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[The following contains spoilers.]

The Battersea poltergeist was an arch hobgoblin that had thoroughly rattled up a working-class household in Battersea, South London, from January 1956 until the late 1960s. The entity was called Donald and his sweetheart was the fifteen-year-old Shirley Hitchings, the youngest member of the stricken family. The two became an item and very soon they were a tabloid sensation.

The haunting had commenced with an apport – namely the magical appearance of a mysterious key – and from then on it proceeded in a richly percussive vein. Donald went at it hammer and tongs, with tapping, thumping, banging and knocking. The Adventures and Exploits of Donald continued with him capering unscathed out of a spiritualist “exorcism,” not being materially incommoded by the bumbling attentions of the “ghost hunter” Harold “Chib” Chibbett, and learning how to write. Donald matured into an epistolary spook and he would pen a treasure trove of nonsensical correspondence. At one point Chib even received a Christmas card from him.

Once Shirley had married and settled down, the hobgoblin’s animal heat appears to have similarly faded. There was no narrative climax and the creature instead flitted back to the vale of spirits without any fuss. The letters dried up.

In The Battersea Poltergeist, a recent podcast from BBC Radio 4, Donald has been finally brought to book. If the story of the show’s presenter Danny Robins also begins with a key, it is that to the archives of his investigative predecessor Chibbett. Unlike with Chib, however, Robins’ investigation is brisk, methodical, and largely conclusive.

Chibbett had spent many years researching the hobgoblin’s every utterance. He had wanted to corroborate that the poltergeist had been once a living human being but this became akin to trying to grab the wind by the nose. Robins not only comes near to finding that a lot of the hobgoblin’s cracks and pops were mundane séance ventriloquism, but he isolates the medical condition of “hammer toe” as a plausible modus operandi. Next, he submits samples of Shirley’s writing to a modern handwriting expert alongside that of Donald’s. There is no hiding place for Donald here and, more to the point, there is suddenly no Donald.       

If the sceptical method had been previously applied to Donald with cold water and insufficient elbow grease, Robins might seem to wipe him away with a flourish, leaving few marks. Yet scepticism is actually a diluted force throughout his investigation and indeed it is typically in a state of mild crisis. This might lead us to question who best represents scepticism and whether it can even become a liability if it is employed without the correct discipline.

Before I address this question, I would like to assure you that The Battersea Poltergeist is not a podcast to turn down. It is lavishly made and always hugely interesting. Robins’ pacy and resourceful detective investigation is relieved, even though relief is never particularly needed, with dramatised recreations of the original events at 63 Wycliffe Road. Both could stand alone as engrossing podcasts in themselves. Apropos of the dramatists, Dafne Keen makes Shirley compelling and disarmingly likeable, whilst Toby Jones achieves much the same with Chibbett, in an increasingly sensitive take on the dismayed blunderer.    

The trouble is nonetheless that Robins has decided from the outset that he will permit us only two, very clichéd interpretations of the Battersea poltergeist. For him, the believer and the sceptic become catch-all categories. They are exemplified, almost allegorically, in an in-house believer-and-sceptic combo, who are both on hand throughout the podcast. Ciarán O’Keeffe is happy to be labelled as a “hardcore sceptic” and he specialises in equipping paranormal phenomena with psychological explanations. Evelyn Hollow is a psychologist too but she uses her own insights to enhance an appreciation of the paranormal.

These academics reiterate the believing and the sceptical worldview, but dutifully and almost as if they are together in a conspiracy to not deal one another a knockout blow. If you accept, as this podcast appears to do, that we each have our own “truths” and stories, then there is accordingly a waning in the ambition to prioritise one truth at the expense of any other. It does not help here that O’Keeffe and Hollow never quite live up to what they have been put forward to represent.

If O’Keeffe was really any sort of a scientist, he would admit that the truth about the Battersea poltergeist is now inaccessible since the phenomena can be no longer observed in controlled conditions. Instead, he breezes ahead with guesswork, conjecture, top-down processing, confirmation bias and all of the things that he should be surely calling out in the believers. His insistence that the poltergeist is not a real ghost becomes painfully clarified for us as an article of faith.

His very starting-point is an unverified assumption: that the Hitchings family were all credible witnesses who had honestly misinterpreted what their own senses were telling them. Having made this assumption, O’Keeffe is condemned to absurdly theorise that the 85-decibel banging that the hobgoblin had supposedly generated might have been caused by spectral underground engineering work. When Shirley denies that Donald was her nom de plume, even after the handwriting expert has caught her red-handed, most people would dismiss this as a common-as-garden lie. Bewilderingly, O’Keeffe maintains that he still holds Shirley to be telling the truth, justifying this with the apparently mystical notion that she has become somehow unconsciously decoupled from herself.

To a true sceptic, O’Keeffe’s explanations will look just as unempirical as any belief in a poltergeist. Still, there is a strange lurch at the end of his analysis when he suddenly declares, on the basis of no evidence, that John Hitchings, Shirley’s adopted brother, might have been the hoaxer. This is even less substantiated than the contributions from Ronald Maxwell, the story’s villainous tabloid journalist.

We might equally cock a wondering eye at Hollow. If she possesses a sincere faith in the supernatural, this will be hardly perturbed by a chance hoax. If you show that a banana happens to be made out of plastic, this does nothing in itself to disprove the whole existence of bananas. That Hollow consents to hang the question of “do ghosts exist?” on a single case file betrays an ever more peculiar vulnerability. If you believe that ghosts exist, you can surely see the immortality of the soul everywhere and in everything, rather than just being able to winkle it out of Battersea in the 1950s.

