Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Poltergeists

Literally, noisy ghosts (from the German): mischievous household Spirits who traditionally make rapping noises, throw around furniture and small objects, etc. Real-world poltergeist reports very often involve homes containing disturbed adolescents, suggesting undisciplined Talents or (to more sceptical investigators) ingenious trickery. The poltergeist tradition is sufficiently widely accepted that a genuine and active specimen features in the otherwise nonfantastic detection Buried for Pleasure (1948) by Edmund Crispin (real name Bruce Montgomery; 1921-1978); typically, it is resistant to religious Exorcism since the keynote is mischief and not Evil. Poltergeist activity – a hurled plate – is the first sign of the wakening of mythic forces by the emotional turmoil of modern youngsters in Alan Garner's The Owl Service (1967). Colin Wilson's The Philosopher's Stone (1969) includes a poltergeist episode whose ghostly phenomena result from a kind of morbid spiritual gestalt in a neurotic household, including frustrated adolescents: adopting the role of Occult Detective, the protagonist uses his own talents to feed positive "vibrations" into this vortex, dispersing it after a display of spectacularly amplified effects. The heroine of William Mayne's It (1977) finds herself framed, as it were, in the "disturbed adolescent" template, since she has inadvertently acquired a Witch's familiar whose undirected energies manifest as poltergeist behaviour, forcing her into uncharacteristic actions in order to rid herself of it. Terry Pratchett offers a roughly similar power-source for ghostly doings in Reaper Man (1991), where the retirement of Death produces a temporary backlog of uncollected Souls whose aggregated energy comically "earths itself in random poltergeist activity".

In Cinema, The Exorcist (1973) is – like its parent novel The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty – based on a supposed poltergeist event involving a child, though here the heart of the problem is Possession. The Poltergeist movies utilize a female child more strategically, as innocent victim of Hauntings and Demons, and lack the sense of ambiguous complicity appropriate to a youngster's role as source or lightning-rod in classic poltergeist cases. [DRL]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.