The Hidden Whisper begins with mild, almost inconsequential poltergeist activity, then escalates and becomes more severe and threatening over time. Have you found that this progression is fairly typical of such cases?
The idea that poltergeist events “ramp up” to become more severe and threatening is not necessarily characteristic of the phenomenon, but such patterns have been reported. Generally speaking, most poltergeist outbreaks don't seem to last particularly long, and normally persist for somewhere between a couple of weeks and a couple of months (although some have been reported to last on and off, for years). Outbreaks typically involve object movement and/or inexplicable noises within a specific environment. Sometimes incidents can have an almost playful character or nature to them, whilst at other times they can be perceived as more hostile. It's fairly rare for people to be physically hurt by poltergeist activity such as object movements, although in around 15% of cases, people report anomalous physical aggression, including feelings of being pinched, inexplicable bruises, and scratches.
Do you have a particular theory about the causes of haunting or poltergeist activity?
Discounting cases of fraud (which some studies have put at around a quarter of incidents), I think the jury is still out. The book discusses the various main options when considering both types of event, but in terms of poltergeist activity, the theory that holds the most resonance with me is the RSPK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis) hypothesis. This stipulates that activity is caused by a living agent using psychokinesis (mind over matter) to bring about change in their environment. It's a subconscious act, and normally seen as an attempt to assuage a difficult situation in that environment, such as unhappiness or resentment toward authority figures. But as I say, it is one of several theories, and I wouldn't necessarily put my mortgage on it.
Tell us about the most interesting or frightening case you've come across.
Some of the stories you get told are in confidence, as people worry what others might think of them. They're concerned that the stories are too unlikely or “far out” and worry about accusations of mental illness, delusion, or attention seeking if their story becomes public knowledge. I'm afraid the most interesting – and alarming – case I've heard is one that cannot be repeated. Sorry. That was a bit anti-climactic, wasn't it?
Do you believe in demonic activity and possession?
I have never investigated paranormal incidents that have demonic overtones, but am familiar with the literature. Whilst some poltergeist cases are perceived to have a demonic aspect (where, for example, a clergyman is a focal point for incidents, or where religious artifacts are involved in the outbreak), the broader question of whether some genuine outside “demonic” agent or force is involved is hugely difficult to validate. Because of the targets involved, there can be a tendency to assume that the cause might originate from some tangible third party with a contrary perspective. For example, for a clergyman who is commonly perceived to represent “good”, attacks must stem from someone or something that runs counter – something that represents “evil”.
There seems little doubt that a supposedly demonic episode can be a hugely frightening and powerful experience, but I am personally unconvinced that they represent persuasive evidence for any tangible “evil spirit”. I find myself swayed by rather more prosaic explanations.
What do you see as the future of parapsychology?
Experimental parapsychology is going through a bit of a tough time right now, and as you might predict, financial cutbacks and a lack of institutional support are the main culprits. In academia, support for research often has a cyclical rhythm to it; one moment you find your subject lavished with resources, the next moment the coffers are empty. I really hope that parapsychology is simply experiencing a short-term dip in appeal and support, and we are not witnessing any long-term decline. Whilst the funding environment remains challenging, it will inevitably be more of a challenge to advance research programs, so we should expect progress to be pretty slow (although historically it's never been what you call fast). However, new understanding and techniques in neuroscience, imaging, and psychobiology (to name but a few) provide the opportunity to push the field forward should opportunities improve.