Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Demon in Enfield?

With the release imminent of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, in which Ed and Lorraine Warren fearlessly battle the Forces of Evil in a north London suburb, it is worth examining the contention that the Enfield Poltergeist was really a demon come to persecute the Hodgson family.  The tiny extent of the Warren’s connection with this classic case has already been analysed so it could be argued that whatever they had to say on the matter has little merit, but surprisingly while Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair of the Society for Psychical Research, who had by far the most to do with the case, were quick to dismiss the Warrens’ claim, newspapers at the time did in fact occasionally raise the possibility of a demonic component to the events that were besetting the Hodgsons.

For example, Psychic News of 6 January 1979 devoted considerable coverage to Enfield, including much of the front page.  On p. 3, one of the sub-sections is firmly titled ‘No demon involved’ and Playfair gives his opinion in forthright terms:

‘Guy dismissed any suggestion that the phenomena were demonic.  “I have no time for this devil rubbish,” he said.  “It is an invention of medieval religious dogmatism.  There is no connection with reality.”

‘“I can well understand how some fanatical exorcist would feel he had a whole legion of devils in the house.”

‘”We have had no indication at all of any diabolical activities.”’

Why he should have been asked this question by the Psychic News journalist is curious; possibly the Warrens had been in touch with the paper (they had made a flying visit to the house on 16 June, 1978).  Playfair may have thought that the only behaviour that could be characterised as diabolical in connection with the affair – though not of course demonic – was that of the Warrens.

It is worth pointing out that it was not only the Warrens who considered exorcism to be an appropriate solution for the Hodgsons.  The same idea came from a more surprising quarter.  In This House is Haunted (2007, pp. 238-9) Playfair recounts how he visited the eminent German parapsychologist Hans Bender, who was staying in London, and discussed the matter with him.

‘”I would be inclined to try exorcism,” Professor Bender said, rather to my surprise.  “I’m not convinced that a discarnate agency is involved, but you can never prove it.”

‘”I replied that I was reluctant to get involved with exorcists, as were both Maurice Grosse and Mrs Harper [Mrs Hodgson]…”

‘”Oh, the Catholic rituale is disastrous,” he replied.  “Because it is a mechanical form of applying a rite without the slightest understanding of the psychological background.”’

Bender said that he thought it would be preferable to have a psychologist examine the case, then find a Church of England clergyman willing to help.  Playfair goes on to say that at the same time he and Bender were discussing the advisability of calling in an exorcist, one, an Anglican monk, actually turned up at the house, brought by a journalist from the National Enquirer.  Grosse took him to one side, explained Mrs Hodgson’s attitude to exorcism, and asked him to leave, which he did with good grace.  The fate of the Enquirer hack is unknown.

The Daily Star used the Enfield case to begin a series called ‘The world beyond’.  Playing up the sensationalist angle, its front page on 10 March 1980 was dominated by a large close-up picture of Janet Hodgson with ‘Possessed’ in large letters under it.  It shows her, according to the first paragraph, as she

‘lets out a spine-chilling scream in the dead of night.  She is a girl possessed … by a supernatural force.’ 

She looks as though she could be enjoying herself, but who can tell what form intense fear, let alone possession, might take.  The story covers several pages and while it all sounds dramatic, the case could be explained without recourse to demons despite the paper’s best efforts.  True, the first page of the extended story inside has the headline ‘”The thing” tried to strangle Janet with the curtain’, and ‘Possessed by a devil? Turn over to centre pages’ placed seductively at the bottom.  There is as well an emphasis on the ‘family in fear’ angle.  But even with these cues to orient the reader to a verdict of devilish possession, it is clear that the actual events do not match the claim.

Turning to the centre pages there is the large headline: ‘Was Janet possessed by a devil?’  This part of the spread was written by Daily Mirror photographer Graham Morris, someone who in his own way has done much to make the case famous with his images.  Appended to his by-line is the declaration ‘who shared the family’s nightmare’, indicating that he is someone worth listening to.  He gives a brief account of his experiences in the house in which he says specifically that:

‘Although the word was never mentioned in the house I was sure that we were experiencing “poltergeist” activity.  Experts say awareness to (sic) this phenomenon is experienced more often by pubescent girls so Janet is the obvious suspect.’

Morris does not specifically refer to demonic possession and only makes oblique hints – the reader is informed that ‘In many photographs when the rest of the family look terrified, Janet seems to have an evil grin on her face’, and her nocturnal flying occurred without her being conscious of it, even though on occasion it left her bruised.  Yet he considers the phenomena to be centred on Janet as a typical poltergeist agent, rather than caused by a demonic entity.

