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Five reasons why London’s most famous poltergeist case is a hoax

Five reasons why London’s most famous poltergeist case is a hoax
Graham Morris

Psychology professor (and expert sceptic) Chris French gets to the bottom of the Enfield Poltergeist, the ‘real-life’ haunting that inspired ‘The Conjuring 2’

Amityville. Salem. Enfield? Funny goings-on in a council house in the late 1970s put the north London suburb on the map of the world’s most haunted towns. It all started in 1977, when single mum Peggy Hodgson heard a loud thud. Upstairs she found her daughters Janet, 11, and Margaret, 13, with a chest of drawers in the middle of their bedroom. The girls swore it moved of its own accord.

That was the first instance of ‘poltergeist activity’ in the semi. Terrifying real-life possession? Or wind-up? We spoke to professor Chris French, a psychologist based at Goldsmiths, University of London. Chris heads up the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit – which basically translates as ‘the psychology of weird shit’, he says. His team investigate everything from alien abduction claims to poltergeist cases. They’re coming from a sceptical perspective, trying to explain events in non-paranormal terms. We asked London’s very own ghostbuster why he thinks The Enfield Poltergeist is hoax.

1. The two sisters at the centre of the case admitted to hoaxing some of the ‘poltergeist’ activity 

Chris French: ‘The girls admitted they faked stuff. Of course, people who believe them say: “Well, they might have faked some of it, but some of it must be real.” Believers tend to think: We’re too clever to be hoaxed by schoolgirls. But just because you didn’t figure out how something was done doesn’t mean it was impossible to do. Conjurers have been doing it for centuries.’

2. A classic photo of 11-year-old Janet levitating above her bed could easily be Janet jumping

‘There is lots of evidence to suggest she’s not hovering in mid-air. People have reproduced that image at home, jumping up and down on a bed. This case isn’t strong, but it’s a good story.’

3. The spirit of an old man, Bill, who possessed Janet, was obsessed with periods

‘When Janet was supposedly possessed by spirit of an old man, he took a lot of interest in menstruation. That’s not something you expect an old man to be interested in. But a young girl? Well yes. There are so many question marks hanging over the case.’

4. Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. Witnesses in the Enfield Poltergeist case included a policewoman who swore she saw a chair move across a room

‘We’ve researched the unreliability of eyewitnesses. We’ve been able to show the power of suggestion in experiments in controlled conditions. To give you one example, we carried out a study where we showed people a video of an alleged psychic (he was a conjurer) doing a spot of psycho-kinetic metal bending – the stuff that made Uri Geller famous. After bending the key by sleight of hand, he puts the key back on the desk and says: “If you look closely you see it’s still bending.” Typically, 40 percent of people report that it carries on bending. Conjurers have known about this stuff for centuries. Psychologists are coming to it a bit late in the day.’

5. It wouldn’t be the first case of a schoolgirl prank that got out of hand

‘I strongly suspect it was Janet and her sister behind it. There are other cases where schoolgirl pranks have got out of hand. What essentially starts as a trick grows and grows. Outside people get involved and it’s very difficult to backtrack. So my money would be on the girls. There were investigations by people who were convinced that the girls were doing all these things themselves, that it was attention-seeking behaviour.’

Read our review of 'The Conjuring 2'

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Comments

17 comments
Nick B

We live in a culture that has moved away from relating to the spiritual dimension. The opinion, What you can't see doesn't exist. In New Testament times there was an acceptance that spirits could inhabit people and animals, and take control of the vocal chords of other people. Shaman channel spirits and their voice changes. I remember seeing Joanna Lumley interview a Shaman in Russia, I believe. She later said he was telling her things about her life that he could never have found out from another person. I'm just saying we don't know about everything in the World and maybe this case is an example of that and we shouldn't judge.

Thomas H

@Nick B "We live in a culture that has moved away from relating to the spiritual dimension"   Yes....because we live in a more scientifically literate, educated society with an understanding of what constitutes "good evidence"  Those areas which are based on bad evidence - eg the paranormal are fading away (although, on the whole, are still going strong in poorly educated circles)

Stuart C

@Thomas H @Nick B I don't think that's true. Science, with all its focus on Quantum Theory and String Theory, can actually be said to be moving to a closer relationship with paranormal activity.

Evidence for the paranormal is elusive, but that does not make it bad evidence. 

Your suggestion that the paranormal is "fading away," but strong amongst the poorly educated, is not only wrong, but unnecessarily divisive. Many a stately home, with those of privileged educational background, can claim paranormal activity. 

Steve B

It may be or may not be an objective phenomena. However Chris French's statements above are hardly convincing and in no way 'get to the bottom' of the issue. Poltergeist phenomena are often associated with adolescents so whilst it may have nothing to do with ghosts, the explanation may be far more interesting if related to Janet and Margaret's stage of life.

