K B Morris revisits the events of The Enfield Poltergeist, a notorious, supposed late-70s haunting that continues to spark debate over its authenticity…
On the evening of Tuesday, 30th August 1977 Peggy Hodgson, a 47-year-old divorced mother of four, went into her children’s bedroom to tell them to stop fighting and go to sleep. They were complaining that the bed was shaking but, thinking no more of it, she went to bed. The next night, she heard a shuffling noise like someone walking about on the linoleum in slippers and then four loud knocks. A chest of drawers slid across the floor. Peggy pushed it back and it slid forward again. She tried to push it back but couldn’t. It was then that the family fled to the Nottingham’s, at 282 Green Street, and asked for help. Vic Nottingham, a roofer and his son, Gary went over to the Hodgson’s house to investigate and heard knocks coming from all over the house.
Thinking someone was playing a prank, they called the police, who came out to the house at 1 am. The police checked the walls, attic and pipes but could find nothing to explain the tapping. One of the police officers said,
‘The PC and the neighbours all went into the kitchen to check the refrigerator pipes, etc., leaving the family and myself in the living room. The lights in the living room were switched off again and within a few minutes, the eldest son pointed to a chair that was standing next to the sofa. I looked at the chair and noticed that it was wobbling slightly from side to side, I then saw the chair slide across the floor towards the kitchen wall. It moved approximately 3-4 feet and then came to rest.’
The next night, Vic went back to the house and was attacked with flying Lego. Marbles and Lego flew around the house for the next three days and various people visited in an effort to help, including members of the council and clergy. At a loss as to what to do, on September 4th, Mrs Nottingham called the Daily Mirror, hoping that they could do something to help. The Mirror sent reporter Douglas Bence and photographer Graham Morris. Graham Morris later said,
‘I thought it was an ordinary job until I walked into the house. I stood in the gloom in the kitchen and one by one they brought the children into the adults’ arms and the last one to come in was Janet. Suddenly things just took off and started flying around the room. I got hit by a Lego brick over my right eye. It gave me a lump for a few days, there was a fair bit of force. There were marbles and things left in the kitchen that were just flying around the room. I was watching all of [the family] and none of them was doing anything.’
George Fallows a senior reporter at the Mirror and photographer David Thorpe, visited the house. Fallows believed at first that Peggy was playing tricks in order to get a new council house but he soon realised that something serious was going on,
‘Because of the emotional atmosphere at the house and in the neighbourhood, ranging from hysteria through terror to excitement and tension, it has been difficult to record satisfactory data. Nevertheless, I am satisfied the overall impression of our investigation is reasonably accurate. To the best of our ability, we have eliminated the possibility of TOTAL trickery, although we have been able to simulate most of the phenomena. In my opinion, this faking could only be done by an expert.’
Fallows suggested contacting the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). He was put in contact with Maurice Grosse, a relatively new member of the society who had joined after the death of his daughter, the year before. Grosse visited the house on the 5th of September. Grosse said of that first visit,
‘I found chaos, the whole family was congregated in the house together with the neighbours next door and there were a lot of very very frightened people there.’
Grosse and the members of the press waited to witness any incidents and, on Wednesday the 8th of September at 1:15 am, they rushed into the children’s bedroom after hearing a loud crash. The two sisters, Janet (11) and Margaret (13) were still asleep but a chair had flipped over and moved a metre across the room. This was enough to convince Maurice to stay and investigate further.
On the 10th of September, the Daily Mirror broke the story, describing it as ‘The House of Strange Happenings.’ Later that evening, Peggy appeared on a radio programme called Night Line on LBC, a London radio station. When Peggy arrived home after the show, she was greeted by the BBC’s Roz Morris from the Radio Four show, The World This Weekend. Roz joined Grosse on an all-night vigil and also witnessed some paranormal activity, ‘After the girls went to bed, there was a very loud crash upstairs in their bedroom…Something chucked the chair across the room, I’m convinced of that.’
Grosse also saw flying marbles, jumping teaspoons and boxes and a sofa that rose into the air and crashed down on the floor upside down. Grosse was among several people to witness these events, other witnesses included the reporters and next-door neighbours. Grosse and the photographer rigged up a camera that took photos when triggered and managed to capture Janet being thrown from her bed. Realising that he was out of his depth, Grosse asked the SPR for help in investigating the poltergeist. Guy Playfair accepted the request and arrived at the house on the 12th of September. He later wrote the book, This House is Haunted: The True Story of the Enfield Poltergeist (White Crow Books, 1980).
The family were chased out of the house on Sunday the 25th of September and sought refuge with Peggy’s brother who lived up the road. While his wife Sylvia made some tea, a Lego brick appeared in front of her and dropped onto the table. It was then that the family realised that the entity could follow them out of the house.
