Victorian London is terrorized by a diabolical, high-jumping figure with metal claws and eyes of flame. A town in Illinois falls prey to a phantom gasser in the mid-1940s. And an estuary in Devon, England plays host to a very long and mysterious trail of hoofprints that might have been left by Satan himself. On this fun, folkloric episode, Tom and Jenny are discussing three weird cases of possibly paranormal origin: the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and the Devil’s Footprints. In our news segment, we’re also giving an update on our old pal the Angry Gay Pope, whose anti-Scientology channel has been the subject of a YouTube ban, and we’re discussing the recent death of renowned parapsychologist Guy Lyon Playfair, famous for his extensive work on the Enfield Poltergeist case. Settle in for a creepy rundown of urban legends, mass hysteria, and more on episode 92.
Watch the YouTube version here or download the audio version here.
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As you can see, I’m finally getting a chance to do another long-form horror writeup on this here blog, after weeks of being buried under the writing of a new book (which will probably be titled The Unseen Hand: A New Exploration of Poltergeist Phenomena; more details to come) and the work of keeping up with our weekly 13 O’Clock podcast (which you should check out here, if you haven’t already). Oh, and we have shirts too!
Anyway, I had been itching to get around to seeing Ghostwatch for a while now, since I had noticed it on so many “Best Haunted House Movie” lists and since I had heard a little bit about the uproar it caused when it was aired. If you don’t know, Ghostwatch was broadcast by the BBC on Halloween night 1992, and it was presented as an actual live program of a poltergeist investigation, complete with actual BBC TV personalities (Michael Parkinson, Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, and Craig Charles) playing themselves, and a real phone number that viewers could presumably call while the show was going on.
However – PLOT TWIST – the show was actually a fictional teleplay that had been recorded weeks before; anyone who called the phone number during the ostensibly “live” show heard a prerecorded message explaining that the show was fictional, and then prompting the caller to record their own personal experiences with the paranormal to be used at a later date.
Much like Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, apparently a shit-ton of viewers did not get the memo that the show wasn’t real, and understandably were concerned, and then totally wigged out, as they watched some of their favorite Beeb presenters being terrorized by an increasingly violent haunting occurring on live television. Adding to the realism was the rather clever conceit of callers during the show complaining of paranormal activity like stopped clocks and inexplicably broken glass happening in their own homes as the program progressed, giving the whole affair the feeling that it could get you too.
In these more cynical, post-Blair-Witch times of meta-fictions, “found footage,” and mockumentaries, it’s probably hard to imagine how so many people could have been fooled by the BBC’s inventive little Halloween prank (though even in 2012, many dumbasses fell for that fake-as-shit mermaid documentary on Discovery, so maybe we can’t judge too harshly). I gotta say, though, even though I saw Ghostwatch in 2016 with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of the film’s origins, I can kinda see why some folks were confused (well, at least until the end). Ghostwatch did seem, at first, to be a pretty standard, somewhat larky British chat/investigative program of the time (much like the popular CrimeWatch show that it was based on), and the movie even threaded in some cunning little details like lost video feeds, dead air time, prank and drunk callers, and other little glitches that made it seem like an actual live broadcast.
In brief, the film detailed an investigation of an allegedly haunted house in Northolt, London. The home was occupied by a single mother named Pam Early and her two teenaged daughters Kim and Suzanne, and it’s clear that the family dynamic and the phenomena on display was a direct reference to the Enfield haunting (and in fact Guy Lyon Playfair, who had been on the Enfield investigation and wrote a book about it called This House Is Haunted, worked as a consultant on Ghostwatch, so the similarities should not be surprising). Children’s show presenter Sarah Greene and comic relief broadcaster Craig Charles were on site at the house, while the serious and seemingly trustworthy Michael Parkinson acted as the main in-studio host (chatting with a parapsychologist named Dr. Pascoe, played by Gillian Bevan). Mike Smith, Sarah Greene’s real-life husband and a popular presenter in his own right, manned the phones and gave ongoing reports on the public’s reactions to what was unfolding before them.
Although the film is obviously a little dated now, it’s actually still pretty damn effective, and I can imagine how much more effective it would have been if you were watching it without having any idea that it was all staged. The performances are all fairly naturalistic, and the manifestations of the paranormal are rolled out slowly, realistically, and rather subtly (again, at least until the end).
