Category Archives: Poltergeist Cases

Review: The Enfield Haunting, Sky Living Drama – Part One


So I actually watched it, only two days late! Firstly a note. Enfield produced a crop of iconic images, especially those by Graham Morris. I’m not reproducing them here. You have probably already seen them, and I don’t own the copyrights, and respect the owner’s IP, so sorry. 🙂 If the owner of the famous images reads this and is OK for me to license them for use in the review, drop me a line.

Polterwotsit is a blog about real poltergeist phenomena, not fictional ones, but clearly the two can inform each other. The new Sky Living drama about Enfield has attracted considerable media coverage, and from what I have seen so far good reviews. If it were just a fiction I would never get round to watching it – but it is (very notionally) based upon Guy Lyon Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and hence the Enfield Poltergeist. As such I guess I’d better say something. I have actually reviewed fiction before on my personal blog – you can find my review of the first Paranormal Activity film here.

“Everyone’s a critic” they say, implying that everyone who can’t perform or write themselves allows themselves to make harsh judgments of those who can. It is all too true in my case – as an actor I am appalling, as a screenwriter – well I’m not doing much of it now am I? – and as a writer, er yeah, ’nuff said. I did get an Asst. Director’s credit once when a real director taught me a bit and let me “call the shots”, but what I know about making film or drama can be written on the back of a postage stamp. If you want a considered review based on real knowledge of the paranormal on film go ask Tom Ruffles, he’s your man.

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get's the voice right I'm happy!

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; good actor though!

Still here is what I thought – the good, the bad, and the so ugly I twice paused it and walked away from the TV to go clear my head and stop being annoyed and shouty before I could continue…

Let me start by saying that as a representation of the events at Enfield, at least as depicted by Guy in This House Is Haunted, this drama is about as much accurate as Cameron’s movie Titanic is to the events described in A Night to Remember and the actual sinking of the Titanic. 

To justify that analogy – the dramatist, Joshua St. Johnston has pulled out strands of story, and woven together a drama, and set it against the backdrop of Enfield – and the sets are loving reconstructions of the 1970’s, with almost perfect verisimilitude in set, costume, and feel just as Titanic gets the ship and costume almost perfect.

I lived in a council house 1981 to 1987, very similar to the one the Hodgsons lived at – and it was pretty realistic, though we lacked slugs and snails and ours was in much better structural shape. Note to Producers – poor does not mean dirty. The pipes looked right, but a lots of working class homes are pretty immaculate. I like the was it was handled here – looked right, and the reconstruction of the girls bedroom was almost perfect. I think the Monopoly set on the wardrobe is a 1982 edition, but otherwise almost perfect set dressing.

So it looks right, the names are right, the period items are right, the atmosphere is 77 – even down to a clip of a famous Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em episode on the TV – the lighting is almost Dogme 95, and the claustrophobic shots build atmosphere – all excellent. It’s a fantastic effort; the Viewmaster-G series toy looked right, and I think the Ker-Plunk set was the correct era too.

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

That’s the Good. The Bad now. And here is a confession…

I’m possibly not the target audience for this drama. I am going to guess that less that 50%, maybe less than a couple of million of the viewers of this show, will have ever tried to make sense of what happened at Enfield, written about it, talked to any of those there or describe themselves as “academic parapsychologists” on the dole forms.  I may be in the 20% or so of the audience who have actually read This House is Haunted, and maybe the few thousand who actually have read much on poltergeists. And as far as I know, I’m the only viewer who has a Poltergeist blog, cos this is the only one. Therefore, as this is not a programme made for pretentious nerds like me, I would be an arse to review it. I shall do so anyway, but bear it in mind.

I saw that the Telegraph or someone did a review calling it The Good Life with ghosts. I haven’t read it yet – I prefer to form my own opinions – but I think they have something. There is nothing of Margot & Jerry about it, or the Goods – but in a sense it is about an assault on hegemony, common sense of a society. However The Good Life, like Keeping Up Appearances, The Upper Hand, and pretty much every other 70’s and 80’s sit com was about something we barely understand now – social class. Well we pretend not to, we live in a classless society, but hell it’s rough on lads like me who aspire to rise above their station I promise you. I did pretty well, but like so many of the working class intellectuals of my generation, or maybe in my case pseudo-intellectuals, I ended up broke living in poverty on benefits in a house full of books.

Right now I get you don’t want a Marxist discussion of the base/superstructure model, and what economies generate poltergeists. 🙂 My point is that the 80’s and Thatcher changed so much that unless you were in the 70’s it is hard to imagine the class system, and how pervasive and taken for granted class assumptions were until maybe the early 80’s. And here is the first failing – while The Good Life was about two middle class couples, one of whom dropped out and lived what would not be recognised as a perfectly mainstream organic urban farming middle class existence; the Enfield Haunting has to negotiate class distinctions in 70’s England.

So let’s start with the Hodgsons – plainly working class, poor but respectable. Dad has left. So what is the single most important class indicator for a production like this? Accent. North London accents are divided by class; way more so then but now, and Enfield has an accent. Now luckily they avoided the obvious trap of Cockney – but the family just sound all wrong, shattering the illusion for me.  Eleanor Worthington-Cox sounds middle class, perhaps Cheshire (I’ll probably find out she grew up in Enfield now) and her brilliant performance as Janet is marred by an accent that would put her in the middle classes, not on a council estate in 1977. Now you can live on a council estate and talk posh – someone once said I did for instance, and I notoriously have  a “telephone voice” if someone calls me – but the accents of the family evoke a disconnect in terms of class and time and place. I guess you need fairly neutral accents for TV, but also I was surprised that the familiar diction of North London has gone – and even the choice of words feels wrong. “bleedin'” made far too few appearances. Are  there no North London child actors? Only Peggy really convinced by accent, and she looks like a middle class Oxo ad mum rather than a working class woman of the 1970’s. Still the families acting is superb, so all is good there!

Now as Becky says “this is TV” and Lisa “yes Chris it’s a drama, not a recreation”. Yeah fair point. I just felt stronger play on the language and class aspects would not have harmed the drama, though it may actually make younger viewers uncomfortable. People under 40 often seem uncomfortable talking about class.

mauriceNow it get’s harder for me; Spall and MacFadyen. Why? Because Maurice’s moustache and voice are totally wrong. I can do a pretty good impression of Maurice Grosse – I once dared to do it to his face, and he laughed, which was lucky as while a jolly and good natured chap he could blow up and explode in to harumphing rage if provoked. 😉 However the moustache, and the voice, and a few mannerisms made Maurice pretty unique – and a bit eccentric. Spall has played it safe, by playing Maurice as a more respectable, slightly sad figure – I recall him more as a frenetically driven, sometimes angry, often laughing, usually interrupting kind of bloke – but I liked Maurice, who I knew a little, so I like Spall’s depiction – I just don’t recognise it. So for the 75% of viewers who never ate with Maurice, or talked politics with him – well you guys will have to make up your own minds. Just don’t confuse Maurice Grosse and Maurice Grosse, if you see what I mean. I guess that is true of any fictional depiction of a real person, but I can’t think of any I have seen.  Maurice is odd – because you take away his North London middle class accent – a self made millionaire I believe, Grosse was perhaps working class made good, but he a long away above the Hodgson’s socially.  One lovely tough is Grosse’s red sports car, spot on.

Guy Lyon Playfair likes the drama, and I can see why. The depiction of him is pretty good. Of course there is one of the scenes which lefts me infuriated soon after his character arrives. As I recall Grosse and Playfair were sitting together at a monthly SPR talk  on a Thursday night when the shout went out and they volunteered to go look.  For dramatic purposes that is completely changed here, and – well I’ll get to that in my rant under “the ugly” below. For now what we have to note is Guy is very upper middle class – I find him a little scary, as I find most Cambridge graduates. The depiction of his in this respect seems good – he was good looking, well educated, and knew about poltergeists. He also seems a little more cynical and harder to befriend that Maurice – I always wonder if I am inadvertently “using the wrong knife” round Guy, but we do not meet often these days as I have no money for SPR meetings or conference. 😦 Guy also is extremely intelligent, a little belligerent when defending his case and while not a touch eccentric like Maurice, perhaps a little non-conformist. I like him from the few occasions we have met, but I’m a bit nervous of him, even by email!

The Ugly

There is a lot I actively dislike about the show. The biggest thing was early on, when Maurice and his wife take the call from the SPR (which of course never happened). There is a weird dream sequence in which it seems Maurice is looking at blood on a girl’s  head – I think Janet Grosse was 22 when she died, not a child, and her head injuries in the motorbike crash that killed her went a lot further than a bit of blood – but here the dramatist establishes Maurice was suffering “bad dreams” at the time of the case.

