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Sunday, 12 July 2015

THE ENFIELD HAUNTING (TV 2015) // Stars Timothy Spall & Eleanor Worthington-Cox // "I've never been scared of those old clicking viewfinders that kids in the 70s used to play with. I genuinely am now . . "

There may be some spoilers in the ether below - watch before haunting!

The Enfield poltergeist story, that I read about in various paranormal magazines as a boy, terrified me. The famous picture of young Janet Hodgson flying through the air in her bedroom with a traumatised kind of grin on her face was pretty damn scary (well it seemed like her lips were stretched wide in a fixed grin at the time, but now I just think that her facial features were not smiling or faked, or even ridiculous - but were, plain and simply, stuck in the shape of fear). It was an image that I have never been able to get out of my head.


Recently, I revisited the story of the Enfield haunting (of a suspected poltergeist that had terrorised a family in a North London council house for 3 years in the late 70s) through various acclaimed TV reports that included the BBC's Nationwide on location in Enfield and Channel 4's superb documentary Interview with a Poltergeist.

The paranormal phenomena had many reliable witnesses, including a local policewoman (who saw a chair move across the room with no reasonable explanation) and local and national media, who also got to sit in on the unexplainable cacophony.

Family, friends and neighbours also witnessed incredible, terrifying activity: objects would move on their own free will in the living room and 11-year-old Janet (out of the four children in the house - she seemed to be the focus) would be flung around the bedroom or (later) speak out loud with the voice of a seemingly depraved and bitter old man.

The Society for Psychical Research investigated the case, led by Maurice Grosse - who had recently joined the society - and a younger member of the same group (Guy Lyon Playfair) who had already investigated and written about harrowing poltergeist activity in Brazil. Playfair's book - This House Is Haunted - became a seminal work in paranormal research.

Of course; there have been many sceptics of the case over the years (and of Playfair's book too) from the likes of magicians and ventriloquists who claim that the deep, croaky voice of the entity that Janet spoke out loud with (claimed to be that of an old man who had died in the house) was easy to mimic - especially for a child. Or that the flinging around the room was easy to fake, thanks to Janet's gymnastic skills!

Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair stuck by their belief that most of the poltergeist events reported were true (not all - even Janet herself has admitted that a little of the activity was faked to get attention).
That a couple of incidents were probably faked in the middle of a maelstrom of madness seems barely worth worrying about - we are talking, after all, about children (Janet was 11 and older sister Margaret was 13 when the haunting started).


Eventually the activity subsided, but mum Peggy lived in the house until she died. Subsequent owners have reported strange phenomena still taking place. One family moved out after a short space of time but the current owners refuse to speak to the press about the house.

An interview in 2012 on ITV's This Morning had Guy Playfair and Janet Hodgson reunited. Both kept to their stories of the terrifying events that had occurred back in that house in Enfield in the late 70s. Janet - appearing calm, slightly nervous, but resilient (if clearly still affected by what had happened to her) was now a strong and serious woman who had escaped the past in an almost matter-of-fact way, but would never be able to forget it. She certainly (to my mind) made short swift of the show's rent-a-sceptic, also on the same sofa.

Could a child really grow up to still stick to the same old story if such a story had all along been a fake one? I can't see how. Neither Janet's mother nor the initial investigator of the case; Maurice Grosse, are still with us. Basically, the real Janet Hodgson has nothing to lose by revealing a hoax today - if she wanted to. And think of the riches such a story would earn her. In fact, Janet Hodgson doesn't seem at all interested in making any kind of financial gain from her story, but sounds and appears, still, at times, within the outward strength - like a frightened girl; trapped in an adult's body and mind.

Watching these documentaries about the Enfield poltergeist again, I was alone in a house, and I started to feel afraid. The documentaries - and the pictures - still terrify me. It may be why the BBC's '92 dramatised live broadcast from a haunted house - GHOSTWATCH, written by horror writer Stephen Volk, terrified me too and convinced so many. It was a truly groundbreaking and unforgettable TV drama inspired by the Enfield poltergeist story and featuring recreations of incidents that had occurred in the real life case. Nothing terrifies us more than when our subconscious minds are tapped to reveal childhood fears. The Enfield poltergeist case was my childhood fear. It still is.

