“We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine” – Eduardo Galeano
The problem with poltergeists, apart from the wanton destruction and attempts to lure you into the television set, is their mercurial behavior. They tend to act inconsistently. After all, if you could reliably walk into a poltergeist-infested house and produce the same phenomena repeatedly, we wouldn’t have to have these conversations about whether spirits, nasty or otherwise, actually exist. When stuff starts flying about the house guided by an unseen hand, one understandably regards this as a physical phenomenon. Nothing like getting clocked in the head by phantom-hurled dishware to wake up a little nascent empiricism and demand a natural explanation. Yet, what if we treat hauntings as a behavioral phenomenon, rather than a purely physical one? The committed physicalist will ultimately reduce psychological phenomena to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, but social psychologists, who spend a lot of time trying to sort out why humans in the aggregate do not behave as expected have long been able to offer us a useful model we can apply to the inconsistency of poltergeists.
Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), one of the pioneers of applied social psychology, noticed how hard it was to actually predict people’s behavior. This annoyed him. Hey, it annoys all of us. Essentially, after years of study he noticed that the same person in the same situation could not be relied upon to behave in the same way, nor would two different people placed in the same situation respond in the same way, and reasonably concluded that something more complicated had to be going on. Lewin was big into Gestalt Theory and thought there might be something to its central tenet that the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and puzzled how this could be applied to human behavior. Thus, Lewin suggested what has come to be a central theme in social psychology, that is, behavior is a function of the interaction of the person and the environment stating in no uncertain terms, “Even when from the standpoint of the physicist the environment is identical or nearly identical for a child and or an adult, the psychological situation can be fundamentally different” (Lewin, 1936, p24). Basically, the person (his past, present, future, personality, motivations, and desires) dynamically interact with his environment on a case-by-case basis and combine to form an interactive and dynamic system.
Now, folks who’ve been chasing poltergeists lo these many years have often noticed that poltergeist activity tends to attach itself to a particular person, occurring more frequently in their presence or vanishing entirely when they are extricated from the situation. This of course suggests to many that poltergeist activity is an “evoked” phenomena. This is to say, that due to an association with or focus on a particular individual around who the bulk of the weirdness revolves, one might reasonably conclude that said person was in some sense “generating” or catalyzing the phenomena (when not simply assumed to be an outright fraud or hoaxster). This begs the question of why such phenomena could not then be produced on demand, or at least by reproducing the circumstances under which they appeared. Any ghost hunter worth his Ouija board knows this is not the case. Why not then consider the possibility that poltergeist behavior is a function of person by environment (and by poltergeist as well, if we care to ascribe any independent existence to preternatural manifestations).
It’s always easier to wrap ones head around something when you don’t have to speculate in a vacuum, so let’s consider the famous case of the Turin, Italy’s bottle-smashing poltergeist at Via Bava No. 6. In 1900, Via Bava No. 6 was a wine shop called Bottigheria Cinzano in the Turin suburb of Vanchiga near the Piazza Vitorrio-Emmanuele I. This modest little wine and spirits store was run by the proprieter, Signor Fumero, his wife, and a thirteen-year-old assistant/waiter, and was really a rather unremarkable establishment, a charming little place to get oneself a slice of pizza al padellino and a tasty glass of Barbaresco. In November 1900, the staff of the Bottigheria Cinzano first mentioned that things had been getting a little strange. “Raynero, the proprietor of the Annonciata Baths, situated at 51, Via del Po, was a friend of the Fumero family, and was informed at the commencement of November of the phenomena which had for some time past been occurring in that house. A cat seemed to be taken with strange mad attacks; it jumped as though possessed, and threw down the bottles. The food which had been placed in the kitchen cupboard in the evening disappeared during the night, and so on” (Joire, 1917, p102). Raynero was not entirely convinced, but decided to poke around, reporting a distinct level of weirdness.
