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Poltergeists and Ghosts: The Difference Is?

Is it a ghost or a poltergeist? One speech bubble says, "moan;" the other says, "BWA HA HA HA!"

Get it done now! That’s my latest mantra as I edit my children’s novel (aka SAMUEL ASH AND THE GRASSHOPPERS OF DOOM). The process is taking months. How do I make it end? These desperate times called for new rules: I I will no longer permit myself to dive into rabbit holes UNLESS they relate to my manuscript! Instead, I have taken full advantage of this loophole by updating my research into ghosts and poltergeists. My excuse is that I want my fiction to be factual.

Let’s move on before you consider that last sentence carefully and blow my cover story.

The paranormal world has been a fascinating escape from mending sentences and wearing out my thesaurus. Do you hear rattles in the attic, footsteps on the stairs, and rapping on the walls? You’ve come to the right place. I can tell you all about the American thoughts on ghosts. (Sorry, I haven’t delved into the supernatural of other cultures. Don’t tempt me.)

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Do ghosts exist or are they just clever frauds? Some undoubtedly are fakes, but it’s fun to believe, even for a few minutes, that fantasy can be real. So let’s assume that some apparitions aren’t shams.

What’s the difference between ghosts and poltergeists?

Poltergeist is supposedly German for “noisy ghost,” so ordinary ghosts are introverts and poltergeists are extroverts, right? Or maybe ghosts are surly teenagers who lock themselves in their rooms, and poltergeists are toddlers who scream, “Look at me!” But that doesn’t truly explain the difference. Ghosts can be loud, too, and poltergeists are beyond rowdy. They’re horrifying. (And yes, I MIGHT have put a poltergeist in my children’s book, but don’t worry. The novel targets the middle-school age bracket, and, as a former teacher, I assure you they see worse at recess.)

Poltergeists move objects. They also throw them, break them, and steal them. They torment people by pulling hair, pinching, trading insults, stealing blankets from sleepers, pelting their hosts with blisteringly hot stones, and setting fires. Unlike ghosts, they’re not tied to a particular place, but appear in homes where there’s a young teen. So don’t bother putting your home up for sale if it contains one of these nasties. Moving won’t work.

To sum up, Jacob Marley from A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a ghost; the Headless Horseman, who throws his head at an unlucky teacher in THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW, is a poltergeist.

What exactly are ghosts and poltergeists?

It depends whom you ask—and when.

Most of my reading described ghosts as dead spirits stuck in the world of the living. They haven’t moved on because, after dying suddenly, they believe they’re still alive; they have unfinished business; or they’re riddled with guilt. But some hauntings, especially when the apparitions seem oblivious to human spectators, may be more like movies. The building or landscape “recorded” a traumatic event, which is periodically replayed and witnessed by sensitive people.

Poltergeist explanations are more complicated and have changed through the centuries. They include:

      • Ghosts of those who have recently died;
      • Elemental spirits (i.e., it was never human or living);
      • Fairies;
      • Demons;
      • Witchcraft;
      • Psychokinesis (i.e., the movement of objects with the mind).

Some of these ideas make sense to me. Newly minted ghosts, confused, angry, and desperate for help, can be excused for pitching temper tantrums. Medieval Christians would see these fiends as… fiendish, right down to setting fires and throwing stones as hot as the fiery punishment they fled. Psychokinesis? I’m not sure if this is victim-blaming or not. Supposedly, the adolescent who makes the poltergeist possible (and is often its target) is really its cause. Unable to communicate their anger or unhappiness, they manifest it psychically, creating havoc that’s blamed on the supernatural.

Which is the correct explanation? You choose.

How to stop a haunting

If you want to rid your home of ghosts, talk to the specter. You must convince it that it’s dead, but beware! Some shades are a tiny bit sensitive about this. If it won’t listen to you, call in a professional medium, who can function as a ghost counselor/messenger service combined. This is important because ghosts need help to move on. Instead of phoning every acquaintance who owns a truck (as we do when we switch houses), it calls to departed relatives or friends to bring it into the Great Beyond.

If talk therapy doesn’t work with your spirit, other proven techniques include burying its remains in consecrated ground, carrying out its last wishes, or an exorcism. Fire, water, garlic, or holy water can protect you from the ghost until you persuade it to go.

Poltergeists? Heh, heh. They’re harder. The easiest method is to wait them out because, unlike ghosts, they only stick around for six months. Of course, we’re talking six months of insults, hurled objects, pinches, howls, missing valuables, and other general mayhem. (I’m quite sure the one poltergeist who poisoned someone was really a hoax, designed to shield the human murderer, as suggested in a story by Barbara Michaels. QUITE sure.) An immediate way to roust the poltergeist is to send the nearest adolescent to a relative’s house. The downside is that you may be fond of your resident teenagers. Besides, the poltergeist might follow to their new home, which will not endear you to your mother-in-law. Other possibilities? Sometimes you or a medium can coax them to leave. Sometimes garlic works. But NEVER exorcise them. It just makes them angry, and an angry poltergeist is not pleasant. (This rather undercuts the demon hypothesis, doesn’t it?)


Denial is my favorite go-to for anything. Do you have a ghost? Blame the noise on wind, rain, expanding floorboards, and vermin. Set mouse traps so you can SAY that you’re working to stop it. If necessary, sell your house.

Is a poltergeist your problem? Send your teenager to camp for the summer. If the brute follows them, don’t worry. I’d bet money that after just a week of the teen horde, it will flee, screaming, in search of someone quieter to torment.

The Last Resort

Finally, you can call Ghostbusters. Yes, the team is fictional, but—so are ghosts and poltergeists.

Aren’t they?

A blue emoji looks horrified at the thought that poltergeists and ghosts could be real..
Tell me it’s not true! (Image from Canva’s stock images.)

References consulted for this blog post:

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. Castle Books, Edison, NJ.

Holzer, Hans. 1971. The Ghosts That Walk in Washington. Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY. 232 p.

Holzer, Hans. 1997. Ghosts of New England. Wings Books, NY. 385 p.

Lecouteux, Claude. 2007. The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations. Translated by Jon E. Graham. Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT. 246 p.

Michaels, Barbara. 2000. Other Worlds. HarperPaperbacks, New York. 292 p.

O’Donnell, Elliott. 1989. Elliott O’Donnell’s Casebook of Ghosts. Edited by Ludlam, Harry. Castle Books, Secaucus, NJ.

Rogo, D. Scott. 2016. Psychic Explorations: Apparitions, Hauntings, and Poltergeists. Edited by Edgar Mitchell. Cosimo Books, New York. 35 p.

Time-Life Books. 1985. Ghosts. The Enchanted World Series. Time-Life Books, Chicago. 141 p.

Wilson, Colin. 1981. Poltergeist: A Study in Destructive Haunting. Perigree Books, The Putnam Publishing Group, New York. 382 p.

2 responses to “Poltergeists and Ghosts: The Difference Is?”

  1. Interesting piece and thought-provoking! Here’s to endless possibilities that may be hard to prove, fathom and understand but that are fascinating to ponder nonetheless.


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