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The Enfield Poltergeist on “Sky TV” UK

What Hath Sky Wrought?
by Guy Lyon Playfair

Sky Living TV showed the first of three parts of its serial The Enfield Haunting on May 3, 2015 after a well-organised publicity campaign that sold quite a number of my book on the subject even before the screening.

It also generated some good news articles 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 and but for whom we might never have heard of the case.

The programme was seen by about 850,000 people. It 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?

It got off to a good start with Timothy Spall, looking remarkably like the chief investigator of the incident Maurice Grosse, rolling up in a shiny red E-type Jaguar similar to Maurice’s.

He then met 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.

Near the end of Part One, however, the story veered away from fact toward fiction.

Matthew Macfadyen, playing me, is levitated up to the ceiling – which never happened to me or anybody else as far as I know (except perhaps to D. D. Home 150 years ago).

Oh dear, I thouht, it’s going to be just another ‘horror’ film. Although viewers were assured at the start that the film purported to be ‘Based on Real Events’, 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, some of them recorded by photographer 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 of 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 the most dramatic incident of all, a book belonging to Janet apparently going through the wall into the house next door, where it 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
  • the rappings we heard on many occasions on floors and walls.

The young Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who played Janet, is already an award-winning actress of whom I am sure we will hear more. She had a good go at producing the eerie male voice, but it did not sound in the least like an old man, as had the real Janet’s. 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 old 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 but was widely ignored.

Poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment; it may not occur to the producers of such programming that they cause real distress to ordinary, innocent people. If you were to visit your doctor complaining of a headache, for instance, how would you feel if you were told that there were no such things as headaches, that headaches had long ago been debunked by scientists as medieval superstitions, the imaginations of the childish, or that perennial favourite explanation of debunkers who never bother to investigate, ‘attention-seeking behavior’? This is just the kind of reaction poltergeist victims face regularly.

The Enfield family even faced it from the psychiatrist made responsible for the mental well-being of children, who, as it happened, 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 Society for Psychical Research members Maurice Grosse and I, along with about thirty other people, constantly witnessed incidents for which no normal explanation seems possible.

Poltergeist incidents have been reported for at least five hundred years. Yet we’ve never heard any serious discussion, violating much of what we think we know about science, about how they happen.

And why did they happen to this particular family when they do not to thousands of families in similar circumstances? It has been easiest for pseudoskeptics to dismiss the evidence en bloc and put it all down to childish ‘pranks’ – or to use it for fantasy entertainment.

So did Sky TV do well by the Enfield Poltergeist story? Well, yes and no. Poltergeist outbreaks are inherently dramatic, often more so in real life than they tend to be in fiction. The Enfield case was definitely one that needs no fictional additions.