Understanding the Poltergeist

Iris Owen and Pauline Mitchell addressed the poltergeist aspects of Borley in their 1979 work, Marianne's Story - The Alleged Haunting of Borley Rectory. I have included most of that report verbatim in Chapter Seven, and reproduce two additional paragraphs here:

During the last 20 years, we have come to understand the poltergeist phenomenon much more than we did previously, and it is interesting to read, for instance, of the dragging footsteps, and the mysterious light in the window - phenomena that bothered the Smiths - and to realize that these are accepted components of poltergeist events happening at the present time. Moreover, with modern recording equipment the sounds have been recorded, the strange lights. . . have been photographed, and even objects have been photographed in flight. During recent years, many more investigators have witnessed and recorded poltergeist events, and there is now widespread acceptance and objectivity of the phenomenon. Poltergeist phenomena are much more commonly experienced than most people realize, and mild outbreaks and spontaneous occurrences are frequently reported to us [at the New Horizons Foundation]. It would not now seem so unlikely that both the Smiths and the Foysters could have experienced poltergeistry.(1)

We are inclined to believe [there were some] genuine phenomena. At the time the SPR report was written there was not such good evidence for the reality and objectivity of this type of phenomena as there is today. The events have all the ring of truth to anyone who has ben involved in this kind of research as one of us has (Iris Owen). Iris writes, "I have personally seen a spoon rise from my dining room table and float several feet across the room before gently coming to rest on the floor, under a radiator. The event was 'triggered off' by a remark that produced an emotional response.(2)

In May of 1995, Joanne McMahon of the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City forwarded an introductory letter of mine to Iris Owen. I did not know what to expect. On May 24, I received a four page letter from Mrs. Owen that contained some of the most uplifting news I had heard since beginning my search. The fact that she was very willing to help created a tremendous feeling of optimism and excitement.

"It was indeed a pleasure and surprise to receive your letter recently," she began. "I would indeed be delighted to receive a copy of your book, and would treasure it greatly." She surely chose a great way to introduce herself! That she responded so quickly and so thoroughly amazed me - it had been less than two weeks since I sent my inquiry. My initial letter had to pass through the hands of the kind folks at the Parapsychology Foundation before reaching Mrs. Owen. I felt most gratified! In the months that followed, Mrs. Owen became one of my most ardent supporters, supplying me with vast quantities of research and books. Among the scores of documents she gave me were a first edition of The Most Haunted House, and all her notes used to compose the New Horizons Foundation report on Borley Rectory.

The day I received her first letter, I called her immediately. She sounded so warm and so willing to help, I could not help but cry.

"My association with the affairs at Borley goes back a long way," explained Mrs. Owen's letter. "I remember reading about it during the 1930's when it happened, as my childhood home was not very far away in Cambridgeshire."

After the war, she met and married George Owen and they lived in Cambridge for 20 years. It was while living there that she and her husband became interested in psychical research. It was also while there that they met Trevor Hall, "who had a small research grant to explore the mathematical aspects of ESP." Mr. Owen was appointed to supervise Hall.

"Trevor was also taking part in the British [Society for Psychical Research]'s further investigation into the supposed hauntings at Borley," she continued. "Trevor was personally convinced the whole thing was a fraud, and everything he did was slanted to that perception."

Mrs. Owen then talked about Hall:

"Trevor devoted a lot of time to investigating Marianne's background, and through the accessibility of public records of births, marriages, and deaths in England, put together a picture of Marianne as an adventuress, a bigamist, a baby farmer, and obviously someone who would take part in frauds to suit her own ends. That was his firm conviction and he held it to the end of his life. I understand, in fact, he had written a biography of Marianne which would put forward these views and was only waiting for her death to publish it. He was obviously wary of being sued for libel while she still lived. However, he died without publishing it, and I do not know what happened to the manuscript. His son is a Professor of Maths at Leeds University and would probably know." (Mom would always say "maths" in this plural form, which bugged me to no end. It always sounded like "mass" to me. While she lived, I chose to ignore the inference that this speech pattern was probably peculiar to England, not the state of Maine. I also ignored it when people told me she had an English accent. In my letter of reply, I told Mrs. Owen how Duckworth Publishing commissioned Robert Wood to finish Hall's work.)

Mr. and Mrs. Owen moved to Toronto, Canada, and "had little interest in happenings at Borley, believing that after such a long period of time it would be impossible to know the real truth of what happened there so many years ago." Instead, they turned their interest to the study of poltergeists as "we always believed that there was some form of poltergeist phenomena happening." Research indicated young people and/or stressful situations seemed to serve as a conduit for poltergeist manifestations.