I know nothing of the sort to be true; I did speak to Maurice about his daughter’s death, well he told me, and he told most people – he was obviously very upset by it, and it was why he came to join the SPR – but I still don’t think bereavement effected him. Spall play’s Grosse as vulnerable – I recall him as a an energetic firebrand, but I could be wrong. I was only an acquaintance of his- others should speak on this.   Still this is a drama so that is fine, and the author is cleverly creating multiple potential explanations. enfield2

So what annoyed me in this scene? After Maurice leaves the house, his wife Betty is seen making a mysterious phonecall and saying something like “Ray, I’ve got to see you”. She smiles – and I immediately got an uneasy feeling the implication was that she was having an affair. Now this seems a nonsense from what I know – it serves a narrative purpose, to show that Maurice pretty much dedicated all his time day and night to the case – but Maurice was a family man and he and Betty were devoted to each other. Maurice has a son, Richard – perhaps that is the mysterious Ray, or maybe Ray is a family physician? The storyline will be resolved in the second or third episode I explain innocently enough, but it struck a nerve because of the David Baddiel incidents.

Baddiel wrote a novel featuring a fictional character called Maurice Grosse who has an affair –

GHOSTBUSTER Maurice Grosse did not see the funny side when he read a novel by comic David Baddiel with a storyline about an adulterer called Maurice Grosse.

Now the 79-year-old para-psychologist is suing the Fantasy Football star for libel – and demanding £10,000 damages.

In his book, Time for Bed: A Novel About Sleep, Sex and Skewed Clocks, Baddiel describes a psychic investigator called Maurice Grosse who lives in High Barnet, North London, and runs away with a married woman. The non-fictional Mr Grosse, who lives in Muswell Hill, North London, said: ‘I’m 79 and I’ve been happily married for 55 years.”

They settled out of court, and Grosse characteristically gave his winnings to charity. After he died however, Baddiel used the character again in another novel (and film) The Infidel. I am diplomatically going to avoid saying what I think of this move by David Baddiel…

So with that background, I think the screenwriter should have stayed well clear of teaser storylines about Maurice’s (as far as I know extremely happy) marriage. I was annoyed a bit, and went for a walk to calm down. I’m sure episodes 2 & 3 will as I say dismiss this but…

And then the portrayal of Maurice, and the bond between him and Janet, well it just goes a bit far. He comes over as a kindly uncle, all perfect, but did he sniff that hairbrush? We are viewing this in the wake of the historic sexcrimes investigations of Operation Yewtree and things that were totally innocent often seem dodgy to us in this cynical and perverted age. For a moment i felt uneasy – was Maurice being depicted as a perv, to set up a storyline where at the end of the evidence we learn about his daughters death and his  behaviour is explained? I’m probably too defensive of Maurice, but I felt uncomfortable. Nothing about him was in the slightest sleazy as far as I can recall! 🙂 Quite the opposite.

The third  thing that really annoyed me was the whole Playfair versus Grosse set up.  As noted above, the two had previously met at an SPR event or two, but only really got to know each other after they came to Enfield. In reality they both volunteered at the 4th August SPR 1977 meeting. Except in the drama Guy arrives at the house, and joins the investigation, and then forces Maurice briefly out, having talked some utter bilge (I assume) about being sent by Prof Beloff to stop Maurice and protect the good name of the SPR!  Would John Beloff have roared with laughter, or sued? I suspect the former, but it is a nonsense.

The SPR since its inception in 1882 has not held corporate opinions.  Members of the SPR may investigate cases, may have even been sent out by John Stiles and the Spontaneous Cases Committee, but they are investigating as private individuals and their opinions are there own, as the SPR does not hold collective opinions. If you don’t know much about the SPR ( http://www.spr.ac.uk ) you might want to have a quick look at this old blog piece of mind from my personal blog.  Whatever the case, I don’t think the SPR sent anyone to “shut down Enfield”. I may be wrong, but I very much doubt it, and it certainly was not Guy Lyon Playfair. Maybe a rivals dynamic is more interesting, and Guy is depicted in the role of all the Sceptics he had to answer, then and today, putting their critiques to Maurice, who refutes them. An interesting dramatic measure, making Guy Lyon Playfair the villain, but not what I understand happened. Both investigators were pretty self critical and sceptical, and I can’t imagine Guy rounding on Maurice with “I am the expert.” Good drama, don’t confuse it with the real dynamic. I think Guy here represents the other SPR members who came along and were woefully unimpressed, but “bandying the SPR name about?”. Really???

Holy Levitating Lyon Playfairs Batman!

The moment at the end of episode one where Guy is suddenly hurled to the ceiling by the poltergeist nearly became a major contribution to psychical research in its own right, in that it nearly killed me. I was eating a packet of crisps, and physically fell off the sofa crying with laughter. For a show about a poltergeist investigation – and it is about that rather than the poltergeist, the phenomena is firmly relegated to the background, with usually good but occasionally irritating sound – actually well done music but occasionally distracts rather than adds, blame the mix not the sound’s composer  I guess – indicating “this bit is spooky” the actual haunting effects are absolutely bollocks.  Janet sees an old man (is that Guy Lyon Playfair made up to look old and scary? You only see him for a second and I did wonder if he was playing a cameo!) through the Viewmaster toy – really? – the Mirror journalists are relegated to the role of barely adolescent wonks (they play a significant role in events) and the string of visiting experts seems boilded down to a cameo of what I guess are the guys from PYE.  The weird shot from Graham Morris showing the curtains blowing in turns in to a Hollywood horror movie sequence of the curtains strangling Janet…

The story is told higgledy piggledy, without regard for the   actual chronology of the phenomena, and while in places the phenomena are served well – the marbles which take the place of the marbles and Lego bricks that hit the Daily Mail guys scene is shot in such a way there is ambiguity about how it occurs, and if the kids chuck things, but seriously, the “creepy old man apparition” glimpsed through windows etc a la Mr Pipes feels more like a homage to Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch than anything to do with Enfield, unless it is supposed to be the chap Vic Nottingham saw at the table? (You will look in vain for the Burcombes, the Nottinghams, or most of the others who came to Enfield in episode one. I guess introducing the girls and investigators enough – Peggy hopefully gets  screen-time more in episode 2, and Graham Morris too. WPC Heeps gets a mention – but the problem with this simplification for good screenwriting, reducing an endless list of characters to a handful who perform their narrative function, is it severely reduces the strength of the testimony, and some twonks will make up their mind on Enfield not from the people, physical evidence or written sources, but from this drama 😉 Such people really exist, and I seem to meet them! 😦 ).

You are not going to learn much about poltergeist phenomena from this – go to the book. Unbelievably Becky claims most people do not actually WANT TO learn about poltergeist phenomena(!!!), and if they did they might not try a Sky Living drama. 😉 It’s like Lisa says “CJ, you simply don’t understand fiction and a good story: it’s entertainment”.  While a few phenomena were absolutely spot on – marbles stopping dead for instance – seriously, don’t confuse the real case (more dramatic at times) and the rather dodgy special effects here.

Overall

A few aspects of the case seemed a bit personal to drag out for a drama; the oldest boy Johnny sent off to an Approved School, the girls periods etc. I’m guessing Guy has good relations with the family and he approved the screenplay I believe; I was surprised to find I know a couple of people related to the current residents of the house, and I hope they are not being harassed by “ghosthunting kids” and that Sky Living make it worth their while. I’m not sure I’d want my childhood on primetime TV, but hey, that ain’t ever gonna happen so I can sleep easy. 🙂

A good intelligent drama, as entertainment 7/10, mainly for good acting and great backdrops and period feel, but the script is not what I would have hoped for. I could not do anywhere near as well though, so bravo! to all involved. 🙂 I am probably not the person to review this. 😀

CJ x

QA

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Filed under Poltergeist Cases, Poltergeist Dramas, Poltergeist Investigations

Drama, Controversy and Confusion: The Legacy of The Enfield Poltergeist


Polterwotsit has been rather a dead letter for a couple if years now; Becky has completed her PhD, my ghost group GSUK has not met, and Parasoc has quietly disbanded. Ironically I have been just as busy, if not more so, as always in studying poltergeist cases, and as this is as far as I know the only poltergeist dedicated blog on the web I think it is time to revive it.

The spur has come from a new Sky Living drama based on the Enfield Poltergeist, which begins tomorrow (Sunday) night and my friend Hayley asking me to answer some questions to assist with her writing for her piece on the case in The Skeptic magazine.

Unfortunately my answers were rather longer than the whole piece, so obviously could not be used — so I ran them past Guy Lyon Playfair – I have no idea if he read them, but we chatted amicably by email –  and shall present them here.

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

Why are my opinions on a case that occurred a decade before I joined the SPR important? That may not be, probably aren’t — but I think if I can be taken as at least a little representative of the “next generation” of parapsychologists, my responses to Hayley’s questions may have some interest, and perhaps throw some light on the case for those whose interest is slightly more recent.

Obviously the real people to talk to are the family, and those who were there – Maurice is gone, but Guy still has plenty to say, and there is a vast amount of physical evidence that is not being studied.

This is not a primer to the case, or an introduction. It assumes some knowledge of what transpired, though even watching the drama might suffice, I don’t know I have not see it. (GLP seems to think it is good I’m relieved to say; that of course is not the same as “accurate” – accuracy is not usually a concern in drama!) If you haven’t read Playfair’s classic account of the case you should – This House is Haunted – and this Channel 4 documentary is superb too.

Anyway, here are my thoughts in response to Hayley’s questions…

Were the initial experiences significant/worthy of investigation?

