The Columbus Poltergeist
by Blake Smith
In 1982 a terrifying phenomena was lifted from the pages of parapsychology literature and turned into the highly successful film, Poltergeist. Although the film was not based on a real case, and the phenomena in the film veered wildly from the historical symptoms, it did make this peculiar type of event culturally available in a way it had never been before. So when a trouble household in Columbus, Ohio began experiencing flying objects and mysterious disturbances, one had to wonder: was this a poltergeist or merely zeitgeist?
Enthusiasts of paranormal lore will know that the word poltergeist is derived from the german words for noisy and spirit. Before we get into the particulars of the Columbus Poltergeist, lets talk about skeptics and hauntings. Skeptics are often depicted as dismissing the idea of ghosts and spirits without investigation, but there is actually a rich history of thorough scientific investigations of such alleged phenomena. The most difficult challenge is that the allegedly paranormal events rarely manifest themselves when skeptical researchers are present. This leaves the investigator to more of a forensic role and sometimes with nothing but a collection of anecdotes.
Even the terminology for such events is difficult because a skeptical view of any such phenomena is predicated on examining each unusual component rather than collectively viewing them as a haunting. This is a problem for paranormal believers too in that ghost investigations are all trying to explain elusive phenomena. Consider these words: phantoms, shadows, phantasms, ghosts, spirits… there is a robust lexicon to describe these non-corporeal entities, but no scientific proof that any of them exist. For the purposes of this article I'm going to talk about various aspects of this field but remember that these are terms which the scientific community - and Skeptoid - do not endorse as real or genuine. So when I talk about hauntings I'm not endorsing the existence of supernatural manifestations, but using the word to mean "the collection of unusual events" associated with such cases.
Poltergeist cases are characterized by loud noises, things being thrown, apportations of tiny objects, mysterious liquids appearing, rocks falling on the roof, and occasionally people being pushed, clawed, pressed or otherwise harassed. In most cases the poltergeist events are centered around one person - often a teenager. Many times when this central figure is removed from the scene the events stop and do not follow them to other locations.
In 1984 the home of John and Joan Resch became the scene of such events. Glasses, photographs, telephones and lamps were being thrown about and broken and the events all seemed centered on the Resch's adopted daughter Tina. Reporter Mike Harden had written about the Resch family because the couple had such a robust role in the community as foster parents. They'd helped care for more than 250 children by the time these events took place.
Tina Resch was 14 years old when the unusual activities started. She was a troubled teenager. She had a very volatile relationship with the Reschs which often led to shouting matches. She wanted very badly to find her birth mother. In March of 1984 her tantrums had become less of a concern than the weird occurrences that seemed to surround her. With household items whizzing through the air, the Reschs turned to reporter Mike Harden to see if he could help.
Harden brought photographer Fred Shannon to the Resch's home, having prepared him to expect the miraculous. The veteran photographer was astounded by what he captured on film. He had taken a series of photographs while visiting the family, and the best of these showed Tina cringing on the couch as a telephone is moving through the air in front of her. The story was picked up by the Associated Press, and a media storm hit the home. On March 8, 1984, approximately 40 reporters filled a 20' x 20' room in the Resch home looking to capture any evidence of paranormal activity, but it didn't seem forthcoming. Hours drug by with nothing to see. The effects seemed to only take place when nobody was looking, but by the end of the day at least one video crew felt they'd captured something paranormal when a lamp was knocked over.
Reporter Harden reached out to parapsychologist William Roll. Roll, who ran the Parapsychology Research Foundation (PRF) at Duke University, certainly had the credentials for such an investigation. He'd studied parapsychology alongside J. B. Rhine, perhaps the most prominent name in the field. In 1958 he had coined the phrase "recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis" (RSPK) to describe the type of phenomena seen in such cases. He wrote a book about his research into this phenomena titled The Poltergeist in 1972. Accompanying Roll on the investigation was Kelly Powers, a young man from Florida State University with a background in psychology and counseling. The Columbus Dispatch sent a private plane to pick up the two in North Carolina. They arrived on March 10th.
There had been preparation and planning to get Roll on site, but the day before he arrived another twist in the story was revealed. The TV crew who recorded the falling lamp had left their camera running and it revealed that Tina had pushed over the lamp. Questioned about it, Tina laughed it off and said she'd been tired of all the reporters there pressuring her to make something happen so she gave them what they'd come for so they would leave.
But Roll was not eager to dismiss the case as a hoax. In his view there had been too many reliable witnesses who had seen mysterious phenomena and he wanted to perform his own tests. He stayed with the Resch family to conduct his research.
