After the Second World War, psychological concepts of mind over matter provided a new way to study the poltergeist – a rare and strange phenomenon in which people witnessed objects move on their own. What was its historical significance?
Reimagining the Poltergeist in Twentieth-Century America and Britain is my PhD dissertation in progress at the Department of History, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Advisor: Dr. Joy Dixon. Dissertation committee: Dr. Robert Brain, Dr. Carla Nappi, and Dr. Leslie Paris.
What is a poltergeist?
The poltergeist refers to invisible, mischievous forces known to knock on walls, throw objects of all kinds, and upturn heavy furniture. By the 1950s, psychological and psychoanalytical concepts of human potential, mind over matter, and emotional well-being were introduced into poltergeist households, challenging and reshaping widely-held notions of spirits and life after death being responsible for the manifestations.
The historical study
This study is not to prove or disprove theories about the poltergeist, although it may provide insights into historical encounters with the phenomenon.
This dissertation is about how people experienced and studied the poltergeist phenomenon.
As authoritative individuals – family, neighbours, police, religious leaders, journalists, skeptics, and psychical researchers – assessed what was going on, how did this process impact the meaning these events had for those who experienced it directly? How was knowledge itself formed and debated in the post-war decades?
In plain terms, this is what this dissertation sets out to do:
- to show how the poltergeist impacted the lives of the people whose homes became the site of this phenomenon, both during and after the poltergeist ran its course;
- to examine the different interpretations of the poltergeist and explain the contexts in which these interpretations were made;
- to evaluate how formal research into this phenomenon by parapsychologists, psychical researchers and other investigators developed in the decades following the Second World War, specifically their interactions with eyewitnesses, research methodologies, and theories; and
- to explore how these experiences, research, and analyses stimulated discussion and challenged prevalent ideas about metaphysics, the physical world, and human potential; and in turn the ways in which the poltergeist, hauntings and ghosts have been portrayed in popular culture and how those portrayals influenced people’s interpretations of them when they occurred.
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