Ghosts And Poltergeist Aren't Actually The Same Thing - Here's How To Tell The Difference

Despite what you may have been led to believe, it turns out that sufficient discernment is necessary when it comes to navigating the paranormal. For example, what is the true difference between a ghost and a poltergeist? Or, what even are ghosts to begin with? Are they the same as shadow people? Are they dangerous? Humorous? ...Are they even real?

Although the term "ghost” is often used as an umbrella term for various spirits and spooks, ghosts and poltergeist typically get lumped into the same package. However, there are actually numerous ghost and poltergeist differences to take note of, many of which are fairly important once taken into consideration. 

For starters, spotting a poltergeist is pretty easy: they are definitely good at making their presence known. In fact, the whole point of being a poltergeist is to basically wreak havoc, whereas ghosts tend to have more of a stuck-in-time-and-space thing going on. Some argue that poltergeist aren't spirits at all, but are manifestations of energy that are being controlled by living, breathing humans who aren't even aware of it. But regardless of which entity is following you around, it's important to know what you're dealing with.

  • Poltergeist Have A More Lethal Track Record Than Ghosts
    Photo: G. W. Edmondson / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Poltergeist Have A More Lethal Track Record Than Ghosts

    Ghosts of any variety are scary, but poltergeist are downright dangerous. Some of the most famous poltergeist cases throughout history have involved the targeting of children or young adults, and, curiously enough, women in particular. These victims are frequently slapped, scratched, and abused in various ways; thankfully, most of these torments cease as quickly as they begin, though not all victims walk away unscathed.

    One of the most jarring cases of a poltergeist encounter gone wrong was that of Maria Jose Ferreira in Brazil in 1965. The poltergeist in question first made its presence known by smashing things around the house with bricks and stones, and soon set its sights on Maria, who was only 11 years old at the time. She was scratched, slapped, and even bitten; before her family knew it, her body was covered in bruises. Over 50 needles mysteriously ended up lodged in her ankle, and she was said to have even burst into flames at school one day. After months of abuse and fruitless meetings with mediums, Maria took her own life by ingesting pesticides. After her death, the poltergeist activity reportedly stopped.

  • Poltergeist Are Invisible, While Ghosts Make Rare Appearances On Occassion

    One of the biggest differences between ghosts and poltergeist is also one of the creepiest ones: poltergeist, though often violent in nature, remain unseen, whereas ghosts are typically identified based on some sort of sudden apparition. 

    Unless you've personally been marked or haunted by some type of spirit, it's hard to say which would be more upsetting. Poltergeist often manipulate objects and are known to leave really creepy messages for their targets, but waking up to a floating corpse in the window sounds equally frightening. Take your pick!

  • Poltergeist Have The Ability To Manipulate Physical Objects And Make Noises

    "Poltergeist" unsurprisingly translates into "noisy ghost" from German, which comes as no surprise after learning a few things about these supernatural beings. And thanks to Hollywood, most people are already familiar with the fact that poltergeist are the ones largely responsible for the kinds of paranormal disturbances that are really frightening. Chairs being thrown into walls, children sent levitating into the air, mysterious knocking that seems to come from the floor or the walls - these are all signs of a pesky poltergeist at work. 

    One of the most famous cases involving such behavior was the Enfield Poltergeist, which tormented the Hodgson family in Enfield, England during the 1970s. The four Hodgson children woke their mother, Peggy, one night, claiming that their beds were bouncing up and down. Peggy dismissed them as being mischievous, and went back to bed; however, over the next few days, the strange activity evolved into knocking, chairs moving around on their own, and all sorts of other terrifying events, most often focused on one of the daughters in particular, 11-year-old Janet.

    It quickly became a media circus, and a reporter from the Daily Mirror even stayed at the house for a brief time, documenting the events. Photographic evidence shows Janet levitating from her bed, and the rooms thrown into disarray by this alleged poltergeist.

    Years later, Janet admitted to faking some of the activity, but only what she estimated to be 2 percent of it. To this day, the Enfield poltergeist remains a controversial case, but some of the events still seem undeniably true.

  • Poltergeist Can Use Cellphones While Ghosts Are Still Wearing Nighties From Three Centuries Ago
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Poltergeist Can Use Cellphones While Ghosts Are Still Wearing Nighties From Three Centuries Ago

    One of the most glaring differences between ghosts and poltergeist seems to be their varying ability to adapt to the times; or, in ghosts' cases, the lack thereof. 

    One of the popular markers of seeing a ghost (because not all apparitions are glowing, oozing, or transparent), is noticing that the person you think you are looking at or have glimpsed out of the corner of your eye is wearing very outdated attire. For example, visitors to Gettysburg often report seeing ghosts still in their Confederate or Union uniforms - and it's often so convincing that they assume it's a historical re-enactment (on days when none are scheduled).

    Poltergeist on the other hand, have long been known for scrawling terrifying messages on walls or even carving messages into people's skin. However, they seem to be getting with the times, as there have been cases of victims receiving text messages from their respective haunts. 

    The South Shields Poltergeist was a particularly frightening case that occurred in England. Parents Marc and Marianne found their house under attacked by a malevolent, very active poltergeist that seemed to have an affinity for toys and violence. Their story includes scratching, flying objects, and even toys set up in chairs holding knives, but it got even scarier when Marianne began receiving texts from a number that couldn't be traced to any existing mobile or landline.

    One message warned her: "Going to die today, going to get you." Yet another read: "I can get you when you awake and I'll come for you when you asleep, b*tch." She also reported her cellphone receiving nonstop calls from her landline, at times when she knew that nobody was in the house. So, maybe a poltergeist disturbance qualifies as the scariest paranormal event out there.

  • Some Theorize That Poltergeist Are Actually Manifestations Of Energy Generated By The Living Rather Than Undead Spirits
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Some Theorize That Poltergeist Are Actually Manifestations Of Energy Generated By The Living Rather Than Undead Spirits

    Ghosts are largely considered to be the spirits of the deceased that, for whatever reason, are trapped on Earth, doomed to wander around for eternity. Some ghosts seem to have unfinished business they are trying to resolve, while others don't seem to understand they are dead at all.

    In other cases, the living are said to provoke or summon ghosts by building on burial grounds or disturbing graves in other ways. A prime example of this is the Whaley House in San Diego, California, where Thomas Whaley knowingly built his family home and general store on land that had once been a graveyard and execution ground. Even in 1857, Thomas and his wife Anna reported unexplained footsteps and noises in the house, and this was only the start of the misery to come. Over the next decade or so, they would lose two children in the house - one to Scarlet Fever and the other to suicide. The house now holds the title as one of the most haunted homes in America, and these are good ol' fashioned ghosts wandering around, not poltergeist. 

    In comparison, many experts of the paranormal seem to think that poltergeist aren't even spirits, but rather are manifestations of energy that living, breathing humans are controlling and giving off, usually unconsciously. For example, many poltergeist cases are centered around young adults, mostly teen girls. So, it seems that most poltergeist cases have a feisty or disgruntled teen behind them.

  • Ghosts Will 'Haunt' You, But Poltergeist Will 'Disturb' You
    Photo: Hereward Carrington / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Ghosts Will 'Haunt' You, But Poltergeist Will 'Disturb' You

    Although some might argue that hauntings themselves are rather disturbing (which is fair), it's often the case that ghosts provide more of a lingering, leisurely haunting presence, whereas poltergeist are selective and antagonistic - making themselves known by whatever means necessary, disrupting anything and everything in their path.

    Additionally, hauntings tend to occur over a long period of time, and are often linked to a particular place, but poltergeist, on the other hand, are sporadic and do and go where ever they please.