Tag Archives: Tony Cornell

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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Reports from a Firestation in Virginia


OK, this one caught my attention this morning —

Crews report ghostly happenings at Va firehouse

By LAETITIA CLAYTON Northern Virginia Daily

April 11, 2010

TOMS BROOK, Va. – Things do go bump at Toms Brook Fire Hall, and not just in the night.

There don’t seem to be certain times or circumstances that prompt the strange happenings, such as lights turning on and off, doors opening and closing and pots and pans flying off of shelves. But several people can attest to the fact that these things do happen–and they attribute them to a ghost they call George.

It’s been a quiet few days, or maybe i have just been so busy I have not picked up on any cases that made the press, but this one is quite interesting. Lights turning on and off always to me suggests an urgent check on the wiring: but I assume a Fire Department knows a thing or two about electrical safety. Doors opening and closing, pots and pans flying off shelves? Interesting, and obviously compatible with a “polt” interpretation – but also possibly with a wooden building being shaken violently somehow? I don’t know the building is wooden btw, I’m just wondering of there might be some structural problem. Tony Cornell’s fascinating experiments with shaking buildings apart were conducted on brick built Cambridgeshire houses as I recall: it could be all the above has sensible explanations. Still let’s look further…

Richard Funkhouser, who was fire chief at Toms Brook for 14 years, says he has seen George twice. “But there’s been a couple of other people that have actually seen him, and we all describe him the same way,” he says. “Floppy hat, little square glasses, with a riding coat.”

There is something about the apparitions dress sense that appeals to me – that may be a description of something 18th or 19th century – I’m no expert in the history of fashion — but it is clearly unusual!   I respect the chap for sharing his story, must be hard when you were a fire chief to go public with something like this — but sounds like he has retired now. The wording is a little odd “a couple of other people have actually seen him” seems to suggest that Richard has not — but he has twice, unless that was somehow ‘psychically’? I suspect this is down to my unfamiliarity with how Americans phrase things, or just the way the interview was written up.

George has been around awhile, too, Funkhouser says, as there were some sightings at the old fire hall, which was built in the early 1900s. Funkhouser believes George followed them to the new facility when it was built in 1983–and so does the Virginia Independent Paranormal Society, a local team of paranormal investigators who are very familiar with the Toms Brook Fire Hall.

So the ghost “moved house” with the firemen? I know that the Cheltenham ghost has occasionally been reported in buildings across the road, but even in the classic apparitional phase of that case she was seen all over the house and grounds.  A ghost that follows you about is usually considered a person-centred ghost, that is often a polt — though I have read enough accounts to not entirely dismiss the idea of haunted objects. Could the ghost be “anchored” to something that was taken from one building to the other? Is the ghost some sort of “totem” of the firemen, moving with them? Are the earlier and later sightings completely unrelated? Still this is interesting.

Shenandoah County-based Vips was formed in 1996 by Toms Brook residents Rusty Edmondson and his wife, Sharon, and their friend, Wade Ross, of Edinburg. All three are Civil War re-enactors and historians. They believe that George and many of the other ghosts they’ve encountered were Civil War soldiers.

I can see why given the dress of the apparition, makes perfect sense I guess. The team report their results from visits…

During their investigation of the fire hall last year, Vips found some mists, orbs and energy balls, Edmondson says, referring to terms used in the paranormal world to describe images and the like that are detected using various equipment. In one picture, they captured “almost the form of a body getting ready to go up the steps,” he says, and they picked up some “energy streaks in the bathroom.”

“He has a fetish for the bathroom,” Edmondson says of George.  “This ghost likes water,” Funkhouser agrees.

Not sure what to make of this. However with the next bit I am back on familiar territory —

When he was fire chief, Funkhouser says he had several volunteers leave the building and not come back until the next day after strange things occurred when they were sleeping there overnight.  “A lot of them are scared to death,” he says. “One of them, it likes to mess with him in the bathroom. It shakes the stall door.”

