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18 October, 2007

The Enfield Poltergeist

The controversial case of the Enfield Poltergeist began in late August, 1977. It happened in a three-bedroomed, semi-detached council house in Enfield, North London. Peggy Harper had just got two of her four children off to bed.

Janet (11)and Pete (10) soon complained about their beds "jolting up and down and going all funny". Mrs Harper dismissed it as a prank or the result of overactive childhood imaginations. The next night, the two children called their mother, saying a chair kept shuffling in their room. She removed it, just to set their minds at ease. After bidding the children a good night and turning off the light, Peggy also heard a shuffling noise. Turning the light on again, she saw nothing, and turned the light out once more. The shuffling recommenced, followed by a loud banging on the wall. To her horror, Peggy saw a chest of drawers moving across the room, of its own volition. She pushed it back, but it moved again, and this time, she found she couldn't move it.

The terrified family fled to some neighbours, who thoroughly searched both house and garden, but found no intruder. The neighbours also heard the banging on the walls. The Harpers called the police, who heard the banging, too. One police officer saw a chair move by itself and signed a formal statement saying so. The bizarre events continued the following day, as marbles and plastic Lego bricks were flung around the house. The items were discovered to be hot.

After a three day onslaught, the family called the police again, as well as their local vicar and a medium. But the phenomenon escalated. The Harpers contacted the press, and the Daily Mirror dispatched a reporter and a photographer. Despite waiting several hours at the house, there was no sign of the entity, so the media men decided to leave. As they reached their car, they were called back - the Lego bricks were flying once more. In fact, one struck the photographer on his forehead as he tried to take a few shots. When he developed his negative, it contained a mysterious hole where the flying Lego brick should have been. A reporter from a rival paper suggested to the Harpers that they should contact the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). They sent Maurice Grossse to investigate.

Grosse reached the Harper house a week after the phenomenon had started. Everything was quiet for three days, until a chair flew across Janet's bedroom, as she slept. The Daily Mirror reporter and cameraman were also at the house. The photographer began a vigil, and was able to get a photograph when the event repeated itself. Grosse alleged that a marble was then flung at him, doors inexplicably opened and closed, and he was enveloped from head to toe in a sudden chilly breeze.

Two days later, the story was on the front pages of the national tabloids. London's LBC radio got to hear about it too, and invited Mrs Harper, her neighbour, and Maurice Grosse to participate in a two and a half hour broadcast. The broadcast was beset with problems attributed to the Enfield poltergeist. Numerous faults developed with the house's electrics, and equipment failure abounded. Newly recharged camera flashes drained almost immediately. The tapes used in infra-red cameras set up in the bedroom, also mysteriously malfunctioned.

BBC crews also experienced similar interferences, such as damaged cassette tapes, erased recordings, and mangled metal components within the tape recorders. Some equipment mysteriously disappeared, only to reappear hours later. The writer, Guy Lyon Playfair, joined Grosse in the investigation, which continued for two years. The phenomenon persisted, banging on floors and walls, moving furniture and hurling it down the stairs, as well as ripping drawers out of chests and dressers. In addition, objects flew around the house, bedding was torn off unwitting sleepers, and several fires broke out, which mysteriously extinguished themselves. A neighbour even claimed to have seen Janet being levitated several feet above the ground by an unseen force.

The entity appeared to become increasingly violent. The children complained of being hurled from their beds. Janet alleged that her bedroom curtains wrapped themselves around her neck and tried to strangle her - something her mother also claimed to have witnessed. Janet even began to show signs of possession. She would occasionally appear to fall into a trance, speaking in a gruff male voice, over which she said she had no control. The voice used several names, and often spoke in a crude and obscene manner. A recurring character was ‘Bill’ who said he had died in the house. It was discovered that a man called Bill had in fact died there, many years previously. The Harpers were believed to have no prior knowledge of him.

Janet was suspected of faking the voice, by using a second set of vocal calls that everyone possesses, but which most people are unaware of. But people usually need to be trained to use these vocal chords, and using them can be quite painful, especially for extended periods. Most investigators believed that Janet could not possibly keep the voice up for several hours at a time, as she did, without damaging her usual voice. However, she seemed to suffer no vocal damage from her unearthly vocalization. In fact, young Janet spent six weeks in a London hospital, undergoing extensive tests to discover if she suffered from any kind of physical or mental abnormality. She was found to be completely healthy, although the phenomenon ceased during her absence.

Another aspect of the phenomenon manifested in the form of the inexplicable and spontaneous bending and breaking of spoons, usually very close to Janet. A physicist from London's Birkbeck College was assigned to study the phenomenon, the spoon-bending in particular.

Some investigators were a lot more sceptical than Grosse and Playfair, about the alleged paranormal origins of these events. Two of Grosse's colleagues at the SPR, Anita Gregory and John Beloff, joined the investigation. Gregory believed the whole case to be the result of Janet's trickery. She pointed out that they would not be allowed into the children's bedroom at times when the phenomenon was said to be most active. They would then hear screeching and thumping and would find Janet in a heap on the floor, alleging the so-called poltergeist had thrown her there. When she was allowed into the room, Gregory was told to turn her head towards the door, or the poltergeist wouldn't play ball. As she did so, items were thrown at her head, and she heard muffled laughter from the children.

Gregory felt vindicated when a video camera caught Janet forcibly bending spoons, and bouncing noisily on her bed. When challenged, Janet admitted it, saying she "wanted to see if the investigators would catch her out - they always did". To further scotch the paranormal element of the story, Janet’s uncle told Gregory that Janet had taught herself how to assume a deep voice. He added that she had always been an impish child who relished playing pranks on others. Gregory believed that Janet was athletic enough to leap across the room from her bed, whilst alleging an entity had thrown her. The phenomenon eventually subsided, ending completely two years after its mysterious inception.

Much controversy still surrounds the Enfield poltergeist case. Believers insist that the Harpers would not have tolerated a mass, two year invasion of their home, by the media, paranormal investigators, psychics, doctors and scientists, simply to perpetrate a hoax. Sceptics cite the fact that the Harpers brought the media in almost from the start, as proof that the poltergeist was a hoax. They also point out that Maurice Grosse had lost a young daughter in a car accident just a year previously, and may have been blinded to the alleged mischief of her namesake.

Some researchers said the poltergeist phenomenon was triggered by tensions within the family. Janet had recently hit puberty, and two years previously, her parents had divorced. A further accusation, that Mrs. Harper had orchestrated a hoax to jump to the top of the council housing list proved unfounded, as she refused to leave the house. The general feeling about the Enfield poltergeist case is that a genuine phenomenon was active, but when the media arrived, the attention-seeking children indulged in some trickery, to make the entity seem more spectacular than it really was.

What do you think? Did the Harper family stage an elaborate hoax? Or was the Enfield poltergeist a genuine phenomenon?

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