Sunday, May 11, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Poltergeist Problem Novel

So, let's talk about poltergeists, because I've been reading books about them - non-fiction books, because that is the only decent kind, generally speaking.

All generalizations are false, but the odds are good that the only good fictional poltergeist stories I've ever read are ones you haven't heard of or, if you've heard of them, didn't know had any supernatural element. Like, The Almost Year, by Florence Engel Randall, which was published in 1971 and is about a poor black girl living for nine months with a wealthy white family, and that was where the focus was in its promotional material. This was a huge mistake - it was promoted as a problem novel and I didn't go for those in 1971. And as a problem novel about a black child written by a white woman it was and is problematical - but as a poltergeist novel, it is flawless, precisely because it is problematical.

The thing about poltergeists is, they happen - don't make any mistake about that! I don't know what they are, and neither does anybody else. They needn't, even, all be the same thing. The word applies to a configuration of disruptive events, involving physical effects with no obvious or even probable physical cause. Any given one might be hoax, fairy, repressed emotion breaking out as telekinesis, hysterical misperception, series of mindbogglingly improbabl accidents, or all of the above - or, none of the above, given the unliklihood of our finite minds framing the question correctly to recognize all the possibilities. So they are a frustrating, but flexible, set of phenomena, able to produce almost any effect your fiction might require.

And this is why the most famous depictions of them - Poltergeist the movie, most notably - are so unsatisfactory. They treat the phenomena as the important, interesting problem, and the solution as a dramatic fight against some external force. And that is just not so. A poltergeist is not, in itself, a problem. It is a symptom of a problem.

Because the other thing about poltergeists is, they don't happen in happy families. They don't happen in loudly, obviously, blatantly dysfunctional families. They happen in families where somebody (or multiple somebodies) is under a little too much stress and the problem is being skated around.

The parapsychological theory of RSPK - Recurrent Spontaneous PsychoKinesis - was dreamed up to account for this. The idea is that psychological tensions are released, by people who happen to have a lot more psychokinetic ability than most people, through unconscious psychic tantrums. Since most poltergeists have one "focus person" on whom most of the phenomena center, and who is often actively persecuted by them, the theory is that the focus person is unconsciously engaging in attention-seeking, acting out, or self-harm that she refuses to engage in consciously, for the very same reasons that attention seeking, acting out, and self-harm usually happen.

I'm not being blithely feminist in that choice of pronoun, by the way. According to the literature, the most common poltergeist focus is an adolescent girl. This meshes nicely with the RSPK theory, since girls are so much more likely to be encouraged to repress the kinds of "energy" (i.e. sexual feelings, anger, and resentment) that the theory assumes fuels the RSPK.

The problem with the RSPK theory, of course, is that the best evidence that psychokinesis even exists involves the subtle non-random behavior of random things like dice and subatomic particles. It's a huge leap from rolling a statistically unlikely number of sixes to starting fires, throwing rocks, levitating beds, or creating a vocal apparition of a talking mongoose. But it does focus attention where it belongs, in fiction - on the unhappiness and tension in the house, underneath the phenomenon. Resolve those issues, and the poltergeist resolves itself, whatever its mechanism; and this is why so many true poltergeist stories peter out with no climax. The people involved are willing to talk about the phenomena; they are not willing to talk about the personal situations that created the conditions that enabled the phenomena. Many family members may not even know them - with nineteen children and servants, the Reverend Samuel Wesley was unlikely to be aware of all the stresses at large in his home at Epworth Rectory, or the measures taken to relieve and master them, and even less likely to record them for posterity at the same time that he was recording the disruptions caused by "Old Jeffrey," the poltergeist that both tormented and amused his family for some months.

Another way that real-life poltergeist stories end is with a failure to resolve. The problems become more and more overt - exacerbated by the investigation of the phenomena, to the point that a focus may feel obliged to produce phenomena. That way lies the full range of coping syndromes; the abuse of recreational substances; the making of poor decisions; even, in the most spectacular poltergeist ever, The Bell Witch, in murder by poltergeist.

A good poltergeist book is not a special effects horrorfest. Movies can do that if it needs doing. A good poltergeist novel would illuminate the personal parts, the dynamics of the household, the stresses and coping mechanisms that investigators only guess at. We can invade the privacy of fictional characters as we would never dare invade that of real people. Are poltergeists and drug abuse the same behavior at their cores? To face up to your poltergeist, must you face up to yourself? What if the focus is a shared one (the Bell Witch murdered father John Bell, tormented daughter Betsy Bell, and was kindness personified to mother Lucy Bell) - does this indicate a codependency? And what happens, in any relationship born of stress, if one party is making a strong effort to resolve the problem everyone else ignores?

I can't think of a single problem novel that wouldn't be improved by plopping a poltergeist into it and seeing what happens.

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