In an extract from his book Blithe Spirits: An Imaginative History of the Poltergeist, SD Tucker asks whether or not ghosts might be better thought of as being funny than as frightening.

We do not think of ghosts as being funny. Scary, yes. Mysterious, of course. Some may even find them rather magical and awe-inspiring in their nature. And yet we are not accustomed to thinking of them as being humorous – unless you want to laugh to express your lack of belief in them, perhaps. When it comes to that specific well-known sub-category of noisy spirit we call the poltergeist, this feeling is if anything heightened. Poltergeists smash things apart, set fires, keep households up at night with loud bangings and rappings, throw stones at people, even on occasion physically assault them; and there seems nothing very funny about any of that.

Then again, think of Hallowe’en, and trick-or-treaters. They smash things up, throw eggs at cars and houses, strew toilet rolls across trees and gardens, hurl stones and shatter windows, shove unpleasant substances through letter-boxes and even, occasionally, go so far as to set things aflame. This also isn’t terribly funny – if you’re on the wrong end of it. The kids responsible would disagree. It’s funny to them. Maybe it is to the poltergeist, too?   

In many stories told about them, these spooks sound less like terrifying demons, and more like mischievous little children  or playful fairies; which is why the medieval writer William of Auvergne called such beings joculares and joculatares, meaning ‘pranksters’. It is also why such colloquial phrases as ‘laughing like a kobold’ and ‘laughing like a pixie’ were popular across pre-modern Europe; fairies and spooks, of whatever breed, were traditionally imagined as having a distinct sense of humour. The French poet Pierre de Ronsard catalogued such facetious follets’ foolishness thus:

Upon our stomachs they probe and prod,

At night they move benches, tables and stools,

Locked doors, gates, cabinets, beds, chairs, step-ladders;

Or count our treasures, or crash against the ground

Sometimes a sword and sometimes a glass:

However in the morning nothing broken can be found

Nor any furniture moved from its normal place.

Inveterate joculatares are they all, always game for a laugh. The verb lutiner – meaning ‘to behave like a lutin’, a type of oft-unseen French fairy, by playing jokes on people such as filling their shoes with pebbles, or shaving sleepers’ beards off – survives even today in the modern French tongue. According to the occultist Montague Summers, such follets, or ‘spirits of folly’, would:

“... make their presence first known in a house by various silly pranks and idle japeries. Trinkets and knick-knacks belonging to the house and more especially to the person whose attention the lutin wishes to attract vanish from the place where they had been laid down, only to reappear shortly afterwards in another spot. These Tricksters next annoy people by hiding in dark corners and laughing suddenly, or calling aloud as one passes; they will even pluck the sheets off the bed from sleepers, or tweak one’s nightcap ... Very often they beset tender girls, to whom they manifest themselves as handsome gallants, hot young amorosos, who pursue them with obscene suggestions, whispering in their ears the most indecent words at unguarded moments.”

In other words, these polter-fairies spent their days (and nights) very much having a laugh. Many poltergeist hauntings on record are far more silly than scary. Take the prank-playing polt which infested the fairy-tale villa of one Homem Christo in the Portuguese town of Coïmbra in 1919. One trick affected a friend staying the night at the haunted house. As it was cold, the guest closed the shutters in his room. Lying there in bed, he was at length awoken by moonlight streaming in through the window; the shutters, which he had carefully bolted, were now standing wide open, keeping him from his sleep. Thinking they must have blown open somehow, even though there was no wind, he got up to pull them back shut – but he could not.

He raised the window’s lower pane, grasped the shutters and tried to pull them closed; but they refused to budge. Suspecting trickery, he stuck his head outside, shouting threats to ward off pranksters. However, “almost instantly” as he did so, the spring which held up the window-pane let itself loose, sending the glass shooting down onto the man’s neck with such a “furious blow” that he became choked and struggled to get free. He didn’t call out for aid, however, as he “feared the ridicule of my position”. Eventually extricating himself from this cruel trap, the man looked around (through the closed window-pane this time) to see if there was anyone outside. There was not. Rationalising it had all been an unhappy accident, the guest once more closed and bolted the shutters – “very methodically”, this time – and returned to bed. Glancing at the window again, all thoughts of sleep quickly disappeared; the shutters had unbolted themselves and were standing open a second time. Then, the man heard a “horrible grinding like a muffled laugh” followed by a series of heavy blows being struck upon the walls, floor and furniture. Overcome by his fear, the guest “bolted into the garden like a lunatic and ran straight before me, without a hat, without even shutting a door” until he reached the safety of his father’s house across town. But should he have fled, or should he have merely laughed?

As my book shows, a majority of poltergeist cases on record from throughout history to the present-day follow the same basic model as this: less terrifying, more playful, ‘impish’ in both senses of the word. If such narratives can be trusted, these invisible presences would seem less to be devils, more Dennis the Menace.

Poltergeist

S. D. Tucker's book Blithe Spirits: An Imaginative History of the Poltergeist is available for purchase now.