Haunted Files #2: The Enfield Poltergeist

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.

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Janet appears to levitate, (c) Graham Morris, 1977

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.

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For more on the Enfield Poltergeist:

Haunted Files #1: The Bell Witch

This is the first installment of The Haunted Files, a series of articles based upon my research of alleged ghosts and hauntings.

It was during a blistering Tennessee summer in 1817 that John Bell first witnessed the unusual phenomena which would plague his household for the next four years. Outside his home, an apparition of a dog with a rabbit’s head materialised. Bell took his shotgun and fired at the creature, but it disappeared.

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The Bell homestead, Authenticated History of the Bell witch (1894)

So begins the legend of the Bell Witch, a folktale native to the town of Adams in Robertson County, TN. First told in its entirety in the book Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (1894) by Martin Van Buren Ingram, it is the strange tale of how the Bell family fell victim to a powerful entity which invaded their home and farm. It bore many characteristics of a poltergeist – the witch allegedly knocked on walls and pulled sheets off beds, even going so far as to pull hair, scratch skin and stick pins in its human cohabitants. There was particular emphasis on John’s daughter Betsy. The witch taunted her and her fiance so relentlessly that Betsy eventually broke off her engagement. According to some accounts, the entity was especially violent towards her; in others, the witch seemed to be fond of the young woman and wanted to protect her. The witch’s behaviour was at the extreme ends of the spectrum. She could be kind, calling John Bell’s wife Lucy “the most perfect woman to walk the earth”, but she also expressed a desire to kill John, who she referred to as “Old Jack”. In 1820, she succeeded. John Bell passed into a coma, having consumed an unidentified liquid which the family found in a vial beneath his bed. His son fed a little to the cat, which died instantly, and then threw it onto the fire where it burst into bright blue flames. The witch declared that she had given John “a big dose” of it and “fixed him”.

In Ingram’s account, the poltergeist claims to be “Old Kate Batts” and Kate seems to be the title that stuck, as the entity appeared to respond positively to being referred to by that name. According to the Guidebook for Tennessee (1933), Kate Batts was a deceased neighbour of John Bell who felt he had cheated her out of land. The witch would converse articulately and often included details only the person asking would have known. One visitor, John Johnston, asked the ghost to tell him what his Dutch grandmother would say to her slaves if she thought they had done something wrong. The witch replied in his grandmother’s accent: “Hut tut, what has happened here?”, then went on to imitate his mother and father in England. She is also reported to have once recited verbatim a sermon being delivered thirteen miles away.

In 1821, Kate left the Bell homestead, but vowed to return in seven years’ time. As promised, she did resurface briefly in 1828, but, after the family ignored her, she appeared to vanish entirely.

The Bell witch has inspired many adaptations, most notably The Blair Witch Project (1999). Although not a direct retelling of the legend, The Blair Witch Project features its own fictional myth which was explored in a mockumentary Curse of the Blair Witch. Many academics have questioned whether the tale of the Bell witch, as recounted by Ingram, truly reflected the beliefs of Robertson County’s residents in the nineteenth century or whether it too was largely historical fiction. Fiction or not, the legend continues to evoke fear today.

In 1934, Charles Bailey Bell, John’s grandson, published an account of his family’s experiences. He reported a prophecy given by the witch that she would return in 1935. In 1937, the new owner of the Bell farm began to hear something rubbing against the walls of the house and faint music. Speaking in 1977, Bonnie Haneline stated that she used to explore the caves on the property as a child, with the permission of the owners. She recalled one occasion in 1944 when she went down alone with a lantern. The lantern was blown out, so she lit it again. After she crawled further, the lantern was extinguished once more and, terrified, she fled. Police later found two fugitives concealed in the cave, and Haneline credited the witch with saving her life by keeping her away from the criminals.