Meanwhile, in Buffalo New York, the story of the Columbus Poltergeist reached the offices of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Paul Kurtz who was head of the organization at the time arranged for a team of skeptical investigators to go visit the Resch family. The team consisted of two astronomers, Steve Shore and Nick Sanduleak, as well as a man who was perhaps the most well known skeptic of the paranormal at the time, James "The Amazing" Randi. Team CSICOP arrived on Tuesday evening, March 12, 1984.
So the stage is set. Inside the home we have the Resch family and William Roll and his assistant. Outside we have reporters and the the CSICOP investigators. Randi is wearing his cape-like winter coat, he pulls out a check for $10,000 and tells the reporters that he will gladly pay this to the Resch family if they can show any kind of paranormal activity. Team CSICOP goes to the front door and they're greeted by an angry Joan Resch who did not appreciate the check or the unrequested visit. This is a point in the story where accounts differ, but the end result is much the same. Joan refuses to let Randi inside to investigate. The two scientists who accompanied him dismiss the idea of investigating without Randi. Randi quotes Joan as saying, "We've had a circus going already, and I don't need a magic show as well." (Roll's version of the quote is slightly different, "We've had a circus. Now we have a magic show. No, not here.")
The Resch family told the CSICOP team that they were going on a vacation and would not be available for further research. However, Randi found that at least for two weeks they were still at their home. William Roll claimed that Joan didn't want Randi involved in the investigation. But Randi was told by a reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal that Roll had urged Joan to keep Randi out of the investigation.
Roll would go on to use the fact that Joan wouldn't let Randi in the house to dismiss the CSICOP findings, saying they never did a proper investigation. But lack of access to the central figure in the investigation did not mean they were not able to review the evidence in the case. Randi interviewed the interviewers, talking to people who had been at the press conference in the Resch's home.
On March 13, the Columbus Dispatch - the paper who broke the story and which had flown Roll and his assistant up from Duke University - ran a story showing the CSICOP team on the front lawn of the Resch home, and told of how Randi had been refused admittance. In that article they pledge to share contact sheets of the Fred Shannon photos with the skeptics.
According to Randi, he travelled to the offices of the Dispatch and purchased a contact sheet of the photos. But apparently while he was still there, the newspaper changed its mind and tried to get back the contact sheet after he'd paid for it. He says he had to threaten legal action to make his way out:
[The editor] moved over to me and he tried to take the contact sheet from me, and I snatched it back, and I had the receipt right there and I held it up in front and I said, "I paid for this, this is my property, and I'm leaving." And he said, "Oh no you're not!", and he called the guard. The guard came over and said, "Yes, sir?". He said, "this man has merchandise that I want back." I looked at the guard and said, "This is my receipt, this is the merchandise, I'm going out the door. If you stop me, I'll sue the ass of you, and the entire newspaper, and I'm not kidding, I'm very, very, serious," and I stuck the receipt into the envelope, walked to the door, and I didn't hear a word behind me. They didn't know what to do and I walked outside and I had the contact sheet.
That contact sheet would become a central part of Randi's investigation. In the Spring 1985 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Randi detailed how the contact sheet revealed the truth behind Tina Resch's alleged powers. In the age of non-digital photography, camera negatives could make highly detailed contact sheets - a single page with an image of each photo on a roll of film. The contact sheet Randi obtained showed all of the photos Fred Shannon had shot. Photos that were not included in any of the stories, the ones that the paper had deemed unworthy of publication, showed features which suggested Tina was throwing the objects witnessed by others.
In the September 1984 issue of Fate Magazine, Fred Shannon explained how he had obtained his photos. He couldn't manage to catch anything when he held his camera - but as he lowered the camera or looked away he would see something but it would be too late. He felt like there was a force of some kind that didn't want to be directly observed. So he positioned his camera in Tina's direction, then looked away and when he saw a blur of indistinct motion from the corner of his eye he would snap the photos.
Randi's article goes into great detail about the settings on the camera, but it is the position of Tina in the photos along with the cord's positions compared with the claims that he felt were the most damning. In some frames a clear method for how Tina could have caused the effect is shown and in at least one unpublished photo Tina's arm is positioned in a direct line as if she had just thrown the phone.
The skeptical position is one of parsimony. Because Tina had been caught on film hoaxing, and because the photos suggested hoaxing, the most likely scenario is that the Columbus Poltergeist was a case of people being gullible and credulous in the face of a hoaxer. The introduction of paranormal activity to explain the phenomena reported did not seem to be warranted. It is worth noting that by the time that Randi arrived the news footage of Tina being shown pushing the lamp had been aired and competing newspapers were dismissing her story as hoax. But the Columbus Dispatch and William Roll were committed to the story, with Roll going on to bring Tina to his lab in North Carolina for continued study.
Fred Shannon's photos and his own experience were enough to convince him that something amazing had happened. He did not accept Randi's interpretation of the photos.
