eleazar, a bowl of water located across the room was overturned by an unseen force. Now this might seem pretty tame by today’s standards, as we’re used to malevolent spirits marauding through households, possessing creepy clown dolls, or doing far worse; but if you picture the scene, an exorcism is being performed, and as the unclean, unseen spirit is exorcized from the body, an object all the way across the room overturns seemingly on its own. Yeah, that’s scary. And what may be even more unsettling is the uncanny resemblance the bust of Josephus seen below has to Steve Carrell during his portrayal of John du Pont in Foxcatcher last year. WTF?! Frightening!

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The Drummer of Tedworth (1662)
Joseph Glanvill reported on suspected poltergeist activity in the West Country of England in his book Saducismus Triumphatus, which was basically a volume to thwart non-believers of a higher power. The tale he told was of the Drummer of Tedworth. As the story goes, John Mompesson of Tedworth had sued a local drummer for extorting money. Mompesson won the lawsuit and took possession of the drummer’s precious instrument (meaning his drum; get your mind out of the gutter). Suddenly, and inexplicably, Mompesson’s house began to be filled with the sound of nocturnal drumming. The general consensus was that the drummer brought these hauntings upon the household by way of witchcraft. This is assumed to be another very early, and frightening, instance of recorded poltergeist activity.

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Epworth Rectory Haunting (1716)
Moving along to another recorded instance of English poltergeist activity, we arrive at the Epworth Rectory Haunting. According to legend, the Reverend Samuel Wesley and his wife and their 19 children (that’s right, Duggars; you weren’t the first with “19 Kids and Counting”) lived in the Epworth Rectory in Epworth, Lincolnshire. On Christmas Day of 1716, the family initially reported mysterious sounds such as loud knocking and noises, which were thought to be the work of the ghost of the eldest Wesley child, a daughter nicknamed Old Jeffrey (wait, what… a daughter named Old Jeffrey?). According to Mrs. Wesley, “There was such a noise in the room over our heads, as if several people were walking, then running up and down stairs that we thought the children would be frightened.” The Wesleys searched the house for the source of the disturbance, but nothing could be found as the sounds continued. Then, shortly thereafter, in January of 1717, “Old Jeffrey” simply disappeared, as quickly and mysteriously as “she” had arrived, but the legend of the Epworth Rectory haunting lives on to this day.

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The Bell Witch (1817-1872)
The Bell Witch is the legend of an early American poltergeist haunting that occurred in Adams, Tennessee, in the early 1800’s. John Bell, Sr., was apparently harassed by a witch named Kate Batts, which resulted in poltergeist-like activity occurring in the Bell home. The activity included noises in the walls, unusual sounds, people being slapped and pinched, and objects being thrown and animals being spooked without visible cause. Additionally, there are other stories relating to the poltergeist’s involvement with the Bell Family. The family was haunted by scratches outside their door after Mr. Bell discovered a half-dog/half-rabbit (that’s right, half-dog/half-rabbit, and that’s not even the creepy part of the tale), and other stories have Bell being poisoned by the witch. The mystery as to just who the spirit was continued to be debated, with the most likely being someone Bell had wronged or a slave Bell had treated poorly. Whatever may have happened to this unsuspecting family and whoever may have done it could not be proven, but the results were undeniable. The Bell Witch seemed to indeed be a powerful entity that carried on for decades and was eventually discovered by Hollywood and was the subject of several feature films.

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The Enfield Poltergeist (1977)
Back to merry ol’ England for this one as we jump ahead approximately 100 years and land in Brimstown, Enfield, England. Single mom Peggy Hodgson, with four children aged 7-13, called the police after she and her family experienced extremely unusual events. Furniture moved around the apartment on its own (one police officer observed the furniture moving but could not say for certain whether it moved on its own or was pushed), and knocking sounds were being heard on the walls. If that wasn’t bad enough, later claims included the presence of demonic voices (yikes!), loud noises, rocks and toys being thrown, as well as overturned chairs and children levitating. Forget Disneyland; this is where kids want to go for real fun! Investigators studying the events had a hard time disputing the claims, and much of what was alleged to have happened was eventually considered to be genuinely true occurrences. Even the famous paranormal investigator Ed Warren reported finding one of the children, Janet, asleep while levitating in midair and determined all the children were under some form of demonic possession. Look for more on Warren’s investigation into this matter in The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist due out in 2016.

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Jim, the Coventry Ghost (2011)
Finally we have the case of Jim, the Coventry Ghost, which captured the attention of the British tabloids in 2011. Lisa Manning, along with her children, Jaydon and Ellie, and her partner, Anthony Powell, found themselves at the mercy of a suspected poltergeist. In September of 2011, just after the family had moved into the home, the common symptoms of poltergeist activity started to occur. Temperatures dropped, odd noises were happening all over the place, drawers opened and closed seemingly on their own, and chairs slid across the floor propelled by some unseen force. The situation quickly escalated with every casserole dish and kettle the family had being smashed and scratches showing up on Lisa and Anthony as well as the children. After a string of priests and mediums tried their hands at mitigating the situation, the family finally turned to television paranormal investigator Derek Acorah. Remarkably, after Acorah came to the house to draw the spirits out, all the haunting stopped. Fact? Fiction? Hard to tell. The only other interesting part of the story is the family that lived in the home before Manning and Powell fled abruptly, leaving new carpets and all their possession in a hurry to get away from something. Was it Jim? Could be.

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Keep this information about the Historical Origins of the Poltergeist in mind when you’re settling into your seat to see Poltergeist when it opens on May 22. Because the next time you hear a bump or scratch or think you see something moving ever so slightly on its own, you might just be seeing or hearing things… or you might be the next target of a poltergeist.

Poltergeist stars Sam Rockwell (Eric Bowen), Rosemarie DeWitt (Amy Bowen), Saxon Sharbino (Kendra Bowen), Kyle Catlett (Griffin Bowen), Jared Harris (Carrigan), and Kennedi Clements (Madison Bowen).

For more info visit the official Poltergeist website, “like” Poltergeist on Facebook, and follow Poltergeist on Twitter.

Legendary filmmaker Sam Raimi (producer) reimagines and contemporizes the classic tale about a family whose suburban home is invaded by angry spirits. When the terrifying apparitions escalate their attacks and take the youngest daughter, the family must come together to rescue her.

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Written by Scott Hallam

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