A few years ago I made a calendar info-graphic of the case, showing the development of different symptoms, and compared them with those in the 500 cases collected by Gauld and Cornell from across 5 continents and many centuries for analysis in their 1979 book Poltergeists. Yes very much so…

The early part of the case is extensively detailed in GLP’s This House Is Haunted; the very first part of the case was recorded by BBC radio reporter Rosalind Morris who made several visits to the house in the period before the 45 minute broadcast on Radio 4 during The World This Weekend programme on September 11th 1977.

The case began on a quiet note, with two of the children’s beds shaking, which Peggy dismissed, but on the 30th August an unusual sound puzzled her enough to ask neighbour and builder Vic Nottingham in, who called the police.

WPC Carolyn Heeps saw a chair move, and it was clear the family were very distressed. WPC Heeps has always stuck to her statement “I’m absolutely convinced no one in that room touched that chair or went anywhere near it when it moved. Absolutely convinced”.

The next day Peggy Hodgson claims she saw an extraordinary sight – a chest of drawers ‘shuffling’ towards her. The children were at this point apparently terrified “just screaming and screaming”.

By the 4th September the Nottingham’s has called the Daily Mirror – and after considerable persistence (having been sworn at and cut off) they convinced the Mirror to send reporters.
Douglas Bence and Graham Morris came over – Graham was the photographer. Channel Four have done parapsychology a favour by recently recording extensive candid interviews with the two men for the show Interview with a Poltergeist – and it is clear that both men still believe something absolutely extraordinary was happening at Enfield, before Grosse and Playfair arrived.

I regard the amount of testimony from those who were present in the earliest phase of Enfield to be unusually good, and it is hard to believe that reporters, by nature a cynical bunch, would have been easily deceived.

So yes, the case was in every respect worthy of investigation at this point: it stood to tell us more about poltergeist cases, and the family’s distress was extreme.

Is the eye-witness testimony of the police officer who saw a chair move considered better? Does it make a contribution to the case?

WPC Carolyn Heeps gave more than one statement. The police officers returned to the station and logged the call out; however the statements usually discussed are those given to Maurice Grosse in writing and dated 10th September, and the February 1978 statement to BBC Scotland.

In a later (1982) statement to Mary Rose Barrington there were discrepancies – but five years had elapsed, and if I have shown one thing beyond reasonable doubt in all my years in psychical research it is that contrary to the “flashbulb memory” and confabulation models of memories of paranormal experiences, they erode with time, like any experience, only becoming ‘fossilised’ to some extent by constant re-telling, but losing detail, not gaining it. 

The 1978 statement given to Scottish BBC television director Peter Lamont reads

“The chair was by the sofa, and I looked at the chair and I noticed it shook slightly. I can’t explain it any better, and it came off the floor oh, nearly a half inch I should say, and I saw it slide off to the right about three and a half to four feet before it came to rest…I’m absolutely convinced no one in that room touched that chair or went anywhere near it when it moved.

Absolutely convinced I checked to see whether or not it could have possibly slided on the floor. I placed a marble on the floor to see whether or not the marble would bear the same direction as the chair did and it didn’t; it did not at all. I checked for wires under the cushion of the chair – I find no explanation at all”.

The 1977 Statement from 40 days after the event read

“On Thursday, 1st of September 1977 at approximately 1:00am, I was on duty on my capacity as a police women when I received a radio message to Green St., Enfield. I heard the sound of knocking on the wall that backs onto the next-door neighbours house. There were four distinct taps on the wall and then silence. The eldest son pointed to a chair, which was standing next to the sofa. I looked at the chair and noticed that it was wobbling slightly from side to side. I then saw the chair slide across the floor towards the kitchen wall. It moved approximately 3 or 4 feet and then came to rest”.

WPC Heeps was the only police officer to give a written statement, but not the only police officer to experience or be present during the phenomena, I think it would be worth trying to contact her colleagues now, before it is too late. As an external witness who was there right at the start when unidentified banging noises were suddenly joined by object movement phenomena, I think WPC Heeps testimony is important.

I find the minor variations over the years in how so she gave her statement more indicatives of truthful testimony than a made up story as well; however I have one caveat.

There is a tendency to rate “trained observers” as more reliable than others in terms of testimony. WPC Heeps seems to have no motive as an outsider to lie to us; I hesitate however to believe that because she was a policewoman she was any better equipped than anyone else to make accurate observations. Eyewitness testimony has been shown to be fallible by Loftus and many others; however these studies rarely dealt with the truly bizarre. One may fail to note an accurate description of a stage murder: however can one be sure the same rules apply when a kitchen chair moves unaided towards you in defiance of logic and physics? I don’t know!

My caveat is simply — don’t assume a police officer’s testimony is any more accurate than any other witness statement . Maybe, may be not. Depends on the person, the situation, and many other things.

If this scene happened now I would immediately think of the movie Poltergeist (1982): it is important to recognize this happened five years before that film came out, and the film drew from GLP’s This House is Haunted, not vice versa. (Likewise the name Gozer in Ghostbusters came from this case, not the other way round!)  I am inclined to think WPC Heeps description is highly accurate, but only because in one of the very few ‘paranormal’ experiences in my life I saw a coffee cup move in a very similar manner at a pub in Offchurch, Warwickshire in the mid-90’s. The vibration before the movement, the lifting and ‘flight’, are exactly what I an two others observed on that occasion. I was not aware to the best of my knowledge of the police officer’s statement before that date – I did not, perhaps surprisingly, read This House is Haunted properly until 2011.

Were there issues with the investigation? If so what?

Yes, of course. There are issues with any investigation. After a major police investigation the Home Office sometimes order a review to look over the case and see what lessons can be learned; the SPR did something similar with the Committee on Enfield under barrister and parapsychologist Mary Rose Barrington . Here we are fortunate; as well as the somewhat scanty reports in the literature, we have the at times almost confessional This House is Haunted, as well as the SPR review written by those unconvinced by the case.

It is clear that Grosse and Playfair were self critical; and there was a continual scrutiny by the press, and various sceptics and scientists who visited. In fact so many people visited Enfield at one time or another that I find it hard to imagine how more scrutiny could have been applied.

Of course I never went to the house: I was 8 years old the week it all began, and it was a decade later before I heard of the SPR, which I did not join until 1992. As such I freely admit my opinions are not worth much: in writing this I have drawn on notes from conversations in the period 1994 to 1996 with Maurice Grosse and Tony Cornell, who held very different attitudes to Enfield, and to the written sources.

I think it is fair to say that most of the SPR members who visited Enfield believed that some of the phenomena were genuine – and that the main investigators, who knew the family and case intimately and observed much of the phenomena first hand, Grosse and Playfair, were utterly convinced.

I think however that other members of the SPR who visited were far from convinced: they still however accepted that at the core the case had been genuine, at least that was my reading of Mary Rose Barrington’s position in the Enfield report. It was Mary Rose who first taught me that wonderful phrase of Renee Haynes, “the boggle threshold”. Some of the phenomena at Enfield fall close if not just over my boggle threshold: I find them hard to accept. I turn to the magisterial work of Gauld and Cornell, neither particularly impressed as I recall by Enfield, and I find by looking at the tables in their book Poltergeists that actually many of the phenomena are pretty normal for poltergeist cases.

So were there issues in the case? Yes, but one of the major ones seems to have been the reluctance of the SPR to fully commit to a full scale investigation. This is really a result of the actual constitution and set up of the SPR – it holds no corporate opinions, and members reflect all manner of beliefs. As such the opportunity was there to bring many perspectives on the case: but of course SPR members have jobs, families and lives outside of psychical research, and here Playfair and Grosse as relatively ‘junior’ members may not have had the back up they deserved.

Still that was because by the time other SPR members arrived on the scene, things had developed in to the more questionable latter stages of the case – the voice, the levitations, the pillow moving through the roof, etc. I can’t at this distance really tell you what happened: I do however think it highly dangerous, if not a little absurd, to privilege those critics who visited the house once over those who spent many months there like the journalist and Playfair and Grosse.

enfield2The two main objections I have heard are both directed at Maurice Grosse, no longer here to defend himself, but quite willing to do so, to court if necessary I feel, when alive.

The first is what I call the ‘Good Man’ critique – Maurice was a thoroughly decent fellow, who was genuinely moved by the appalling poverty and hard conditions the Hodgson’s endured. He therefore “helped out” financially, and also emotionally, becoming something of a surrogate father figure to the kids whose own father had left.

There are problems here; although the father had left the kids, he was in contact and visiting – and may well have been a kind and loving chap for all I know, though clearly the situation was distressing at some level. Secondly, while the family were poor, from the pictures and accounts they do not sound markedly more so than my own family when I was that age. Thirdly, while Maurice struck me as a kind fellow – he bought me dinner at an Italian restaurant a few times as I recall after SPR meetings – so did many other people – he was far from daft. I’m not convinced he was buying the kids presents on a regular basis, or helping out ot the degree where fraud was motivated by cash. I’ve never seen any hard evidence to suggest it anyway.

The second critique of Grosse is the “Bereaved” notion – like many people Grosse came to the SPR after an odd experience made him question if life after death was real, following the loss of his daughter Janet.

