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The Case of the Missing Poltergeist

Robert Baker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 10.2, June 2000

Like many citizens, Fred Fudge reads the news during breakfast and, on rare occasions, even converses with Mrs. Fudge. A few days ago Mrs. Fudge said, “Fred, I think we have a mouse in the house. When I came in the kitchen this morning I saw droppings near the sink.” Rattling the paper and checking last night’s sports scores Fred grumbled, “Yes dear, could be you’re right.” Finishing the last few drops in his cup Fred then folded his paper, moved into the hall, and started up the stairs. Glancing down, Fred saw a small, grey, furry ball in the corner of the stairwell. “A mouse,” Fred yelped. “You're right dear. I've got a mouse cornered on the stairs.” Dashing into the kitchen Fred grabbed the broom and hurried back to the stairwell to commit mousicide. Raising the broom and flailing away with might and main Fred quickly discovered that he had beaten the hell out of crumpled bit of paper.

In this case not only was poor Fred guilty of papercide but he had also fallen victim to what psychologists call an error due to perceptual expectancy or a mistake in perception due to our human proclivity for developing mental sets or expectations of things to come. Magicians take advantage of this human failing to fake us out, and professional communicators use it to lure us into their messages. We constantly make mental guesses about how people, events, or things will be. Sometimes we are correct and other times we are wrong-and sometimes we are deliberately deceived. It is our mental “set” that causes us to literally see what we expect to see and hear what we expect to hear. Since we constantly make assumptions or mental guesses about how things will be, it is hardly surprising that we are often wrong and often misled.

A clear example of this fact and the operation of this perceptual principle occurred recently in a series of strange events in a modest but comfortable brick home in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of a central Kentucky city - events that convinced the homeowners and a neighbor that they were entertaining a full-fledged poltergeist or “noisy ghost.”

The case began with a phone call from Mrs. S., a sixty-two-year-old housewife and mother who, both hesitant and apologetic, informed me that some very strange things had been happening in her house over the past few months. Mrs. S. told me of flying telephones, appliances that start by themselves, doors that slam mysteriously, and ghostly pool games. Since her account was tantalizing enough to warrant a personal visit, I told her to make an annotated list of everything that had happened and that I would be there in a few days.

The following week I drove to the house and was greeted by Mr. and Mrs. S. and their middle-aged neighbor, Mrs. R., who had, during her visits, also experienced two of the startling events: a suddenly slamming door and a leaping telephone. Mrs. S. had, as I requested, made a comprehensive list of the unusual events. They were:

Pool Vacuum Telephone
  1. Pool balls clacking in the basement and the voices of people playing billiards. Yet no one was in the basement pool room.
  2. Months later Mrs. S.'s son and his friend were frightened by a "mysterious force” that disturbed the air and also caused a valvehead cover to leap off a shelf.
  3. On one occasion Mrs. S. saw her son seated in the front seat of his Corvette - a car he had been repairing in the basement garage - but upon going upstairs she found this son watching TV.
  4. While vacuuming the bedroom Mrs. S. turns off the cleaner and goes into the kitchen to answer the phone. Suddenly, someone turns on the vacuum. When Mrs. S. investigates no one is there but the family dog.
  5. Four adults - Mr. and Mrs. S. and Mr. and Mrs. R. - sitting around the kitchen table “see,” out of the corner of their eyes, the telephone suddenly leap from the phone stand onto the floor under the table.
  6. While the neighbor, Mrs. R., was leaving the small bathroom between the bedroom and the kitchen to enter the kitchen - someone or some force - violently slams the door leading to the bedroom.
  7. One evening while preparing dinner and in process of melting butter in a small skillet, Mrs. S. heard the front door bell. To avoid scorching the butter, Mrs. S. sat the skillet atop an empty saucepan on the back burner and hurried to the door. Returning minutes later, she finds the skillet - melted butter unspilled - sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. No one had entered or left the kitchen but Mrs. S.
  8. A flower pot holding a spider plant and hanging from the kitchen ceiling periodically shakes and vibrates in an unpredictable manner for no apparent reason. A second plant, similarly suspended and in line with the first but at the other end of the room neither shakes nor vibrates.
  9. With the exception of the phantom pool game, all of the other events occurred within a few weeks of each other over the space of two or three months. The pool game had happened several years before.

