Anyone who has ever been interested in poltergeists will be familiar with the Enfield case. The case centred around the Hodgson family, Peggy, a divorcee, and her four children who were living in a council house in Enfield, London during the 1970s. The activity reported and investigated there from 1977-8 included classic poltergeist phenomena such as furniture and other objects moving of their own accord and, perhaps most frightening children, especially Janet Hodgson, being thrown around supposedly by an invisible force. Perhaps the most spine-chilling evidence gathered at that time was the recordings of Janet seeming to speak in a very deep voice which it is said she could not have reasonably kept up for long. This is said to have frightened a speech therapist who witnessed it, so badly that she fled from the house. In this deep voice, Janet spoke as though she were a previous occupant of the house who had died there, “Bill”, and recited information about his death which was later corroborated by Bill’s son and by his death certificate. The family denied conscious knowledge of this information. We will never know whether Janet knew this information, even unconsciously (i.e. she was told and then forgot it), or not.
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) investigated the phenomena and the lead investigators were convinced that the activity was genuine and paranormal. The story of the Enfield Poltergeist continues to be believed by many as solid evidence of the afterlife despite evidence gathered by later SPR investigators which suggested that the children were, in fact, hoaxing. I believe that the family, when confronted, admitted to some hoaxing to try to catch out the researchers which sounds like normal playful 11-12 year old behaviour, in my view and cannot be used to dismiss the entire case out of hand but I do not have the portfolio of their evidence and so cannot confidently share their conclusions here. The case is well documented and I will not attempt to recreate the debates surrounding this fascinating story. I am not interested in establishing ‘truth’ since, for me, truth, like all other aspects of human experience, is subjective.
I was inspired to write this posting following a TV interview last week. I was excited to see the now grown-up Janet Hodgson and one of the SPR researchers, Guy Leon Playfair giving a rare interview on ITV’s This Morning. They were joined by a skeptic for good measure who gave some general skeptical opinions but seemed unfamiliar with the detail of the case (or else too polite to wholeheartedly challenge the claimants). Nevertheless, I was interested to see that as an adult, Janet Hodgson was still claiming that the events were not hoaxed and that she was genuinely traumatised by them. Believing her in this is not the same as saying that the events objectively occurred but I suggest that subjectively Janet remains convinced that her experiences were supernatural and genuine unless she was simply acting and I saw no evidence of this. There was some evidence, I believe, in the opinions of the investigators that Janet in particular, enjoyed the attention the activity was bestowing upon her. Even if she did enjoy this attention this would not be evidence that she was knowingly creating the phenomena.
I was interested in why Janet, who has rarely been interviewed, would agree to appear on national television. There is little information about Janet as an adult. She seems to have largely avoided the spotlight despite the fact that the case has always remained fairly high-profile probably because of the number of professional eye witnesses who vouched for the evidence. I discovered that a film is currently being produced about the Enfield Poltergeist. Could it be that Janet is being employed by the filmmakers to promote the story again? It is a small budget film but could this explain her unusual willingness to be interviewed? I asked the producers of the film (via their Facebook page) whether they would be doing any primary source interviews as part of their research. They ‘liked’ my question but I did not receive a response.
It is neither my place nor my intention to arrive at an opinion on the verity of the Hodgson family’s story. In often frustrates me in these kinds of cases when people conclude that if the events did not happen (or could not be scientifically proven) then the witnesses are simply lying, consciously lying for some malevolent reasons. This is a naive and simplistic evaluation of the complexities of the human mind.
It doesn’t take much effort to begin to empathise with the Hodgson family in the 1970s although I admit that what I am about to write is mere speculation. I lived in North London throughout the 1970s, also in a council house and grew up just 6 miles away from where these events took place. Families were pretty poor in North London then and in fact still are in many areas today. Life wasn’t easy, people were hostile and some did bad things to each other. I remember stories of bullying, rape, mugging and stabbings and I am younger than Janet. I believe the Hodgson’s were persecuted by their neighbours following reports of activity in their home. Janet’s mother was recently divorced and living alone with 4 children so life would have been difficult for them. I do not know what happened to their father. I also remember at that age thinking that my house was haunted. 1970s decor didn’t do much to cheer places up and a council house could be a hostile environment. Beliefs in the supernatural were common and not so knowledgeably challenged as they are today.