At the very end of This House is Haunted Playfair discusses how Grosse had come to wonder if Janet was somehow attempting to communicate through the case to him, but this may have been a slightly whimsical suggestion: I never came to know Maurice intimately, or even well – we were acquaintances at best, and I probably had just a handful of conversations with him after SPR meetings over dinner – but I do not recall him ever suggesting such a thing to me. He was however extremely critical of critics of the case, and he was overly defensive enough to put backs up I feel.

One such critic was Tony Cornell, that charming, and at time belligerent cynical old curmudgeon I came to admire greatly (and who did not speak to me for his last decade; the admiration was one way!). Tony was pretty direct in his critiques – he felt the girls played games, and played Maurice at times for a fool as I recall. Memory could be misleading me; but even Tony admitted there was a real case underlying what he was as tomfoolery and nonsense later on. Now I can’t be certain – more than twenty years have elapsed since Tony and I used to chain smoke outside SPR meetings and he delivered his marvelously well informed and often scathing critiques on all aspects of psychical research.

I thought Tony planned to write a book on Enfield – unless Investigating the Paranormal (2002) was the book in question, which doubtless gives his opinions on the case ( I have lent my copy to a friend so can’t check), I don’t know exactly what he was critical of.

This brings me back to where I started this section: the SPR could have supported Playfair and Grosse better than they did it; but the organisation was riven by internal politics. Lab based psi research was “in”, and about this time we see the beginnings of the renaissance in British Parapsychology that flowered at Edinburgh with the KPU under Bob Morris. Spontaneous cases were out of favour, and physical phenomena doubly so – poltergeists were plain unfashionable.

While Playfair and Grosse stayed with the SPR, by 1981 a sizeable number of members left to found ASSAP, an organisation with far more emphasis on spontaneous cases. Now of course Cornell and Gauld certainly had a strong interest in poltergeist cases, as did Mary Rose Barrington – so that was not the sole problem with Enfield – but generally the SPR were moving in a more “respectable” and scientific direction, and observational fieldwork may have been unwelcome in some quarters 🙂 Playfair’s Spiritist beliefs may have also caused some raised eyebows.

To me, well I think the case was a triumph. Almost every avenue was explored, it was well documented, and from the beginning Playfair and Grosse put the families welfare slap bang at the centre of their agenda. They went above and beyond what could be expected in bringing in expert help, going to considerable efforts to help the family get Janet examined at the Mausdley Hospital by Dr Peter Fenwick and liaising with schools and social workers. There is an odd dynamic there – but that probably is best discussed elsewhere. Overall I think they did better as investigators than I could ever hope to, and their persistence diligence and courage did not harm in the long run, and may have helped the family greatly. I guess it depends partly on what you see the key responsibility of the investigator is: to me it is to help the family make sense of their experience, move on and get through it. `

Was there evidence that activity was faked?

Yes. Margaret Hodgson is on record as saying about 2% of the phenomena was the girls playing around, and Janet has admitted they cheated at times, but were always caught. One incident where fakery was detected is reported in This House Is Haunted – it involves them hiding a tape recorder, and discussing what they were doing while it continued to play. No teenager is that daft: they wanted to be caught there. There is another incident, where the girls were persuaded a journalist to confess – and immediately afterwards retracted their confession. I believe a newspaper story ran at the time with reference t the alleged confession – if so it would be interesting to see it. It certainly proves the girls were pliable and eager to please, but today, nearly forty years on, both insist the phenomena was genuine.

I was 12 in 1981, a couple of years later. Looking back on that period when some major changes in my life occurred, and I moved home and changed schools and lost most of my friends, well I have only the most fragmentary memories of it all. These were huge changes in my life, that massively effected me – but I can’t recall more than a few tiny snippets of that traumatic summer. I’m guessing the Hodgson girls struggle to recall 1977 the same way, and remember more odd bits, and what they have read and been told since. Does anyone really know what happened at this remove? Only the press coverage, radio interviews and recordings can bring it back; that and This House Is Haunted. Maybe even the sisters don’t know exactly what the truth is after forty years?

People say that although some of the activity may have been faked a lot was genuine? Do you believe that this is true? Why do you think people make this distinction?

There is no doubt some of the activity was faked – absolutely everyone involved with the case, from the sisters to the journalists to Grosse and Playfair accept that. The girls were 11 and 13 when it all kicked off; and they acted like teenagers anywhere. At first they were terrified, but soon they began to enjoy it all, and if I recall correctly Tony Cornell was particularly put off by the way he though Janet was loving every moment and endlessly amused by the investigators failure to get to grips with it.

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get's the voice right I'm happy!

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he gets the voice right I’m happy!

The more conservative SPR faction tended to think the later part of the case was faked: they accept some original simple poltergeist phenomena in most cases (though at least one SPR member who visited the house once would not allow even that, calling hoax). Maurice Grosse was perhaps the most open to all the phenomena – the journalists seems to suggest he was at times a little credulous, though actually I suspect Maurice may have been being kind, and giving the family the benefit of the doubt.

Once again forces are at work which are possibly not immediately obvious to those who have not spent some of their youth kicking around with the SPR. It might be partly political, but also there is a well establish SPR tradition dating back to the 19th century that once a medium or psychic claimant is caught in fraud, that is it, game over, they are totally discredited. If they cheat once, then nothing they do afterwards, no matter how spectacular, can be taken seriously. Eusapia Palladino fell victim to this – perhaps uniquely she was given a second chance, but it was well known she would crudely cheat as a psychical medium if not carefully controlled.

So when the SPR felt there was strong evidence the girls were playing around, that was it. The case was tainted – by the normal rules of play of almost a century it was time to pack up and go home. Except Grosse and Playfair didn’t – they persisted. In doing so so they went against the culture of the SPR, which was traditionally dismissive of those who practice “mixed mediumship”, that is sometimes cheated to “help along the phenomena”. I can’t also help wonder if there was a bit of a class divide here: this was 1977, and while Playfair had been in Brazil, and Grosse was a self-made man, most of the SPR probably inhabited a very different world to that of the council estate dwelling Hodgsons. However to be fair to the SPR, when I joined the Society just over a decade later the council estate dwelling CJ was welcomed and never encountered any class prejudice at all, indeed quite the contrary – I was embraced with enthusiasm for a few years before my being caught up in the fall out of an SPR intrigue led to my fall from grace and exile from the SPR for 15 years.

Anyway the question is not was anything faked; the question is how much? I could look at the phenomena and critically assess them, but at this remove it would be wasted words. I was not there!

What do you think might have been happening if there was activity that wasn’t faked?

I actually don’t know. I’m not at all sure. I suspect the phenomena were playing along with Playfair’s and Grosses expectations; they appear to be intelligent, elusive and quite unpleasant, but with art times a sense of humour – albeit a malicious one. I’d say it was a poltergeist, as it acted just like poltergeists have from China to Brazil for over a thousand years, and probably far longer. I don’t think the Hodgson’s would have known a lot about poltergeists, but Enfield had a case before I think, and certainly the Battersea poltergeist and other cases used to occasionally show up in the papers. I don’t know what was going on – I really don’t. I’ve read a lot, talked to everyone I could at the SPR at some point or another, and you know – I’m still little clearer. I believe the family were upset, had no strong motive for fraud, but yes I think fraud occurred at times. Still, you know what I’m going to say – I wasn’t there…

There are ways we could make an assessment. Grosse recorded 180 hours of reel to reel tape of Janet. That could be digitised and made available to researchers. The photographs could me made available in an archive not the handful published, any. The Radio 4 broadcast should be readily available. Someone should collect the recordings, clippings, and oral testimony from Playfair, Janet, Margaret and others. What about the scientific readings taken by Prof Hasted? The recordings by the guys from Pye? The testimony of sceptics like Christopher Milbourne and celebrity ventriloquist & sceptic Ray Allen? The SPR report. All of this could be published now, maybe with a few small redactions to grant the family some privacy. It is one such redaction that puzzles me the most – we hear time and again about the two daughters, but little about the sons. Yet while one son was away from the house apparently at boarding school, the other Johnny appears to have been present throughout. Yet he does not seem to ever appear, and like his brother has not chosen to speak as far as I know yet? Maybe he was too young to recall,and I have no desire to pry in to the familiy’s privacy further, but the boys seem curiously absent from the narrative…

Anyway I am puzzled as to why the materials gathered during the case are not preserved in the British Museum or some scientific institute, or even a university. They really should be, for posterity.

Would you have conducted the investigation in the same manner?

No. I would have done far worse 😉

Do you have any other comments?

It’s taken me so long to write this I had best call it a night

So That’s was my response to Hayley. I don’t know if it was any use, or of any interest, but hey I tried. Feel free to comment, or email me at the usual address chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com

CJ x

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Has Simon Cowell a Poltergeist???


The Post Chronicle has a little story that really amused me, because it features the ever entertaining Simon Cowell. Recovering it seems from the Cherylgate Scandal  that dominated the British media earlier this Summer (Cheryl Cole got dropped from a US talent show – if you care about such things you doubtless followed it, if not like me, you have at least some idea I suspect!) he is in the States working on a new show. Here is the Post’s coverage, with as usual my comments…

Someone call the Ghostbusters! Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul a night in a haunted hotel in Dallas. Judge L.A. Reid checked out the same day he checked in because he reportedly got “spooked out.”