The movie messes with the viewer in myriad ways: for example, a piece of footage shown at the beginning of the program that ostensibly shows the two girls in their bedroom being assaulted by weird banging sounds and a couple of flying objects becomes a bone of contention when, later in the show, callers to the program start insisting that they saw a dark figure standing in the shadows of the girls’ room. As the calls pile up, the parapsychologist asks if they can replay the footage to see what the callers are talking about. Parkinson eventually replays it, and yeah, there does seem to be a dark figure there, maybe, even though you are quite sure you didn’t see it the first time. But both the parapsychologist and Parkinson claim they don’t see anything. Then they rewind the tape and play it again, and now, there’s nothing there. The parapsychologist then draws a little doodle on the screen showing where she thinks a shadow on a curtain is making people see things, but she draws it in a slightly different place to where we think we saw the figure. Very sneaky indeed.
There are other great little moments like that. All the real TV presenters do a believable job of treating the whole thing as a bit of a laugh at first, and Michael Parkinson gets pretty riled up at one point when the camera crew at the house catches one of the girls faking the mysterious banging sounds they’ve been hearing off and on (which is supposedly coming from the poltergeist that the family has dubbed Pipes). Parkinson is huffy and just wants to end the whole show after that happens, but the parapsychologist starts arguing that just because the girl was caught faking doesn’t mean that some of the other manifestations aren’t real, because she (meaning Dr. Pascoe) has been to the house and investigated it herself, and saw many inexplicable things that could not have been faked by the children. This also had parallels with the Enfield case (where the girls were caught faking a couple of times), as did the tape the parapsychologist plays in the studio which is supposedly a recording of one of the girls speaking in a creepy spirit voice (Enfield focus Janet Hodgson would often speak in the gruff voice of an old man who said his name was Bill). There was also the nice touch of a pooh-poohing skeptic from the real-life organization CSiCOP appearing on satellite feed and denouncing the whole thing as a fraud.
I also enjoyed the slow-burn buildup of the story behind the house’s haunting, and the eerie details that emerged when neighbors and people on the street got interviewed by the jocular Craig Charles. Bystanders mention missing girls from the neighborhood, beheaded pregnant dogs found in the playground, and the possibility that the street was once the home of a murderous “baby farmer” (who I’m guessing they modeled after infamous serial killer Amelia Dyer).
Best of all, though, was the way they treated the actual ghost, Pipes, with such subliminal deviousness. According to most internet accounts, Pipes actually appears in the movie eight or nine times, but on my first viewing, I only caught a glimpse of him once or twice, and I wasn’t even completely sure of those. I actually had to go back and check for the other instances, because I had missed him completely. Hell, a few times he was only put in there for three frames, so you would have had to have been watching with an eagle eye to spot him at all. I liked this trope a lot, because it meant that the movie was trying to creep you out without really showing anything that your brain registered consciously. Pipes was always a did-I-just-see-that flash in a mirror as a camera panned across, or a subtle shape in the background that could have been anything, or an uncannily grinning dude behind someone else in a crowd scene who you would barely notice was there. It was actually pretty genius.
Now, it should be said that if you watched this “live,” you could be forgiven for thinking it was real until the whole thing went a wee bit over the top as it got nearer to the end. While I loved the concept of the television show itself acting as a “nationwide séance” that was causing paranormal havoc in the homes across the UK that were viewing it, as well as in the studio itself (giving it yet another layer of meta-ness), I felt like it would have been more effective if they had reined it in a tad. That said, the final shot of Michael Parkinson wandering around the darkened and apparently abandoned studio and then talking in that creepy voice as though he had also been overtaken by Pipes, was actually pretty well done.
And you know I couldn’t get through this review without mentioning the unintentionally hilarious tidbit that the scary closet under the stairs where Pipes allegedly lived was referred to throughout the show as the “glory hole.” I’m sure British people of today are aware, but WOW, that phrase has a REALLY DIFFERENT connotation in America. Heh.
All in all, I thought Ghostwatch was a really entertaining and subtly unnerving film that was WAY ahead of its time in terms of its willingness to fuck with its audience in such a clever way, making the viewer complicit, as well as making a broader statement about the believability of media in general. While this theme is old hat nowadays, it was pretty subversive for 1992, and the viewing public’s reaction to the broadcast tells that tale pretty adequately, I think: 30,000 calls to the BBC during the program’s runtime, thousands of complaints pouring in for weeks afterward (mostly from people pissed off that they had been duped by presenters they had grown to trust), a couple claims of children watching it and developing PTSD because they thought it was real, and one sad case of a mentally disabled boy taking the whole thing far too seriously and committing suicide a few days after it aired. The BBC was actually forced to issue an apology, and never broadcast the program again. It developed something of a cult following in the ensuing years, though, and was eventually released on DVD. There was even a documentary made about it in 2013, and to this day, fans of the movie have an annual ritual where they all watch their copy of the movie at 9:25pm on Halloween night to see if they can actually bring about that fabled “nationwide séance” thing for real. It doesn’t appear to have worked so far.