This sounds pretty typical – people get spooked when in the most isolated, er, vulnerable places. This does however to me sound an awful lot like a workplace prank, a ghostly tradition used to scare the new boys on the fire brigade. Just typical humour for firefighters, to sneak in and rattle the loo door while someone is using it, having primed the pump with ghost stories? Yet I did in the Gloucester case deal with a haunted loo, which was a central part of the manifestations, and indeed witnessed “in action” – the toilet seat rising and falling – by the CPRG team there.

Funkhouser got a call from one of the volunteers one night, he recalls, who said, “Some creepy stuff is going on down here.”  A soda pop fell out of the machine and onto the floor, the fire hall’s office door opened and closed, and the door to the radio room, which Funkhouser says takes a lot of force to open, was opened on its own.  “I’m getting the hell out of here,” Funkhouser says the volunteer told him, and he did–even leaving his coat behind.

This sounds less like normal hoaxing to me. Where is the fun in it? And how do you make the soda machine dispense like that? OK it may have just been broken, and if the chap in question was trying to buy a soda when it fell out it sounds a lot less mysterious: insufficient data. Still doors opening and closing might unnerve one…

And then there was Christmas night three years ago. Edmondson says he was in the fire hall waiting for his wife to pick him up when he heard the commode flush. He thought someone else was there, but couldn’t find a soul. Lights proceeded to turn on and off and doors slammed. Edmondson says he had finally had enough.  “I said, ‘That’s it pal. If you don’t want me to be here, I’ll leave.

Well I don’t know how familiar Edmondson is with the building. Given he is a psychical researcher, it is not hard to believe he could have been hoaxed by a sceptical fun loving fireman – but Christmas night is an odd time to play tricks like this, and again we see the doors slamming. Lights being turned on and off? Well thats possible from the fuses I guess, but… it certainly sounds spooky enough!

The rest of the article is about ViPs – I seem to recall seeing Edmondson on a CBS Reality Unexplained Mysteries segment about Gettysburg ghosts — but I look forward to hearing more of the ghost. Firestations often seem to have ghost stories though – the old Bond Street I believe in Ipswich firestation was reputedly haunted, and also the old Bury St Edmunds firestation, down by the Mermaid Pits — now demolished. Still, more of a haunt than a poltergeist this one. 🙂

cj x

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South Yorkshire Tyre Depot Poltergeist – part 4


OK, moving on. Having established that people I know and trust are looking at this one, I’m still reading the press – the news story has appeared from Canada to India now – but I’m increasingly intrigued by trying to work out what is actually going on. Readers of the previous parts (and if you have not read them have a look at part 3 and the associated newspaper article at least to get the idea of what I am talking about) will recall my realisation yesterday that in fact all we have in the 2010 incident seems to be, based on the press release, a couple of old pennies turning up. The interest in the story is because in 2003 there was a lot of activity of different types — and it could be this marks the beginning of that again I suppose, in a recurring haunt with phenomena over many years, as was the case with Syderstone Parsonage and, ostensibly, Borley Rectory.

If I am correct in this assumption, and i’ not going to muddy the waters by bothering Nick White as he has plenty of other interest from the print media I’m sure, and a business to run, and other highly qualified investigators are looking in to the matter, then we have the mystery of these two potential “apports”.  So where did they come from?  Disappointingly the answer may be very prosaic.

All of the news stories were credited to “Staff Reporter” or similar, which means they were written up from a press release. If you go through all the stories – Telegraph, Express, Mail, Star, etc, the wording and information content is pretty similar. The Express gave the most detailed coverage — however it it the Daily Star which in a short piece may provide us with the essential clue – a clue omitted from the other journalists working from the same press release as far as I can make out?

Let’s look at the Daily Star article, or rather the relevant piece. It’s almost verbatim the same as the other articles – with one vital piece of information at the end the others chose not to present…

Previous owner Nigel Lee even asked a vicar to do an exorcism.Nick added: “Nigel told me all about the strange things that had been happening.

“Some of it was incredible – with tyres stacking themselves up and being moved around when the place was locked up at night.