The judges were to stay at the Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa while they filmed auditions for the US version of ‘The X Factor.’ However, they had no idea that creepy ghosts live in the walls of the hotel.

Creepy ghosts? What do they do, watch you on in the shower? 😉

I can think of lots of reasons people might check out of a hotel, but I imagine the Stoneleigh is a pretty upmarket kind of joint, so the story caught my attention. It certainly looks gorgeous.

A source told US Weekly Magazine, “L.A. didn’t even know the story of the ghosts; he just couldn’t be inside the hotel. He was first to check in and left before the others arrived, saying it had a ‘weird feeling about it.’ Everyone joked he was being a diva, but when they heard about the hotel really being haunted they just thought he was smart!”

So. L.A. departed early, feeling something wrong. Interesting, and good for him — I would not stay in a hotel if I had a really bad feeling about the room; but the fact he had mentioned it possibly set the stage for what happened next — Cowell et al experiencing “spooks”…

Paula on the other hand wasn’t so lucky. According to reports Paula’s bathroom water taps kept getting turned on and off by themselves. She was reportedly left scared by the experience.

A variation in water pressure, surely not unlikely in Dallas in the Summer, or air blocks, or — I dunno, ask the lads from T.A.P.S they are plumbers aren’t they?  Still I’m sorry Miss Abdul was upset by it.

Cowell experienced similar goings but enjoyed spending times with the ghosts. A source said that he really liked staying in the hotel and will probably try to stay in only haunted hotels in the future.

Cowell as always level headed. If he wants a list of purportedly haunted hotels in an area I can happily provide one. In fact the original source makes it clear that is NOT what he said. The anonymous source said they would not be surprised if he insisted in future on it, as hyperbole, to stress how much the incident had entertained him.

Simon Cowell; credit wikimedia

So normally I would ignore a trivial celeb gossip piece like this, but since the News of the World is dead I thought there was room for some sensational journalism, and I’d step in to their shoes. Now I’m not taking up phone hacking! What I actually wondered however sounds so bizarre and ridiculous that it would be worthy of that journal, if not the World Weekly News, National Enquirer  or The Onion.

What if  Simon Cowell has his own poltergeist? 😉

Seriously, the idea is not as insane as it sounds. Poltergeist activity is associated according to mainstream parapsychological theories with people, not buildings: you have a poltergeist agent, around whom events cluster. That person serves as catalyst or medium for the phenomena, whatever the ultimate causes. They are completely unconscious of their role in the “haunting”, and it has often been suggested are less bothered by the events than others — like Simon in the above story? Often creative, intelligent and sometimes frustrated by obstacles preventing them utilizing their talents, they… OK, I’m not entirely serious!  But if anyone was a poltergeist agent, Simon Cowell strikes me as a good possibility. And I recall a little story from last Summer that I ran here on Polterwotsit on “Britains Got Poltergeists?”

Now all these unattributed sources are probably Cowell’s press office, or bored journo’s making up stories, who knows? But twice is either a) suggestive that Simon may be a ) unconsciously mediating recurrent spontaneous psycho-kinetic events or b) good at coming up with interesting stories to keep his name and how in the papers. I can’t quite decide which is more plausible… 😉

Seriously though, assuming there was something to both stories, only Simon (or one of his crew) seems to be a common link.  I think the Dallas events can be put down to a) the plumbing b) the atmosphere caused by L.A. switching hotels based on his intuition and c) the fact events took place during a massive cloudburst and thunderstorm across the city, well I think we can safely say there was not much to it. If there was, well maybe Simon Cowell really is a poltergeist agent, which would be hilarious, and strangely scary — something like The Omen meets The Producers? Anyway, I shall watch future events with interest, and if Mr Cowell ever wants testing for ESP, in the words of the ghostbusters “we’re very discrete…”

cj x

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The Sweetshop Spook – Cardross, Dunbartonshire, Scotland


OK, I have been really busy lately so let us return to the 25th June and a story in the Daily Record

A SWEET-TOOTHED ghost has whipped up a storm in a teacup at a village cafe. The friendly “Casper” likes to move sweet jars and other goodies around the tearoom in the night.

Many many years ago an old friend of mine was called in to investigate a poltergeist at a chocolate manufacturers, way back in the early 1980’s. Rats turned out to be the cause! (And oddly enough a couple of years ago a care home where staff were frightened and contacted me also turned out to have a problem with the “rats in the walls”.  But even the most enterprising rodent does not heft around large sweet jars, so let us read on…

But the playful poltergeist sometimes makes an appearance during the day.

That poltergeist activity occurs during the day is of course no surprise, but appears? Um, let’s establish the facts as far as we can…

Laura McKirdy and her mum Fiona believe they are being haunted by an old lady dubbed Nanny Goony by folk in Cardross, Dunbartonshire.

Laura said: “I had just locked the door one evening when a jar of lollipops went crashing to the floor.

“I thought I’d just pick them all up in the morning but, when I came back, they were back in the jar and stood upright.

Well the obvious solution is someone else picked them up and put them back. Yet obviously Laura would have considered this possibility, and would hardly be attributing it to a ghost if she felt it likely. A second option is that she picked them up and put them back, and simply forgot. I know that sounds bats but I have often done things like this, then been surprised to find I have done a task when I return to do it later. But then I’m often quite bewildered,and can’t generalize from my crapness to to others.

Laura's Cafe, Cardross, from their Facebook page

Laura's Cafe, Cardross, from their Facebook page (linked). The cafe has since had a makeover apparently, but looks good to m anyway!

What is interesting is not the fall, but the replacement on the wall. One assumes the jar could have fallen for all kinds of perfectly mundane reason, but the tidying up the spill is a bit strange! Then again, there is another really odd but entirely possible scenario – that the jar did not fall in the first place, and was hallucinated, or that the fall happened some days before, resulting in someone else sorting it out, and Laura was mistaken as to the date. All these explanations strain credibility however, but then so do poltergeists!

Other spooky happenings include sweets moving on their own, pictures falling off the wall and crumbs appearing on newly wiped tables.

All very poltergeist, but all to my mind within the possibilities of simple misperception and natural causes. Those who read my 1996 JSPR piece will remember that I suggest that “ghost” may sometimes be an explanation that develops over time to explain a lot of “symptoms” that appear puzzling and bizarre, but when each of the “evidences” for the spook is examined in isolation, the whole picture may change, and instead it may just represent a series of mundane but entirely explicable events. Anyone who has been besotted with a girl or chap knows you start to notice their name more, spot their birthday, and generally become hyper-aware of things that remind you of  the object of your affections – at least I hope so or I am just a freak, it certainly happens to me. Or if you read Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus Trilogy, it may well be that you suddenly spot the number 23 absolutely everywhere, because 23 now stands out to you.

In many cases I think this occurs with ghost and poltergeist cases (the relationship between which will be a future article written with Becky, but you can here more on my thought about this at ASSAP’s Seriously Strange conference this September); a series of minor events that may well happen to all of us all the time and which are intrinsically puzzling become attributed to an entity, as we seek a causal relationship between what are probably events unrelated except by the fact they live in the category “mysterious happenings in our home”.

Note I’m not saying this happens all the time, and it certainly does not explain a large number of poltergeist cases I have read about, investigated or studied, but it may well explain some. The place for any ghost investigation to start is with each single incident, meticulously examined and recreated with the original witnesses present — exactly the kind of thing I can not do on a press review site like Polterwotsit. This is why I always  stress that I want to go and talk to the witnesses myself, or speak to them via the phone or email. I very rarely get the chance 😦

Fiona said: “One time we heard the sound of legs moving under a table, but there was nobody there.”

This seems rather subjective, but I don’t work in a small cafe, so I may not instinctively recognize these things. Laura and Fiona probably have lots of experience of their cafe – they know what they are hearing, so I’ll take their word for it.

The cafe owners called in the Scottish Society for Psychical Research to investigate.

This is excellent news. I only really know Trish Robertson and Archie Roy, and I think Soapy Sam off the JREF attends meetings sometimes, but they strike me a level headed and intelligent organization.  The context makes it sound like this chap however is the SSPR reponse, which I don’t believe to be the case…

Paranormal expert Ron Halliday described the goings-on as typical poltergeist activity.

He said: “It could be that it is a trapped soul who is trying to send a message to the owners themselves.”

It could be. Or it could be all kinds of other things, and trapped souls are currently low on my lists of suspects. Still I will wait and see what transpires. The SSPR will do a good investigation.

Laura added:”She doesn’t seem to mean any harm. She’s a very friendly ghost – I wouldn’t stay here if she wasn’t.”

Well that is nice, and I think Laura has a very healthy attitude. I’ll do a follow up if anything emerges! I’d love ot hear more from anyone with actual first hand knowledge of the case.

References

Romer, The Poverty of Theory: Notes on the Investigation of Spontaneous Cases, JSPR, July 1996

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A Coventry Poltergeist?