Grosse and Playfair saw indentations in pillows and on the bed as though someone was lying there. There was a suspicion that the spirit of a four-year-old child who had been smothered with a pillow by her father, may be responsible for the incidents. Peggy had been given items of furniture from the house of the little girl when she moved into her property in Enfield. Peggy made sure to throw out any furniture belonging to the little girl’s former house, but the activity continued.
Janet was the centre of the activity which is common in poltergeist cases which predominately affect girls and young women. Two physicists Pierro Brovetto and Vera Maxia, who wrote a paper called Some conjectures about the mechanism of poltergeist phenomenon (NeuroQuantology, Vol 6, No 2 2008), argued that children generate poltergeist activity by channelling energy into the quantum mechanical vacuum.
Their paper postulates that although poltergeist activity has been reported around the world and in different cultures, the one thing they all have in common is pubescent children or young women. The two physicists believe that during puberty, a modification of the body happens which involves various organs and these changes create fluctuations in electron activity that can cause disturbances up to a few meters around the outside of the brain. They believe that the extra fluctuations triggered by the pubescent brain can enhance virtual particles around the person which increase the air pressure surrounding them, which could be responsible for moving objects.
The word ‘Poltergeist’ is derived from the German words ‘poltern’ which means to crash or bang about and ‘geist’ which means mind, ghost or spirit and the earliest reports of poltergeist activity date back to AD 530. A study of 500 cases carried out by parapsychologists Alan Gault and Tony Cornell, found that poltergeist activity involved the movement of small objects (64%), followed by rapping sounds (48%), and the movement of large objects, such as tables and chairs (36%).
Many of the witnesses to the haunting described hearing ‘hollow knocks’ that were coming from all parts of the house. What differentiates a poltergeist knock from a human one is the difference in acoustic sound waves. When a human knocks on a surface, there is a full amplitude of sound which tapers off. A poltergeist rap starts quietly before becoming louder and then fading away in a similar waveform to an earthquake. According to Dr Barrie Colvin, a polyurethane technologist who carries out experimental psychical research, poltergeist sound signatures cannot be reproduced.
The Hodgson house was not a happy one when the activity started and it is commonly believed that poltergeist activity tends to start after major trauma or life event. In the case of the Hodgsons, their father had abandoned them for a younger woman and the family were left struggling in poverty. The two girls, Margaret and Janet didn’t have a good relationship with their father and were afraid of him. The youngest child, Billy, wasn’t with the family because of ‘behavioural problems’ and was in a boarding school.
William Roll, a parapsychologist who studied many US poltergeist events, noticed a tendency for the person at the centre of activity to exhibit symptoms of repressed anger or distress. He believed that the haunting was due to the discharge of mental energy he dubbed ‘recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis’ or RSPK. He theorised that the person was involuntarily employing RSPK in order to let out their repressed feelings.
This certainly seemed to be the case with Janet, who had a license to swear profusely and displayed increasingly aggressive behaviour during the haunting. She would suddenly rush across the room and bash her head on the wall and her family became concerned that she would kill herself. She would have fits of rage where she would shout and swear and would have to be physically restrained. Towards the end of November, a Doctor was called to the house and he administered 10mg of Valium in order to sedate her. After being sedated, Janet levitated and landed on a radio where she was discovered by John, Peggy’s brother.
Janet wasn’t the only person affected by the poltergeist, her mother claimed to know when events were about to take place as she would get a headache and Margaret at one point, shared the same dreams. However, the activity always followed Janet. Apparitions started to appear and a neighbour’s brother saw a light about a foot tall burning in the Hodgson’s window before fading away. Another neighbour and Peggy saw the same elderly woman in different windows independently of each other. Janet’s brother Johnny, saw an old man with big teeth staring at him. In all, it was believed that around 15 different people saw some kind of supernatural entity during the haunting.
A physicist called John Hasted who strapped Janet to a Blundell couch, which is apparatus used to measure such anomalies found that her weight increased in a way that couldn’t be explained. He also observed a light bulb explode which he considered a similar unexplainable incident. Another physicist called David Robertson attempted to secretly video Janet but found it impossible to conceal the equipment. He saw several unexplainable incidents, however, such as a sideboard overturning, Janet levitating and a cushion being transported to the roof, among other things.
Although the Council would not rehouse the family, they agreed to send them away for a week-long break during half term. They went to Clacton on Sea and the only incident that occurred there was the sound of a dog barking from Janet’s bed. On November the 5th, when the Hodgson’s returned from their holiday, Grosse decided to communicate with the spirit using raps: one for no and two for yes. He asked some questions:
Are you a male spirit? Knock Knock
Did you used to live in this house? Knock Knock
Was it more than fifty years ago? Knock Knock
Did you die in this house: Knock Knock
Are you unhappy? Knock
Why are you here? Is it because you want to give us a special message? Knock
Are you having a game with me?
