The Spirit of Jest: How Poltergeists Played Tricks of Humour and Chaos

SD Tucker

5 mins

06 Mar 2020

We usually think of ghosts as being scary – but should they sometimes be considered funny, too?

Not ordinarily, perhaps, however there is much evidence that those mischievous invisible “noisy ghosts” known as poltergeists might be best considered in light of the ancient trickster-figure from world-mythology, as being agents not of terror but of imaginative chaos and humour.

Through the ages, many alleged poltergeist-hauntings have been more amusing than disturbing.

A helpful haunting of warm potatoes

In the early 1990s, a Canberra-based prostitute named Liz Fleming was followed around by an invisible ghost who would draw love-hearts and write “I love you, Liz!” on mirrors at the brothel where she worked.

The spook was helpful, not malevolent. It would retrieve keys that Fleming’s clients had accidentally locked inside their trucks to aid her levels of customer-satisfaction, or drop a torch out of thin air when somebody needed one.

The exorcism of a ghost

‘The exorcism of a ghost’, engraving by E. Portbury after F.P. Wellcome (Credit: CC).

One distinctly comical facet of this haunting was that Fleming was constantly being followed around by warm potatoes. They would fly through the air in her presence, or roll along the floor from nowhere, settling at her feet.

One day in 1994, whilst she was sitting inside a hairdressing salon waiting to get her hair done, certain unmistakable signs of poltergeistery began to appear. A child’s pram repeatedly tipped itself over when nobody was near it.

Then, from the deserted street outside, came rolling in two strange objects: another pair of potatoes, a tasty gift provided by her wannabe lover on the Other Side.

The salon staff were somewhat disturbed by this event, although frankly it is hardly the stuff of Hollywood horror. It all just sounds far too surreal to be taken as anything other than one big, daft joke, doesn’t it?

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The Drummer of Tedworth

One clear example of a poltergeist’s comic potential was that of the “Drummer of Tedworth” – the most quintessential English poltergeist narrative of all.

The oft-told story centres upon the Wiltshire manor-house of a magistrate named John Mompesson, which became infested with various extreme poltergeist phenomena.

Drummer of Tedworth

The Drummer of Tedworth, 1837 (Credit: James Elimalet Smith).

The hauntings had followed Mompesson’s rather unnecessary confiscation of a drum from William Drury, an itinerant beggar, busker, forger, thief, con-man, conjuror, tinker, Trickster and general ne’er-do-well, in 1661.

Sentenced to deportation, Drury escaped from captivity but not before having sworn his revenge, which he unleashed upon his adversary in the form of an invisible “Demon Drummer”.

Loud tattoos from the sky were produced around Mompesson’s home, as if the beggar’s impounded drum were playing itself to death in ironic retribution.

Even after Mompesson had the item taken out and burned, the rhythmical rapping continued.

The basic narrative of the Drummer of Tedworth fulfils many of the criteria for a typical trickster-tale. The pomposity and conceit of a harsh, unyielding authority-figure in the shape of Magistrate Mompesson is fundamentally and humorously undermined, together with his dignity.

Hammersmith Ghost

Engraving of the Hammersmith Ghost in Kirby’s “Wonderful and Scientific Museum”, a magazine published in 1804.

Drury himself can be viewed as an archetypal trickster-type.

Marginalised and ostensibly powerless, eking out a precarious living on the very edges of society, Drury has sometimes been claimed to have had gypsy blood. He has even been said to have been a Siberian shaman with the power to induce trance-hallucinations in his victims via the use of ritual drumming.

However he unleashed the extremely unquiet spirit, he certainly got one over on his oppressor in the end.

Exploiting the comic ghost

This whole comic nexus was later exploited by the writer Joseph Addison in his 1716 play “The Drummer”, or, “the Haunted House”. Although directly based on the Tedworth incidents, Addison’s plot was not particularly true to life.

By that time, “the Drummer” had become a byword for fraud, farce and fakery. Addison set about making a Georgian version of “Scooby Doo”, with the drumming “ghost” being but a human in disguise.

Poltergeist music

Sheet music entitled “Spirit rappings”, 1853 (Credit: American Memory / CC).

To Addison, the very idea of a genuine ghost was a matter fit only for humour in itself. He promised in the prologue:

Though with a ghost our comedy be heightened, Ladies, upon my word, you shan’t be frighten’d.

To believe in the reality of the “Demon Drummer” was now a mere byword for regional backwardness amongst the metropolitan elites at whom the play was aimed. One character says:

Tis the solitude of the country that creates these whimsies; there was never such a thing as a ghost heard of at London, except in the play-house.

Happily, Addison’s work was a complete commercial failure.

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The Bell Witch

“The Drummer” provides an early example of how the literary and media industries have exploited allegedly genuine poltergeist hauntings for entertainment purposes.

But the issue is even more complicated, as sometimes details from real-life hauntings that are used in fictional films then re-appear in subsequent real-life hauntings. This can be due to their victims having seen these same fictional films featuring such motifs.

The idea of a haunted house built on an old Indian burial-ground was made familiar by the Steven Spielberg-produced 1982 movie, “Poltergeist”. Its real origins lie in a haunting which erupted in Tennessee in 1817 involving a particularly notorious polt known as the Bell Witch.

Bell Witch

“Authenticated History of the Bell Witch”, Rare Book Reprints, 1961. Also known as “The Red Book”.

This affair reputedly began as a genuine outbreak of poltergeistery, but the tale became taller and taller with each retelling. Eventually it was transformed into part-fiction, part-fact.

Today, the notion has become parodic; a stereotypical Hollywood absurdity – even though it was fundamentally based on an initial reported fact.

Indeed, new cases pop up even today in which dead Native Americans are accused for causing poltergeistery.

Although unsuccessful, Addison’s “The Drummer” has since had many imitators. From the earliest days of cinema, images of ghosts have been used to inspire a certain comic brand of scepticism.

If you choose to present a “true-life” haunting in a comic or ludicrously sensationalised light, as Addison did, then this fictionalised debunking effect is only heightened.

S.D. Tucker is an author and researcher who has written for magazines in the UK, US, Ireland and online. He is the author of several books including Blithe Spirits: An Imaginative History of the Poltergeist, which will be published by Amberley in March 2020.

Blithe Spirits