I would definitely recommend Ghostwatch for fans of more subtle psychological horror and found-footage type stuff, but try to approach it from the perspective of the time to really appreciate it. That’s probably hard to do if you can’t remember a time when Blair Witch wasn’t a thing, and I guess it’s also hard if you’re not British and don’t understand the subtle mindfuck of seeing actual famous TV presenters messing with your head like this (the American equivalent might have been Walter Kronkite doing what appeared to be a serious documentary in which he at one point gets kidnapped by a sasquatch), but give it a shot and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot more.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.
On the even dozenth episode of 13 O’Clock, Tom and Jenny have an in-depth and “spirited” (heh) discussion about what is probably the best-known poltergeist case of modern times, that of the Enfield Poltergeist from 1977.
The story of the Hodgson family and their bizarre encounter with the paranormal (or the shameless hoaxing by Janet Hodgson, depending on your perspective) has been the subject of numerous documentaries, a kick-ass book calledThis House Is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair, a British miniseries called The Enfield Haunting, and the recent Hollywood horror film The Conjuring 2.
Your favorite podcasters separate the wheat from the chaff, the fact from the fiction, and along the way give a shout-out to late parapsychologist Maurice Grosse, who spent over a year with the family investigating the disturbances, and kinda throw some shade on demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who said they were involved in the case but really only showed up uninvited for like five minutes.
Flying toys! Flipping furniture! Floating children! A little girl saying all kinds of creepy shit in an old man’s voice! It’s all here on this entertaining exploration of the Enfield Poltergeist.
Readers should not be surprised to find that I’ve had poltergeists on the brain recently. Not only have I been doing radio shows to promote The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist (such as here and here), but I’ve also been working on a new book in conjunction with parapsychologist Steve Mera about one of the poltergeist cases he investigated in the 1990s. So those “noisy spirits” have been the overarching theme for the last few weeks of my life, if you catch my drift.
And because I love nothing so much as overkill, I decided to mine the poltergeist thang for this newest entry in my Parchment to Pixels series. Sky Living in the UK recently began airing a three-part miniseries based on the very famous 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case (which I actually summarized in my own Mammoth Mountain book, in the chapter on related cases). I’ve only seen the first two parts so far, but I thought I’d share my impressions, and perhaps edit this post or write a new one after the final installment airs. We’ll see how it goes.
Called “The Enfield Haunting,” the miniseries features an impressive cast of British acting heavyweights, like Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen, and Juliet Stevenson (as Maurice Grosse, Guy Lyon Playfair, and Betty Grosse, respectively), as well as some terrific child actors portraying the put-upon Hodgson brood. Eleanor Worthington-Cox (of Maleficent fame) as Janet Hodgson is especially good.
The series is very loosely based on Guy Playfair’s paranormal classic This House Is Haunted, and Playfair himself shares writing credit on the show (with Joshua St. Johnson). Having read the book myself about a year ago when I was researching my own book, I will say that this series is definitely not the place you want to go if you simply wish to see the tale told realistically; the show is heavily, heavily dramatized, features several big scares that were not in the book, and hews to a more traditional horror movie structure. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as you know what to expect, but I have to say it was a little jarring for me at first, until I just relaxed and went with the flow instead of going, “Uh, no, that didn’t happen like that” every five minutes. By the way, if you’d like to see a more low-key rundown of the purported facts in the case, there’s a documentary here that’s actually pretty interesting. Oh, and from here on out, I’m likely gonna be spoiling some shit, so if you haven’t watched the series yet, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
You can read about the Enfield case on Wikipedia or in Playfair’s book, so I’m not gonna summarize it here, but I’d like to point out a few places where the series very obviously hyped up the terror and the drama from the fairly matter-of-fact reports of the paranormal investigators who worked on the case.
Though it is true, for example, that Janet supposedly channeled the spirit of a man named Bill who had died in the house (he’s named Joe in the series, for some reason), I don’t recall that she ever actually claimed to have seen an apparition of him. Bill manifested himself mostly as a creepy voice that would issue from Janet’s throat (or from behind her, as she claimed) and say nonsensical things, swear profusely, or occasionally come up with some tidbit about his death that actually did check out later. In the series, though, the spooky old fuck is everywhere, first appearing (in a pretty effective jump scare, I have to admit) when Janet is looking through her sister’s Viewmaster, and subsequently popping up outside of windows and so forth. Once he even turns up in the living room downstairs, puts his hand over Janet’s mouth as though to suffocate her, and (presumably) kills the family’s pet canary. And when Janet speaks in Joe’s voice, it is portrayed as possession, more or less.