“Customers even witnessed small change and stones coming out of nowhere and flying here and there – even hitting the staff sometimes.

“Tyres had also been known to jump from the racks on the walls and roll along the floor of the workshop in front of the office.

“When I took over there was a load of old coins piled up on the back of all tyre racks – and nobody could ever explain how they got there.”

http://www.dailystar.co.uk/posts/view/129278

Note the section in bold. Now it could be the coins stacked there were paranormal – or it could be that someone in the moving out of the previous tenant (Nigel Lee) found an old tin of pennies, and knocked them over, and just stacked them up on the tyre rack. I think the latter is rather more likely somehow… However I don’t know enough about this incident to actually really pass comment — it could be it was all much more mysterious than it sounds.   What I do know now from the Daily Star coverage that I did not know before is that there were at one point a lot of old coins on the property. That a couple, maybe more, should have strayed and then been noticed back in February and March hardly defies rational explanation to my mind.

There are technical issues we could bring to the problem – “perfect placement” is a common feature of polt phenomena, and without interviewing or investigating further I can only speculate, but while it might seem unlikely for three years old coins could be kicked around a garage unnoticed (and we don’t know the coins found on the tyre racks were of the same type: they could have been more recent I guess, though they are described as “old” )  it strikes me as entirely possible that a couple of coins have in fact been kicking around the garage since 2007 – notice one, and you are more likely to spot another. The first thing investigators might want to do is to check that there are no other coins hidden in the depot, concealed under dirt or grime, and run a metal detector over any gravel or mud outside.

Now it’s easy to be an armchair expert – I have been on enough investigations over the years to know just how annoying it is to have ill founded speculation by people who have never spoken to the witnesses come up with exciting sceptical “debunks” — but clearly this possibility needs to be taken very seriously.

I will note one other thing – while I am still planning to find the accounts of the 2003 incident, if I can, the Star‘s reporting contains a few other items of interest — starting with stacking phenomena. Coins stacked, tyres stacked. I had similar reported to me by staff  in The Dolphin, Thetford case in the mid 1990’s . (In case readers are not aware I have been actively investigating with interviews and physical visits to the properties these phenomena for well over twenty years now). In the Dolphin case it was bizarrely stacked chairs — here tyres and coins… One immediately thinks of a line from Ghostbusters

“Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.

Now I suspect stacking of objects has a long and respectable history in polt cases – but now for a shameful admission: I have never watched the film Poltergeist, or any of its sequels.  I do wonder if this phenomena might feature in that film, and be part of the popular culture view of what a poltergeist should do. As it happens I have mislaid my copy of Gauld and Cornell’s Poltergeists, so I can’t check, and it’s no reason to be suspicious – popular culture often reflects actual occurrences after all – but I am curious.

Every weekend when Becky drives down she brings the DVD of the film Poltergeist for me to watch., and every weekend I fail. We have seen The Exorcist, endless ghost hunting shows, and I read everything from Chat to Take A Break to try and get a  handle on popular culture representations of my field, yet somehow I have missed Poltergeist! I think it’s time for another one of my little experiments….

Anyway, all these reports are Nick White telling us what Nigel Lee experienced seven years ago.  I was interested by

Tyres had also been known to jump from the racks on the walls and roll along the floor of the workshop in front of the office.

Well tyres roll, and I figured if you squeezed them in a rack, and the temperature changed enough this might happen naturally. However a moments thought has made me doubt this: tyres experience a lot of heat from friction in gripping road surfaces, and speeding up and slowing down must experience rather more temperature change than is likely to occur in the tyre depot. I guess they do not expand or contract much, or they would be not suited to purpose. There may be other ways they could leave the racks though I suspect, like if not properly placed on them. Hard to say, but I have a garage round the corner from my house, and I shall go see if they do tyres and ask them if there tyres ever roll off the racks. Seems a sensible way to proceed?

Customers even witnessed small change and stones coming out of nowhere and flying here and there – even hitting the staff sometimes.

