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The Unbelievably Sad, Strange Story of a Girl and Her Poltergeist

Oct 27 2015 2:15 PM
The Unbelievably Sad, Strange Story of a Girl and Her Poltergeist

Screenshot via Poltergeist

When objects started flying around 14-year-old Tina Resch's house, she became an instant celebrity. Then things took a sinister turn.

In 1984, Joan Resch was worried about her 14-year-old daughter, Tina. The teenager was deeply troubled, but her troubles seemed have begun manifesting themselves as flying objects: Telephones were flying across the Ohio house, framed family portraits shook and fell off the wall. The bric-à-brac of the middle-class home had transformed into potentially lethal objects. Joan, unsure of what was wrong with Tina, didn't seek traditional methods of help—rather, she called Columbus Dispatch reporter Mike Harden.

Joan had worked with the reporter before—Harden had written a profile on her and her husband John years prior. The couple was well known in the community; they had fostered and adopted hundreds of children, and Tina was one of their household's latest additions. There's little doubt then that the Resches were familiar with the ever-shifting contours of adolescence—that endless shape-shifting of need and rebellion—yet there was something about Tina, the way that her very presence seemed to summon the fury of inanimate objects, that scared the Resches. When the living room lamp fell to the floor, Joan picked it up, then she found herself doing it over and over again. On the fourth time the lamp tumbled to the ground, Joan left it on the floor, and, in frightened frustration, called Harden.

Read more: The History of Haunted Campuses

When he first spoke to Joan, Harden was skeptical. However, believing in her good intentions and Midwestern honesty, he decided to come to the house to investigate. He brought Columbus Dispatch photographer Fred Shannon with him. They sat with Tina in the Resch's living room and waited for hours, hoping to be assaulted by familiar domestic objects.

Finally, the journalists saw what they were waiting for. As Tina sat in an overstuffed chair, the telephone next to her rose from its table and the receiver flew towards her. Though Shannon was looking away, he had his camera pointed at Tina. He shuttered 36 negatives, one of which captured the surprise on Tina's face, her mouth open as the phone flew across her body. The photograph seemed to confirm what both Harden and the Resches suspected: Tina was haunted by a poltergeist.

Screenshot via YouTube.

Poltergeists, from the German meaning "noisy ghost," are nearly as old as the written word. Reports of these pesky ghosts rapping on walls and knocking over furniture seem to date from as early as the first century. Poltergeists, however, went unnamed until 1838. Prior to their rather ominous-sounding German moniker, they were known as many things: witchcraft, possession, and plain old hauntings. It's difficult to say why, exactly, it was in 1838 that poltergeists demanded to be named—perhaps they were uncomfortable with their association with mere ghosts, or maybe it was the Victorian's renewed interest in spiritualism and psychokinesis—but post-naming, the noisy ghosts appeared almost everywhere.

In 1877, in the dull-colored hamlet of Derrygonnelly, Ireland, a 20-year old named Maggie was the center of a disturbance centered around her home. Rappings were heard on the walls, and, according to one writer, "stones began to fall, and candles and boots were repeatedly thrown out of the house." A year later and thousands of miles away in Nova Scotia, 18-year-old Esther Cox terrified her family. Cox's ghost slapped her in the face and burned down houses. Her poltergeist's behavior worsened when a doctor prescribed her sedatives, burning down even more houses. And there are hundreds of more reports throughout the 19th century—of young women and girls tormented and tortured by these ghosts who seemed to have no purpose other than irritation. Yet the poltergeist refused to be written off as a Victorian relic, refused to be reduced to the dustbin of weird history, and continued to haunt well into the 20th century.

In the late 1960s, 19-year-old Annemarie Schaberl took a job as a secretary at a law office in Rosenheim, Germany. The unassuming young woman brought chaos to the law firm: Overhead lights swung and exploded, furniture moved, and fluid leaked from the copier. The lawyers might have chalked up the leaking copy fluid and exploding light bulbs to a poorly kept office, but instead they were convinced that Schaberl was haunted by a poltergeist. They called a specialist, a parapsychologist named Hans Bender, who filmed the disturbances. After extensive investigation of the ghost, Bender determined that Schaberl's poltergeist was simply the psychokinetic manifestation of her deep and mournful sadness. What a striking thought, that a young woman's depression could be powerful enough to move furniture.

What a striking thought, that a young woman's depression could be powerful enough to move furniture.

The poltergeist, it seems, is a bit of a time traveller. And the ghost clearly has preferences: small towns and rooms where there are objects eager to be overturned and destroyed. Most importantly, poltergeists prefer young women. In nearly every reported poltergeist case, the troublesome ghost seems to have cozied up to a woman—and particularly vulnerable are those on the cusp of recognizable adulthood. Indeed, if the poltergeist cases the stunned and scared communities from 19th century Ireland to 1980s Ohio revealed anything, it was that the source the disturbances were all young women.

