This is the second installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.
While Britain has a long, bloody history of haunted castles and mansions, the Enfield Poltergeist case gripped the nation in the late 1970s because the activity focused on a young girl living in a rented house in Enfield, north London. It remains one of the most famous English hauntings, adapted into numerous films and TV series.
It began in August 1977. Peggy Hodgson, a single mother, fled to the bedroom belonging to her daughters when she heard them screaming. The girls – Janet aged 11 and Margaret aged 14 – claimed that a chest of drawers had moved of its own accord. Peggy phoned the police. When the police arrived, they found no evidence of an intruder, but they were greeted with further strange phenomena when a police constable on the scene witnessed a chair move across the floor without being touched.
The activity continued, growing in intensity as time passed. The poltergeist would allegedly throw rocks and toys, knock on walls and it began to speak with a demonic growl, using Janet as its mouthpiece. The case attracted the attention of the national press; you can see real footage here, shown in 1978 on the BBC, which features the testimonies of the police officers as well as the contrast between Janet’s normal voice and the voice of the so-called demon.
As you can see in the video, the case was closely monitored by paranormal investigator Maurice Grosse. He was joined by author and parapsychologist Guy Lyon Playfair. Both men were members of the Society for Psychical Research, where they first met. Other researchers in the SPR remained sceptical of the case and, when it became clear that the girls had faked photographs and certain activity, it was widely regarded as a hoax. Janet was caught on film bending spoons and attempting to bend an iron bar, as well as jumping off her bed to pretend to “levitate”. However, Grosse believed that Margaret and Janet had falsified some of the evidence but also that a large proportion of the events were real and inexplicable. In his book This House Is Haunted, published in 1980, Playfair also maintained that the haunting was genuine.
Margaret suggested in the BBC interview that Janet had spoken in about 10 different voices, but one of the male voices, “Bill”, is perhaps the best-known. “Bill” is the name by which the entity is referred to in the 2015 TV series The Enfield Haunting (you can see examples of how closely the series was adapted from real events here and here) and in the 2016 film The Conjuring 2. “Bill” was recorded on tape saying “I used to live here” and describing how he died: “I went blind and then I had a haemorrhage and I fell asleep and died in the chair in the corner downstairs.” You can hear this at around 2:30 in the video linked above. According to journalist Michael Hellicar, “Bill” was eventually identified as Bill Wilkins by his son, who recognised his voice from the recording. He had lived and died in the Hodgsons’ house, exactly as described by Janet.
The case is still a matter of debate. Some believe the gruff voice in which “Bill” spoke was well beyond the capabilities of an 11-year-old girl and that her natural voice would have been affected if she had been doing it deliberately; others have hypothesised that Janet was simply a talented ventriloquist and possessed false vocal cords above her actual larynx, which enabled her to create a man’s deep voice. It has also been noted that the voices still appeared to retain the vocabulary and vocal patterns (intonation, the pace of speech, etc.) of a child. This is sometimes attributed to the spirit using Janet’s body as a vessel – it could not form the words with its own adult abilities and was limited by a child’s experience – but it is generally accepted as evidence against the case’s veracity. Psychology professor and sceptic Chris French has also expressed doubt based upon the topics the spirit was willing to talk about: “When Janet was supposedly possessed by the spirit of an old man, he took a lot of interest in menstruation. That’s not something you expect an old man to be interested in. But a young girl? Well yes. “
French’s point is an interesting one. In an interview with Janet by The Telegraph, the activity is said to have “peaked” on 15th December 1977 – the day Janet got her first period. Poltergeist cases often focus on adolescent women and girls at a time of great change in their lives, leading some to wonder if there is a connection between high human emotion and poltergeists.
Janet claims only about 2% of the events were faked by she and her siblings, but that this was only because they felt under pressure to deliver constant evidence. She said she felt like “a failure” when she was unable to produce anything during lulls in the activity. Like everything else in this particular case, there are two ways to look at every piece of evidence. The spirit spoke like a child, either because it was using a child or because it was a child’s invention. Janet faked events, either because she wanted to accentuate the other (ostensibly real) evidence or because the entire investigation was a hoax.
We may never fully know.
For more on the Enfield Poltergeist:
- Photographer Graham Morris recalls ghostly encounter, BBC Radio 5 live
- The Enfield Poltergeist, Channel 4 documentary (2007)
- Five reasons why London’s most famous poltergeist case is a hoax, Time Out