The Sky Living TV 3-parter - 'The Enfield Haunting', like GHOSTWATCH, features recreations of reports from the poltergeist case itself (such as the famous levitation above the bed and arrival of members of the Society for Psychical Research - Guy Playfair and Maurice Grosse). The drama also includes sceptical members from the same society arriving on the scene, including a researcher and a former president, as well as staging an especially harrowing sequence with a medium experiencing a malevolent force of the kind she hadn't expected.

Describing itself as being 'based on a true story' the centre of the action often shifts to be less about the poltergeist  itself and instead focuses more on the living face of demonic possession - the relationship between Janet Hodgson and Maurice Grosse (who had recently lost a daughter with the same name of Janet, in a motorcycle accident). The poltergeist activity is still a major factor in the drama of course, and terrifyingly realised. But the heart of this story is the relationship between two outsiders and their tortured earthly souls.

The loss of Maurice's daughter had led members of his own family to see supernatural signs all around, including a clock (that no longer worked) suddenly start up again - and then stop at the same time that Janet's death had occurred. Maurice recounts, in the TV drama, how - on a dry day - rain had fallen outside his daughter's window, and nowhere else. Experiences of phenomena such as this had inspired him to join the Society for Psychical Research as a member. His first investigation being - the Enfield poltergeist!


So here we have a family in turmoil - the Hodgsons; unsure whether to reveal all to the world about the poltergeist activity around them (it's their neighbours who report the hauntings to the press) or (eventually) rid themselves, not just of a poltergeist, but all the resulting publicity too - by claiming it was all a hoax. It's not surprising the family become fed up with all the media interest - especially when young Janet is eventually considered for electric shock therapy to exorcise her demons.

Real harm is happening to these children and the onset of puberty in Margaret is focused on as an outlet for the haunting. But it's Janet who is later seen as the main focus of the negative energy. A clearly troubled young girl, not just by a poltergeist, Janet tells Maurice that it feels like there's "a scream" inside her chest - "that can't get out". She is soon playfully using her new found powers of possession to taunt Maurice's  fragile wife (sceptical of her husband's investigation into the Enfield case, but - tormented by the loss of her own daughter - with a reliance on mediums to try and soothe her own grief).


Everyone caught up in this story or living within that house that's haunted has a personal demon of sorts to rid themselves of: Maurice and Betty Grosse are riddled with regret and grief that their daughter had died so needlessly and suddenly; Peggy - a single mum with four children to look after (including a son with severe behavioural problems) faces public ridicule; Guy Playfair, is a man haunted by the suicide of a young boy whose possession he had been covering in Brazil; Margaret is a 13-year-old girl forced to confront the onset of puberty in a cramped haunted house (there's enough turmoil in her mind already, thank you very much) - and of course there's Janet, struggling to come to terms with not having her dad around, facing off against bullies at school and now being tormented and picked upon by an especially hateful poltergeist.

Despite this, and remarkably - the drama manages to end, not in fear and terror, but in love and hope (and some of the most tear duct-bursting, poignant and breathlessly emotional final scenes that I've ever seen played out on TV).



The scares throughout The Enfield Haunting are genuinely - when they arrive - enough to send you to sleep with your eyes wide open and still checking the shadows in the corner of the room through your eyelids when you do drift off. Scare tactics used are sometimes obvious but effectively so; maybe because they are expected - horror can tease all it likes with possible jump shocks, rather than allow them to flow naturally and be part of what you expect. But often what you expect - even the obvious; like a face in the mirror of a closing bathroom cabinet - is far more scary than what you don't get!

A near-strangling with a curtain and the flinging of Guy Playfair against a wall is particularly awesome and awful in equal measure and the medium sequence is phenomenally scary. Also - if we learn anything from all this mayhem, it's to never look through viewfinders at pretty pictures in a haunted house! I've never been scared of those old clicking viewfinders that kids in the 70s used to play with - I am now.

The TV drama lovingly recreates a late 70s, garish yellow and dirty-brown tinted chequered wallpaper spawned hell. Beautifully shot landscapes - away from the house - of wide, open graveyards and airfield perimeters, as well as lonely streets at night as Maurice drives home still visioning his daughter's accident (one visualisation; on a playground slide, of his daughter hurting her head - is especially traumatic to watch and be a part of) build atmosphere with ease and playful, poltergeist-like relish.