On November 27th, I was in the shop parlour with Fumero, whose wife had gone to Nole. I and one other person were seated at a table together; while, in the adjoining room, the assistant was engaged in washing bottles. The lad was in full view; and I myself did not lose sight of him for a single moment. All at once, a pair of shoes, thrown from the direction of the kitchen, came flying through the air, and fell at my feet. I instantly sprang up; and, followed by Fumero, rushed towards the kitchen to discover who had thrown them; but no one whatever was to be seen. The boy, during the whole occurrence, had not stirred from his place. Another day, whilst I was in the cellar with Signor Merini, an accountant, several bottles of wine toppled over, under my very eyes, and broke into fragments. Merini suggested that this might be caused by the fermentation of the wine in the bottles; whereupon several empty bottles turned over of their own accord, and broke, in a similar way. I can vouch for it that no human hands had touched any of the bottles” (Dubor, 1922, p224-227).
One might understandably show some concern at the antics of a spastic cat and midnight refrigerator raids when you’re trying to run a respectable business, but such nonsense might not even rise to the level of truly alarming. Sadly, the bizarre activity would shortly escalate. The bottle-smashing poltergeist announced its presence with a vengeance.
On the morning of November 16th, when only the wife of the shopkeeper and the assistant were in the house, they saw ﬁrst of all, according to what they said afterwards, a vessel containing liqueur, which was on the kitchen table turn over of itself; other vessels did the same; the furniture, the saucepans, and all kinds of articles commenced to dance about; some knocked together, others broke, others again disappeared entirely; the woman fainted with fright, the neighbours hurried in, and they telegraphed to the husband, who was absent from Turin, and who came back in all haste. All day long, under the eyes of several persons, the tables, chairs and utensils danced about. The phenomena continued on the following days, with only a few moments of respite. Meanwhile other similar occurrences began to take place in a cellar which the proprietor, M. Fumero, used for storing bottles. It was noticed that when the cellar was entered, the bottles, empty and full, broke, always by the action of the same unknown agency. In vain did they have recourse to a priest who blessed the place. The police arrived in their turn, but they also were powerless; however, it was intimated to poor Fumero that this thing must stop, by love or by force. Fumero understood, and yielded to the argument, being already greatly injured by the material and moral damage which he had suffered (Lombroso, 1906, p367-368).
Of course, in sleepy Vanchiga, the presence of a preternatural vandal was fodder for journalists. The local rag La Stampa ran an account with the impressive title, “The Spirit Devastators of the Via Bava” on November 19, 1900. Consequently, business boomed. Famed French parapsychologist Paul Joire happened to be living nearby in Turin, and upon reading the newspaper article immediately hopped a tram to visit the site of such anomalistic goings on.
In the street a crowd of persons of all classes were struggling for entrance into the wine-shop; and in the shop itself a veritable swarm of drinkers were seated at the tables, and occupying themselves, between glasses, by composing epigrams about the spirits who to-day were dumb; others were trying to push their way through with their elbows, in order to make inquiries of everybody; to hear something related, to see, to touch, to examine, commencing with the bottles and the saucepans, even to the chairs, which, it is said, were broken, and several of which were transported from one place to another. At the far end of the shop, at the counter, through a cloud of smoke and dust, we could distinguish a tall, corpulent, red-faced man (the landlord), who was turning and bending to right and left, holding in one hand a bottle of wine and receiving in the other his customers’ money, in the midst of a tempest of voices, cries, commands, and protestations from all directions. Sometimes the price of the wine drunk by one customer, who had taken advantage of the crowd to slip away unseen, would be demanded from another; the anger of the master fell upon the waiter, a boy of thirteen years of age, who would have needed a hundred eyes and a hundred arms to have met the wants of everybody, and—most important thing of all—to make them pay (Joire, 1917, p102-103).
Such was the burgeoning notoriety of the little wine shop and its bottle-smashing poltergeist that it came to the attention of the father of modern criminology Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), who had taken an interest in spiritualism late in life and at the time was a Professor of Forensic Medicine in Turin. Lombroso was determined to investigate this occurrence. Oddly, Lombroso reported that when he arrived, anonymously at first, the proprietor Fumero informed him that although the events described in the papers indeed occurred, that “Professor Lombroso had come, and since then the disturbances had ceased”. As he was the Lombroso in question, Lombroso found this a tad odd, but when he revealed his identity, Fumero explained that the curious crowds descending on his establishment, while a financial boon, had become a public nuisance, and under threat from the police, and having heard that Lombroso had taken an interest, declared he had driven away the spirits in order to take off some of the official heat. Yet, the poltergeist phenomena were definitely still occurring. Lombroso settled in for an investigation.