There are two alternative sources of scepticism that can contribute to explaining the Battersea poltergeist. The first discards all of the available evidence as an irrelevance and it instead reveals gaping logical failures in the different narratives about the poltergeist. The second resorts to historical materialism and it aims to explode the idea that poltergeist phenomena are ahistorical or universal or anything other than a product of very specific historical circumstances.

The logical approach begins with the problem of the extremely limited range of the hobgoblin’s activity. If the creature is a force that is freed from all known physical laws, why does it confine its interventions to the crudest bumps and knocks? If it can make an ornate key materialise out of nowhere, why not a 100-carat diamond? If it possesses the power and dexterity to write letters, why can’t it fry a breakfast or knit a jumper? Why, in fact, does its repertoire include only those items that it would be easy for any unimaginative amateur magician to fake?

One should note here that Donald could boast of extraordinary exploits, such as making a pair of slippers strut around a room by themselves, and that this case is also thickly populated with credible witnesses. Even so, the sleight of hand here is that The Battersea Poltergeist does not alight upon any incident where the extraordinary things are ever connected with the credible witnesses (outside, that is, of Shirley’s remembering of events.)  

This leads to the question of what the hobgoblin is exactly. It is here that poltergeists have been very carefully named. It is true that a poltergeist is a “noisy spirit,” which is what the name means in German, but what is so eerie about them is that they are always loquacious without being ever communicative. If Donald really is a human being who has returned from a future state, why does he never refer to what it is like to die or to be dead, in any way that is psychologically convincing? Why is there no “take me to your leader” moment, in which Donald demands to speak to the Prime Minister, to spill all of the secrets of human life and death?

One might argue that Donald’s estrangement from the imaginable motives of a person who has survived death must confirm that he is generated exclusively by Shirley. That he is a part of her psyche that has become autonomous and that can express itself through telekinesis. Yet there is even less logic pumping in this interpretation.

If certain human beings can acquire telekinesis, how is it that such an enormous evolutionary advantage could have been lost to history? This is the equivalent of an occasional random chimpanzee learning how to make fire, but being never able to benefit from such an ability or to pass on the crucial information about it to other chimpanzees. If Shirley is telekinetic, she does not seem to have inherited this skill or to have bequeathed it to her children. We might protest that evolution just does not work like this or that, if it did, such an uncharacteristic malfunction would throw everything that we know about the theory into doubt.

Where a logical approach raises devastating questions, an application of historical materialism can provide answers. We know that poltergeists have not appeared evenly throughout modern history. Rather, one can trace how they have been researched and developed in a close conspiracy with the tabloid press. The phenomena were simple, as in the cases of the “possessed” Romanian teenager Eleonore Zugun and Gef the Talking Mongoose, when tabloid readers were content with bumps and scratches. They became ever more spectacular in order to outdo previous efforts, culminating in the Enfield poltergeist during the late 1970s (where the ventriloquism had innovated to such an extent that the hobgoblin was able to speak).

The poltergeist was a readily available means to celebrity for young, marginalised working-class women. The pattern was so frequent that the Battersea poltergeist was not even the first Battersea poltergeist (Chib’s ghost-hunting crony Harry Price had investigated another one during the 1940s). Poltergeists had declined sharply, however, once it became possible to cheaply rig up households with reliable recording equipment. Finally, the ubiquity of smartphone cameras rendered the poltergeist as extinct as the dodo. In these new historical conditions, amateur magicians could no longer churn out spectacular phenomena as consistently as the narrative model had once required.

The poltergeist’s faithful deputy, the studious investigator, was also cut to a readymade pattern. Harry Price (Zugun, Gef etc.), Harold Chibbett and Maurice Grosse (Enfield) had each acted as if they were trained scientists and academics when they were really just amateur enthusiasts. Each had seemed to prolong the phenomena that they were investigating through guaranteeing it a constant and attentive audience. Incidentally, both Price and Chib had held down highly unglamorous jobs during the working day (Price as a paper-bag manufacturer, Chib as a taxman), which might have meant that the men’s respective analytical skills were not quite so fresh once they were unleashed upon their ghosts.   

When Chib was sleuthing at 63 Wycliffe Road, was he akin to a psychoanalyst who was trying to “cure” a difficult analysand? Or was he alternatively a detached scientist who was testing evidence to ascertain its value? In the work of all three of our ghost-hunters, these two incompatible roles were soon treading on each other’s toes. Price never became as absorbed in any case as Chib did with Shirley, because he was consciously a showman and he was normally jealous of the growing stardom of the magicians who he was investigating. Once Chib had forged a friendship with Shirley, though, his investigation was essentially defunct. It was inconceivable that he could have humiliated Shirley by exposing her as a fraud in front of her own community, especially when he had gained such intimate knowledge of her psychological fragility.

The lurking perils of sympathy are also in danger of scotching Robins’ investigation. He is wriggling with embarrassment at having to confront Shirley after she has failed the handwriting test. This nonetheless provides a powerful sense of the force that Chib, an investigator who was wearing far weaker psychological armour than Robins is, had gone up against. Today, it looks as if the mutualism between Chib and the Hitchings family had rendered them a unit that was sealed against the outside world. Chib in some respects made Donald concrete, in invading the household, not letting its occupants be, and even sleeping on the kitchen floor.

Although a ghost is on the ropes in The Battersea Poltergeist, it is increasingly scepticism that finds itself in a surprise battle to prove itself and to justify its relevance. Perhaps the lesson is that scepticism and belief cannot be pitted against each other as symmetrical antagonists. Belief is, after all, just different stages of credulity, whereas scepticism incorporates a far broader range of methods, perspectives, and, yes, beliefs.   

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