I began my investigation by assembling Mr. and Mrs. S. and Mrs. R. around the dining room table and going over the list with them in order to gain additional details and specific information relevant to the happenings. I also told the group that ghostbusters like myself proceeded by looking first for all possible natural causes for the phenomena before resorting to occult or supernatural explanations. If it so happened that none of the natural or scientific explanations proved to be satisfactory then - and only then - did we seek out uncanny causes or conclude that something unearthly was at work. All agreed that this strategy made good common sense and was a sound way to operate.

Proceeding chronologically, I studied each event, examined the artifacts of concern, inspected the surrounding environment, and interviewed each of the individuals involved. My findings are summarized below:

  1. The Phantom Pool Game - Careful interrogation revealed that the only one who reported hearing “voices” in the pool room was Mrs. S.'s 86-year-old mother who was, admittedly, hard of hearing. Moreover on other occasions the grandmother had - as elderly, semi-deaf people frequently do - mistaken street and other noises for human voices. Both ladies did, nevertheless, agree that they had heard “clacking pool balls.” On inspecting the wall-mounted rack holding the pool balls when they were not in play I found it to be suspended by a single screw at the top. The slightest nudge or movement does cause the rack to swing in a pendulum-like fashion and causes the pool balls to roll back and forth clacking against each other noisily. Any house or foundation vibration could and did cause the rack to sway and the loose balls to “clack” against each other. A finger tap against the bottom edge of the rack not only caused the rack to sway back and forth but also produced a number of clacks. Such noises ordinarily would not be heard from upstairs unless one opened the basement door and listened intently, as the two ladies had at the time of the phantom pool game. While in the pool room I also noticed slight and periodic vibrations of the entire house structure. According to Mr. S. who built the house, they were due to the bedrock foundation and heavy truck traffic on the nearby interstate. Ergo: no game was in progress and the clacking in sounds were caused by the pool balls rolling in the wall rack. The voices, if any, were misinterpretations of other noises or sounds issuing from places other than the basement pool room.
  2. The Mysterious Force - The fact that several years elapsed between the phantom pool game and the next mysterious event logically rules against the presence of a “resident” poltergeist continually harassing the family. On interviewing Mrs. S.'s 23-year-old son and his friend, I discovered they had recently acquired a damaged Corvette they were in process of restoring. Since the car had been involved in a fatal accident, the two friends were telling each other ghost stories and trying to “freak each other out.” Then, when a greasy valve cover carelessly placed too near the edge of a downward slanting shelf slid off, bounced off the Corvette hood, and clattered noisily across the concrete floor - the two concocted the story of the “mysterious force.” Neither took the event seriously and the son saw it as an opportunity to tease his mother whom he regarded as overly superstitious anyway.
  3. The Phantom Son - This event was closely related to the one above. Since the son had been working on the interior of the Corvette for several nights in a row, Mrs. S. was accustomed to seeing him inside the car every evening. Taking a quick glance in the car and expecting to see him there, she did see him there even though he had already gone upstairs. Such misperceptions, based upon our mental set, are very, very common. Further, it is also possible that Mrs. S. may have seen her own reflection in the dark-tinted windows of the car and mistook it for that of her son. Of course, if Mrs. S. had stopped, opened the car door, peered inside and tried to talk to her son, she would have immediately recognized her error. Mrs. S. admitted that she merely gave the car a passing glance and and was surprised only after going upstairs and finding her son there and not downstairs.
  4. The Self-Starting Vacuum - Inspecting the vacuum cleaner and turning the handlemounted, sliding switch on and off several times, it was soon obvious that this sliding switch could be delicately poised at a point where even the slightest jar would flip the switch from off to on. Following several delicate adjustments, I was able to turn the vacuum on and then turn it off in such a way that even the slightest movement imparted to either the floor or the base or handle of the cleaner itself would be sufficient to put the vacuum in service. “When you turned it off and left it sitting in the middle of the hall was anyone or anything in the hall or bedroom?” I asked. “No,” Mrs. S. replied. "And when you returned had anything at all changed? Did anyone or anything come down the hall?” “No,” she answered, “the only thing different was that our dog was now lying on the bed.” In other words, the dog came down the hall and into the bedroom after you left? “Yes, that’s right.” I then demonstrated to Mrs. S. the delicate position of the switch and just how easy it was to turn it on by merely giving the handle a gentle nudge. I explained that most likely when she shut it off she left the switch in this very sensitive position and when the dog came down the hall and bumped against the vacuum he was responsible for turning it on. Mrs. S., again, accepted this possibility as both plausible and likely.
