BBC, Deborah Hyde, Education, Faith, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Ghostwatch, Guy Lyon Playfair, Hoax, Janet Hodgson, Maurice Grosse, Melvin Harris, Phillip Schofield, Poltergeist, Scepticism, Society for Psychical Research, The Enfield Poltergeist
The word “poltergeist” is taken from the German for “noisy spirit,” and it is characteristically impossible to ignore these troublesome presences. The Enfield Poltergeist famously terrorised a North London council house for about eighteen months in the late 1970s, throwing children in the air and acquiring a deep, gruff voice which was recorded gamely telling investigators to “fuck off.” Even today he is still up to his old mischief.
In 1992, the BBC broadcast a fake documentary called “Ghostwatch,” which was based upon the events at Enfield, and the poltergeist himself would have been heartily satisfied with the consequent uproar. Even though “Ghostwatch” is too patently fictional to seriously qualify as a hoax, many uninformed viewers purportedly assumed that it was a genuine live broadcast, and there are numerous, if anecdotal, reports of viewers soiling themselves or developing post-traumatic stress disorder after tuning in. But it is certainly true that some of the Enfield Poltergeist’s original mischief had possessed the BBC and unleashed itself upon a terrified nation.
The Enfield Poltergeist remains troublesome and in a sort of debt to the world because, unlike with comparable cases such as the haunting of Borley Rectory and the Amityville Horror, we are still waiting for a definitive and convincing explanation of the haunting. Melvin Harris’ otherwise excellent Investigating the Unexplained (1987), which debunks half the encyclopedia of the supernatural, suffers from Harris’ conspicuous failure to square up to the Enfield Poltergeist. And the poltergeist returned earlier this month when Janet Hodgson (now Winter), who at the age of eleven was regarded as the “centre” of the Enfield haunting, turned up on “Good Morning” to be interviewed by Phillip Schofield. Deborah Hyde, editor of the Skeptic, was given a rare opportunity to challenge her.
Most of this ten minute feature was spent recalling the facts of the case rather than contesting them. We plunged back into the terrifying décor of that 1970s council house, the oppressive swirling brown wallpaper that would drive anybody mad, and the gaunt, ghastly faces of the hysterical family. Guy Lyon Playfair, who had originally investigated the poltergeist for the Society for Psychical Research, appeared alongside Janet (although, bizarrely, he now seems to be the same age as her). When describing his relationship with the Hodgson family, he was allowed to claim unchallenged that, “We were the only people who were able to do anything for them.” In fact, the SPR’s interminable and aimless investigation appeared to prolong the haunting, by guaranteeing an appreciative audience for either the poltergeist or the hoaxers.
Hyde’s case would have been stronger if she had admitted that the Enfield Poltergeist remains largely unexplained by sceptics, rather than trying to smear the poltergeist by insinuating that he may have been a hoax because Amityville had also been a hoax. She pursued an approach that never fails to wind people up: that “humans are remarkably bad at remembering things accurately and seeing things accurately,” that our minds are naturally faulty, and that we have to remain in a constant state of alertness, checking everything that enters our awareness with the mental equivalent of airport security procedures.
Hyde’s scepticism was not only a faith in the failure of the mind, but it was also used euphemistically or diplomatically. Confronted with Janet Hodgson and unable to say to her face that she may have been lying, Hyde resorted to the unlikely possibility that it could have all been an innocent misunderstanding and that any untrained witness could have gotten into the same muddle. Hyde ended up vaguely attributing bad faith to the “girls” at Enfield (but never to the woman sitting alongside her).
Whilst patronising Janet with the possibility that she was at odds with her own mind, Hyde freely dismissed all of Playfair’s research, claiming that the Enfield phenomena were not “replicable” under “controlled conditions,” when those investigating the case at the time appeared to subject the poltergeist to an energetic scrutiny (and in doing so procured evidence that the girls may have indeed faked certain phenomena). Hyde was on a surer footing when claiming that today’s accounts of the poltergeist have disregarded the testimonies of “all the people at the time who disagreed” that the poltergeist was real.
Both the SPR and the sceptics make the mistake of squabbling over the evidence, when no evidence exists in a vacuum and it is always at the mercy of ideas and ideology. The investigators at Enfield had gathered vast quantities of evidence which adds up to nothing. The Enfield Poltergeist is in fact nothing but pure evidence, a catalogue of sterile phenomena without any external sense to it, other than the most occasional and fleeting shadow of a coherent narrative.