Hauntings have always been the province of women. That idea the feminine body was the preferred vessel for ghostly habitation likely stemmed from a medieval belief that the Devil could more easily penetrate the soft bodies of women and take up residence. It was a concept that endured through time: In New England the Puritan preacher and prosecutor of witches, Cotton Mather, used to regularly beat his daughter, believing that a righteous hand could drive the sins from her innately iniquitous body. Mather recommended the practice to his fellow colonists, and, given their problem with witches, they were eager to embrace it.

Though religious ideology underpinned the belief that ghostly creatures are drawn to the pliable bodies of women, medicine sought logical reasons for the phenomenon. The annals of early-modern medical literature are filled with attempts to find scientific explanations as to why demons and ghosts single out women. Yet the possessed found little relief from the rational men of science; medical inquiry during that time overwhelmingly echoed the sexist conclusions drawn by men of God.

Women who were diagnosed with hysteria. Image via Wikipedia.

The 17th century French physician Barthelemy Pardoux argued that demon possession was almost natural to women and children because of their "fragile and infirm" condition. Even into the 20th century, physicians who specialized in hysteria—by its very name, a woman's disease—believed that the physical paroxysms typical of the disorder were little more than evil spirits leaving the body. Medicine confirmed the cultural beliefs that formed the poltergeist's foundation: women, being childlike and primitive in their very nature, were destined to be plagued by the noisy ghosts and their kin.

Stuck in the heady years of transition, suspended between girlhood and womanhood, the teenage girl seems like the poltergeists' best friend. If childhood is a tangent to adulthood, then teenagers occupy a kind of transitional state. In traditional haunting narratives, children possess strange mediumistic powers facilitated by their innocence. "I see dead people," a cherubic Haley Joel Osment whispered in The Sixth Sense. The child's innocence allows him to see the dead, and for others to believe in the reality of his macabre powers.

Yet teenage girls have little of that childhood magic left: Their childhood preciousness stripped, they are restlessly irritating and sexually tense. But perhaps that's why the irksome poltergeist prefers the company of teenage girls—they're of a kind. Unsurprisingly, once they haunted girl fully matures to adulthood, the poltergeist abandons them, disappearing as quickly as they appeared, no doubt eager to find another willing body.

Tina Resch must have been a poltergeist's dream. She checked nearly every requisite box for a psychokinetic haunting: young, female, and troubled. Tina had also, not coincidentally, recently seen the 1982 blockbuster horror film Poltergeist. The movie deeply relied on antique theories of demonic possession, dramatizing the development of evil in a cherubic-looking blonde girl.

Yet the movie was a cultural milestone of sorts—not only did scare the hell out of 1980s America, but its release coincided with a moment when the country sincerely believed in the omnipresence of sinister supernatural beings. Tina's poltergeist appeared just as the day-care sex-abuse hysteria swept the nation. An entire population, convinced that the Devil lurked in daycares waiting to seize on the innocent, was ready to believe the Ohio teenager's story.

After the Columbus Dispatch published the photograph that purported to capture Tina's poltergeist, manifested for the camera as a flying telephone, she became an instant celebrity. The photograph was picked up by the Associated Press, published in newspapers across the country, and broadcast on nearly every nightly news program, including Unsolved Mysteries.

Tina's story was readymade for the media: Here was an abandoned orphan, taken in by big-hearted foster parents who seemed to want little more than a normal life. But instead, a poltergeist had wreaked chaos and confusion on her home.

An entire population, convinced that the Devil lurked in daycares waiting to seize on the innocent, was ready to believe the Ohio teenager's story.

Mike Harden, still skeptical, did what any good reporter would do: he called William Roll, director of the Psychical Research Center in Chapel Hill. The 1980s had been good to Roll. He was America's go-to expert on all unexplained psycho-and telekinetic activities, and his multiple appearances on Unsolved Mysteries had solidified both expertise and reputation. On Harden's invitation, he flew to Ohio; on Joan Resch's invitation, he moved into the Resch house.

In the Resch home, Roll believed that he saw "tentative evidence of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis." In Unleashed: Of Poltergeists and Murder, The Curious Story of Tina Resch, a quasi-memoir of his time with the Resches published in 2004, Roll recounted "household appliances...turning themselves off and on, and bottle and glasses...flying and crashing without visible cause."

But Roll's account was not without critics. He was most publicly questioned by his arch-nemesis of sorts: James Randi. Randi was a long-time member of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a skeptic's group based in Buffalo, New York. Once news of Tina's poltergeist (and Roll's involvement) hit the airwaves, Randi traveled to Ohio with the intent of also taking up residence in the Resch home.