  5. The Leaping Phone - On inspecting the phone on its stand, I was told that the hand-held phone and the base upon which it rested was in the same place and position it was on the day it “jumped off and fell under the dining room table.’ The first thing I noticed was the relatively unstable position of the telephone due to its being balanced atop three books - a city directory and two phone books - with the phone resting on the smallest book on top. The phone and its base, an automatic answering machine, was connected to the wall outlet about three feet away by two parallel wires: 1) the phone line; and 2) a standard 110V power cord. There was a moderate amount of slack in the two lines so that both rested lightly on the floor between the stand and the wall outlet. If one picked up the wires between the outlet and the stand and gave them a quick jerk it would pull the phone off the stand and dump in onto the floor under the dining room table. Mrs. S, at the time of the leap, was sitting in a chair half way between the stand and the wall outlet, less than a foot away from the wall and the dangling lines. When I asked Mrs. S. if the back legs of any of the chairs had ever become entangled in the phone wires she replied that she couldn’t remember it but she did admit that it was possible. Most of the time she said she was careful. I then demonstrated how easy it was to lift and set the chair down in such a way that the back leg of the chair came down between the wall and the wires. I then told her, “Don't look down. Just sit down and scoot the chair up to the table. When she did this the two wires were drawn taut with the phone poised precariously atop the books on the stand. “Now shift your chair, Mrs. S., either forward or sideways.” As soon as she complied the phone toppled from the stand and would have bounced under the table had not I put a cushion underneath to catch it and prevent damage. Mr. and Mrs. S. and Mrs. R. all agreed this was the most probable cause of the original event. Because of their fright and surprise none of them recalled the exact position of either the chair or the wires after the phone hit the floor. My original supposition was that the family dog, a large friendly beagle, had been responsible. According to Mrs. R., however, the dog was asleep On the floor beside her chair on the opposite side of the table from the phone.
  6. The Slamming Door - The unusually small (536-foot) utility bathroom, located between the kitchen and one of the bedrooms, has two doors: one from the kitchen and one from the bedroom. On entering the room and repeatedly opening and shutting one of the doors while the other stood ajar, I was immediately impressed by the amount of air pressure created by the doors opening and closing. According to Mrs. R., the neighbor, she had just washed her hands and was moving into the kitchen when the door behind her - the door going into the bedroom - was violently slammed. To recreate the event I stood in the center of the room with the bedroom door ajar and the door to the kitchen closed. Giving the bedroom door a gentle push I was surprised to find the door so delicately balanced it slammed shut with ease. Even a single finger push resulted in a fairly hard slam. The most violent slam, however, occurred with the bedroom door ajar and the kitchen door closed. Suddenly opening the kitchen door and pulling it quickly toward me generated so much air pressure the bedroom door slammed violently. With Mrs. R. watching, I demonstrated how the slam could have occurred in either one of two ways: first, after washing and drying her hands in the small area and in process of turning to open the kitchen door, her heel could have easily given the bedroom door enough impetus to cause it to slam; or, second, in opening the closed door into the kitchen suddenly pulling it back, the resulting change in air pressure in the small confined area would suffice to slam the bedroom door with force. Mrs. R. was not certain which of the two things had happened but she did accept one or both as the most reasonable and probable causes of the original event.
  7. The Flying Skillet - By having Mrs. S. repeat her actions just as she performed on the evening the skillet flew from the stove, it was evident that natural causes were again responsible. According to Mrs. S. she was melting butter and heating it on one of the front burners of her four-burner electric stove. After the butter melted she heard the front door bell, and, not wanting the the butter to scorch, she picked the skillet up and set it atop a small saucepan containing water which was heating on one of the back burners. In carrying out her actions for me and using the same skillet and saucepan, it was clear that she set the skillet on the saucepan at a precarious angle. This, she assured me, was the way she had done it originally. Moving over to the stove and giving the skillet a gentle forward tap, the skillet slid off the saucepan, bounced across the front burner, slid down from the top of the stove to land flat on the kitchen floor approximately in the same position where it was propelled by the hypothetical poltergeist. I explained to Mrs. S. that any vibration or even a boiling, vibrating pan could easily dislodge the skillet and send it skittering across the stove and onto the floor contents intact - depending, of course, upon the angle of the fall. While it was somewhat unusual that none of the butter spilled, the fact that it could have had sufficient time to cool and congeal after being removed from the high heat should not be overlooked.
  8. The Shaking Spider Plant - When Mrs. S. called my attention to the spider plant suspended from the ceiling she also said that it periodically vibrates for no apparent reason. Mr. S. corrected his wife by saying he believed the vibrations were due to heavy traffic on Interstate 75, located a few hundred yards away. During the time I watched the plant it would clearly shake for few seconds and then stop, alternating between movement and stillness every few seconds. After I moved to a nearby window and watched the distant traffic on the interstate, there was little doubt as to the source of the vibrations. The reason the second plant failed to vibrate was due simply to the fact that this plant had larger, heavier, and thicker leaves and it was located in a position less sensitive to the tremors caused by the heavy truck traffic. This vibration, I am convinced, proved to be a significant causative factor in a number of the unusual events, particularly the pool game and the flying skillet.