Let us look at the meaning rather than the evidence of the Enfield Poltergeist. The investigators at one point affixed an identity to the poltergeist – he was Bill Wilkins, a former tenant of the Hodgsons’ council house, who had apparently died in a particular chair in their living room. The poltergeist seems to have also appeared under various other names and identities. But why should one or several working class Cockneys return from a future state in order to pointlessly interfere in the lives of a random, unfamiliar family and to perform a succession of inconsequential conjuring tricks?
If those on the ground at Enfield had literally made contact with the dead, then there was surely the greatest of moral imperatives – for the benefit of humanity! – to learn about the process of arriving in a future state. Yet the researchers at Enfield must have been completely clueless, for there is no sense of any such urgency to their investigations. They occasionally quiz the poltergeist about the afterlife and he replies with vague or cryptic answers. The intelligence behind the voice was either still senile or rather unimaginative.
An alternative theory is that the pre-pubescent Janet was using telekinesis in order to create disruption and become the centre of her family’s attention. The powerlessness and frustration of being the second child in a crowded household was henceforth displaced into an uninhibited force which could simply not be ignored. Unfortunately, if this was true then the investigators at Enfield were even more clueless. Imagine being able to learn about the origins of telekinesis and how to develop such a power. If you possessed telekinesis, then working on a building site or waiting tables in a restaurant would be completely transformed, not least because you could do these jobs whilst lying in a hammock. Yet those at Enfield wasted their opportunity to capture these secrets for the human race.
More to the point, they did not even try to “cure” Janet of her poltergeist by finding a productive social role for her which involved more than terrorising her family, egged on by irresponsible investigators. Indeed, the investigators at Enfield seem to have showed a breathtaking irresponsibility towards the welfare of the children under their supervision. A staple of the Enfield story is that all of those who were caught up in the haunting were decent, honest people, and yet once one begins to question this, then the whole case immediately collapses. Every victim of a poltergeist attack is defined by the fact that they dare the world to be rude enough to question their honesty. Deborah Hyde was too polite to ask whether the mother Peggy Hodgson or the chief investigator Maurice Grosse were acting in bad faith, and yet both of them had something more at stake than truth in their poltergeist.
The mother was a struggling single parent who was living in a council house with four children, and whilst Grosse has claimed that she did not make any money from the poltergeist, she received a support and strength from the investigators which was not forthcoming from her own community. Grosse, on the other hand, should never have been allowed anywhere near the poltergeist, not least because he was still grieving for his recently-deceased daughter (who was also named Janet). Haunted more by the possibility of human annihilation than by any ghost, he has openly admitted that he was using the Society for Psychical Research to search for evidence of a future state rather than to objectively investigate the supernatural.
Grosse was by all accounts a kindly and charismatic man, and it seems bad form to question his integrity, but he was ultimately a bit of a crank. In 1998, he appeared on the Esther Rantzen show to claim that he possessed scientific evidence of levitation. A talented inventor with a polytechnic education, Grosse was, rather like the fraudulent ghosthunter Harry Price, a self-appointed amateur enthusiast rather than a trained professional scientist. Whilst sceptics have occasionally speculated (and, incidentally, failed to establish) that the supple and undeveloped vocal chords of some children may be capable of producing the sort of voice used by the Enfield Poltergeist, I have always been embarrassed by the fact that the voice sounds, well, a lot like that of Maurice Grosse. It may be that Janet was somehow impersonating Grosse, and perhaps she was searching for a substitute father in the same way that he was missing a daughter named Janet. The conflation of their voices provides a fitting symbol of the inappropriate sympathy between the investigators and the investigated at Enfield, who have over the years closed ranks like a tiny beleaguered church.
Cases like that of the Enfield Poltergeist are no longer possible these days, because the ubiquitous possession of digital cameras put potential hoaxers under too much scrutiny. Moreover, the expansion of social services and the invention of conditions such as “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” mean that lonely children no longer have to come up with a poltergeist in order to earn attention from sympathetic adults. But the Enfield Poltergeist remains at large, unexplained by the sceptics, and amongst lovers of ghost stories, he still enjoys a certain reputation for being the only true ghost.