The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations
Claude Lecouteux, translated by Jon E. Graham
Inner Traditions, 2013
vii + 246 pages
Reviewed by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus
Those who are familiar with the various books published by Inner Traditions that are translations of earlier (usually French) monographs by Claude Lecouteux will be familiar with this great professor’s style, his thoroughness, and the academic rigor he brings to surveying his subjects in comprehensive manners. Generally, his books present the reader with a wealth of excerpts from primary sources, and his commentary on these is generally cogent and highly valuable.
Unfortunately, this particular book does well in the primary source quotations department—perhaps too well and too extensively at some points—but falls very short in its analysis of the materials.
The book’s subtitle is somewhat misleading: the majority of the sources he cites are from the later middle ages (generally after 1400 CE), and while some more modern (20th century) accounts are detailed, the elements of “Pagan Folklore” are not as abundant as one would hope if that context is named in the subtitle.
In essence, Lecouteux’s typological analysis of poltergeists and haunted houses groups these phenomena by particular prevailing interpretations of each phenomena: the poltergeist or haunted house as a variety of noise-making spirit, a manifestation of the restless dead, an instance of pesky household spirits, and demonic activities being the main categories explored. This is an interesting and noteworthy schema, because when an exorcism is performed by Christian clergy but the culprit of a given “knocking-spirit” phenomenon is a household spirit rather than a demon, of course that methodology does not drive the household spirit away. For modern readers who are looking to this book as an historical sourcebook for tips and clues on how to best implement one’s own interactions with such spiritual beings, this making of distinctions is an important and useful take-away from reading this systematized collection of data.
Sadly, an overarching interpretation of the entire corpus by Lecouteux is lacking here (though present in many of his other works). While in some of his other works this can be a slight hindrance to understanding particular (often outlying) instances of whatever phenomenon he is discussing, or they can stretch the transmitted evidence to near the breaking point, with this particular collection of evidence, a conclusion that is more substantial than “it all depends on how you look at it,” in essence, would have been more desirable.
Readers may find this book valuable for the corpus of lengthy primary source excerpts itself, however, and thus anyone who is interested in this subject will want to review this material in Lecouteux’s book themselves personally.
Three pawprints out of five