Summary and Conclusions

Although singly each of the events would not have led Mr. and Mrs. S. and their neighbors to assume something of a paranormal nature was afoot, the concatenation of these events over a short period of time did lead to the development of a perceptual set which made each subsequent event more uncanny than the one before. Thus, gradually, the couple made the assumption that something supernatural and even “poltergeist-like” must be involved. Since they and their neighbors were intelligent, well-educated, and somewhat skeptical from the outset, they quickly and readily accepted the naturalistic explanations I provided. They were, in fact, grateful and relieved by my assurance that their home was free and clear from any and all spiteful and demonic influences.

Had somewhat less skeptical and more superstitious individuals been involved, the outcome would have been significantly different. Each succeeding event would have convinced true believers in ghosts that a poltergeist was, indeed, at work. With such a perceptual set it is probable that additional ghostly pranks would have occurred. The less skeptical, with different perceptual expectancies, would have seen all of these events as positive proof of a persistent spectre. Moreover, they would have presented their case in such a way that the editors of Fate, The National Enquirer, Globe, Star, Sun and Weekly World News would be delighted to feature it in their pages as indisputable proof of a spiritual invasion. Readers of such periodicals would, I am sure, agree that ghosts are not only real but they can be found everywhere at any time. It is also likely that they would regard my present efforts at poltergeisticide as purile and foolish attempts to explain away positive and conclusive evidence of a very real and geisty presence.

In cases like this one, our perceptual errors can be of major consequence. On other occasions these mental sets and misperceptions have led to tragic consequences. On July 3, 1988, the crew of the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airbus killing 290 people. This was an even clearer example of the perceptual expectancy principle at work. Fearing an attack, both the commander and the crew believed they were in jeopardy and fired in self-defense. Military psychologists have long been aware that soldiers, sailors, and airmen in their first battle suffer considerable stress before and during the fighting and may confuse their expectancies with reality. Not only do such tragedies make it doubly important that we carefully check our facts before jumping to conclusions but also that we recognize and pay more attention to the limitations and deficiencies of normal human perception. As for geists - polter- or otherwise - before blaming them for every domestic anomaly we cannot explain we would do well to apply Harrington’s principle of “least astonishment.” In his book Dance of The Continents (1983) Harrington states:

Understanding is a sport of participation and therefore something of a game. . . . The game has only one rule: draw the least astonishing conclusion that can be supported by the known set of facts. . . . Every least astonishing conclusion is a winner, judged to be the most probable choice of all the available competitors.

Robert Baker

Robert A. Baker is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Kentucky, Lexington.