You probably did not read it here first.  😉 This story has been all over the media and blogs for the last few days, and while I feel duty bound to discuss it, I quite probably have nothing new or interesting to say, so you might want to stop reading now! Still this is Polterwotsit, and you might therefore think someone in the media might have beaten a path to our door, and asked for comment. Actually, if you did, you ain’t psychic, because no one has, just as no one has at any point in the year since I started Polterwotsit ever asked me to comment on anything. 🙂

I guess this could take a while, so I’m going to aim for three or four parts – you all know the score by now. Let’s look at the story as it unfolded in the pages of the Coventry Telegraph.



Exclusive: Poltergeist haunts my Coventry home, says mum

A MUM captured this amazing video footage of the poltergeist she claims is haunting her Coventry home.

And footage there is! But that really comes later, let’s see what little can be gleaned from the press. The Coventry Telegraph have done a pretty thorough job on this, and while it’s as always dangerous to speculate without a proper investigation, well I think we have quite a bit we can look at. Annoyingly Becky was in Coventry on Thursday for a PhD meeting with Dr Ian Hume, her supervisor, and also at Coventry University is Dr Tony Lawrence – and the lovely Anglican chaplain Revd. Jennifer Croft would have been a formidably intelligent addition to the team, if anyone had thought to phone the Parapsychology guys at Coventry – or mention it to Becky, who was actually interviewed by the  Coventry Telegraph about her research when promoting www.strangesurvey.com a few months back.

Lisa Manning and children – Ellie, 11, and Jaydon, six – claim their rented home in Coventry has its own poltergeist. Things have got so bad that Lisa’s landlord Whitefriars even brought in a priest to bless the house in Holbrooks.

Is it just me or have children featured in a lot of our cases? Not the coin throwing garage one, and maybe I’m imagining it. I’ll do a quick search soon and have a look.  Adolescent girls are always linked in the popular mind to poltergeists, but my reading of Cornell & Gauld’s classic Poltergeists made me doubt a connection, but still we will have a look see what turns up from our tiny sample of cases in the UK news.

Lisa says there have been a host of unexplainable events since they moved into the end-terrace in Lilley Close six months ago.

Six months ago? It was six months from the time the family moved in till the Cork poltergeist story broke, eight months in the Cheshire one, and now six months again (but the Tyre depot was three years after they moved in the business…) One wonders if it had also been empty for a long time like the Stockport and Cork cases? Anyone else spot another connection? Second half of March is when poltergeist stories like to manifest in the UK news! Still we have far too little data to speculate, probably just coincidence. Still sounds like the Housing Association called in a priest — which does not mean they necessarily think there is anything up, they are just covering their backs by helping reassure their tenants. I did a quick investigation for a local letting agency last year, but nothing came of it.

Six times strange goings on have freaked them out so much they have fled the house.

If demonstrably true that would be strong evidence they are actually bloody scared. It can not be easy to keep fleeing to friends or relatives with two young kids in tow.

Lisa says the weird happenings include:

* pots and pans mysteriously being thrown around

Well that could be seen as classic poltergeist activity, but we would need rather more detail!

* blinds moving up and down

I have seen one reference to this in the “Accidental Census”. It’s interesting but without knowing more about the blinds, who can tell?

* lights turning on and off

Not uncommon, but again neither is faulty wiring!

* drawers pulling out on their own.

Think we saw this in the Cork case, and again sounds plausible, but I leave drawers half open all the time. All of this could be commensurate with classic descriptions of poltergeist phenomena, or someone who watched the movie Paranormal Activity a bit too seriously!

Lisa, a 34-year-old carer, was originally sceptical when her children and partner Anthony, 25, complained of strange things happening. But she started to believe there was a poltergeist in the home when she found her dog seriously injured at the bottom of the stairs.  She took the pet to a vet but it later died. She says the vet believed its injuries showed it had been shoved.

It’s quite common for people giving accounts of the ‘paranormal’ to begin by saying “Well, I did not believe at first, but then…” However this dog business horrifies me. It is not clear if the dog died as a direct result of its injuries, but something feels wrong. Did the vet report them to the RSPCA? And what kind of injury does shoving a dog down stairs do? In my experience most dogs if pushed would skedaddle down the stairs, then bite you, justifiably. Throwing a dog down stairs might do horrible damage to the poor creature: but shoving seems weak. I am worried by this aspect, and feel very sorry for the family for losing their dog, horrible.  I can’t think of anything similar in the literature – I once saw the death of some zebra bullfinches blamed on a spook, but nothing like this.

Just as in the film Paranormal Activity, Lisa has set up a video camera to try capture what’s going on. Footage – viewable on the Telegraph’s website – appears to show a chair moving across Ellie’s bedroom by itself. Ellie, an Aldermans Green Primary School pupil, said: “I’m scared to go home and I don’t like to go upstairs on my own.”

I don’t blame here with all this fuss, poor thing.  I sincerely hope she is not badly effected by it all.

Whitefriars has been supportive by arranging for a priest to visit, but Lisa wants to be rehoused.

I have noted this phenomena before: “rehouse me, I have a poltergeist”. It has been going on since the seventies. There are however often better ways to get rehoused than putting yourself through hell. I used to live with a Housing Officer (who had two such cases I think that she could not discuss with me for reasons of client confidentiality), and I have read through the CiH Social Housing Diploma course, and it does not cover poltergeists, but it does to many people’s minds immediately throw doubt on the account. I’m not sure — you see it could be that some characteristic of people who live in Social Housing makes them susceptible to poltergeist activity, or it could be that simply the cases in the private sector don’t make the headlines but tend to be handled very discretely. Certainly home-owners I know of from my research which have had similar outbreaks are very wary of publicity, lest it devalue the house before they put it on the market.  So I’m not jumping to any conclusions! I saw early on the BarSoc blog in comments that David Woods of ASSAP is doing research in this area – that will be wonderful to see, and is long over due, and David is a careful and highly intelligent researcher.

She said: “The priest blessed the house but said himself that we shouldn’t live here, we definitely shouldn’t stay. He gave me a small crucifix.

Blessings are common in such circumstances,and the gift was a nice gesture. I am VERY surprised at the comments attributed to the priest though. Sadly he is not named, like the vet is not named, and we do not even know the denomination — perhaps Roman catholic, but could be Anglican?  However I’m not sure where in pastoral care at seminary they teach you to tell the family to get out of their house — but then we are receiving his comment third hand.

“The problem is because we can’t see it, we don’t know where it’s going to be or what it’s going to do. “This is a horror house. It’s like living in a scary movie. The worst thing about it is, even I can’t believe what’s happening myself.”

Not much one can say to that. 😦

Acting on the advice of mediums, she scatters the house with salt, puts up crucifixes and wears crystals.

All pretty much par for the course as to the stuff mediums tell people to do, and actually the salt and crystals bit rings completely true — this suggests to my mind this unfortunate women is to my mind genuinely frightened, and has either researched well or has actually been seeking help from psychics. Still at least no “smudging”! Sadly the mediums are not named.

She said: “One medium came in and said our house is a portal, a kind of bus stop for spirits, which they use to pass into our world.”

Again I have heard exactly this said by psychics before. Vortexes or portals were big a while back in some psychic circles; this is the kind of thing psychics have been saying since the early seventies at least, when one medium ascribed this quality to the  Abbey Gate, Bury St Edmunds. I never noticed anything wandering home through it though! But it does to my mind add credibility to Lisa’s account — assuming she is not a passionate fan of Most Haunted and psychic magazines, she does seem to have consulted some “psychics”. The clincher for me is this —

She claims the poltergeist calmed down after the priest’s visit but last week things started up again.

Assuming she does not read Polterwotsit, and has not read the more technical literature on polt cases, she would be unlikely to know this is a strongly recurring motif in the literature. It’s not something psychics or spiritualists would think to mention —  but a lull of a few weeks, or up to three months after a priests blessing, then a recurrence of phenomena, often less intense than the original form is something we come across time and time again. I have discussed it on this blog — but almost no one reads this blog. 😦 Anyone else know of a popular literature source for this?

She claims the lights started flickering and they could hear footsteps before all the lights went off, leaving them in darkness.

Footsteps are very common in these accounts, but as long ago as 1894 the SPR Group working on the Census of Hallucinations were ignoring them, because once one thinks you are haunted sounds are just too easy to be misattributed as expectation takes hold. There are all kinds of reasons for power failing too.  This is weirder though —

She says they all sought refuge in the living room and could not open the door to get out again. “Ellie tried to open the door,” Lisa said, “and shouted at Anthony to stop pulling it to stop her from getting out. She didn’t realise he was right behind her. We all tried to open the door but it was stuck as though someone had put their weight behind it. In the end we got out through the window.”

Now I actually came across this before, in another poltergeist case. However it is easy here to see a rational explanation – mounting panic, darkness, door sticks or has carpet up, who knows? Proper investigation needed.

