Enfield Poltergeist – alleged paranormal activity in 1977

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The Enfield Poltergeist was the name given to claims of poltergeist activity at a council house in Brimsdown, Enfield, England during the late 1970s. Although psychical researchers such as Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair declared some of the phenomena genuine, the case is generally considered to be a hoax by skeptics.

In August 1977, single parent Peggy Hodgson called police to her rented home in Enfield after two of her four children claimed that furniture was moving and knocking sounds were heard on walls. The children included Margaret, age 13, Janet, age 11, Johnny, age 10 and Billy, age 7. A female police constable saw a chair slide on the floor but couldn’t determine if it moved by itself or was pushed by someone. Later claims included allegedly demonic voices, loud noises, thrown rocks and toys, overturned chairs and levitation of children.

Reports of further incidents in the house attracted considerable press attention and the story was covered in British newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, until reports came to an end in 1979. On Halloween 2011, BBC News featured comments from a radio interview with photographer Graham Morris, who claimed that a considerable portion of the events were genuine.

Society for Psychical Research members Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair reported “curious whistling and barking noises coming from Janet’s general direction.” Although Playfair maintained the haunting was genuine and wrote in his later book This House is Haunted: The True Story of a Poltergeist (1980) that an “entity” was to blame for the disturbances, he often doubted the children’s veracity and wondered if they were playing tricks and exaggerating.

Still, Grosse and Playfair believed that even though some of the alleged poltergeist activity was faked by the girls, other incidents were genuine. Janet was detected in trickery. A video camera in the room next door caught her bending spoons and attempting to bend an iron bar. Grosse had observed Janet banging a broom handle on the ceiling and hiding his tape-recorder.

When Janet and Margaret admitted their pranking to reporters, Grosse and Playfair compelled the girls to retract their confession. They were mocked by other researchers for being easily duped.

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The psychical researcher Renée Haynes had noted that doubts were raised about the alleged poltergeist voice at the Second International SPR Conference at Cambridge in 1978, where video cassettes from the case were examined. The SPR investigator Anita Gregory stated the Enfield poltergeist case had been “overrated”, characterizing several episodes of the girl’s behavior as “suspicious” and speculated that the girls had “staged” some incidents for the benefit of reporters seeking a sensational story. John Beloff a former president of the SPR investigated and suggested Janet was practicing ventriloquism. Both Beloff and Gregory came to the conclusion that Janet and Margaret were playing tricks on the investigators.

American paranormal investigator Ed Warren claimed that Janet was once “sound asleep, levitating in midair” and concluded that the children were the subject of demonic possession.

In a television interview for BBC Scotland, Janet was observed to gain attention by waving her hand, and then putting her hand in front of her mouth while a claimed “disembodied” voice was heard. During the interview both girls were asked the question “How does it feel to be haunted by a poltergeist?” Janet replied “It’s not haunting” and Margaret interrupted “Shut up”. These factors have been regarded by skeptics as evidence against the case.

Skeptics have also noted that the alleged poltergeist voice that originated from Janet was produced by false vocal cords above the larynx and had the phraseology and vocabulary of a child. Maurice Grosse made tape recordings of Janet, and believed that there was no trickery involved, but the magician Bob Couttie has written, “he made some of the recordings available to me and, having listened to them very carefully, I came to the conclusion that there was nothing in what I had heard that was beyond the capabilities of an imaginative teenager.”

Skeptic Joe Nickell has criticized paranormal investigators for being overly credulous: when a supposedly disembodied demonic voice was heard, Playfair noted that, “as always Janet’s lips hardly seemed to be moving.” Nickell wrote that a tape recorder malfunction that Grosse attributed to supernatural activity and Society for Psychical Research president David Fontana described as an occurrence “which appeared to defy the laws of mechanics” was merely a peculiar threading jam common to older model reel to reel tape recorders.

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Nickell states that a remote-controlled still camera (the photographer was not present in the room with the girls) timed to take a picture every 15 seconds that supposedly “recorded poltergeist activity on moving film for the first time” was shown by investigator Melvin Harris to reveal the girls’ pranks. A photo allegedly depicting Janet “levitating” in mid air actually shows her bouncing on the bed as if it were a trampoline. Harris called the photos examples of common “gymnastics,” and said “It’s worth remembering that Janet was a school sports champion!” Nickell also wrote that demonologist Ed Warren was “notorious for exaggerating and even making up incidents in such cases, often transforming a “haunting” case into one of “demonic possession.” In an interview with the Daily Mail, the adult Janet admitted that she and her sister had faked “2 percent” of the phenomena, prompting Nickell to comment, “the evidence suggests that this figure is closer to 100 percent.”

Nickell noted that the supposed poltergeist “tended to act only when it was not being watched” and concluded that the incidents were best explained as children’s pranks. According to Nickell:

“Time and again in other ‘poltergeist’ outbreaks, witnesses have reported an object leaping from its resting place supposedly on its own, when it is likely that the perpetrator had secretly obtained the object sometime earlier and waited for an opportunity to fling it, even from outside the room—thus supposedly proving he or she was innocent.”

American magician Milbourne Christopher investigated, failed to observe anything that could be called paranormal, and was dismayed by what he felt was suspicious activity on the part of Janet. Christopher would later conclude that “the poltergeist was nothing more than the antics of a little girl who wanted to cause trouble and who was very, very, clever.”

In 2015, Deborah Hyde commented that there was no solid evidence for the Enfield poltergeist “the first thing to note is that the occurrences didn’t happen under controlled circumstances. People frequently see what they expect to see, their senses being organised and shaped by their prior experiences and beliefs.”

Popular Culture:

  • In 1992, the BBC aired a mockumentary entitled, written by Steven Volk and based on the Enfield Poltergeist.
  • In March 2007, Channel 4 aired a documentary about the Enfield poltergeist, entitled Interview with a Poltergeist.
  • The Enfield poltergeist has been featured in episodes of ITV series Strange But True? and Extreme Ghost Stories.
  • The Enfield poltergeist was the subject of the 2015 Sky Living television series The Enfield Haunting which was broadcast on the 3rd of May 2015, and the 2016 US theatrical horror film The Conjuring 2: The Enfield Poltergeist.

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