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.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Poltergeist! (Part I of II)


"Based on a true story of the most terrifying poltergeist haunting in British history," WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT lacks any unease or scares, but has authentic 1970's hairstyles and beige décor.
THE word poltergeist is not only derived from teuronic poltern (to make sound) and geist (ghost), this mischievous spirit also originates from the first reported case in 856AD Germany. For an entity that enjoys the movement and levitation of objects - furniture and cutlery have always seemed favourites - this troublesome ghost often mirrors the prankster nature of its protagonists. In studies of anomalistic psychology, such occurrences can be explained by illusion and wishful thinking, and over the years unverified scientific research has referenced everything from unusual air currents, underground water and even ball lightning. Writer David Parson and author Sacheverell Sitwell have equated significant resemblance between poltergeists and the Nazis; in Parson's article about the supernatural at war, he surmises that "both are manifested in a subconscious uprush of desire for power ... both suck like vampires the energies of adolescents" and "Hitler speaks best in a state of semi-trance." Sitwell has also written of the Toadpool Poltergeist, a pebble-throwing spirit once based at his brother's farm.

Britain's premier ghost hunter Harry Price carried out tests on the so-called "Poltergeist Girl" - thirteen-year-old Romanian peasant Eleanore Zugun - at the National Laboratory of Psychical Research in South Kensington during 1926. With Zugun sporting facial scares and bitten by unseen teeth, Price claimed "it was not until I brought Eleanore to London that the word poltergeist became common in the British press." Price was most famous - some say notorious - for his studies of the 1928 Battersea poltergeist scare, the Isle of Man's talking mongoose, the Brocken Experiment (a magic ritual involving a goat) and Suffolk's Borley Rectory, "the most haunted house in England." The backbone of the Borley legend was a nun found guilty of unchastity, walled up in the basement and left to die of starvation. Poltergeist deeds was necessarily pulled into the mix with flying crockery and the spirit ability to materialise lead pencils and mark interior walls.

Tasha Conner is the standout performer in this formulaic programmer.  
Pat Holden's WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT is "loosely" based on the Black Monk of Pontefract manifestations, which allegedly took place at the home of Joe and Jean Pritchard between 1966 and 1969 (Jean was actually Holden's aunt, and the director's mother - a local psychic - frequented the house). During the paranormal action crockery and household ornaments were smashed, pools of water appeared on the kitchen floor, crashing noises shook the building, and a strange white dust drifted down from the ceiling. The case is unusual because it also includes the sightings of a physical apparition, a tall faceless monk dressed in black, said to be the ghost of a sixteenth century brotherhood (the monk's most noteworthy act was to drag the Pritchard's daughter Diane upstairs by the neck). Although the case was well-known locally, it was Colin Wilson's 1981 book Poltergeist! that widened its scope.

For the film, set in 1974, the poltergeist is portrayed as a warning. Jenny (Kate Ashfield) and Len (Steven Waddington) Maynard move into their new property with thirteen-year-old daughter Sally (Tasha Conner). From the start Sally is haunted by the spirit of a young girl, who she later learns was murdered by a monk. A séance reveals that both the girl's and the monk's spirits exist in the home, and after an exorcism seems successful, the monk returns for Sally, who eventually banishes the apparition using the dead girl's pendant. It's all by-the-numbers, with the only memorable scene having Jenny spooked by some suitably garish 70's wallpaper; in fact, it's this authentic smell that makes the feature palatable at all, with its misty clubs and creepy use of retro toys (Slinky and Buckeroo). Conner and Hannah Clifford - as school friend Lucy - are the pick of this dramatis personae, and in more disposable roles Martin Compston plays a concerned teacher and Gary Lewis is the disgraced Father who oversees the unintentionally comedic exorcism, which is further blighted by cheap CGI.