The spirit then threw a cardboard box and pillow at Maurice Grosse’s face.
On Monday the 10th of November, which was Janet’s twelfth birthday, Playfair invited an Argentinian psychic called Eduardo Balanovski to visit. He brought a magnetometer which they used to look for anomalies in the electric magnetic field around the house. During his visit, Janet’s pillow was thrown around and the machines registered a change in electric-magnetic field strength.
On the 12th of November, Janet on the advice of the psychic left pens and paper around the house and called out to the entity to leave her a message. After which, messages started appearing around the house. Peggy found one on the fridge that said, ‘I will stay in this house do not read this to anyone or I will retaliate.’ The next message which was found on the living room table said, ‘Can I have a tea bag?’ Peggy placed a tea bag on the table and a ripped tea bag manifested next to it. Peggy’s ex turned up at the house and she showed him the messages. Once he had gone, Peggy apologised to the entity for showing him the messages and another one appeared saying, ‘It was a misunderstanding don’t do it again I know who that was.’ The writing was very similar to Janet’s.
On Tuesday the 29th of November, the first medium, a Brazilian psychic called Luiz Gasparettto visited the family. He was accompanied by his interpreter, Elsie Dubgrasa who was a member of the healing department of Sao Paulo State Spiritist Federation. They offered some spiritual healing to the family which gave some respite. Luiz would go into a trance-like state and produce drawings and paintings and, after they left Janet began producing disturbing, bloody pictures whilst in a trance. She also wrote the name Watson over and over on a page. It turned out that a family called Watson had lived in the house and the wife had died of a tumour in her throat in a similar way to one of the bloody pictures Janet had drawn.
On Saturday 3rd December, Janet was pulled out of her bed and Maurice found her sliding down the stairs headfirst while she was still asleep. A couple of days later, another member of the SPR joined the team, a student physicist called David Roberts. More members of the SPR joined them on the 10th of December, Dr John Beloff and Anita Gregory. The group challenged the entity to speak and, after some whistles and barking, a gruff voice calling himself Joe Watson began to speak. However, the next night the voice said that his name was Bill Wilkins and on Tuesday 13th December, Maurice Grosse’s son Richard, who was a newly qualified solicitor, helped his father interrogate the presence.
The spirit responded with banging in response to questions, but a man’s voice was soon heard coming from somewhere behind Janet’s neck. The voice identified itself as Bill Wilkins who had died in the house at the age of 72. Richard asked him how he died and he said, ‘I went blind. I had a haemorrhage. I fell asleep and I died in a chair, in the corner downstairs.’ Bill’s son Terry, later confirmed that this was indeed how his father had died. When Playfair asked why he wasn’t visible, Bill said, ‘I’m invisible… because I’m a G.H.O.S.T.’
Listen to Bill talk on tape
To rule out the possibility of Janet faking the voice, Grosse taped up her mouth but the voice continued. He then asked Janet to hold water in her mouth, which she did and the voice could still be heard talking. Grosse recorded hours of the voice by using a contact microphone placed on the back of Janet’s head. A speech therapist who examined Janet said that they couldn’t be certain where the voice was coming from, though it bore some resemblance to a false vocal cord tone. There is a voice effect known as plica ventricularis which is where muscle tension behind the throat can produce sounds independent of vocal cords. However, using this muscle tension to speak often results in an extremely sore throat and can do some serious damage, none of which happened to Janet who would speak for up to three hours. Since no cause could be found, it was concluded that something was using Janet as an amplifier.
Grosse and Playfair decided to hypnotise Janet and called in Dr Ian Fletcher who was a hypnotist, surgeon and member of the Magic Circle. Fletcher put Janet into a light state of hypnosis and asked her some questions:
Do you know who is doing all this? Me and my sister.
Why do you think you are to blame? I don’t know who is.
What does it feel like? Cold hands gripping me, gripping me around my body
Who started the trouble? None of us
What is the cause of the trouble? An increase in unhappiness
Fletcher later said, ‘The impression I formed was this is not fraud. She and her sister are doing some of these things, maybe springing out of bed. Something is forcing them to do it against their will.’