Andrew D

I have listened to skeptics and non believers for many years indeed,  and not one has provided any satisfactory answers to convince me that the  ''Paranormal''  doesn't exist.  My family and I experienced similar phenomena to the Enfield case,  though ours was not quite as ''Dramatic''   We certainly experienced activity that simply defied rational explanation such as very mild poltergeist disturbances, the occasional   sightings, though this was very rare indeed. We had this for nine years solid so we knew it was 'unusual'  This property actually convinced a skeptic and a non believer so the property we lived in is well worth documenting, I wouldn't share this if it wasn't true or if it couldn't be backed up. There is no way that I will accept someone telling me that it's not real from an objective point of view, from someone who has not had a personal experience like my family, friends and I had from 1969 to 1978.  I have a high regard for the truth and I'm very serious and quite sincere about this property. For a much more detailed account of our experiences please search on youtube '' THE GHOST OF GLADSTONE VILLA.  A truly genuine case that really did happen to me and my family. 

Colin K

@Andrew D No one would claim to be able to prove that the "Paranormal" does not exist...that does not mean that it DOES exist though.

William w tastemaker

I heard a story years after that a local man in the area tried to lead his dog up to the front door. The dog being an Alsatian, was terrified and would not budge.

Steve B

@Colin K @William w In the end Colin everything is just a story. There are true stories and false stories and some stories we can't be sure of.

Stuart C

Janets attempt at faking were woeful, and included tapping the ceiling with a broom. Nothing like the real thing. These attempts from the girls, came at a time of low activity, and they (the girls) had enjoyed the attention they had received and were concerned that the activity was ending. So, in that respect, their actions were totally understandable.

The pictures of Janet levitating are misleading. This was not levitation in the usual understanding of the term; although, that happened also. Janet was, actually, being lifted. Again, she would sometimes try to replicate what she had experienced.

The voice of 'Bill' is a red herring. It was not Bill Wilkins who had died in the house previously, but another entity, entirely. A spirit who had attached itself to the girls in the old part of the cemetery at the Church of St James, Enfield Highway and then passed himself off as Bill Wilkins..Janet and Margaret would venture there and try to contact spirits via the use of a Ouija board.

The statement from the WPO (Caroline Heeps) is an acceptable eyewitness testimony. Sceptics will try to dispute this, yet without any real justification for doing so.

There were many witnesses to flying marbles and lego bricks. Professional reporters stood around the walls of the living room and would undoubtedly have caught the children in the act of throwing these items, if that had been the case. Yet, none did so. Furthermore, it is asking a lot to expect us to believe that the children had the nerve to carry this out, in full view of others. These were the 1970s and people were generally quite respectful towards their elders and those they assumed to have authority. People forget this, and there is a tendency to judge these matters using present day cynicism.

Colin K

@Stuart C ...and thank God we do view these things "using present day cynicism" which of course they didn't have in the 70's ha ha! This was forty years ago ,how do we judge the reliability of these so-called professionals, what did they witness, what sort of "professionals" are they?

Stuart C

@Colin K @Stuart C I believe that I already stated; professional reporters. That is; those who report on matters for a living. Unless you are suggesting that they were all incompetent, then your apparent scepticism doesn't make sense. I put the question back to yourself; what proof do you have that the reporters were incompetent?

The policewoman was also a professional. She would have been trained to be observant. I ask yourself; what makes you believe that she was incompetent?

In fact, I ask you more fully; is the basis of your scepticism based upon your apparent belief that all witnesses were incompetent? 

If that is your argument, then you prove exactly the point that I made earlier: present day cynicism is clouding peoples judgement. 

Sin. A

@Stuart C @Colin K The time back then was different.. today i wouldn't trust any reporter... but back then, is different..and maybe some scepticism is good - but you should open your mind to things you can't explain.


I personally lived in a house, which my room was haunted by an old lady. Nothing to do with poltergeist and those stuff... she somethimes went to the bathroom and every day it was the same time.. i lived with that about 1 year.. bevor i moved out. But not because of that.. but it was just to expensive to stay there.. 

Thomas H

@Sin. A @Stuart C @Colin K Odds on you weren't hearing a ghost go to the bathroom. You were probably hearing a person in an adjoining house go to the loo, or water pipes in your walls, yet your credulous, ghost believing mind was delighted to jump to a paranormal conclusion

Stuart C

@Thomas H @Sin. A @Stuart C @Colin K That's an incredibly arrogant thing to say. As though people are all stupid and have not taken these matters into consideration already. Why do skeptics always claim that believers are credulous? You have no evidence for that, yet jump to conclusions. Just because you haven't experienced paranormal activity yourself, it doesn't make your opinion worthwhile. All you do, is just show how an ingrained skeptic mindset can lead to a feeling of superiority. And often misplaced superiority, come to that.

David P

Five valid reasons, yes, but how can you fake the fear the Hodgsons felt all those years ago?