In fact, so far in the series, it seems as though the horrible Joe (who, it is hinted, was a molester/abuser when he was alive, according to his son, who Maurice Grosse interviews at one point) is painted as the main antagonist and a definite evil presence in the home who is on a quest to hurt Janet. In the second episode of the series, Guy brings in a psychic who makes contact with Joe, and after doing so, warns the family and the investigators not to try to contact or interact with him again, because he is the literal worst.
This is quite different to the book, in which it’s pretty much understood from the get-go that the “poltergeist” is not the spirit of a dead person at all, but rather the psychokinetic energy produced by Janet and, to a lesser extent, her sister Margaret, evidently triggered because the children were under intense duress after the departure of their father and their subsequent fall into further poverty. I don’t remember a psychic being called in by the investigators in the book, but if there was, then the psychic certainly didn’t channel a demonic old man or give the investigators such a grave warning. EDITED TO ADD: I was a bit mistaken in this. After discussing the book last night with the God of Hellfire, who read it at the same time as I did (I read it aloud to him after buying it for him for his birthday, matter of fact), he says that the investigators called in several psychics, none of which were much shakes, mostly just spouting useless “I feel a presence” type stuff, as most psychics are prone to do. Interestingly, though, the GoH remembers the last psychic that was brought in actually stopped the phenomena from occurring for good, or at least happened to be present when the phenomena stopped on their own.
The paranormal experiences portrayed in the series, in fact, pretty much take the gist of what was actually reported in the case and then ramp it up a hundredfold to make it as scary as possible. The splashiest things reported at Enfield in 1977 were things like furniture moving on its own, small objects (books, LEGO bricks) flying about the room, Janet’s weird “Bill” voice, some possible levitation, and a couple of apportations. In the series, though, Guy Playfair gets bodily thrown against a wall by an unseen force, Janet is nearly strangled by a possessed curtain (which actually only wrapped itself around her midsection briefly in real life), and sister Margaret begins speaking in the Joe voice as well, as though the “spirit” is moving from person to person.
The relationship between Grosse and Playfair in the series is also far more contentious than it was in reality, and while I understand this was done to heighten drama and turn the whole thing into a more typical film narrative, it still struck me as strange, especially since Playfair himself was a co-writer on the series. In the actual case, Grosse and Playfair were both members of the Society for Psychical Research, and were casual friends. Grosse began working at Enfield, and at a meeting of the SPR asked the assembled members for assistance. Playfair volunteered, as he had at that point written several books and articles on paranormal topics and was experienced in the type of phenomena being reported. That’s about as conflicted as I remember their relationship being, i.e., not at all.
In the series, though, Grosse begins camping out at the Hodgson home, doing his investigation thing, when Playfair shows up unexpectedly, offering help. It comes to light later that the bigwigs at the SPR have sent him to keep an eye on Grosse, since the SPR are thinking that Grosse has become too credulous and unstable since the death of his daughter, and is maybe going to screw up the case and make the SPR look like idiots. While it is certainly true that the real Grosse’s interest in the paranormal was sparked by his desire to contact his daughter (also named Janet), who died young in a motorcycle accident, in all the interviews I saw with him and in everything I read about him, he never struck me as any more credulous than anyone else in the field, and in fact seemed pretty level-headed, maintaining a healthy skepticism about the paranormal in general.
In a way, I almost wish I could just watch “The Enfield Haunting” as is, without knowing anything about the actual case, because I think I would enjoy it a lot more. It’s certainly a top-notch production, from the stellar acting performances to the fantastic cinematography to the wonderfully eerie vibe that permeates the entire endeavor. It’s creepy and pretty great, as a matter of fact; it’s just a shame that I’m so familiar with the source material that such a drastic fictionalization of it is sort of bothersome for me to watch (I’m sure I’ll feel the same way about the upcoming film The Conjuring 2, which will also be based on Enfield). It’s no fault of the series, really, and I actually do recommend it to those with an interest in such things. Besides all that, as I was watching it I couldn’t help but wonder what a Hollywood adaptation of my own book The Mammoth Mountain Poltergeist would look like, and I can’t decide if the thought is hilarious or horrifying. Anyway. More to come later, possibly, when I’ve seen part three of the series, so come back next time, same bat time, same bat blog. Until then, Goddess out.