Iris and a group of seven other people conducted a fascinating experiment in 1972 that resulted in the book Conjuring Up Philip, which she wrote.

"Philip" was a figment of the imagination - created out of the fertile minds of the experimenters. Still, he "communicated" with the group! Mrs. Owen sent me a copy of the book, and I immediately started to read it while trying to digest all the other information she had sent. Some of what the Philip group discovered had relevance to the Borley Legend.

"Philip" was an experiment in psychokinesis. Except for Owen, the group did not have any background in paranormal activity. Over the course of several years, Philip communicated with the group in many ways, including rapping, moving tables, and switching lights on and off. He displayed definite character traits which were generally in keeping with the persona the group created for him. He demonstrated enjoyment for certain songs by keeping time with the music as the group would sing. He displayed a sense of humor by spilling drinks and using a table to chase people. He even "performed" when the group went on live television. Yet, there never was a real Philip.

Throughout her book, Owen made some very interesting observations:

The group was absolutely sure at all times that he was not a disembodied spirit, or even some mischievous spirit who had decided to play a prank by assuming the nature and personality of an invented character...

The historical ghost behaves just as one expects that it should...

In this situation what the mind can create, it can also, when it wants to, destroy...

...a poltergeist usually the result of one person's thoughts...

The group commented frequently on the similarity between recorded traditional poltergeist outbreaks and the Philip manifestation. There is a somewhat similar element of practical joking, the tenancy to lighthearted and minor mischief, a sense of humor, a flair for the unexpected, and a degree of role-playing...

Discussion and observation led us to believe that even in the group situation, the production of physical phenomena was caused initially by the release of tension...

While by no means discounting the possibility of manifestations by disembodied entities, we now believe that the communications we have been receiving from Philip in our own experiment, and probably in nearly all poltergeist activity, are due to the subconscious personality of the poltergeist person (i.e. the person around whom the phenomena are centered) or to the combined personalities in a group situation...

Neither are we saying...that spirits do not exist...

...what the observers claim to just exactly what they are expecting to see...

. . . We realized that should anything happen that we did not wish, we could control it with a concentrated thought...(3)

Owen talked about the Philip experience in the New Horizons Foundation report on Borley Rectory, "[During] the 'Philip' experiment an ashtray rose from the floor to the ceiling by itself, and dropped down close by the person who was the 'target' of a comment [about smoking]. This was seen by several people, and the sound of the ashtray hitting the overhead pipes and then hitting the table was recorded!"

The report continued:

We ourselves now believe that isolated spontaneous poltergeist phenomena are frequently 'triggered' as a release of suppressed emotion, and that they occur quite often. We have had hundreds of such incidents related to us. The behaviour of the stiletto, the tumbler, and the bottle, as related in the SPR report [on Borley], seem to be perfectly typical of this type of phenomena. Edwin Whitehouse was certainly the kind of person to become the focus of such events.

. . . it is not entirely unknown for two people in the same household to become the focus for poltergeist outbreaks, and it is certainly not impossible that two succeeding families in a house [Smith and Foyster] should have such experiences. This fact could account for the initial hearing of footsteps in the house, before Edwin Whitehouse was in the village. Either of the Foysters, or Adelaide, could have been the focus for the more minor events. Adelaide must have been a very emotionally confused little girl. She had lost her parents within a short time of each other under tragic circumstances. She had been taken away from her older brothers and sisters, and then finally brought to a strange country, and exposed to all the talk of ghosts and goblins. It is no wonder that she has most unhappy memories of her experiences as a young child! (4)

After so many years, it is impossible to determine if the young Adelaide could have been the focus of any poltergeist activity. In her April 6, 1995 letter to me, she said, "I only have vague memories of Borley but didn't know until I read books that it was haunted. [I] guess any thoughts I have, will have been prompted by those books."

In an August 19, 1994 letter, Adelaide added, "I spent most of my childhood in boarding schools. I was only home for some holidays in various houses. As I grew older, I spent less time at home, so was not around to see what was going on."

Her comments to me, however, do not mean Adelaide was not present when some of the alleged phenomena took place. Her comments only mean she does not remember them, or that she did not remember them to be unexplained.

