Friday, January 15, 2016

Poltergeist! (Part II of II)


Janet Hodgson "takes flight." The real-life Enfield poltergeist increasingly veered into EXORCIST territory; Janet was pushed and pulled from her bed by an invisible entity, she uttered obscenities in a deep voice, and one witness claimed to see her levitate.
A decade on from the weirdness of Pontefract came Britain's most documented poltergeist case, involving two pubescent sisters in an Enfield council house between 1977 and 1979. The story attracted considerable press coverage and was championed by members of the Society for Psychical Research, inventor Maurice Grosse and freelance writer Guy Lyon Playfair. The Enfield haunting provided the major inspiration for the BBC's GHOSTWATCH - of which Playfair acted as an advisor - where writer Stephen Volk explored the human psyche of "what if [the audience's] need to see a ghost actually made it happen." GHOSTWATCH was never envisaged as a hoax, purely a scripted drama set within a live studio format, and its backlash has only increased its provocative influence; similar to the Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast uproar, the public will always react vigorously when being so well duped. Grosse called GHOSTWATCH "well produced," but questioned the need for sensationalism when based on a real events.

Grosse himself was drawn to notions of the afterlife by personal tragedy, that of the death of his daughter Janet in a motorcycle accident in 1976. The investigator had originally studied commercial art and design before joining the artillery in World War II, and after finding his vocation with inventing he filed many mechanical-based patents, including rotating billboards which are now common place. For a grounded, non-theologian, Grosse always conducted his research with great courage, always reputing the alleged inaccuracies surrounding Enfield. His partner-in-crime Playfair was actually born in India and obtained a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University. Subsequently he spent many years in Brazil as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press. His first book The Flying Cow describes his experiences with the psychic side of Brazil, and became an international best seller.

Ghostbusting, North London style: Matthew Macfadyen as Guy Lyon Playfair and Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse.

Despite the demonic voices, knocking, flying items (cardboard boxes, lego, marbles) and a moving chair witnessed by a police constable, the Enfield poltergeist can too easily be labelled as a prank on behalf of the sisters in question. Janet's famous disembodied voice was achieved by manipulating thick folds of membrane above the larynx, commonly referred to as the false vocal chords, and in this guise she described the death of a former occupant that, according to Playfair, were subsequently confirmed. But poltergeist activity feeds less on the paranormal and more on traumatic, stressful family dynamics and puberty, especially among children who yearn for attention; the children's mother having divorced her husband and was left to bring up her four children with little money. To add to the upset, her husband often gave provided maintenance money with his new girlfriend in tow.

Sky Living's three-part THE ENFIELD HAUNTING - like WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT - glorifies drab 70's interior decoration and retro paraphernalia (picture viewers and Bunty) within its supernatural husk. Although the show has its crowd-pleasing moments - Janet (Eleanor Worthington-Cox) in full Linda Blair mode and the jump scares - Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm and scriptwriter Joshua St Jonhston concentrate on the psychological over shock horror. THE ENFIELD HAUNTING poignantly explores the grief of losing a daughter between Grosse (Timothy Spall) and wife Betty (Juliet Stevenson) and its just as well, as after stripping away this veneer we are left with a uniformly excellent cast engulfed by strange phenomena and shifting narratives.

Thirteen-year old Eleanor Worthington-Cox - already an Olivier award-winning actress for the West End production of Matilda - as Janet.
In his Fortean Times #329 (July 2015) forum article 'The Enfield Poltergeist Show,' Playfair's only real satisfaction about Sky's dramatisation was that it helped shift several units of his 1980 book This House is Haunted of which the programme was derived. Guy questions why the most visual "real" instance was not used (Janet levitating and moving through a wall to reclaim a book which had mysteriously shifted address), and wonders why the scientific breakthroughs were ignored (in fact, the laryngograph recordings are clearly referenced in one albeit short moment). For the column, Playfair laments the phenomenon ("poltergeists continue to be treated as light entertainment") and states that the Enfield study "needs no fictional additions." We will have to wait until our journey to the other side for Grosse's evaluation of the programme, as he died in 2006.

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