UPDATE! Okay, the GoH and I actually did watch the third and final part of this last night, and I have to say, I think in my previous viewing I was being a bit too kind vis a vis the series wildly deviating from the source material. While I still stand by my statement that the series is good and well-made if you don’t happen to know anything about the original case, the final segment really went flying off the rails and abandoned any semblance of reality. It seemed as though as the series neared its climax, the writer(s) no longer felt the need to simply sex up the reported facts of the case and instead went whole hog with just making shit up. Interestingly, the GoH tells me that he located an interview with Playfair on the internet (I can’t find it at the moment) in which Playfair said that he was unhappy with how the series had turned out, and that when he had been given partial writing credit he had been promised that the series would closely follow the actual facts of the case as he had written them in his book. He claimed that the actual facts he had reported were scary enough without having to go all Hollywood on the thing, and if that’s true then I kinda feel bad for him. As I said, I can’t find the interview myself, but the GoH read me bits of it last night, so make of that what you will.
As I said before, the series ran with the theme of making the poltergeist phenomena attributable to a ghost of some kind, although it did pay some lip service to the idea that Janet was causing the manifestations using psychokinetic energy powered by her repressed rage (there is one amusing scene, for example, where Grosse takes Janet to an airport and lets her scream out her frustrations to her heart’s content as the planes roar overhead).
This reasonable hypothesis is undermined, however, by pretty much everything else in part three of the series. There is crockery flying around everywhere, sinks full of blood, a tiny Tinkerbell-like light that torments and burns the girl, multiple apparitions, full-on possession of both Janet and the returning psychic; the shit just gets ridiculous. I think the most egregious example of this is when Janet is taken to the hospital after she breaks her thumb during a particularly violent poltergeist attack. In the real case, Janet (with no broken bones, it should be said) is simply sent to the hospital to have a standard examination, to rule out any mental or physical illness. She is given a clean bill of health and is sent home. In the series, however, she is put in a private ward, drugged all to hell (with the nurses soberly intoning that she can somehow withstand a HUGE amount of sedatives without seeming fazed), strapped to a bed, and threatened with electrical brain zapping. Later the bed dramatically flips over with the restrained Janet still on it. The girl’s mother, perhaps to save her from the suggested brain zapping, tells the hospital administrators that the family simply made the whole poltergeist thing up for publicity and that all she has to do is have a word with Janet and the whole thing will stop. Playfair and Grosse are both present at this meeting, and feel betrayed, though I guess the family didn’t really make it up because everything is okay with them later, though this is not shown. It’s a tad confusing, but whatever. It should be unnecessary to point this out, but none of this even remotely happened in the book; as far as I can recall, this was made up by the series writers from whole cloth.
There is also a rather silly scene where Playfair attempts to “exorcise” Joe by showing Janet the man’s ashes in a jar and trying to get his spirit to move on. Nothing like this happened in real life either, especially not the bit where Janet seemingly made the jar levitate up to the ceiling and then shattered it, showering everyone present with dead people ashes. The investigators never attempted an exorcism, and wouldn’t have attempted one in any case, since they were operating under the assumption that Janet herself was causing the phenomena.
Another aspect in which part three deviates quite a lot from the source material is Janet’s apparent channeling of Grosse’s daughter, and Grosse’s subsequent mental breakdown. He blames himself for his daughter’s death, you see. His wife leaves him (they make up at the end, though), he pretty much falls apart, and begins using Janet as a sort of surrogate daughter. Grosse in real life seemed like an okay dude, and I feel this does him a disservice. Of course the real Grosse was devastated by his daughter’s death, but he never once claimed that his daughter had contacted him, either through Janet or otherwise. And yes, he did become very fond of Janet and her family, as you would any group of people you remained in close contact with for more than a year, but I did not get the impression that he felt Janet Hodgson was trying to give him messages from his daughter. In the series, it almost seemed as though Grosse ultimately became the catalyst for the poltergeist and not Janet; at one point, Janet tells Playfair that Grosse is the one keeping the poltergeist there because he has unresolved issues about his daughter’s death, and indeed, the poltergeist phenomena doesn’t stop until Janet, speaking in Grosse’s daughter’s voice, tells Grosse that she is fine and that there is no need to forgive him for her death because it wasn’t his fault. It all just seemed very pat and more typical of a horror movie than a real, documented case, which generally has no rhyme or reason at all. So that rankled more than the earlier instances of embellishment, which at least bore some resemblance to the real reports.
Do I still recommend it? Sure, if you like poltergeist movies. But don’t expect it to be anything like what actually happened. If you’re okay with that, then go to town. The series definitely had some eye-rolling moments, but on the whole it was decently creepy, and the acting was mostly quite good. So, for the second time, Goddess out.