“One of the major points that must be made clear and continually stressed to the witness is that “phantoms cannot hurt”. Provide details of some of the other ghost stories of which you have knowledge in order to confirm this conclusion and build it up in a witness’s mind. It is only when nervous characters are involved that any harm maybe caused, and that only mental. If the people affected show signs of psychological strain, then suggest that they have a chat with their doctor, but point out the logical argument that non‐tangible phantoms are obviously incapable of carrying out any physical action.“

This was the view of ghost hunter Andrew Green (1927-2004) in his book Ghost Hunting: A Practical Guide (1973)

In almost all cases of apparitions (as opposed to poltergeist cases where physical force is the defining aspect of phenomena) Green’s advice is correct. What are commonly reported as ‘ghosts’ exerting force are better understood as examples of poltergeist activity, originating with the living rather than discarnate presences (if they exist).

Physically powerful ghosts – popular in the Medieval period – seem to have largely vanished from the cultural beliefs of the Western World (see Appearances of the Dead (1982) by R.C. Finucane)  Nonetheless, in about 12% of hauntings witnesses report minor tactile experiences, though seldom as violent as the case  of a teenage boy in Hartlepool, England, supposedly ‘attacked by a ghost’  which made national news in July 2009. The original source was the Hartlepool Mail which under the startling headline, ‘Boy beaten up by ghost’ described how the victim, 13 year-old Danny Willkins, was set upon by an invisible assailant.

The incident took place on Monday July 6 2009 when the 13-year-old had finished school and was sitting alone on the sofa, at the family home in York Road. Danny claimed he was suddenly pulled upright, dragged across the living room and then towards the kitchen. A struggle lasting five minutes followed until the front door suddenly flew open and Danny was pushed into the street. Once outside the youngster was released from the grip of the invisible force and fled to a neighbour’s house. Daniel was described as being left “bruised and bewildered” by the experience. He did not see anything, but heard a man’s heavy breathing.

At the time his mother Beverley, 33, was collecting her five year-old son Ethan from school. She arrived back to find a group of neighbours and her son trembling outside her front door. The family cautiously entered their home but fled on hearing footsteps and banging sounds from upstairs. Too scared to return, they sought sanctuary with the children’s grandmother, Kathleen Galloway. Beverly, her two year old daughter Ellie, Daniel and Ethan then spent a night huddled is one bedroom but were scared by a smoke alarm repeatedly being activated.

Beverley contacted  St Paul’s Church, Hartlepool and  a local priest Father Masshendar paid a visit, to comfort them and say prayers. The landlord of the property said he had never come across such an occurrence but was willing to arrange a move. Unfortunately, no psychical researcher appears to have visited or made further enquiries.

SOURCE: Hartlepool Mail 9th July 2009 ; Daily Mail July 10th 2009; The Sun July 10th 2009.

The case sounds more one of poltergeist activity than a ghost, if events truly occurred as described and no other explanation applied. Although a number of people claim to have been thrown or pushed around by ghosts, it is to be noted that often the victims seem to be teenagers or younger people, a peak period in life for poltergeist activity (the possibility of neurological disorders must also be considered).

However, there is a small amount of ghost literature alleging claims of physical effects attributed to ghosts or apparitions in modern time (but obviously these must be treated with great caution in most cases).

For instance, the youthful Lord St Audries “young and strong, standing over six feet in his socks” was forced to fight “as he had never fought before” against a faceless black shape during a ghost hunt  at a house called Castel A Mare in Torquay, Devon, reported in 1922. The presence manifested in the bathroom where an insane doctor had reputedly murdered his wife and maid; Lord St Audries eventually succeeded in breaking free and escaped. The writer Beverly Nichols felt drained of energy at the same house and fell out of a window in a state of collapse. (See Ghost Parade (1944) by Stuart Martin; The Gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971) by Peter Underwood)

A teenage girl member of the Brietzcke family  in Victorian Edinburgh was pushed downstairs and knocked unconscious at their very haunted house on Blackett Place, during the 1880s according to a letter held by the Society for Psychical Research. The assault was blamed on a malevolent white figure which appeared on their staircase (Haunted Edinburgh (2007) by Alan Murdie).

