What would you do if a piece of your furniture suddenly slid along the floor on its own in front of your eyes? Think for a moment and be honest with yourself. What would you actually do?
Maybe, after getting over the initial shock, you would shrug your shoulders, assume it must have had something to do with mice or an earthquake, and just hope it doesn’t happen again.
But it does happen again. And again. And all sorts of even odder things happen as well. Stones fall on your kitchen floor, as if they had come through the ceiling. Somebody – or something – starts banging on the wall. Things disappear and reappear somewhere else. Before long, you realise that it can’t be anything to do with earthquakes or mice, but must be something else, something wholly inexplicable and very frightening. You know these things can’t happen yet you also know they are happening.
Whatever you would do next, or like to think you would, I can tell you what people who have found themselves in this predicament have done.
Quite often, they have simply panicked. In 1978 a Birmingham family abandoned the house in which they had lived happily for eleven years, refusing to set foot in it again. A South London couple rushed out of their brand new council flat leaving their furniture and most of their belongings behind, and were never seen in the area again.
Others have appealed for help from neighbours, the police, priests, doctors and newspapers, but in vain. Sometimes, in fact, such appeals have only made things worse. As word spreads around that something spooky is going on in your house, you suddenly find your friends pointedly looking the other way when you pass them in the street. People give you funny looks in the local shops. Passers-by stop and stare at your house. You receive malicious phone calls and threatening letters. In short, your life is ruined. This has all happened.
Some have been even more unfortunate. They have been referred to psychiatrists and locked up in mental homes, as happened to a London woman in 1977. Then to crown it all they see some ‘expert’ on television, usually a psychology professor, explaining that it’s all due to imagination or naughty children.
Yet a few are lucky. They find somebody who explains that what has been going on is known as poltergeist activity and is willing to help. Cases of such activity have been reported, often in considerable detail, for at least 1,500 years. It usually stops as suddenly and mysteriously as it starts, typically after a few days or maybe a couple of weeks, and it seldom does any serious damage. There are of course exceptions, and this book is about one of them.
‘Very briefly, can you explain what a poltergeist is?’
I often get asked this question and my answer is invariably ‘Very briefly, no. Nor can anyone else’. As Bertrand Russell commented about the subject of electricity, it is not a ‘thing’, but ‘a way in which things behave’. I can at least explain what the word means. It comes from the German verb poltern – to make a racket – and Geist — spirit or ghost.
I can also describe how poltergeists behave. They seem to come in three or four varieties. They can be merely mischievous, they can give the impression that they just dropped in by chance, they can even be benevolent – in an extraordinary case in South Wales investigated by my late colleague David Fontana in 1991, quite a large sum of money in the form of coins and even banknotes was provided by the obliging spook. Yet they can also be thoroughly hostile and destructive, as on a case I helped investigate in Brazil in 1973 when a family in the town of Suzano had much of their furniture destroyed by repeated outbreaks of fire and several windows and roof tiles smashed by stones thrown by invisible hands.
What they generally do most often is knock on walls and floors, throw things around, overturn chairs and tables, set things on fire, and occasionally, as we shall see, give the impression that they are spirits of the dead, for want of a more precise description.
Poltergeist activity is in fact what doctors call a syndrome, which means a group of symptoms that indicate a certain disease or an abnormal condition. And it is not only abnormal, meaning not normal, but also paranormal. This means that it cannot be explained in terms of established science, which in turn means that established scientists tend to ignore it altogether and pretend that it doesn’t exist (because they can’t explain it), leaving the work of investigation to individuals like myself who are intrigued by areas of human experience that scientists generally cannot reach.
The Enfield poltergeist made the front page of a national newspaper ten days after it began in 1977. It has been the subject of numerous radio and television programmes and even more numerous newspaper and magazine articles all over the world. It is also the subject of a full-length book – this one.
The reason for all this attention is that an enormous amount of very anomalous activity took place over a period of some fifteen months in 1977 and 1978, including examples of just about every ‘psychic’ phenomenon on record. Much it was tape recorded as it happened, and some of it was photographed by an experienced professional. Some was even captured on film, and a great deal of it was witnessed in good conditions by at least thirty people including myself. Andrew Green, a leading authority on these matters, described the case in New Psychologist (January 1979) as ‘promising to be the most exciting poltergeist case yet’. I hope this book helps fulfil that promise.
