Highly popular BBC podcast, The Battersea Poltergeist, revisits the infamous mid-50s haunting and attempts to uncover the truth behind the remarkable story. Graham Williamson reviews the podcast for Horrified...
Over the course of eight weeks, listeners to BBC Sounds were treated to something very un-BBC: a podcast about the paranormal that doesn’t aim primarily to relegate it to the world of sociology or pathologise those who believe in it.
This is so unusual that I initially assumed The Battersea Poltergeist must be something other than what it was billed as. Was it a paranormal drama, done in the mock-documentary style which BBC Sounds has recently been using for the work of HP Lovecraft? The trailers and press releases felt like they were promoting a drama series, foregrounding the prestigious cast gathered for the reconstructions – Dafne Keen, Alice Lowe and Burn Gorman are the central family, with Toby Jones as the investigator Harold ‘Chib’ Chibbett – and the unearthly theme music by the inimitable Nadine Shah.
If The Battersea Poltergeist is comparable to anything else in the BBC’s expanding podcast empire, though, it’s their true-crime podcasts. The efforts to align it with shows like The Missing Cryptoqueen and Hometown: A Killing can sometimes be a little incongruous: the central event is described as a ‘cold case’, which inasmuch as it refers to an unsolved incident could be used to refer to anything paranormal. Overall, though, The Battersea Poltergeist manages to marry the sensitivity and journalistic dedication of the best true crime podcasts with a genuinely open-minded take on the unknown. It opens up and revitalises a podcast genre that was in serious danger of overfamiliarity.
This maverick sensibility can be ascribed to Bafflegab Productions, who have previously made audio adaptations of canonical British horror texts by Piers Haggard, Clive Barker and M.R. James. The Battersea Poltergeist is their first major non-fiction work – unless you count a reissue of Peter Cushing’s reading of his autobiography – and it embraces documentary rigour while keeping things pleasurably scary. They’re well-versed in the uses of sound to create suspense, whether it’s outdoing Blumhouse Productions at their own game with the use of the children’s song ‘Frere Jacques’ or the poltergeist’s binaural banging hopping from speaker to speaker. There is, however, so much more here than an enjoyable spook show.
The host, Danny Robins, allows himself the odd moment of showmanship, introducing himself with ‘I’m Danny Robins and I don’t believe in ghosts… is what I would have said to you at any point until two years ago.’ Even this, though, helps to establish the programme’s authorial voice as one of Fortean open-mindedness. (Fortean Times’s regular ghost correspondent Alan Murdie is a consultant) Robins frequently touches base with two experts, Ciaran O’Keefe and Evelyn Hollow, who have been chosen for their different perspectives. Hollow describes herself as a pagan parapsychologist, O’Keefe cheerfully accepts the description ‘hardcore sceptic’.
Granted, getting a sceptic and a believer to argue the toss over paranormal events is hardly a new approach. It’s old enough to be pastiched in Ghostwatch (UK, Lesley Manning, 1992), which Robins tellingly leaves unmentioned when discussing the more famous Enfield Poltergeist case as if the mere mention of Stephen Volk‘s drama will raise listeners’ suspicions. What is unusual is how little pointless bickering there is in the on-air relationship with Hollow and O’Keefe. Robins and his producers aren’t interested in goading them towards a fight, they’re interested in analysing the experiences of Shirley Hitchings, the woman at the centre of the Battersea case.
What Shirley recalls is incredible – anything a paranormal researcher might wish for to sway the minds of a doubting audience is here. The poltergeist, which the family nickname Donald, stays in the house for years, it leaves physical traces, it sends written messages to Chib – including a Christmas card! – it is observed in action by multiple witnesses from different houses and even follows some of them home. If it’s a hoax, it’s a staggeringly elaborate one, and in any case, the stress these events put the Hitchings family through seem very real.
Pam, a neighbour of the Hitchings family, laments that Shirley was ‘just a normal fifteen-year-old girl’, adding ‘You couldn’t pay me enough money to be Shirley’. The adult Shirley, now in her eighties, is extensively interviewed. Donald ‘took all my teenage years… I had life up until it happened’, she says. Certainly, the family don’t benefit from their experiences – father Wally is injured in potentially supernatural circumstances, and has to spend an increasing amount of time off work as a result. Shirley herself feels like an outcast, convinced everyone thinks she’s making it all up except loyal paranormalist Chib.
