Fact or Fantasy? The Enfield Haunting.
Posted on 19 May 2015, 5:25
Sky Living TV showed the first of three parts of its serial The Enfield Haunting on May 3rd, after a well-organised publicity campaign that sold quite a few books even before the screening, and generated some good pieces by reporters who had first-hand experience of the original events, notably Michael Hellicar of the Daily Mail and Douglas Bence, a member of the Daily Mirror team who first covered the story, but for whom we might never have heard of the case. The programme was given a surprisingly good reception by both critics and viewers. The general consensus seemed to be that the film was very well made and very scary. But was it a fair account of what actually happened?
Well, yes and no, mostly no. It got off to a good start, with Timothy Spall, looking remarkably like chief investigator Maurice Grosse, rolling up in a shiny red E-type Jaguar similar to his, and meeting the four children whose mother, convincingly played by Rosie Cavaliero, had been one of the the first witnesses to the early events – the knocking on the walls, the chest of drawers sliding towards her, and the marbles and bits of Lego flying about when it seemed impossible that any of her kids could have thrown them.
Then, near the end of Part 1, the story veered away from fact and towards fiction as Matthew Macfadyen (me) is levitated up to the ceiling, which never happened to me or anybody else, as far as I know, except perhaps D.D.Home some 150 years ago. Oh dear, I thought, it’s going to be just another ‘horror’ film, though purporting to be ‘Based on Real Events’, as viewers were assured at the start. That was just one of many incidents that were only very loosely based, if at all, on reality. The Jaguar, at least, was real.
More perplexing was the omission of a number of real events which were solidly based on reality, some of them even photographed by Graham Morris on motor-drive sequences, which were as dramatic as anything Sky’s special effects wonks could come up with: the self-twisting curtain, the bedclothes pulled off Janet, the flying pillows, the gas fire wrenched out of the wall, the cushion materialising on the roof, Janet seen levitating from across the road, and in the most dramatic incident of all, apparently going through the wall into the house next door, where a book belonging to her was indeed found, there being no conceivable normal explanation for how it got there.
Also lacking was any mention of our efforts to record proper scientific evidence, which we did successfully for at least two of the phenomena: the extraordinary male voice that spoke through Janet, and the rappings we heard on many occasions on floors and walls.
Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who played Janet, (below) is already an award-winning young actress of whom I am sure we will hear more. She had a good go at producing that eerie voice, but did not sound in the least like an old man, as Janet did. Mention might have been made of the recordings we made with the laryngograph, which showed fairly conclusively that Janet was using her ‘false vocal folds’, not at all easy for an untrained person to use, let alone a 12-year od girl.
As for the raps, these have now been analysed by our colleague Barrie Colvin, and shown to have acoustic signatures quite unlike the ‘control’ raps made by me at the time, which means they are not at all easy to fake. His lengthy report was published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 2010 and has been widely ignored ever since.
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Poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment, and it may not occur to its makers that they cause real distress to ordinary innocent people. If these were to visit their doctors complaining of a headache, or whatever, how would they feel if they were told that there were no such things as headaches, which had long been debunked by scientists as medieval superstition, childish imagination or that perennial favourite ‘attention-seeking’?
This is just the kind of reaction poltergeist victims regularly face. The Enfield family even faced it from the psychiatrist responsible for the mental wellbeing of children, who refused even to see them. (I should add that with the exception of this fellow, the local council was very supportive and sympathetic, but the welfare officers I met pointed out correctly that they were not trained to deal with poltergeists. Perhaps they should be.)
Throughout the Enfield case, Maurice Grosse and I constantly witnessed incidents for which no normal explanation seems possible, as did about thirty other people. Yet we never hear any serious discussion about how such incidents, which have been reported for at least five hundred years, could have happened despite violating much of what we think we know about science, and above all why they happened to this particular family when they did, yet do not happen to the thousands of families in similar circumstances. Easier to dismiss the evidence en bloc and put it all down to childish pranks, etc., or to use it for fantasy entertainment.
Poltergeist outbreaks are inherently dramatic, often more so in real life than they tend to be in fiction, and the Enfield case was definitely one that needs no fictional additions.
This House is Haunted: The True Story of the Enfield Poltergeist by Guy Lyon Playfair is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and all good onine book stores.
