The Poltergeist That Plagued a North London House
We spoke to Guy Lyon Playfair, the investigative journalist who spent 14 months in Enfield's supposedly haunted house.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Enfield is not a place often associated with excitement. Unless the fact that it was the location of Britain's first-ever ATM back in 1967 whips you into a frenzy, it is a town largely devoid of rapture.
But in 1977, the north London borough—and, in particular, the house of 284 Green Street—was the subject of one of the freakiest and most fascinating paranormal investigations in British history. Flying objects, random combustion, levitation, and child possession were just some of the entires in a huge catalogue of supernatural activity that allegedly took place.
Focused on the semidetached house belonging to the Hodgson family, the phantom onslaught sparked media headlines, intense national debate, and a grueling 14-month investigation led by psychic investigator Maurice Grosse and journalist Guy Lyon Playfair.
Despite the presence of startling photographic imagery, demonic-sounding tape recordings, and a generous smattering of witness statements claiming paranormal activity, the case polarized popular opinion. Some thought it was the most obvious example of poltergeist spookery to have ever hit our shores, while others thought it was a load of deluded nonsense and the mischievous trickery of attention-seeking girls.
Thirty-seven years later, the debate has been resurrected with the arrival of Sky Living's new mini-series, The Enfield Haunting. Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm (The Killing), and starring Timothy Spall and Matthew MacFadyen, the three-parter is loosely based on Playfair's Enfield memoirs, This House Is Haunted, before flipping into a relentless Exorcist-style horror.
But what really happened in that house in 1977? And do the witnesses still think the poltergeist was real?
"Oh yes, it was all absolutely one hundred percent genuine," Playfair tells me. "Something extremely odd was going on. The first night I went to the house I was really struck by the atmosphere of fear. The family were scared out of their wits because of what had happened the night before when the chest of drawers slid across the room. They didn't know what the hell was going on, and that's something you can't fake. And why the hell would you? What would be the point?"
The night in question was the August 31, 1977. The previous day had brought some eerie and unexplained knocking sounds, but the next night 11-year-old Janet and her younger brother Jonny were in their bedroom when a strange rattling began to sound. Irked at the kids' late-night mischief, mother-of-four Peggy burst in to tell them to "pack it in" when a chest of drawers inexplicably shot across the room. Instinctively, Peggy tried to shove it back into place but was unable to, an apparent supernatural force pushing back.
The police were called, and despite WPC Heaps swearing on record that she saw a chair move unaided, no further action was taken. Maurice Grosse, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and Playfair, who had spent three years investigating poltergeists in São Paulo, came to the house to monitor the activity. In the next few months, according to Playfair, the paranormal floodgates opened.
"It's difficult to separate any single incident because there were so many," he says. "The whole case was full of incidents which were completely inexplicable, like the builder who saw a cushion suddenly appear on the roof, or the lollipop lady who was crossing the road opposite the bedroom window and saw Janet floating around in midair."
Levitation and moving objects were two of the most documented happenings in the house, and when the Daily Mirror sent a team to try to capture some of the activity, they didn't leave empty-handed. "When the children were brought in, suddenly things were bouncing off walls and flying around," photographer Graham Morris explains in the documentary The Enfield Poltergeist. "Suddenly a Lego brick whacked me in the eyebrow."
Morris set up a special camera that enabled him to take remote photo sequences of the girls' bedroom, and the results were alarming. In one particularly striking sequence, Janet is seen in a blood-red nightdress supposedly lifted from her bed and thrown across the room. The pictures, though far from conclusive, certainly make for a highly unsettling montage.
A second photograph from a different night shows Janet lying comatose on the top of a bedroom dresser, her uncle's concerned face staring hauntingly back at the camera. Just a couple of hours earlier, Janet had allegedly been put to bed on the other side of the room after being given enough sedative to "put an elephant out."
However, these two incidents, according to Janet, were not the worst. "The most frightening thing was when a curtain wrapped itself around my neck," she told This Morning in a rare interview in 2012. "I felt cold hands, and there was a force that sort of pulled me out of bed."
Photographs of this incident—a scene that's dramatically recreated in The Enfield Haunting—indicate that the window was closed and appear to show the curtain behaving in a peculiar way. "You can see the curtain twisting itself into a spiral quite clearly and nobody's hands anywhere near it," Playfair asserts. "It was absolutely one hundred percent real."
