The Real-Life Event That Inspired Poltergeist

Take a time machine back to the mid-20th century, a time when tales of the peculiar and unexplained were best told by intense middle-aged men in black suits as they cocked their eyebrows, cradled their cigarettes, and stared directly into your soul from the other side of the television screen.

"The extraordinary occurrences began at 3:30 on the afternoon of Monday, February 3rd, 1958, in the home of Mr. James M. Herrmann at 1648 Redwood Path in the town of Seaford, Long Island, New York." At least that's what LIFE magazine reported over sixty years ago, at the beginning of an article making remarkable claims. According to allegations made by the otherwise milquetoast Herrmann family, their three bedroom, single story slice of the American dream was being haunted. Haunted by ghosts. Ghosts who liked to unscrew the tops of bottles and then knock them over.

The first handful of experiences were unsettling, if not terror-inducing. The Herrmanns would hear a series of loud "pops," then find freshly overturned shampoo containers, pill bottles, and the like scattered around the home. One occurrence was unnerving, but when it happened several more times over the next week, they phoned the police, as the question "who you gonna call?" had not yet been posed at this point in history.

You moved the cemetery, but you left the bottles

As time went on, experts were called in. Explanation after explanation was explored, then abandoned. Irregular radio waves, underground vibrations, rogue drafts of air from the chimney, and even subterranean waterways (singled out via dowsing rod, no less) failed to explain what was going on in a satisfactory manner. 

When the incidents continued to escalate, eventually graduating from overturned bottles to overturned furniture, the Herrmanns became desperate. They had left their doors more or less open to the public, eager to take advice from anyone offering it. Eventually, unable to resolve the series of phenomena, they did what you've always hoped the family in a horror movie would do. They moved.

Thanks to the national exposure granted to the family, the word "poltergeist" entered the everyman's lexicon. As for the cause of the Herrmann family's distress, no definitive conclusion has ever been reached. The LIFE article describing their trials pointed out that often, in reported cases of objects moving of their own volition, adolescent boys are present in the home, as one was in the case of the Herrmanns. Perhaps, they posited, young men possess the capacity for telekinesis for some short portion of their lives. Or perhaps, as the magazine fails to mention, they figure out how hard it is to see fishing wire.