The tape crackles and then jumps into life. Heavy objects are hurled around an unseen room, agitated female voices gasp. Over the furore a man declares firmly, “You should not be in this house.” More unsettling bangs come, but the man perseveres. “My name is Maurice. Let me hear you say it.” There is a last clatter of noises and then another male voice. Sounding unhappy and old it growls, resentfully, “Maurice”.
Beside me in his west London flat, Guy Lyon Playfair steadies himself on a walking stick as he stops the four-decades-old cassette we are listening to. “And that,” says the 79-year-old paranormal investigator, “was the first time we heard the poltergeist speak through the girl.”
The girl was Janet Hodgson, an 11-year-old from the north London suburb of Enfield, where she lived 36 in a council house with her mother Peggy and siblings Margaret, 13, Johnny, 10, and Billy, 7. In August 1977 the furniture started to move of its own accord and Janet began to experience episodes akin, Playfair says, “to scenes from The Exorcist”. At times she was apparently taken over by the spirits of the dead.
When police, doctors and the church couldn’t help, Peggy called the Daily Mirror. Their story made the front page of the paper but the journalist also alerted the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Founded in 1882, it’s the world’s oldest organisation dedicated to investigating paranormal activity. Playfair was about to go on holiday, but changed his plans when he heard the report. “I knew this was a big one; you didn’t get cases like this that often.”
He was joined by SPR newcomer Maurice Grosse. When they arrived in Enfield, Playfair recalls, “the family were terrified. They were all sleeping in the main bedroom with the lights on.” Life was already hard for the Hodgsons, Peggy’s husband had left and they lived on benefits. “Maurice and I agreed we couldn’t abandon them,” Playfair says. “We pledged to stay.”
Grosse took the lead, actively putting himself between the poltergeist and the family. Playfair would take his evening meal in a nearby pub, to give the family space – “you have to be careful they don’t become too dependent” – and because he “needed a beer before a hard night’s poltergeisting”.
And it could be hard. A Daily Mirror photographer was injured near the eye by a piece of Lego, and the tapes record often frenetic outbursts. “Poltergeists are not funny. They are a major invasion of your whole life,” says Playfair. “This was a violent poltergeist. Fires broke out in closed drawers. Objects were thrown about.”
Throughout the investigation Grosse tried to keep the family calm. In one instance Janet is thrown from a sofa and hysteria threatens to break out. Grosse tells the poltergeist he isn’t frightened of it and asks, “Right, who’s going to put the kettle on?” Playfair’s more patrician interjections seem to annoy the spirits. When a voice claiming to be 72-year-old Bill Haylock complains, through Janet, “I’ve come here to see my family but they are not here”, Playfair asks if Bill knows he’s dead. Bill’s response is a curt “F*** off ”.
Perhaps the strangest thing to happen to Janet, if true, was her transportation through a solid wall. “She was on her bed reading a book called Fun and Games for Children,” says Playfair. “Suddenly she found herself in a space where everything was white and the ended up in the house next door. Sure enough, we got in and the book was on the floor next door. She could not have got it there. The window was too far away, the ledge too narrow.”
When I mention the claim by American debunker of the paranormal, Joe Nickell, that Janet and her siblings invented 100 per cent of the events, Playfair gets angry. “Nickell can p*** off,” he says. “The man knows nothing. They are absolutely useless, these people. They are just expressing their own stupidity and laziness in not doing proper research.”
Before I go, I ask Playfair, are poltergeists real? “Oh yes,” he says. “You feel them pass over you. This cold thing coming into land, then taking off again. It’s a very odd feeling.”