Later in the New Horizons Foundation report, Owen and Mitchell wrote:

Harry Price arrived [during the Smith incumbency], in the middle of a typical poltergeist outbreak. . . during the 'seance' held in the Blue Room on the occasion of Price's first visit, taps were heard coming from the wooden back of the mirror in the room, and on being questioned, the communicator identified himself as Harry Bull. Our Philip experiment has shown clearly that in this situation, the communicator will claim to be whomever the majority of the participating group expect or wish it to be. The content of the material obtained in this situation, of course, comes from the subconscious minds of the participants, and answers to questions will be just what are expected in the circumstances. . .

Price's Blue Book of Instructions to investigators, well-meaning though it may have been, probably had the effect of stimulating imagination and producing exactly the apparitions and stories that were expected.

Withe regard to the planchette writings, again, our Philip experiment proves. . .that the content of these messages comes from subconscious minds of the participants. . . It is interesting that where the facts do not quite fit the story, or when there are anomalies (such as the different dates of her own death given by the alleged spirit of Katie Boreham [during the Glanville sittings], Price assumes there are "lying spirits, just as there are lying humans" [End of Borley Rectory p. 145). In the light of our Philip experience, we would say that either the members of the participating group find it difficult to remember everything that has gone before, or, as sometimes happened, if the composition of the group varied, then the story itself became varied to match the feelings or beliefs of that particular 'quorum.' (5)

That poltergeist activity is possible, under the right conditions, is one thing. That poltergeist activity was rampant at Borley is quite another. On the last page of the New Horizons Foundation report, the authors concluded:

In retrospect, it seems possible there is a logical explanation to fit all the different phases of the alleged hauntings at Borley over the years. The events follow a pattern which has been seen several times in cases which have made headlines in the media [Amherst; Amityville; The Exorcist]. A combined haunting and poltergeist outbreak is reported, followed by the arrival of investigators and journalists. The possibilities present in a 'good story' are obvious, and the story is embroidered and expanded. In many of these cases a psychic is called in to make contact with the ghost, and find out what is needed to bring peace to the supposed 'unquiet spirit.' . . .It has become a well-recognized sequence of events(6)

I have seen pictures and movies in the Owen home of amazing phenomena with no logical explanation. Some would cause even the most skeptical to wonder. After years of dedicated research, George Owen wrote in his scholarly tome, Can We Explain the Poltergeist?:

[I have] become persuaded of the reality of some paranormal phenomena in some poltergeist cases. . . we do well to reject no possibility, because it is not for us to legislate for the universe or to say in advance how many things should be in heaven and earth.. .

At the least [poltergeist cases] show us that there are physical forces at present unknown to science. The connection with emotion and unconscious mental states indicates that the underlying mechanism is in some sense "psychic" or "psychophysical. . ."

Whatever the conditions conducing to a poltergeist outbreak may be, they are extremely rare. One's chances of encountering a poltergeist at work is but one in millions. . .

There is little records in the annals of poltergeistery of the subjective experiences of the "medium. . ." Poltergeist activities seem not to require darkness, sympathetic observers, not the manifest entrancement of the medium. . . "materialization" of human forms is entirely absent.(7)

In the final analysis, to prove or disprove a paranormal experience is purely subjective and relies on the mind and will of each individual. People who believe they have had an experience are more adamant in their belief than those who have never had an experience. As I researched my book, Death; Then What? I realized that dreams and wishful thinking easily become reality. Once impressed on the storage areas of the brain, they are as real as any object grasped in the hand. Even lies, told often enough, become indisputable fact.

After years of research on things pertaining to the afterlife, my personal opinion is that spirits have far better things to do than knock about this plane. If such a thing existed as a distressed spirit, and if it had an important message to leave with a loved one or someone in need, a concise and very clear message would be presented. The message would be pertinent and very short - never in code. In all likelihood, it would be volunteered, and the not the result of a request for a manifestation.

Conversely, if "good" spirits exist, then it stands to reason "bad" spirits exist. Their influence would be mischievous and "devilish." Perhaps only one or two such manifestations would be needed to send the recipient and any researchers into turmoil trying to sort out the truth. My mother believed firmly in "Tantrabobous," and we were forbidden to discuss positive plans out loud for fear Satan would hear and subvert them. She believed people who consistently went against society and God were possessed. Her cries of "Holy Mary, Mother of God," and "Gott in Himmel," were prayers, not oaths. I believe her when she said the phenomena at Borley were man-made, including the conscious or subconscious wall writings. That does not rule out her belief in the hereafter or in spirits, however. It only means they were probably not present at Borley, especially in the huge numbers they were reported to have been.