Janet can be heard, in a demonic rasp, saying, "I went blind and had a hemorrhage and then I fell asleep and I died in a chair in a corner downstairs."
Skeptics disagree, citing camera trickery, with magician Milbourne Christopher and several others suggesting it was "the antics of a little girl who wanted to cause trouble and who was very, very clever." This latter point is a reasonable one, bearing in mind both Janet and her sister Margaret admitted to playing a few tricks during the 14-month period. They hid Playfair's camera, for example, claiming the ghost had taken it and invented a few fibs for a media they knew were clawing for juicy poltergeist titbits. So what did Playfair actually see? And how can he be sure it wasn't the work of the shifty sisters?
"Janet was sitting in the armchair, a very solid one which didn't have any legs," he recalls. "It went right down to the floor so you couldn't kick it over. It was really difficult to get it to turn over at all. She was sitting in the living room and when she got up, the chair started to slide after her and then it shot over backwards. It went over with quite a bang and it was not easy to lift it up again. By this time, Janet was in the kitchen by the sink. You can hear me on the tape recorder, saying, 'Well, you didn't do that one!'"
Janet's role in the case was ever-increasing, up to the point where everything that seemed to happen centered around her. The culmination of this apparent poltergeist fixation was when strange and terrifying voices began to pour from the 11-year-old's mouth. The girl, it seemed, was possessed. A torrent of subconscious gobbledygook was interspersed with coherent messages from an array of different characters. Playfair says, "It was rather like that scene in Ghost with Whoopi Goldberg as the medium and all the spirits fighting to get through."
The production of these weird, gravelly sounds was explained by speech therapists as coming from the false vocal chords at the back of the neck. These chords are often used by actors who want to put on a throaty voice, but producing the sound for more than a few moments usually results in a sore throat. Janet could allegedly keep it up for hours, which helped counter the ventriloquist arguments and also convinced Playfair and others that the poltergeist was speaking through her.
A recording of Janet speaking in a gravelly voice can be heard at the beginning of this clip.
The most unsettling voice of all was one of an old man apparently named Bill. In a recording carried out by investigator Maurice Grosse, Janet can be heard, in a demonic rasp, saying, "I went blind and had a hemorrhage and then I fell asleep and I died in a chair in a corner downstairs."
This disclosure appeared to be just random, until a man came forward later claiming to be the son of Bill Wilkins, a man who had lived in the house, gone blind, had a hemorrhage, and died in the exact same chair that Janet spoke from.
"It's something that Janet couldn't possibly have known," explains Playfair. "Mixed up with all the swearing and the mischief-making that a poltergeist does, there are some apparent signs that you really are getting through to dead people—spirits, or whatever you want to call them."
Recalling the experience on This Morning, Janet appears clearly troubled. With a ghostly visage, and speaking in a slow tremble, she explains, "I felt like it was behind me, not within me. At one point Maurice Grosse taped my mouth up and he filled my mouth with water—and it still spoke."
Grosse—who died in 2006—said, "It was absolutely terrifying to hear a girl speak in an old man's gruff voice," adding that this and the rest of the case convinced him that there "is something beyond the realm that we normally physically understand."
For more on the supernatural, watch our doc "The Real 'True Blood'?":
Whatever it was that happened in that house, it did eventually stop.
"It was a tremendous anticlimax," says Playfair. "This mysterious Dutch medium came over and did almost nothing that I could see. He went up to the bedroom on his own, and after a quarter of an hour or so, he came down and said, 'It's gone.' I didn't believe him, but sure enough, it was the end of it. Whatever it was he did, it worked."
The strange activity in 284 Green Street ceased, and the family eventually got back on with their lives. At 16, Janet left home and, though still clearly traumatized, has long since married and had kids of her own.
Though cynics continue to ridicule and deride the case, comments on YouTube show that a new army of believers are converted daily, with viewers by-and-large freaked out by the footage.
And what of staunch poltergeist advocate Playfair? Is he still running around the globe in search of mysterious spooks?
"No, no, I don't want to do any more poltergeists," he laughs. "For the last ten years I've been investigating identical twins. The way twins communicate is fascinating. It's a lot more peaceful. They tend to keep still."
The Enfield Haunting premieres at 9 PM on Sunday the May 3 on Sky Living and Sky on demand.