Lombroso, when himself investigating the matter, was not content to take any second-hand testimony. He visited the “haunted” house and witnessed certain phenomena, of which he gives the following account:—“The first time I entered Fumero’s cellar the place was in darkness; but the noise of broken glass, and of bottles rolling to my feet, was distinctly audible. The bottles were arranged in five compartments or ranks, one above the other. In the middle of the cellar was a fairly large table, and on it I placed six lighted candles. The light, however, had no effect on the phenomena; and the bottles were rolled, as by unseen hands, in the direction of the table, and broken to pieces beside it. In order to detect any possible trick, I made a close examination of the bottles, and satisfied myself that there was attached to them neither thread nor cord, by which their extraordinary movements could be controlled or accounted for. After an interval of a few moments, bottles began to fall, in twos and threes, from the various ranks. They descended quietly, and, as it were, deliberately, to the ground, in a manner which gave the impression that they were being carried in some unseen hand. When I quitted the cellar, the sound of broken bottles was audible all around me. Finally, at the end of November, the young assistant was sent away; and peace restored to the perturbed household. Here again, it appears that the phenomena were due to the presence of an adolescent, whose motivity externalized spontaneously, and whose invisible “double” abandoned itself to senseless practical jokes”. This, at any rate, was the conclusion arrived at by Lombroso; the theory of trickery being ruled out by the evidence of the facts. It is probable that the presence of Signora Fumero, whom Lombroso describes as in ill-health, and subject to hallucinations, contributed to the production of the manifestations, but that it was not indispensable is proved by the occurrence of phenomena, during her absence from home (Dubor, 1922, p224-227).
Often, the investigators of strange phenomena are described as unscientific or excessively credulous. This is because many are unscientific and excessively credulous. It would be hard to rank Cesare Lombroso among them. Dude basically invented scientific criminology. As he had verified to his satisfaction that the young teenage waiter was not directly to blame, yet the disturbances ceased when he was sent away, this led Lombroso and other investigators of poltergeist phenomena to speculate on what sort of natural mechanism could lead to such effects.
The phenomena ceased when a boy employed in the store was sent away, and a hasty critic might assume trickery on his part. But the boy was not in the cellar when Professor Lombroso carried out his investigations. There seems reason to suppose that these occurrences are generally due, at least partly, to the presence of young people, perhaps because of their great vitality. If we look on a human body as a reservoir of life-force which during growth is rapidly increasing in capacity and taking in that force from higher sources, we may perhaps conceive of an overflow, so to speak, if the enlargement of capacity does not proceed at an even rate, while the downrush of “force” continues. This overflow may then manifest as physical force outside the person’s body, as it would have manifested as physical force inside it—increased strength—if there had been no check. This suggestion is, of course, no more than a vague guess. It does, however, enable us to visualize a possible “animation” which would render these super-normal activities of non-living matter less incredible (Hill, 1919, p129-130).
No further disturbances surrounding the teenage waiter were ever reported at other establishments where he found employment. Freaking poltergeists just don’t like to validate theories, but what if a poltergeist is a behavioral phenomenon in Lewin’s sense – that each case is a function of person by environment, that is the current psychological state of an individual in all its complexity and the social/physical environment they find themselves at the time. This might also account for the fact that sometimes poltergeists irritatingly do seem to follow people. Maybe we’re all carrying around a poltergeist, waiting for the right social environment to give expression to it. As Antonio Porchia said, “He who does not fill his world with phantoms remains alone”.
Dubor, Georges de. The Mysteries of Hypnosis (Les Mysteres De L’hypnose). London: W. Rider & son, ltd., 1922.
Hill, J. Arthur 1872-1951. Spiritualism, Its History Phenomena And Doctrine. New York: Doran, 1919.
Joire, Paul Martial Joseph, 1856-. Psychical and Supernormal Phenomena: Their Observation And Experimentation … New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co, 1917.
Lewin, Kurt. Principles of Topological Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1936.
Lombroso, Cesare. “The Haunted Houses Which I have Studied”. The Annals of Psychical Science v3. London: Office of the Annals, 1906.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1835-1909. After Death–What?: Spiritistic Phenomena And Their Interpretation. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1909.