William G. Roll was born on July 3, 1926, in Bremen, Germany, of American parents. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1949. Roll received a bachelor of letters from Oxford University in 1960, and a Ph.D. from University of Lund, Sweden, in 1989. In his teens, during World War II when he was living in Denmark, Roll would sometimes wake up during the night and find himself able to leave his body (see Out-of-Body Experience [OBE]). On one occasion he moved out of the house as far as the garden. He had no doubt that he was not dreaming or hallucinating and that his “mind” had actually detached itself from his body. Although he has since come to a different conclusion about the meaning of such experiences (he now believes them to be purely psychological), they played a significant role in his choice of parapsychology as a career.
After the close of World War II, Roll moved to California, where his father was then living. Enrolling at the University of California at Berkeley, he studied philosophy and psychology, the closest fields to psychical research he could find. In 1950 he went to Oxford University to study the philosophical aspects of parapsychology under the British philosopher Henry Habberly Price. With support from Oxford and later from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and Eileen J. Garrett of the Parapsychology Foundation, he set up a small research laboratory. From 1952 to 1957, he headed the Oxford Society for Psychical Research.
While at Oxford, Roll got in touch with J.B. Rhine at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina (see Rhine Research Center). In 1957 Rhine invited Roll to Durham, later extending his offer by two years, and Roll temporarily broke off his studies.
In 1958, Roll and fellow parapsychologist J. G. PRATT were sent by Rhine to investigate a Poltergeist that had been reported on Seaford, Long Island (see Seaford Poltergeist). Their report, published in the Journal of Parapsychology that same year, concluded that the disturbances were most likely the result of unconscious Psychokinesis (PK) on the part of a teenage boy in the family. Roll and Pratt coined the term “recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis” (RSPK) to cover cases of recurrent psychokinetic activity. This term has caught on and is in general use in parapsychology today as a synonym for “poltergeist.”
In 1959, Rhine hosted a conference on “Incorporeal Personal Agency” at Duke. An important outcome of this conference was the decision by Charles E. Ozanne to fund a new institute dedicated to research on survival. Roll was named director of the Psychical Research Foundation (PRF), which began operation in 1960. In 1962, the PRF left the Parapsychology Laboratory for its own quarters in Durham. Roll was now giving full time to survival research. He investigated several more poltergeists, including one at a souvenir warehouse in Miami (see MIAMI Poltergeist). An important series of experiments on out-of-body experiences using a kitten as a detector were conducted at the PRF.
In 1987, when Roll left Durham to take the position of William James Professor of Psychology at West Georgia College in Carrollton, Georgia, he took the PRF with him.
Despite his longtime commitment to survival research, Roll is skeptical of the evidence for personal survival. In an important publication in the series Advances in Parapsychological Research, Roll outlined a model of survival that holds that although the body disintegrates at death, memory impressions are connected to one another in a vast “psi field,” through which they are accessible to living persons through a psychometry-like process.
Roll views poltergeists entirely in terms of RSPK and hypothesizes that they are due to repressed tensions on the part of the subjects, typically teenagers.
Roll served as president of the international professional Parapsychological Association in 1964. In 1989, he received his Ph.D. from Lund University, in Sweden, for a thesis entitled “This World or That: An Examination of Parapsychological Findings Suggestive of the Survival of Human Personality After Death.”Since 1990, Roll has been teaching parapsychology at Lund as an adjunct professor.
Roll has written more than 100 Scientific papers, several articles for anthologies, edited 11 volumes of Research in Parapsychology, and written four books: The Poltergeist (1972, his B.Litt. thesis for Oxford, based largely on his own case investigations); Theory and Experiment in Psychical Research (1975, his M.Litt. thesis); Psychic Connections (1995, with Lois Duncan); and Unleashed (2004, with Valerie Storey).
In 1996, he received the Parapsychological Association’s award for a Distinguished Career in Parapsychology. In 2002, he was awarded the Dinsdale Memorial Award by the Society for Scientific Investigation for his RSPK studies.
- Resch, Tina
- Berger, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
- Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.
- Roll, William George. The Poltergeist. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.
- Roll, William George.. “The Changing Perspective on Life after Death.” In S. Krippner, ed., Advances in Parapsychological Research, Vol. 3. New York: Plenum, 1982, pp. 147–291.
- Roll, William George.. This World or That: An Examination of Parapsychological Findings Suggestive of the Survival of Human Personality After Death. Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur, 1989.