And here is the bit where I really wish I knew more. It happened seven years ago now, and I suspect the staff will have forgotten most of what happened – (see Becky & my Accidental Census research for why I assume this; will try and get it published this year sometime, but there is a short summary of the relevant part on my other blog). I have mentioned before my surprise at the objects striking the staff – it is now clear they actually did, assuming Nick is remembering correctly – but there is one detail I would very much like to know.

So what do I think of the Doncaster poltergeist? Well whatever happened in 2003, I think the coins appearing can be explained mundanely. It may well be there is much more to this case, but only the conflation of the 2003 and 2010 incidents by the press allows the story to be as interesting as it is. What is alarming however, assuming the Daily Star did not conduct an additional interview, is how the journalist in almost all the sources withheld the information about the old coins Nick provided: probably because they immediately jumped to the same conclusion as me, that it was suggestive of a normal non-paranormal explanation.

When I interviewed Janice Wright about the Cheshire Poltergeist I was surprised to find the press stories were pretty accurate – well they missed an incident, and seem to have invented one tiny bit – I hope to write more on this case this week — but it was well handled by the local journalist. In this case it was only my sheer determination to read all the coverage that meant I finally noticed that little bit in the Daily Star.

So is the Doncaster tyre depot still haunted? No idea. Insufficient data: but the press coverage is not suggestive of a poltergeist outbreak of any intensity at his time, and coins rolling around in the dirt strikes me as a probably cause.

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Disturbances in York


Well no news from Cork, and indeed no replies from any of the individuals I emailed trying to follow up the story. Visits to this blog have tailed off to almost nothing, and I am tempted to abandon the project, owing to almost complete lack of interest. I’ll give it a month though and see if things pick up?  Still from Cork, Eire, let us turn our attention to York, England, and a much more low key story from The Press, a local York paper…

“York family plagued by ghostly goings-on

10:01am Saturday 27th March 2010

A MOTHER has called in a vicar to bless her York home after she and her daughter were spooked by what they say are ghostly noises and apparitions.

Tracey Glen and her daughter Tasha Kennedy, 14, told yesterday how their home in [road name removed for usual reasons], Clifton, had been hit by a series of bizarre incidents over the past four years. They have been told by a local resident that there was a death in the house many years ago.”

Again, purported ghostly goings on are immediately linked with a death of a former resident. Something I don’t think I ever mentioned in my previous commentary on the Cork case was that one intelligent commentator on an Irish web forum answered one of my questions about the clairvoyants information there. You may recall that in my commentary on that case I pondered if the alleged suicide of a young man said to be responsible for the hauntings necessarily took place in the house? Well the answer is apparently no: presumably in the radio coverage, the clairvoyant said he died elsewhere. This renders the claim pretty much unfalsifiable: if one can die anywhere and go haunting, then I guess most girls college dorms are haunted by randy teenage male spooks who travel there from the site of their demise – guess that explains Phantom hitch-hikers? 🙂

Now in this case we have a local resident saying there was a death in the house years ago. That would not really surprise me: I guess most old houses have seen at least one death, and probably many, though I expect post-1948 a lot more people die in or on their way to hospital. A quick search reveals that only 20% of Americans die at home, and 50% die in hospital, and if anything I think the figures will be much higher for hospital/care home deaths here in the UK, though that is pure guesswork. (We have a National Health Service, and a high rate of the elderly entering care homes, so that is my underlying thinking, not that the NHS kills people off!)

Still one other interesting fact emerges from the opening of Mike Laycock’s story — the disturbances have been going on for four years. My received wisdom on the matter suggests that poltergeists are short and sharp, lasting normally no more than a few months, and usually only a few weeks. However I do wonder: it could be the period when disturbances are regular and violent, the climax of the activity might meet that description – from my own and Becky’s work we are seeing a pattern emerge of low key activity that seems to last for decades in many instances. This particularly fascinates me: the time scale of the so-called poltergeist needs real work, and hey if no one else is going to gather the data and try, I guess I will…

Let’s move on with the story —

Tracey said the incidents included twice being woken in the middle of the night by a loud bang downstairs. On the first occasion, they rushed downstairs and found a mug tree lying on its side on a work surface, with mugs scattered all around it.