It was soon after this that Janet began levitating. On Thursday 15th December, At 11:45 am, Hazel Short, the local Lollipop lady witnessed Janet floating around her room,
‘I was standing there looking at the house when all of a sudden a couple of books came flying across and hit the window. It was so sudden. I heard the noise because it was so quiet, there was no traffic, and it made me jump…Then after a little while, I saw Janet. I don’t know if there’s a bed underneath that window, but she was going up and down bodily as though someone was just tossing her up and down bodily, in a horizontal position, like as if someone had got hold of her legs and back and was throwing her up and down. I definitely saw her come up about window height, but I thought if she was bouncing, she’d bounce from her feet, she wouldn’t be able to get enough power to bounce off her back, to come up that high. My friend could see her as well, we both could see her.’
On Friday 23rd December, the family goldfish died and Bill admitted that he had electrocuted them in their tank using ‘spirit energy.’ On Christmas Day, the pet parakeet was found dead in its cage. And later that day, Janet was found with a curtain wrapped around her neck. Peggy managed to untangle her, saving her from suffocating. Janet later complained that a knife was following her around upstairs, and Peggy found one of the knives she had just put away, on the stairs.
Janet later said,
‘I was used and abused – there was levitation, there was the voices and then there was… the curtain that wrapped itself around my neck, which was quite life-threatening for me, and it brought it home to me – that this could kill you.’
On Sunday the 15th of January, which was Peggy’s birthday, writing in faecal matter appeared on the wall. This was followed by a few days of puddles of diarrhoea that was sent for testing at a lab and came back as cat urine. Peggy also saw a man from the waist down, walking up her stairs. A few days later, ‘I am Fred’ was found on the bathroom door written with electrical tape.
Many people witnessed paranormal events over the 19 months of the poltergeist activity but, numerous experiments have confirmed that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, as observers often see what they expect to see. Dingwall, Goldney and Hall who worked on the Borley Rectory case in 1956, argued that the influence of suggestion played a large part in what people saw or heard, ‘…once in the mind of the affected, belief can be strengthened and simple events misinterpreted in order to fit them into the desired pattern.’ This is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of existing beliefs or theories. Confirmation bias alongside poor memory and consensus reporting mean that strong evidence is needed alongside witness testimony.
On May the 16th, the SPR formed a committee in order to carry out their own investigation. The committee interviewed the witnesses which they found convincing. They also consulted Charles Moses, an experienced investigator from the Southern California Society for Psychical Research. The committee found that there was good evidence for paranormal phenomena as described by the various witnesses. However, they were reluctant to give credibility to the voice of Bill Watkins.
On 25th July, the family sent Janet to the Maudsley hospital which is a psychiatric hospital in South London and the incidents died down, even though the family still saw apparitions. Janet underwent extensive physical and psychological assessment at the Institute of Neuropsychiatry under Dr Peter Fenwick and nothing was found to be wrong with her including brain damage or epilepsy. Janet returned on the 1st of September after being away for nearly 6 weeks and within half an hour saw the apparition of a little boy.
On Monday 2nd October, they called in another medium, a Dutchman named Dono Gmelig-Meyling, who came to the house and travelled along the astral plane. He was certain that a 24-year-old woman was involved in the case. Maurice Grosse had had a daughter called Janet, who had died in a crash aged 24 and it was this that had led him to become a member of the SPR. After Dono identified the 24-year-old woman, the incidents tapered off and then stopped.
Maurice Grosse remained in contact with the family until his death at 87 in 2006. He spent much of his time towards the end of his life, defending his investigation of the haunting. Guy Playfair remains an active author, researcher and member of the SPR Council. Peggy Hodgson remained in the house until her death in 2003. Janet left home at 16 and married early. Her brother John died in 1981 at the age of 14. Both Janet and Margaret have made several television appearances in subsequent years, where they continued to insist on the authenticity of their experiences. In fact, Janet said in a 2011 newspaper article, ‘Years later, when Mum was alive, there was always a presence there — something watching over you.’
The Enfield poltergeist has continued to fascinate, and several films have been made based on the events. Spielberg’s 1982 film, Poltergeist was loosely based on what happened. In 1992, a BBC mockumentary called Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning), starring Sarah Green and Michael Parkinson featured identical paranormal incidents. In 2015, there was a three-part series called The Enfield Haunting (Kristoffer Nyholm), starring Timothy Spall and Juliet Stevenson. In 2016, The Conjuring Two (James Wan), was made which featured two American paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren who visited the house in May 1978.
Interview with a Poltergeist, Nick Freand Jones, 2007
The Conjuring 2’s Enfield Case: A True Story That Still Haunts Us Today
By John Saavedra, February 26, 2021
This House is Haunted: The True Story of the Enfield Poltergeist, Guy Lyon Playfair, White Crow Books, 1980
Poltergeists: Alan Gauld, A.D. Cornell, 1979
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979
Ghostly rapping can’t be faked, research shows By The Newsroom
Saturday, 29th January 2011
NeuroQuantology, Vol 6, No 2 2008