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The entrance to the cave, (c) The Historic Bell Witch Cave Incorporated, 2010

The strangest tale by far was first reported in The Clarion-Ledger, a Mississippi newspaper, in 1987. The owner of a nearby gas station, H.C. Sanders, ran out of petrol at night, not far from the entrance to the Bell witch cave. As he started walking back to town, he saw a rabbit emerge from the forest. He walked faster, but the rabbit managed to keep pace. After a mile, he sat down on a log and the rabbit seated itself beside him, saying: “Hell of a race we had there, wasn’t it?”

Regardless of the truth behind the unexplained phenomena, the Bell witch legend is widely held to be “America’s Greatest Ghost Story”, and for good reason.

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For more on the Bell witch:

Top Tips for Ghost Hunting

I’ve been on a couple of ghost hunts organised by a local paranormal company, so I wanted to share some tips for anyone thinking of attending their own ghost hunt!

  • DON’T delete any photographs or footage until you’ve looked at it on a larger scale!

This was something our host told us on the very first ghost hunt I attended. The majority of us were using mobile phones to capture any evidence, although there were a few camcorder/digital camera users too. These devices are great, but you’re unlikely to see everything in a photo properly until you transfer it onto a computer. You might miss something potentially groundbreaking if you delete blurry or dark images before you’ve had an opportunity to enhance them.

  • DO take more than one photograph of a certain spot.

Our host advised us to take at least three photos if we saw something or just wanted a photo of a particular area. That way, if something shows up in one photo, you have a precise timeline.You might get nothing in the first photo, something noticeable in the second, and then it might have disappeared by the third. Most importantly, you have a “normal” photo or two with which to compare the “abnormal” photo.

  • DO look at your photos carefully.

Be mindful that it’s easy to get carried away, and not every shadow or light you see in your photos and footage is necessarily an apparition! On one occasion, I was caught out. Having taken photos which appeared to show orbs, I returned to the spot only to find that there were small shiny panels on the walls of the tunnel designed to reflect vehicle headlights.

  • DO bring snacks and drinks!

The company we went with provided crisps and chocolate, but we took our own flasks of tea. I don’t know how common it is for ghost hunt organisers to arrange food, so it’s a good plan to take your own.

  • DO pay attention to any emails you receive from the organisation you’re using.

Provided you choose to go on a pre-arranged ghost hunt run by a company, you’ll likely get an email from them. Make sure you bring anything they ask you to or anything mentioned on their website.

You’re highly likely to need: a decent torch (most camping/outdoors shops will stock the suitable kind – a keyring/phone torch is a no-go!), a small backpack to keep your snacks in, a watch (or a mobile phone) in order to keep track of the time, sensible footwear (flat shoes/trainers, avoid high heels or flimsy pumps), appropriate clothes. To give you a good example, my first two ghost hunts took place in a decommissioned nuclear bunker, so I spent four hours (6pm – 10pm) in the middle of January in underground tunnels. As you can probably imagine, I went fully equipped with a winter coat, gloves and a hat.

  • DON’T feel self-conscious.

Depending on who is organising your ghost hunt and what their company policies/practices are, you may take part in various “experiments” or styles of investigation. Personally, I’ve used or watched other people use ouija boards, angel boards, table-tipping, maglites (torches with a coloured bulb which respond to movement), EMF meters and K-2 meters. You may also participate in group vigils. During some of these practices, you might be asked to call out to the spirits or introduce yourself, and it’s often expected that you ask the spirit/s to perform specific tasks (e.g. move the planchette, light up the torch, make the EMF meter spike, etc.).

It can feel a bit awkward or even unnerving when you first attempt to call out into the darkness to someone that may or may not be there. But the chances are that at least one person in the group will also be a ghost hunt virgin (as they’re affectionately known), so you won’t be the only one thrown in at the deep end! You’d be surprised how quickly you get used to the methods and mysteries of paranormal investigation.

Finally, happy hunting! Be careful, but, crucially, enjoy!