“There was no animal in the house or any draught that could have caused that to happen,” she said.

Interesting that she rules out animals. I frequently hear loud bands in the middle of the night: the cat knocking something over. Feline grace seems to be missing in every mog I share my home with. Still loud bangs in themselves seem to be a VERY weak evidence for alleged paranormal activity, there being probably hundreds of better explanations than “the ghost did it”.  Still, all too easy to be cynical – I spot a possible pattern, well little more than a hunch. Remember in the Cork case there was movement of furniture upstairs? So the loud bangs always emanate from somewhere where the witnesses aren’t. Logic suggests

i) it could well be that if the witnesses were present when the door slammed, or the car backfired, or whatever, they would identify the cause. Therefore alleged paranormal noises will follow this pattern

or

ii) poltergeists are shy, and prefer to bang on stuff out of sight. If the bangs really are paranormal then this seems to argue against a living agent (Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis – RSPK) – as following  Roll and others one would expect objects to move in the vicinity of the poltergeist agent. It would however be possible with Colin Wilson’s battery theory I guess.

Still, in the incidents we have an actual cause – the mug tree laying on its side, mugs scattered around. We need to know far more though to know if their could be down to some normal cause (was it top heavy somehow, or badly designed so having mugs on one side made it fall? How far had it moved? Was the surface it stood on wet?, etc) – but I would not have thought it would make a very loud band if it just toppled over. So this does interest me – readers of the Cork analysis will recall that I suspect that the noise made by these “movements” does not reflect the usual acoustic properties one would associate with an object of this weight and size falling, but instead slight movements can generate much louder noises? Perhaps that happened in this case?

Last year Becky and I attended SPR Study Day No.58 on Poltergeists, where Dr. Barrie Colvin talked on the acoustic properties of anomalous percussive rapping in this kind of case.   I know some of the details now of the purported “signature” of a poltergeist related noise — I would dearly love a recording of the sound events to send to Dr. Colvin for analysis, and I would  myself be able to check it with fairly simple software. Unfortunately I only know half of Dr Colvin’s research ( I don’t know the associated frequencies and I am not going to share what I do now on a public forum, as that would simply make it too easy for people to manufacture fake “paranormal” noises with these attributes. Anyone who really wants to know can buy a recording of the Poltergeist Study Day from the SPR for a very reasonable price!

The second bang again appears to emanate from the haunted mug tree (one wonders where they acquired it from?)

The next time they ran downstairs to find the mug tree still upright, but one of the mugs on the kitchen floor, standing upright.

OK,  that’s pretty much classic polt type activity.  Again it’s frustrating to not know how far the mug had moved, etc, etc.  Again, I don’t know if a mug landing on the floor unbroken can really be expected to cause a “loud bang” likely to make someone run down stairs to investigate, so logically

i) I am right and the noise is not proportionate to the likely forces involved if the mug moved naturally

or

ii) the noise and the mugs are unrelated. I think this entirely possible. Imagine a tired CJ drinks his coffee, and in a typical CJ manner knocks over the mug tree. He goes to bed, not noticing he has toppled it over. In the night there is a loud bang – maybe a neighbour slamming a garage door. Being of  nervous disposition I run downstairs, find the mug tree, and put two and two together. We can not necessarily assume that the movement of the objects and the noise are related. I keep trying to teach people this on investigations, because it is a dangerous, but perfectly natural assumption…

So is there any strong evidence for paranormality? So far the case s very suggestive, but now things get a bit more interesting…

She said other strange happenings included:

*A drawer in a bedroom cupboard flying open for no reason, when people were in the room

A drawer? Interesting. I would bounce like a heffalump all over the floorboards seeing if I could cause this to happen somehow, and with a wardrobe door might expect to succeed, but a drawer sounds unlikely. The mention of other witnesses – people present – is interesting – who were they? Who was present when it happened? What was going on? The psychological background may well be key, whether a poltergeist is involved or not, but journalist can’t really pry in to these things I guess. Still I’d like to see actual witness testimony. Again bedroom furniture is involved – one case I researched many years ago involved a toilet seat slamming up and down and a bed head board smashing in to a wall –poltergeists are very prosaic and domestic in their choice of objects to play with it seems. (Interesting that in the Cork case we had “holy pictures” and strong religious overtones – this polt seems to lack any religious or anti-religious enthusiasm, maybe reflecting the religious indifferentism of much of England compared to Eire?)

