Psychologist logo
Cognition and perception

Things that go bump in the mind

Professor Chris Roe reviews 'The Enfield Haunting'.

14 May 2015

Sky Living is in the midst of a three-part drama, The Enfield Haunting, that claims to portray the real-life investigation of paranormal activity at an ordinary semi-detached council house on a suburban street in London. The programme features an impressive roll call of A-list small screen actors (though the show is clearly stolen by Eleanor Worthington-Cox as eleven-year-old Janet Hodgson) and after being heavily advertised captured impressive viewing figures of over 750,000 for episode 1.

The case is one of the most celebrated of its type in the UK (and was apparently the inspiration for BBC's Ghostwatch), in part because it was subjected to on-site investigation for much of the 18 months between 1977 and 1979, during which unusual happenings were witnessed (and some recorded). Strictly speaking, the case is not a haunting but a poltergeist case: the former tends to involve apparitional experiences associated with a particular location over an extended period of time, perhaps hundreds of years, whereas the latter tends to involve more physical phenomena that occur over a shorter more intense period of weeks or months and are associated with a person or group of people rather than a location.

The phenomena portrayed in the programme are not terribly spectacular by horror film standards but, with some artistic licence, are representative of what were reported by the Enfield investigators, Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse, and are fairly typical of the hundreds of poltergeist cases that have been documented by researchers. Cases often involve knocks and raps coming from various surfaces, perhaps in a manner that seems responsive to requests, and movements of small objects (such as marbles and Lego bricks in the Enfield case) as if being thrown around, that afterwards can seem hot to the touch. Trajectories of those objects can be weird, avoiding obstacles in their path or travelling slower or faster than expected. Cases can involve more substantial physical effects that seem more difficult to produce by sleight of hand. For example, a WPC who was called to the Enfield house reported seeing a chair shake then lift off the floor and slide about four feet when no-one was near, and other heavier objects such as chests of drawers and an iron fireplace were moved.

The term 'poltergeist' is generally translated as 'a noisy, racketing type of demon' reflecting the raucous and chaotic nature of events, and the phenomena are typically interpreted by witnesses as due to some mischievous external – perhaps disembodied – agent. However, researchers instead look to the living for the cause. Poltergeist activity might be concentrated on a focal person, occurring only when they are present, and stereotypically this is a pubescent girl (over 60 per cent of focal persons are female and their median age is 13); in the Enfield case eleven-year-old Janet Hodgson was at the epicentre. It would be easy, therefore, to dismiss the phenomena as a result of fraud perpetrated by an intelligent but bored young girl who saw an opportunity for a bit of attention; indeed, Janet was caught cheating on a number of occasions, and interview footage with the girls that includes the channelled gruff speech of one of those discarnate entities could be attributable to a kind of ventriloquism. Certainly, conventional explanations emphasise the fallibilities of eyewitness testimony and memory, along with our tendency to underestimate the capacity of others to deceive us

But the case, and its portrayal in this programme, is characteristically ambivalent in implying that Janet was responsible for everything (a drawn out final shot shows Janet leaking a subtle, knowing smile), when some of the phenomena shown in the episodes are clearly beyond her capabilities. Similarly, in real world investigations such as the Miami and Rosenheim cases, conventional explanations can seem a good fit for some features but have to be stretched to breaking point to account for others. This might reflect limitations of collecting data through field investigations where even the most scrupulous and systematic of observations still allow for a whole agglomeration of potentially causal factors to go unnoticed, preventing us from working out what happened. Of course an explanation in terms of fraud and error is much more plausible than any alternative but it does tend to lead to rather glib, superficial (and uncritical) application of explanations to the facts. In the end we are left with testimonials that boggle the mind and make for a good story, but don't give us much insight into the phenomena.

- Professor Chris A. Roe is Director of the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes at the University of Northampton.