But before I get down to a thud-by-crash account of all the activity and excitement, a word of caution is needed. If you are not sated by all the horrors and occult titillations of books or films such as The Exorcist and its host of imitators, and are still hungry for more exotic thrills, then this book is not for you. Readers may find some of it rather dull, with a not very good plot and some terrible dialogue.
This is because This House is Haunted, plot, dialogue and all, is true. And while truth may be stranger than fiction, as indeed it can be, it is also far less well organised. It can be very repetitive, even monotonous. It is exciting enough when a table or a sofa leaps into the air and flips over, but when such incidents keep on happening week after week, it becomes a bit of a bore.
So, if you are tired of all the over-dramatised versions of what were sometimes true events, and would like to know what really happens on a poltergeist case from start to finish in some detail, please read on, but bear two things in mind:
Firstly, repetitiveness and general confusion are well-established features of poltergeist activity, and I have felt obliged to record the tedious episodes of this very complex case as well as the many exciting ones.
Secondly, whether it is being tedious or exciting, the poltergeist represents a tremendous challenge. It shows that there really is a direct link between mind and matter, and that there are forces and dimensions in our world that are not yet even dreamed of in our established philosophies. To me, the prospect of exploring those dimensions and harnessing those forces to make them work for us rather than against us, as we have done very successfully, for instance with electricity and magnetism, is far more exciting than the mere sight of a chair falling over. This prospect, I believe, is now a very real one.
If this were a novel, this is where I should state that ‘all characters are imaginary and bear no intended resemblance to any person living or dead’. Yet it is not a novel, and all the characters are real. (All the living ones, that is. I cannot vouch for the true identities of those who claim to be dead). Some names have been altered at the request of those concerned, and these are indicated by an asterisk when first mentioned. All other names are real, and all quoted dialogue is taken either from tape recordings, signed written statements or my own notes taken at the time. Some dialogue has been edited to the extent of removing repetitive or nonessential material, but I have added nothing. I hardly need to, since the transcripts of our tape recordings cover more than 600 single spaced typed A4 pages. So I have plenty of words to choose from.
Special thanks are due to the two people who made this book possible: my late colleague Maurice Grosse (1919-2006) and Peggy Harper, who is also sadly no longer with us.
Peggy was a woman of great courage, strength and determination who survived an ordeal that no mother should ever have to face. She was wonderfully cooperative and hospitable throughout the case, and managed to keep going when a less resilient soul might well have suffered a nervous breakdown.
Maurice was an exemplary researcher, devoting a great deal of his spare time to the case while somehow managing to run his business. He showed great concern for the well-being of the family, and considerable skill in preserving order during some of the most turbulent times. He was in effect a volunteer social worker for more than a year. It was both a privilege and a pleasure to work with him.
Thanks are also due to all those directly involved in the case: Professor John Hasted, Dr Peter Fenwick, Dr Ian Fletcher, David Robertson, Hugh Pincott, Lawrence Berger, Elsie Dubugras, Luiz Gasparetto, Gerry Sherrick, George and Annie Shaw, Peter Liefhebber, Dono Gmelig-Meyling, Richard Grosse, George Fallows, Matthew Manning, Graham Morris, Ron Denney, Hazel Short, WPC Carolyn Heeps, Vic and Peggy Nottingham, and John, Sylvie, Denise and Paul Burcombe.
Though I neither sought or received any financial help from anybody during the two years spent researching and writing this book, I gratefully acknowledge help in other forms from members of the Society for Psychical Research, especially Dr Eric J. Dingwall, Eleanor O’Keeffe, Renée Haynes and the members of the committee chaired by John Stiles who carried out a lengthy re-investigation of the case.
When the first edition of this book was published in 1980, I agreed not to mention the real names of the members of the ‘Harper’ family, other than Janet, whose real first name I have used for reasons that will become clear, or their real address, and have not done so here.
What follows is the original text (with minor alterations), plus a new Preface and Appendix in which I bring the story up to date.
Oh, I nearly forgot – thanks to the poltergeist, whoever or whatever you were.
G.L.P – London, 2011