*The entry hatch to the loft mysteriously opening up, with the board left cracked and a strange piece of pipe left on the floor below

I know events are supposed to have been going on for four years, but I really wish we had some kind of timetable, and especially a date  for this  incident.  I wonder if it happened towards the end of 2009? I also wonder if Tasha, maybe with her friend Sammy, went to see the film Paranormal Activity? ( I review the film from my own unusual perspective here  on my blog.)  One atmospheric sequence in that film involves the couple plagued by the beastie having to explore the loft, which proves an important plot development; an old photograph is found within, which links back to an earlier outbreak in this (fictional) narrative.  Of course lofts feature in plenty of real cases – they are classic “occulted spaces”, an idea I developed in an essay entitled Corridors: their role in purported hauntings – back in the early 90’s, and in the Roman Road case of  1995 I crawled in to a loft (and as Matt will doubtless comment came shooting out again pretty quick!) I seem to recall that Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell spent a lot of time in aloft in the Abbey House (I think) case, and Mary Rose Barrington related a loft related incident at the aforementioned SPR Study Day, from the strangely titled Case of the Flying Thermometer. Just because a popular film happens to include a loft sequence should not really raise any eyebrows, but I note it, just in case relevant.

A strange piece of pipe? Well maybe it is a paranormally delivered object (an apport) but it might just as well have fallen. I am now thinking of Peter Underwood’s explanation of the Morton Case (The Cheltenham Ghost) – could a real person have been concealed in the house, or have hidden in the attic? A real physical person present on the property, with or without the connivance of some of the residents, but unknown to others,  could have easily caused the mug incidents, the loud bangs (and could the loud bangs have been someone dropping the attic trapdoor in to place as they slipped back in to their hidey hole?), but does not explain the drawer incident – unless that claim was invented to cover up the presence of a real person? Again it would seem vital to know exactly who saw what and when.

Now if the people involved are reading this they are doubtless cursing me and calling me every name and the sun, and thinking I am some dire sceptic who would rather come up with far fetched and insulting silly ideas than accept the beastie and their story at face value. Far from it: I actually do believe them, I just like to logically explore every single possibility I can think of. If the incidents took place over four years the idea of someone hiding in the attic (I assume the attic does not directly open up in to the neighbours attics as in a few British terraced houses) becomes utterly ludicrous. Still I try to look at all possible explanations.

Either way, assuming the “mysterious” pipe was household plumbing or similar, rather than a piece of a pipe one puts tobacco in, the most likely scenario appears that it came from the attic, and like the not replaced board this strongly suggests some perfectly physical person entered the attic, perhaps to fetch something. (Burglars do not to the best of my knowledge ransack attics generally, so we would have to look for a more mundane explanation, like someone in the family or a relative going up to look for something?)

One more word of caution though – I have lived in this house for a couple of years now, and the other day I noticed that the attic trapdoor in my bedroom was no longer on straight, as if someone had entered the loft. They haven’t – you would need a step ladder at least, and no one has been in or out of their since I moved in.  I found it spooky and unsettling at the time, but the most likely explanation is that it has been exactly like that since the day I moved in. I wonder if likewise the attic board had been like this for  long while in this case, but the discovery of the piece of pipe on the floor simply attracted attention to it? All odd, I admit, but not necessarily spooky! Before I end the discussion of the loft incident I have to remind readers of the children’s show Rentaghost, whose full theme included the lyrics —

Heavy footsteps in your attic means a spectre telepathic
 is descending just to spirit you away (Yay!). :)

(you can click here to hear the Phantom of the Opera sing a haunting melody!)