Do I think Borley was haunted? I don't know - I wasn't there. I do know my mother never talked about any parapsychological subjects. She never talked about anything supernormal. In the 47 years I knew her, I never heard about or witnessed any psychic phenomena of any kind - not even remotely. This would seem to be very inconsistent with claims by Price that Marianne was psychic.

There was a lady who came to our home about 1964-65 who had psychological problems - the kind of thing researchers have indicated invites psychic phenomena. The lady was a client of my mother's but I was not privileged to know why, as is customary among professionals. While at our home on a number of occasions, this lady would go into a "trance" and start "speaking in tongues." One day I decided I had enough, and told her to "shut up." She came "out of it" immediately, looked at me with a sheepish stare, and that was the end of that.

Mrs. Owen told me in a June 21, 1995 letter, "From a parapsychological point of view we have never felt that it mattered whether or which of the events alleged to have happened at Borley were genuine or the result of trickery, because there are so many [other] well documented up-to-date cases which prove that indeed these phenomena do exist."

George Owen has written extensively on the various aspects of psychic phenomena. While not ruling out the possibility of the existence of poltergeists, his research labels such phenomena as extremely rare. However, the poltergeist does remain as one of several possible explanations for the paranormal. There are also several other possible explanations. Owen lists the mental acrobatics of Uri Geller as one of those possibilities. George and Iris Owen became convinced of Geller's paranormal ability during the taping of a television program in Toronto March 8, 1974.

Geller became aware of his psycho kinetic ability at an early age when his watch behaved abnormally. A few years later, he gave demonstrations of his mental telepathy while in the Israeli Army. His fame spread in the early 1970's as he continued to demonstrate ESP and mental agility.

During the taping of the 1974 program, various keys and utensils were bent without direct contact with Geller. Some gently broke apart under his sensitive touch. George Owen testified that at least two of the items he personally contributed to the show were very unique. He was positive it would have been impossible for Geller to have found duplicates ahead of time. Owen concluded, "we had received totally adequate proof of the existence of yet another mysterious force subject to some degree of mental control, and, whatever its origin, a physical force in the sense that it produces physical effects."(8)

How do the Philip Experiment and the phenomena produced by Uri Geller relate to Borley Rectory? If a group of people can use their mental abilities to conjure up an imaginary spirit;

and if a telepathic person like a Uri Geller can make objects move or bend using only his mind; then why couldn't people tuned to the paranormal create or cause so-called "poltergeist" phenomena in a large, drafty rectory? Could the subsequent events more often than not be the result of conscious or subconscious mental telepathy? At the very least, these are questions that deserve consideration.

The preceding observations do not address any consideration of life after death. On the contrary, they pigeon-hole certain earthly phenomena into man-made categories. If marvels such as ESP, mental telepathy and most poltergeists are products of the mind, the question still remains, "Do ghosts exist?" Borley had both; poltergeists and ghosts. In addition to those things happening inside the rectory and inside the church, there are many people who claim to have seen or heard the nun, the monk, the coachman, and the thundering horses. What about them?

Unfortunately, the question of life after death is too extensive to be addressed in this work. It is entirely possible every one of the witnesses who testified believed they saw . . . something. But what did they actually see? One hundred people in a room will give you 100 different answers. Each answer, in turn, will raise 100 new questions. ("Why would horses come back? Don't the dead have anything better to do? Where did the carriage go after the fire?")

Perhaps Iris Owen said it best: "Psychic researchers have been trying to prove scientifically for a hundred years that there is such a thing as life after death, and that those who have died can communicate with the living. To my mind no such proof exists. [Religious] teaching tells us [there is life after death] and it is a matter of faith - not scientific proof." [Emphasis Iris Owen.]



1. Owen, Iris; Mitchell, Pauline. Marianne's Story. Toronto: New Horizons Research Foundation, 1979. p. 37.

2. Ibid, p. 46.

3. Owen, Iris. Conjuring Up Philip. Ontario: PaperJacks Ltd., 1977. pp. 106, 109, 109, 112, 115, 117, 136, 138, 146.

4. Owen; Mitchell, op cit, p. 46.

5. Ibid, pp. 66, 67, 69.

6. Ibid, p. 77.

7. Owen, A.R.G. Can We Explain the Poltergeist? New York: Garrett Publications, 1964. pp. 430-36.

8. Owen, A.R.G. Psychic Mysteries of Canada. Ontario: Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1975. p. 217.