Despite the Columbus Dispatch having written that it would provide the skeptics with the contact sheet of photos, when it came time for Skeptical Inquirer to publish the results of their investigation, the paper refused them permission to run the photos. The editors of both publications had a lengthy back and forth debate, a summary of which was included in Randi's report. It was Skeptical Inquirer's opinion that the editors and publisher of the paper were embarrassed at having been duped and were wishing to avoid further scrutiny. To work around this, the skeptical magazine had to hire an artist to create close approximations of the originals. Comparison of the sketches to the published versions suggest the original contact sheet did strongly suggest a mundane explanation for the mysterious flying phone photos.
Randi's investigation promised a part two in which he would talk about the aftermath of the investigation and some of the inconsistencies with some witnesses, but in 1988 with the second half still not published, Randi made this statement:
I met with [Shannon] and pointed out the errors in his account of the event, but he persisted in his determination to rashly misrepresent the entire situation. The case against his version is devastating indeed. During one of his public appearances, I was able to demonstrate my proof; he still persisted. Even Dispatch reporter Mike Hardin, who covered the story in the company of the photographer and managed to overlook considerable evidence that did not serve the preferred storyline, could not support the hyperbolized and highly colored version that the photographer offered. This version was presented to readers of Fate magazine in a lengthy account that greatly pleased the gullible.
Years later, Randi pledged to finish up his coverage of this story in a book he's working on called A Magician in the Laboratory.
Media attention about the story died down, with many assuming that Randi's investigation plus the video evidence of trickery meant that Tina Resch had faked all of the mysterious events. William Roll continued to research Tina, hoping to find evidence for some brain abnormality or other cause which might support his hypothesis that her emotional frustrations were unleashing latent psychokinesis powers.
As is often the case with poltergeist research, in the end we are left with enough ambiguity that those prone to believe in the existence of PSI and paranormal activity still have footholds for their convictions. At the same time, while there is damning evidence of some hoaxing, it may not be possible to explain every aspect of the phenomena with that one word.
Randi's assessment was that Tina saw an opportunity to reach out and find her birth mother through the publicity around the case, but that in doing so what she really unleashed was the media - a monster not easily contained.
Scientific paranormal investigator Joe Nickell suggests that such hoaxing behavior forms what he calls poltergeist-faking syndrome. As people become fooled by poltergeist trickery, even mundane events and accidents become additional evidence for the haunting - or manifestation. He quotes a poltergeist faker who had come clean, "I didn't throw all those things...people just imagined some of them."
In the case of the Columbus Poltergeist, the tale doesn't end in revealed superpowers or a new understanding of physics, but in tragedy.
Two years after the story broke, Tina Resch was kicked out of her home. She narrowly avoided juvenile hall by marrying at age 16. She was abused, robbed and ultimately ended up the mother of baby girl at age 18. The baby's name was Amber. Tina changed her own name to Christina Boyer. She had a series of boyfriends and husbands, most of whom were abusive.
William Roll moved his parapsychology research to West Georgia College. Christina contacted Roll in 1990 and he suggested she move to Carrollton, GA to be near his research facility. There he began to work with her again. In his book Unleashed, Roll describes how Amber would misbehave around Christina to get her to react, and he felt that the child had become convinced that being physically punished by her mother was "Amber's way of knowing her mother cared for her."
Christina and Amber began to spend a lot of time with David Herrin, her new boyfriend, staying at his trailer some 10 miles outside Carrollton. On April 13, 1992 Amber was murdered. She had died from blunt force trauma to the head, and her body showed that she had been beaten for several days - and sexually abused.
Despite Roll's efforts to urge Christina go to trial and fight the charges, she followed her lawyer's advice and took something called an Alford Plea to avoid the possibility of a death sentence. This meant she plead guilty to murder while maintaining her innocence. She has continued to claim her innocence, pointing out that she wasn't home when the child was injured. She claimed that she hesitated to take Amber to the Emergency Room for fear that the authorities would take her daughter away.
Little Amber was with David Herrin when she received the fatal injuries and been left in his care for multiple days - each day Christina came home and found new injuries on Amber, but David claimed each was from a different mundane accident. The little girl wouldn't contradict the man's story.
David Herron was sentenced to twenty years in prison for "cruelty to children" - a plea deal of his own, and he was released from prison in November of 2011. Christina is still in prison at the time of this episode's writing.
This tragic ending to the story might seem to have no bearing on Tina Resch's alleged poltergeist experience except for this dark footnote: Where was Tina Resch while her daughter was being abused and battered by her boyfriend? At the home of another parapsychology researcher working on a memoir about her days as the celebrated teen at the heart of a poltergeist attack.
By Blake Smith
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