It’s Halloween time again and this year I’d like to tell you about one of the best documented and most irrefutable cases of otherworldly spookiness that shook London in the 1970’s and quickly came to be known as The Enfield Poltergeist.
It centred around an otherwise unremarkable council semi-detached house in Green Street, Enfield, North London but the house and its terrifying events soon became notorious as the most haunted house in Britain and earlier this year was brilliantly portrayed in a 3-part horror-drama on TV starring the excellent Timothy Spall and Matthew Macfadyen.
As creepy and terrifying as the TV show was and as accurate as it tried to be, nothing could quite match the actual events in the summer of 1977 which were witnessed by over 30 people including police officers, neighbours, other journalists and BBC staff and even passers-by.
The Enfield Poltergeist, as the ghostly visitor became known, first made its presence felt soon after Janet and her older sister Margaret, 12, played with an ouija board. The girls were getting ready for bed one night and complained their beds were shaking, a complaint dismissed by their mother who assumed they were messing about.
The next night Peggy, their mother, heard screaming and banging coming from their room after they had gone to bed. When she went in, a heavy chest of drawers was sliding by itself across the floor, trying to block the doorway. The girls were understandably terrified.
The mother pushed the chest back against the wall, but it slid towards her again and was much stronger than her too.
Over the next few weeks more furniture moved of its own accord; plates, cutlery, toys and books would go flying, and one night things were so bad Peggy called the police, who arrived to see a sitting-room chair lift off the carpet and move towards them.
One of the officers, WPC Carolyn Heeps, later reported: ‘It came to rest after about 4ft. I checked it for hidden wires or any other means by which it could have moved, but there was nothing to explain it.’
In desperation, the family called in the scientifically respected Society for Psychical Research, who sent two members, Guy Lyon Playfair, the Cambridge-educated author of several books about psychic phenomena, and businessman Maurice Grosse to investigate.
Playfair explained ‘I went in a few weeks after the trouble started. I had an open mind, and looked for a logical explanation. I soon found there wasn’t one.’
His first experience of the Enfield Poltergeist was when a marble appeared from nowhere and dropped like a stone at his feet on the linoleum floor. Over the next 14 months he would visit the house on almost 120 occasions — sometimes the ghost would be quiet, but on many others it would be running rampant.
A newspaper reporter had a Lego brick thrown at him by an unseen force as did newspaper photographer, Graham Morris, had already had a block hurled at him. Even more puzzling, the blocks were hot. And when a wall cabinet smashed to the floor it was found the mounting screws were still in place. Such things were a matter of routine for young Janet ‘Oh, that’s not unusual,’ she said. ‘What’s really annoying is when it pulls out all the drawers and leaves everything on the floor.’
To everyone who visited the house, the most notable and scariest feelings of all was the very palpable atmosphere of fear. A malevolent spirit seemed to have taken up residence, moving the furniture, emptying drawers, sprinkling water, lighting matches and causing general mayhem, forcing the terrified Hodgson family to huddle together in dread and fear.
The spirit seemed to centre its attention on 11-year-old Janet, who was levitated above her bed, sent into violent trances and made to speak in a rasping male voice. Many of the 1,500 psychic occurrences there were not only independently witnessed but are verified by investigators’ photographs and audio tape.
Other unusual events that took place in the house included cold draughts, graffiti, water puddles appearing from nowhere, bad smells, and chairs and tables moving of their own accord. Some witnesses reported physical assaults, matches bursting into flame and fleeting glimpses of different apparitions, including an old woman and a man.
Spookiest of all, an imprint of a body would be found on one of the beds, as if someone had been sleeping there. Peggy would straighten the sheets, only to find the shape back again later.
On another night when the family were together in the sitting room with an investigator there was a slow rapping coming from Janet and Margaret’s bedroom, directly above. They all hurried upstairs but there was no one there.
A few nights later, Guy Playfair heard ‘a tremendous vibrating noise’ coming from the same empty room. ‘It was as if someone was drilling a great big hole,’ he reported. He went in to find the fireplace torn out from the wall, where it had been cemented in. ‘It was one of those old Victorian cast iron fires that must have weighed 60lb. The children couldn’t have ripped it out of the wall, but in any case they weren’t there.’
On another occasion, with all the children in bed, the other SPR investigator, Maurice Grosse, was downstairs compiling notes when he heard Janet screaming. He ran to see her being dragged out of her room by an unseen force. She was then hauled down the stairs and dumped at his feet.
Like so many of the ghostly incidents, it was recorded on audio tape, and some were caught by a remote camera set up by Graham Morris.
Not that the Enfield Poltergeist made it easy — Morris would set up his expensive equipment with flash guns powered by freshly charged batteries, only to find them quickly draining. Tape-recording was often difficult, too — a BBC team’s state-of-the-art machine, which worked perfectly outside the house, would sometimes inexplicably jam once inside.
