Cherchez la fan, The "Humpty Doo Poltergeist"
Cherchez la fan, The "Humpty Doo Poltergeist"
By Barry Williams
The NSW Skeptics have written off the 1998 Humpty Doo Poltergeist as a hoax rather than a haunting, particularly because they say their members were barred from investigating the scene.
By now the notorious "Humpty Doo Poltergeist" may well have entered the folklore of Australia as an unsolved case of a supernatural event. A story in the Weekend Australian Magazine, subsequent to the main stories on TV, tells of a journalist’s investigation of the goings-on, and leaves us with his puzzled view that there must have been something mysterious involved.
This episode may, even now, be being described as "the one that baffled the Skeptics". The reality is, we suspect, somewhat different.
We first heard of this spook through the news media, and through calls from Darwin Skeptics, Simon Potter and Brian de Kretzer. Channel 7 then invited us to visit the site, but was prevented by the residents’ insistence that Skeptics would not be welcome in their home.
It is difficult to understand why they should have taken this stance, as Australian Skeptics was always likely to be the only disinterested group capable of dispassionately investigating what was going on, without any preconceived ideas. Had we been allowed to investigate, we would have conducted it somewhat differently from what was done.
Had we been allowed to visit, we would first have sought to rule out natural phenomena as the cause of the occurrences.
It is interesting that the only incident the TV cameras recorded in (almost) its entirety, was a baby’s bottle falling from the top of a microwave oven. This was most probably a natural event, as any parent of a young child could attest. Modern baby bottles are made of lightweight plastic and, when empty and with teat attached, are noticeably top-heavy. Any such bottle standing up is likely to fall over at the slightest breath of wind or vibration of the floor. This appears to be what happened in this case.
Our next task would have been to restrict any chance of human intervention. It is curious that the events that happened with independent witnesses around tended to be manifested by small items (gravel, AA batteries, bullets, steak knives, shards of glass) being seen bouncing from the floor or furniture, or being found on the floor after a noise had been heard. Witnesses claimed to have been present when these events occurred, but none of them reported actually seeing the beginning of the flight of any of the objects. They attested that the people present at the time could not have thrown the objects. Probably true, but we have another culprit in mind.
After discussions among Skeptics in Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney, Simon Potter conducted an experiment in his own home. He attached small items to the top of his ceiling fan blades, using a piece of adhesive tape. To our complete lack of surprise, these items stayed in situ for a while, before flying off in unpredictable directions and with considerable force. This easily matched the presumed trajectories of the objects in the "haunted house", and could have accounted for most of the occurrences.
But there is another reason to suspect the fans. Darwin is a city with a certain reputation for the amount of beer consumed there. Even more ubiquitous than ceiling fans in that fair city, are beer cans, and they were very much in evidence in the TV pictures shown of the house. Empty beer cans are very light, yet we heard nothing of them unaccountably flying around the house. Why should this be so? A teetotal spook is one explanation, yet we prefer another.
Batteries, bullets, steak knives and the other recorded projectiles, are all "low-profile" items, none of them being much more that 1 cm in thickness. Had they been attached to the top of a fan blade, they would have been invisible from floor level, while a beer can attached there would have been obvious to anyone in the room.
Had we been allowed to investigate, we would have immediately inspected the top of every fan in the house. We are confident that we would have found either marks in the dust, indicating that something had been attached there, or pristine clean surfaces (and who cleans the tops of ceiling fan blades?). In either case we would have regarded this as evidence that we had found the launching platform for the mobile hardware.
Of course, some of the items flew around outside the house, where there are no fans. But outside the house, on a block with plenty of trees, it is not too difficult to imagine someone surreptitiously tossing a handful of gravel into the air and letting gravity take its course.
Much was made in media reports of the number of outsiders who were "baffled" by what was going on, but we cannot ignore the heightened air of expectancy and media hype that surrounded this series of events. The witnesses interviewed were journalists, a couple of security guards, and a priest. None of them could imagine that someone in the house could have thrown the things, nor did any of them think to check the fans. We suspect they were victims of the hype, and that their critical faculties were downgraded thereby. In any case, journalists on the trail of a juicy "human interest" story are not necessarily the best witnesses, and, as priests are in the supernatural business, they are predisposed towards such explanations.
Of course, as we were not allowed to investigate, we cannot say for certain that that is how things happened - it may even be true that the house in McMinns Drive, Humpty Doo is haunted by a poltergeist. However, the methods we have suggested, work, and if we ever decided to set up a hoax haunting to fool our friends and to trick the media, that’s how we would go about it.
Far from baffling the Skeptics, this case is one in which we were frustrated by our inability to gain access to the site to conduct a proper investigation. We can only speculate why the residents were so implacably opposed to our presence, but it cannot be ruled out that they were afraid that we might discover the truth. For some reason, many people seem to think that Skeptics are people with an innate ability not to be fooled, and treat us as hostile witnesses as a consequence. That is not true - we are no more immune to being taken in than anyone else - but we do understand that the first rule for investigating such events is to rule out all mundane causes before even considering the paranormal. That is what we would have done in this case, and that is what none of the other investigators attempted.
Occam’s Razor was called for here, but we strongly suspect that entirely different blades were responsible for this Top End spook.
Read about the wild week two men spent with the Humpty Doo Poltergeist.
Barry Williams retains the sole copyright © 1998 for this article.