Direction from Kristoffer Nyholm  is vibrant, off-kilter and broody - sometimes delirious (as when in the middle of violent marble flinging or full possession) but still always retrained, controlled and clear. There's a sparkling, realistic and spine-tingling script by Joshua St Johnston, based on Playfair's book This House Is Haunted and the casting is perfect. I'm going to list some of the performances individually, because they really are too good to skim over . .

First up, we have Amanda Lawrence as medium Lindy Craine - realistically traumatised and unsure whether to be angry and leave, or still care about this family in danger after a shockingly wild and risky session of contacting the dead makes her wonder if she should ever have agreed to take part in the first place. For once a medium is treated - not as a joke here - but with respect; humanised not demonised.

Matthew Macfadyen as Guy Playfair is a delight; just sublime in a role that could so easily have been exaggerated into wild flamboyance. Sure, the actor keeps a certain charm and eccentricity to his portrayal, but it's as serious and downbeat and startled by horror as it is cocky and dismissive and (occasionally - rightly) arrogant.

Next, our quietly spoken axis in the midst of madness - Maurice's wife Betty, played by Juliet Stevenson, who effectively captures a downbeat inner rage and deep sorrow; the kind that eventually turns to support (of husband Maurice and the Enfield children) and renewed love. It's the most unsettling and perfect portrayal of life-changing guilt and grief - but there's a strength and resilience here too.

Both the actresses playing the two daughters are outstanding: Fern Deacon as Margaret shines in a spookily distant and teenagery reaction to the madness around her while Eleanor Worthington-Cox is superb in a cheeky, playful, tormented and deeply sorrowful portrayal of a terrorised young girl - who also can't help but sometimes be silly with all the scares.

By the end of this 3-part serial, Janet Hodgson's unexpected transformation into Maurice's 'Janet' is the single most sudden, saddest and joyous rendering of a few lines of spoken drama into something special and life-affirming that you will probably get to experience while watching a TV screen. It really is that good an ending. And that good a performance from Worthington-Cox too - one that I think does the real-life Janet Hodgson proud.
Mum Peggy is played by Rosie Cavaliero in a nervous, but defiant and strong-willed portrayal; this is a woman quietly battling against uncontrollable chaos all around her while still protecting her children at all costs. It's a deliberately understated role, but still memorable - letting the experts do their job and the media report, but quietly keeping control of all the non-poltergeist activity when it gets to a point where she needs to act fast and be firm.
But the drama is owned, of course, by Timothy Spall's inspired take on the role of Maurice Grosse: grief-stricken; caring and trustworthy; faithful and reliable; downbeat and often seen muttering away to himself - a man huffing and puffing his way around a house full of horror.

You never believe this man Maurice isn't the man who will also save the day eventually. And in real life, the same was probably true - sticking by this family to the very end of his life. In a scene where Maurice takes Janet to an airfield as a plane roars above them; urging the girl to shout out all the inner rage inside her - it's his own voice, showing the girl the way he wants her to rage at the sky, that is notably the most urgent to be heard. It's a shame that this story does have an ending - I want to see further cases with both Grosse and Playfair investigating more poltergeist activity together!

The Enfield Haunting is perfect supernatural TV drama. A lot of thought and care has gone into this production. Small details count and the series also has notably stylish 'exit to advert' breaks with a healthy few seconds pause of silent black screen before giving way to commercials, thereby making sure the emotional impact of the drama isn't lost - just rested peacefully for a few minutes. The opening titles are also tremendous - oozing jittery, violin-plucked cool and swirling visuals; it's suitably and brilliantly creepy stuff (the distinctive title music is by Benjamin Wallfisch).
The drama of Maurice and Janet clearly deviates quite often - or at the very least; at times - from all the hours and pages of actual reporting of the Enfield poltergeist case; but it doesn't matter or harm the show's viability. This is TV drama that says what it needs to say through its own voice - clearly and without the need to terrify (but still terrifying like mad when it wants to). And no poltergeist on earth could pull off a trick quite like that; quite so perfectly.

One last thing - back to that afternoon I mentioned earlier spent researching the Enfield Poltergeist case through various documentaries and recordings. It may have been light outside, but I was all alone in a quiet house, and a long way from the front door. I started plotting in my mind - and this is the god's honest truth - how to get across the room I was in and out the front door by the fastest way possible and if I should scream or not as I ran (as the creaking of old floorboards seemed to get noticeably louder behind me) . .

Words and Ectoplasm: Mark Gordon Palmer


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