Poltergeists soften up for the caring Nineties: The familiar Hollywood image of an aggressive and malevolent spirit is a thing of the past. Tim Kelsey reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE little girl first started having conversations with the voice, she did not find them alarming. They were short but friendly. 'Hello,' the voice might say. 'How are you?'

And then the five-year-old would sit on her bed and watch the four rabbits on her clockwork mobile circle above her head, pushed apparently by a spectral hand. This voice had no physical incarnation. It was a man's voice, but she saw no hooded monk, or knight, or Elizabethan ruffs.

Poltergeists have traditionally been nasty, malevolent spirits that smash things up, and cause havoc. Hollywood has endowed them with terrifying streaks of malicious violence.

But this anti-social behaviour, according to Tony Cornell, one of Britain's leading paranormal experts, is waning. The poltergeist, in particular, and spirits in general are more caring and more responsible than they were during the hard, aggressive 1980s.

The case of the little girl and the revolving rabbit mobile could mark a turning point. Three months ago, Mr Cornell, 69, was called in by the girl's parents, a management consultant and a former teacher who live in a 200- year-old house in Leicester.

Mr Cornell, a retired Cambridgeshire county councillor who has investigated poltergeists and apparitions for 45 years, took the sighting seriously enough to install his box in the girl's bedroom. The box contains a computer, printer and a host of contraptions which switch infra-red video cameras on and off, monitor temperatures, and even probes, the 'electrical flux' in a room.

What was particularly interesting was that guests who had slept in the room next to the daughter's reported having very uncomfortable nights. One even claimed that something had tried to suffocate her. 'We put a camera on the girl and there is no doubt that the mobile was going round without being wound up. We examined it and we're sure,' Mr Cornell said.

'The voices we have yet to get on tape. The parents say they've heard them but on the two occasions when they've tried to switch our tape recorder on, they messed it up . . .'

Mr Cornell is honorary treasurer of the Society for Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 by a group of Victorian enthusiasts intent on applying rigorous scientific method to the study of the paranormal. But no- one has yet cracked the central problem: do ghosts exist? Mr Cornell, who is also president of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research, remains sceptical but enthusiastic. 'Orthodox scientists say it's a hallucination or fraud. They say it's nonsense. But the subject of the paranormal is fascinating because it's so full of contradictions. There's one case and you say the thing is fraud and then another when the doors are locked and you simply can't explain it. I've been in a poltergeist outbreak . . . and it's really very frightening, you really see things move.'

The character of the ordinary 'spontaneous incident' has changed dramatically. 'We had the oracles with the Greeks, and then a spate of angels and demons,' he said. 'Demonic possession continued into the 19th century. Then there was the dead coming back to life.'

During this century the possessions and resurrections have dropped off considerably.

The ugly character of the typical 1980s poltergeist outbreak was forecast in 1977 by the Enfield Case. Janet, 14, who lived with her mother and sister in a council house, claimed that she was being lifted bodily out of bed and thrown to the floor, that the curtains in her room were trying to strangle her, and a variety of more minor harassments.

The Daily Express sent a reporter along with his black labrador to watch. But he saw nothing spectacular. Neighbours, however, were adamant, and so too were the society's investigators.

Mr Cornell, who was not asked to participate, has some misgivings. 'What was most infuriating was that one of the investigators knew nothing about the subject. He had only joined the society six months before, and had just had a bereavement himself.

'One had the impression that the girls were listening to him talking about what he expected to see and then doing it. But there were indications that right at the beginning some of it was genuine.'

Mr Cornell is rigorous in his own investigations. He is the author of the now standard work for would-be investigators and the emphasis of that volume is unmistakable: 'Inquiries at the local library as to who has been taking out books on psychical research prior to the onset of the phenomena, may give a lead.'

He has, however, been duped several times. One trawlerman in Kent claimed that a poltergeist had been attacking him with an invisible razor blade, and he had hundreds of cuts to prove it. This was interesting because it would have upset the view that poltergeist behaviour was improving.

In went Mr Cornell's video camera and it recorded several fierce attacks. But it slowly emerged that on every occasion the trawlerman had visited the lavatory beforehand. On his last visit, after several weeks, Mr Cornell phoned a colleague for advice and it was suggested that the victim wander around for a bit without his shirt on. 'He took off his jacket and jangled it up and down before putting it on a chair. I noticed something bright on the carpet. It was half a razor blade and there was a drawing pin.'

Several months later, the trawlerman phoned to say that poltergeists were causing fires in his house. That time, Mr Cornell was more wary. 'It was obvious that he was doing it, presumably for some attention. His second wife's children didn't like him and he wanted to be in a position of authority. He was the only one who could summon up the poltergeists, so that was an authority. Anyway, he later burnt down a barn and was sent to prison for two-and-a-half years.'

Cases, like that of the Leicester girl, which seem to have no rational explanation, are frequent. But not all provide clear evidence that apparitions are becoming friendlier. Malevolence seems to have declined, but there are recent cases in which havoc has been involved. Throughout the history of paranormal investigation, stone- throwing has been a feature of some poltergeist outbreaks.

Several months ago, a car hire firm in Nottingham reported that dozens of tiny pebbles and ball bearings were raining down on the roof of its portable office. The police were called because some of the pebbles were being directed at passing cars. But officers, who witnessed some of the outbreaks, could not explain it. Neither could Mr Cornell. The salient point, however, was that the stones never hit anybody.

(Photograph omitted)