Janet Hodgson is described on some occasions as having appeared to be fitting. Perhaps she was? Perhaps she was pseudo fitting which is a kind of fitting which is not brought on by epilepsy but by intense stress. Poor Janet was eventually sent away for psychological assessment and the activity calmed down when she left. She was declared as not being mentally ill although I could not confidently vouch for the methods of assessment employed in those days. Regardless of whether the source of the phenomena was in any way related to Janet’s mental health, she seemed at the time and also claims today to be traumatised by these events.
Parapsychology has become very popular in the modern-day, part of popular culture even, but it is not a new science and some of its roots can be found in psychoanalysis. In fact Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud were both fascinated by the paranormal and not particularly skeptical. During the 1950s a Hungarian psychoanalyst, Nandor Fodor, began to examine paranormal phenomena from a psychoanalytic perspective, having been called upon by a stream of distressed people who appeared to be at the centre of paranormal activity who were seeking his help. Fodor examined one case of a woman who was experiencing poltergeist activity. She reported being disturbed by hearing knocks and footsteps in her house. He interpreted her poltergeist as a haunting of herself by her own repressed memories: “the knocks and footsteps symbolized the coming of the message by conversion” (1959, p. 66). Indeed, repressed memories do not lie comfortably in the unconscious but they instead seek expression and can come out through a mechanism known as projection without ever being made conscious to the subject. In fact, the work of the psychoanalyst is to enable the repressed individual to own their unconscious projections in order to integrate their fractured mind. This process reportedly cured the woman in this case of any further paranormal experiences.
In my view, it is perfectly possible for an individual to unconsciously cause phenomena without any trickery or malevolence as a way of ridding themselves of distressed feelings and this would explain why poltergeists are often reported to bother troubled adolescent females. It would also explain why subjects of poltergeist phenomena are so convinced by their experiences which will be experienced as though they are both real and seperate to the the self. Paranormal experiences can therefore be understood as metaphorical communications of psychic disturbance: a part of the mind is dissociated or split off, and the manifestations are enactments. This explains how an individual can cause phenomena without knowing they are doing so and therefore dispels the myth that those at the centre of poltergeist phenomena must be either faking or the evidence must be genuinely supernatural.
A psychoanalytic explanation for a poltergeist might be to see it as a collection of unwanted material, such as painful feelings or repressed traumatic memories, given form in a collective mass projection. The projection is concretised by its physical form (the phenomena) and then taken up and invested in by others (more eye witnesses) with more unwanted affects until it becomes self-sufficient. The physical process for this process is beyond the scope of this article, however, my thought would be that both unconsious tampering and psychokinesis are reasonable hypotheses. It seems likely that the police, the speech therapist, the reporters and other eye witnesses were familiar with some stories about the Enfield house and the Hodgson family experiences before they attended there and that they would have had some preconceptions. Even a small suggestion lodged in the unconscious and a good dose of fear (which is biologicaly inevitable and unavoidable) will be enough to ensure that people misinterpret what they see, especially if other witnesses claim those occurrences to be paranormal in their responses. It doesn’t matter how rational, experienced or skeptical you are, fear and suggestion are psychological facts of human existence and cannot be resisted. Intellect is also reduced by finding oneself in a group.
If there was a spirit called Bill who caused all this trouble, what happened to him? Did he decide that the point at which Janet was sent away from her family to undergo psychological assessment was a sign that he had gone to far? Did he ‘go towards the light’? Is he still there in that house? If it was so easy for Bill to cause all this commotion why are there not a lot more cases like this? And, more importantly, why does paranormal activity vanish when you try to evidence it under controlled conditions? Does my psychological explanation now seem more or less likely than the belief that a spirit caused the Enfield phenomena?
The process of the individual at the centre of the poltergeist activity is only one piece of a large puzzle. What of the eye-witness testimonies? Are they fictional, an elaborate hoax or caused by mass hysteria or suggestion? This would be a vast question to answer and the time for answering such questions has passed since 30 years have gone by and memory, especially memory which is laid down when an individual is distressed, is far from reliable, and of course, highly subjective.
Fodor, N. (1959). The haunted mind. New York: Garrett Publications.
Freud, S. (2003). The uncanny. (McLintock, D. , Trans.). London: Penguin books. (Original work published 1899).
Jung, C. G., (1961). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (Winston, R. & Winston, C., Trans.). London: Collins.