In 1964 a young wildfowler staying at an isolated cottage at Bradwell Juxta Mare, Essex was awoken by a heavy punch to his jaw. This was attributed to the angry spirit of the former inhabitant, an elderly hermit named Walter Linnet who had died inside the tiny cottage in December 1958; other visitors were terrified by his  apparition both in and around the dwelling.(In Search of Ghosts (1968) and Essex Ghost (1974) James Wentworth Day)

Violent levitations of teenagers have been claimed in poltergeist cases, most famously with the adolescent daughters of Harper family at Enfield 1977. Interestingly, just two months before the Enfield case began there were reports of poltergeist attacks upon male teenagers occurring at the home of Mrs Lillian Brearley and her four sons, at Old Trafford, Manchester. Amid moving furniture and disturbed beds, nineteen year old David  Brearley claimed that something tried to grab him. The whole family fled are after a teenage friend was seized and hurled downstairs, breaking the banister. However, this case never made it beyond the pages of the local paper The Journal published on  June 30th 1977.

Such events are not confined to domestic dwellings. Mrs  Sharon Mjeiland, owner of the award-winning  Rainbow vegetarian restaurant in Cambridge experienced an unseen force pushing her out of the premises, one evening in August 2003. This came twelve years after the last resident owner of the building, an elderly widow Mrs Sadie Barnett, had been found dead in the building of natural causes, in August 1991.(Personal communication August 2003)

Staff at the Old Crown Pub, Deritend, Birmingham keep a diary of their many spooky experiences and those of guests. At around 7 a.m on August 21st 1999, a member of a couple staying in room 8 complained of “being sucked towards the window” and both heard strange sounds of a metallic rumble  “like chains being dragged through the loft or attic above” (source  Chat It’s Fate  March 2007 p68-69).

The Cromwell bedroom at the Kings Head, Aylesbury is reputedly haunted by a mad cackling woman who throws guests out of bed in the middle of the night, although no victims have been named.(source Buckingham Countryside March 2007)

Mercifully, violent ghosts displaying greater levels of force are rare and confined largely to folklore, the most infamous being the now discredited story of the lethal haunted house at 50 Berkley Square, London. Veteran ghost hunter Elliot O Donnell  (1872-1965) – the subject of a forthcoming biography due out in 2010 – claimed a number of battles with physically dangerous ghosts in his sixty year career. In his ninth decade he devoted a volume to the theme Dangerous Ghosts (1954), though his spectres mostly gave nasty shocks rather than using physical force. He also repeated early 20th century claims of “cursed”  houses causing the deaths of successive occupiers.

Although evidence of lethal buildings is scant, it may be noted that such beliefs still surface today. In July 2009 the bodies of mother and son Valerie and Brain and Valerie Rockall were discovered at the  flat they shared in Dean Village, Edinburgh. Brian Rockall, 43, had apparently stabbed his mother to death and then hanged himself. A neighbour told the Daily Record, “This street is cursed. In the flat above them a woman disappeared years ago and her son was accused of the murder although they never found the body. Gives you the chills.” This was a reference to another alleged matricide,  the death of Louise Tiffany  murdered in the flat above the Rockalls in 2002. Brian Rockall appeared witness at the trial of her Louise Tiffany’s son  Sean Flynn who walked free from court in 2005 after a not proven verdict was entered. (‘Son butchers Mum then Hangs Himself’ Daily Record 22 July 2009).

In two cases early 20th century cases in from Suffolk invisible ghostly assailants were claimed to be at work in the open air, both in churchyards. In 1900 a resident of  Brettenham reported that ‘something’ had often knocked him to the ground as he crossed St Andrew’s Churchyard on dark nights. He stated, “[though]I have a good stick, I have never managed to strike that something, yet I speak to it but never get one word in reply. I don’t believe that all ghosts are white – this one surely is dark or I must have seen it.”

Source: Eastern Counties Magazine 1900; ‘Haunted Churches in East Anglia’ by Ivan Bunn, Lantern No. 6, summer 1974).

Equally curious is the account of a ghostly force field which manifested in Beccles churchyard 100 years ago, contained in a transcript  held by Beccles Museum. Recorded in 1990  from a Mr Stafford Wrather Brown, an evacuee and student at Beccles College in World War I, it tells how a Mr Knights  with whom Mr Brown was billeted encountered an mysterious force when attempting to take a short cut home through Beccles churchyard. “Nearing the top of the steps he encountered what can be best described as an invisible barrier. He attempted to move forward, but what felt like an iron bar at chest level was blocking the path. Mr Knights tried in vain to push through, go round, or crawl under and eventually retraced his steps and went the long way round”. The phenomenon only occurred once, on a summer evening and was never explained. Today with a recently founded Beccles ghost walk planning to explore the area, one wonders if there might be a repetition should participants venture into the churchyard after dark.