Trying hard, the article’s main author, Ellen Petrie, quotes Janet: ‘“Some people say the house is even more haunted than the one in that Amityville Horros (sic) – the American haunted house which became the subject of a book and a film.’ (The final part of that was by Petrie, not Janet; the Star was obviously saving money on sub-editors.)  Sceptics may be sagely nodding at the information that Janet was aware of Amityville (book 1977, film 1979), but considering its high profile in the media at the time it would be more surprising if she had not heard of it.

The evidence for demons on the Star’s showing looks flimsy.  Janet may have been ‘a girl possessed … by a supernatural force’ as the front page trumpets, but ‘supernatural force’ is not synonymous with ‘demonic possession’.  The Star was trying to whip up that angle to increase the drama, but it wasn’t putting heart and soul into it.  Significantly perhaps, Grosse and Playfair are absent from the Star’s coverage; perhaps the editor had read Playfair’s comments to Psychic News on the matter of demons the year before.

It was left to the Weekly World News of 26 April 1983 to really lay out the case for demonic intervention at Enfield.  The front page screams:

‘The most bizarre story of the year… POSSESSED! Top exorcist battles a terrifying demon who makes young children fly across the room.’

That’s more like it.  If you want to argue that there are demons involved, have the courage of your convictions; as long as you don’t go overboard because then it resembles satire.

Seeing that blaring headline the reader might breathe a sigh of relief: ‘the Warrens at last’.  But the article is not about them.  The ‘top exorcist’ is none other than Maurice Grosse!  Was the article making fun of the Warrens’ general approach to such matters without the hazard of being sued by them (the pair not being famous for having a lively sense of humour, Grosse far away and more obscure) – or simply reflecting the fact that their association with the case was barely noticeable?

The article, written by Clifford Montgomery, starts as it means to go on: ‘In a bizarre case that defies sanity, two young girls are being hurled through the air like rag dolls – by demons from hell that have taken control of their bodies.’  There is more of the same, making life in the house sound, well, hellish.  The article continues:

‘Why these two young girls of Enfield, England, have been singled out for such satanic horror is a mystery that has baffled church exorcists who have failed in their efforts to drive the demons out.

‘Now famed demonic investigator Maurice Grosse has taken up the battle to rid the youngsters of their evil captors before their sanity is shattered forever.

‘The man who has been battling the devil all his life thinks this case may be his greatest challenge.’

That the story has bypassed the stringent fact-checking stage can be judged from a supposedly direct quote:

‘”He is the last hope for our daughters,” their anguished mother told The NEWS.  “If God is merciful, he will help Mr. Grosse drive the Dark Angel from their souls before it is too late.

‘Why has Satan done this to us?

‘What does he want with innocent little children?  My babies are being driven mad by fiends from the fires of hell.  Why won’t he leave my children alone?”’

That may all have sounded vaguely plausible in the American Bible Belt, but not to anybody with some knowledge of the case.  Sadly, the paper concludes, ‘Grosse has not yet found the key he needs to drive the demons from the two little girls.’

Grosse’s view of this ridiculous farrago is contained in a letter, dated 27 April, 1983, which he sent to his correspondent who had supplied the article.  He minces no words.  It begins:

‘I was absolutely dumbfounded!  I have never experienced such a monumental case of mis-information in my life … when I read the rubbish he had written about the case, and me being a “demonic investigator”, I didn’t know whether to collapse in laughter or explode.’

One suspects he collapsed in laughter in preference to exploding.  He briefly ponders whether a remedy might be available through the American legal system, but concedes that it is not an area with which he is familiar.  Then he muses that it would probably be better to ignore the article, which is evidently what he did.

Despite these sporadic tabloid efforts there is little evidence to support the contention that a demon was orchestrating events at Enfield.  Playfair and Grosse thought the idea preposterous, and Graham Morris, who had ample opportunity in his Star article, could not bring himself to say outright that he was confronted by a demon rather than psychokinetic energy emanating from Janet.  Even the guttural voice that looms large in any demonic interpretation can be more easily explained in other ways; Grosse and Playfair, who set much store by the voice productions, certainly had no need to invoke a demonic aetiology when analysing the recordings.

There are various explanations for what happened at Enfield, extensively debated in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and other publications, but to argue with no evidence that it has to have been a demon and all alternatives are wrong is irresponsible.  James Wan’s film, by buying into this distorted narrative, will be the cinematic equivalent of that Weekly World News article, with about as much truth in it and with as little respect for those who, unlike Ed Warren, demonologist, experienced it all at first hand.