OK, so that was the first story. Oh yes the video. It has to be the most unconvincing thing I have seen in a long time —

Hayley Stevens did an excellent replication of this on the BARsoc site — go have a look and read the article! It can clearly be faked, and she has shown this beyond a shadow of a doubt. It looks so suspicious as well, it just looks faked. Of course genuine things can appear faked, but everyone I know has fallen about laughing, and, well it’s a bit like the movie Paranormal Activity.  Yet clearly Lisa Manning to my mind seems to think she is haunted – or has a pretty good knowledge of the kind of things mediums say, and has researched well. I’m REALLY uncertain about this case at the moment: all I have to go on is news reports, and some of it sounds very real — though one thing I did notice was the phenomena is pretty vague in Cara’s list of what has occurred, but then we get bits like the door sticking which while all rather Hollywood sound more authentic. I can’t call real or fake (though in the case of the video I’m tempted), and I can’t tell who if anyone is actually hoaxing.  Still two more news stories from the Coventry Telegraph to go, but can anyone tell me anything about the area where they live? What is it like?

Anyway, part two to follow…

 

 

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The Case of Haunted Castle, Carlisle, UK


OK, after all the excitement of the “haunted theme park”, parts one and two, and with Thorpe Park’s ghost appearing in the papers all over the world, it’s time to see what else is in the news. Firstly, I’ll get this in again – if you have had an odd experience please fill in the survey at www.strangesurvey.com It’s being analysed by grounded theory so Becky does not need a random sample; if you know people who claim to have had relevant experiences please pass on the url, and ask them to submit a report.

So what follows a haunted theme park?  A haunted castle of course! Um… The problem is these news stories fail to excite me – because the venues always market themselves to ghosthunters and paranormal tourism is big these days – well actually I think the profits to be made are pretty mall, but everywhere markets their ghosts. Which is fine, the folklore is part of Britain’s heritage, but I doubt we will push the frontiers of psychical research here. Anyway the Cumbrian News & Star published this fun little article on the 1st…

Ghostly figures sighted at Carlisle’s new haunt?

By Phil Coleman

Last updated at 13:18, Tuesday, 01 February 2011

There was a distinct chill in the air as Tony Goddard recalled recent events in his new workplace…

Hidden behind the ancient walls of Carlisle Castle, this 80-year-old building once provided a canteen and library rooms for soldiers of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment. But since 1960, it has provided storage space for the county’s archive service. The building is now being prepared for yet another role – as the new HQ for the Castle’s Border Regiment Museum.

So the building in the castle grounds may well be worth a visit: what interests us though is the spooks…

But since beginning work there, says Mr Goddard, the museum’s assistant curator, he has been shocked by a catalogue of ghostly happenings.

They have included:

  • Shadowy figures lurking in doorways and rooms;
  • Unexplained bangs and footsteps hurrying away;
  • Small objects flying through the air;
  • Lights turning themselves on overnight;
  • The sound of a ghostly piano coming from the empty upper floors.

Now this is good stuff. I won’t go through each phenomena one by one, as I often do, because let’s face it they are the same kind of things we have seen throughout the year I have been writing Polterwotsit. (March will see the blog’s  first anniversary, and a phenomena round up of what I found over the year in the press). Objects flying through the air will always fascinate me: and the sound of ghostly piano is rather good, as unlike knocks or bangs that is unlikely to be something like the building settling — it is therefore probably either real music, a hallucination, or something spooky. Well, that does not narrow it down much!

Mr Goddard, who has long been fascinated by the paranormal, said: “The building is called Alma block, and we’ve been working here since January 10, and there have been lots of strange things.

Alma block – so it was named after the Crimean War, clearly, or for some association with that war. Anyway, this is where it starts to get interesting. At the time of the article they have only been working in the building for twenty days or so, yet have experienced a considerable amount of phenomena – rather more than I would associate with a classic haunting, actually, for such a short time period. Yet Tony has always been fascinated by the paranormal, and I think possibly in that we might find a key to the phenomena?

Well firstly, people are more likely to experience odd things when they first move in to a building I think. The sounds smells and layout of the rooms are unfamiliar – after a few weeks there, you start to move around on “autopilot”, not really paying attention. At least I don’t! Now Tony’s fascination with the paranormal clearly creates an environment where anomalous noises etc are liable to be misinterpreted as paranormal- but then if he was a lifelong hard sceptic, we could equally argue that he might make the opposite error, and miss genuinely weird stuff. The building already had a reputation for being haunted – Most Haunted, the infamous TV show had already been there, os Tony and colleagues were certainly primed to interpret things this way. Alternatively we could take the idea I sometimes play with, and have been messing around with for eighteen years – that the story of a ghost legitimises their own psychic powers, as the results of such psi can be attributed to the supernatural third party, and hence they haunt themselves. OK, I guessed no one would buy that. 🙂

“One of the strangest was when three of us were sitting in the staff room, and I know there was nobody else in the building because there’s only one way in. But we heard the sound of somebody banging on the internal door. When we opened it, there was nobody there, but we heard footsteps running up the steps to the first floor.

That is interesting, and it would be good to investigate, with various doors and windows open, to see if the wind could generate the noises. One thing that can make a door bang is if it is sticky, and does not fully close, but catches somewhere on the frame. After a time it suddenly releases, and closes (or opens slightly) often with a very loud bang. However banging suggests multiple knocks, not explicable by my theory — and while this clearly sounds like someone playing a prank, Tony insists it is not. I would be interested though in how many keys exist!

“Last week, I was working on some shelving and I had the feeling I was being watched. So I turned round. Through the window to the room next door I could see the figure of a man, just standing there, looking at me. I just said ‘you don’t frighten me’ and I turned round.”

This is interesting, and something I have seen many times before; the feeling of the presence comes before the sighting of the apparition. Tony’s reaction, turning his back on the apparition is interesting in itself – a brave fellow – but the journalist has failed in an extraordinary way — this sighting is the very centre of the story, it introduces our chief protagonist – the ghost — and yet the article has not a single word about what he looked like. One wonders if Tony could not offer a description? We don’t know if the ghost was old or young, short or tall, anything. The absence of descriptions seems remarkable – but then what was remarkable to Tony was the fact there was a figure there at all, not what he looked like. So I believe the account, I’m just curious as to why the lack of description, it’s not what one would expect. I may have to have a look at Robin Wooffitt’s Telling Tales of the Unexpected and see if this kind of thing is common. (I’m glad I have a copy — it is £181 on Amazon at the moment!)

Telling Tales of the Unexpected by Robin Wooffitt

Telling Tales of the Unexpected by Robin Wooffitt

At other times, said Tony, washers have been thrown at him from above – when nobody else was in the room and another time he heard the sound of a piano, though there is not one anywhere near.

The phenomena clearly seems centred on Tony — and in many ways this does sound reminiscent of a poltergeist case. The direction from which the washers come, above, is interesting — I would like to know more about this. In fact, it is clear that Tony is the key witness, and has had some really interesting experiences…

One of the most disturbing stories has been about the image of a boy seen standing near the entrance to the old caretaker’s flat on the building’s upper floor. The gloomy doorway is known to be markedly colder than nearby rooms.

Suddenly there is a sharp shift. This does not seem to have been a recent experience, this sounds like something that happened a while ago, before the museum. I suspect this may be the traditional ghost story of the building, maybe dating back twenty years or so, who knows? Well if I could get to Carlisle Record Office and look for newspaper clippings on ghosts we might find out — if anyone is in Carlisle and willing to help, please do drop me a line.

It is not the first time that Carlisle Castle has generated ghost stories. In 2009, the castle was investigated by Most Haunted team from Living TV. Among the stories that brought them there was that of a ghostly woman who reputedly stalks the corridors. It is claimed that in 1823, the apparition frightened a soldier so badly that he bayoneted the spook, impaling the wall behind it. He is alleged to have then fainted and died of shock the following day.

This reminds me of a story attributed to the Tower of London, or something one might find in Catherine Crowe or Lord Halifax, but I don’t know the source. I quickly looked and found the following in The Cumberland News from the time of the Most Haunted teams visit

A ghostly woman reputedly stalks the corridors, and, in 1823, frightened a soldier so badly that he bayoneted the apparition, impaling the wall behind it. He is alleged to have fainted and died of shock the following day. Three years earlier, a woman clothed in tartan was supposedly discovered bricked up on a staircase in the Captain’s Tower. She was holding a young child and wearing a costume which was said to date back to Elizabethan times.

This fits with the findings of the Most Haunted team and of the castle’s staff, who have reported seeing mysterious figures on the top floor of the tower. In 1992, an apparition moving beneath an arch between the exhibition and gift shop area in the castle’s King’s Own Border Regiment museum was blamed for setting the alarms off three nights in a row.

Could this figure under the arch be the boy mentioned? When I have a moment I’ll trace the 1992 story, and see what I find.  For now, I find this one more interesting than I first thought I would: expect a follow up later in the week

cj x

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Previous weirdness at Thorpe Park: the Haunted Funfair, Part 2 – and the strange case of the Ideomotor Effect, Explanation that Never Was?


OK, it seems I have missed all this, till Dave Goulden mentioned it on Facebook, and I googled.  Thorpe Park was previously in the news with a paranormal story, in October 2009, just in time for Halloween – but if it was a publicity thing, it was an odd one. I have taken the story from The Sun‘s account, so let’s have a look at exactly what they had to say —

Ouija Believe It

By JAMIE PYATT

Published: 15 Oct 2009

SPOOKED bosses at a theme park have suspended six members of staff and called in an exorcist after a late night seance on their top horror ride sparked a string of ghostly happenings.