Despite being a remarkable, larger-than-life character, Chibbett never steals focus from Shirley. Played with avuncular warmth by Jones, he offers a reason to look forward to another instalment of a story that might be unendurably bleak without him. An associate of Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur C Clarke and Harry Price – who Evelyn Hollow amusingly describes as ‘the Jay Gatsby of ghosts’ – he remains loyal to the Hitchings family, even stoically accepting Shirley’s angry accusation in episode three that he’s just a tourist, poking voyeuristically around the nightmare of their day-to-day life. Shirley comes to retract that allegation, and whatever you think of his conclusions Chib’s sincerity and decency cannot be doubted.
That said, Shirley remembers being terrified by his initial suggestion that she is the focus of the haunting. It’s a familiar concept by now – the adolescent girl as epicentre for poltergeist activity – but The Battersea Poltergeist makes you feel the awful weight with which it lands on a real teenager’s shoulders. Here is another thing about this podcast that feels very modern: Shirley may or may not be the victim of a malevolent spirit but she is definitely the victim of other people. At least Chib would, you suspect, be mortified by the idea he had frightened her unnecessarily. Other people who contact the Hitchings family seem less concerned about the human beings they’re using as props in their narrative.
At times, the dramatised sections seem designed to heighten the abuse parallels. In episode four Harry Hanks, one of Wally’s work colleagues, offers his services as an exorcist. Chib expresses misgivings, calling Hanks ‘a showman’, but a modern audience’s alarm bells might be tripped more by David Troughton as Hanks greeting Shirley with an oily ‘Just as pretty as in the papers!’ Neither of the show’s experts sees Harry’s arrival as a positive development, with Hollow comparing exorcism to rape.
This sinister behaviour isn’t the exclusive domain of the believers. One episode later Shirley is brought into the offices of the Daily Mail, where she is stripped to make sure she isn’t ‘hiding anything’, then bribed with sweets and Cola. At the very least, The Battersea Poltergeist deserves credit for continually maintaining focus on the real, vulnerable human beings at the centre of this media frenzy, one which, like the Jack the Ripper case, now looks like a staging post on the press’s journey to seeing themselves as embedded reporters in ordinary people’s lives.
The identity of Donald is contested over and over again. Shirley’s grandmother is concerned it might be the Devil. Harry Hanks amusingly dismisses this by saying Satan would be more interested in stealing souls en masse using ‘the atom bomb or rock and roll’. It is not until the last episode that someone thinks to ask Shirley ‘who the hell are you?’. In the absence of such inquiry, the Hitchings family become a blank canvas for various journalists and experts to doodle their ideas of a working-class family on.
They are accused of being hoaxers using the old Fox sisters trick of cracking their toe joints to mimic spirit communication, despite Donald’s banging being loud enough to wake the neighbours. Another theory suggests the noises are coming from the railway bridge at the end of the road, despite the fact that Wally – a train driver – presumably knows what a train sounds like. Ironically, Wally is rather better at coming up with potential rational explanations for the phenomena than any of the outside observers, at one point citing Aldous Huxley’s classic study of mass delusion The Devils of Loudon (1952) as a possible parallel to his family’s plight.
The adult Shirley’s fear that making the podcast would revive the ghost seems to have been unfounded, but there is a genuine risk that a new investigation would bring this very human kind of harassment, judgement and condescension back into her life. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, Shirley’s fear is very real, and Robins treats it with the gravity it deserves. The result of years living with Donald – in Shirley’s telling – is that ‘we all were carrying our demons in our heads…’
The podcast contains many more twists and surprises than I’ve revealed here, and it’s mature enough to know that a case this old, and this strange, won’t be explained by eight episodes of radio. Shirley is still looking for answers in her eighties, Chib became consumed by the case to the exclusion of all other investigations. As the listeners’ e-mails came in, Robins added three bonus episodes, and another one is pencilled in for some time around the end of this month. It’s no surprise he can’t let it go. Like Donald himself, The Battersea Poltergeist stays with you.