The Enfield Poltergeist case began in 1977 when a set of disturbances started happening in a council house in Enfield, London that would become one of the most famous (some would say infamous) poltergeist cases in the history of the United Kingdom. Peggy Hodgson, a single mother who lived with her four children Margaret, thirteen; Janet, eleven; Johnny, ten; and Billy, seven, called her neighbours, the police and then the media who all witnessed strange activity for themselves.
This led to investigators from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair, becoming involved in the case. They conducted a five month investigation at the house and seemed utterly convinced that something paranormal was occurring. Reported activity witnessed by the family and people in their home allegedly included knocking on walls, moving furniture, spontaneous fires, a child levitating or being “possessed” (often described as acting as though in a seizure), objects being thrown or damaged and more.
What happened in Enfield captured the imaginations of many; Stephen Volk wrote Ghostwatch with inspiration from the case which starred Michael Parkinson in a drama pretending to be a live broadcast from a haunted home in London. It was banned by the BBC for scaring and confusing audiences and would eventually inspire found footage movies such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. More recently the Enfield Poltergeist case has inspired a television series from Sky called The Enfield Haunting retelling the story in a highly dramatised fashion.
The marketing for the series claims it to be ‘The most documented paranormal event in British history’ but how accurate is this marketing? The reports that came from the house are incredible accounts of strange activity at face value but is there more than meets the eye when it comes to the Enfield Poltergeist? It certainly seems so once you skim the surface.
‘ She [Janet] was always near when something happened, and this inevitably led to accusations that she was playing tricks, although Grosse was already fully convinced that she could not be responsible for all the incidents” (Playfair 1980)
‘I have a saying’ says investigator Joe Nickell when I ask him about Enfield, ‘”The person who thinks he can’t be fooled has just fooled himself” for example, the two men [Playfair and Grosse] insist that an object was thrown that was out of the reach of the children. But it is common in such cases for the perpetrator to have secretly obtained the object earlier and to have flung it when the observer was not looking.’
Nickell isn’t alone in his skepticism. It’s believed by many that the Enfield case was simply children messing around, tricking people, and playing up to those who were giving them attention. When you learn that the children in the house were caught faking activity on several occasions it does become quite difficult to accept the claims that although some activity was faked other aspects of the case were not faked. As outsiders how can we be sure either way?
‘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’ says British paranormal investigator, CJ Romer, ‘and if I recall correctly Tony Cornell [of the SPR] 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.’
Interestingly, when SPR investigators Anita Gregory and John Beloff spent a few days with the family they concluded that the children had faked the poltergeist activity after they caught them purposefully bending spoons. Janet admitted to Gregory that they had fabricated some of the occurrences.
Can we be so sure then that they were always caught when they faked activity? Well, no we can’t because we have to rely on the word of those present and it has been demonstrated time and time again that testimony is not a reliable form of evidence due to biases and the unreliability of memory. When recalling something that happened in the past we draw on relevant associations to the present meaning that our memory changes because the reason we are recalling it changes which results in us accidentally putting emphasis on certain aspects of a memory while not recalling other bits of the same memory that would provide a different context to the testimony. We’re also good at misremembering what actually happened and making our memories conform to fit with what others remember or describe.
Many people who believe that what happened in Enfield to be paranormal in nature are quick to point out that even police officers witnessed strange activity for themselves… but do police officers really make better eye-witnesses? No, although they are trained to be observant as part of their jobs they are also susceptible to biased thinking and fallacious memories. This is something that the Police Force acknowledges and is mindful of in certain situations, such as selecting identification line-ups, questioning suspects or victims, allowing witnesses to be interviewed with co-witnesses and more.
As a contemporary paranormal researcher and investigator I believe that the appropriate response to paranormal claims is skepticism and the Enfield case has been met with great skepticism at every stage – when it first began, during the investigation, when it concluded and even today, decades later.
I’ve always wondered what I would do if the case happened today and I was contacted to investigate. I would be reluctant to become involved in a case with distressed children for ethical reasons but I think I would do as much as I could to work out what was going on. CJ Romer agrees, pointing out that there was a lot to gain from studying the Enfield case, ‘it stood to tell us more about poltergeist cases, and the family’s distress was extreme.’
Yet, when you read the accounts from those involved in the investigation it quickly draws a picture of an investigation that was quite chaotic and this, I feel, is why Enfield will never reach a proper conclusion. It’s fine for Sky to tell us it was the ‘the most documented paranormal event in British history’ but will there be any mention of how chaotic that documentation was? Will there be any mention of how we can’t be sure that it was paranormal activity as a result?
I doubt it.
Yes, there were reports of activity that I’m not willing to dismiss a priori as childish trickery, such as a wrought iron fireplace being wrenched out of a wall, snapping a pipe in the process, but at the same time I do feel as though investigators didn’t do enough to investigate in a controlled manner that enabled them to reach a sound conclusion. Who am I to criticise? I wasn’t there!
But being present on an investigation that has concluded should not be a requisite to understanding what happened. It almost feels as though there was no sense of urgency to discover what was really going on and at times it seems as though Grosse and Playfair were completely overwhelmed. Could this have been taken advantage of by intelligent children out to play a game? I certainly think that’s possible.
There is good evidence that activity was largely open the biases of the investigators and that trickery was involved throughout the case. Although I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support the damnation of the entire case as a hoax that doesn’t mean that I think the activity was paranormal in nature. Too much was left undocumented with no controls in place, like Janet being allowed to go into a room on her own to “talk” in the voice of the alleged ghost, and no investigator being present when a time lapse camera was placed in a room with the children to give context to any photographs captured, such as the one of Janet being “thrown” through the air that actually looks as though she’s just jumping from the bed.
Had an investigator been present they’d have been able to add the proper context to their investigation, but instead mystery was allowed to prevail because I suspect that deep down Grosse and Playfair both wanted Enfield to prove something to them and the world. Were they trying to explain the phenomena or were they trying to document evidence that it was paranormal in nature?
This is a shame though because if Enfield happened today investigators would not be given the chance that Grosse and Playfair were handed. When Peggy Hodgson contacted the newspapers about what was happening their case was referred to the SPR and there’s no doubt in my mind that if the family had contacted the media of today for help no reputable organisation would have been contacted by the media to go and investigate. The Hodgson family would have briefly made headlines around the world, attracted the local pseudo-scientific ghost hunting groups who have little regard for ethical research, and that would have been that.
US investigator Joe Nickell thinks this is actually what happened back in the 1970s, ‘mysteries should neither be fostered nor suppressed, but carefully investigated with the intent of solving them.’
‘ In retrospect’, he adds ‘the “poltergeist” disturbances at Enfield are easily explained, and some were quite trivial. But the occurrences were hyped by self-styled “investigators” and a willing news media to the extent that, even today, the truth must be sought and the facts explained to a new generation.’
…and you know what? Maybe he has a point.
When you watch The Enfield Haunting on Sky keep in mind that due to this approach and due to the unanswered questions we don’t know anything for sure about the case. There is a lot of justified skepticism and doubt about what happened in that house to that family and we’ll probably never know the truth.