I have just purchased This House is Haunted for my collection of non electronic books as it is my absolute favourite piece ever written about the subject of noisy ghosts. Thankyou Guy for giving me lifetimes worth of thought and pondering. Oh and re-reading.
Gillian, Tue 1 Aug, 00:14
I can testify to the reality of bad spirits as both myself and my wife in particular have suffered from these things, and it scared the life out of us, anyway thank you for at least believing in the paranormal, sincerely Steve Carlton King.
Steve, Tue 9 Feb, 20:28
Hello Guy, just wanted to drop by and say that as a paranormal investigator myself, i am really looking forward to meeting you and listening to you talk about this case on Saturday. I am also just wondering if you may be perhaps bringing with you some recordings/footage that we may not have already seen/heard? It would be great to see/hear some extra or rare recordings/footage of evidence from the case. Many thanks again - Jason
Jason Thomas, Tue 7 Jul, 22:14
Hi - Guy Lyon Playfair will be talking about the Enfield Haunting for The Ghost Club in London on 11 July 2015. You can find out more information at enfieldhaunting.eventbrite.com - Cheers David Saunderson, Ghost Club events officer
David Saunderson, Fri 26 Jun, 14:46
I agree with the comments above. The irony is that, if the script had selectively followed the actual events described in your book. it would have been equally dramatic and scary, if scariness was the objective. Special effects could just as well have mimicked the real thing as the imaginary.
Movies go to great lengths to get details right—period hair styles, clothing, cars, the electronic equipment of the time. The Enfield house interiors and their ‘70s decor, which probably were built in a studio sound stage, looked convincing to this non-English viewer. Despite all the care, the larger realism of truthful narrative is sacrificed.
Rick Darby, Thu 25 Jun, 14:23
Has anyone tried to recreate poltergeist activity in a laboratory setting over a period of time? Would silence all those braying skeptics if someone did.
Suzanne, Fri 5 Jun, 01:10
Thanks for those comments, with which I agree entirely. I also think the film would have been far more effective if the makers had stuck to the facts, as I was led to believe they intended to do. At least they helped sell quite a lot of books, so many new readers will know what really happened. Television, as somebody once said, ‘vanishes in the night’, but books last for ever.
Guy Lyon Playfair, Fri 29 May, 23:54
I too think that the the true events should have been portrayed. I think that people who are non believers in this phenomena will have a field day making fun of what they saw. These things are happening all over the place, and the people who are suffering are finding it very difficult to get the help they need. Unfortunately there are very few genuine people who work in this area, even in the Spiritualist movement. I too feel that more people need training to work in this field.
Sheila Cooke, Wed 20 May, 23:04
I have to say I was quite peeved after watching all three episodes in this series, I read the book many years ago, as a child in fact, and it was one of the main reasons I became interested in the Paranormal. For me the main single point, or example, is the part where W.P.C. Heeps sees a chair moving of its own accord, this was mentioned in the programme and yet for me is probably the most convincing piece of evidence ever recorded, ever. With pretty much every other piece of evidence for the paranormal, not just in the Enfield Case, but others since and before, there is always the option that it is faked or a natural cause can be found. Obviously i’m not saying every other claim IS fake or natural, but there is the option that it could be. The report of a police constable seeing a chair moving on its own however surely must be very close to absolute proof, for me anyway. But like I say, sadly it was only mentioned in the show. And as for eveything else, well it was entertaining, but it was repeated time and again to be based on real life events when in truth it rarely did, I had hoped for better and the article above even says that it could have been just as entertaining if it stuck to the reported activity, and in the end it was so dissapointing in that respect. I suppose I can only hope for something better, and more honest to actual reported activity, next time someone creates a programme on a similar subject.
Christopher John Linton, Wed 20 May, 21:22
Great article, Guy.
Although I have to agree that poltergeist outbreaks are not taken seriously enough, I should know I’ve seen the destruction they cause first-hand like yourself, I feel that viewers of these shows expect a degree of ‘loose representation’. Though as you’ve soundly pointed out with the phenomena manifesting themselves in the real Enfield case, there wasn’t any need to vere away from the facts. I must confess, I did enjoy the show; the setting was convincing as equally as the actors who portrayed the primary witnesses. However, like you, I would have preferred a film more akin to the true-events.
J F. Triplow.
John Triplow, Wed 20 May, 14:27
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