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  • Bryan Williams

A Yuletide Poltergeist: Looking Back on the Pearisburg Case

Although they've traditionally been associated with the pesky and mischievous actions of disembodied spirits, a good amount of parapsychological research now seems to indicate that poltergeist phenomena - typically characterized by a series of mysterious object movements and odd noises (such as knocks, raps, thuds, and poundings) which seem to have no clear physical source - are likely to be associated with living people. This is based in part on the observation that in a number of reported poltergeist cases, the phenomena seem to most often occur whenever one particular individual (often referred to as the poltergeist agent) is present. This hints at the possibility that the phenomena are being unconsciously produced by the agent through a large-scale form of psychokinesis (PK, or "mind over matter"). [1-3] Among the various poltergeist cases which seem to be in line with this observation is a lesser-known one that had reportedly broken out in the town of Pearisburg, Virginia, back in 1975. Even though it'd received a fair amount of publicity in the media at the time, this case remains to be relatively obscure today, perhaps because it cannot be taken as being too highly evidential, since few of the reported phenomena were able to be independently observed by outside witnesses. Despite this, the case is somewhat notable for two reasons: First, it contains certain characteristics which are consistent with those found in more extensively documented poltergeist cases. And second, it just happened to have taken place during the Christmas season. The case was investigated by the first president of the PRF, the late J. Gaither Pratt, who at the time was affiliated with the University of Virginia. [4] The phenomena reported in the case apparently began rather subtly, with small isolated incidents occurring in the home of a widow named Mrs. Wilson, who had recently taken in a foster child - a nine-year-old boy who'd been legally removed from the custody of his birth parents due to their problems with alcoholism. The incidents seemed trivial at first, with flowerpots seeming to repeatedly tumble from the windowsill and break on the floor. Initially these were attributed to Mrs. Wilson's cat simply pushing the pots off the ledge, and little more was thought of them. But on the evening of December 19th, the incidents became even more pronounced. Mrs. Wilson had just put the boy to bed that evening on the living room couch and was working in the kitchen when two pieces of fruit (an orange and a banana) had suddenly fallen from the top of a tall cabinet set in a corner of the kitchen near the living room. Again thinking that the cat had disturbed them, Mrs. Wilson replaced the fruit back on top of cabinet. But soon afterward, the same two pieces fell again. Then, multiple disturbances reportedly began happening at such a rapid pace that it was difficult to fully keep track of them. These included the Christmas tree seeming to suddenly tip over and fall in a corner of the living room; Mrs. Wilson set it properly upright again, but it later fell over a second time. The disturbances soon prompted to Mrs. Wilson to call her grown son Edward, who urged her to call in the police. She also contacted her next-door neighbor, Mr. Cardwell, a retired utility worker who'd offered to be available whenever she needed help. He was the first to arrive on the scene, and witnessed a few of the disturbances while they were still in progress. In one instance, Mr. Cardwell was talking with Mrs. Wilson in the kitchen when he heard the sound of a "rumble" coming from the living room. The foster child was standing in a corner of the kitchen near the living room doorway at the time, and when asked to look in and see what'd happened, the boy replied, "That old rocking chair just turned over." Mr. Cardwell felt unnerved by the incident because he was certain that neither the boy, nor anyone else, had been in the living room when the sound was heard. Something then abruptly caught his eye in the open doorway of Mrs. Wilson's bedroom, and he turned his head just in time to witness an old-fashioned Singer sewing machine falling down in the middle of the bedroom. Mr. Cardwell did not see anybody inside the room when it happened, which again raised his unsettledness. Objects continued to be disturbed when Mrs. Wilson's son Edward arrived, though curiously, neither he nor his mother had actually witnessed any objects beginning to move; they only noticed the objects when they were already in motion. Another curious incident involved a six-pack carton of soda bottles on an outside table, which had apparently moved from its original position at the back of the table to the floor in front of the table. Several other objects had been placed in front of the bottles on the tabletop, but none of them appeared to have been disturbed. This suggested that rather than simply sliding across the table and falling off, the bottles had somehow risen over these other objects in order to land where they were found. The two police officers who responded were baffled by the situation, finding the home in much disarray and with no clear motive for it. Seeking assistance with this seemingly inexplicable matter, they eventually reached out to the University of Virginia, which resulted in the brief investigation conducted by J. Gaither Pratt. By the time Pratt had arrived in Pearisburg, Mrs. Wilson and the boy had already vacated the home where the disturbances took place, and the phenomena seemed to have quieted down. Mrs. Wilson and the boy only briefly returned a few days later, when Mrs. Wilson's other grown son Donald had brought them to the house to gather their Christmas things and clean up some of the disarray that had been left. While they were there, a small cabinet had fallen over in Mrs. Wilson's empty bedroom (where the sewing machine had fallen previously), while Mrs. Wilson and the boy were on their way downstairs from the second floor. This again prompted the family to vacate the home, for fear that the disturbances would start up again. Two other brief incidents occurred while Mrs. Wilson and the boy were spending Christmas Eve in the home of Donald's own family. While the boy and Donald's son were in one of the upstairs bedrooms, a small bookcase fell over. Not long afterward, a small statuette that had been sitting on a ledge at the top of stairs had fallen and broke. Donald had stated that although he did not see the statue fall, he had been in a position to see if someone had faked the incident by throwing it. The incident had unnerved other members of Donald's family, which ultimately led to the police being called in to take the boy out of the home - a decision the family regretted having to make, as they felt genuinely devoted to the boy. The boy remained in the custody of social services in the few days following, until he was placed into another foster home. This apparently brought an abrupt end to the Pearisburg poltergeist case. As mentioned above, this case contains several characteristics which are consistent with those found in other poltergeist cases. These include the following:

  • One sees possible signs of object focusing in this case, where the same particular objects are moved or disturbed multiple times. This characteristic is suggested by the repeated fall of the flowerpots, the fruit falling from the top of the cabinet more than once, and the Christmas tree falling over twice. A survey by the late William Roll of 116 poltergeist cases reported throughout the years had indicated that object focusing occurred in 76.7% of them. [5, p. 390] There may even be a slight hint of area focusing, when two disturbances occurred in the same area of the home - Mrs. Wilson's bedroom.