You Should Research…

Maybe I’m preaching to the converted, but, for intrepid internet investigators, there’s nothing better than finding a new myth, legend, haunting or crime to research. In fact, you’d be surprised how many authors and filmmakers take their inspiration from real life anecdotes and sightings, which is what we’re going to explore today!

Where did your favourite horror films have their origins? Which nightmarish case inspired your favourite book? Let’s find out.

 

If you liked Silence of the Lambs, you should research…

Ed Gein, Jerry Brudos, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgeway. Thomas Harris, the author of Silence, based the modus operandi of the antagonist Jame Gumb (AKA Buffalo Bill) on those of six different killers. Ed Gein’s influence is probably the most prominent and arguably the most disturbing; he also fashioned a “woman suit” out of the skin of his victims. Like Bill, Ted Bundy would pretend to be injured, often using crutches, in order to lure in the women he attacked.

 

If you liked Red Dragon, you should research…

Dennis Rader, or the “BTK Killer”. BTK stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill”, which was Rader’s signature. Again, Thomas Harris has noted that Francis Dolarhyde (“The Tooth Fairy”) was partially based on Rader. At the time when Harris was writing Red Dragon, the BTK murders were still unsolved and he was consulting with FBI agent John Douglas, who had worked on the case. In both the book and its film adaptation, Dolarhyde believes he is being driven by his alter ego, the Great Red Dragon. Rader claimed to have been influenced by a force he referred to as “Factor X”. Just for your peace of mind, Rader is currently serving 175 years imprisonment, with no chance of parole.

 

If you liked The Witch, you should research…

Early modern witch trials, especially: the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials and the Basque Witch Trials. These three cases took place in very different countries and were rooted in very different cultures, but they are all indicative of the impact of Christianity and Puritanism, which is present in the film. The Pendle Witch Trials took place in Lancashire, England in 1612. Eleven people went to trial at the Lancashire assizes – only one was acquitted. Interestingly, a key witness was a little girl, Jennet Device, who went on to accuse her entire family of being witches. She shares the surname Device with the witch Anathema Device, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. The book also features Anathema’s ancestor, Agnes Nutter, whose namesake Alice Nutter was executed at Pendle Hill. The Salem Witch Trials were carried out in Salem, Massachusetts between 1692 and 1693, whilst the Basque Witch Trials took place 84 years earlier in 1609.

For a more in-depth look at why and how witches were identified and punished, research the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Malleus Maleficarum.

 

If you liked Jaws, you should research…

The Jersey Shore shark attacks. Between 1st July and 12th July 1916, four people were killed and one injured along the coast of New Jersey. During a record heat wave and a polio epidemic, thousands flocked to the beaches, disrupting the natural balance. To this day, scholars and researchers are uncertain as to the species of shark involved in the attacks, with suggestions ranging from a great white to a bull shark.

 

If you liked Dracula (in any of its incarnations), you should research…

The Highgate Vampire. In 1970, reports began to circulate that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in north London. Two years earlier, newspapers recorded that a grave had been desecrated. The perpetrators had arranged flowers in a circular pattern and, finally, driven a stake through the heart of the corpse. The media storm came to a head in March 1970, when two local men, David Farrant and Sean Manchester, decided to lead rival ghost hunts in the cemetery. Each was determined to find proof of his own theory about the supernatural phenomena. Their feud continues to this day.

The Vampire of Croglin Grange. In Cumberland, England, between 1875 and 1876, the Cranswell family – two brothers and a sister – were harassed by an undead creature. The family left for Switzerland and, upon their return, the creature reappeared. The two brothers followed it into a vault in the nearby cemetery and shot it dead. The local legend was recorded by Augustus Hare in the 1890s, although the truth behind his tale was later disputed. Croglin High Hall and Croglin Low Hall are real locations, but Croglin Grange appears to have been Hare’s own invention.

 

Thank you for reading! If this proves to be a popular post, it might inspire a sequel.