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.’