Now at the time this was written SAW was I assume quite new. The date October 15th 2009 made this seem a very transparent publicity attempt.  I did not start blogging on Polterwotsit till March 2010, so I missed this one at the time.

The workers at Thorpe Parke carried out a Ouija board session on the horror themed rollercoaster SAW – The Ride after the opening night of their creepy Halloween themed “Fright Nights”. The group chose the park’s newest ride, which boasts gruesome features mimicking the sinister torture scenarios from the grisly film SAW, as the scariest place in the park to hold it.

There is nothing particularly unlikely about this scenario. I’m sure plenty of bored employees have done Ouija boards – though I do wonder, because you are not likely to do this during the day, access to the ride at night would presumably be controlled, and I would have thought very limited to technicians, cleaners and security – but would they really all manage to slink off and hold a Ouija board session on a ride. Maybe…

But bosses didn’t see the funny side when they heard staff had tried to communicate with the spirit world through a talking board which has been blamed for subsequent paranormal going-ons.

Well before we get side tracked in to a huge discussion of Ouija boards, I will note the strong belief among many that playing with them somehow opens up “doors to the other side”. “Do not call up that which ye can to put down” as Lovecraft wrote in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and evangelical Christians and many spiritualists alike seem to decry the dangers of messing with these things – be it “demons” or “lower astral entities”, it is generally agreed that they are “messengers of deception”.  My sceptic friends generally don’t like Ouija boards either – seeing them as banal children’s games, and at best a waste of money. Still there must be some people who like them, and I guess one day I will have to think through how they are supposed to work, and overcome my utter distaste for them.  I may as well talk about it now I guess…

The first question is how is a Ouija board works.  (I assume it is capitalised as a proper noun – the inventor is said to have taken the French “oui” and German “ja” to create the name, and the boards have long been popularly marketed as toys, despite their spooky connotations – it is currently still subject to a trademark by Parker Bros. If you don’t know the history, the Wikipedia article is excellent. So how does it work? well as any sceptic will tell you – by ideomotor effect. This sounds dead scientific and impressive, till you learn it is an astonishing example of circular reasoning and sceptics promoting utter bullshit by either ignorance or deliberate sense of mischief.  Why do I say this? Because the term was devised as a term for the unconscious muscular actions said to explain the motion of a Ouija board. When we mention the ideomotor effect we are not putting forward some established principle found in every physiology book, but a term that simply describes the phenomena. 🙂 In short, I can find little in the way of a scientific literature on the ideomotor effect: everyone knows it is real and important, apart from it seems people who actually study the nervous system?

Now maybe it is in some way linked to mirror neurons, or similar. However an immense red flag is raised for me by the fact that while Faraday, a great chemist and physicist wrote a lot on how this explained table tipping back in the 1850’s, I can find bugger all modern evidence outside of sceptics sites. I suspect the ideomotor effect, invoked to explain dowsing, Ouija and table tipping is a great sceptical myth – just speculation, but very few people are ever ready to question received sceptical wisdom, because debunks make us feel we have answers?

Still, certainly we know we have an unconscious part of the nervous system — the autonomic nervous system. However as I recall these systems connect to the spine, not the brain. We probably need something more like a reflex reaction like catching a dropped tea cup, which I’m guessing involves the CNS? Well I know too little to speculate: what I do know is that you can demonstrate some kind of unconscious muscular action like the “ideomotor” effect by getting people to hold a pendulum on a thread, and then telling them which way it will rotate.  Usually with a room full of people most people will find the pendulum moving correctly — I assume this is down to some kind of subliminal twitching, but actually I can’t even prove that. So go on chaps, find a mechanism for the effect, it must be there.

Anyway, the idea that the sitters unconsciously push the glass seems pretty uncontroversial, even if not as straightforward as it initially sounds. (Building a table with pressure pads and a pc that models applied forces in real time would not be too hard I guess?) So I’m happy to call it the “ideomotor effect” for now, but I really want to know more about the physiology underlying it, and have some kind of proposed mechanism before invoking the term that sounds clever but is really just “you are unconsciously pushing the glass” in fancy language. How do I know the glass is moved by the sitters, not spirits?  Well I don’t, but the fact that the glass needs people to touch it to move  makes me think it is moving because of the people.

Now no one is really denying this; that’s what the word “medium” means, a means of transmission, is it not? (Though it was used in the Spiritualist sense before it’s modern sense – the term “broadcast medium” for example is I believe an analogy drawn form the spirit mediums, not vice versa?) So I guess in theory the mediums, or sitter’s brains pick up the messages, and then as everyone agrees (even if I think we have to describe the physiological mechanism yet and stop hiding behind pseudo-scientific terms) said sitters unconsciously push the glass or planchette or whatever.

So now we have stopped worrying about how the glass moves: it moves because of impulses unconsciously generated by the group of people with fingers on it, according to both sceptics and believers. They are pushing the glass, whether they realise it or not; but that fact does not reduce the “paranormality” of the phenomena. What is important is not the board, not the glass, but the content of the message delivered. It does not matter if my postman chain smokes, beats his wife and drinks like a fish if all I am interested in is the content of the letter from the company I have applied to a job for.

If the message delivered is nonsense, then we can disregard the whole phenomena, unless we are interested like Breton and some early Surrealists in exploring our “unconscious minds”. (The problems with that term can wait for another article).  If however the content of the message was correct, verifiable, and unknown to any person present at that time, and demonstrably so, that is a veridical communication, we might well have strong evidence for some kind of paranormality. If such communications exist I would still not take advice form an invisible entity communicating through a piece of wood, and I don’t think my distaste for Ouija boards would lessen,  but I would accept the evidence for paranormality.

In fact my real reason for disliking and avoiding Ouija boards is because they seem to upset, scare and cause issues for some people, and I have no wish to harm anyone. The danger about writing about them is that people often think “hey i’ll go try that” – please don’t. Even if they are utter nonsense, many impressionable people have badly upset themselves by the myths surrounding them, and ended up scared and upset. We have contemporary cinema to do that 🙂

Oh yes, Thorpe Park…

A Thorpe Park insider said: “Guests started to report an extreme drop in temperature when they walked into the ride building where the seance was held and others unusual happenings.

I’m guessing it’s dark, and possibly air conditioned. maybe the ride pushes air round. I don’t know if we need a spooky reason for this?

“Lights started to go on and off with no explanation and the special effects would start up even after being switched off and there were reports of footsteps with nobody there.

The ride was new, and I guess there could be parts of the ride where lights and sounds were triggered by motion sensors, and other perfectly sensible explanations doubtless abound. Footsteps can be all kinds of things, but I won’t speculate as I have not seen the ride.

“Doors could be heard banging and it was then news of the Ouija board session came out and the members of staff responsible have been spoken to and suspended from work.”

Doors banging hardly constitutes proof of occult activity likely to impress an Employment Tribunal, and i wonder what possible grounds one can suspend workers for here? Do their contracts forbid necromancy?

Thorpe Park in Surrey has now called in Rev Lionel Fanthorpe, the UK’s leading authority on the unexplained, who is currently examining the ride for evidence of paranormal activity. He says if he finds any signs of spirits “crossing over from the other side” he will carry out an exorcism. Rev Fanthorpe said: “Many people believe that the Ouija board is just a game but its power should never be underestimated as it may be a very dangerous tool if not used properly.”

I must admit, while I have a great respect for the Reverend, my mind boggled at the idea of how to use a Ouija board improperly – perhaps to spank goats in leather underwear or something?  Equally I struggled to think of a proper use, I think one could serve cheese on it, or use it to level up a wonky table?  Still I agree in spirit.

“It opens a gateway to another dimension and when people who are not experienced spiritualists play with Ouija boards, mischievous entities can get through as may have happened here.”

Experienced spiritualists are immune? I know have a vision of a Ouija board playing the Prodigy at me – “I’ll take your brain to another dimension”

“If there is something causing fear and bewilderment at Thorpe Park then I will take care of it and if deemed necessary I will carry out an exorcism to remove any mishievous spirits”. The source added: “It was a pretty strange sight to see a priest walking around Saw – The Ride holding a bible in one hand and a crucifix in the other – he looked like a part of the attraction!”

A Thorpe Park spokesman said: “On the evening of Monday October 12 an unauthorised Ouija Board session was conducted by six employees at SAW – The Ride after we closed to the public. We take staff and guest feedback very seriously and for this reason we called in Rev Lionel Fanthorpe, a leading paranormal expert, to help us investigate reports that have arisen from this situation.

“The ride has not been closed down and the Halloween Fright Nights are continuing as normal.”

Saw – The Ride cost £13.5million and opened in March this year and is a custom Euro-Fighter roller coaster that takes riders round a horror themed track at speeds of 55mph experiencing nearly 5g forces.

So this morning I thought there may be something to the story of the monk; today, I see that this story clearly just in time for Halloween 2009 seems to have no direct connection, but, um…  I will await further developments.

And have now added a third part here.

cj x

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