  • The fact that Mrs. Wilson and her son reportedly never saw an object beginning to move (and only noticed them when they were already in motion) is something that has also been reported in a few other poltergeist cases, where the witnesses were not able to see an object start in motion while they were directly looking at it. [5, pp. 396 - 397] This would seem to suggest that directly watching an object can have an inhibiting effect on its chances of moving or being disturbed.

  • The unusual movement seemingly exhibited by the carton of soda bottles appears to be consistent with reports in other poltergeist cases of objects seeming to move in an unusual fashion, which have included ""floating," "hovering," "zigzagging," and passing around corners. Roll's survey indicated that in 105 poltergeist cases where object movements were reported, unusual movements like these were described in 40.9% of them. [5, p. 389]

  • As Pratt had initially observed [4, p. 182], this case appears to be one in which the suspected poltergeist agent was a young boy who came from a "broken home" and was not living with his own birth parents at the time of the poltergeist outbreak. A similar kind of situation has also been observed in several other poltergeist cases, as well: For instance, in a case reported in Newark, New Jersey [1, Ch. 4], the suspected agent was a boy who was being raised by his grandmother because his abusive father had been killed by his mother, who was incarcerated and unable to care for him. The suspected agents (a ten-year-old girl and her younger brother) in another case were also living in the care of their grandparents at the time of the poltergeist outbreak, as well. [6] In a case reported in a rural part of the Southern United States [7], the agent was a boy who was being raised by his elderly foster parents, since his birth father was a heavy drinker and was often in jail, and his birth mother had abandoned the boy and his siblings for a time. And in a case reported in Columbus, Ohio [8], the agent was a girl who had been in the care of her foster parents nearly all of her life, with her birth mother having abandoned her at the hospital when she was an infant. Roll further found that this kind of foster child situation was present in a fair amount of the 116 poltergeist cases he'd surveyed, as well, with 32.7% of the cases involving children below the age of 19 who were living away from home. [5, p. 402] Another survey conducted by Monika Huesmann and Friederike Schriever of 54 German poltergeist cases similarly found that around 38% of them involved children under the age of 19 who were not living with both of their birth parents at the time of the poltergeist outbreak [9].

One thing that Pratt had noticed was different from these other cases was that in the Pearisburg case, the boy seemed to be happy living with Mrs. Wilson, and she and other members of her family seemed to like the boy, as well (whereas in these other cases, there was often some degree of tension and unsettledness between the child and his/her foster parents). The boy also seemed to be really looking forward to his first real Christmas in a stable foster home, and so there didn't seem to be clear signs of a potentially stressful or problematic situation that one often finds with the agent in other poltergeist cases. This led Pratt to suggest that perhaps the tension and anxieties that the boy had experienced previously when living with his birth parents (a situation that was unstable and problematic for him) may have lingered on in his mind, and having not been therapeutically resolved, may have continued to upset him from time-to-time, leading to the poltergeist outbreak. [4] This would seem sensible when one considers the effects of negative psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress, where memories of a previously upsetting situation may continue to affect a person for some time afterward, especially when they have not been coped with therapeutically. While it remains a bit unclear as to whether Pratt's suggestion does indeed apply to the boy in the Pearisburg case, it does offer another intriguing possibility for investigators to consider when looking into the psychological dynamics that may be underlying some reported poltergeist disturbances.

The PRF would like to wish everyone a very happy holiday season! References & Notes: [1] Roll, W. G. (1972/2004). The Poltergeist. Garden City, NY: Nelson Doubleday, Inc. (Reprinted by Paraview Special Editions) [2] Rogo, D. S. (1986). On the Track of the Poltergeist. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. [3] For a general overview of the parapsychological findings which suggest a human link to poltergeist phenomena, see the paper contained in a previous entry on poltergeists in the PRF blog. [4] Pratt, J. G. (1978). The Pearisburg poltergeist. In W. G. Roll (Ed.) Research in Parapsychology 1977 (pp. 174 - 182). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. [5] Roll, W. G. (1977). Poltergeists. In B. B. Wolman (Ed.) Handbook of Parapsychology (pp. 382 - 413). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. [6] Pratt, J. G., & Palmer, J. (1976). An investigation of an unpublicized family poltergeist. In J. D. Morris, W. G. Roll, & R. L. Morris (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1975 (pp. 109 - 115). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press. [7] Palmer, J. (1974). A case of RSPK involving a ten-year-old boy: The Powhatan poltergeist. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 68, 1 - 33. [8] Roll, W. G., & Storey V. (2004). Unleashed - Of Poltergeists and Murder: The Curious Story of Tina Resch. New York: Paraview Pocket Books. [9] Huesmann, M. & Schriever, F. (1989). Steckbrief des Spuks – Darstellung und Diskussion einer Sammlung von 54 RSPK-Berichten des Freiburger Instituts für Genzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene aus den Jahren 1947 – 1986 [Characteristics of Poltergeists – Presentation and discussion of a collection of 54 RSPK reports from the Freiburg Institute for the Border Regions of Psychology and Mental Health from the years 1947 – 1986]. Zeitschrift für Parapsychologie und Genzgebiete der Psychologie, 31, 52 – 107.

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