But Joan refused Randi entrance into the home because it would, she believed, "sensationalize" the matter. Joan was probably right on this account; in addition to his hobby as a skeptic, Randi was a magician, better known as "The Amazing Randi." Yet Randi would not be dissuaded. In a press conference held near the Resch house, the magician denounced the possibility that a poltergeist was haunting Tina. "Examination of available material indicates that fraudulent means or perfectly explainable methods have been employed to provide the media with sensational details about an otherwise trivial matter," he declared, ominously adding, "Tina...has created a monster that she will never to able to strangle."

Scan of the Columbus Dispatch via JamesAConrad.com.

"I have to live with myself," Joan said in response, adding that objects still were flying around the house and the events had been witnessed by nearly 40 people. "I don't feel I have to satisfy the amazing Randi." But The Amazing Randi would be satisfied—and in a manner more horrific than either Randi or Roll could predict.

By March, the Resch house was a circus. Media, magicians and psychokinetic investigators were keen to test Tina's powers, to pay witness to the shadowy poltergeist. With cameras on the 14-year-old nearly every waking hour, her poltergeist began to show signs of fatigue: At the end of the month a reporter for WTVN-TV in Columbus caught Tina pulling a lamp off a table.

"We had the camera hooked up on wide angle, but she didn't know it was operating," the reporter told the United Press International. "We left the house thinking we had recorded a bona fide psychic phenomenon, but when we replayed the tape at the station it clearly showed her reaching up to grab the lamp." The reporter added that though the tape seemed to discredit Tina, that there was still something inexplicable haunting her home: "I was seated at the kitchen table with Tina and all of a sudden the chairs spread out . . . I don't see how she could have sent them out in three directions like that."

Tina was declared a fraud, just a teenager who wanted attention; the media went home, as did The Amazing Randi. Roll, however, was convinced that Tina's story was true, that she was indeed plagued by something that he called "the force." He invited Tina back to her research laboratories in North Carolina. "Do you think you could leave your mommy and daddy for a while?" Roll asked her. Eager to leave adoptive parents and poltergeist behind, she accepted his offer. She spent a few months with Roll, undergoing psychokinesis tests before returning to Ohio. The poltergeist disappeared.

Tina Resch's story did not end with her poltergeist's goodbye.

Two years after her poltergeist refused to perform for the media, 16-year-old Tina was thrown out of the Resch home. The Resches, whom many alleged were abusive, were tired of Tina's teenage behavior. Joan would later acknowledge that the deeply troubled Tina had never received counseling and was trying to contact her birth mother. By 1990, Tina was married with a newborn daughter. Feeling lost and trapped by an abusive marriage, she contacted the only person who truly believed her: William Roll.

Later that year, Tina and her daughter Amber moved to Roll's home in Carrollton, Georgia, where he was a professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia. In his research facility there, he began working with her again, observing and documenting her "impressive abilities." With Roll, Tina's life seemed to find a bit of normalcy, despite the constant talk of her psychokinetic powers, Roll described her as "happier...learning parenting skills and taking classes in computers and nursing." She began dating David Herrin, a truck driver who, like Tina, was a divorced parent with a toddler. By all accounts the couple was happy.

In April of 1992, Tina's daughter Amber was found dead, beaten to death. She and Herrin were arrested days after Amber's death. The Atlanta Journal Constitution dubbed her the "Telekinetic Mom," and her arrest, like her poltergeist, turned into a media circus. The Associated Press reported on her past, reminding everyone that since she lied about her poltergeist, that she had been married and divorced twice. They called the death as "brutal" and residents in the small Georgia town took donations to pay for Amber's funeral. The whole town came to the little girl's funeral. The media circling, and the town angry, the trial was moved to nearby Floyd county. Resch's attorney was convinced that even in Floyd, she could not win. "We couldn't have beat these," her attorney said as he held photographs of the child's battered body. In 1994, she entered an Alford plea and was sentenced to life plus twenty years in Pulaski State Prison.

Roll was again Tina's only champion. In his book, Unleashed, he insisted on her innocence, laying out inconsistencies with the case, believing in her when no one else would. Tina's case is still a cause célèbre among the psychokinetic community, picking up Roll's work when he passed away in 2012. Until his death, Roll remained convinced that Tina was powerful, that her poltergeist was real. "I have been working on Tina's story for 20 years," he wrote, "and I still find much about her mysterious: her origins; the full extent of her abilities; the circumstances surrounding the death of her child. But one thing is certain. For a time Tina had the power to directly affect the physical world. I am convinced that this power is still to be found in the depths of her mind."

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