Pictures show Janet being levitated off the bed, curtains twisting themselves into a spiral, pillows being thrown, sheets being pulled off the sleeping children. When asked if Janet realised she had been whirled across the room in her sleep, she said she had somehow drifted through the wall into the house next door.
‘I can tell you exactly what I saw,’ she said and described where various objects were situated. Upon checking with the neighbours it was confirmed that everything in their bedroom was placed just as Janet had described.
Another time, two passers-by, a lollipop lady and a baker, looked up at the house and through a first-floor window saw Janet spinning around and bumping against the glass. A cushion also seemed to materialise on the roof.
Things took an even more serious turn when Janet began to lapse into violent trances, swearing and hurling insults in disembodied voices quite unlike her own.
‘This thing never seemed to know who it was,’ Playfair said. ‘It would claim to be all different people, speaking in many different voices, and much of what it said through her was nonsense. It was as if Janet was being taken over.’
But one night an eerie message — captured on tape — came out of Janet’s mouth loud and clear, and what it said sent a chill through all of us. ‘My name is Bill,’ rasped a voice. ‘Just before I died, I went blind and then I had a haemorrhage and I fell asleep and died in the chair in the corner downstairs.’
None of this meant anything to the Hodgson family or their neighbours. But when the tape was played on the radio, a man got in touch to say he recognised his father’s voice. ‘His name was Bill Wilkins,’ he said, confirming his father had lived at the Hodgsons’ house many years earlier — before Janet was born — and he had died exactly as he had described.
Play fair who is now aged 80, wrote a book about the Enfield Poltergeist — This House Is Haunted — which became a bestseller.
Maurice Grosse, who died in 2006, had only become interested in the paranormal the previous year, after his journalist daughter — also called Janet — had been killed in a motor cycle accident and the family began to experience psychic happenings. He was convinced she was trying to send messages from beyond the grave to him and his wife Betty.
Grosse and Playfair came to believe it wasn’t so much Peggy Hodgson’s house that was haunted, but Janet herself, and to a much lesser extent, her older sister Margaret. Indeed, one night we had all gone out to visit Janet’s uncle, a few doors away, and the ghostly tricks continued there. ‘This is person-centred,’ Playfair explained ‘It doesn’t stay in the house, but follows Janet around.’
Journalists and reporters weren’t so sure and claimed the house had a very strange atmosphere whether Janet was there or not as if they were being watched by a malignant spirit.
Inevitably, there were accusations that the Hodgson family were staging an elaborate hoax, and Playfair and Grosse were dismissed as gullible.
Janet admitted in a TV interview in 1980 that she and her siblings had tried to fake some happenings — ‘about two per cent’ — because they felt under pressure when so many visitors came to the house expecting to see something ghostly on demand.
We caught them each time because we were watching for trickery,’ says Playfair. ‘They would try to bend spoons, like Uri Geller. They tried to hide my tape recorder so I would think the poltergeist had moved it. But they didn’t realise it was switched on, so I heard every word of their plot!
‘But too many other things happened that could not be faked. Usually there were too many witnesses. What about all the things that happened in empty rooms, when the kids were somewhere else?
‘What about all the things I saw and heard? And the police officers? Children couldn’t have fooled so many people, all of whom wanted to find a rational, earthly explanation for what was happening.’
As for the cacophony of voices coming out of Janet’s mouth, the psychic investigators devised their own test. With Janet and her mother’s agreement, the girl’s mouth was filled with water before being taped up to prevent her speaking. Yet the voices still came out. And afterwards, all the water was still in her mouth.
Maurice Grosse offered £1,000 (£6,500 today) to anyone who could replicate the voices by ventriloquism or any other form of trickery, but no one took up his challenge.
Finally, Playfair invited two psychic medium friends to see what they could make of the hauntings.
‘They came to the house and almost immediately made contact with the poltergeist,’ says Playfair. ‘It took them 15 minutes of talking to him calmly, and the effect was remarkable. The nastiness died down at once and Janet went to sleep for 14 hours — the first uninterrupted sleep she’d had in nearly two years. After that, there was very little trouble.’
Life at the house in Green Street returned to normal for the Hodgsons. Peggy, who had refused to move, even when things got so bad that the family would huddle together in fear, remained there until her death in 2003.
Janet left home at 16, married and moved to Essex. She prefers to stay out of the limelight, saying she doesn’t want to rake up those traumatic events. ‘I’m still in touch with her,’ says Playfair, ‘but I respect that she doesn’t want any more fuss.’
Sleep tight! 🙂
For those who want a bit more Halloween themed reading then why not check out some of my posts from years gone by.
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