OK, back to the phenomena…

*Knocking noises on a wall between the bathroom and bedroom.

Obviously one immediately thinks of the water pipes, though this is classic poltergeist activity. Still without some degree of investigation or further information it’s hard to judge how sound that hypothesis is.

And then it all gets really interesting! Tasha reports seeing an apparition. Now classic modern poltergeist theory tends to separate apparitional experiences and poltergeists; poltergeists and hauntings are seen as two conceptually different categories. From personal investigative experience (Offchurch, Coates and Gloucester cases) I know that poltergeists can actually quite often include apparitional encounters — a category I call “polterghosts”. These cases, the third category with features of both hauntings and poltergeists discussed in Gauld and Cornell’s 1979 classic Poltergeists are often cited as evidence for the “poltergeist as the dead” hypothesis, as opposed to RSPK (  a living  agent causes the events by uncontrolled psychic energy). I often a mixed model in my JSPR article The Poverty of Theory: Some Notes on the investigation of Spontaneous Cases (1996), where I suggest that believing a house to be haunted could in theory generate psi-de effects : the belief enables RSPK by allowing the ghost to be blamed for the disturbance, overcoming psi-inhibition.

Anyway, back to the article —

*Tasha seeing the apparition of a woman with long straggly hair and a limp

The obvious thing here is the apparition is grotesque, like a traditional picture of a witch (not the wiccan goth chick type, the old crone of stereotype). Straggly hair? That might mean “scary” today; a limp is a physical imperfection that somehow is supposed to be sinister I think — yes I know this is horrible stigmatising of the afflicted, and I certainly don’t mean it’s right – but have you ever noticed how ghosts in folklore are often either described as “stunningly beautiful” or in some way stereotypically deformed or grotesque? I am interested in this — but it is just as possible this is actually a description of a (once) real person, physical imperfections being normal in real people after all?

I will wrap up with a description of how ye olde ghost was laid. From The Press article

Tracey said: “It’s really been spooking Tasha out so we decided to ask the vicar to help.

“We like living here, but would like all this to stop.”

Understandable, and that is in itself interesting. One wonders what the mothers attitude to it all was? She does not admit to being personally worried at all. I would love to interview her. The Church were called upon, probably the Church of England –

She said the Reverend David Casswell, the vicar of Clifton, went to the house on Wednesday and said a prayer, and then blessed the bedroom and also the garden. Since then, they had not seen or heard any more strange happenings.

Mr Casswell said vicars and priests were sometimes asked to go and pray in houses where there had been “disturbances” to bring peace to the home.

“We don’t make a great song and dance about it, but say quiet, gentle prayers for the houses to be blessed.”

The Rev. Casswell’s comments reflect my understanding of the deliverance ministry of the CofE. Interestingly in this case all sees well, unlike Cork where the Church intervention did not help,  though this leads to another question. If the blessing was on the Wednesday, and this article appeared on the Saturday, then presumably barring some other factor events must have increased in frequency to the extent that the absence of activity from Wednesday to Saturday is marked enough to note? This just goes to highlight the desperate need we have here for a detailed timeline of events to understand the case. There are certainly academics active in parapsychology at York Uni: if any of them are interested in doing some follow up enquiries, as York is a very long way from me (and actually quite a distance from Becky, surprisingly enough) I would be happy to talk them through what I think might be useful.

Still, one question one often hears nowadays is “where have all the poltergeist cases gone?” Unless March 2010 was somehow anomalous, they haven’t gone anywhere. The press have reported on two this month, Cork and York,and I am sure many more are being dealt with by local ghost groups, mediums, the churches, or the family just move, and no one gets to hear of them. I think this highlights the importance of my little blog project — someone needs to be looking at this, as it is just not reaching the ears of the parapsychological establishment. Becky, Balders, and we will do our best to find cases and provide some kind of comment…

cj x

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